Teddy Riley’s New Jack Swing: Harlem Gangsters Raise a Genius
Rock & Roll Quarterly, Fall, 1988
THIS IS THE story of a new Harlem Renaissance — on floppy disk.
My mother told me, that when I was about eight months old, I climbed on top of this old record player, turned it on somehow, and stood on the turntable, going around and around. She said I was trying to find out where the sound was coming from.
— Teddy Riley
‘Round and ’round I go …
THE BASS kicking from the Kenwood in the golden Acura Legend shook 126th Street like an earthquake traveling on Pirelli tires. The line of special guests, amateur night contestants, and groupies grew longer and longer, stretching like a dancing, human inchworm from the Apollo backstage doors to Eighth Avenue. Every time a Euro/Asian big-money sedan passed the anxious crowd — music sweeping over and beyond darkened power windows — they began to dance, hunching their shoulders and jerking their bodies in short, abbreviated versions of the James Brown. It was like the best block· party, diced up into five-second segments.
”Groove me/(Ah yeah)/Baby / Tonight …”
A triple-white Milano zoomed down 126th Street, then slowed to a stylish cruise, and the crowd started to shimmy to its music. The driver — who looked young enough to be in junior high school — wore a tan leather baseball cap with the insignia MCM (Germany’s Modern Creations of München, the emblem that has replaced Gucci as the inner city youth’s status advertisement) and a My Uzi Is My Best Friend sweatshirt. He stared straight ahead, hunching his shoulders and rocking in his lumbar-contoured seat.
“Gina, ain’t that Gee-Money from 122nd Street?” a slim if wide-hipped girl in a white Le Coq Sportif sweatsuit and monstrous gold shrimp earrings asked. “Nah, that ain’t Gee-Money,” answered Gina, a tall, attractive girl wearing a green Nike warm-up suit and around her neck a gold cable thick enough to tow cars or beat elephants. “Gee-Money got a thin beard and whatnot. That’s just a baby driving that Milano. Plus, this boy got that low-budget Milano; Gee-Money got that Platinum Level Milano.” “Word,” Gina’s friend verified. After freaking the crowd for the mandatory five seconds, the young kid and his weak Milano — only the $20,000 Gold Level, not the $26,000 Platinum — sped west toward St. Nicholas Avenue.
Tonight, September 15, was the taping for the late-night TV extravaganza, It’s Showtime at the Apollo (NBC). Since it was a freebie, the theater got very crowded, very fast; everybody wanted to sit up front or in the balconies that framed the stage. It promised to be a high-powered show, with Guy, Al B. Sure!, Pebbles, and Kool and the Gang on the bill. The crowd was getting fidgety, because the once balmy weather had turned chilly, and the person who had the guest list was already 30 minutes late.
“Where’s that stunt with the guest list?” Gina’s friend spat. “It’s gettin’ cold out here.” “Word,” Gina chuckled. “But why you gotta break on the girl like that? She just doin’ her job, and whatnot.” Gina’s friend feigned anger, her voice growing shrill. “Wha’s up, you her lawyer now?! The bitch is late. We tryin’ to get in and see the show, and I got a little something to do with Al B. Sure! before he goes on stage, to help that pretty boy sing better.” We all laughed, while she mockingly rolled her eyes. Our appreciation must have been some sort of cue, because Gina and her friend broke into an impromptu routine.
“Oh,” Gina said, “I guess you gonna help him out like you helped Biz Markie out that time backstage.” Gina’s friend displayed no embarrassment at this disclosure. She wore her sexual aggressiveness like a police badge. “Yo,” Gina’s friend answered matter-of-factly, “I just whispered a little something in his ear.” We broke into giggles until a hush came over the line of star-worshippers-screwers-wannabees.
A cliché black stretch limo pulled up. The door opened, and out popped a diminutive, handsome young man wearing enough gold to throw England’s bullion market out of whack. He was impeccably dressed in a rust-colored designer shirt and pants outfit, sleek brown lizard penny loafers with solid gold buckles across the vamp. There was the obligatory gold cable hula-hooping his neck. For young gangsters and their facsimiles, here’s the new jack talisman, warding off the evils of poverty, failure, and longevity — eternity is only a bullet’s breath or crack-toke away. So this is about living now, money, and living large. But there was something different about this young man, something elegant, something graceful. He exuded a gangster’s confidence, but he also had a scholarly self-absorbtion about him, like Kant mesmerized by the church’s steeple. The crowd got hyped.
“Oooh, Teddy Riley! He’s so cute I wanna take him home!”
Gina’s friend, licking her lips, took on the look of a python.
“Oooh, I want him, yup-yup …”
Teddy Riley, leader of Guy, simultaneously bathed himself in the adoration and ignored it all. He grinned, shook my hand. “Yo man, why you waitin’ in line?” He grabbed my elbow and led me away from the star-struck captives. “We outta here, man.”
Gina’s friend tapped me on the shoulder before I walked away. “I’ll do anything for an autograph, word.”
TEDDY RILEY finds sanctuary in the recording studio, at home with his family, and behind the wheel of his red BMW. He writes songs in his BMW; he previews new tunes for his friends in his BMW. The BMW as solace seems strange, but only if you are aware of the environment that Teddy comes from.
The half-mile stretch of Eighth Avenue between 125th and 135th streets, right around the corner from the 32nd Precinct, is one of drugs, poverty, and contract murders (often executed on dopeboys silting in the driver’s seat of luxury cars). The stretch tends to fool people because of the urban renewal of the Lionel and Gladys Hampton Houses beautifying the area, but those that live here realize this place can be a little Beirut. This was a place where things always happened.
It’s a little quieter now, but during the late ’70s-early ’80s, it was one of the city’s major heroin/cocaine bazaars. I remember watching one junkie using a Louisville Slugger to open up the back of another one’s head like a brown egg, right on 125th Street, and a crew of young, white, undercover cops shut down all of 129th Street between Eighth and St. Nicholas, as if they were filming Starsky and Hutch. Small, glassine bags of white powder stamped “Wizard,” “Snowball,” and “Blue Magic” littered the sidewalk and street. I often heard about bodies turning up in the courtyard and stairwells of the St. Nicholas projects, or the St. Nick.
Teddy Riley heard about them too, because he lived in the St. Nick. As a matter of fact, he knew a few of the corpses. Some were buddies; the dopeboys, the lullaby specialists — hitmen paid to put heads into eternal sleep — the young guys who wore the Damon knits and Caron-Champagne cologne from A. J. Lester’s on 125th Street, and drove Mercedes-Benzes and BMWs before they left high school. Gangsters taught Riley how to play basketball on the courts on the Seventh Avenue side of the St. Nick, or up on “the Terrace” — Hamilton Terrace, setting for the action in Kool Moe Dee’s “Wild Wild West” and Spoonie Gee’s “Hit Man.” (Riley had a major hand in both songs.)
Gangsters, a few years older than him, Look up for the 14-year-old in fights, sheltering him from the street, from them. Instead, they ordered him to stay in school, and to come off like the Feds with his music.
“I never saw any violence,” Teddy said. “Violence around me had either started or ended by the time I got to the scene. I had a lot of people looking out for me. Guys like Big Al, Stanley, Dwight, and Little Shaun, until he got shot. We all rolled together. And even if they were into the street, they kept me out of it.” So, with the loving and steady hand of his mother Mildred, his stepfather Edward, his godfather Gene Griffin (now his manager and consigliere), and friends, Riley stayed out of trouble and into his music.
GUY’S DRESSING room was on the Apollo’s third floor. Painted pink, with big windows, it was cramped but comfortable. Kevin Mathis, Guy’s choreographer and lead dancer known as Shake, was dressing for the evening’s performance. His brother, Chris, a rapper and a dancer known as K-Loose, was putting mousse on his hair in the bathroom. Shake has to be one of the best street choreographers in the business. With freaky dope maneuvers learned on the street corner and in the rap clubs, he’s the one who turns the house and block parties out. He’s responsible for a lot of the latest dances; the Shaka-Zulu, the Gucci, and the coolest dance on the set today, the James Brown (the funky chicken, the jerk, and the namesake’s sliding shuffle). Shake also choreographed the frenzy in the club sequence of Johnny Kemp’s video “Just Got Paid,” a Teddy Riley track.
Nearly a half hour before showtime, and the dressing room was crowded. Guy is a sizable band — two dancers, two background singers, a drummer, four keyboard players (including Riley, who also sings back-up), and two lead vocalists — and it seems like a cast of thousands. While waiting for Guy’s stage call, lead singer Aaron Hall III passed time by cutting cameos — a mod, cubist Afro derived not only from the heads of Grace Jones and Cameo’s Larry Blackmon, but from the ancient busts and funerary masks of the African Benin and Ibo peoples — and was doing better than a lot of professional barbers. With his mahogany good looks, muscular physique, and sinewy melismata — that gospel yodel-warble, the stamp of a powerful soul singer when not overdone — this young man might go down in the record books with Sam, Otis, and Jackie. Not only a masterful singer and formidable keyboardist, he cowrote Bobby Brown’s “My Prerogative” with Gene Griffin. He also wrote the potentially classic ballad “Goodbye Love,” on Guy (MCA), the group’s recent debut LP.
If Hall can handle the fame, a rich career seems certain. But so many gospel singers who cross the line into secular wickedness — r&b and pop — go on to mutilate themselves, as an act of repentance for turning their backs on God the Father Almighty in Heaven. (Every member in Guy comes right out of the church, and the oldest of them is 24.) Aaron shares the singing spotlight in Guy with his brother Damion, and they’re the sons of the popular Brooklyn minister Aaron Hall Jr. A protegé of the Winans and James L. Cleveland, Aaron III doesn’t show signs of unraveling, and the church still has a powerful tug.
“I’m going to do a gospel album,” Hall said. “Gospel and the church are my roots, my foundation, and I’m definitely going back.”
Teddy Riley came back in the dressing room and said, “Yo, you cutting hair? I could have saved 20 dollars, man.”
Hall said, “I should stop singing and just cut hair.”
THE CONTROL room backstage was jam-packed. Performers for the amateur night segment paced back and forth, puffed Kools, talked al 78 rpm. Friends, family, and observers of the headliners glued their eyes to the TV monitor. Kool and the Gang were winding up their Showtime at the Apollo lip-sync performance of “Rags to Riches,” which sounded like a throwaway from Earth, Wind & Fire. With the departure of lead singer James “JT” Taylor, and their reluctance to couple the raw funk of “Hollywood Swinging” or “‘Funky Stuff” with the pop success of “Celebration,” Kool and the Gang looked like they were going through the motions. The crowd’s applause was courteous.
Next was current king-of-the-charts, Mr. Al B. Sure! I’m not certain about his voice — he sounded a bit off-key at times — but B. Sure! had undeniable presence and the light-skinned, mulatto looks that many women go crazy for. “High yalla” tones and a “good grade” of hair are things that black people don’t want to speak on, but as Spike Lee’s School Daze depicts, that racially twisted itch still scratches my people the wrong way.
Al B. Sure! was up there, though, to get famous, get paid, wet some panties, and kick bass, not genetics. In his toe-up jeans, he wiggled, squiggled, and screeched through the irresistibly dark synth-orchestrations of “Rescue Me,” making the girls at the Apollo bug. When four of them jumped onstage and began humping on his thighs, butt, and hips, B. Sure! cooperated with the eros of the moment and skeezed them. Then he turned vicious.
With all of his might, he humped each one of them away, the last girl so hard that she toppled off the stage, which drew a shocked “Oh shit!” reaction from the audience, and in the control room. It was a move that jumped up out of nowhere, the epitome of surprise. An exciting show has a way of dulling rationality without narcotics, bringing out the masochist in a crowd, especially if a pretty boy is inflicting the pain. So when B. Sure! — in his best jimmy-grabbing, Michael Jackson grimace — told the girls, “All the ladies in the house, say Al,” you know what the young ladies did.
When Guy was performing, the members of Kool and the Gang, as well as everyone else in the control room, were up on their feet dancing. In this lip-synced performance, the music was razor-sharp and tight-computerized, digital hokey-pokey. His recordings have a “live concert” feel. As Riley, Damion, Shake, and K-Loose stepped with the precision of an avant-garde militia, Aaron Hall belted out ” ‘Round and ‘Round (Merry Go ‘Round of Love),” the second single from Guy.
An older stagehand, who had seen everyone from Dinah Washington to Luther Vandross become legends, shouted “Hey, the funk is back, baby!” Bassist Robert “Kool” Bell nodded in agreement, as he shuffled and watched the TV monitor Etch-A-Sketch a figure of his group’s past and future.
TEDDY RILEY was born on October 8, 1967. His whirl around the turntable as an infant must have been one of God’s metaphors. At four, he was playing complex piano pieces by ear. At six, he had his first rnanager. “Teddy was in a group called Total Climax,” says Gene Griffin, who was then a talent agent. “He was only six years old at the time, but I knew he was a genius. I became his manager.” To this day, when Griffin makes suggestions, Riley listens carefully. Not many in or out of the industry bestow the same courtesy on the bald and nattily dressed Griffin. Whispers follow him like a shadow; murderer, drug czar, crime boss-cum-record magnate who don’t take no shorts. The 45-year-old Griffin — a powerful, barrel-chested man — is not a murderer, but he did sell drugs.
Griffin, who grew up in Harlem’s Sugarhill and majored in music at Howard University, ran his own record label, the Sound of New York, which had the hit “Last Night a DJ Saved My Life” by Indeep. He admits he erred: “I did sell drugs at one time, and it was the biggest mistake of my life. Two years ago I went to jail for alleged possession of drugs — there were never any drugs found on my person — and served two years of a 6-to-10 sentence. Now I have completely turned my life around. I don’t smoke, drink, or do drugs. I can stand the frisk, because my life is as clean as the president’s.”
Even when Griffin wasn’t around, he made sure Riley was looked after. At nine, Riley was the organist at the Little Flowers Baptist Church on Eighth Avenue near 133rd Street. He left Little Flower, because “everybody was too busy talking about each other, instead of getting into the word,” and joined the Universal Temple of Spiritual Truths on 136th Street. There, Riley added, he had some of his happiest childhood memories. “We used to go a lot of places,” he said, “and play a lot of churches out of town. We also used to go on a lot of trips, like Disneyworld, and other places. I felt very protected there.”
By the time Teddy Riley was 10 years old, he was a solid musician. With other boys, he played keyboards on 121st between First and Second avenues for nickels and dimes, drawing huge crowds. By then Riley had six instruments down cold: guitar, bass, several horns. In the daytime, he went to I.S. 195, where he learned the three Rs and ran wild during the lunch hour with his buddy, Doug E. Fresh. At night, he would play the smokey Harlem nightclubs with Total Climax — the Red Rooster, Lickety Split, Smalls, even the upscale Cellar Restaurant on 95th Street. It was on the club circuit that he met Bahamian transplant Johnny Kemp, who was with the group Kinky Fox, and Keith Sweat, who was with the bar-band Jamilah. In the clubs Riley learned how to please the crowd and how to improvise, turning bits of keyboard vamps into compositions.
“At first, the crowd would do a double-take,” Griffin said, “at this little kid on a stack of telephone books — he was so small then — playing the piano like an adult. The club owners turned their heads the other way, because Teddy was bringing in business.”
As a freshman in Martin Luther King High School, Riley played with the senior band. After having some “static” with another student — “One of my boys from the St. Nick was getting jumped by this crew,” Riley told me without going into the details, “and I just wasn’t going to stand there and let them beat my man down” — he left MLK and finished high school at Park West, where he became very interested in rap music. He was a good student, but “was bored in class. I couldn’t stop thinking about the music.”
After high school, Griffin enrolled his godson in a summer composition and theory course at Columbia, and a few electronic music classes at the Manhattan School of Music. Following class, Riley would go up to the Bronx River Projects with his drum machine and Casio keyboard and jam with the MCs and DJs in the courtyard. Admittedly, he was nervous about going to the spawning ground of hip hop music — “Yo, some of the knuckleheads was always trying to house my beatbox and Casio.” Confrontations notwithstanding, it was in Bronx River that the young man mixed rap, gospel, jazz, funk, go-go, and gothic-romanticism by way of synthesizers. After worshiping and playing in several churches, playing and learning in several playgrounds and music classes, he found the elements to put together a totally new form of r&b. I call it the New Jack Swing.
STANDING ON the patio of Teddy Riley’s rooftop condo-on-the-Hudson, I could hear the music of a new era. If Hendrix, Brown, Stone, and Gaye are the starting point, and Prince the bridge, Teddy Riley is the other side. Many stars are biting the New Jack Swing, including producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis — there’s a story that when they presented New Edition’s latest album to an MCA honcho, he wouldn’t accept it until they had the “Teddy Riley sound on some of the tracks,” a sound you can now hear on the group’s hit “If It Isn’t Love.”
Everybody wants to get paid. Deborah Harry’s getting the New Jack Swing treatment on a rerelease of “Rapture,” Boy George is slated for a Teddy Riley-Gene Griffin production, and there’s a Riley tune on the Jacksons’ next album called “She.”
Riley’s music is full of historical references. If you ask him who he listens to, he’ll tell you Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, P-Funk — his faves — and Big Daddy Kane, but the orchestras of Ellington, Oliver, and Basie play in his head, and he doesn’t even know it. In 10 years, God willing, I’ll listen to the Classical Two’s “Rap’s New Generation,” or Kool Moe Dee’s “Go See the Doctor,” or Keith Sweat’s “I Want Her,” all Riley works, and think about the sexual terrorist-trauma of the AIDS epidemic, or 15-year-old students toting Uzi’s and cellular phones in their bookbags. As Fitzgerald’s Nick Carraway watched the flappers, gangsters, and social climbers shout “Yowsah!” while spinning around and down the gin-filled toilet and pegged it as the “hour of profound human change,” so does the updated Teddy Riley, who paints this decade as “Monster Crack.” A time of minor chords, dark clouds, and a beat so hard and relentless, it makes me wonder — does Riley have the heart of a killer under his friendly smiling face? Can you really be sheltered from the savagery of the street? Or do you just try to internalize, to cage the rage?
In Riley’s case, I think the latter is true. The synthesized orchestral punches of Sweat’s “I Want Her” are not used to soothe; they scream, they shake, they frighten you. Then when I heard the nagging bass line of “Groove Me,” I knew I was listening to pure gangster music. Riley used the verbal animus of rap to enter his beastmaster subconscious, and when he found himself inside, he slammed the door and swallowed the key.
The first time I tried to dance to “Groove Me,” I got more than hot and sweaty, I tired. Riley has so many things happening at once — bass lines, strings, multileveled percussion tracks, computerized samples from James Brown and Stax records. Then there’s Riley’s own street mantras: yup-yup and that’s it, that’s it. This is a polyrhythmic community turned vigilante. There is no space to breathe in Riley’s music. The orchestration slams you, the drums tear out your heart. Riley’s music is Robocop funk, in full effect; go-go music gunned down by rap and electronics, then rebuilt with more vicious beats, an in-charge, large attitude. I hear that hubris on Moe Dee’s “How Ya Like Me Now,” the ultimate yuppie-buppie-million-dollar-lottery-winner-new-jack-nouveau-riche anthem, and I hear it on Doug E. Fresh’s “The Show,” a hiphop landmark Riley wrote but didn’t want credit for. Riley’s New Jack Swing is indestructible.
And I heard it in Riley’s $200,000 digital home recording studio, while he worked the last of the keyboard overdubs on Stephanie Mills’s next single, “Fast Talk.” Inside the plush, black and gray carpeted area — once the condo’s living room — he has ceiling-high stacks of gleaming machines, their red and orange lights blipping soundlessly above the piano keyboards. Chlorine-blue VDT screens visually isolated seperale instrumental tracks.
Riley sat like Huxley behind the master mixing board of his Brave New World, oblivious to everything except his six-month-old daughter, DeJanee, in the arms of his younger brother Tito. When she called out “Da-Da,” he ran over to kiss the pretty little doll, then hustled back and scooted into the slit between the keyboards and computers. He rifled though a silver Halliburton case, searching for one beat among the 1000-plus he keeps stored on floppy disks. Riley worked quietly and very fast — writing not just the drums or bass line or melody in step-by-step fashion, but using the computer to focus on the mass, the entire work.
Griffin said Riley “thought up ‘Fast Talk’ while he and I were driving home one night from a dinner downtown. We were riding through Central Park, and he stopped the BMW on 96th Street. It took me by surprise when he opened the door and got out. I thought he was sick or something. I asked him, ‘What’s wrong? You okay?’ He tapped on the hood of the car for a few minutes, and then he jumped back inside. ‘I just thought of this new song,’ he said, ‘and I gotta hurry home.’ By the time we got back to the house, he hummed the entire song, from beginning to end, in less than a half hour.”
ON A FRIDAY night, September 23, there was a crowd of people at the Apollo’s backstage entrance trying to get in and see Guy’s live set. Rap stars peppered the crowd — Big Daddy Kane (the current heavyweight speak-ician and scientist), Heavy D., Pepa. Inside, there were more celebs, like soul crooner Glen Jones, who Riley is about to produce, and the stone-faced Eric B., who carried a baseball bat, presumably to discourage any new jack’s ideas about trying to snatch the massive gold cable that hung around his collarbone.
Noticibly absent were Keith Sweat and Al B. Sure!, two chart-toppers who, in whole or in part, have benefited from Riley’s New Jack Swing. There’s a nasty feud going on between the Riley-Griffin camps and those of Sweat and Sure! and his manager, André Harrell. This situation is most unfortunate, because a lot of major talent is being distracted. Sweat’s breakthrough last year, Make It Last Forever, went platinum, and Riley’s contribution to it is much in dispute. Some say Riley, who received producer and writer credits on the LP jacket was only a “rhythm and groove” man. Others say he was the auteur, period.
In the case of Mount Vernon’s Al Brown — a/k/a Al B. Sure! — there were aesthetic differences between Brown and Riley, hired as producer of In Effect Mode, among the year’s best pop albums. The disagreements between Riley and Brown became so intense that Riley left the project. After that, accusations were made that Riley walked off with “You Can Call Me Crazy,” an original tune Sure! claims to have written. The song’s on side one of Guy. In retribution, Riley’s people say, Sure!’s manager, Harrell, pocketed “If I’m Not Your Lover,” which Riley claims to have written, arranged, and produced. (He’s given an arranger credit on In Effect Mode.) Each side of the dispute denies the accusations of the opposing camp. The legalities are yet to be ironed out, but all serious fans of New York’s music are wishing for a truce.
Besides, it didn’t matter who was or wasn’t in the Apollo audience, not this night anyway. Riley had other things to worry about. Tonight was no lip-synch to a record. This show was the real McCoy. Would the wireless mikes go dead during their performance? Would the sound people overamplify the keyboards and drown out the vocals? Would the crowd understand funk this thick? Would Aaron’s dream he had earlier in the week, which he hoped to dramatize, work in reality? Could Guy take it Lo the stage? Riley fingered the gold Gucci link necklace, closed his eyes, and said a silent prayer. He’d find out in 15 minutes.
After the reggae-rap tease of Shelly Thunder, a young Bronx-via-Jamaica lady who has a killer grassroots hit, “Kuff It,” Guy came on the Apollo stage wrapped in smoke; strains of digital violas, cellos, and violins; and silky, druidic capes. The crowd went crazy, especially the young girls. Aaron Hall, seated in the audience (following the script of his dream), finally jumped out of the crowd and joined the group. Guy broke into Zapp’s “More Bounce to the Ounce.” This showcased Riley’s frightening keyboard ability. He tore into the keys, spinning gospel and jazz runs all over the place.
I hadn’t seen a show like this since P-Funk played the Garden September 10, 1977, when Riley was a 10-year-old, jamming in the St. Nick. Back-up singers Khadejia Bass and Michelle Hammond wailed in the background, Abe Fogle brought drumsticks down from the sky, Bernard Belle, Arcell Vickers, and Dinky Bingham snatched a holiness-stomp symphony from their heads and their harddisk memory banks. Shake and K-Loose dazzled us with space-age steps. While helping out on syndrums, Damion Hall harmonized with brother Aaron like they were back in church. Riley conducted this New Jack Swing session; it was like watching P-Funk, Kraftwerk, Weather Report, the New York Philharmonic, and Blue Magic blur.
After Aaron ripped off his shirt and started to hump the floor, many young women ran up to the stage and drooled. Among them was the young woman, Gina’s friend, I saw outside the backstage entrance two weeks ago. In a sprayed-on minidress stretched tight over her ample butt, she screamed, “I want the church boy!” A woman in front of me shouted, “Yo, baby, you got them condoms?” Another woman shouted, “Later for them condoms, you need a scuba outfit for that bitch!” The entire front row — even the victim of this Apollo vitriol — cracked up.
Yup-yup, Guy were devastating. They ripped. I guess they don’t know that young black men from Harlem are not supposed to put on shows like this. Society says young black men from Harlem are murderers, dope-sellers, losers. Any other category is an aberration. True enough, Teddy Riley is an aberration. With a loving family and friends — including the murderers and dope-sellers who protected his genius — he rose above society’s low opinion of the inner city. But since he’s calm, cool, and collected, a smiling killer who makes us dance to death, one of the fellas, he doesn’t fit contemporary definitions of a freak. Lest we forget, to be a real freak you have to play the jheri curls and plastic surgery, or pose naked with flower petals shaped like a glans penis. And if you ain’t got enough to buy a dead man’s bones to curl up with when you go to sleep at night, then you just as well forgit it, ’cause you ain’t wid it. ■
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 31, 2020