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New Jack Swing: 10 Artists You Need to Know

In the '80s and '90s, countless groups blended soulful R&B with street-ready hip hop. Here's where you need to start

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UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1970: Photo of Bobby Brown  Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Michael Ochs Archives

Few genres encapsulate an era more than New Jack Swing, the music that blended street hip hop rhythms and verses with silky R&B and radio-friendly pop. In the mid-80s, rap and R&B eyed each other suspiciously, with the two genres barely intertwining. In 1986, Janet Jackson's Control laid the groundwork for the two to peacefully coexist. And by the late 1980s, former Guy founder Teddy Riley was quickly becoming the new genre's architect. We've eulogized the music in our Obituary for a Genre column. If you're brushing up, or just want to relive the time when parachute pants and high top fades didn't get your ass kicked on the playground, take a look at these 10 artists who defined the genre.

Related: The Best New Jack Swing Playlist Ever

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Janet Jackson

Many critics point to Jackson's 1986 album Control as Ground Zero for New Jack Swing. For her third album, Jackson recruited producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, who helped the singer craft a dance-pop masterpiece with five singles peaking in the Top 5 of the Billboard Hot 100. Legions of producers and singers would follow the hip-hop/dance/R&B formula.

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Bell Biv Devoe

Ricky Bell, Michael Bivins, and Ronnie DeVoe, all alumni from 1980s urban-pop sextet New Edition, updated the candy-coated melodies of their New Jack-influencing previous band with a harder, grittier edge, yet still stayed true to their radio-ready formula. "Poison" is arguably the genre's most enduring song, remaining a staple at every wedding, Bar Mitzvah and graduation to this day.

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Bobby Brown

The 90s and beyond have not been kind to Brown, whose personal issues have overshadowed his music. But 1986's Don't Be Cruel, featuring "Don't Be Cruel," "Every Little Step" and the No. 1 hit "My Prerogative", was a monster, hitting No. 1 on both the R&B and pop charts.

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Boyz II Men

Boyz II Men would later be defined by prom ballads like "On Bended Knee" and "I'll Make Love to You", but 1991's Cooleyhighharmony, produced by Michael Bivins, showcased the group's New Jack roots. Look for the blink-and-you'll-miss-it Questlove cameo in "Motownphilly" above. The group is still going strong, recently telling Fuse about their Las Vegas residency.

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Teddy Riley

Arguably the genre's most influential musician, the singer-songwriter/producer formed New Jack Swing groups Guy and Blackstreet and has produced for Michael Jackson, Bobby Brown, Usher among countless others. The term "new jack swing" was first coined in a 1988 Village Voice profile of Riley.

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The best-selling female R&B group of all time, TLC blended brash, boastful rhymes and sultry voices with sex appeal. Their 1991 debut Ooooooohhh... On the TLC Tip featured production by Jermaine Dupri and Dallas Austin, combining hip hop sample staples (James Brown, the Impressions) with R&B anthems.

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Soul II Soul

In America, UK soul collective Soul II Soul were one-hit wonders, though that hit—1989's "Back to Life (However Do You Want Me)"—was one of the year's biggest hits. In their home country, the group's first two albums—1989's Club Classics Vol. One and 1990's Vol. II: 1990 - A New Decade—were both modern soul classics. Unlike their New Jack peers, the group augmented their soul/hip hop hybrid with liberal borrowing of disco and reggae melodies.

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Sisters With Voices began as a gospel group, but didn't gain widespread exposure until they shifted their sound to R&B and New Jack Swing. Their debut album It's About Time blended ballads ("Weak") with uptempo tracks, anchored by their lifting of Michael Jackson's "Human Nature" for their remix to "Right Here".

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Led by brothers Cedric "K-Ci" Hailey and Joel "JoJo" Hailey, Jodeci found countless ways to express their desire to have sex with you. That is all.

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En Vogue

With their early albums—most notably 1992's Funky Divas—Oakland quartet En Vogue brought an air of sophistication and torch-song class to the genre. The album, led by MTV staple "My Lovin' (You're Never Gonna Get It)", sold more than 5 million copies worldwide. 

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