Special Interview With Teddy Riley, Legendary R&B/Pop Writer/Producer And New Inductee Into The Songwriters Hall Of Fame

Teddy Riley
Teddy Riley

With a career now spanning 35 years, Teddy Riley has been one of the most successful, influential songwriters & producers in R&B and pop music. He has co-written & produced classic hit songs for Michael Jackson, Bobby Brown, Keith Sweat and other artists. In addition, he has been the creative leader of two platinum R&B groups: Guy and Blackstreet. Also, Riley has won three Grammy Awards.

For Riley’s outstanding achievements as a songwriter, he is being inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Riley will be honored at a special event on June 15 in New York City. He will join an esteemed group of other songwriters who are being inducted: Sade, Gloria Estefan, Jeff Lynne (of ELO), Glen Ballard, Snoop Dogg and Liz Rose.

Notably, Riley is known for being the creator of the new jack swing sound, which dominated pop and R&B radio in the late ‘80s and in the ‘90s. Among the most celebrated teddy riley songs are those that exemplify this exciting, propulsive combination of R&B and hip-hop, emphasizing powerful beats and arrangements. This style & sound inspired the hit 1991 movie & soundtrack, New Jack City.

Here’s an excerpt of our interview with Teddy Riley, who tells how he co-wrote & produced Bobby’s Brown’s hit, “My Prerogative,” with Aaron Hall and Brown.

Riley, who grew up in Harlem in New York City, co-wrote and produced such major hits as “My Prerogative” for Bobby Brown and “I Want Her” for Keith Sweat. These songs were so popular that they propelled both artists to stardom. Impressively, Riley co-wrote most of the songs on Sweat’s triple platinum debut album, Make It Last Forever.

Perhaps Riley’s best known project as a writer/producer is his work with Michael Jackson. He co-wrote & produced seven of the 14 songs on Jackson’s Dangerous album, which has sold a massive 32 million copies worldwide. Riley co-wrote the hits “Remember the Time,” “In The Closet,” “Jam” and the title track, “Dangerous.”

In addition, Riley created many hits with his groups, Guy and Blackstreet. Guy had multiple R&B hits (including “Groove Me,” “I Like,” “Let’s Chill” and “Teddy’s Jam”) and two of their albums went platinum: Guy (in 1988) and The Future (1990). Following the breakup of Guy, Riley formed Blackstreet, and the group had the #1 pop hit “No Diggity” (feat. Dr. Dre & Queen Pen) and the hits “Before I Let You Go” and “Don’t Leave Me.”

Here’s the video of Bobby Brown’s hit, “My Prerogative,”
which was co-written by Teddy Riley.

Besides his songwriting credits, Riley has had other hits as a hip-hop producer. He had hits with Heavy D & the Boyz, Doug E. Fresh, Kool Moe Dee, Big Daddy Kane and Wrecks-n-Effect.

More recently, Riley has collaborated with top Korean and Japanese pop artists, and he’s worked with Boyz II Men. And this year, he reunited with Guy for a major concert tour.

Teddy Riley Interview
We are pleased to do this new Q&A interview with Teddy Riley. He tells how he got started as a songwriter & producer, and how he collaborated with Michael Jackson, Bobby Brown and Keith Sweat.

DK: Congratulations on being inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. How does it feel to receive this honor for your songwriting?

Teddy Riley: I’m very grateful. I feel honored to be surrounded by like-minded people, and to know that I made it to this point. I’m excited to see the room of great writers (at the Hall of Fame event) and you know, give them their flowers.

DK: I read that you grew up in Harlem in New York City. How did you get started with music, and then writing songs and producing?

Riley: I started at a very young age. I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I knew I was doing something because the sound was coming forth and it was making sense. So getting into music at an early age set me up to be who I am today. I didn’t have music lessons; I was focusing and continuously striving and taking a shot at it.

DK: By the time you were 10, were you already playing piano and other instruments?

Riley: My mom had me on piano in church when I was 9, so I figured that’s what I need to focus on and get better. And by 14, I was trying to join bands and get with people and network. I joined a band and we bought some things together, and I had an oldtime friend, Timmy Gatling, who was one of the original members of Guy. Timmy had his brothers who were twins, and another friend named Clurel (Henderson), and we put together this group called Kids At Work.

Here’s the video of Michael Jackson’s hit “Remember the Time,”
which was co-written by Teddy Riley.

DK: Did you form Kids At Work several years before you formed Guy?

Riley: Yes, several years (laughs). We were kids, and we were peers and competitors with New Edition, although they were already huge. So I said…I don’t know if I’ll be able to top that with this outfit. But when I put Guy together, that’s when everybody started waking up.

DK: What was your first big break in the music business?

Riley: My first big break as a songwriter/producer was with Keith Sweat, with “I Want Her” and “Make It Last Forever.” From there, everything took off because at the time, people didn’t know that I worked on Doug E. Fresh’s (hip-hop hit) “The Show.” So truthfully speaking, I was more of a rap producer than a R&B producer until Keith came my way. He said, “Man, take those church chords, ‘cause I know you play in the church and you’ve played with a Top 40 band. Take those chords and let’s form something.” And the first track I made was “I Want Her.”

DK: “I Want Her” was your first big hit as a songwriter. How did you connect with Keith Sweat and write that song?

Riley: Keith Sweat and I were peers; it was about 1983. He used to be in a band called Jamilah, and I was in a band called Total Climax. We competed against each other in the Big Apple Contest and my band beat Keith’s band. Then Keith remembered that my band beat them, and that I was the keyboard player. And when he was starting his album, he was asking people, “Who should I work with?” And they were like, “Man, you know that little kid from the projects that used to be in that band gigging around New York City?” And he said, “Yeah yeah.’ Then he inquired about where I lived and everything. And next thing you know, he pulled up to my projects. We were shooting dice and gambling, so he got in the game and took all the money. Then I said, “Hold up wait a minute, you can’t leave” (laughs). “You can’t come to our projects and take our money. You’ve gotta give us a chance to get that money back.” He said “Okay.” And I said, “Let me go inside [to get some money]” because I had just gotten my publishing deal with Zomba Music, with (music exec) Clive Calder, who’s my good friend.

Here’s the video of Michael Jackson’s hit, “In the Closet,” which
was co-written by Teddy Riley.

So I went in the house and got $500 and came back out. $500 was a lot of money then. And Keith was like, “Alright Shorty. I don’t want to gamble with you. I just need your ear for a minute.” So he pulls me in and says, “Man. I’m working on an album and I need some music. I wanted to know if you’ll join me.” I said, “Yeah of course. But I don’t wanna do no R&B.” (laughs). He’s like, “Well, this is R&B. (laughs). Man, all you’ve gotta do is put some of those church chords and some of the beats you’re doing with the rappers, and put it together and let me hear it. You know, I can write to that.” And I was like, “Okay.” I went in and the first track that I made was “I Want Her.” Then it started going on from there, and I came up with “Make It Last Forever.” Then we went on to finish the whole album. I was happy being in the right place at the right time.

DK: You are known for creating the new jack swing sound, and your music and beats were so popular that other songwriters & producers started playing your style. How did you come up with that special sound?

Here’s another excerpt of our interview with Teddy Riley, who tells how he co-wrote & produced Keith Sweat’s hit, “I Want Her.”

Riley: Well I had the sound—I just didn’t know what to call it. And thanks to my friend (screenwriter) Barry Michael Cooper; he was the guy who gave me the name. He was writing the movie New Jack City, and he was my media coach. He gave me the name new jack swing and I ran with it. I was practicing doing interviews and he kept asking me, “What are you going to call this music?” I said, “I don’t know.’ He said, “I’m going to give you a name and I want you to run with it. Call it new jack swing, because you do those swing beats, and you’re a New Jack. So take it and run.” And that’s how we got the sound of new jack swing. And everybody started doing the sound.

Here’s the audio of Keith Sweat’s hit “I Want Her,” which
was co-written by Teddy Riley.

DK: Around 1988, you worked with Bobby Brown and had the big hit, “My Prerogative.” Can you tell the story behind writing “My Prerogative” and cutting it with Bobby?

Riley: Well I don’t take the full credit for that. I have to give credit to my big brother Aaron Hall (lead singer of Guy), who wrote most of the lyrics for that song. I came up with the music and the hooks. And when Bobby came in on it, he wrote a few words that contributed to it so that it becomes his. Bobby [came to work with me] in the projects, because I was doing it in my projects on the first floor. When he came to my door, we welcomed him in, and then me, him and Aaron were goin’ at it. I had the beat all ready. When he heard what we had, he was like, “Oh my God, what’s that shit?” He was goin’ crazy. Then he was like, “I got somethin’. Check this out.” And he came up with the opening line, “They say I’m crazy, but I really don’t care,” and that was it. Then Aaron took it on.

DK: Two years later (1991), you worked with Michael Jackson on his Dangerous album and you had three big hits: “Remember The Time,” “In The Closet” and “Jam.” What was it like writing these songs with Michael and working with him?

Riley: It was like being in college. You’ve gotta come up with the best for him because he settles for nothing less than great. So when I introduced my demos to him, he liked the first four records and he fell in love with the beat for “Remember the Time.” At some point, he stopped the music and pulled me in the back and said he’d never heard a song with chords like that before. He was like, ‘Man, this song is going to be amazing. Let’s finish it.” And for me, it just gave me a whole new happy (laughs).

For “In the Closet,” Michael said, “”What I wanna do is work on a track. Come up with something and let’s see what we can do.” And that track turned out to be “In The Closet,” because that was the only track that I didn’t have a demo for. Then Michael said, “”What do you think about something like this?” He started beatboxing (he sings the rhythm). And I’m playing this bass line and he says, “That’s good, that’s good!” Then he says, “What it I do something like this?” (Michael sings a hook). Then I wrote a hook to go with it. Then Michael starts singing another part. And all that came out of the room with no drum machine, just Michael beatboxing and me on the upright piano. But we made the sound out of it and we recorded it. Then I took all of that and created the track.

Here’s the video of Guy’s hit, “Groove Me,” which was
co-written by Teddy Riley.

DK: During this period when you were working with Bobby Brown, Michael Jackson and other artists, you also had your own band, Guy. So what was it like being the writer/producer for Guy and playing shows with them, while also working with other artists?

Riley: Well, that’s why I quit Guy. When I started working with Michael, I quit the group. The reason why I quit the group was because we had a situation with New Edition, and it turned out sour. We were supposed to be on tour and something crazy happened. My best friend got shot, and I quit and said, “Man, if the music business is gonna be like this, I do not want to be a part of it. I’d rather just [be in the studio] and be a scientist and produce.” And that’s what I did. I went to work for Michael for a year-and-a-half.

DK: After you worked with Michael Jackson, you formed the group, Blackstreet. How did you decide to form Blackstreet?

Riley: Well, I thought about getting back with Guy, but I decided to create this group Blackstreet, and move forward and make it more successful. And I actually did. I got us a Grammy, a Soul Train Award, the MoJo Award and MTV Award. So I made some big moves with Blackstreet.

DK: With Blackstreet, you had a number one hit, “No Diggity.” How did this song come together?

Riley: I wrote “No Diggity” with Will Stewart. [At first] the band didn’t believe in the song. That’s the reason why I’m singing the first verse. It was like, “Let’s stick him in the front; if it fails, he’s in the front.” And I had to convince (label exec) Jimmy Iovine to make it the first single. I said, “Let some of your guys hear it and then come back to me.” Jimmy called me up and said, “Dr. Dre heard the song and he loves it. He asked if he could be in the video.” And I said, “No, he can’t be in the video unless he gives me 16 bars” (and raps on it). So I got that 16 bars in less than 24 hours. He sent it back to me, and so Dr. Dre was on the record. And then Queen Pen got on that record.

DK: On your more recent projects, I noticed that you’ve worked with some Korean artists like Jay Park and Girls Generation, and with Boyz II Men. Can you talk about your recent projects?

Here’s the video of Blackstreet’s hit, “No Diggity,” which
was co-written by Teddy Riley/

Riley: Oh man, I just posted Part 4 of songs that I’ve produced and it had those artists: Jay Park, Hero, and the people from K-pop and J-pop. Working with those guys was incredible because of the translations, and all that stuff got me prepared and ready for them. Later on, I did K-pop with Girls Generation and Shinee. For me, these are more accomplishments that I’m truly proud of.

DK: This year, you reunited with Guy for a concert tour. Can you talk about that tour?

Riley: Yeah, we just finished a 30-city tour with Guy, and we’re looking to do another big tour. It was great, because it’s like we’re brand new again to a lot of people (laughs). They were amazed at seeing us and how we looked today. We’re all healthy. So I think I would do Guy again.

DK: Thank you Teddy for doing this interview. Is there anything that we haven’t talked about yet, that you’d like to mention for this article?

Riley: Yes. I want to thank Clive Calder (founder of Zomba Music Group and Jive Records) for believing in me as a writer. I want to thank him because I feel like I wouldn’t be here today and I wouldn’t be talking to you, if he didn’t give me my shot. My shot came when I happened to be in London working on Kool Moe Dee for his How Ya Like Me Now album. And if I didn’t have that opportunity, and if Clive didn’t watch me make a beat right in front of him, I probably wouldn’t be with Zomba, which gave me my first publishing deal. Then I got to write with Billy Ocean, who was signed to Zomba. So I want to give you a great picture of the best publishing company that I’ve ever been with, which was Zomba.

Dale Kawashima is the Head of SongwriterUniverse and a music journalist. He’s also a music publishing exec who has represented the song catalogs of Michael Jackson, Prince, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Motown Records.
Dale Kawashima