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 massively 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 rink 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 a 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.”
The architect of the New Jack Swing sound was Edward “Teddy” Riley. While growing up in Harlem, Riley was a prodigious talent playing a multitude of different instruments. By the time he was a teenager, Riley was producing for a number of local hip-hop acts. He received his big break when he produced “Go See the Doctor” by Kool Moe Dee in 1986. The demand for his production talents grew exponentially and he was able to leave his fingerprints over the eardrums of mainstream audiences worldwide.
Riley’s creation of New Jack Swing music was best described by West: “I remember listening to records in 1985 and the drum sounds were very poppy and had a lot of reverb,” says West. “The records had a 2/4 beat structure to them. They were popular in the music you would hear at clubs during that time. When the New Jack Swing sound came in, it kicked up the BPMs from 94 to about 105. It was much faster and there was more rhythm, percussion, and movements within the drum tracks. Keyboard-wise, it was very busy and we would call it organized noise. It was like chaos, but organized. It showcased the backbeat in music and a lot of the percussion shuffles. These were the types of things we didn’t have in the mid-1980s.”
Before New Jack Swing transpired, R&B music was at a crossroads and looking for a new youthful direction. New Jack Swing revitalized a classic genre while staking its claim in hip-hop. The trailblazing genre introduced the format of having an R&B and hip-hop artist on the same song together. This formidable combination resulted in a seismic shift for urban and pop music. By the late 1980s, music was dominated by this union and pop culture audiences gravitated to it en masse.
Legendary music video director Lionel C. Martin remembers how he had to change his methodology in producing videos once New Jack Swing became prominent on the musical landscape. “When I directed hip-hop videos, there wasn’t a formula, you just went with the flow,” says Martin. “The hip-hop guys dressed a certain way and they had a lot of street credibility. As a result, the videos were more edgy. When I directed R&B videos they had a more smooth, nightclub type of vibe. The artists would dress very sharp and more grown up. hip-hop felt younger and R&B felt older to me. So when this marriage with the music happened, it forced me to change the way I directed videos.”
These videos were an amalgamation of these different styles and it helped to cultivate another movement in television and motion pictures. The early 1990s ushered in a plethora of new talent and some of the top stars in the industry took advantage of the opportunities presented to them, which expanded New Jack Swing into the homes of urban and suburban audiences. The Arsenio Hall Show hit the airwaves in 1989 and it showcased performances by numerous New Jack Swing artists, thus giving credence to the genre.
TV sitcoms were given to urban artists in prime-time slots such as Will Smith (The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air) and Queen Latifah (Living Single). With Andre Harrell as its Executive Producer, the police drama New York Undercover was an offspring of the New Jack Swing era. Movies as varied in style and theme as House Party, Do the Right Thing, Boyz N the Hood, New Jack City, and Boomerangproved to be viable hits at the box office. This ultimately led to more films being made by prominent filmmakers about urban culture.
Angela Hunte-Wisner was the first African American stylist for urban music videos during New Jack Swing’s heyday. She was the mastermind behind many of the fashion designs in urban videos, such as artists wearing Starter jackets and jerseys, Hi-Tec boots, one shoe and one boot, graffiti jackets, backward jeans, multicolored Nike shoes, Air Jordans, and baggy clothing. She also coined the term Alexvanderpool Era when referring to Boyz II Men’s hip-hop/couture outfits, which consisted of Ralph Lauren jean shirts, Tommy Hilfiger sweaters, jean shorts, and a tie.
Hunte-Wisner shares some of her insight for her designs and her feelings about the New Jack Swing era. “I dressed Boyz II Men, Hi-Five, Jodeci, New Edition, Robert Kelly before he became R. Kelly, among many others for these videos,” says Hunte-Wisner. “I was the first young, black stylist to change the way we dressed and the way we thought about fashion by mixing hip-hop with couture. I never sought credit for it because I thought it was something I shouldn’t take credit for. I was doing what I did every day when I dressed myself. I was basically incorporating my everyday style with the artists I was working with back then.
“We were a movement and a culture. The budgets that we had were very limited. No one could have done what we did back then with the budgets we had. By the time we started doing R&B videos, we finally started to move up to $100,000 budgets, but before then our budgets were between $10,000 and $30,000. We had to make a dollar out of 15 cents during those days. Improvisation was the key to our success.”
The New Jack Swing era tapped into the heartbeat of America and beyond, making use of all media available at the time. From the high top fades, to the Cross Colors apparel, to the popular dance moves fans would perform in nightclubs and at school dances alike, nothing could touch the core of the movement. Looking back all these years later on New Jack Swing’s impact on popular culture, the music sent shockwaves across the globe forcing audiences to become enraptured with the burgeoning genre. The fashion matched the youthful exuberance in the music by incorporating styles the artists were influenced by in their respective cities. New Jack Swing, in its sound and look, defined an era and its relevance to the recent history of pop music remains unquestioned.
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This article was original published on 6 October 2011.
Chris Williams is an internationally published journalist that has written feature articles covering the topics of politics, race, culture, entertainment, and world events. His work has been seen in 65 different countries worldwide and over 200 newspapers and magazines. He earned his BA in Print Journalism from Virginia Commonwealth University. You can follow him on Twitter at @CWmsWrites.