The Best New Jack Swing Performances from the Arsenio Hall Show

Slate's Culture Blog
June 19 2012 2:09 PM

Revisiting New Jack Swing with Arsenio Hall

The Arsenio Hall Show was known for many things: the “dog pound,” announcer Burton Richardson’s incredible pipes (“Arseni-oooooooooo”), Bill Clinton’s sax-wielding guest spot. But the talk show’s most significant cultural contribution is almost certainly the music it helped introduce to millions of TV viewers. Airing from 1989 to 1994, the show coincided with a golden age of hip-hop; on the final episode, KRS One, A Tribe Called Quest, The Wu-Tang Clan, Guru, Das EFX, and many, many other major hip-hop artists performed on stage together.

But the musical genre with which the show is most closely associated is not hip-hop, which had been around for over a decade before Hall’s hosting duties began and which, of course, continues to thrive today. It’s New Jack Swing, which dates to roughly the same period as the show. The genre’s name was coined just a couple years before Hall hit the airwaves, in a 1987 Village Voice Barry Michael Cooper profile of Teddy Riley, the architect behind the sound. And by the time The Arsenio Hall Show was cancelled, New Jack Swing was a punchline, thanks to highly mockable acts like Color Me Badd.* By then, though, the genre had helped to redefine both hip-hop and R&B. And one can trace its entire brief history through performances on the Arsenio Hall Show. With the news that Arsenio is coming back to late-night, we figured, now’s the time.

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Starting, of course, with a song that took its name from Cooper’s coinage: “New Jack Swing,” by Wreckx-N-Effect. When the group performed that single on the show, Hall began by introducing the genre, calling it “the sound of the ’90s.”

Guy’s eponymous album has been singled out by at least one New Jack fan as the place to start when it comes to the genre. And of course, the group performed on Arsenio—playing “Teddy’s Jam 2,” named after New Jack mastermind Teddy Riley.

Troop—an acronym for Total Respect of Other People—has apparently been rehearsing this year, with an eye toward a comeback. But their heyday was during the Arsenio era; their 1989 album Attitude went gold. On the show, they performed a single from that record, a catchy tune called “I’m Not Souped.”

One of the most popular practitioners of New Jack was Bobby Brown. He began his career with New Edition, often cited as forerunners of the sound, and his album Don’t Be Cruel helped define the  genre for many listeners. (The title track appears on the New Jack Swing Radio Station in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.) On Arsenio, Brown performed “Every Little Step,” which reached #3 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Finally, it’s worth marking the end of New Jack’s brief moment with the aforementioned Color Me Badd. Their first big hit, “I Wanna Sex You Up,” appeared on the soundtrack to New Jack City, a movie written by Barry Michael Cooper, who was hired to work on the script by Quincy Jones, after the latter read his 1987 Village Voice piece. Not surprisingly, Color Me Badd performed the song on The Arsenio Hall Show.

That song is actually better than I had remembered it, but those outfits have not dated well. As one YouTube commenter writes: “Ah-ha, so these are the real life 'dick in a box' guys.” Pretty much.

* This post originally referred to Color Me Badd as a "one-hit wonder." In fact, Color Me Badd had three hit songs. Also, Barry Michael Cooper's profile of Teddy Riley was first published in 1987, not 1988.

David Haglund is a senior editor at Slate. He runs Brow Beat, Slate's culture blog.