From new jack swing to collaborating with a symphony?
That might sound like a major leap, but not for Teddy Riley. Music fans can hear why when his Grammy-winning, boundary-pushing career is saluted this weekend as he accepts the Legend Award ("I'm so grateful") during the 2016 Soul Train Awards (Nov. 27 via Centric/BET, 8 p.m. ET).
"I've always dreamed of doing a symphony performance," Riley says of just one of several projects on his plate. "And I always try to go after my dreams."
Riley's career itself reads like a dream list. A founding member of pivotal R&B groups Guy and BLACKstreet, the songwriter/producer/artist also spearheaded the R&B fusion offshoot new jack swing in the late '80s. And he's racked up a who's who of credits, stretching from Michael Jackson and his Dangerous album (including the hit "Remember the Time") to Kool Moe Dee, MC Hammer, Doug E. Fresh, Bobby Brown, Keith Sweat, Snoop Dogg, Wreckx-N-Effect and Lady Gaga (co-writing "Teeth" on The Fame Monster EP).
Now the Harlem, New York, native and recent Las Vegas transplant is gearing up for a New Year's Day concert with Guy and Anthony Hamilton at Georgia's Columbus Civic Center. Then it's back to such additional projects as finishing his long-anticipated book Remember the Time (which Riley says will be accompanied by a soundtrack). Between ongoing tour gigs with Guy and BLACKstreet, he's also been collaborating on outside projects from Mary J. Blige and former Mindless Behavior member Prodigy.
Of late, Riley -- who notes, "I never sit on my butt" -- also has been conducting K-pop camps in Korea. Out of those have come hits by Exo ("Call Me Baby") and Super Junior ("Mamacita"). Currently building a studio in his house, Riley says he's also scoping out the musical talent in Sin City.
"Las Vegas is becoming more of a music industry town," he explains. "There's a lot of talent but no outlet for that talent as there aren't many studios here."
During the course of the interview, Riley name-checked his key mentors: Jackson, music executive/manager Gene Griffin, composer Benjamin Wright (Justin Timberlake, OutKast, Aretha Franklin), Stevie Wonder and Zapp's Roger Troutman. Then he went on to list the game-changing musical moments in his career:
"Remember the Time" by Michael Jackson:
It took new jack swing and my style of music to the next level. After Michael, my whole career just got turned up. Michael gave me a new life and a new perspective on my career. If it wasn't for him, I wouldn't be the performer that I am today. Learning from him was like going to college. His lessons about staying power, learning how to cope and sustain with the direction of the business as it changes … it all rubbed off on me.
"No Diggity" by BLACKstreet:
This year is the 20th anniversary of the song, and it's still among people's favorites. I looked online recently and saw an artist doing a country version of "No Diggity." It's been a part of so many things like the film Pitch Perfect and the Beck's Sapphire commercial. It's a twist on new jack swing by implementing blues into the style. The other members of Guy [who Riley offered the song to before BLACKstreet] didn't understand it. That's the reason why I'm singing the first verse. They thought, "This is Teddy experimenting again and it may fail." But it wound up doing so well.
"My Prerogative" by Bobby Brown:
He didn't want to sing it the way I suggested and walked out of the studio. Louil Silas Jr. [former promotion executive at MCA Records], God bless, said, "Man, if you don't get back in that studio, listen to the man and sing that song …" It was some major come-to-Jesus talk. Bobby came back to the studio and sang the record. But he still had to put his two cents in there: "If it doesn't go right this way, we're going to do it my way." I'm like, "OK." And it wound up going my way. He gave me five and walked out. After that, Bobby and I became really good friends.
"I Want Her" by Keith Sweat; "The Show" by Doug E. Fresh & the Get Fresh Crew:
That was the birth of R&B and new jack swing. That's when we started that sound. I'm just this kid from Harlem who was taking a chance on experimenting. The new jack swing name was coined by writer Barry Michael Cooper. He told me, "You have to give it a name so people can follow it." Barry later co-wrote the screenplay for the film New Jack City. I didn't know what Barry meant until people started saying new jack swing. Us people who take chances, we're just following our dreams and don't know where we're going to end up. I ended up having a genre. That's crazy.
"Groove Me," "I Like" and My Fantasy," among other hits by Guy:
This was the start of my career as a singer. I can't exclude that. There are so many records I've done that have taken me in different directions and become game-changers for others.