Many musical artists are responsible for hits, whether recording and writing for themselves or producing smashes for others. Teddy Riley’s got the success, having fashioned platinum-plated R&B works for, and with, Bobby Brown, Michael Jackson, Keith Sweat, Doug E. Fresh and more since the mid-’80s, not to mention the music of his own slick soul vocal ensembles, Guy and Blackstreet.
How many artists, however, are responsible for an actual sound? Riley’s new jack swing, which fused deeply melodic and harmony vocal-laced R&B with hip-hop long before the two became inseparable on the charts, defined an entire genre. That’s how Riley came to claim his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, one he’ll receive Aug. 16, with a place on the intersection of Cahuenga and Hollywood boulevards.
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“I’m thrilled [about the honor], but it’s a calm, cool excitement because I’m afraid of anxiety,” says the 51-year-old in a hushed voice from his home in Las Vegas. ”I think, however, I’m going to be pretty emotional about my star the day-of.”
Riley is no stranger to such glitz, as he’s been part of Hollywood’s firmament ever since his band, Guy, walked the red carpet for its on-screen role in 1991’s “New Jack City.” Showing up at that premiere was a signal that he had arrived. “We were from New York, so being there. … That’s how we knew we were going somewhere. ‘We’re in the movie, yo.’”
There’s much to warrant excitement too, considering how humbly he started life. A child prodigy, Riley played piano in his Harlem neighborhood church, with his family members buying him “proper” instruments in order to gig.
“My uncle bought me Roland keyboards, a Yamaha S-30, a string clavier and a Fender Rhodes — my set-up forever. Once I borrowed a TEAC two-track, reel-to-reel from a friend I was ready to go. I still had to make drum sounds by mic-ing a toilet tissue roll as my kick drum — I’d even beatbox through the hole — but it gave me that bottom. I cherish that memory.”
It is also crucial to note that new jack swing’s halting rhythms and swelling vocal sound comes from Riley’s years playing piano for the Little Flower Baptist Church in Harlem.
“You have a good ear, it all came from church — all of it,” he says. “It was God driving my sound. I had to play good, too, or my mom would whoop my behind.”
Church and Riley’s mom gave him the push, but, as the Apollo Theater’s backstage was nestled against the backyard of Riley’s elementary school (“I clung to that fence”), seeing Gladys Knight and James Brown made him aspire to be a star. Contemporary musicians such as Mtume, Luther Vandross’ first band Change and Kool & the Gang (“Saw them record ‘Celebration’ at age 13… I became their water boy”) made success an attainable goal, as well as steering him to mentors, such as Kool’s Royal Bayyan, who introduced Riley to record production and songwriting.
In much the same way, Riley would later become a mentor to the Neptunes’ Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo.
By the time Riley had his first rush of success in the ’80s — producing and/or co-writing Fresh’s “The Show,” Johnny Kemp’s “Just Got Paid” and a handful of smashes for Brown and Sweat — his sound was fully formed.
“We had a real brotherhood, Keith and me, and he was a big influence on moving from rap into R&B, then merging them, as he loved my live band sound,” Riley says of Sweat. From there, the producer-writer immediately created a genre worth mining with his own bands and his own anthems such as Blackstreet’s “No Diggity” in 1996.
Continuing his sense of innovation, Riley brought his signature swing sound to the Korean music market ahead of the K-pop curve, with such acts as Rania and Jay Park (with whom he recorded a track titled “Demon,” originally meant for Michael Jackson). And he’s also readying new music for a teaming of his two vocal acts, Guy and Blackstreet, as well as preparing for a Vegas residency (Teddy Riley & Friends), set to open along the Strip before year’s end.
“It was so unorthodox, doing R&B and gospel with hip-hop, and cultivating that sound,” Riley says with a sigh. “That was really something, wasn’t it?”