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The Old New Jack Swing

Do you remember that blip on the music radar called New Jack Swing? Our Andy Allison does and he's here to refresh your memory on the music sensation that once swept the nation.

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by Andy Allison, for outsideleft.com
originally published: December, 2005
New Edition was there at the beginning, and all its members went on to help define the sound.

There are lots of things missing from today's contemporary pop music scene, elements like variety and soul.  Another thing:  New Jack Swing!


Is anyone but me reminiscing about New Jack Swing lately?  Goddamn, I fucking love that stuff!  For those who don't know the ledge, NJS was a mutant strain of rhythm & blues music in the late 1980s/early 1990s.  Big, mechanical beats, lots of synthesizers, touches of hip-hop and plenty of rap cameos, man, that's the essence of NJS right there.  It was music full of flash and style, Fly Girl attitude, cold-rockin' parties and Gumby haircuts.  From personal experience, I can tell you that no music back then could make a dorky white kid feel cooler.  Word!


Let's dissect a classic New Jack Swing track to see if we can figure out why it's such a bangin' genre.  New Edition was there at the beginning, and all its members went on to help define the sound (Bobby Brown, Bell Biv Devoe, Ralph Tresvant, etc.).  Johnny Gill was the gruff, masculine voice of New Edition, and his breakthrough eponymous solo album is such a crazy motherfucker!  "Rub You the Right Way" was its first single, and holy fuck, that song swings something fierce.  But you really need to hear the remix, which is even more incredible.


I first heard Johnny perform "Rub You the Right Way" on The Arsenio Hall Show and was fucking blown away.  So I ran right out and bought the cassingle (another term for a "cassette single," ha ha), heard the remix and had the blown bits of my head blown into even smaller pieces.  "Jesus fucking Christ!" I thought to myself.  "My skull's shards cannot be decimated further!"  Where the excellent original version already had the trademark NJS boom-boom-WHAP sounds and the kicking keyboards in place, the remix amped up the joint with tambourine, a bouncier bass line, more obvious synth stabs and a rap verse by nascent hip-hop legend CL Smooth.  Oh my god, dig that throbbing aural masterpiece and hold your fool horses, people, that remix is so fucking slammin'!  Seriously, I can listen to that song for an hour straight, and have done so more than once.


Famed producer Teddy Riley was the undisputed king of the New Jack world.  Motherfucker was the brains behind Guy, Wreckx-n-Effect and Blackstreet, and created the sonic template by which all future NJS songs were judged.  Johnny Kemp's "Just Got Paid"?  That's Teddy on the vibe, yo, get with the program!  Hi-Five, SWV (Sisters With Voices), Keith Sweat, you name it, kid, they all bear the Teddy Riley stamp of timeless dopeness.


NJS was very much a visual medium, too.  Bell Biv Devoe had the silly haircuts, super-baggy leather 8-ball jackets and laughable choreography to make the whole package charmingly irresistible.  You remember their monster hit "Poison," right?  Go back and listen to it again.  That drumbeat is a fucking powerhouse, cat, it'll have you throwing down some goofball Soul Train moves in no time.  (Stay away from the Cabbage Patch, though.that dance is, and always has been, severely busted.)


Eventually, the previously dynamic NJS became a musical commodity like any other, and artists like Michael Jackson turned to the genre when they needed a career boost.  Michael's stuff from that period still knocks, as "She Drives Me Wild" and "Remember the Time" can attest, but the golden age of this particular R&B offshoot was coming to an end.  Pretty soon Teddy Riley was getting tapped for Queen Latifah's fourth-single b-side remixes, gosh, how fucking sad is that!


Still, New Jack Swing is a durable music and still holds its own more than a decade on.  Go rent Kid 'N Play's House Party II sometime and prepare to be flabbergasted.  Think you can't rock a polka dot jumpsuit and a high-top fade yourself?  Oh boy, are you in for a treat!
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