EXCLUSIVE: Teddy Riley talks about his Afro-Panamanian heritage, the huge upcoming New Jack Swing extravaganza at the Apollo, and his “nerdy” past

Teddy Riley
Photo Courtesy of Teddy Riley

A huge New Jack Swing concert is coming the Apollo Theater in December? Yep, yep. “The Kings and Queens of New Jack Swing,” featuring a bevy of your (or your mama’s) favorite artists will hit the famous Harlem stage on December 9th for two back to back performances.  Guy, Blackstreet, Doug E. Fresh, Kool Moe Dee, Keith Sweat, and of course Teddy Riley will all be performing along with some surprise guests. Expect to hear hits like “I Like,” “Make it Last Forever,” and “No Diggity.”

New Jack Swing’s creator, Teddy Riley, spoke to theGrio about the show, his little known Panamanian roots, and how Harlem shaped the sound of New Jack Swing.

Defining New Jack Swing

Riley, 51, was born in New York City and raised in the St. Nicholas public housing projects in Harlem not far from the Apollo. In the late ’80s and ’90s when Riley began pumping out New Jack Swing hits, Harlem was not yet the gentrifying area it is now with a Whole Foods and several Starbucks cafes sprinkled along 125th Street.

Films like New Jack City and Sugar Hill portrayed the Harlem of that era as tough, gritty, and dark. That’s a far cry from the feel-good party vibe of New Jack Swing. Riley explained to theGrio what New Jack Swing is and how it has influenced other types of music. “New Jack Swing is a movement, but it started with the music.  Then from there, you get the name, the style, and the culture. New Jack Swing started with Dougie Fresh, Keith Sweat and myself,” said Riley. “Growing up in the hood in the projects, we were around hustlers, dope dealers, and drug addicts and that definitely had an impact. If you’re from Harlem around that time, you’ve tried some sort of street thing.”

But instead of giving himself over to the streets, Riley found his calling with music. “I had to do the opposite and turn my music into light because it was so dark in Harlem. We were happy though because we had our parents and our friends to fellowship with back then. We didn’t have the money, but we had the spirit and the energy. That’s what New Jack Swing is about. It’s energy. We might have sexy songs, but you’re gonna be happy making love,” he said.

“New Jack Swing is for all of us. It’s a culture. This is music that still moves people today more than any other genre. There’s New Jack Swing jazz, New Jack Swing gospel, New Jack Swing trap,” Riley expounded. “When you put on a New Jack Swing song on today, you’re gonna hear singing with rap, or you’re gonna hear shuffles in the beats, or a ballad with a kick or a finger snap. There’s New Jack pop too. Nsnyc, New Kids on the Block, and the Backstreet Boys all did my music. You also have Britney Spears who did “My Prerogative” over.  Soon it’s going to be the new pop again.”

Family Business

Riley grew up in a household with his mother, brother, and stepfather (his brother’s father). “I never knew my biological father. I was a kid from the hood and I didn’t know my father. I knew my brother’s father and that’s the man who raised us. I don’t think I’ve ever told anyone this, but I’m actually named after my stepfather,” explained Riley. The super producer’s full name is Edward Theodore Riley.

Riley’s biological father was Afro-Panamanian, a fact most people don’t know. “I don’t really promote that part of myself, but it is my truth. Before I leave this Earth I want everyone to know everything about me. No skeletons. Nothing crazy. I did eventually dig into that part of my heritage. My biological father passed away last year,” said Riley.

His stepfather also passed away back in 1997. “When my brother’s father (who I call my dad) passed away, he was in our arms. That’s the father I know. That’s the father who raised us to be men.  He worked for gangsters all his life in the fish markets. If you know anything about that, you know that’s the mafia right there. He worked in that field for a long time until it got him terminal cancer. On the last day of his life, he talked to us about being the men of the family and taking care of the family,” Riley said.

Keeping his word to his late father, Riley still keeps close family ties and just recently spent “more in one month than he normally does in one year” for his daughter’s wedding, which he performed at and enlisted some of his celebrity friends to do the same.

New Jack Swing at the Apollo

As far as what to expect from the show at the Apollo, Riley is more than ready for fans to hear what he has been cooking up in the studio.  “I can’t wait for you all to hear the new Keith Sweat and Blackstreet. Oh my God! The Blackstreet album is the one I’m going to bet on for you and every female out there to love. I have included everything you need to have this album play without skipping a song,” bragged Riley.

“I’m overwhelmed and little bit nervous because this is home. Me, Doug, Keith, and Kool Moe Dee all grew up within two to three blocks of the Apollo. This is our homecoming and we have something special for everybody. You’re getting two hours of incredible music and people will be crying in the audience because I’m going there,” said Riley.

He hopes to invoke the same energy and spirit that New Jack Swing started out with 30 years ago. “I just want them to have a feeling of how we felt back in the day. I want that feeling of the block party with the open fire hydrant and everybody is feeling good. This is back when I was a little kid walking around with a Casio keyboard trying to join bands,” reminisced Riley.

But Riley wasn’t always the cool guy when he was growing up in Harlem and he wasn’t quite the ladies man either. “I was a nerd and I couldn’t pull no girls. I was a cool looking little nerd though. One day I went to school with a bunch of vaseline on my face because I thought I needed a shiny face to get a girl. I wanted to shine! I did some stupid stuff. I was trying to get a girl, but I looked like I was ready to fight somebody. It really was just all about trying to pull the pretty girls,” he admitted.

Riley even mentioned some of those girls from his high school days at the end of Blackstreet’s hit “No Diggity.” He says they all turned him down back when they were teens. One or two of them might have a regret about that today.

Check out Teddy Riley and his all-star collaborators at the Apollo on December 9th for the  “The Kings and Queens of New Jack Swing.” The sound originated 30 years ago, but the party’s not over.