Teddy Riley produced an era of unforgettable music, and Andre Harrell turned Diddy into a mogul. The two came together for a Wednesday SXSW Conference conversation peppered with anecdotes from their long careers and advice for young artists.
The creator of the “New Jack Swing” sound, fusing R&B, hip-hop, and gospel, Riley produced smash hits for artists like New Edition, Keith Sweat, and Michael Jackson. The founder of legendary label Uptown Records and current vice chairman of Revolt Media, Harrell made money off those hits.
Riley arrived slightly late to the panel, which was moderated by Forbes editor Zack Greenburg. The gravelly-voiced Harrell began solo with a wandering introduction of how he first met Riley at the historic Apollo Theater, where Riley was playing keyboards for Doug E. Fresh.
“I always knew he would be something, but I didn’t know he would create a whole genre of music,” Harrell said.
An animated storyteller, Riley responded with stories of Harrell introducing him to industry heavyweights at a small Brooklyn club, and the two slowly worked through the history of their successes in the Golden Age.
Harrell recounted working with Diddy in the early days of hip-hop, where “there weren’t no hits back then … we just had to hold the crowd’s attention so there wasn’t no fights, no shootouts.”
In addition to innovating the Eighties and Nineties R&B soundscape, Riley produced half of Michael Jackson’s album Dangerous. Jackson’s longtime producer Quincy Jones had pulled Riley onto the project, and Jackson named their first song together “Blood on the Dance Floor,” as a tribute to the shooting of Riley’s friend.
Jackson knew Riley liked to sleep in the recording studio, so he had a bedroom and shower constructed right in their workplace. Riley and Jackson both stayed in the studio for four months straight working on the album, and when Jackson left for business in Europe, he called Riley to bring his friends and family over so he could stay on in the studio and finish the album.
“‘Don’t worry about the budget,’” Riley imitated in Jackson’s breathy voice.
“At one point I was scared to tell Michael he was off-key,” Riley recalled, “[but] Michael pulled me to the side and said, ‘... tell me if I’m off-key; tell me if I smell. You’re my friend.’”
The panel closed with Riley dispensing advice to aspiring producers:
“Be different. Don’t be what’s on the radio.”
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