Emily Nokes

Let's begin with the big picture. In the 1980s, two big movements defined black pop—one was black elegance, the other was modern hiphop. Black elegance was introduced by Chic (an R&B group inspired by the album covers of Roxy Music) and elaborated on by the production duo Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis (the SOS Band, Cherrelle, Alexander O'Neal, the Human League). Modern hiphop was introduced by Rakim ("First to ever let a rhyme flow down the Nile") and accelerated by Public Enemy and N.W.A. Both black elegance and modern hiphop offered a response to Reaganomics: the former by way of escapism, the latter by way of street realism. The former's defining image was the flying blimp on the cover of the SOS Band single "Just Be Good to Me," the latter's defining image was the black men behind bars on the cover of Public Enemy's It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back.

Eventually, there was a struggle for souls between the two modes. Hiphop, which was still young and still trying to break into the mainstream, began attacking the more established black elegance—its line of attack was the perceived effeminacy of escapism. Black men were seen as doing nothing but wearing nice clothes and looking in mirrors (watch a Morris Day video). Real men, according to hiphop, did not wear nice clothes (that was for women and gay men)—instead, they wore military uniforms, tracksuits, and sneakers.

As hiphop's audience grew, an alarmed R&B began looking for a way out of the fancy black-elegance blimp. There were two parachutes for R&B's "down to earth" moment in the late 1980s/early 1990s. One was made by Mary J. Blige, whose sound and clothing were made of rougher material—more street, more urban, more real. She was not looking for a man with "finance," but a strong black man—a tough thug with a big heart for his shorty—a rapper who was all about her and "reality." (Blige's collaboration with Method Man on "I'll Be There for You/You're All I Need to Get By" cemented this connection.) The other parachute was made by Teddy Riley, whose mid-'80s production smuggled street goods into the tunes he recorded for artists like Keith Sweat, Johnny Kemp, and Guy. This new approach, blending the sound of hiphop realism with R&B vocals and themes, would eventually be called New Jack Swing.

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After Mary J. Blige, women R&B singers made it a must that a rapper make a guest appearance on a tune and bless it with what they had a monopoly on—street cred. Teddy Riley simply tried to blur the borders between the two: It's street (check out the big popping beat—nothing like that clean Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis shit), but yet it's not (check out the opening line of Johnny Kemp's "Just Got Paid": Check the mirror/I'm looking fly... that's pure Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis shit). But the trick worked, and it made Riley a fortune. Indeed, Riley became for the early '90s what Nile Rodgers, the cofounder of Chic and the black elegance mode, was for the '80s.

Teddy Riley's influence on pop music is gigantic. Without him, there would be no Neptunes (who entered the world of production by way of his Virginia Beach studio), and without the Neptunes, there would be no Justin Timberlake as we know him today. No Riley would also have meant no good record from the King of Pop (the late MJ) in the '90s ("Remember the Time" is no "Billie Jean," but it is undoubtedly the last good tune of MJ's dazzling career), and no Wreckx-N-Effect's "Rump Shaker"—a tune that appropriated Public Enemy's Islamic-sounding call-to-war, call-to-the-streets, call-to-the-gods horn for the purpose of rapping about the pleasures of anal penetration. Riley has even dabbled in K-pop with a computer program called Rania (the group has no less than seven sexy singers). But of all the songs that have been associated with this great producer, none is closer to my heart than Guy's "My Fantasy." That is the moment when Riley is very close to the immaculate escapism of black elegance: "It's just a fantasy/Image in a magazine/I've seen her face before/Her body walks out of my door." I'm a purist. I like my hiphop to be hiphop and my R&B to be R&B. recommended