Music

New Jack Swing Forever: How a Movement Redefined an Era

C.L. Williams
Boyz II Men

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.

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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From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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