Riley studied electronic music at Manhattan School of Music and composition at Columbia University. While still in his early twenties, Teddy Riley rose up from the streets of Harlem, New York, to found a new kind of music–new jack swing. Riley described this new sound in Rolling Stone as “rap music with pop, rap with jazz, rap with R&B.” Since his career began in 1984, Riley has directed his own bands–namely Wreckx-N-Effect, Guy, and Blackstreet–and produced and written hit songs for a host of stars, including Michael Jackson, Bobby Brown, Stevie Wonder, Kool Moe Dee, and Jane Child. With numerous Number One hits and platinum albums, Riley has impressed even industry executives, one of whom was moved to proclaim the value of top songwriters and producers in general. “You cannot have a hit record without good songwriters and producers. They are the very heart of the industry,” LeBaron Taylor, CBS Records vice-president and general manager, was quoted as saying in Ebony.
Riley’s success did not come without trials, however. He lost a bandmember and half-brother to gunfire on the streets and broke with his longtime manager and childhood father figure, Gene Griffen, in a lawsuit over money. Relocating then from New York City to Virginia Beach, Virginia, for relative serenity, the 1992 recipient of the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) prestigious rhythm and blues songwriter of the year award aspired to legendary heights of productivity and achievement: “I wanna be the hardest working man in the music industry, like James Brown,” he commented in Vibe. Based on Riley’s track record, Vibe’s music writer Bonz Malone considered that dream plausible.
Born on October 8, 1967, in Harlem, Teddy Riley became something of a musical prodigy and star as an early teen in school. His mother provided the impetus to bring him out of the bad ways he developed and into aspirations in music at an early age–16. He had been “hustlin’” to make money when his mother was laid off, but she soon called him on his behavior. “I had to do something to help my family, but then I got busted by my Moms and she started losing faith in me, telling me I ain’t gonna be nothin’,” Riley told Malone for Vibe. “I said, ‘Ma, I’m gonna make it in the music industry.’ Then we sat and we hugged and I cried and she cried. That’s when I cashed in my money and bought me about three or four keyboards.”
At age ten Riley had already mastered several instruments–guitar, bass, several horns, and especially the keyboard. He gained his edge listening and playing with friends at impromptu pick-up concerts on Harlem streets and in church, according to the Village Voice. “I come from a rap family,” he told Mark Coleman of the Los Angeles Times. “I was there when it was happening, back in the days rap wasn’t even out yet when I first heard about deejays’ scratching and beatboxes. That stayed in my head, and at the same time, my mother was sayin’ ‘Let’s go to church.’ So that stayed in my head too. All those different keyboard players–uh, preachers. There was one in particular, a Rev. Caulfield, who was a genius on the organ. That’s really where I learned everything about playing keyboards.”
After forming his first band, Wreckx-N-Effect, with his brothers, Markell, and Brandon Mitchell, a few years later in 1987 he formed a second band, Guy, with Aaron Hall and Timmy Gatling. Wreckx-N-Effect released the hit single “New Jack Swing,” while Guy debuted in 1987 with a self-titled album on the Uptown/MCA label. That album hit Number One on Billboard’s top rhythm-and-blues albums chart in 1988 while the group traveled on sold-out tours.
Guy’s second album, 1990’s The Future, went platinum and won rave reviews. Peter Watrous of the New York Times called the album “an example of unadulterated pop brilliance.” The successful tunes included “Long Gone,” a song of dedication to the late Sarah Vaughan and Riley’s half-brother Brandon Mitchell, “D-O-G Me Out,” and “Do Me Right.” Watrous credited Guy on their first album with “inventing the genre called New Jack Swing,” while on The Future, the band brought in more dance music and singing, particularly by Aaron Hall, described by Watrous as possibly “the most gifted pop music singer to emerge in the late 80’s.”
All of that success brought its troubles, however. First, Riley lost his younger brother, Brandon Mitchell of Wreckx-N-Effect, to gunfire in 1989. Soon after, Riley wrote “Long Gone” from The Future and decided to move to Virginia Beach. “The day my little brother got killed, I said, ‘We got to go. We got to move.’ We got a lot of angry people up here, a lot of jealousy. The new jacks don’t mean to hurt you, they don’t mean to harm you, but they want to be where you are. We want to help them, but at the same time, they’re going too fast. Everybody’s living in the fast lane up in New York.” Next, he and his longtime manager and father figure, Gene Griffen, broke up in a dispute over money. Finally, internal problems separated Guy itself.
Riley has applied himself vigorously to a number of projects throughout his career, however, and continued to do so after his move in 1990. Over his career, he has written or produced such songs as Michael Jackson’s “Remember the Time,” Keith Sweat’s “Why Me Baby,” Wreckx-N-Effect’s “Rump Shaker,” Bobby Brown’s “My Prerogative,” and Kool Moe Dee’s “How Ya’ Like Me Now?” On film soundtracks, his work can be heard on the Number One rhythm and blues single “My Fantasy” for the Spike Lee film, Do the Right Thing, and in the title track of the film New Jack City. After moving to Virginia Beach, Riley set up a $3 million, 72-track recording facility, Future Records Recording Studio, and his own label and management company, LOR Records & Management, as part of his company, Future Entertainment Group Ltd.
Meanwhile, after the breakup of Guy, Riley set up another band called Blackstreet. One of the band’s lead vocalists, Chauncey “Black” Hannibal, started as a backup singer for Guy, with roots in the church choirs of Paterson, New Jersey; another, Dave Hollister, began in the church in Chicago and subsequently sang for Al B. Sure! and Mary J. Blige; and the third, Levi Little, had “phantom” origins, according to Vibe’s Bonz Malone, but “[they] just know he’s down and he rocks.” Malone described the sound as a combination of “Chauncey’s sweet voice … and Teddy’s airtight drum drops.” The band hoped to stay together and move funk music into the future. “This is the group forever,” Riley maintained in Vibe. “We already have in our minds that none of us is gonna make it solo. It’s like a marriage. We’re gonna stick this out together.”
Dubbed “the single most influential producer in the music business today,” in Ebony Man, and “a genius,” according to Village Voice music writer Barry Michael Cooper, by his late twenties Riley had already achieved prominence. With a new band and his own recording facilities in Virginia, Teddy Riley showed no signs of slowing down.