Entertainment Weekly

Stay Connected

Subscribe

Advertise With Us

Learn More

Skip to content

Article

Terry Riley's life

Terry Riley’s life — His work on Michael Jackson’s ”Dangerous” has made him music’s mix master of choice

Posted on

”Look at this!” shouts Teddy Riley, waving his telephone messages. ”Barbra Streisand called!”

Riley, the improbably slight and modest producer Michael Jackson tapped to bring a harder edge to key tracks on his Dangerous album, is holed up in the $3 million recording studio MCA Records built for him last year in his city of choice, Virginia Beach, Va. He’s working with R&B superstar Bobby Brown on what’s sure to be one of the most talked-about albums of 1992 — the long-delayed follow-up to Brown’s smashing 1988 album, Don’t Be Cruel.

But something’s not quite clicking. Riley cocks his head, thinking a minute.

”Barbra Streisand,” he repeats, murmuring the name as if it were some kind of mantra. ”What songs she do?”

At 25, Teddy Riley is already one of black music’s most powerful producers, but he doesn’t quite know where to place someone like Barbra Streisand. Riley rose from the streets of Harlem to become a rap and R&B producer, and won widespread industry respect in early 1987, when he was barely out of his teens, by producing Keith Sweat’s ”Make It Last Forever.” With that song he launched a street-smart cross between R&B and hip-hop called new jack swing, which, in hits by Sweat, Bobby Brown, and Riley’s own million-selling trio, Guy, helped define a new era in black music and soared on the charts. He has since produced acts ranging from Heavy D. to Boy George and Jane Child, but Streisand is still worlds away. Thanks to Dangerous, though, it’s no surprise that she — and everyone else in the music industry — knows who he is.

”I still don’t believe it that I worked with Michael Jackson,” Riley says, sitting behind his black desk in his large, lush office, with Terminator 2 playing on a full-size movie screen that covers one wall. In a corner is a small pool table, a recent gift from Jackson. ”I feel Michael and Elvis are on the same level,” he says shyly. ”He knows I have the street edge. But he enhanced my sound, he really did.” With a large package of Skittles, his favorite candy, in front of him, he seems more like a self-conscious teenager spending the day in his father’s office than a powerful producer with a reputation for relentless perfectionism.

But he’s definitely a man in charge. Two years ago, the shooting death of his half brother in Harlem convinced him to move his family — including his girlfriend of six years, Donna, and their young daughter (they’ve since had another) — to Virginia. Like his fellow R&B producers L.A. Reid and Babyface, who moved their own operation to Atlanta, he now has clout enough to set up shop wherever he wants. ”It’s so quiet here, and not too many people know what’s my next move,” says Riley, who has installed two closed-circuit TVs in his studio so he and his staff of five can keep an eye on the BMWs and Mercedeses they keep in the parking lot. ”I’m secretive about everything I do. I like it to be a surprise to everyone.”

Back in his studio — decorated with brightly colored geometric shapes because, he says, ”color helps me think” — Riley becomes the self-assured captain on a multicolored sea of switches, twisting back and forth in his swivel chair at the mammoth control board and repeatedly jumping up to adjust levels on his high-tech sound machines. Bobby Brown is sequestered in a dark sound booth separated from the studio by a heavy glass door; he peels off his jacket, lifts up the sweatshirt he wears underneath, and runs his hands up and down his well-muscled chest, belting out ”Get Away,” a high-energy song that was written by Riley: ”I gotta find a place/I can hide away…”

Riley, singing along in a loud, clear voice, thrusts his arms into the air, like a prizefighter who knows the decision will go his way.

Three hours later, the session over, Riley is still pumped up; he decides to go bowling (as he does a couple of times each week), and drives to Brunswick Plaza Bowl, a 40-lane place that’s empty except for Riley’s entourage and the screeching teenage members of GirlsTown, a group Riley says he’s ”grooming” and proudly refers to as ”five white girls…Barbie dolls who can sing, too.” Plaza Bowl’s owners bring over ice cream cake and large paper cups of Sprite, and the occasion starts to feel like an impromptu birthday party. Everyone bowls, cheering at strikes and screeching when a ball lands in the gutter.

But Riley, who has gamely donned red-and-green bowling shoes, is nowhere to be found. Missing turn after turn, he walks up and down the lanes, picking up every ball, determined not to play until his slender fingers find the one that fits them perfectly, unwilling to stop till he gets one exactly right.