Teddy Riley & BLACKstreet: No Doubt
With the here-today/gone-tomorrow nature of much of today’s popular music, few contemporary figures can claim legendary status as legitimately as Harlem, New York-born producer/singer/writer/multi-instrumentalist Teddy Riley.
Indeed, with his then-groundbreaking combination of rap production techniques with traditional soul musicality, Riley’s late-Eighties productions on acts like Keith Sweat, Bobby Brown and his own male trio Guy unquestionably laid the foundation for today’s hip hop/R&B sound. The Nineties, meanwhile, saw Teddy rise to bona fide iconic status in the industry, with highlights including his significant input into Michael Jackson’s 1991 world-conquering ‘Dangerous’ set. While 1997 saw ‘Another Level’ - the sophomore LP from Teddy’s own male vocal quartet BLACKstreet - selling over six million copies worldwide; pioneered by hit singles like the US Number One street jam ‘No Diggity’ and Grammy-winning, melodic ‘Don’t Leave Me’.
Nevertheless, the end of said decade witnessed a disappointing change of fortunes, with BLACKstreet disbanding following the modest sales of their third album ‘Finally’; while an eagerly-anticipated Guy reunion album (‘Guy 111’) fared even worse upon its release in early 2000. Indeed, aside of his considerable input into Michael Jackson’s relatively-unsuccessful 2001 ‘Invincible’ LP, the Noughties found Riley keeping a decidedly low profile - a situation that remained unchanged with the disappointing sales of ‘Level 11’ - the 2003-released fourth album from a then-reunited BLACKstreet.
April 2010, however, now finds Teddy returning to the UK to perform a one-off show at London’s IndigO2 with the aforementioned BLACKstreet, half of whose line-up has changed since the foursome’s last British concerts 13 years ago.
“Yeah, I’m definitely looking forward to coming back out to London”, begins an ever-humble-mannered yet outspoken Mr. Riley from his Virginia home: “You know, for us performing at The O2 will be HISTORIC - just like when we performed at The Royal Albert Hall back in the Nineties! So we’re definitely gonna have a lotta fun! You know, with the fans over there being very knowledgeable, they know that the sound of BLACKstreet is basically my creation... And the reason I’m stressing that is because there’s a disaster going on right now with some former members of the group performing in different parts of the world by unlawfully using the name ‘BLACKstreet’, when (fellow BLACKstreet founder-member) Chauncey (Hannibal) and I exclusively own it. So, you know, these guys are violating our trademark and our credibility.”
“I’m talking about Eric Williams, Levi Little and Mark Middleton”, continues an openly-annoyed Teddy: “These guys are broke, they’re very trifling - and so they’re basically taking ANYTHING for doing shows! So right now we have a lawsuit pending that’s gonna be coming very soon. And trust me, these guys are not gonna know what’s HIT them!”
So who is in the current BLACKstreet line-up? “Well, in addition to Chauncey and myself - we actually founded the group together back in 1991 - Dave Hollister (who left BLACKstreet in 1996 for a successful solo career) is now back with us. Then we also have ‘J-Stylez’ (Sherman Tinsdale), who sings maybe an octave higher than Mark used to, and is also very active onstage in terms of the choreography. Plus, because Dave has a situation with his passport right now, we also have a guy called Quinn - who’s another incredible singer - waiting in the wings, in case Dave isn’t able to travel with us to London this time.”
Which in turn begs the question, what happened as regards the three former members who are now - according to Teddy - allegedly passing themselves off illegally as BLACKstreet? “Well, over the years me, Dave Hollister and Chauncey had all stayed in contact with each other. And so, a couple of years ago, we decided to try and put the whole BLACKstreet thing back together”, relates Teddy: “But then, with Mark and Eric (who both joined BLACKstreet in 1996 and left in 2009) being boyfriends, they basically started siding together saying they didn’t want Dave Hollister back in the group. Mainly because, if he came back in, that would have made Eric very insignificant! So that was how the problem started with THEM. Then in the case of Levi (a member from 1992 to 1995), though we also tried having him back in the group, the problem there was that Levi is fat and he kept taking his shirt off in concert! Which wasn’t very cute, and wasn’t very sexy! So, the last time he showed his fat stomach onstage, we fired him!”
“Also, health-wise neither Mark nor Eric are really ABLE to be in the group any more”, he continues candidly: “You know, a large part of BLACKstreet live is based around our choreography. And in Mark’s case - because he hurt his leg while working on a construction site - he can’t even WALK any more. Also, with him now being 52/53 years old, he no longer BELONGS in the group. Because, with BLACKstreet, if you’re too old - or you LOOK too old - you’re OUT! And then Eric too also has a sickness - I think it’s either leukaemia or sickle cell - that disables him from doing the choreography. Which is why, when these guys are out there doing shows, they’re barely MOVING. They’re either sitting down singing, or standing in one place and moving around like rappers. And that’s just not what BLACKstreet is ABOUT! You know, we’re PERFORMERS, we’re ENTERTAINERS!”
Meanwhile, moving on to more positive matters, Teddy immediately lights up at the mention of his upcoming recording projects: “Well, for the next BLACKstreet album, we’re putting together an incredible record”, he instantly enthuses: “But what ‘s gonna come first is my OWN record called ‘TRX’, which for me is gonna be the ULTIMATE album! Because, as well as BLACKstreet, I’m gonna have several major artists on there - in addition to my new artists that I presently have coming out. So I can’t wait for everybody to check it out! You know, it’s about the SOUND, it’s about the QUALITY, it’s about the ART… So you can definitely look forward to having some great music that will hopefully help change people’s attitude towards music today, by bringing back real strong DANCE music and real strong LOVE music.”
The question of whether another Guy reunion could be on the cards, however, does not elicit such a positive response. As Teddy insists that his involvement with the once-trendsetting new jack swing trio - which he formed in the late Eighties by teaming up with brothers Aaron and Damian Hall - is definitely over: “Well, a few years ago, we put together a small New Jack Reunion Tour that featured both Guy and BLACKstreet along with different support artists”, he relates: “And everything was going well - the numbers were up - until (Guy lead vocalist) Aaron Hall started getting jealous and not wanting to do any more shows, because he was upset that I was getting paid more than anyone ELSE! He didn’t like the fact that, because I was in both Guy and BLACKstreet, I was getting paid for performing twice! Whereas I took the attitude that I’ve been in this business for too long to be told that I should do two shows a night and only get paid for ONE of them!”
“So after that I decided there was no more Guy for me, and the Hall brothers and I have since gone our separate ways”, he continues openly: “And today Damian and Aaron are out there performing as Guy, and getting booed in a lotta places! Because - and I’m gonna give you the real on this - they’re simply not performing up to the standard they WERE when the three of us were together! You know, people are getting lazy and they’re getting old!”
Meanwhile, with Teddy being arguably the most high-profile producer to have worked extensively with Michael Jackson since the King of Pop’s Eighties heyday, he today looks back on his time with the now-tragically-deceased icon with great fondness: “Well, all I can say is that we’re gonna miss him - because he was simply The Greatest. You know, he made an impact on EVERYONE - even those who never got to meet him and never got to work with him. I mean, on a personal level, just from being around him, he was like a big brother AND a little brother to me. While professionally he was both a mentor and a teacher, who took me to a totally different level in terms of performing and producing.”
So does Teddy now feel that any of the many unreleased tracks he worked on with Jackson (particularly from the 1995 ‘HIStory’ project) might now see the light of day? “Well, it’s certainly true that there’s a lotta songs Michael and I did together that DIDN’T get released. But, as to whether they may now come out, I think that decision would have to be based on what HE’D have wanted. You know, Michael would have never wanted something released if it wasn’t great and if it wasn’t FNISHED. So, if a track isn’t finished, we won’t be putting it OUT there. But, as for the tracks that ARE finished? Well, you may get a SURPRISE! One might even end up on my OWN album!”
Interestingly, despite Teddy’s profile as both producer and artist having seemingly fallen over the last decade, today nevertheless finds him working once more on some impressively major projects: “Yeah, I’m actually working with Lady GaGa right now on her new album”, he reveals as our 30-minute chat nears its end: “As you probably know, I did the ‘Show Me Your Teeth’ record on her last album - and she basically called me like three days ago and said ‘I wanna get back in the STUDIO!’... So we’re going in on Monday. Then I also have the ‘It’s In The Morning’ track on the latest Robin Thicke album (‘Sex Therapy’), as well as the ‘Different Languages’ song on Snoop Dogg’s new album. Though the thing I’m probably most excited about right now is my OWN album (the abovementioned ‘TRX’). You know, I’m hopefully gonna be working with artists like Stevie Wonder, Elton John... Like I said earlier, I’m not working with just ANYONE - I’m working with some great people! So it should definitely turn out to be an incredible project!”
TEDDY RILEY & BLACKstreet PERFORM @INDG02, LONDON ON APRIL 2
(Note from Editor: If you would like to see Teddy Riley perform with BLACKstreet at the Indig02 on the 2nd of April (we'll be there!) Then how about taking a friend for FREE! Well, you can... All you have to do is follow the link below and enter the password DIGGITY next to the the 2for1 box and you will be privy to this egg-celent (sorry about that!) Easter 2for1 offer... Go on then, bog-off and enjoy yourselves! - O and happy Easter!!)
Words PETE LEWIS