Back To Black: How Teddy Riley Helped Michael Jackson Return To Pure R&B

American singer Michael Jackson performing at Lansdowne Road during his Dangerous World Tour, Dublin, 25/07/1992 (Part of the Independent Newspapers Ireland/NLI Collection). (Photo by Independent News and Media/Getty Images)

Back To Black: How Teddy Riley Helped Michael Jackson Return To Pure R&B

Teddy Riley reflects on Popeyes, fake fireplaces and the difference between a hit and a smash.

Published August 29, 2018

What does the pioneer of New Jack Swing do when Michael Jackson calls him up out of nowhere? He answers the phone and packs his bags. In 1990, Teddy Riley got the call of a lifetime. For the next year, he’d be working side-by-side with the King of Pop on what would be his Dangerous album—the last body of Jackson’s work that would not be overshadowed by allegations of misconduct.

On what would have been MJ’s 60th birthday, Teddy Riley reflects on Popeyes, fake fireplaces and the difference between a hit and a smash.

BET Digital: So, as the story goes, one day you just end up in a studio with Michael Jackson…
Riley: It felt that way! [laughter]. I got this call—which I was not expecting at all. I found out later Michael was actually looking for me to produce Bad a few years before. But I never got the message so he thought I just didn’t want to work on the project. He’s getting ready to do this next album which will become Dangerous. We get on the phone and I’m shocked but of course I’m like, yes, let’s do it.

How do you prepare for this? Michael Jackson is not working with the one-and-only Quincy Jones. He’s working with you. How do you wrap your head around it?
I really didn’t have time to over think it. I was extremely nervous. But I had to just go. It was like midweek when we spoke for the first time. He asked me to come out on Saturday. That Saturday!

But how do you say, “Nah, can’t come.”
I had to. I said I’m sorry. I can’t come this Saturday. I won’t be prepared. He said, what about next Saturday. I’m thinking I need more time than that but I don’t want to say that. I said sure, next Saturday.

He was OK with that.
He’s like, Yes, I can’t wait! Then he said Teddy, I need your number! Can I call you tomorrow? And I said Michael, you can call me any time you want. [laughter.] It was a good start.

Studio food. Go.
That’s easy: Popeye’s and KFC.

Annoying studio rules. Go.
The studio had to be hot! Heat cranked up. Separate heaters all over the place. And a humidifier to keep the air moist. I was always burning up. But he needs what he needs. I get it.

A journalist recently said that Michael danced in the studio to a song as it was being produced.
Yes, that’s true. If he could feel himself performing to it, he’d have a better idea of how it would work—or if it would work at all.

Did you ever feel the pressure of the previous albums?
I wasn’t walking into the studio to make another Thriller. And I wasn’t going in there to make another Bad. I was there to make a great album with one of the greatest artists of all time. He asked for me. I got over the shock. Got out there to LA and I was ready to go.

What songs did you bring with you to LA?
“Remember The Time”. I had the hook and I knew where it was going. I had this wild relationship at the time. The chorus and the hook is based exactly on how that relationship went down. So I brought that with me. I knew it was special.

His vocals on “Remember the Time” are really pristine… That’s what makes the record.
Absolutely. It was nuts. I didn’t know he was gonna bring it like that. He gave 100 percent to everything, but things really clicked vocally for that track. We could just feel it.

Which track on the record was more Michael than anyone else?
“Will You Be There” was heavy on his influences. The idea of the choir was all him. It made me want to use a choir too.

Is it true that you discovered he had a really deep voice during the sessions?
He has a naturally deep voice. I didn’t know that. But he has a flawless falsetto and his vocal coach Seth Riggs told him to always speak in a high voice to protect his voice. He had to speak high pitched at all times in order to hit the notes he wanted to hit.

What’s your thought process as you both work on each song?
Very simple. This was a Black album. Made for, about and by Black people.  I’m just saying it straight out—I brought him back to R&B music. That was the goal. That’s what we both wanted. Of course, we wanted the best record possible for everyone including pop fans. And they never stop calling him The King of Pop. But “Remember The Time” and “In The Closet”? You didn’t hear those kinds of songs on pop radio. I brought Michael Jackson back to R&B and then we brought the pop audience to this R&B record.

Is it his last good record?
It is. And I don’t have a problem saying that. It’s not disrespectful. It’s a fact. It would be disrespectful to say it wasn’t. This was over four months of work. This was over 50 songs recorded. This was working with an absolute perfectionist—

A perfectionist with hidden doors inside of fake fireplaces in his house…
Exactly! A perfectionist who didn’t want you to leave. Ever! He built me a shower and a bedroom right in the studio. Literally. Now, I had a hotel reserved with several rooms. But I lived in the studio for four months.

When you were working on “Remember the Time,” he left halfway through…
He said he would be right back. I’m working on the song. I’m waiting for him to come back and finish his vocals. He calls me and I ask him when he’s coming back. He’s on a plane going to Switzerland! I thought he was in the studio somewhere!

So, then it was time for you to get some rest?
NO! I told him I was going to go back home until he came back. He said no. He said he would fly my friends and family out, put them up in hotels, rent cars. I could hang with them in California. And then get back to work when he returned. He did not want me away from that studio. He came back a few weeks later, picked me up himself from the hotel—and we finished “Remember the Time” that same day.

Vocally, what did Michael struggle with?
Nothing. But I will say he had to get himself amped up to scream on a record. To really let loose. He would go in to the booth alone. And start laying down vocals. When the vocals needed to get really intense, you could hear him throwing stuff and really trying to get in the zone. 

You only had a few songs approved at the halfway point. What happened?
He wanted me to do some interviews and I told him it was too early in the process to talk about the album. And he said, no it’s not. Here’s a list of what’s on the album so far. And I see “Remember the Time,” "Jam" and “In the Closet” and we haven’t even finished any of them. And I’m thinking, where are all the rest of my songs? So I got busy. I started on “Can’t Let Her Get Away,” which I also had ideas about before we started. Then I worked on “She Drives Me Wild,” and things started to come together.

How would you know when he was really feeling a track?
He would just nod his head and be like, that’s a keeper. And then he would talk about the difference between a hit record and a smash record.

Is there a difference?
Michael always said a hit record would get onto the charts for a week or two. A smash record was on the charts for at least five weeks, usually more. He wanted smashes not just hits.

Is there a record that you still wish was on Dangerous that didn’t make it?
Just one. “Joy.”

But that ended up being a smash for Blackstreet. Don’t you feel it was meant to be there?
Nope. [laughter] It belonged on Dangerous. But I am glad it didn’t just end up not being recorded at all.

How did Michael know when the album was done?
It took a long time. He just kept recording and re-recording and trying to choose the best tracks. Finally, he gave it to Quincy Jones to listen. I think Michael needed that. Even if he didn’t officially work on the record, it’s still Quincy. His opinion mattered.

So, what did Quincy say?
He said it was a masterpiece.

Did Michael think it was going to do huge numbers?
Before we mixed the record, he sat me down and told me the album was going to move 20 million units in the first two months.

Did that seem likely?
I mean, it’s Michael Jackson, so anything’s possible, and I definitely believed in the project. But it was pretty early on. We hadn’t yet turned it in to the label. So, it was hard to say. The album was released and seemed to be doing well. And then my birthday came.

What happened?
The day before my birthday Michael called me, I was at home. And he told me he was sending me a birthday present and it would be there the next day. So, the next day, the present arrives. It’s a plaque from the RIAA, certifying 20-million units sold for Dangerous. The guys in the studio went nuts. It was really special.

Dangerous has sold 32 million worldwide. And yet, the year after the release, it won only a single Grammy—for engineering. What was up with that? Politics? 
Politics, yes. I can’t get into the politics, because it involves people I know and still work with. But put it this way. Rick Rubin wrote me a letter—a handwritten letter. He said none of the Grammy categories we lost to had better songs than we had on Dangerous. He just wanted me to know as a fellow musician and producer that it was clearly politics involved.

How do you work on anything else after a project like Dangerous?
I approach it like I’m working with Michael! I’m finishing a few projects right now, including a new Blackstreet album. If a project doesn’t excite me the way working on Dangerous excited me, I’ll pass.  

How would Dangerous perform if it dropped today? In the streaming era.
It will still knock out everything that’s dropping right now.

That’s hard to fathom. People don’t absorb music as a complete body of work.
It doesn’t matter. You play “Remember the Time” for the first time anywhere—right now. People will connect to that song. Period. It’s timeless.

What’s life after Dangerous?
It’s no different. It was the best project in the world for me. It’s the project that I judge others on. It’s made me picky. But I’m the same person. Just like he was the same person. He remained my friend until the end. I sent him my song “No Diggity” while I was working on it and he called me and said it was a smash--not just a hit. And he was right. I know things are different now. I’m in my 50s. And I’ll come right out and say it—some of these new artists will drive you crazy! They are caught up in their own hype, and they think they are already on MJ’s level and they are working on a Dangerous type of album. But we’ll never have another Michael, which means I won’t make another album like Dangerous. But that’s OK. Because it’s here. And music is forever.

Written by Aliya S. King


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