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Mr. New Jack Swings Back

For a decade, Teddy Riley has shaped some of the biggest hits in pop and R&B. With Blackstreet, he even whipped 'Macarena.' Well, hot diggity.

November 24, 1996|Cheo Hodari Coker | Cheo Hodari Coker is a Times staff writer

'When I say 'black,' you say 'street.' . . . Black!"




Teddy Riley beams as he holds a microphone over the heads of the rapt, multicultural teen audience that he's leading in this call-and-response cheer. The creator of the new jack swing sound that is the dominant urban pop style of the last decade--combining soul, gospel and hip-hop elements into chart-topping hits for artists including Bobby Brown and Michael Jackson--is obviously proud of the cultural borders his music has crossed.

As singer-songwriter-producer Riley orchestrates the scene at a Paramount Studios taping of "All That," the weekly Nickelodeon cable channel variety show that attracts the biggest names in rap and R&B, teens and preteens representing places ranging from Ventura Boulevard in Sherman Oaks to Crenshaw Boulevard in South-Central bop their heads to the hypnotic rhythms.

It's the kind of phenomenon that many record executives and artists have come to depend on when they need a sure-fire hit--or a sound to transform the direction of their careers. For more than a decade, Riley's touch has been among the most consistent, and imitated, forces in pop, placing him alongside Babyface and Dr. Dre as the ultimate shapers of contemporary urban sounds.

And it's also taken him a long way, from the Harlem projects where he grew up to his current spread, the multimillion-dollar Future Studios recording complex he owns in Virginia.

But this day is different. Riley's not here on behalf of another artist. He's here in his own right, as the leader of Blackstreet, the group he's anchored for two years. Its hit, "No Diggity," a raucous blend of harmonizing and pure hip-hop thump, has the distinction of finally ending the 13-week reign of Los Del Rio's "Macarena" as the nation's No. 1 pop song--a position it's now held for three weeks. It's a song that knows no boundaries, that seems in place in the mall or at a high school dance as much as it does at a street race or a gangsta party.

"Pleasing the kids, that's all I want to do," Riley, 30, says with a sheepish smile in the dressing room moments later.

"I just get joy from doing the music," he continues as he and his group mates--Chauncey Hannibal, Mark Middleton and Eric Williams--watch other "All That" segments on monitors and munch on soul food from Roscoe's Chicken & Waffles. But as he speaks, it becomes clear that there's more to it than that.

"I wrote 'Remember the Time' when Michael [Jackson] told me about falling in love with [Debbie Rowe], the woman he just married. I don't know why he didn't marry her the first time around. That's why songs like that, and Bobby Brown's 'My Prerogative,' are still relevant, 'cause they speak about their lives and the lives of others. My songs are just a soundtrack for life.

"If it becomes a hit, I just become more famous. It's not even about the money. I want to shine, to be a hero, to show people that your dreams really can come true."


Riley's own dreaming started in Harlem's St. Nicholas projects before he even started school. He learned guitar by ear when he was just 3 years old and by 10 he was holding concerts in the courtyard with a Casio keyboard. By 19 he was producing records in his bedroom with such old-school rap stars as Kool Moe Dee and Doug E. Fresh.

In the last 10 years, Riley's hands have touched hits that span the range from hip-hop classics (Fresh's 1986 "The Show") to more current works such as SWV's "Right Here" and Jackson's "Remember the Time." When added up, the hit songs he's produced for Jackson, Guy, Heavy D., Bobby Brown, Keith Sweat, Al B. Sure, Whitney Houston and others add up to some 54 million in worldwide sales of albums and singles.

He didn't give up making his own records, though, forming the group Guy in 1987 with singing brothers Aaron and Damian Hall, producing the Top 10 hits "Groove Me," "Let's Chill" and "Teddy's Jam." The group split in 1992 because of friction between Riley and lead singer Aaron Hall. In 1993 he formed Blackstreet with Hannibal and singers David Hollister and Levi Little, scoring hits with "Booti Call" and "Before I Let You Go." With the exception of Hannibal, the other singers left the Riley fold to go solo.

Riley's seminal hits with Guy and subsequent hits for Brown, Sweat ("Make It Last Forever") and Al B. Sure ("Night and Day") were the foundations of what Village Voice critic Barry Michael Cooper called "new jack swing," the amalgamation of classic, gospel-inspired vocals with hard-core beats and plenty of street attitude.

"I think I might have created a monster," Riley says, leaning back on the couch in Blackstreet's modest dressing room.

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