Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre, series, or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start. Want advice? Suggest future Gateways To Geekery topics by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Geek obsession: New jack swing
Why it’s daunting: In retrospect, the late ’80s and early ’90s can be seen as a time of great musical upheaval—notably the rise of alternative rock, the golden age of hip-hop, and all kinds of glorious noises coming out of England. That’s all well and good, but another revolution was going on right under everyone’s noses: new jack swing. The subgenre combined chiseled basslines, clipped beats, and a mix of singing and rapping into a radically minimalist form of R&B. More importantly, it helped satisfy the dire need for a vibrant, youthful music that spoke to the feet, hips, hearts, and groins of an increasingly optimistic generation shaking off the fog of the Reagan era. It was, without apology, pop for pop’s sake—yet it was far more sophisticated and inventive than the bubblegum pop of just about any period. It embraced both new technology and the girl-group/boy-band/crooner traditions of the past. It reshaped R&B and served as the playground for a host of future superstars. But above all, it produced some of the catchiest, danciest anthems of its time. Despite all that it has going for it, though, new jack swing can seem to newcomers like a wasteland of one-hit wonders, plastic derivativeness, and bad hi-top fades straight out of A Different World reruns. But it’s worth wading through the genre’s marginalia for gems like Wreckx-N-Effect’s 1989 party jam and rallying cry, “New Jack Swing.”
Possible gateway: Guy, Guy
Why: As easy as it would be to choose a new jack swing compilation and call it a gateway to the genre, Guy’s self-titled debut from 1988 is a much deeper, more definitive starting point. Guy isn’t the first new jack swing album; Barry Michael Cooper coined the term in a 1988 Village Voice feature about R&B producer and Guy founder Teddy Riley. But Riley had already laid down new jack swing’s blueprint with Keith Sweat’s 1987 debut, Make It Last Forever. Where Sweat’s album has a few too many snoozy ballads, though, the Riley-produced Guy is an upbeat, more consistently stylized record that better defines new jack swing. As a producer, Riley is front and center. His drum programming is full of snapping snares, his basslines are lurching yet precise, and one of the disc’s hit singles, “Teddy’s Jam,” is even named after him. The meaty beats and percussive samples are strongly informed by hip-hop, but the result is far more sugary and accessible. While many new jack swing artists incorporated rapping to varying degrees, Guy was much more about smooth hooks and soul.
Riley, of course, didn’t concoct new jack swing out of thin air. Hints of the sound can be heard as far back as 1985 in formative releases like The Jets’ “I’ve Got A Crush On You” and Prince’s “Kiss”—both of which were produced by David Z., architect of the sharp Minneapolis sound that was a huge influence on new jack swing—not to mention Nu Shooz’s “I Can’t Wait,” Club Nouveau’s “Jealousy,” and pretty much all of Janet Jackson’s Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis-produced Control from 1986. By piling these inspirations on top of each other, then stripping them down to skeletal instrumentation and melody, Riley made R&B lean, fresh, and fun again. Guy may not sound edgy, then or now, but it remains a bold statement. At the same time—as heard on another of the disc’s singles, “’Round And ’Round (Merry-Go-Round Of Love)”—Guy and Riley weren’t above following their forefathers. Check out the way the song’s rumbling bassline pays homage to those of Rick James’ “Give It To Me Baby” and Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.”
Next steps: New jack swing is more a singles genre than an albums genre, but there are still a handful of essential full-lengths. As previously mentioned, Keith Sweat’s Make It Last Forever was Teddy Riley’s first new jack swing success, and while it gets a little sleepy in spots, even the ballads have that Riley touch—including “How Deep Is Your Love,” a song that makes Sweat’s vocoder-filtered voice sound like it’s being run through Auto-Tune, decades before Auto-Tune was invented. The disc’s biggest hit and most shining example of new jack swing, though, is the infectious “I Want Her.”
With its retro-Jackson 5 vibe and daring-for-its-time rap breakdown, New Edition’s 1984 hit “Cool It Now” served as one of the templates for new jack swing. It’s no surprise, then, that New Edition’s various members would wind up making some of the genre’s best records. Bobby Brown, the first to defect from New Edition, had massive success with his 1988 solo album, Don’t Be Cruel. Featuring the smashes “Don’t Be Cruel” and “My Prerogative”—two towering slabs of new jack swing—Don’t Be Cruel also put the production team of L.A. Reid and Babyface on the map. (They later had even bigger success with new-jack-swing-tinged acts Paula Abdul and TLC, not to mention their highly successful label, LaFace.)
But as great as Bobby Brown’s contribution to new jack swing was, his former New Edition bandmates Ricky Bell, Michael Bivins, and Ronnie DeVoe created new jack swing’s greatest song: 1991’s stark, stuttering, utterly unforgettable “Poison.” The full-length Poison has a harsher, more rap-centric edge than most new jack swing; then again, The Bomb Squad of Public Enemy fame did co-produce the album.
A new jack swing act that crossed even deeper into hip-hop territory is Wreckx-N-Effect. Produced by Teddy Riley (whose brother Markell was a member of the group), 1989’s Wreckx-N-Effect is an ass-kicking, propulsive, gritty debut: It’s almost universally as good as its signature tune, “New Jack Swing.” Case in point: the deep cut “Wipe Your Sweat,” a club-ready anthem that embraces new jack swing’s poles of hip-hop hardness and jazzy, funky samples. (Wreckx-N-Effect’s subsequent hit, 1992’s “Rump Shaker,” features an assist by Riley’s young protégés, The Neptunes.)
New jack swing was foremost a commercial concern, so it’s not as though a lot of deep thought was given to its artistry and expressiveness. If one album had to be singled out as the genre’s masterpiece, though, it would be Tony! Toni! Toné!’s The Revival. The group’s 1990 sophomore effort was largely self-written and self-produced—which makes sense, seeing how future neo-soul star Raphael Saadiq was a member of the group. Loose, funky, juicy, and even bearing tinges of acid-jazz, The Revival is an artistic triumph in a genre that generally coasted on impeccable craft. Even better: It was a platinum-seller, spawning the massive hits “It Never Rains (In Southern California)” and the sunny, euphoric “Feels Good.”
One of the elements that made new jack swing so energetic was its youth; few established R&B artists hopped on the train when it pulled into the station around ’87. That changed quickly, though, when Janet Jackson and her team of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis unleashed 1989’s Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814. Only half of the 1989 album can truthfully be considered new jack swing, but those tracks—including the awkwardly socially conscious “The Knowledge”—helped legitimize the genre in the eyes of those who previously saw it as mere teenybopper music. Two years later, Michael Jackson released his own half-new-jack-swing record, Dangerous. Teddy Riley produced it, but it’s nonetheless a diluted version of the form. At that point, though, no one could deny that new jack swing wasn’t exactly new anymore.
Just before new jack swing was completely absorbed by the R&B mainstream and ceased to exist as an entity unto itself, the genre created a girl-group renaissance. 1992 alone saw the release of three solid, woman-fronted, new-jack-swing swansongs: SWV’s It’s About Time, TLC’s Ooooooohhh… On The TLC Tip, and En Vogue’s Funky Divas. Divas is a particularly stunning disc, one that vastly improves on En Vogue’s 1990 debut, Born To Sing (although that early disc does includes “Hold On,” a new jack swing classic in its own right). Even their cover of The Beatles’ “Yesterday” is a winner, and the album sports the lush, sultry smash “My Lovin’ (You’re Never Gonna Get It).” Blessed with En Vogue’s gorgeous, four-part harmonies and jazzy Foster & McElroy production, the song ushered out the new jack swing era—although stragglers like Montell Jordan’s 1995 hit “This Is How We Do It” would pop up sporadically—and pointed toward the shape of R&B to come.
Where not to start: The greatness of any new jack swing album can usually be measured by the ratio of its dance tracks to its ballads. On that criteria alone, discs like Al B. Sure!’s In Effect Mode and Boyz II Men’s Cooleyhighharmony aren’t necessarily the most thrilling entry points, even though they’re some of the genre’s bestsellers. Meanwhile, scores of one-hit wonders—Johnny Kemp’s “Just Got Paid,” Color Me Badd’s “I Wanna Sex You Up,” and Joe Public’s “Live And Learn,” to cite just three examples—serve as prime specimens of the genre. Of course, there are many new jack swing compilations out there, but none of them are as satisfying as digging through some deep cuts on your own. New jack swing is heavily sampled today, and has even experienced a mini-resurgence with songs like Justin Timberlake’s “Rock Your Body”—produced by Riley disciples The Neptunes—yet the genre still has many nooks to explore.