Teddy Riley Talks His Verzuz Battle With Babyface, and His Rocky Road to (and From) Fame

Jeff Vasishta

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“I’m just shocked — I’m still in awe and on a high,” Teddy Riley says from his home in Las Vegas, two days after his Verzuz battle with legendary songwriter and producer Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds shut down Instagram. “So many people in the business — people I don’t even know, and those I do — reached out. I think people felt the intimacy of Babyface and myself playing music and enjoying it.”

If there’s any doubt about the impact of the event, Riley’s Instagram IG followers increased 141% — from 328,000 to 855,000 — while his Twitter following registered a 3021.4% increase. And what’s particularly remarkable is that neither Riley or Babyface’s music has been lighting up the charts recently — their golden years of the ’90’s are long gone. However, the songs, artists and the halcyon era they represented, ensured a captive audience of half a million, with a reported 3.5 million trying to get in.

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Even though Riley is widely recognized as the inventor of New Jack Swing in the late ‘80s via artists such as Guy, Keith Sweat, Heavy D and the Boys — and he’d later produce Michael Jackson — he’d been off the mainstream radar for a minute. His reintroduction to America’s musical consciousness was daunting.

“I felt like I was doing my first concert,” he says, adding, “Also, I was nervous because I was on a lot of people’s bad side,” citing an Instagram poll that showed he was disliked by 71% of voters before the first battle on Saturday night, largely due to technical issues — but by the following day his approval rating soared to 91%.

“Timbaland and Swizz [Beatz] were like, ‘Dag, how’d you turn that around?,’” he laughs. Indeed, Riley’s strong will came through, even in a social media setting. “I’ve got a thick skin — I rolled with the memes” that surfaced after his technical issues.

“That was what I loved about it, because to be cyber-roasted [is like a badge of honor],” he says. “When I rolled with it, Timbaland sent a message, ‘Yo, that guy’s a G! I don’t know how he’s able to take it.’”

Another challenge was going up against Babyface, who is a contemporary, an influence and also, due to his own pop hits as well as ones with artists like Boyz II Men, Toni Braxton, Whitney Houston and Mary J. Blige, an opposite.

“He’s like a big brother to me,” Riley says. “Of course, I was nervous as heck.” From a musical standpoint, one of the evening’s highlights was Babyface’s live rendition of “When Can I See You Again” being matched by Blackstreet’s “Before I Let You Go.”

“I had to hit ‘em with that to make them forget [‘When Can I See You’], because that was such an incredible performance,” Riley laughs.

While the two hold each other in high esteem, both writers came from the opposite ends of the musical spectrum: Riley from the gritty streets of ’80’s Harlem and Edmonds from comparatively calm Indianapolis. Like all great producers, Riley was able to modify his sound as technology changed. Early records from Keith Sweat, Johnny Kemp and Guy were signified by the bounce of their percussion and bass lines, with the influence of DC’s Go-Go sound particularly noticeable on cuts such as Guy’s “Teddy’s Jam.” As the sound progressed in the early ’90’s, Riley became synonymous for a using a triplet kick-drum pattern prominent in his remix for Canadian rocker Jane Child’s 1991 hit “Don’t Wanna Fall in Love.”

“I went off the artist — I didn’t have a plan at all,” he says. “It’s just a feeling. At the same time I was doing Jane Child I was doing [Sweat’s] ‘Make You Sweat’ and I was making the Michael Jackson demos, then I did [Guy’s] ‘Dog Me Out, so I had four sessions going on.”

Despite his success, Riley traveled a rough road filled with conflict with managers, violence and the death of close friends. Since leaving New York in the early ‘90s, lived in Virginia, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Korea and now La Vegas, where he’s attempting to put together a autobiography, documentary and eventually a film.

“Dealing with losing my best friends as I was trying to make it — I wasn’t a person who could just move on when they lost someone close to them,” he says. “Most of them didn’t live past 30.”

A fracas at a Guy/ New Edition concert in 1989 left Guy’s bodyguard Anthony Bee dead. “The beef was more with the backline,” Riley explains. “We pulled in [to the concert] and everything had [already] happened — we heard on the news that my best friend, again, got shot.”

Bee’s death took place in October — by December, Riley had parted ways with his manager and early mentor, Gene Griffin, amid financial and credit disputes. After three years of nonstop hits, Riley was out of cash and forced to move back to the projects.

“When that business was done it was, for lack of better words, a pimp situation,” says Riley of his relationship with Griffin. “We woke up to it and my goal was to get everybody out that I was responsible for signing.”

Yet a musical and financial revival was around the corner, when he produced Michael Jackson’s “Dangerous” album in 1991. He used the experience to soak up the King of Pop’s unique way of working, recording to two-inch tape instead of Pro-Tools, and stacking thick tapestries of vocals for each note.

“It was all about the texture of his voice,” he says. “One would be less airy, one would be no air, one would be a whisper.”

In 1994 Riley presented a new group, Blackstreet, of which he was a member, after Guy split up. The group brought Riley back to the top, particularly via the smash “No Diggity.” Riley had also inked a production deal with MCA Records that brought him to Virginia, where he set up a studio called The Future recording studios. There, he worked with young Pharrell Williams and Rodney Jerkins, but a bad business deal with a real estate developer led to Riley losing his studio. He filed for bankruptcy in 2002.

After a move to Los Angeles and work with Snoop Dogg in the mid-2000s, Riley felt it was time for another change of scenery.

“I moved to Korea, to learn the culture and marry New Jack Swing to K-Pop officially,” he says. “They were doing it before, but it was kind of artificial. It was an honor that they let me in and allowed me to stir up some things.”

Now residing in Las Vegas, Riley is talking with former Blackstreet member Chauncey Black about working together again. “Before the [Verzuz] battle, Chauncey and I had been talking and developing a talking relationship first, and a friendship, and then figure out how we do business.”

He also still pines to collaborate with his Verzuz sparring partner, Babyface.

“I respect his musicianship,” Riley says. “I respect him as a producer as a writer — to me, he’s the number-one writer in the world.” One thing is certain: Whenever the two want to schedule a rematch, a huge audience will be waiting.

 

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