Nineteen eighty-eight … the year that still grooves me

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Editor’s Note: This entry is part of a special radio and blog project saluting the year 1988. Along with Friday’s edition of Put the Needle on the Record on radio station WFMU, writers Michael A. Gonzales and Donnell Alexander and bloggers Invisible Woman and yours truly all offered our musings on that unforgettable year. Check out the entries and take a look back.

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When I was approached about reflecting on the year 1988, it was hard for me to even wrap my mind around the fact that it was 20 long years ago. After all, my existence at the time was that of a smallish, bespectacled 9-year-old fourth grader whose life was filled with the simplest of delights, an endless summer of “The Cosby Show” on Thursday nights, Super Mario Brothers, weekends at Granny’s house and plain old good times. It’s a time I remember fondly and often wish I could recapture, as it really was one of the sweetest, most memorable periods of my life. As is often the case when you look back at your childhood, it’s the little things that had the greatest impact. Not only was I allowed to pick out my first pair of “big kid” sneakers that year in the form of a funky fresh pair of British Knights (complete with the dope BK Button), I also got what I thought was the greatest birthday present in the history of the world: my very first stereo, Plexiglas covered turntable and all.

As far as I was concerned, I had arrived.

Though I’d had my own little suitcase record player that I played random 45s on for a while, this was the real deal. Since most record labels market recording artists to kids between the ages of 8 and 16, I was a prime target for the sounds that radiated from what was then Hot 103, the top black radio station in Hampton, Virginia, that’s now known as 103 Jamz. The beauty of this era was that you’d hear any number of cuts at black radio, a phenomenon lost in today’s conglomerate-driven culture. Loose Ends, Pretty Poison, Anita Baker and George Michael all could easily pop up in the same set, a sign of what was a diverse, wonderfully open time in music. Like most kids growing up in the ‘burbs of Virginia, I fancied my fair share of bubble gum: Aside from mainstays Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, Madonna, Duran Duran and New Edition, upstart pin-ups like The Boys, Expose, New Kids on the Block and Rick Astley were favorites of mine, artists who tickled my fancy for delectable dance beats and catchy, sing-along hooks. (I’m still a sucker for a good hook, even today.) Soon, however, the vocal-driven, street savvy vibe of a burgeoning style of black music would take hold of me, shaping not only my musical youth but the adulthood that would follow.

It was a little thing called new jack swing, and it was unlike anything I’d ever heard.

Critics deride the style as the death of black music because of its lack of organic instrumentation, but if they had looked past their own personal biases, they would have seen it was quite the opposite. It was old school and new school at the same time, a melding of the sensibilities of the sensual vocal-based soul of singers like Teddy Pendergrass and Stephanie Mills and the street-paved swagger of Run DMC and Kool Moe Dee. In truth, it was the first real identifiable movement in R&B music my generation experienced – and the last before hip-hop rose to prominence. While some of the songs that emerged during the period need to remain distant memories, others are unforgettable. Al B. Sure!’ s “Nite and Day,” The Mac Band’s “Roses are Red,” Vanessa Williams’ “The Right Stuff” and Johnny Kemp’s “Just Got Paid” were some of the year’s biggest hit singles, perfectly capturing the care-free, light-hearted spirit of the time. Still, if I had to pin down a flagship act for the new jack swing era it would be Teddy Riley and brothers Aaron and Damion Hall, collectively known as Guy. (Timmy Gatling, not Damion Hall, appears in early promotional photos, as he left the lineup before the group took off.) Their self-titled debut remains the definitive moment in new jack swing, an album that’s as fly now as it was two decades ago.

Though producer Riley – “The King of New Jack Swing” – had used the new jack swing style to great effect on Keith Sweat’s “Make it Last Forever” LP in 1987, he perfected his formula with “Guy” (No. 1 R&B/No. 27 pop), one of the first albums released on Andre Harrell’s Uptown imprint. (Al B. Sure!, Jeff Redd, Mary J. Blige and Jodeci all called Uptown home at one time or another.) A blend of percolating, hip-hop flavored beats, subtle samples and soulful vocals, it’s one of those records that works in the contexts of both listening and dancing. This wasn’t cold, assembly line soul, as the synth-tinged melodies are crisp and airy and the beats varied – a perfect platform for Aaron Hall’s crooning and the group’s minimal but effective harmonies. Aaron Hall was the group’s secret weapon, the ingredient that gave them a slight edge over the competition. He was the antithesis of the pretty-boy singers that populated much of radio in the late ‘80s, The Gap Band’s Charlie Wilson with a new jack, high-top faded twist. This was without question a producer-driven medium but these brothers didn’t play second string to the beat, which ultimately is what makes the record click. By the time the album took its final bow, five of the 10 tracks had become R&B hits.

The album’s strongest moments are the up-tempo numbers, sweaty concoctions that are as funky and flashy as the leather suits the trio sports on the album cover. “Groove Me” (No. 4 R&B), “Teddy’s Jam” (No. 5 R&B), “I Like” (No. 2 R&B), “Spend the Night” (No. 15 R&B) and “‘Round and ‘Round (Merry Go Round of Love)” (No. 24 R&B) are certified bangers that make you want to dust off your running man, classics that sum up the period like few others. “Teddy’s Jam” and “I Like” in particular have held up well, as they boast of some of the most clever arrangements Riley and co-producer Gene Griffin brought to the table for the project. “I Like” remains my personal favorite, because it conjures memories of my sister’s baby blue Hyundai Excel and the times I was privileged enough to cruise the streets of Hampton with her after she started driving. But I digress.

As one would expect, Aaron Hall did the damn thing on the ballads. “Piece of My Love” and “Goodbye Love,” though not charting singles, were Quiet Storm staples and helped put the new jack slow jam on the map. Atmospheric and engaging, the songs are the kind of period pieces that could easily be labeled dated but strike a chord in people that elevates them to a level of eternal perfection. It’s in these songs that Aaron Hall proved he was a standup singer worthy of accolades stretching beyond what he received both as a part of Guy and as a soloist. More importantly, they helped strengthen the group’s identity in what became a field filled with imitators waiting to cash in on the approach they played a key role in crystalizing.

Though Guy would continue having hits via the albums “The Future” and “Guy III,” their debut remains the quintessential new jack swing exercise and the high water mark of their career. A seminal signpost of the era, it’s a feel-good snapshot of ‘88 that is more than mere nostalgia, as evidenced by the fact it was issued last July as an expanded, two-disc special edition. In that album, you hear the street-laced soul that would become the hits of ‘90s labels Bad Boy Entertainment and Rowdy Records. But there’s nothing like the real thing, and it began with this listening experience.

Together, “Guy” and the other popular releases of 1988 tell a sonic story of a simpler time in our lives. Some of it was frothy, teen dream pop and some of it was pure soul – but it all captures something in each of us and serves as one of the few uniting forces in our common consciousness. It’s as much about the music as it is the feelings it stirs.

And when I’m old and gray, those jams from 1988 will still groove me.

Check out Guy and the video for “Groove Me” below.

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4 responses to “Nineteen eighty-eight … the year that still grooves me

  1. Guy was hot!!! Pop in my little casette and we would hit the streets going to Coliseum Mall. We do have some very fond memories and music plays a part in most of them.

  2. My Dad has that record, I was four when brought it. More of 1990s kid, I know all of those songs, and was one of the few in first grade that commenced the running man dance.

    You’ve outdone yourself with this piece, both personal yet professional, you’ve struck an integral balance. I’m proud of you and how you’ve grown as a writer and music commentator (giggle). Keep doing it.-QH

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