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Teddy Riley Talks New Edition, K-Pop and What He Learned From Michael Jackson [INTERVIEW]

Teddy Riley
Ethan Miller, Getty Images

There are few people who can claim to have birthed a genre. Teddy Riley, the man behind New Jack Swing, is one of them. The 49-year-old music producer is behind some of the biggest hits from the late ’80s and ’90s including Keith Sweat‘s “I Want Her,” Johnny Kemp‘s “Just Got Paid,” Bobby Brown‘s ‘My Perogative” and Doug E. Fresh and the Get Fresh Crew’s “The Show.” Not to mention, he also co-produced Michael Jackson‘s “Jam,” “Remember the Time” and “In The Closet.” As a member of Guy and Blackstreet, Riley was also able to show off his singing talents in songs like “Don’t Leave Me,” “No Diggity, “I Like,” and “Take Me There” with Mýa and Mase.

With over 30 years in the game, Riley is a legend in the music industry. But he’s not at all finished with contributing to the culture. In the last few years, Riley has taken his talents overseas to South Korea to help create new hits for some of the biggest K-pop acts including Girls Generation, EXO, Jay Park, SHINee, RaNia and f(x).

The Boombox talked to Teddy Riley about the The New Edition Story, the public’s rediscovered love for the genre he created and why he made the move towards the K-pop industry. Get into it below.

The Boombox: How do you feel about the new resurgence of the interest in New Jack Swing with Bruno’s 24K Magic and The New Edition Story?

Teddy Riley: Well I feel great about it. It’s keeping the music alive and keeping the genre alive.

It’s the genre you pretty much created. It must be nice to see it coming back.

Yes, indeed.

You’ve started working with more K-pop artists as well. What made you decide to do that?

Yes. I decided to do that when I was introduced to K-pop back in 2008, 2007. I happened to go to Korea just to check out the scenes and I did a press conference and people really enjoyed it and it just kind of gave me a presence out there to where I said I want to go out and make some music. And I did it.

And I saw you’ve been developing music camps over there too. Have you been helping artists over there, how’s that relationship been?

Oh yeah, I’ve been working with a lot of artists over there. Girls Generation, EXO and f(x) and whole bunch of groups, artists that are over there and you know that are really famous and we got a bunch of great records and number ones together. It’s really a great, great time for me because you know, once upon a time, record business over here…the recession. And I just said, you know what? I need to learn how to move my cheese.

Move your cheese?

It’s a book called Who Moved My Cheese? and I read my book and it just kind of showed me how to take a life of a mouse and how when they set, when they’re living and they created their home in someone’s home, they’re creating their own home and then that home gets torn down or if the actual owner finds a mouse hole and they get rid of it, they have to move. So, they move and they move with their cheese. And that’s how I kind of apply that to life. You have to learn how to switch and roll with the punches. And that’s what I did with my career, I took it elsewhere and it was accepted and appreciated and recognized and I stayed over there for a minute. I actually lived for two years in Korea.

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What was one of the biggest surprises you had going there for the first time and learning about the music industry over there?

The culture over there is certainly a culture that wanted to follow our culture. They wanted the American culture so they hired American producers and choreographers and writers and creators, inventors to come over and bring our culture and that’s basically what it’s about. They didn’t have no shame in their game. “We want the American culture.” That’s where their swag, their type of swagging they got it from the American culture.

There’s a Black Korean R&B group, Coco Avenue. And as you know, there’s also a black singer in RaNia. Are you expecting more black people to get into K Pop?

I think it’s a cool idea but I am hoping to see something like that where it can open the market up to the American culture and having black Asians over there that’s doing the music and people recognizing it. But if it’s an American group, I don’t know. I don’t know what it could be. I just don’t see it based on what I’ve been educated to over there. They have music and they live it. The only thing that inspires them is American culture and our style but their music is their music and it’s really territorial. It’s like the K-pop fans are straight K-pop fans. They don’t know English and the only English that they know is the English hooks that are sung on a K-pop song. They repeat that. Some know what it means, some don’t and that’s why when we do their music, they always say “make it sound like this” or “make it sound like ‘No Diggity’,” or “make it sound like an American song.” When they give us leads — leads mean they give us songs that they want us to kind of follow, they’re called leads. When they give us our leads they’re most likely asking us to follow R&B music or hip-hop music, or specific pop songs.

Are they usually from any specific era?

It doesn’t matter, it’s different eras. Now they’re on funk, EDM, pop music…

It’s often said that K-pop draws inspiration from ’90s black culture. Do you see any similarities or do you feel that there’s a connection there?

Of course I do. The reason why is because they’re bringing mostly our producers and people from America, they’re bringing us over to Korea to do music.

I feel like over the years hip-hop and R&B have kind of melded together…

That’s what New Jack Swing is about. New Jack Swing is hip-hop and R&B mixed together and a lot of artists are still doing New Jack Swing today. It’s the technology of music which is kind of meshing and merging styles and merging singing and rapping together and that’s a form of New Jack Swing.

Do you think traditional R&B is losing out in the long run because of that?

It isn’t. People don’t understand that they’re still doing it. They’re still touching on traditional R&B. A lot of their ideas is coming from traditional R&B. So no matter how you put it you cannot take away what you’re doing. You can’t take that away from the traditional R&B makers, including myself. When I started doing music, I was inspired by traditional R&B.

Who were some of your inspirations at the time and new artists now?

It goes from Roger Troutman, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, all of the Jacksons’ music, Rod Stewart, Phil Collins, Liberace, Kid Creole and the Zanabana Band and Casablanca, Stacks, Motown sound and then gospel. Mighty Clouds For Joy and the Winans and James Cleveland and John P Keys. These are the guys that inspired me to make all of this music that everyone is still enjoying and loving.

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You mentioned Michael Jackson… in a Billboard interview, you said that when you were around him it felt like going to college because you were learning so much. What was the most important lesson you learned from Michael Jackson?

Well the most important thing that I have learned is how to write to piano more-or-less than a drum machine and synthesizers and all of that stuff. So the traditional way of writing is you get to a piano or you get a band in the room and you just come up with ideas and you tell the guitar player or the bass player to play this, let’s go this way or the singer will sing a few lines and the guitar player or the keyboard player would come up with something that will accompany the lines and the idea and that’s the traditional way of writing. Most times, people, have it already done and they start writing to it. That’s not traditional, it’s not organic. It’s still writing but it’s not as organic as how the traditional folks did it back in the day with just a piano or just writing it to frets and I’ve seen and I’ve witnessed all of that. I’ve witnessed having a session with forty to sixty to a hundred piece orchestra.

I’ve been there when they did “Heal The World,” and they had the whole full orchestra and when I saw that I said man, “I want that too Michael. Which song can we do that for?” And we wound up doing that for the song that we did called “Someone Put Your Hand Out.” And it was just amazing having the composer, Jeremy Lubbock, just write the string parts and the whole orchestra parts for that song. We also did it again on the Invincible album, song “Don’t Let Go Of My Hands” and there’s another one, “Don’t Walk Away.” These songs, you know, that’s college, working with an orchestra. You can’t get no better, you can’t get more organic than that.

There’s been a lot of biopics lately like you have The New Edition Story, Straight Outta Compton and then All Eyez On Me coming out later this year. What do you think about the biopics coming out? Who do you think should get the next one?

I love it because you’re getting true history. You’re getting history that you cannot buy. You can’t buy that story. You cannot create that story. That story is true, the story is real and that’s what you’re getting with these biopics of our greatest people. From the Frank Sinatra’s, Sammy Davis Junior, Philip Wilson, Bob Hope. I hope to see one about Luther Vandross and I can’t wait to see the one about Prince, if it ever happens because people need to know. I mean you’ve seen Purple Rain and it kind of talks about his life and his story about him and his parents and his family but about Prince himself and how eclectic and methodic, historic he was and how great he was. And where that greatness comes from.

Are you looking forward to All Eyez On Me or any other biopics that are coming up?

I’m definitely looking forward to All Eyez On Me and I’m looking forward to just stories about all of our artists out here. I’m looking forward to my story. The people actually share my story and witnessing first-hand about how the New Jack Swing in my life came about. This little kid from the projects. All I had was a buck and a dream and that buck and a dream turned into a lot. It turned into success, it turned into history. When you’ve done that the only person in your life is God who can say a job well done and that’s who I confide in when it comes to how did I do. And everyone else they recognize and they compliment and I’m so grateful for that but everything comes from God and the inspiration that it was instilled in me from be in that place was like Harlem World, real Harlem.

Who would you want to play you in a biopic?

I don’t know, I really don’t. I just hope that whoever casts the right person to do it and to really play the part.

What did you think of The New Edition Story?

I loved The New Edition Story. It’s not the whole story but it’s pieces. I heard that they had a long enough life to turn into a series. I’m hoping that happens and they can continue the saga of their history.

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I heard that you have a book that you’re working on, I wanted to know if there’s any progress on the book, when can we expect it? Is it still called Remember The Time?

Yes it is, and the book is a little different I’m just running it. For most retailers when they order their books they order it six months ahead and the moment that you sign your deal and you turn in your book you count five to six months after that and that’s when you can have a release. So that’s what we’re going through right now. To getting it out, if we could have a Christmas release or a first quarter release.

You’ve worked with a lot of artists but who is one artist that you haven’t worked with yet that you would love to work with?

I like Bruno Mars. Trey Songz, Chris Brown, Adele, Jessie J…I like to work with musical artistry. It doesn’t matter.

What ideas do you have for them, or do you have any ideas for them?

I don’t, I wouldn’t, it comes from the top of my head. You know I will come up with something you know very unique and innovative and we would have a lot of fun with it.

You’ve been in the business for awhile too. Do you have any advice for other up and comers in the music industry?

Be unique, stand tall for what you believe in. Your creativity is your creativity, not anyone elses. Your creativity can stand out more. Most people don’t stand behind it, they change their minds. Our attention span is very short as creators so if we don’t get that sound in one minute, it’s tossed out the door. And the same as far as getting a sound, it’s very short. So I say to all, everyone when you’re creating go off of your, unless you have someone around you that’s greater go off of your ideas. Nine times out of ten it’s going to work because it worked for me. I didn’t have anybody around to help me put together the toilet tissue with the microphone in the hole just to make a drum sound and get a rhythm going because I couldn’t afford a drum machine. And that’s what I had to do and that’s why and that’s how [the] human beatbox came out because we didn’t have a drum machine. So we would be in our homes and all we needed was a microphone. Before drum machines, we had a microphone.

So I’m so grateful for everyone, including yourself, who still recognizes real music. Not just mine but all of the greats that I mentioned. We’re grateful.

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