Why New Jack Swing Has to be Considered Part of the Soundtrack to Our Lives

by Clarence Riley

Somewhere in the intersection of R&B, hip-hop, and post-disco dance music was a formula engineered for success. The music’s uptempo melodies and clanking percussion and synths dominated “urban” radio. One of Dick Clark’s catchphrases is that a good song has a good beat and you could dance to it. Swingbeat, another name for New Jack swing, more than qualified in my youth.

At a time between American Bandstand and TRL, artists like Bobby Brown and Janet Jackson made their own distinct musical identities in the New Jack swing genre. Journalist Barry Michael Cooper coined the name in one of his articles. However, Teddy Riley (no relation) is the maestro of the genre. Riley wanted to branch out of R&B, which at the time meant the bouncy songs of Whitney Houston and the jazzy grooves by Luther Vandross and Anita Baker. In a 2012 interview with The Atlantic, Riley said that “New Jack Swing would’ve been just rap if I didn’t get with Keith Sweat.”

Keith Sweat’s Make It Last Forever, selling over three million copies, was the genesis of New Jack swing. I don’t know if Sweat was ever a mainstay in the America’s Top 40 or whatever, but his distinctive voice was part of my childhood.

Riley described New Jack Swing as “sophifisticated bubblegum R&B.” Its production values may provide sophistication, where synthesizers are becoming less crude and robotic-sounding and performers had to be convincing carrying a tune and moving to the fast rhythm. Some of my favorites in the genre are “Every Little Step” by Bobby Brown, “Miss You Much” by Janet Jackson, and “Teddy’s Jam” by Guy.

On the other hand, New Jack swing’s bubblegum properties meant it wouldn’t reach the heartfelt heights of the best Motown or Stax. No one thinks that Don’t Be Cruel, Rhythm Nation 1814, or Guy’s self-titled album are very deep.

I realize that many songs were goofy, high-energy love songs and the genre itself was, as artist Seth Price points out, commercialized to oblivion. But, to paraphrase a certain President, I must act on what I know. What I know is that New Jack swing lasted long enough to leave a legacy. In the early 90s, it seemed to stick around a little longer outside America. New Jack swing certainly influenced:

Sega Genesis-era Sonic the Hedgehog, especially the theme to the Spring Yard Zone, seemingly inspired by “Every Little Step:”

Remember Wrestlemania: The Album? It’s a New Jack swing album at heart produced by Simon Cowell. As he retreats back to the UK, I’ll mention his name once more since Wrestlemania was successful in making the British charts.

Even K-pop boy band BTOB impressed Riley with their retro single, “WOW”

Football fans knew Monday Night Football was about to start when they heard this Edd Kalehoff ditty before the “Heavy Action” and Hank Williams, Jr. intros:

While New Jack swing didn’t become the music of the 1990s, I still have fondness of it. It seems like a farewell to fun music when edgier hip-hop and R&B took over. For some of us growing up in the late 80s and early 90s, New Jack swing made just enough of an impression to be part of the soundtrack to our lives.

Clarence Riley is a pop culture enthusiast who runs a humble site called Red-Headed Mule where he writes topics including nostalgia. While he thanks musicians like Bell Biv Devoe, Paula Abdul, and Heavy D, he also dares you to name his favorite EDM track.

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