Blues & Soul #739/May 6
BLACKstreet Level headed
What is it about Teddy Riley that makes him such a stand-out candidate for music man of the year? Every Year! Pete Lewis talks to the multi talented artist/producer and soon to be record label mogul on the new BLACKstreet album "Another Level", his own Lil Man Records launch, Guy and Michael Jackson! Too good to miss? Right.
It was late December '94 in the less-than-salubrious backstage surroundings of the Hammersmith Apollo when this particular scribe last spoke face-to-face with universally aclaimed "king of new jacks swing" Teddy Riley. At the time, Teddy's then-new R&B quartet BLACKstreet were in the midst of a well received three-night run at the West London venue; while back in the States the ballad "Before I Let You Go" was providing them with their first taste of domestic crossover succes. In terms of album sales, however, BLACKstreet's self-titled debut set - as Mr. Riley himself at the time admitted - was enjoying nothing like the kind of runaway multi million-selling success initially predicated by bot the medía and the group themselves. Indeed, while admittedly attaining eventual Platinum status several months (and comparatively unsuccessful singles) later, at the end of the day "BLACKstreet" to all intents and purposes underachieved barely attaining Top 10 status in even the US R&B listings.
Two-and-a-half years on, however, and the situation has indeed changed, as an orange leather-jacketed Mr. Riley (alongside BLACKstreet co-founder Chauncey Hannibal plus newest group members, Eric Williams and Mark Middelton) joined B&S fo rbreakfast in the ornate, glassy lounge of Kensington's plush Royal Garden Hotel. The situation change is endorsed emphatically with the welcome news of "Don't Leave Me" - the second single from BLACKstreet's US chart-topping sophomore set "Another Level" - crashed into the UK pop chart at an impressively high number six slot! Yes, having already provided one of America's biggest-selling pop and R&B number ones of '96 with the irrepressible street jam "No Diggity", the appropriately titled "Another Level" has also seen BLACKstreet hitting the international mainstream arena big-time. A groundbreaking trans-European tour culminating in a restigious sell-out closing date at London's Royal's Albert Hall, no less. Interestingly, Teddy is keen to attribute BLACKstreet's new found international across-the-board success to the replacement of original, now-departed members Levi Little and Dave Hollister with aforementioned new recruits Williams and Middleton. "Yeah, I think "Another Level" has been more successful than the first album because of the greater dedication of the new members. You know, everyone contributed 150/200% this time around. Whereas on the last album, Levi and David didn't do anywhere near as much as myself and Chauncey", he begins in familiar, soft-spoken Harlem tones. "Plus, for this second album we also switched up lyrically. We tried to stay away from the directly sexual stuff like "Booti Call" and keep it more positive for the kids out there. I mean, as people we have always been very much into a clean lifestyle anyway and the only reason we put some of those sexual songs on the first albm was really a more business-oriented decision. You know, as a new group, we felt we had to come out giving people what was hot at the time, and we're actually now really glad we stuck to the more emotional side of love this time around because a lotta people are now saying that, by us breaking ground doing real true music from the heart, we've helped the music as a whole change back into the less physical direction."
Meanwhile, Teddy also feels the corporate move made by BLACKstreet's record label, Interscope, from distribution by Atlantic/WEA to MCA has made a considerable difference to the group's fortunes. "Yeah, when Doug Morris - they guy who initially got us our deal with Interscope - moved over from Atlantic Records to MCA, we all moved right along with him!", he relates with a knowing smile. "Because without him I really feel that both BLACKstreet and Interscope Records would be at a loss. You know, if we all stayed with Atlantic/WEA I really don't think this current sucess would have happened for us because, while Doug Morris had the heart to put the recors out there and take chance on them selling, Warner Brothers didn't push it enough. So right now for us MCA is most definitely the place to be to take this whle thing to "Another Level"!"
Part of wich inlcudes the soon-come (and long-awaited!) Interscope/MCA-affailated launch of Teddy's new own label Lil Man Records. "We're all pretty much excited about this launch and the first project we'll have comming out will be the debut album from Queen Pen, the female rapper who rhymes on "No Diggity"", reveals Teddy enthusiastically. "And while we do have one alternative artist, Guy James, the bulk fo the acts will be R&B. They include Eighth Avenue, 911, Nutta Butta, Mike Etheridge plus a group of young girls who're about 16/17 years old, that we're trying to get the name 'Five' for, You know, you can definitely expect like up-and-coming superstars that are dedicated to being in this business for a long time and this year we plan on doing something with everyone! Even those who we won't be able to release individual projects on, we still intend to feature on a Christmas compilation album that'll also include about three songs from BLACKstreet, too."
All of wich most definitely leaves no time for any Guy reunion. "No, to be honest I really don't wanna talk about that situation any more. Expect to say that any change of a reunion is off and that is now a permanent decision", retorts a suddenly tight-lipped Mr. Riley. Further gentle prods, however, do eventually elicit a more revealing response. "OK, let's just say that, unlike Guy, BLACKstreet don't generally argue, and even if we do then we know how to come back together and not hold a grudge! Plus the musical abilities of this roup are a lot stronger than Guy! I mean, when I recorded "Tell Me What You Want" with them last year it just felt to me like Guy had already reached its peak. Vocally, I couldn't do anything really elaborate or strong with Aaron (Hall) 'cause, as far as expanding and ecperimenting with his singing abilities goes, I really felt he'd kinda lost it. So, unlike a lotta people I think, it really wasn't a decision made on the grounds of any personal bitterness. It genuinely was a professional decision on my part to do nothing further with Guy."
Having now captured a particularly frank Mr. Riley in full flow, the time is most definitly right to discuss his ongoing Michael Jackson liaison. With Michael having surprisingly decided not to inlcude any of the new tracks Teddy has produced on his "HIStory" album, what is the story behind the new Jackson single, "Blood On The Dancefloor", actually being a Riley track? "Well, it's a song I produced on Michael when we did the "Dangerous" album together six year ago! So that tells you right there that even my old music can win, and what he should have done on the "HIStory" album was work more closely with me!", retorts an even more honest and assertive Teddy. "But I guess you live and you learn from your mistakes, and what can be seen now in hindsight is that it was most definitly a mistake he made! You know, when with "HIStory" he tried to go street he didn't hit the street! Whereas the tracks that we'd produced on him were the most streetest stuff that Michael could ever do - and he blew it! But, you know, Michael is Michael and I'll work with him any day, any time. So, maybe there'll be a next time. But let's hope that next time around he makes the right decisions!"
Meanwhile, another act who retrospect can be seen to have foolishly strayed from "the Riley path" is rap duo Wreckx-N-Effect. The twosome (originally Teddy's proteges and who inlcude in their line-up his brother Markell Riley) last year followed up their double Platinum "Hard Or Smooth" LP with the self-produced, spectacularly unsuccessful "Rap's New Generation" set. "Yeah, I still have the group hopefully, once the contractual situation with MCA worked out, I'll be able to put them on my own Lil Man label", replies Teddy. "Basically, that last album they did constitued their own ideas and it wasn't what I wanted to do. And, while it was released on MCA, it's still in the stores and it didn't sell! So basically I told 'em 'If you really want to have the success just quit promotion the album and let it die. Then I can work out a new success for Wreckx-N-Effect!' and I think when they do come back out mybe, amongst other things, a changin' of the group's name would work."
Returning to a more immediately positive note, meanwhile, Teddy hopes his own production skills will, in due course, be matched by those of the remainder of BLACKstreet. "Yeah, as I said, I'm doing the Queen Pen album right now wich I hope will show people I haven't totally lost it as far as straight-up hip hop is concerned. And the, once the success of this album has happened, I can hopefully concentrate on also getting the other BLACKstreet members into a situation where they too can have their own record company and production deals. You know, we are working that out right now and hopefully, nce you hear the music, you guys will enjoy the end results."
Changes are, Mr. Riley, changes are...