Between the years of 1986 and 1994, a movement called New Jack Swing took popular culture on an unforgettable ride and its undeniable influence still carries on to this day. Harlem, New York gave birth to the Harlem Renaissance, but the grandchildren from the Harlem Renaissance gave birth to a new renaissance, the New Jack Swing movement.
By 1991, New Jack Swing was a multimedia phenomenon that embodied American popular culture, not just in film, but film, television, and fashion. Contemporary urban and pop radio formats where supplying the nation with these infectious hits from New Jack Swing artists from the east and west coasts, respectively. Building off the successes of Al B. Sure!, Bobby Brown, Janet Jackson, Heavy D. and the Boyz, Guy, Bell Biv DeVoe, among many others, New Jack Swing had built a formidable following and, later on in the same year, it would reach its zenith. Michael Jackson would release the highest selling New Jack Swing album of all-time, Dangerous, with assistance from the pioneer of the genre, Teddy Riley.
With the rise of the genre, the west coast developed its own style of New Jack Swing. Denzil Foster and Thomas McElroy were instrumental in formulating this sound. Their work with Tony Toni Tone! on the group’s debut and second albums showcased how influential the genre had become not only here in America, but in Europe. It had become a worldwide phenomenon. A plethora of the artists had gained an extraordinary amount of popularity worldwide, with their singles placing high on various recording charts. Record executives were clamoring to find the next hottest act to sign to their labels to a get a slice of the pie.
New Jack Swing artists also parlayed their singing careers into lucrative opportunities by entering the world of TV and movies. Cult classics like New Jack City and Boyz N the Hood featured some of the best that the genre had to offer by giving them movie roles and placing their music on the movie soundtracks. Artists also made guest appearances on popular TV sitcoms like The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air Full House and Family Matters, as well as Nike commercials.
Artists such as Color Me Badd, C&C Music Factory, PM Dawn, Boyz II Men, Jodeci, Hi-Five, Tracie Spencer, and Another Bad Creation benefited heavily from the aforementioned artists many triumphs. Some of these artists released their debut albums to the masses and their singles dominated the pop, R&B, and dance charts for the whole of 1991. Titanic production duos L.A. Reid and Babyface, and Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis also played pivotal roles in helping to maintain the genre’s productivity and authenticity, along with up-and-coming producer Dr. Freeze (Elliott Straite).
In many ways, New Jack Swing was the soundtrack to young America of the late 1980s and early 1990s in the same vein that Motown was the soundtrack to young America of the 1960s. The story of New Jack Swing begins in Harlem at a rooftop skating ring and a child prodigy. The term New Jack Swing was coined by the iconic writer Barry Michael Cooper in his Village Voice article from 1987 entitled “Teddy Riley’s New Jack Swing: Harlem Gangsters Raise a Genius.” He co-wrote the screenplay for the movie New Jack City in 1991. Cooper describes how he came up with the term initially.
“Harlem was flat-lining in the mid to late ‘80s because of the crack epidemic. So my reporting served to set the record straight, about the people I knew, the dignity they had, the intelligence they never lost, despite some losing their way temporarily because of this monstrous plague of a drug. The crack era reminded me of the prohibition era of the 1920s, and Teddy’s music—with its jazz like swing and melodic force—reminded me of stories like the Great Gatsby from writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald.
“But what Teddy was doing was brand new. That’s why I named it ‘New Jack Swing’. Teddy’s music was the soundtrack to a new version of the Harlem Renaissance, and I wanted my reporting and writing to reflect that, too: a sense of historical relevance, social and political accuracy, and spiritual uplift to make it memorable.”
During the 1920s and 1930s, Harlem was the epicenter of popular culture for many African Americans. Some of the greatest pieces of literature ever written were constructed during this juncture as many blacks were fleeing from the south in record numbers to seek refuge and a piece of the American Dream. Fast forward the clock to 1986, another transformation was happening in what is known as New York City’s sixth borough, as the worlds of R&B and hip-hop would merge to formulate one of the most popular cultural movements of the era.
The two men who sought to bring a new sound to the forefront of not only urban culture, but pop culture as a whole were Andre Harrell and Teddy Riley. They were directly responsible for laying the foundation for a burgeoning genre. Harrell founded Uptown Records in 1986 and, a short time later, Teddy Riley began producing hit records for some of the new talent on the Uptown Records roster like Al B. Sure! and his own group Guy, as well as other up-and-coming R&B acts, such as Johnny Kemp, Keith Sweat, and Bobby Brown. New Jack Swing arrived on the scene with impeccable timing. After the doors were opened by Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston, more urban artists were receiving major airplay on MTV and VH1. The successes of Johnny Kemp’s smash single “Just Got Paid” and Keith Sweat’s debut album, Make It Last Forever proved that New Jack Swing was anything but a fly-by-night fad. It was legitimate force to be reckoned with in the forthcoming years.
Producer Kyle West recalls the experience of working together with Riley and Harrell and the beginning of the New Jack Swing era. “Working with Teddy and Eddie F. was quite the experience,” says West. “We would all get in a room and just borrow ideas from each other. We learned from each other and it was a really fun, exciting time because none of us knew what was going to happen and that was the true beauty of it.
“Credit goes to Andre because he knew where to take it next because that’s where things could have really gotten messed up. New Jack Swing became bigger than what we initially thought. Andre had the genius to know how to keep the movement going. He wanted to keep it true—hood and New York—but at the same time he didn’t want to turn away pop audiences. Andre knew how to keep his artists clean, but not too ghetto and that’s what made it appeal to the masses.”
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