“Back & Forth”: Towards a Theory of The New Jack Swing

20. September 2019 I've Been Thinking 0
source: Albumism.com

I really, really enjoy the song “Finesse (Remix)” by Bruno Mars and Cardi B. Judging by the streaming and play numbers, you probably do as well. I wonder if part of the reason why I like the song so much is because it has that wonderful blend of smooth singing and hip hop beats – a blend that was ubiquitous in the sounds of late 80s and early 90s popular “urban” music.

Over the summer, I went in search of “new jack swing”. It’s Barry Michael Cooper’s term from a 1987 interview. I grew up in the 90s, and this was the sound of my childhood (and adulthood, if I’m being honest). I did as much research as I could with the time I had, reading all the things, listening to all the things, watching all the things. OK, well, probably not everything, but I did end up consuming a whole lot of material related to 90s music and the birth and afterlife of what was called “new jack swing.” I decided that I wanted to know what the heck it was, and how it differed and was similiar to what came before and after. I found out that Bruno Mars intended “Finesse” to be in the spirit of a new jack swing song and enlisted The Stereotypes to help him achieve this. Then I saw that someone referred to “Boo’d Up”, a smooth and bonafide bop by UK singer Ella Mai, as a kind of new jack swing song – or at least in the tradition of new jack swing. So clearly, people still gravitate to this particular 90s sound. but why do these songs hit my ear just right? I began to wonder, what makes new jack swing what it is? Was this a term we’ve retroactively added to the genre, or was it in use by people in the historical moment? Is this an academic or jargony term, or is this something that common people recognized?

Those were the questions I began with, and as I – a slightly obsessive certified researcher – dug deeper, my questions naturally expanded:

What are its chronological and ideological parameters? Does it have a distinctive music theory or formula? How did the content of new jack swing differ from and build on what came before? How is it interwoven with cultural movements of the 1980s and 1990s? What were its predecessors and what is its legacy? Does it allude in any direct way to swing music of the mid-century? Who were the major players on the stage and behind the scenes? What musical forms today are most influenced by new jack swing? Are there smaller chronological eras within the larger new jack swing epoch? What are the conversations around racial, gender, ethnic, and religious identity that are reflected by new jack swing? How did it get picked up by white mainstream music? Was new jack swing responsible for pushing hip hop and black music at large into the mainstream, post-Motown? Are there also regional or geographical parameters and variations? What makes new jack swing not hip hop/rap?

I am no where near answering all of these questions. Maybe I’ll do a more serious academic volume on this in the future and get some other, smarter, people to help contribute.

Of course new jack swing wasn’t just about music. It was a visual, artistic cultural movement. It’s about art, dance, music, film, comedy, and literature. It encompasses a new way of thinking about oneself and how one relates to the changing world. That “world” is a distinctly urban one, where Black folks began to fit into society in ways we had never fit into society before. Black folks were achieving new political heights and mainstream cultural acclaim. But the empire continued to strike back with a vengeance. New Jack Swing was a response to social injustice. It was a form of justice and resistance that expressed itself through images of escapism, black sexual liberation, violence, women’s voices, and financial freedom. The 90s signaled a dynamic shift in what it meant to be American and African American. No longer were Black people catching up with white folks. White folks wanted to be Black. Black was, as Babyface would sing, “for the cool”. But it was also for the fired up, and both were acceptable. New Jack Swing was and is a cultural register, a swagger. And it’s unashamedly Black. This I know for sure.

What I did was put together a playlist of some of my New Jack Swing faves. Well, I did a sort of “maxi” playlist of a slew of songs that could fall under that banner, and then I did a shorter, more cohesive playlist (that really bumps). My title of this article, of course, comes from that wonderful Aaliyah song that STILL bumps.

I wanted to understand the chronological, topical, and sonic parameters of New Jack Swing music. After watching more than my fair share of documentaries on the culture of the 80s through 2000s, and reading folks like Nelson George, Mark Anthony Neal, and Tricia Rose, I began to realize that people usually place New Jack Swing in the years between ’86 (with Janet Jackson’s evolution and working with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis on Control) or ’87 with Barry Cooper’s interview, on one end, and ’93 or ’95 on the other. After listening to a bunch of stuff, I saw what they were talking about. But I disagreed and came up with my own timeline.

Below is the list. It’s not completely exhaustive. But it gives a sense of how I’m thinking about the period beginning with 1980 and ending (and I’m cutthroat about this) in 1998. By 1999, new jack swing music began to morph more fully into what is recognizably R&B, neo soul, and subsequent forms of hip hop. One might look to Toni Braxton’s discography (and maybe Mary J. Blige and Janet Jackson, too) as a prime example of this shift in sound.

I divided the period into five “groups”. I was thinking about the most immediate precursors to New Jack Swing, including the widespread use of the 808 drum machine that incredibly vital to the 90s sound. Marvin Gaye was, interestingly enough, one of the first major proponents of using the 808 in popular soul music. Thus, we got “Sexual Healing”, which was also Marvin’s final hit before and after he died. But I also heard some of the synthesizing sounds of new jack swing in the experimental work of Zapp (Roger Troutman and co.) who really played around with what the voice and a computer could do. Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis (of Janet fame) actually came out of the Minnesota sound of Prince and the Time, and also worked with Clarence Avant’s Atlanta-originating S.O.S. Band, and so I’ve included them here. As you see with Group Zero, I argue that new jack swing’s most immediate ancestors are funk and soul. But not 70s funk and soul. There is something unique that happens to funk and soul between 79 and 1980, a kind of sonic turn, that more directly leads into the new jack swing sound.

GROUP ZERO  (origins and the transition from funk and soul)

1980

  • Zapp, Zapp

1982

  • Prince, 1999
  • The Gap Band, The Gap Band IV
  • Marvin Gaye, Midnight Love

1983

  • The S.O.S. Band, On the Rise
  • Michael Jackson, “Thriller” music video

1984

  • Prince, Purple Rain
  • Run-D.M.C., Run-D.M.C.

1985

  • Zapp, New Zapp IV U
  • Prince, Around the World in a Day
  • Doug E. Fresh, “The Show”

1986

  • Janet Jackson, Control
  • Salt-N-Pepa, Hot, Cool & Vicious
  • Club Nouveau, Life, Love & Pain
  • Run-DMC, Raising Hell

And then we move into what really becomes carved out as an identifiable “new jack swing” by 1987. Control is out. Janet has moved the Jackson name out of the Motown sound and the whole Black music industry has to follow. Salt-N-Pepa looks back to girl groups of the 60s to change what hip hop looks like, sounds like, and sets the stage for women to be the brightest stars of the era. Club Nouveau sets the stage for the remix, in their adaptation of Bill Withers’ classic “Lean On Me”, which sets the stage for a whole new kind of musical work. Between 1987 and 1989, new jack swing began to find its sound. Soul became both more soulful and more poppy. Everyone wanted a beat. Even singer like to dance, I guess. Here, you get the rise of Bobby Brown (breaking from New Edition) and Teddy Riley, the genesis of Whitney Houston, the rise of the modern boy band (as compared to the 60s boy band), and the songwriting phenomenon of Babyface (breaking from The Deele). These developments will shape the rest of the era.

GROUP ONE  (experiments and beginnings)

1987

  • LL Cool J, Bigger and Deffer
  • Keith Sweat, Make it Last Forever
  • Whitney Houston, Whitney
  • The Deele, Eyes of a Stranger
  • LeVert, The Big Throwdown

1988

  • Bobby Brown, Don’t Be Cruel
  • Guy, Guy
  • Karyn White, Karyn White
  • New Edition, Heart Break
  • Johnny Kemp, “Just Got Paid”
  • Al B. Sure!, In Effect Mode
  • Slick Rick, The Great Adventures of Slick Rick

1989

  • Babyface, Tender Lover
  • Troop, Attitude
  • After 7, After 7
  • Janet Jackson, Rhythm Nation 1814

The 80s are done and now we’re off to the races for real. New Jack Swing is a thing. It knows what it is and so do the charts. In the early 90s, you get million selling new jack swing records. You get the mega groups like TLC, Bell Biv DeVoe, En Vogue, Jodeci, SWV, and Boyz II Men. When people think of new jack swing today, or 90s music in general, they usually cite music from this group. Why, you ask? Because it still bumps. Oh, and it even crossed into gospel with BeBe and CeCe, and gave us a Christmas album remixing Handel’s Messiah for a new era. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Michael Jackson’s patronage of Teddy Riley for Dangerous and giving Kris Kross a spot on his tour. By this time, we get the rise of the super producer in ways that will only explode in future years. Beyond Teddy, you have Jermaine Dupri, Puff Daddy, BBD, and of course, Babyface and L.A. Reid as a force of nature in putting new jack swing into mainstream hands.

GROUP TWO  (commercial success)

1990

  • Bell Biv DeVoe, Poison
  • Toni! Toni! Tone!, The Revival
  • En Vogue, Born to Sing
  • Johnny Gill, Johnny Gill
  • Whitney Houston, I’m Your Baby Tonight
  • Guy, The Future
  • Public Enemy, Fear of a Black Planet

1991

  • Boyz II Men, Cooleyhighharmony
  • Babyface, A Closer Look
  • Queen Latifah, Nature of a Sista
  • Michael Jackson, Dangerous
  • Heavy D & the Boyz, Peaceful Journey
  • Jodeci, Forever My Lady
  • Mint Condition, Meant to be Mint
  • DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, Homebase
  • BeBe & CeCe Winans, Different Lifestyles

1992

  • TLC, Ooooooohhh… On the TLC Tip
  • SWV, It’s About Time
  • Wreckx-N-Effect, Hard or Smooth
  • Silk, Lose Control
  • Kriss Kross, Totally Krossed Out
  • Brian McKnight, Brian McKnight
  • Shai, If I Ever Fall in Love
  • Mary J. Blige, What’s the 411?
  • Handel’s Messiah: A Soulful Celebration

By ’92 and ’93, new jack swing was winning big awards and making big money. New Jack Swing was more than just a financial reward, it was an artistic practice. Just listen to the production of Quincy Jones and Babyface on Tevin Campbell’s album. Look at how Janet Jackson evolved with janet.. Look at the critical acclaim of Toni Braxton’s first album and Boyz II Men’s second album. Aaliyah, enough said. TLC, CrazySexyCool, enough said. If Group Two was about putting new jack swing on the map with fun albums, Group Three was about developing that sound into a slew of classics, and everyone wanted a piece of the pie. But by 94 and 95, you can start to see where things change. Some have said that Montell Jordan is the bookend of the period. In some ways, this is true. D’Angelo marks a return to the soul of Marvin Gaye. Mariah Carey’s Daydream and LL Cool J’s Mr. Smith marks a shift of hip hop and R&B into a new realm of pop music that inaugurates what we see in the 2000s.

GROUP THREE (critical acclaim)

1993

  • Toni! Toni! Tone!, Sons of Soul
  • Salt-N-Pepa, Very Necessary
  • Xscape, Hummin’ Comin’ At ‘Cha
  • Brownstone, From the Bottom Up
  • Babyface, For the Cool in You
  • Boyz II Men, Christmas Interpretations
  • Tevin Campbell, I’m Ready
  • Queen Latifah, Black Reign
  • Toni Braxton, Toni Braxton
  • Janet Jackson, janet.
  • Jodeci, Diary of a Mad Band
  • Kirk Franklin, Kirk Franklin & The Family
  • H-Town, Fever for Da Flavor
  • 2Pac, Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z…
  • Snoop Dogg, Doggystyle

1994

  • Zhané, Pronounced Jah-Nay
  • Boyz II Men, II
  • TLC, CrazySexyCool
  • Mary J. Blige, My Life
  • Aaliyah, Age Ain’t Nothin But a Number
  • Brandy, Brandy
  • Blackstreet, Blackstreet
  • MC Hammer, The Funky Headhunter
  • The Notorious B.I.G., Ready to Die
  • Da Brat, Funkdafied
  • OutKast, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik

1995

  • Montell Jordan, This is How We Do It
  • LL Cool J, Mr. Smith
  • Monica, Miss Thang
  • Adina Howard, Do You Wanna Ride?
  • Faith Evans, Faith
  • Jon B., Bonafide
  • Mariah Carey, Daydream
  • D’Angelo, Brown Sugar
  • Kirk Franklin & the Family, Christmas

I understand why some folks say 1995 was the end of the new jack swing era. But the logic there leaves out some great and arguably classic new jack swing hits. In this last Group, I wanted to add some things to show the decline of the era. Here, you see a real shift to neo soul, R&B, and new forms of hip hop that will get us into the 2000s. But I’ll be darned if Whitney’s Preacher’s Wife (the biggest selling gospel album to date) doesn’t help to develop gospel’s new jack swing influence. And Usher’s My Way really does bring the mainstream pop of new jack swing to the South – building off the mega success of TLC, of course, and helping to push Jermaine Dupri into the 2000s superstardom – as a counterpoint to Outkast’s outstanding hip hop work. You also get the final Toni! Toni! Tone! album, with some key tracks like “Let’s Get Down” that I can’t leave off any playlist. This is also the last Toni Braxton new jack swing album before she shifts record companies and producers, thus changing her sound all around. Mary J. Blige also changes her sound substantially. But in these years, you get folks building off the D’Angelo and Erykah Badu sound like Maxwell and Joe and Next. But by 1998, you get acts like Tyrese, Lauryn Hill, and a group you may know as Destiny’s Child. Darkchild (Rodney Jerkins) and LaShawn Daniels worked with Brandy and Monica, and a slew of other singers. Timbaland took over for that other fool and elevated Aaliyah’s success. Together, these charted the sound that would define the 2000s. New Jack Swing was over.

GROUP FOUR  (Transition to R&B/neo-soul)

1996

  • Toni! Toni! Tone!, House of Music
  • Dru Hill, Dru Hill
  • Toni Braxton, Secrets
  • Blackstreet, Another Level
  • Whitney Houston, The Preacher’s Wife Soundtrack
  • Ginuwine, Ginuwine…The Bachelor
  • Kirk Franklin, Whatcha Lookin’ 4
  • Maxwell, Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite
  • Aaliyah, One in a Million
  • Total, Total
  • Lil’ Kim, Hard Core
  • The Fugees, The Score

1997

  • Mary J. Blige, Share My World
  • Usher, My Way
  • Joe, All That I Am
  • Boyz II Men, Evolution
  • Brian McKnight, Anytime
  • K-Ci & JoJo, Love Always
  • SWV, Release Some Tension
  • Kirk Franklin/Nu Nation, God’s Property
  • Puff Daddy, No Way Out
  • Jagged Edge, A Jagged Era
  • Missy Elliott, Supa Dupa Fly
  • Next, Rated Next
  • Erykah Badu, Baduizm

1998

  • Lauryn Hill, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill
  • Tyrese, Tyrese
  • Destiny’s Child, Destiny’s Child
  • Monica, The Boy Is Mine
  • Brandy, Never Say Never
  • Juvenile, 400 Degreez

As I mentioned before, new jack swing isn’t just about music. It’s a whole movement. I also tracked the political events and other cultural happenings of the mid 80s through 1998. New awards shows, television networks, awards categories, black-helmed movies and TV shows… Bill Clinton and Arsenio Hall. The shift from cassette to CD to Walkman. The rise of the personal computer. Rodney King and the LA Riots. OJ Simpson. The first black women in Congress. Colin Powell. Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill. AIDS Crisis aftermath. The Gulf War. Black mayors. Black governors. MTV and BET. Fresh Prince of Bel Air. A Different World. Def Comedy Jam. John Singleton. Michael Jackson… You get it. In short, a lot happened. I won’t give it all here. But all of this played into what made new jack swing what it was.

That’s all for now.


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