Never Trust a Big Butt and a Smile: The Lessons of New Jack Swing

New Jack pioneer Bobby Brown

(Editors Note: The names have been changed to protect those who dissed my jock / jammy jam.)

I’ve never been terribly lucky in love. I was shy, a late bloomer and not terribly self confident in regard to relationships. I’ve often wondered how these tragedies of the heart could have been avoided. What could I have done to make things different? Is there a way I could have averted all of these emotional disasters? Finally, 20 years too late, I’ve found the answer that was practically in front of me the entire time, New Jack Swing. That’s right, New Jack Swing, the musical style born in the late ’80s and catapulted headlong into the early ’90s is more than just a genre; it’s a lifestyle. New Jack Swing, a term coined by the screenwriter of New Jack City, is a style of music that combines jazz, hip-hop and R&B in a decidedly `fresh’ way. Most of the time, New Jack Swing groups were throwbacks to a different time, that of vocal groups such as the Inkspots, the Clovers and the Five Royales. In the era of New Jack, groups of well dressed and oddly coifed men and women seemed to crawl out of the woodwork.

As the last decade of the 20th century came into being, New Jack Swing was everywhere. In Living Color and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air ruled the airwaves with dancing Fly Girls and New Jack Slang. It even infiltrated the movie theaters and clothing lines. Recently, the style has made somewhat of resurgence, and after listening to the double CD of New Jack Swing: Gold, I realized that it was offering answers that I had been ignoring for years. But what it’s more known for is that it was a genre almost entirely devoted to the pursuit of sex. No matter whether the group was male or female, the songs of New Jack Swing were either about the conquest, the deed itself, or the regrets of hooking up with the wrong person. What better life lessons could I learn than those of New Jack Swing? After rediscovering New Jack Swing, and learning what it had to teach me, I’ve decided to make Teddy Riley my personal guru. You can have your Deepak Chopras, your L. Ron Hubbards and your Patrick Swayzes, I’ll take the guy from Guy and the man who put the `black’ in Blackstreet. No diggity, no doubt.

Lesson One: “Feel the magic in my hands when I touch and rub you the right way – Johnny Gill

When New Jack Swing was in its infancy, I was still a virgin and had only kissed one girl. So, when you think about it, had I paid attention, I could have really used the teachings of Teddy very early on. But let’s back up a bit. Throughout junior high and high school, I harbored unrequited crushes on the same girls for years; never bold enough to actually make any kind of move. In fact, the first time I got the nerve to ask a girl to `go with me,’ (the vernacular at the time) she responded the way that anyone unaware of the vernacular would respond, “where?” I was crushed. I couldn’t bring myself to explain that I wanted her to be my girlfriend. So, what would Teddy have done? Well, Teddy’s music wasn’t exactly around at the time, and that was somewhat the problem. This was pre-Teddy, but there was one group that splintered into various NJS subsets down the road, that being New Edition. Unfortunately, because New Jack Swing was still a few years away, the lessons from “Cool It Now” and “Mr. Telephone Man,” were the same kind of lovesick schlock that had me screwed up in the first place. What I really needed was a fly suit, the ability to dance, and keyboards that sounded like horns behind me as I sidled up beside C._____, giving her the neck and shoulder massage to end all neck and shoulder massages, singing, “Feel the magic in my hands when I touch and rub you the right way.

You see, with the masters of the methods of New Jack Swing, it’s all about giving. I had to see the love I had inside of me like a gift that I would bestow upon the lucky lady of my choice. That’s the key. That’s why the recent parody, “Dick in a Box” was so popular. It’s funny, but it’s true. “Rub You the Right Way,” at least without the innuendo, is appropriate in a couple of ways. For one, being in the oncoming stages of puberty, neck massages is about as mild as New Jack Swing gets. For another, I imagine that there were plenty of girls over the years that said, in response to questions of my desire, “I don’t know. He just rubs me the wrong way.” Well baby, that’s not how Johnny and I feel about it.

The lesson: Be a giver. If they don’t want to receive, get lost sister, there’s more fly honeys where you came from.

Lesson Two: “And once you’ve had a Roni, you never give her up.– Bobby Brown

This little nugget of wisdom, or possible threat, is from one of Bobby Brown’s first solo hits, “Roni.” It’s not my favorite early New Jack Swing hit by the Brownster. That would be “Every Little Step.” I’m sure you remember the video of Bobby, his two dancers and three honeys dancing around in front of giant letters that oh so subtly made up the song’s title. Rather than just enjoying the danceable sounds of the song, I should have listened to the words Bobby was singing in order to win over the girl of my dreams. A._____ was undoubtedly beautiful, a petite flower that I wanted to hold in my arms. But, she had a boyfriend. An older boyfriend. An older, good-looking, surfer boyfriend. There was no way I could win. Or, was there? The key in this conundrum is hindsight. You see, in most of his early love songs, Bobby was singing that song to Pebbles, his future wife, and future ex-wife. Then, of course, there was the trouble with Whitney. The point is, it didn’t matter that there was any kind of future for me and A._____. I just had to believe there was and put on my A-game to make her believe. It’s all about deception. There’s no way in hell that Bobby was going to be with any girl through `every little step,’ nor would he `never give her up,’ and with that philosophy, I could have snagged my own sweet thang. Hell, I had the same non-physique as Bobby Brown and his dancers as they appear in the “Every Little Step” video. If only I had a black jacket with my name down the sleeve that I could wear without a shirt.

The lesson: You catch more flies with honey, and more fly girls with `honey, you gots it goin’ on!’ Plus, a little self-promotion never hurt anyone.

(Side note: It’s now hilarious in retrospect that Bobby Brown sang “My Prerogative” in which the first line is “They say I’m crazy.” Time would prove Bobby to be Generation X’s Ike Turner. Then, outdoing Bobby in the sheer batshit crazy, cuckoo, nutjob category was Britney Spears, who later ironically covered the song.)

Lesson Three: “Never trust a big butt and a smile.– Bell Biv Devoe

In college, I started to embrace the sounds of the New Jack, but not anywhere near enough to employ its teachings. My frosh roommate was heavy into the sound, combating my Morrissey and Trashcan Sinatras cassettes with Al B. Sure and Tony Toni Tone. If only I had listened. I was halfway there. I actually owned a Cross Colours shirt, a baseball cap with the `40 Acres and a Mule’ logo, and a few Public Enemy t-shirts. Heck, my favorite movie at the time, despite my protestations that it was either Goodfellas, La Femme Nikita, Henry & June or Wild at Heart, was really House Party. But that wasn’t enough. I did actually own a vinyl relic of the New Jack Swing era, that being the 12-inch single of Ralph Tresvant’s “Sensitivity.” But Ralph’s falsetto assurances that girls didn’t need money or shallow advances those other guys had were dead wrong. I did give girls sensitivity, and they betrayed me, again and again. My first `real’ girlfriend in college, V._____, a girl I dated for three months, got up out of bed in the middle of the night in her dorm room and placed a call to another guy, professing her love. Feigning sleep, I heard the whole thing. It was only a matter of days until she would officially break it off. V.______ was another gorgeous one. She was blond with big saucer eyes that delved into your soul. She also had an amazing body. And that should have been my first clue.

You see, I shouldn’t have been taking cues from Ralph Tresvant. I should have been listening more to another of my favorites of the era, his old buddies, Bell Biv Devoe. That girl was poison, no doubt. And the true lessons were embedded in their other big hit, “Do Me.” Rather than cry into my pillow like the heartbroken fool I was, I should have been on the rebound, looking for the next girl with which I could `smack it up, flip it, rub it down, oh no!’ Oh yes. That’s what I’m talkin’ `bout. Of course, New Jack Swing can leave one confused. Every time I went to the pharmacy and asked for jimmy hats, they told me they didn’t sell hats. Cockblockers, frontin’ on my game and shit.

The lesson: Girls are poison. Wear protection.

Lesson Four: “Making love until we drown. I wanna sex you up.“- Color Me Badd

Over the years, with different girlfriends, lovers and even a wife, sex was spotty at best. In order to get the kind of play that I wanted, I needed to be more selfish. In fact, according to Color Me Badd, one of the more recognizable sets of faces from the New Jack Swing era, I had to be selfish to the point of danger. Sex was dangerous back then. AIDS was spreading uncontrollably and it had everyone in a tizzy. But the last thing I would have expected is to drown in mid-copulation. Maybe I was missing something. Sorry, but I wasn’t getting into water sports. Apparently, in order to have really, really good sex, I had to give myself so completely to the moment that I would nearly asphyxiate. I had finally figured out the whole `jimmy hat’ situation. Did I now have to wear scuba gear?

I doubt that anyone had heard the phrase “I Wanna Sex You Up” before Color Me Badd sang it in 1991. And maybe that’s what it takes to do the nasty with the girl of my choosing, coming up with a colorful phrase for sex. I’ve come up with a few, maybe you can tell me which one is the true panty dropper. There’s “nabbit in the holster,” “filling the OREO,” or “whack-a-mole.” Not sure if any of those can sound really sweet and sexy in four-part harmony, but I’m not sure that’s the point.

The lesson: Be selfish. If you want to `nabbit in that holster,’ you nabbit, goddammit. Don’t be beholden to any one honey, no matter how fly.

Lesson Five: “I’ll let you go further if you take the southern route.– TLC

And, we’re back to the giving. The idea here is, the giving doesn’t end with the flowers or the candy or the bling. Once you’re in the bedroom, the holy grail of rooms you were headed for in the first place, you’ve got to keep on giving in order to get. T-Boz put it best when she explained the `tit for tat,’ if you’ll excuse the pun, in making the quotation above. And that southern route isn’t a trip to Tijuana, I’ll tell you that right now, boy howdy! No, if you want to be given the best sex of your life, you’ve got to spit-shine the nubbin. But be careful! There are many dangers in store for the inexperienced lover. Why do you think Left-Eye wore so many condoms on her clothes? Sex is messy. That’s why Ms. Lopes wore a self-styled flak jacket for `sex shrapnel.’ Fire in the hole! Not to mention, if you’re too involved in the giving, you could be in danger of missing out on the reciprocation! I learned this lesson the hard way, which quickly became the not-so-hard way as my girlfriend fell asleep. And they accuse us of doing that! Harumph!

The lesson: Give in moderation. Save some sweet sweet love for your own bad self. As another female New Jack Swing group sang, “Hold on to your love, you’ve got to hold on.”

Thus endeth the lessons I have learned from Teddy Riley and his disciples of the church of the New Jack Swing. What all of this boils down to is self-confidence and swagger, an element of almost any rock and roll genre, except maybe alt-folk. I don’t know if I’ve got the stones to actually put these lessons into practice, but I’ll be damned if I ever again trust a big butt and a smile.

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