Back when slow jams and party rap were polar opposites in the world of black music, creating a style that could create a bridge between them theoretically didn’t make a lot of sense. What, for instance, would a blend of Whitney Houston and Heavy D sound like? Few of us dared to ask that question. But if a simple rhyme over a break beat could ascend into the mainstream with a rock companion (see: Run DMC and Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way”) then why not merge R&B with hip-hop sensibilities?
Teddy Riley was the guy who would do it, with a trio named Guy and his new subgenre, New Jack Swing. After the free-spirited, up-tempo ’80s, it seemed like the next logical step in R&B. Riley, Aaron Hall and his brother, Damion Hall, started a revolution with “Groove Me”, a basic dance jam that combined Aaron’s trademark soul riffs with hyped up drum tracks that were prerequisite in hip-hop during the early 1990s. It stayed on the top of music charts for 20 weeks when it was released in 1988, proving that New Jack Swing was a popular enough style for them to build on.
In the end, Guy didn’t leave behind a huge catalog — roughly three albums during the two or so years they were together until they disbanded in the early 1990s — but they did leave a legacy of experimentation with the R&B form and created a template that several producers would attempt to refine over the next decade.
The highlights of their new sound are all here on Groove Me: The Very Best of Guy, and offers a trip down memory lane for those of us who rocked door knockers or flat tops when the music was first released. “Let’s Chill”, arguably the best song to slow dance to that Teddy Riley ever produced and “Piece of My Love” are the strongest songs on the 17-song compilation. “I Like” is also a treat, for it’s sweet tone and pop appeal. These three songs were the best part of Guy’s catalog for years — and they still are now — because they are naturally funky and basic. As for the raunchier selections — “Round and Round” or “Wanna Get With U” — it’s no wonder they weren’t palatable for pop or R&B fans.
Most “Best of” compilations have more going for them than Guy’s, including a wider variety of songs or at least a variety of subject matter. The best thing about Guy for its group members (with the exception of Damion Hall) is that it was a springboard for their later projects. For Teddy Riley, who had already been in two other groups before he created Guy, it allowed him to show off his capacity for musical trendsetting and prepare himself for a more mature and classic sound with Blackstreet. For Aaron, Guy was just a warm-up, but the group let him shine a light on his raspy vocals, which would later prove just a rehearsal for his solo success.
More than anything, this selection of songs is as uneven as the group’s contribution when they were big. It reminds R&B fans that there was nothing particularly memorable about Guy from the beginning, aside from that sound they created which led to everyone from Intro to Mary J. Blige taking the formula for R&B and hip-hop hybrid music-making to an entirely different level. All traces of the busy music of “Do Me Right” or “My Fantasy” are about as played out as acid-wash denim jackets now, but Guy proved that sometimes a group has to make a few missteps for the wheel to be reinvented. When that reinvention has been good or bad for R&B in particular or hip-hop generally, is another topic altogether.