Keith Sweat’s ‘Make It Last Forever’ Announced the Future of R&B
In 1987, the tides were changing in R&B.
Throughout the majority of the 1980s, the genre's popular sound had been conversely defined by synth-funk bands like Zapp and Cameo and smooth balladeers like Luther Vandross and Anita Baker. Hip-hop was gaining ground; Run-D.M.C. had broken big in 1984 and stars like LL Cool J, the Beastie Boys and Doug E. Fresh had followed them into the national consciousness. The R&B elders hadn't been too embracing of the rap revolution, but with the success of albums like Run-D.M.C.'s Raising Hell, it was obvious that a trickle had become a cultural flood.
And within a few months of Raising Hell's multiplatinum breakthrough, R&B was about to join the revolution; courtesy of two New Yorkers battling in two rival bands.
Aspiring singer-songwriter Keith Sweat was in a band called Jamilah that competed against rising producer Teddy Riley's Total Climax at a battle of the bands in New York City. Riley was the keyboardist in Total Climax and was impressed with Sweat as a performer. Riley was the man behind tracks for the Classical Two and Doug E. Fresh's hit single "The Show." Sweat, conversely, was working as stockbroker on the New York Stock Exchange by day and recording at night, Jamliah had been the closest he'd gotten to a big break. But he knew Riley had the sound that he wanted. He tracked the young producer down in Harlem, and he found Teddy shooting dice. After Sweat joined the game (and racked up), he told Riley he wanted to work together.
"I told him I don't do R&B," Riley recalled to The Atlantic in 2012. "He said, 'You can take a shot at my music. Just give me the hip hop and learn some chords.' I told him, 'All right, I know a few chords.' I knew some chords because I was doing some stuff for rap and not for R&B."
"It was a time of [new artists] coming out with new music trying to make an impact on the music scene," Sweat shared to Las Vegas Magazine in January. "So me dropping an album in 87...was [making] a statement and somewhat different than what was out because you had a harder drum beat in the back of R&B music, and sultry type of music. The music scene at the time when I came out was good but I helped to make it better.
"I just added to what was already out there—with a different type of vibe. I kind of flipped the script a little bit along with people that I worked with, like Teddy Riley."
"I Want Her" and "Don't Stop Your Love" would be the biggest singles from the album and they're both the most innovative. "I Want Her" has the deep bass and digital percussiveness of the funkiest hip-hop tracks; with all of the melodicism of R&B and pop hits by artists like New Edition. It would become the album's biggest chart hit, peaking at No. 5 in late 1987. The song was a beat and hook that Riley already had; with Sweat fleshing out the melody. They wrote "Don't Stop Your Love" together. Like "I Want Her," it was more sonically aggressive than what was standard in mid-80s R&B, but the groove was still there and undeniable. It was sleek, edgy and dancefloor-ready. It was the future.
The slow-burning "How Deep Is Your Love" is a quiet storm staple that features one of the most distinctive bass grooves in contemporary R&B. The song would become a fixture of late night urban radio playlists and house parties well into the 1990s. It's not hard to see why "How Deep Is Your Love" would become one of the most enduring R&B ballads of its era; its practically the blueprint for what later acts like R. Kelly and Gerald LeVert would perfect in 90s quiet storm. The album's title track would become one of the most revered R&B ballads of the 1980s, a duet between Sweat and former background singer Jacci McGhee. It was another song for which Riley already had the framework; Sweat improvised the melody while Sweat was playing the instrumental. In the years to come, "Make It Last..." would see numerous covers, samples and references in the music of Mariah Carey, Chanté Moore and T.I., among others. Amazing when one considers that Riley was making all this up as he went along.
"It was a really organic process. I had no formula," Riley said in 2012. "I had no plans to do R&B music. New jack swing would've been just rap if I didn't get with Keith Sweat."
"Something Just Ain't Right" was another uptempo slice of what would soon be dubbed "new jack swing." Written about a faltering relationship Sweat was in at the time, it would become another R&B hit when it was released as a single in 1988. "Right and a Wrong Way" showcased Sweat's unique brand of bedroom-ready R&B. Owing a debt to the smooth grooves of acts like the Isley Brothers and Jeffrey Osbourne, Sweat's nasally voice (a suggestion of Riley's) made his delivery distinct, but it was his and Riley's unique brand of bass-heavy balladry that would set the stage for the hip-hop soul sound of the 1990s.
Make It Last Forever would be released on November 24, 1987 and was a platinum-selling debut for Keith Sweat. It announced a new brand of R&B that was informed by hip-hop's edge and sound, laying the foundation for the new jack swing revolution that was about to take over R&B. Within a year, artists like Bobby Brown, Pebbles, Karyn White, a rejuvenated New Edition and Riley's own group Guy would push new jack swing to the forefront of popular music. Riley's blend of melody and hip-hop production would be era-defining and would reverberate for decades, even after the demise of new jack swing's production style.
Riley's innovations would echo in the contemporaneous work of fellow superproducers like the already-established Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, as well as L.A. & Babyface and Al B. Sure/Kyle West; who would all deliver genre-defining work within months of Make It Last Forever. Established artists like the aforementioned New Edition and megastars Janet Jackson and Michael Jackson would enjoy major chart success with new jack swing-influenced albums; even more middle-of-the-road artists like Whitney Houston and James Ingram would dabble in new jack; and by the early 1990s, newer producers like Dallas Austin and DeVante Swing would also stamp their mark in the sound.
But it was Make It Last Forever that sparked the shift.
"Keith Sweat was the reason I got into R&B music and [continued] with it after we finished his album," Riley said in 2012. "He is really responsible for me taking a chance on R&B music."
That chance would prove fruitful for both, as Sweat also went on to become one of the standard-bearers for R&B in the 1990s. These two New Yorkers may have seemingly come from different musical worlds, but their joining forces changed the course of popular music—quite literally. Make It Last Forever set the table for Brown's Don't Be Cruel, and even the hip-hop soul sound that would usurp new jack swing in the wake of the success of Mary J. Blige's What's the 411? in 1992. Bringing hip-hop and R&B together reinvented both genres in ways that would linger for generations. This was a musical risk that continues to pay dividends.
R&B fans the world over are still grateful.
Watch Keith Sweat's Video for "Something Just Ain't Right":
Watch Keith Sweat's Video for "Don't Stop Your Love":