Interview: Teddy Riley on His Virginia Years

Catherine McGann / Hulton Archive

Over the past 20 years, Virginia has been a hotbed of musical innovation. Missy Elliott. Timbaland. The Neptunes. Teddy Riley. Over the course of three weeks, Chris Williams is taking an in-depth look at this area of the United States, examining why it’s birthed such talent. In part one of our series we discussed the origins of Missy Elliott and Timbaland. In that interview, Magoo mentioned Teddy Riley as one of the most important musical influences in the area in the late ’80s, so Chris down with the legendary, pioneering producer to find out about his connection to Virginia.

What made you choose Virginia Beach, Virginia as your next musical destination after you lived and started your successful producing career in Harlem?

I was losing many of my best friends. They were all getting killed.

Well, let me put it into perspective because a lot was happening to me at that time. I was losing many of my best friends. They were all getting killed. I went to Virginia on a trip with Rich Porter, Alpo [Martinez], Azie [Faison], and all my friends and street big brothers from Harlem. I call them that because they were all older than me. When I went to Virginia, I had a different vision. They were there for the girls, but I had a vision of coming there to start my own music business. I wondered where I was going to get my outlet. Then I realized I already had my outlet. My outlet was Al Taylor at MCA Records. I had the startup money from MCA Records. He gave me my first record deal. It was Future Records. My first record on there was “Rump Shaker.” But before that, I didn’t have any plans. My vision was just to go to Virginia. It was the place where God wanted me to be. Even though I knew it would be a challenge going there and trying to build a music scene when there wasn’t one.

When I opened up shop, everything started coming to my Future Recording Studios. The two things that made me go down there was the spirit of God and my trip with Alpo, Rich, Azie, and the guys from the block. They had a bus ride set up for us to go down there, and me and my girlfriend at that time were on it. We went down to Virginia Beach, and we stayed at this hotel called The Holiday. As soon as you got to the beach, it was the first hotel you could see. Everybody stayed at that hotel. All I can remember is that I had a vision about doing a video there. I wasn’t even in Guy yet. I was actually 16 or 17 years-old when this trip happened. This was my vision. I said to myself that if I wanted to live anywhere else, it would be here. The same girl, who was with me then, was with me when I moved to Virginia. Her name was Donna. You heard her voice on Guy’s song, “Spend the Night.” This trip happened in 1983.

When did you settle down permanently in Virginia Beach?

I moved down to Virginia Beach permanently at the end of 1990.

Blackstreet - Joy + Before I Let You Go

So about seven years later, the vision you had started to come to fruition. When you moved down to Virginia permanently, what was your plan of action to create a thriving music scene there?

My plan of action was to build a studio and a business down there. I wanted to have my own empire. It took me six months to build Future Recording Studios because I was working with Michael Jackson at the same time. While I was working with Michael Jackson, we didn’t have the studio fully up and running. The A room was almost finished, but I had to leave to work with Michael. This was in 1991. As soon as I got there in 1990, I made preparations and arrangements right away. I had someone to start the process of finding me a building. At that time, my manager went on a warpath to try and find me a studio. He didn’t like the idea that I wanted to move to Virginia, but he didn’t know my vision. When I started making my vision a reality, that’s when he got it.

I didn’t know a lot about facilitating things, and at that time, a woman who was like a sister to me came down to work for me. Her name was Donna Moore. Donna came down and helped me to build the infrastructure, the business, and put it into motion. At the time, she was clashing with my management. I had to let one of them go. She got me up and running, but I had to let her go because there was just so much going on. I felt like I couldn’t keep going in the same direction where people kept clashing with each other. We remained friends, and she is still like a sister to me. This is when I brought down my family just to run the studio. My management did everything else. I remember when the studio got up and running, Aaron [Hall] and Damion [Hall] moved down to Virginia as well because everyone started following me. When I finished The Future album, I moved to Virginia. This is when I lost my little brother in Wreckx-n-Effect, and I made the song “Long Gone.” As soon as I closed my deal with MCA Records, I immediately picked up and moved.

The Neptunes were so ahead of their time, just like New Jack Swing was for me.

After you were done working with Michael Jackson and you came back to Virginia, did you immediately start looking for talent to work with in the area?

Well, I had people who were there to help facilitate finding artists, but when I got back from working with Michael, I immediately started working on Bobby Brown’s Bobby project. This is what I did when I first came back because Bobby and Whitney [Houston] were in Virginia waiting for me. That Dangerous album with Michael was a long project. [laughs] Thank you, Tommy Mottola for putting out that commercial, so Michael could say, “I’m finished. We have to mix and master.” We would’ve never been finished. We would’ve been tracking and tracking and tracking. Michael was like, “Teddy, you have to get back here. We have to start mixing and mastering.” He started cursing and just saying, “Tommy Mottola put out the first commercial and pushed the button on the project. We have to be done in 12 days.” And I was like, “Thank you, God.” [laughs] I finally had a break to come home for a minute.

When you were going out and looking for talent in Virginia Beach to groom, what were you looking for in these young artists at the talent shows you put on in the area?

I was looking for someone who was different. If you were different and weren’t the typical person that went up there and sang a Luther Vandross or Whitney Houston song, you were in. If you were a person who got up there and didn’t start rapping from a book and you would freestyle, you were in. I wanted someone unique. I was never one of the judges, but I was the CEO. I’d tell the judges, “You can go ahead and give them big points, but I already picked my winner.”

Do you remember how many talent shows you created back then?

We actually put on a few. It was leading up to the winners becoming finalists at our final show. There were winners each night, and we had finalists of the winners of the ten nights we had.

From all these talent shows, how many artists did you sign to your imprint?

I signed one, and they were The Neptunes. Everybody else in Virginia, because of me going to certain places or being associated with certain people, artists that came in, who never competed in a talent show before, were signed because they were good and they were recommended.

Blackstreet - Happy Home

What was the thing that made you believe that The Neptunes had the potential to become stars?

They all had different styles. I had in mind what I wanted to do with Chad, Pharrell, and Mike Etheridge. So I started working with them. I worked the most with Chad and Pharrell until they decided they wanted to do their Neptunes project. They came to me with their records, but they had a different sound. They weren’t ready for the marketplace. Those guys were so ahead of their time, just like New Jack Swing was for me. Their sound was ahead of its time, so there were certain things that we didn’t know – if their sound was going to make it back then, but maybe in the future. That’s what The Neptunes were about. They represented the future.

Chad played the saxophone really well. He’s like Najee. Chad did a lot of saxophone solos for me. He played the saxophone on Blackstreet’s “Happy Home,” and if there’s a saxophone being played on any of my records, it was Chad playing the saxophone. Chad is professional DJ as well. In school, all he did was play keyboards, piano, saxophone, clarinet, and a bunch of instruments. He played a bunch of instruments that were unexpected from a guy like him. The thing about it is, to me, he wasn’t Asian. He was this black kid in an Asian body. He had so much soul. I have to give him the props that he deserves. Chad was the special cat. It was fifty-fifty. It was Pharrell and him. It wasn’t because of Pharrell that I signed The Neptunes, and it wasn’t because of Chad that I signed them. It was both of them. I knew from those two I was going to get a great production team, if I didn’t have a group. Chad is an incredible producer, and Pharrell is an incredible visionary. That’s the talent. Pharrell was the guy who could sing and beat box the idea, and then Chad would get up and make what Pharrell was humming. That’s how crazy talented The Neptunes were. We were all technicians in Virginia.

When did you officially move away from Virginia?

I moved away in 2002.

Were there other artists or producers that you discovered or were a part of your production team while you were in Virginia?

Yes. I can tell you all the producers who were in my camp besides Pharrell. One was Hannon [Lane]. He still works with Timbaland. Another one was Danjahandz. I worked with Nottz and Bink Dog. All those guys came through the camp. They were there at one time or another.

Wreckx-N-Effect - Rump Shaker

It’s amazing that this area in Virginia birthed so much talent.

As far as talent and major producers go, Virginia is right at the top, and if they’re not at the top, they’re right there because of having Timbaland, who is still doing what he is doing, Pharrell, who is still doing what he is doing, myself, I’m still doing what I love to do, and we’re all successful. Producers came to Virginia to actually be a part of the movement. Rodney Jerkins came to Virginia. He came to Virginia, sat in my studio, and waited to meet me, so I could actually hear his stuff. He came from my camp as well. Virginia has played a large part in music from 1990 to now. Virginia is a big part of my life. I feel blessed to have been one of the ones who was actually a part of building talent in Virginia. Missy Elliott used to come to my studio every day. I was trying to sign Missy when she was still with her group, Sista. She was holding up that group, and I told her one day, “You better figure it out in a minute. You need to go solo.” She didn’t listen to me, but later on, she did it. She saw me one day and said, “I did it!” I’ll tell you another person who came to me, but I didn’t sign her because I didn’t think she was ready back then. It was Da Brat. Da Brat was with me first. Once the floodgates opened in Virginia, the talent and the hits kept on coming.

By Chris Williams on April 8, 2015

On a different note