When Timmy Gatling picked up the phone, it sounded like there was a party going on. “Timmy, you gotta come here right now, you gotta hear this song,” Teddy Riley said, over a booming drum track and chattering vocals. Gatling hung up and walked 15 minutes through Harlem to Riley’s apartment in Building 225 of the St. Nicholas Housing Project. When he entered the living room that Riley’s mother had allowed them to use as a recording studio, there was definitely a party going on. Riley loved to keep the windows open, beaming his new tunes all over the neighborhood — and tonight Harlem was witnessing the birth of an R&B masterpiece.
The beat playing on repeat — the debut of what would become “Groove Me,” the single from Riley and Gatling’s new band Guy — drove the party wild. Gatling worked on the lyrics and melody with Aaron Hall, Guy’s electric vocalist. Hall walked into the apartment’s bathroom, where blanket curtains soundproofed a makeshift vocal booth set up in the shower, and knocked out an outlet. Weeks later, the band would attempt to re-record the track in a professional studio, but nothing matched the raw vocal energy Hall recorded at the party that night.
Released in the summer of 1988, Guy’s self-titled debut album redefined R&B music for the hip-hop generation. With club hits like “Groove Me” and “I Like”, Dude is best known for his melodic, uptempo synth-funk, and for positioning Teddy Riley as the prodigy producer at the center of the new jack swing craze. Despite the name, Guy wasn’t the work of one guy but of three guys, all in their early twenties: Riley, the resourceful producer; Timmy Gatling, the passionate songwriter; and Aaron Hall, the voice of gold.
Childhood friends Riley and Gatling got their first taste of fame in 1984 as members of Kids at Work, a New Edition-inspired teen pop trio signed to CBS. Unlike New Edition, however, the Kids wrote all their own songs and played their own instruments – Teddy on keys and Timmy on bass. They grew up listening to a diverse mix of soul, funk, go-go, gospel and hip-hop, but the Kids at Work project aimed for safe, radio-friendly R&B. The band’s single “Singing Hey Yea” had major hits on New York’s R&B stations, peaking at No. 64 on Billboard’s Hot Rap/R&B Singles chart. The Kids released an LP, but the label dropped them after their manager, Gene Griffin, was locked up for drug dealing.
Reeling from disappointment, Teddy graduated from high school and dove headlong into the city’s hip-hop scene, helping former classmate Doug E. Fresh produce his hit single ” The Show,” which went gold in 1985. Rap music was transitioning from its sparse electro sound to the looser, funkier, sample-based beats that would define late-1990s hip-hop. 80. Riley’s early work for artists like Kool Moe Dee and Heavy D split the difference, mixing slinky synth basslines and intricate drum programming with whimsical keyboard interpolations and punchy James Brown samples. In 1987, Harlem R&B singer Keith Sweat, impressed by Riley’s hip-hop work, asked the producer to collaborate. Their debut track – a dramatic explosion of orchestral hits and flickering drum machines called “I Want Her” – shot to No. 1 on the Hot Rap/R&B Singles chart, whetting the public’s appetite for uptempo club tunes. which mixed more hip-hop production sensibilities with a smooth R&B tune. Riley coached Sweat through the sultry, nasal delivery that would become his signature and worked on every track of his next hit album, Make it last forever. But despite playing a central role in its creation, Riley was only paid $1,500 for his work and received a disappointing “co-producer” credit on four songs.