Teddy Riley’s sound is Harlem. The boundlessly influential producer and Godfather of New Jack Swing will proudly tell you as much. It’s all there. The swagger, genius, soul and attitude that epitomized such beloved music icons as Duke Ellington, Chick Webb, Billie Holiday, and Thelonious Monk is in Riley’s DNA. So is Frankie Lymon and Ben E. King. Kurtis Blow, too, as well as the Harlem church where Riley played the organ as a child. In fact, the multi-platinum Teddy Riley is so Harlem that when you listen back to three of the most important R&B statements of the ‘80s—Keith Sweat’s “I Want Her,” Bobby Brown’s “My Prerogative,” and Guy’s “Groove Me”—you can practically hear the sweat-inducing sonics of his apartment in the St. Nicholas projects where he recorded many of his early hits.
Now the man who helped the otherworldly Michael Jackson get his groove back; reinvented his sound as the leader of Black Street; was one of the first American producers to catch on to the infectious South Korea K-pop explosion; and gave Bruno Mars the musical blueprint for global domination is back in the borough where it all began. Riley is set to headline a homecoming gig of sorts at the legendary Apollo Theater on December 9th. It's aptly titled The Kings & Queens of New Jack Swing and will feature Sweat, Doug E. Fresh, Riley’s Guy and Blackstreet, Al B Sure! and MC Lyte. BET caught up with the studio giant and found a surprisingly emotional vet who is ready to re-embrace Harlem World.
Talk about your connection with the Apollo Theater as a kid growing up in Harlem. What was your earliest memory of the place universally celebrated as the Mecca of live Black entertainment?
I remember being in the backyard of my school listening to what was going on at the Apollo everyday. I didn’t play with the rest of the kids. I was too excited to see who was coming in and out of the building. I would see James Brown…my memory is so vivid. I just remember Mr. Brown’s hair. I use to think he wore a wig all the time. I would see my mom put a wig on and I would think as a kid, “James Brown wears a wig, too!” [Laughs].
That had to be surreal…
It was! James Brown was larger-than-life. And then I would also see people like Sylvester. Remember Sylvester? Great vocalist. And I recall Luther Vandross playing the Apollo [early on in his career] and they tried to boo him because they didn’t understand the most incredible voice he had until he came out with the group Change. That’s what going to school near the Apollo Theater was like.
This is your first Harlem show in 20 years. Why the long gap?
Well, it took a lot of soul searching. I never forgot where I came from. I am fully Harlem. But my goal was to always come back to Harlem with a vengeance. And I also wanted to come back in a happy [space]. I see this upcoming show at the Apollo as joyful. We are all coming together and celebrating life decades later. This is a special time for all of us. We’ve lost a lot of our friends along the way like Michal [Jackson], Johnny Kemp, Whitney [Houston], Tony Thompson, Heavy D, and Prince. Man…
And it will especially be emotional for Al B. Sure!, who is still mourning the loss of Kim Porter.
Yes. And that’s the thing. I just feel like there’s going to be a lot of emotions in that theater. I just hope that Al, myself and everyone else can get through it all.
Do you remember the first time you played the Apollo?
Yes…I did Amateur Night with my brother-in-law Omar Chandler who passed away a few years ago…God bless him. We were performing against David Peaston. [Omar] is the actual guy singing on Rob Base’s “Joy & Pain,” which I also happened to be a part of. Everything was happening at that time.
Let’s talk about your return to the Apollo Theater. The show you are headlining is pretty diverse and has a heavy Harlem feel. Your two groups Guy and Blackstreet are set to appear along with Keith Sweat, Kool Moe Dee, Doug E. Fresh, Al B Sure, and MC Lyte. What was your inspiration in putting together such an eclectic bill?
Well, actually the idea came about from Keith and I as well as Doug E. We’ve been beating this around for the longest, but no one ever took the torch. Keith would always talk about it and Doug is so busy…he performs shows almost every week. So I thought maybe I should be the one to make it happen. We all got together and reached out to Moe Dee, and MC Lyte, who is also a part of the family. We got Al [B Sure!] involved. And everybody in the show is from New York, so it became a homecoming. It’s like a real family reunion.
Some of your most important early work will be represented on the Apollo stage from Doug E. (1985’s “The Show”) and Sweat (1987’s Make Is Last Forever) to Moe Dee (1987’s “How Ya Like Me Now”). There’s a lot of history there.
Yeah…there’s definitely a lot of history. I’m just so happy that we are able to tell our stories. I can’t wait for people to see the documentaries we have on tap. I have a book planned as well as a movie. Then there’s my Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Okay, that’s a lot happening. The Hollywood Star is well deserved. But let’s talk about the movie. There are rumors that BET has already reached out to do a biopic on your life and the New Jack Swing era. Is there any truth to that?
The documentary will be coming out first, which will be different than the movie. And it’s true. I have been in talks about doing something [similar to the New Edition movie]. This is just an amazing time.
Do you feel like your hip-hop work at times gets overshadowed by your R&B and pop songs?
Yeah…but you know it’s always the underrated artists that come out on top. Look at Jay Z. In the mid ‘90s he was underground. It took a few years for him to become who he is today. It took Keith Sweat almost a year for “I Want Her” to hit. Frankie Crocker (the late famed program director at New York’s WBLS radio station) saved New Jack Swing. People actually slammed “I Want Her” on BLS. Just coming from that time you are thinking that your life is over and it’s just the beginning. I was almost in tears thinking we were never going to make it. And then Frankie made “I Want Her” a hit. I learned from him. It took me to override the judges at this talent show in Virginia. I chose the Neptunes as my winners despite what the others said.
Your musical tree is nuts…
Well it comes from the Frankie Crocker’s of the world. I remember doing my first interview with Wendy Williams. It was Barry Michael Cooper who gave my music the name New Jack Swing. This is all history.
The thing I notice when it comes to New York is Harlem tends to get undervalued rap wise when compared to the Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn. Did you feel that way coming up in the ‘80s? Did you have a chip on your shoulder?
Yes, but my thing was it was never about competing against the other boroughs because I had family in Brooklyn, in the Bronx, Long Island…everywhere in New York. My competition came from the local bands. My rivalry was with Keith Sweat’s and Johnny Kemp’s bands. There was always those type of rivalries happening even in the parks. I used to come to the park with my beat box and Casio keyboard. God was so amazing because everyone else would get their stuff taken [laughs]. They would get robbed! I didn’t think I could make it out there. But I knew people needed to hear me play.
You are pretty much a studio rat. Are we going to hear some new Teddy Riley productions in the near future?
Well I just finished a record with Trey Songz. He was so inspired by New Jack Swing and real R&B. We spent some time together. Trey came out to my house in Atlanta and he played this record (“Keep It Right There”), which was a nod to a record I did with Keith Sweat. I told him I would love to be on the song and then I never heard from him. Then I get this call out of the blue from his brother Moo and he said, “We need you. We need you to finish this record.” So that’s what I did. He dropped the record and it’s all over the radio right now. It’s just a great time.
Needless to say there are no retirement plans in the near future, huh?
[Laughs]. Not at all. And then I have the new Keith Sweat album. And we have Michael Jackson’s nephew Jaafar. He’s Jermaine’s son and we are looking at signing him and getting him out there. He’s such an amazing talent. We have a lot going on. And I have a huge surprise coming in the future. You are going to hear it in February…no later than April. I can’t wait.
Are you nervous about your return to the Apollo?
I’m more emotional than I am nervous. I remember the time Michael [Jackson] told me about how he still gets emotional onstage. It was the same week of his 30thanniversary show at Madison Square Garden [in 2001]. I didn’t plan on going, but Denise Rich, who I call one of the queens of New York, made me go. She told me, “Michael wants you there.”
You can’t say no when a star of Mike’s magnitude personally request that you show up.
That’s serious. Michael sent tickets to me and everything. And that night I saw the most emotional guy because him being able to do his 30thanniversary at the Garden was huge. Even for Michael [Jackson].
What do you love most about Harlem?
Harlem has gone through such a big change, but at the same time the spirit is there. I felt like I needed to go back. I needed to feel that light again. Harlem has been such a blessing to me. I can still remember going to school with Doug E. Fresh and Rich Porter who was one of the most notorious street guys who got killed. I went to class with him and we would gamble in the high school.
Okay, you have stories for days Teddy. Slow down…
For real! Most of friends that will be at the Apollo show can attest to me being the nerd that turned into a street kid. Look at me now. I made it.
Photo: Josh Brasted/FilmMagic