Every Little Step: The Story of New Jack Swing
In the late 1980s, a new sound emerged that finally found common ground between hip hop and R&B, and brought soul music back to the streets. This is the rise and fall of New Jack Swing.
Let’s rewind to the 1980s; Reagan’s America, deeply conservative and superficially affluent. As cultural critic Barry Michael Cooper told the BBC’s Soul Deep, “Black people in America had become very middle class – or on the surface, that’s what it seemed like. That’s what The Cosby Show talked about”.
There were other signifiers of this. Arguably the two musical icons of the era were black men for the first time: Prince and especially Michael Jackson. Neither were producing pure R&B, and the sheer success of Jackson’s Thriller had influenced record labels to water down their black artists to ensure crossover appeal. Soul music was reflecting not just the affluent times, but the weight of its own success.
Whitney Houston is often cited as the obvious example of this, and they were criticisms she faced throughout her career, famously (and quite cruelly) labelled as “Whitey” Houston by the Rev. Al Sharpton.
She wasn’t alone, of course, just merely the most successful. But in a sense, Houston was a victim of her times, and this prevailing attitude would potentially be one of the causes of her personal decline. As Duke University’s Mark Anthony Neal explains: “Black audiences were not all that enamoured with Whitney Houston. We don’t think of cats in the ‘hood, nodding their heads, listening to her music. On one level because there was a conscious effort to make her the un-black, black artist. That was part of selling Whitney.”
Yet simultaneous to this soulful sheen, hip hop was bursting out of the underground and approaching its initial golden age. Run DMC, Sugarhill Gang, LL Cool J and Grandmaster Flash had already started making dents on the charts, and Public Enemy, Eric B & Rakim, De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, Big Daddy Kane and Heavy D were all about to strike.
How could R&B, arguably going through one of the least inspired moments in its history, possibly compete with this new, gritty style?
Enter New Jack Swing. Described by artist Ricky Bell as “Mentally hip hop, smoothed out on the R&B tip with a pop feel appeal,” it managed to bring together those various elements of black music, dragged R&B out of its slump and pointed to the future.
Ironically, it was Michael Jackson’s sister Janet who was responsible for heralding this new era of funky beats, thanks in no small part to her producers, the former Prince protégés Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, who had honed their craft using The Purple One’s Minneapolis Sound.
The resulting album, 1986’s Control, was crafted for one very specific reason according to Jam and Lewis; to primarily appeal to the African American community – the one thing Houston was not doing, despite her success. And with Janet taking control of the lyrical direction, it was destined to be especially popular with young black girls – a defiantly black, feminist cry in Reagan’s America.
But musically, Jam and Lewis took the Minneapolis Sound spearheaded by Prince, and took it one step further. They utilised hip hop drums with smoother edge, fusing R&B, rap, funk, disco, synthesised percussion and out and out pop. It wasn’t termed New Jack Swing until a 1987 Village Voice article, where the aforementioned Barry Michael Cooper wrote about this burgeoning scene. The phrase “New Jack” was a popular slang phrase for a latecomer, whilst the “swing” was to, in Cooper’s words, create an “analogy between the music played at the speakeasies of F. Scott Fitzgerald‘s time to the crackhouses of Teddy Riley‘s time.”
Riley was raised in Harlem. A child prodigy, he had already worked with rappers Kool Moe Dee and Doug E Fresh by the time he was 17. In 1987, he formed the group Guy, where he perfect the sound that he termed “sophisticated bubblegum”, but thanks to Cooper became known as New Jack Swing.
According to Riley, the defining feature of the music was the introduction swingbeats, explained to the New York Times as “a rhythmic pattern using offbeat accented 16th note triplets.”
Having got the ball rolling producing Keith Sweat’s 1987 LP Make It Last Forever, Riley perfected his style on Guy’s debut album laid the blueprint for the foreseeable future of R&B, as copycats and clones flooded the marketplace, trying to recapture the glorious mix of hip hop, R&B and funk that made this record so successful.
Just one week following the release of Guy’s debut, two more records were released that utterly solidified this new style, as well as the reputations of two of its superstar production teams, beginning with Jam and Lewis’ association with a group of young men from Boston, Massachusetts.
In the UK, New Edition are remembered as one hit wonders for their 1983 bubblegum smash Candy Girl. In America, they were probably the most influential R&B group of the decade, and enjoyed a string of R&B hits in the early-mid 80s; Cool It Now, Mr Telephone Man, Lost In Love, My Secret (Didja Gitit Yet?), Count Me Out, A Little Bit of Love, With You All The Way. They were R&B superstars at a time when – thanks in part to the disco backlash years earlier – black artists were having a tough time breaking through.
They were patterned after the Jackson 5 – a group of black kids from a rough neighbourhood, except NE had a bit of extra grit about them, thanks in no small part to Bobby Brown.
Ralph Tresvant may have been the lead singer, but it was Brown who pulled most of the focus. On the road promoting their 1985 album All For Love, Brown was fired from the group for his on-and-off stage antics. One incident in particular led to his exit; he would regularly extend his solo spot in Mr Telephone Man for an obscene length of time – complete with the kind of gyrating that you would assume to be inappropriate for New Edition’s image. At one show in Oakland, the rest of the group signalled for the band to play the next song. Brown, irritated that his spotlight hogging had been interrupted, started a fight on stage and stormed off.
This one event essentially started the franchising of New Edition that would culminate in the group – both collectively and individually – becoming the commercial faces of NJS.
Brown’s solo career didn’t get off to a great start. His debut, King of Stage, barely made a dent. Despite some great production from Cameo’s Larry Blackmon, it featured just one minor hit, the twee Girlfriend. It still didn’t feel like, as Brown was fond of saying, “Bobby being Bobby”.
Meanwhile, New Edition themselves were equally floundering a little without him. They didn’t initially replace him, choosing instead to work as a four piece, managing only one LP of 50’s doo wop covers along with a couple of superior singles such as Once In a Lifetime Groove from the soundtrack to the Billy Crystal/Gregory Hines movie Running Scared.
When it came time to record 1988’s Heart Break, they were finally allowed to grow up, and drafted in solo artist Johnny Gill as a full-time replacement for Brown. His addition would add a completely new dimension to the group. Gill was a gutsy soul singer, and his performances on ballads such as Can You Stand The Rain? and album closer Boys To Men helped New Edition reach the kind of musical heights that they had probably yet to reach. Even the kind of snooty critic who turned their nose up at bubblegum pop couldn’t deny. He was just 20 years old when he joined – his vocals on Heart Break are truly beyond his years.
When it came time to make the album, NE were teamed with Jam and Lewis. They were fresh off the success of Janet’s Control album and had even crossed over to pure pop by providing the Human League with their second US number one, Human. The team wanted to construct a similar album for NE. Perhaps not a concept album per se, but one that would show the boys growing, culminating with Gill’s closing solo on Boys To Men.
It was clear that this would be a matured New Edition when the LP’s first single dropped. If It Isn’t Love was full of percussive rhythm, with Tresvant supplying a smooth vocal over the staccato beat. And the whole album continued with a sound that was a little Minneapolis sound at its core, but pushing a little further stylistically than Janet did with Control; You’re Not My Kind of Girl, Crucial, N.E. Heartbreak, the aforementioned ballads. This was on a whole ‘nother level. Bobby Brown would have to go some way to beat this.
But miraculously, he did. Whilst New Edition were teaming up with Jam and Lewis, he went to the other up and coming R&B production team of the day; Babyface and LA Reid.
Babyface came with quite a bit of pedigree. He had been given his nickname by none other than Bootsy Collins, with whom he was playing at the time. In 1983 he joined the R&B group The Deele, where he struck a partnership with their drummer, Antonio “LA” Reid. The duo left the group in 1988, when they were hired to take over the reins on the upcoming Bobby Brown album; Don’t Be Cruel.
If Heart Break was a marvel, Don’t Be Cruel was a masterpiece. Brown may have lacked Johnny Gill’s soulful wail, but he made up for it with a swagger that New Edition couldn’t quite muster without him. Ironically, both albums – released on the same day, 20th June 1988 – included similar themes. If Heart Break was about growing up, Don’t Be Cruel was about independence. It’s right there in its biggest hit, the Teddy Riley-produced, era defining My Prerogative, a funky romp where Brown unabashedly exclaims “I don’t need permission/Make my own decisions/That’s my prerogative”.
Brown also continued cultivating his bad boy image. Realising that the more he did this, the more records he was selling, he began creating moral outrage by simulating sexual acts on stage. It looks like tame stuff by today’s standards – take a look at a Trey Songz performance for proof of that – but it cemented not only Brown’s bad boy image, but his place among the biggest acts of the era.
Of note, when appearing at the Soul Train Awards a year later, Brown met Whitney Houston for the first time. It was at this event where Houston was infamously booed by the audience, the reason having long been attributed to the aforementioned perception that she had been “acting white” and “selling out” the black audience. “Whitney being booed at the Soul Train Awards was the audience telling her ‘You’re not really who you say you are. You can’t be Diana Ross anymore, you can’t be Shirley Bassey and you’re not Barbara Streisand’,” said Cooper. “This is what the boos are about; it’s a wake-up call, Whitney.”
The backlash deeply affected Houston, who was convinced by this event, coupled with her growing relationship with Brown, to produce her NJS-influenced third album I’m Your Baby Tonight.
It made sense for Houston to use onto NJS to re-establish her R&B credentials. Aside from it’s funky core, there was a sense of unity with African American history too. Take a look at Tony! Toni! Toné!’s debut single, Little Walter. Leaving aside that the song’s title is a clear reference to the famed blues musician, its instrumentation and melody is based on the spiritual Wade In The Water, a song that is intrinsically linked to the plight of the slaves, who would regularly sing it in order to pass on instructions to fugitive slaves when trying to make a bid for freedom. In this case, to avoid the slavers’ dogs by entering the water and thereby sending them off the trail.
Whitney wasn’t the only one influenced by Brown’s success – even Prince got in on the NJS wave on his 1989 Batman soundtrack. But notably, the rest of New Edition also took a leaf out of the Don’t Be Cruel playbook and although they may not have equalled that album’s success, each of them achieved at least platinum status and produced a number of hit singles that, taken as a whole, helped to not only solidify the New Jack Swing movement, but encapsulated the era.
To start with, there was Bell Biv DeVoe. For a long time Michael Bivins, Ricky Bell and Ronnie DeVoe were seen almost as dead weight in New Edition. But at the urging of Jam and Lewis, they created this New Jack Swing splinter group. As DeVoe explained in 2017 “New Edition is dinner, BBD is the after party”.
Their first album, Poison, took Brown’s asserted independence and took it one step further. BBD were as removed from the early days of New Edition as they possibly could be. The big hitters on the album – Dope!, B.B.D. (I Thought It Was Me), Do Me! and especially the title track – were among the best tracks of not only the New Jack Swing era, but of 90s R&B, period. Urgent, rawkus and full of vitality, and matched with the group’s colourful street outfits, they somehow managed to epitomise the era more than any other.
Poison actually debuted around six months before The Fresh Prince of Bel Air – a show on which they would eventually appear that would do much to bring both hip hop and New Jack Swings into white America’s homes – and it’s hard not to notice the similarities between their aesthetic and the show’s. BBD were copping the street style, but they burst it into the mainstream.
Meanwhile, Tresvant adopted a smoother approach. Appearing on the front cover of his self-titled solo debut in a dapper suit, it seems as though he was trying to add some old soul class into the streetwise NJS. Lead single Sensitivity summed up his approach; part Michael Jackson, part Marvin Gaye or Teddy Pendegrass. His open shirt appearance in the video screamed sexuality, but his movements and lyrics said something different; more sensual, love and lust going hand-in-hand.
Finally, Johnny Gill had already been a moderately successful solo artist when he joined New Edition, so it was no surprise that he resumed his solo career after the Heart Break campaign. But what probably wasn’t expected was his newfound ferocity.
Taking the new performance skills he picked up in NE, he signed to Motown as a solo act, not only retaining Jam and Lewis from Heart Break, but managing to nab Babyface and LA Reid from Bobby Brown too.
Having the two hot production teams of the day on the same record was unprecedented and by this time each were churning out hit after hit. Jam and Lewis came in with Rub You The Right Way, whist Reid and Babyface hit back with My, My, My. So Jam and Lewis ying Wrap Your Body Tight, and Reid and Babyface yang Fairweather Friend. As a hit-for-hit album, it was probably the best any of the New Edition boys made in the 90s.
Motown’s dalliance with NJS didn’t end there. Really, it was obvious the label was going to go with the genre. Always erring on the more commercial side of R&B, Motown had long resisted the onslaught of hip hop, and wouldn’t fully embrace it until they signed Queen Latifah in 1993.
New Jack Swing, though, was far more radio friendly, and it was much easier to tailor a suave, commercial sounding group to the sound. And like much of what we have discussed so far, it all goes back to New Edition.
You may recall when discussing their Heart Break record, we noted a song on the LP called Boys To Men. Well, as you may have gathered, that song inspired a group of singers from Philadelphia who were brought to the attention of NE’s Michael Bivins, who started managing the group. The group were given the cooler sounding moniker Boyz II Men and Bivins secured them a deal at Motown.
1991’s Cooleyhighharmony, featuring their funky, smash debut single Motownphilly and the huge selling ballad End of the Road, was produced by another up and coming producer, Dallas Austin. Production-wise, the record sounds remarkably similar to BBD, with one key difference. Where that group featured Bivins’ and DeVoe’s rapping, Boyz II Men would put a greater emphasis on vocals. Like Tresvant, their approach was far more indebted to the classicist Motown of the 60s, and re-introduced the legendary label to a whole new audience.
Austin was also a producer for another significant act of the era.
Despite all the testosterone we’ve been throwing around so far, it was clear that NJS would have an effect on women. How could it not? Janet‘s records spoke to teenage girls in a way that few others were, and this included. Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas, Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins and Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes; TLC.
Their image came across a little like the female equivalent of BBD, with baggy, brightly coloured clothes – not to mention Lopes’ trademark condom, which harkens to Salt-n-Pepa’s safe sex anthems at a time when sexual health was of particular concern. But their debut album, 1992’s, Ooooooohhh…on the TLC Tip was full of such exuberance that they made these traits their own, best exemplified by the infectious lead single Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg, with its bounce beat and assertive lyrics.
Janet Jackson grew up in a superstar household, but TLC grew up on the streets, and they were able to take what Janet started one step further. Their time with New Jack Swing was brief, and their debut was overshadowed by what came next. By the time their second LP dropped, the iconic CrazySexyCool, they had graduated to the kind of hip hop soul pioneered by Mary J. Blige. But the energy with which they burst onto the scene was a significant step for girl groups of their kind, with a brashness that was later co-opted by The Spice Girls.
But the early 90s would prove to be the beginning of the end of this sound that had dominated the R&B landscape, for a number of reasons. For starters, Boyz II Men weren’t the only group that Michael Bivins took to Motown.
There had been many attempts to create a “new” Jackson 5 over the years, not least New Edition themselves. Motown had even tried it with the DeBarge family in the 80s. Bivins discovered a group of adolescents called Another Bad Creation (notice the ABC acronym, which was likely to remind listeners of J5’s number one hit of the same name), and they were fitted out with a New Jack Swing style.
And therein lies the problem. J5 and New Edition sang bubblegum pop when they were kids. New Jack Swing was decidedly adult. Think of BBD singing “Smack it up, flip it, rub it down” in Do Me, or Bobby Brown’s hyper sexual performances that were flat out getting him arrested. You can’t help but feel a little queasy about the mix, or make the association when their biggest hit, Iesha, sounds so similar to Poison.
ABC were considered a bit of a joke, to the point where even similarly adolescent hip hop duo Kriss Kross mocked them in the lyrics for their big hit, Jump; “Don’t try to compare us to Another Bad little fad”. But then New Jack Swing was oversaturated by now; when someone like Paula Abdul is making records that are being touted as NJS, it’s probably lost its edge.
But perhaps the final nail in the coffin was when it just became too big. And, despite the current discussion raging about him, that happened when Michael Jackson released Dangerous in November 1991.
Michael was actually one of the last of the Jackson clan to try NJS. Not only had Janet pioneered it with Control, she had continued to innovate on the following Rhythm Nation 1814. His brothers had made the album 2300 Jackson Street without him, but with Riley, Reid and Babyface (for reals, check out Nothin’ That Compares 2 U – it’s a jam!). Jermaine, Randy and Jackie had even recorded solo albums in the style (Randy’s is underrated).
Jackson was ending his relationship with Quincy Jones, with whom he had come to loggerheads during the recording of Bad. Ironically, Jones had wanted Jackson to incorporate hip-hop into his sound; “I remember when we were doing Bad I had [Run] DMC in the studio because I could see what was coming with hip-hop,” he said. “And [Michael] was telling [manager] Frank DiLeo, ‘I think Quincy’s losing it and doesn’t understand the market anymore. He doesn’t know that rap is dead’.”
Yet after all of the pop success, Jackson – like Houston – had a yearning to reconnect with his black audience. He had originally wanted to work with Jam and Lewis, who declined out of loyalty to Janet. He instead tracked down Teddy Riley, who was at the time working not only with Bobby Brown, but Heavy D and Big Daddy Kane.
Truth be told, Dangerous isn’t a full NJS album. Only about half of the album is in that style, beginning with Jam. As an opener, Jam grabs your attention immediately. It does sound somewhat different to what Jackson had recorded before, but it hasn’t lost any of his appeal.
Lyrically, the song might sound simple enough on the surface, but they point to some kind of deeper meaning. On release, the most surprising moment must have been when the rap starts. Ironically, having rejected Quincy Jones’ idea of a Run DMC collaboration, Jackson and Riley drafted in Heavy D – who had previously worked with both Guy and Janet the previous year – to perform a rap verse in the song.
But the true banger on the record is Remember The Time, almost a New Jack Swing update of 1979’s Rock With You. The song just jams, and is probably the breeziest track on the album. Jackson never revealed who the song was written about, but brother Jermaine has stated; “…that song was, as Michael told me, written with Diana Ross in mind; the one great love that, as far as he was concerned, escaped him.”
The album ended up shifting over 30 million copies, eventually outselling Bad. After the world’s biggest superstar has copped the style, where is it to go? The only way was down.
Janet sensed a change in the air and moved on for her 1993 album janet. Lead single That’s The Way Love Goes banished the almost industrial feel of her previous two records. This was a smooth, laid back jam perfect for summer evenings. Janet appeared seductive in the video, presenting a new grown up image away from the uniforms prevalent throughout Rhythm Nation.
The New Edition franchise began to falter. The follow up albums to Ralph Tresvant, Poison and Johnny Gill tanked. Even Bobby Brown’s 1992 effort Bobby failed to meet expectations, despite hits like Two Can Play That Game and Humpin’ Around. All six members of NE reconvened for the 1996 Home Again album and the following tour. Though the album was a success both critically and commercially, the tour was a disaster for the group, culminating in an on-stage fight involving a water hose and a loaded gun. They returned to significant prominence in 2017 with a BET-produced biopic miniseries that broke viewing records.
Tony! Toni! Toné! moved on to a more traditional funk sound, and Guy split in 1992, after Riley’s success with Michael Jackson. He went on to form BLACKstreet, scoring a huge hit with No Diggity in 1996. But rather than heralding another Jack Swing era, it was more like one final blip. By now, the R&B sound taking over was the neo-soul; low on funk, high on jazz. D’Angelo had just released Brown Sugar, Maxwell was about to drop Urban Hang Suite and we were just a stone’s throw away from Erykah Badu, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill and Who is Jill Scott?
As a piece of R&B history, New Jack Swing shone brightly, but briefly. Yet its impact is still prevalent today. Every single female artist out there today is copping Janet Jackson, whether it’s a superstar like Beyonce or a respected cult artist like Janelle Monae.
New Edition were year one for the modern boyband. When they left original producer Maurice Starr, he decided to create the white equivalent of the group and came up with New Kids on the Block. From there, you get Take That (boasted as the British NKOTB in the early days), the Backstreet Boys, *NSYNC, right up to the K-Pop groups dominating today.
Take a look at any of the male R&B superstars of the last 15-20 years, be it Usher, Trey Sognz or even – whelp! – Chris Brown. Compare them to any Bobby Brown performance from the Don’t Be Cruel era.
If you need to look any further for the relevance of NJS, just listen to today’s R&B records. Are you even a contemporary R&B artist if you don’t have at least a couple of rap verses sprinkled throughout your record? As Riley has stated about the days before that first Guy album; “Rappers and singers didn’t want anything to do with one another…Singers were soft, rappers were street.”
Now look at how closely related R&B and hip hop has been since New Jack Swing – it opened the doors for the “Ghetto fabulous” hip hop soul spearheaded by Mary J Blige’s What’s The 411?, and taken to the next level by TLC‘s CrazySexyCool.
Most importantly, check out the pedigree of the producers who created it. Perhaps not many of the New Jack Swing artists remained prominent in the public eye, but you know all of the producers’ hits.
Teddy Riley: Michael Jackson, Guy, Bobby Brown, Kool Moe Dee, BLACKstreet.
LA Reid and Babyface: Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin, Madonna, Beyoncé, Eric Clapton, Fall Out Boy, Céline Dion, Bruno Mars, Kelly Clarkson, Lil Wayne, P!nk, Ariana Grande, Avril Lavigne.
Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis: Mariah Carey, Bryan Adams, Human League, TLC, Toni Braxton, Spice Girls, Shaggy, Mary J Blige, Usher, George Michael, Sting, Chaka Khan, Trey Songz, Boyz II Men and just about everything Janet Jackson ever did.
New Jack Swing remains a vital, if underappreciated, moment in R&B history. And although it inspired a cavalcade of forgetful records, it was also responsible for some moments of real brilliance. It is due a reappraisal.