The big genres—rock, hip hop, dance—aren't going anywhere, but smaller, more niche genres come and go, defining a particular place and time before becoming a musical footnote. In our new feature Obituary for a Genre, we eulogize and resurrect these forgotten musical moments. In this edition: New Jack Swing.
In a December 1990 Baltimore Sun article previewing hip-hop/R&B group Bell Biv Devoe’s upcoming New Year’s Eve gig, member Ricky Bell described his group’s music as “mentally hip-hop, smoothed out on the R&B tip, with a pop feel appeal to it. We want to be the first to express this kind of music.”
They were a few years too late on the whole “first to express” thing, but Bell’s definition encapsulates the preeminent urban genre of the late-1980s and early-1990s: New Jack Swing. Started in earnest with Janet Jackson’s 1986 behemoth third album Control, the genre fused the hard-hitting rhythms and raps of hip hop with smooth R&B and radio-friendly pop and would eventually dominate mainstream music.
Before New Jack Swing, hip hop and R&B agreed to disagreed. Hip hop barely existed on R&B radio and the only R&B tracks you’d hear on hip hop albums was the occasional Side B ballad (Exhibit A: LL Cool J’s 1987 track “I Need Love” from Bad).
More than anyone, former Guy member and uber–producer Teddy Riley destroyed that. A producer since his teens, by the time he was 21, he had, as writer Michaelangelo Matos put it, “long since altered the entire nature of R&B. He did it by refusing to act as if it had been different than that of hip-hop.”
Soon, the producer was as important, if not moreso, than the face on the album cover. (Control was as much the product of producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis as Jackson.) Veterans began recruiting guys like Riley to revamp their sound—see Michael Jackson’s Riley-produced “Remember the Time” off 1992’s Dangerous—and groups like Bell Biv Devoe, SWV, TLC and Boyz II Men (the latter still going strong) emerged to help define mainstream pop. Now, it wasn't unusual to hear a hip-hop verse in a pop or R&B song and the line between "hip hop song with R&B" and "R&B song with hip hop" became indelibly blurred.
In 1991, journalist Barry Michael Cooper—credited with coining the term New Jack Swing in a 1988 Village Voice profile of Teddy Riley—co-wrote urban crime film New Jack City. The film’s soundtrack, a New Jack Swing compilation featuring tracks by Johnny Gill, Guy, Keith Sweat and Color Me Badd, now feels like the apex and shark-jumping moment of the genre.
By 1993, with the release of Dr. Dre’s The Chronic and Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle on the West Coast and Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) on the East Coast, rap had grown up, discovered Ohio Players and gritty ‘60s soul records, and distanced itself from its R&B brethren.
Digging through tracks of the time, I ended up listening to Color Me Badd’s “I Wanna Sex You Up” all the way through for the first time in more than 20 years. It is impossible to take, “Come inside/Take off your coat/I'll make you feel at home/Now let's pour a glass of wine/'Cause now we're all alone” seriously. And yes, there is something smirk-worthy about the sexual earnestness of many of the genre’s tracks.
But looking back, there is something quaint, yet still irresistible, to the genre’s best songs. Boyz II Men’s “Motownphilly”, TLC’s “What About Your Friends”, En Vogue’s "My Lovin' (You're Never Gonna Get It)" and virtually anything by Bobby Brown or Janet Jackson around that time still crack with a vibrancy and polish even if, in retrospect, they may not have been as “edgy” as we all thought.
In subsequent years, hip hop and R&B would break up and get back together numerous times. But for a brief period when producers first melded the two genres, a revolution had begun.