Keith Sweat: Lil Wayne Is ‘Ridiculous,’ Album Is ‘Younger’
“You know who I respect work ethic-wise?” queries Keith Sweat. The veteran R&B singer is attempting to explain just why a multi-platinum artist with 25 years in the rearview is promoting his latest album, ‘Til the Morning,’ out now, with the hunger of a newly signed act. Sweat’s marathon rollout includes an overseas tour, a music special on the Centric cable channel, promotion on his highly rated syndicated radio show, The Sweat Hotel and a relationship advice book collaboration with erotic fiction author Zane, due May 2012. “I look at what Lil Wayne does,” Sweat says of his unlikely inspiration. “His work ethic is ridiculous… He never stops. I try to always stay busy.”
Yet Sweat could be forgiven if he wanted to shut it all down. The 50-year-old Harlem native would prove to be the perfect muse for Teddy Riley’s revolutionary R&B sound dubbed new jack swing. The singer’s landmark 1987 debut, ‘Make It Last Forever,’ ushered in the ghetto fabulous, genre-shifting era, which was hip-hop mixed with soul music set to an infectious, swinging groove. It was brilliant and highly lucrative — with close to 4 million copies sold. Yet the romantic crooner would go on to extend his productive career with a string of gold and platinum albums from 1990’s ‘I’ll Give All My Love to You’ to 2010’s well-received set ‘Ridin’ Solo.’ And Sweat is still at it.
The BoomBox spoke to the seemingly unstoppable singer to discuss his influential career and beyond. Read on as the Harlem, N.Y. native explains his choice to collaborate with an unlikely southern rap star, the inspiration behind penning a new book and why he can’t get away from Facebook and Twitter.
Watch Keith Sweat’s ‘Make You Sweat’
You’ve been in the music business for over 25 years. Why did you decide to sign with E1 Music — was there a particular vision they had that made you say, “This is the best place to be”?
They’ve done a good job with talent. I just felt like nowadays labels don’t put in time to promoting records, especially for a veteran R&B artist like myself. They seem to do a good job when working an album. I really needed that at this moment of my career.
Your current single, ‘Make You Say Ohh,’ has such an old-school feel about it. Were you going for a throwback soul sound?
That’s just one song out of 12 songs. I try to do different things. The album has a younger feel. I’m working with a lot of younger producers and writers. But really, the songs have that young feel, but it’s still Keith Sweat. I think people tend to put that old school tag on me because it’s me [laughs]. It’s Keith Sweat.
Who were some of the producers you worked with on ‘Til the Morning’?
Me and this guy named Angelo Ramone produced the first single. When I was looking for younger talent to work with, I wanted people that liked R&B the same way I like R&B. If they know about the O’Jays then I know they got that R&B in them. I know I can work with them. They can offer me the things musically that I can utilize. There weren’t any well-known producers I went out to get. I grabbed people that were passionate about the music.
Wow. That’s a lot to live up to.
But that’s how it’s always been. It’s just like when me and Teddy came out. Nobody knew who Teddy Riley was. Nobody knew who I was. We weren’t Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis or L.A. and Babyface. We were not there yet. There are a lot of people out there who have great music and are very talented that the public don’t know about. You didn’t have ‘American Idol’ or the websites when me and Teddy came out. You didn’t have Facebook. If we had all that stuff we probably would have sold 15 million albums instead of just 4 million [laughs].
Watch Keith Sweat Perform ‘Make It Last Forever’
My eyebrows were raised when I saw T-Pain’s name on the album. That’s a curve pitch, huh?
I’m just a fan of music. I have a song with Johnny Gill on the album. I have a song with T-Pain, which I think will surprise some people. I have a song with Coco from SWV on the album. But it’s still a Keith Sweat album.
Take us back to your 1987 debut album, ‘Make It Last Forever.’ Did you realize that you and groundbreaking new jack swing producer Teddy Riley were kicking off the next great era of R&B?
I had no idea what Teddy and I were about to get into. But once we came out the studio after the ‘Make It Last Forever’ sessions, we knew it was something special. We just didn’t know how special it was. It just felt good compared to everything we were listening to on the radio at the time. We would drive down 145th St. and 8th Ave. in New York listening to the songs in Teddy’s car. We would just look at each other and say, “Yo, these joints are hot!” However, we weren’t the consumer. We had no idea how the music public would react because it was such a new sound. But when the album finally dropped the reaction was like crazy, ridiculous.
You and Teddy are called the Godfathers of New Jack Swing. How does that make you feel when you hear such soaring accolades?
I’m still not used to it. Akon calls me the godfather. They all call me godfather and uncle — all of that. But to me, James Brown was the godfather [laughs]. It just feels good. It shows that they respect my legacy. They respect what I have done in this R&B game and music as a whole.
You were able to go double and triple platinum in the ’80s and for much of the ’90s on your own terms. You never had to take that obvious pop turn that a lot of your peers took with their music. What pushed you to stay with your R&B base?
Well, I felt like I wanted to stay true to the music. What allowed me to crossover was the realness about the music. It crossed over by itself. When I first came out I was telling people, “I’m not a pop act,” even though people were trying to get me to record pop records. It was funny because the more I stayed on that R&B sound the more pop music fans came to me.
Watch Keith Sweat’s ‘Make You Say Ooh’
That had to be surprising to the label suits, huh?
Yeah, it was. But that comes from some people undervaluing R&B. Think about it — R&B was always going pop going back to Little Richard and the Isley Brothers. Their records were always going pop. You had Jackie Wilson making R&B songs that were considered pop records for their times. I’m just staying true to those roots. People are either going to accept it or not accept it. Fortunately the fans have accepted it.
‘Til the Morning’ stands as your 11th album while many of your new jack swing peers are no longer recording music. What do you attribute to that?
The reason I’m still relevant is everybody still listens to that first Keith Sweat album. I hear people tell me all the time that they still listen to ‘I Want Her’ or ‘Make It Last Forever.’ And that’s a statement that people are making. I tour a whole lot on my musical catalog. I tour so much on those records that it’s ridiculous. The statement people are making to me is do what you do, we will support what you do. When I go into the studio I’m writing and I’m singing what I feel. Anybody that tries to get me to write anything other than what I feel will make me sound watered down.
Can you talk about the promotion of the new album?
The way I promote my music now is through the Internet — Facebook, Twitter and my website. As I said before, these were things I didn’t have early on in my career. You may go to a radio station and the program director may say, “Well, it doesn’t fit our demographic.” There are other ways around that now. Artists today have the Internet and television. And then there’s my syndicated radio show The Sweat Hotel.
Surely it doesn’t hurt that you can play your own songs on-air whenever you want to, right?
[Laughs] For me it’s all good because I’m at 50 markets under Clear Channel. It’s funny. You get the “Am I really talking to Keith Sweat?” when people call into the show. Initially, people were mad at me because I started doing radio. A lot of people didn’t think I would be successful on radio because when I started I was in eight markets. They thought it would be short-lived, but thank God it wasn’t.
The thing is my success is all on me. I have to be willing to do the interviews. I have to conduct myself like I did back in the days when ‘Make It Last Forever’ came out and nobody knew who I was. I have to do a ton of interviews and release a ton of songs. It’s all about how much you want to work.
Watch ‘How to Play Make It Last Forever on the Piano’
Are there any plans for you to do another reality show similar to Centric’s ‘Platinum House’ featuring Dru Hill?
I’ve been thinking about doing another reality show. The Dru Hill ‘Platinum House’ was very successful, but I have to do it on my own terms. To me, I’m not willing to be no fool for nobody. I’m not saying that on all reality shows you have to act like a fool, but some of that is scripted. If I can’t come off in a positive way then it won’t be for me. I’m also working on ‘As Written,’ another show on Centric. I’m talking about certain things that I’ve done in terms of working up towards my new album and my overall history. And I also have a relationship advice book coming out next May called ‘Make It Last Forever: The Do’s and The Don’t’s.’ It’s going to be published by Simon & Schuster, and it’s about what you should do in your relationship to make it last forever.
Wow. That’s the reality of the music business today; you have to always do more.
Right. You have to remember you are never too big.