New Jack Summer: In June '88, Bobby Brown, Teddy Riley & New Edition Announced the Arrival of R&B's New School

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Bobby Brown photographed circa 1988. 

The summer of 1988 is an important one for me. I was a young kid who’d moved from a predominantly white rural area (northwest Georgia, just east of the Alabama state line) to a still rural but mostly Black community in central Georgia. As it pertains to music, that meant going from a steady diet of Top 40 pop, heartland rock and hair metal, to Macon, GA’s Magic 101, which was playing all the sounds in R&B. And in the summer of 1988, that meant a wave of Bobby Brown, Pebbles, Karyn White, Al B. Sure! and New Edition. I fell in love with the sounds of the radio; it became the soundtrack to my first kiddie crush -- her name was Kenya -- as well as the first time I attended overnight camp and the first time R&B became centered in my musical orbit.

Aside from what it meant for me personally, the summer of 1988 feels like the beginning of an era in R&B that wasn’t my parents’ music--the beginning of hip-hop influenced sounds outside of what was traditionally thought of as rap music. Sophisticated, romantic ballads by Luther Vandross, Sade and Anita Baker still dominated quiet storm; more dance-driven funk sounds from veteran bands like Zapp, The Gap Band and Cameo were becoming more passé. But those had been the pillars for Black popular music throughout the Reagan years, and there was something undeniably “adult” about that music that connected it to the P-Funk and Philly soul of yesteryear -- in presentation, production and in the way my young ears received it. But New Jack Swing didn’t sound like the smooth soul or the digital funk of your aunties and uncles. It sounded like what the kids were into; R&B that was informed by the youthfulness in both hip-hop’s percussive edge and dance-pop’s upbeat sheen.   

Keith Sweat’s Make It Last Forever set the table at the end of 1987. Released in December, it was as fully realized a debut as any of the late ‘80s; Sweat and songwriter/producer Teddy Riley delivered an album that captured the slow-burning quiet storm of smooth R&B but added kinetic hip-hop production on the uptempo tracks. The single “I Want Her” hit No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100. In early 1988, Johnny Kemp’s “Just Got Paid” was another top 10 hit in this new style -- also produced by Riley. There was a wave beginning to build that continued with the release of “Night & Day,” a ballad by Mt. Vernon, NY product Al B. Sure! It may not have been as dancefloor-friendly as what Riley had done, but it cast Sure! in the mold of a new vanguard -- with his follow-up single “Off On Your Own (Girl)” planting him squarely into what was now being called “new jack swing.”

In a 1987 Village Voice profile on Riley’s rise as a hot new producer, Michael Barry Cooper coined the term. “It was in the Bronx River that the young man mixed rap, gospel, jazz, funk, go-go, and gothic romanticism by way of synthesizers,” wrote Cooper. “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.” Sure!’s debut album In Effect Mode was released in May of 1988, following Sweat’s Make It Last Forever to Platinum success. It also lead to some sniping between Al B. Sure! and Riley, who’d been the initial producer on the project. But the controversy only fortified Riley’s position as standard-bearer of the new era.

Most uptempo music of the late 80s had been either digital funk or fizzy dance pop; with freestyle dance music’s emerging popularity providing a fresher alternative to the synth pop-derived hits so prevalent earlier in the decade. But new jack swing melded the synth-driven melodicism of Minneapolis with the hard-hitting hip-hop production that bum-rushed the mainstream throughout 1986 and 1987 via hit albums like Run-D.M.C.’s Raising Hell and LL Cool J’s Bigger and Deffer and the emerging productions of Marley Marl. The shift into New Jack Swing felt immediate, but one can retrospectively hear seeds being planted in Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis’ production on Janet Jackson’s Control album. To call that a New Jack Swing album is a stretch; but the production on her Hot 100 top 5 hit “Nasty" -- with its thumping beats and chanted chorus -- is certainly a preamble to what was on the horizon. And Jam and Lewis would build on it with their next major release.

New Edition was a boy band in a state of flux. They’d excommunicated Bobby Brown back in 1986, and in the year-and-a-half since, he’d started a lukewarm solo career (via his middling ‘86 debut LP King of Stage), while N.E. had recorded a moderately successful album of doo-wop covers as a quartet of Ralph Tresvant, Ricky Bell, Mike Bivins and Ronnie DeVoe. At the urging of Bivins -- and to the initial chagrin of Tresvant -- they added versatile uber-vocalist Johnny Gill; and when New Edition entered the studio to record their fifth album, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis armed them with songs that connected the group’s bubblegum past to their more maturing present -- even literally, as in the case with enduring album closer “Boys To Men.”

With Gill’s full-bodied voice, New Edition could push past the cutesy teenybopper material that had made them famous. Jam and Lewis tapped into the group’s already-present love of hip-hop (they’d done a little lighthearted rapping since their first hit “Candy Girl”) and pushed their own production sound past what they’d done on Control into more industrial, hip-hop-driven territory. When the album’s first single “If It Isn’t Love” was released in early June, it sounded like New Edition 2.0: the effervescent innocence that they’d done for years, dressed in new jack clothes. The song would become one of the defining R&B hits of summer 1988.

As for Brown, his career would go from tepid (his single “Girlfriend” was a No. 1 R&B hit, after all) to scorching with the release of the first single from his new album. “Don’t Be Cruel” was written and produced by Darryl Simmons, Antonio “L.A.” Reid and Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds; and it shot to No. 1 on the Hip-Hop/R&B charts on its way to eventually peaking in the top ten of the Billboard Hot 100. Brown had been a magnetic figure even within the confines of New Edition, and his persona seemed prime for a solo breakthrough. But the combination of Brown’s charisma -- his videos would make him one of the most omnipresent MTV fixtures of the late '80s -- and the production talents of L.A. and Babyface made for powerful alchemy on Brown’s second album.

With Teddy Riley, Gene Griffin and L.A. and Babyface, Bobby Brown was stacked with a handful of producers who were already beginning to reshape popular music. In Brown, they finally had the star who could carry this new sound to the masses. Brown’s Don’t Be Cruel and New Edition’s Heart Break would be released on the same day:  June 20, 1988, and both albums affirmed that New Jack Swing was king. It should be noted that, initially, “If It Isn’t Love” was more of a chart heater than “Don’t Be Cruel,” with the former peaking slightly higher than the latter on the Hot 100. But New Edition would find that success hard to duplicate with follow-up single “You’re Not My Kind of Girl,” which failed to get past the lower reaches of the Hot 100; while “Can You Stand the Rain” didn’t crack the top 40 -- though it would become one of their most enduring songs; the recording of "Rain" became the emotional centerpiece of the group’s hit mini-series almost 30 years later.

But Bobby Brown would launch a series of monster hits from the Don’t Be Cruel album. The second single was the Griffin-produced “My Prerogative.” The song became Brown’s signature and another inescapable song throughout 1988, which featured Riley’s distinctive synth lines  and shot to No. 1 in early 1989. The Babyface-penned “Roni” hit No. 3 two months later; and “Every Little Step” mirrored its success two months after that. By the time final single “Rock Wit’Cha” hit the top ten in fall 1989, Brown’s album had become the best-selling album of the year, on its way to being certified 8x Platinum. The album did for Brown what Control had done for Janet Jackson two years prior: helped him rebrand himself as an edgy R&B rebel after years of increasingly implausible teenage innocence. And it made him R&B’s biggest crossover star at the tail end of a decade that had largely ignored Black artists who weren’t making major concessions to white pop and rock aesthetics.

Don’t Be Cruel’s success also affirmed the rise of New Jack Swing as the dominant sound of R&B. In late August, Karyn White would release her debut single “The Way You Love Me," and it was L.A. and Babyface still very much in their Don’t Be Cruel bag; the song would peak at No. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100. White’s self-titled debut album would see release that September and eventually reached platinum in 1989.

Troop, a quintet from Pasadena, California, also released their debut album in June, with production from Gerald LeVert and Chuckii Booker. LeVert and Booker’s names may not be quite as synonymous with new jack swing as Riley’s or Jam & Lewis, but they’re no less impactful on the sound. Both with Troop and the late ‘80s hits with his own trio LeVert, Gerald’s songwriting/production helped bridge the gap between quiet storm and new jack swing; and Booker provided a lush variation on the industrial grooves the genre became known for -- via his work on hits like Troop’s “Spread My Wings,” an R&B No. 1 in 1989. Troop never enjoyed major crossover success, but were inescapable on urban radio throughout 1988 and '89 via singles from their first two albums.

But the most definitive new jack swing release of 1988 is most succinctly the self-titled debut from the Riley-fronted trio Guy, released in early June. As the most significant architect of the sound, Riley holds a special place in any discussion surrounding the genre’s emergence. And while Sweat’s debut set the stage, and Bobby Brown’s Don’t Be Cruel mainstreamed things; it was the first album from Guy (Riley, Aaron Hall and Timmy Gatling -- who would soon be replaced by Aaron’s younger brother, Damion) that serves as the musical template that best exemplifies the sound. And Guy’s hit single “Groove Me” would be one of those “songs of the summer” on Black radio in 1988. It’s as slick as anything Riley ever produced, with an Aaron Hall vocal that evokes Charlie Wilson over a groove built around one of hip-hop’s favorite samples: “The Champ” by The Mohawks, also flipped by everyone from Eric B. & Rakim ("Eric B. Is President”) to Frank Ocean (“Nikes”). It’s as close to definitive New Jack Swing as anything Riley would release. On the heels of smooth R&B, this felt like a new sonic takeover.

And the revolution had begun. Motown Records was in the midst of an attempted resurgence following its June 1988 purchase by MCA. Looking to tap into its legacy while also promoting itself as a brand firmly of the times, the label snatched up acts that could evoke its rich history. But they were paired with some of the hottest producers in the game: Riley would helm the debut album from Today, a quartet marketed as “the new Four Tops” by Motown throughout 1988; The Good Girls were a trio in The Supremes mold whose sound was Riley-lite; and The Boys were a kiddie act featuring the Abdulsamad brothers (a la The Jackson 5) that had L.A. and Babyface handling their gold-selling debut, Messages From the Boys, which was released in fall 1988 and included the crossover hit “Dial My Heart.”

Motown’s embrace of the sound, the subsequent release of albums like Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814, and Michael Jackson’s Dangerous, the dawn of the 1990s and new jack’s eventual metamorphosis into hip-hop soul; it all proved that hip-hop’s influence on R&B wasn’t going anywhere. Less than a decade after R&B artists, producers and fans scoffed at this artform, it was redefining the sonic parameters of black popular music.

That summer of 1988 was revolutionary. We really didn’t know it at the time. But take the time to fully appreciate it now. For years, New Jack Swing was viewed as a relic; the dated sound of a very specific era of broad-shouldered suits, the running man and spandex biker shorts. But pop stars like Bruno Mars are unapologetic devotees of the sound, and we’ve seen much greater cultural reverence for these innovators in recent years. The New Edition Story was a monster hit for BET in 2017; Teddy Riley and Babyface have been honored by major award shows, and Jam and Lewis have been inducted into the songwriter’s Hall of Fame. It’s all long overdue. This was the sound that sparked a shift that defined my generation’s music. And it all exploded in one very hot and very cool summer