Does New Jack Swing Really Matter in 2015?


Yes, you’re reading the above title, in a piece from the Village Voice of all places. It’s here where Barry Michael Cooper coined the term New Jack Swing in his 1987 profile of Teddy Riley, the Harlem producer who was the main architect of what was then a fascinating new genre. New Jack Swing brought us “Poison,” “Remember the Time,” and Starter jackets — and it consequently kept Riley fed for years.

Fast-forward 28 years later. New Jack Swing 2015 is on its way to Brooklyn’s Kings Theatre. This is a night on which you’ll get Blackstreet, who are known for “U Blow My Mind” (and “No Diggity,” a non–New Jack Swing number that will probably be performed because everybody loves “No Diggity.” Will rich Dr. Dre stop doing rich Dr. Dre stuff to perform his verse? Probably not). Guy, one of New Jack Swing’s first acts, will headline, too. El DeBarge is also listed as a special guest for some reason. At any rate, there should be a lot Riley, since he’s a core member of both groups.

This reads decently on paper. People generally would rather hear “Poison” over a majority of Blackstreet or Guy’s hits. The latter two still have an affability in their material, however. But imagine the night for a second: You’ll be watching 40-year-olds perform songs that were specifically of an era. For, presumably, hours. That affability gets stretched a little bit.

This isn’t to say New Jack Swing is completely played out — it ain’t disco. The 1989–94 prolificness of New Jack didn’t only rest within the music, it culled together a definitive sense of style and edginess within a decayed New York City. That translated into multiple aspects of media, including film (New Jack City, House Party), television (The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air), and fashion (Michael Jordan’s royalties). In the songs, artists found new possibilities within that blend of soul, hip-hop, and r&b. In other words, part of New Jack’s staying power was in its constant unpredictability. Anything could happen within those programmed drums and the performers’ onstage spontaneity.

That’s something very hard to re-create onstage nearly three decades later, when a promo line like “Enjoy the classic New Jack Swing sound along with contemporary hits!” badly dates you. The main theme of New Jack Swing 2015 will likely be nostalgia. Unfortunately, achieving that aesthetic is very hard to pull off for a genre that had as much verve as New Jack Swing. You can’t re-create that excitement of excess and untapped potential. These thrills are organic; one doesn’t formulate or stage a performance to recapture that sort of lightning in a bottle. Nostalgia doesn’t simply reach back to the moments in the era, but that feeling brought on by those moments. This doesn’t just go for New Jack, but also Nineties hip-hop revisionists who insist on returning the boom-bap and enthusiasts who swear on everything that the Diplomats are bastions of “real New York” rap.

Riley has shown himself to be aware of this when he spoke to the Atlantic about Keith Sweat’s seminal Make It Last Forever. The important quote is how he notes that there was “no formula” in making the album. Yet this was the album that served as a springboard for this subculture and passageway for genre-melding:

“Music is recyclable. People do the same thing and the next thing you know it’s going to change. It just takes someone to change it, and that’s what Keith did with r&b. We gave r&b a new lifeline. New Jack Swing was the first genre to have a singer on a rap track.”

But you likely won’t get that sense of freshness in New Jack Swing 2015. The snag isn’t that it’s Guy and Blackstreet (and El DeBarge?) performing their own songs. It’s their discography and this is America; they’re entitled to do so. But it’s billed as New Jack Swing 2015, a night that essentially is a glance at a subculture from a rearview mirror. It’s retroactive when reinvigoration is at the genre’s core.

New Jack Swing 2015 will descend upon Brooklyn’s Kings Theatre on March 28

See also:
The 60 Best Songs Ever Written About New York City
The Bitter End Pays Tribute to Owner Kenny Gorka’s Legacy