Since producing his very first hit single at 17 years old, Teddy Riley has known how to make people groove.
The Harlem native is the originator of ‘New Jack Swing,’ a funky blend of hip-hop and R&B and that dominated the late 1980s to early 1990s, giving a blueprint for much of the music we hear today. After years of songwriting, producing and singing in groups Guy and Blackstreet, Riley is taking home the 2016 Soul Train Legend Award.
In an interview with theGrio.com, the 49-year-old Riley looks back at the real love and heartbreak that shaped his sound, and how being a father shaped him as a man.
He also gets candid about why we see fewer successful music groups in the industry today — and why he says black people shouldn’t be mad at white artists who like to groove the way they do.
TheGrio.com: Your music [New Jack Swing] defined a generation. What type of experience were you trying to create for people?
Teddy Riley: I was only try to give people what I lived. Coming from the projects, we didn’t experience the finer things in life. But we experienced some of the greatest experiences.
These were things that happened in our lives for real: “I Want Her” was when I first seen Donna [Roberts] and she was in Wilson’s Leather Store. I said to my cousin Chris, “I Wanna” and I ended up writing the song for Keith Sweat.
It was just so crazy. She never knew I wrote those songs about her. Us being together 17 years was a world of experience; like “Don’t Leave” was the end of our relationship, the last phase. She was with someone else, but I can’t fault her because I was bad too… So I had to look at myself.
TG: What we can expect when you cross that stage at the Soul Train Awards 2016?
TR: I just want to rejoice with the people who knew me from the beginning and knew where I came from.
I just want them to receive this music, and if you want to dance, shout, whatever, that’s what this music brought to people: happiness. This is the genre that we call ours. And they can’t take that from us. All they can do it enjoy it with us.
And there are a lot of people who have enjoyed New Jack Swing to the fullest. This was people’s college soundtrack, the soundtrack of their lives. At one point, I heard some guy came to me and said, “You owe me child support.”
He said, “Them damn records you made, I made a lot of babies…” (laughs)
TG: What are your thoughts on where R&B is and where it should go?
TR: It’s starting to come back around because people are getting back to 90s music. If you listen to Bruno Mars, that is a collaboration of New Jack Swing at its rarest form. And then the new Weeknd album is coming and that’s a part of New Jack Swing as well.
TG: So you’re okay with that?
TR: I’m great with it. It keeps the legacy going. All I do is pass it down. They want it, I’ll give it to them.
TG: When it comes to music, you notice a lack of groups, Blackstreet, Guy — iconic groups that shaped the sound. Do you think there’s a reason why there’s a lack of groups today?
TR: Yes, it’s crazy and not good and I hope the music business changes.
It’s like what the heck is going on? And we should do a show about groups, why you break up, where are you now. You’re nowhere because you think you’re the group. And you’re not the group. The group is made up of everybody. And there’s no “I” in “We.” It needs to be done, because it was a thing back in the 90s and every group was successful.
You had Blackstreet, New Edition, Guy, 112, Goodfellas… Then you had the white boy bands were basically a carbon copy because they were doing what we didn’t do or what we forgot to do, and we the ones who made it up.
TG: What were they doing that we weren’t doing?
TR: They were staying together — were (laughs). They had that unity, organization, and they were organized by Afro-Americans. Johnny Wright, Dick Scott, Maurice Starr, Lou Pearlman… They developed these artists to take New Jack Swing, carbon copy, and do a whole new thing, and then it becomes theirs.
But it’s not. We still got it.
TG: And you say they were more unified?
TR: They were more unified than us. They kept it together and was organized. It was a huge organized music style and platform.
That’s why I feel bad. Because we’re responsible. That’s why we can’t be mad at that. We can’t be mad at Justin Timberlake. We can’t let someone take what we’re responsible for and make it bigger than us.
TG: There’s a younger generation coming that may be too young to remember the things you did way back, but they know you as a loving, protective father through ‘Love and Hip Hop.’ What’s it been like being a dad for you?
TR: I experience so much with my kids ’til now, but today, we’re the tightest… With Nia, I gave her my whole opinion. I didn’t tell her to do this or you better do this. “I’m just telling you this as experience: I was the guy you were dealing with.” I just didn’t do the drugs and guns, didn’t do all of that.
My stuff was a little more quiet than him… I never wanted it to be seen, because I didn’t want people to portray me as that person. I’m telling you I was the player. But I’d never disrespect your mom.”
TG: We’re looking forward to celebrating with you when the whole world is watching once the Soul Train Awards happen.
TR: I’m so proud to be in the number. I’m so happy and blessed that I’m still here and they’re giving me my flowers while I’m here. That’s the best reward that you can get.
Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited and condensed.
The 2016 Soul Train Awards airs on Centric, November 27, 2016, at 8PM/7PM Central.