In the mid-80s, street-tough, edgy hip-hop and slick, sophisticated R&B were seemingly entirely at odds with each other. That changed with the arrival of New Jack Swing. Upbeat, fast-paced, and characterized by sharp, clipped beats and meaty basslines topped with a mixture of rapping and soulful singing, it was a musical revolution. Unashamedly pop-orientated and chock full of catchy melodies, adding to the appeal were flashy videos featuring colorful fashions, high-top haircuts, and energetic dance moves. With humble beginnings in the streets of New York it went on to dominate the US charts between 1989 and ’93 and its innovations have left an indelible influence on modern music.
While producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis had hinted at the new direction with the stark beats of Janet Jackson’s 1986 album, Control, it was a young hip-hop producer and keyboardist from Harlem, Teddy Riley, who would forge New Jack Swing’s distinctive sound. A child prodigy, Riley had made a name for himself by the age of 17 as one of New York’s hottest production talents, overseeing records for the likes of Doug E Fresh and Kool Moe Dee. When soul singer Keith Sweat sought him out, Riley was initially reticent. “I told him I don’t do R&B,” he recounted to The Atlantic.
A compromise was reached, with Riley learning chords and Sweat adjusting his vocals to suit the hip-hop production style. The resulting album, 1987’s Make It Last Forever, which featured the breakout hit ‘I Want Her’, was both an artistic and commercial triumph going on to sell three million copies. That same year, writer and filmmaker Barry Michael Cooper coined the phrase “new jack swing” to describe Riley’s sound in a Village Voice feature, and the term stuck.
Following its success, Riley found himself much in demand, and he soon utilized his distinctive new sound on further smash hit singles by former New Edition member Bobby Brown (“My Prerogative”) and Johnny Kemp (“Just Got Paid”). Another key player at this early stage was former Def Jam man Andre Harrell. Having founded Uptown Records in 1986, he turned his label into an outlet for Riley’s productions. Artists such as Heavy D And The Boyz and Al B Sure! were given the NJS treatment, while the label also snapped up Riley’s band Guy, whose self-titled debut album was the genre’s first great long-player.
With Riley-produced New Jack Swing anthems riding high in the charts, others were quick to get in on the action and put their own imprint on the nascent sound. Production duos reigned supreme. LA Reid and Babyface created a wealth of incandescent hits such as Bobby Brown’s “Every Little Step,” Karyn White’s “Secret Rendezvous,” and Mac Band And The McCampbell Brothers’ “Roses Are Red,” while Denzil Foster and Thomas McElroy added a West Coast stamp to the genre with their work on Tony! Toni! Tone!’s debut album, Who?, and its follow-up, The Revival. The latter was produced alongside group member Raphael Saadiq and included such classics as “Feels Good” and “Oakland Stroke.” Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis also tapped into their unwitting offspring on Janet Jackson’s wildly successful follow-up to Control, Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814.
The years 1989-92 found New Jack Swing’s popularity at its zenith and it dominated the charts. Its sound and style even began to influence movies such as House Party and New Jack City, along with television series the likes of The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air. Arsenio Hall’s hugely influential TV talk show, which had premiered in 1989, ensured that the latest talents were given a very public platform.
A plethora of young artists and producers soon began to expand the parameters of the sound. Foremost among these were members of Brown’s former band New Edition. Following his departure, they brought in singer Johnny Gill and enlisted Jam and Lewis to oversee their fifth studio effort, 1988’s Heart Break. Featuring killer songs such as “NE Heartbreak” and “Crucial,” the record embraced the New Jack Swing sound and went on to become their most successful album.
Keen to stretch their wings, the band subsequently agreed to put New Edition on hiatus, and 1990 saw multiple spin-off releases from its members. Ralph Tresvant’s self-titled album featured the Jam and Lewis monster “Sensitivity,” while Ricky Bell, Michael Bivins, and Ronnie DeVoe re-launched themselves as Bel Biv Devoe. The trio employed Public Enemy’s production crew, The Bomb Squad, to oversee their seminal debut album, Poison, with the Squad adding a tougher edge to the group’s NJS template; the masterful title track (arguably the genre’s finest moment) became a huge worldwide hit. Newest band member Johnny Gill also got in on the action, and his 1990 self-titled album featured more Jam and Lewis jewels in the shape of “Rub You The Right Way” and “Wrap My Body Tight.”
If 1991 marked the commercial peak for New Jack Swing, it was also the year that brought the first hints of the genre’s demise as acts began to reshape the sound into new styles. The likes of Mary J Blige and Jodeci employed hip-hop’s swagger and beats but slowed down the pace while losing NJS’s pop affectations. If Boyz II Men’s debut album, Cooleyhighharmoney, found them adding a gospel-like vocal depth on the tracks ‘Motownphilly’ and ‘Sympin’’, cuts such as “Please Don’t Go” and “This Is My Heart” hinted at R&B’s return to more traditional forms of soul. Michael Jackson chose to replace long-standing producer Quincy Jones with Teddy Riley for his Dangerous album; despite its undoubted brilliance, the mega-hit single “Remember The Time’ nevertheless smoothed out New Jack Swing’s edges, reshaping it into a more standardized form of pop.
As such, while the following year heralded gems such as Public Announcement’s “She’s Got That Vibe,” SWV’s “I’m So Into You” and Teddy Riley’s “Is It Good To You” (featuring Tammy Lucas), it wasn’t long before young R&B artists had abandoned New Jack Swing’s narrow artistic confines for pastures new. Certainly, its key architects weren’t sitting still. Teddy Riley disbanded Guy and formed Blackstreet in its wake, employing slower, Jodeci-indebted productions on their self-titled debut, and later adding blues to the mix on their hit “No Diggity.”
LA Reid and Babyface, who had founded their own LaFace Records imprint in 1989, oversaw NJS albums by TLC and Toni Braxton before branching out into purer forms of R&B and hip-hop with the likes of Usher and OutKast. With Raphael Saadiq assuming creative control, Tony! Toni! Tone! went on to help spearhead the hip-hop-soaked neo-soul genre, while former producers Denzil Foster and Thomas McElroy conceived En Vogue as a conduit for their productions. The resultant – and hugely successful – Funky Divas album featured a further diluted version of the genre.
While New Jack Swing had disappeared altogether by the mid-90s, its influence continues to resonate. For today’s stars such as Rihanna and Beyoncé, the fusion of pop, R&B and hip-hop is a natural one. Recently, an increasing number of musicians are moving closer to the original source. Korea’s megalithic music industry, K-Pop, has taken to employing Teddy Riley to add a NJS sheen to artists such as Girls Generation, f(x), and EXO, while one of the pop world’s biggest stars, Bruno Mars, has paid homage to the genre with his NJS-leaning album 24K Magic and his collab with Cardi B, “Finesse (Remix).” More recently, R&B star Ne-Yo released a throwback single, “Genesis,” which was clearly inspired by the original New Jack Swing sound.
The high-tops may have disappeared, but New Jack Swing’s magic continues to inspire.