When Nelson George sat down to write about the state of R&B for The Village Voice in the late Eighties, two super-producers were frequently on his mind: Teddy Riley, who helped invent a vicious new fusion called New Jack Swing in New York City, and his rival Babyface, a melodic mastermind based at the time in Los Angeles (but about to decamp to Atlanta).
George was writing from New York, and he was initially high on Riley, a hometown hero, but lukewarm on Babyface’s “computer-chip production.” In 1989, however, Babyface released his Tender Lover album, and George’s opinion started to shift. “The beats [on Tender Lover] don’t pound you like Riley’s,” George wrote. But, he added, “none of the current New York hip-hop influenced producer auteurs (Riley, Kyle West, [Keith] Sweat) have compiled as many exquisitely hummable dance songs on one album. New Jack Swing began uptown, but Tender Lover says out-of-towners… have shifted the balance of power.”
Both Riley and Babyface went on to have remarkable careers. Riley kept finding ways to mix ankle-breaking hip-hop beats with smooth R&B, playing a crucial role in Michael Jackson’s Dangerous, forming and producing the hit group Blackstreet, and signing a young Pharrell Williams. Babyface followed in the suave tradition of Smokey Robinson and Luther Vandross, writing and producing one perfect ballad after another. His discography is a long trail of career-making million-sellers — for Karyn White, the Whispers, Bobby Brown, Toni Braxton, Tevin Campbell, Boyz II Men, and many more.
Earlier this month, more than 20 years after George first compared the two producers, they faced off in a widely viewed battle on Instagram, trading multi-platinum singles and old war stories while around half a million listeners watched, stuck at home in the middle of a pandemic. The battle launched a million memes, and viewers were so excited by what they saw as Babyface’s understated shit-talking — the casual placement of Grammy awards behind him, his supposed lack of interest in Riley’s remixes — that some nicknamed him Shadyface.
Babyface says that was all unintentional. His red velvet jacket was “just an old jacket I have;” he brought the Grammys to the studio “because I had to make it romantic.” “Anything we do, it’s gotta be excellent,” he adds.
Rolling Stone spoke with Babyface about his own experience with Covid-19, why he was initially reluctant to face off against Riley, and how to prepare to counter Wreckx-N-Effect’s “Rump Shaker.”
Earlier this month, you said that you had the symptoms of Covid-19 but that you recovered.
You didn’t know where you got it from. I was working that weekend in Vegas at the Mirage Theater. I came back here on Monday. I was feeling pretty good, and I went and worked in the studio again. Tuesday night I felt a tickle in my throat. Wednesday morning it was a burn. So I went to my doctor to get checked out — I had some dates coming up, and I didn’t want to not be able to sing. He said, “this could be bacterial, could be viral, I’m not sure.” I went to my studio, and just in case, I said, I’m going to hunker down here.
What were your symptoms?
That night the symptoms started — fever, body aches, night sweats. It ended up being five to six days of that. In those days I didn’t get an answer of whether I was negative or positive. I was just sitting there going through it. At least for those first few days I was like, maybe it’s just the flu. I didn’t get an answer until that Sunday — ok, the other test came back negative, so chances are you’ve got Covid-19. I was still too down to go get a test so I waited until that Wednesday. My wife went in that Monday because she was around me. She had a little cough but not much of anything else. After she got her test, she lost her sense of smell and taste.
Was it easy to find a test?
It wasn’t. We made some calls trying to find people who could do a test. You had to go to an emergency room, and at that point, if you didn’t know whether you had it, you didn’t want to go there and potentially catch it. It was a catch-22. My first doctor said go to the emergency room and get a test.
It took ten days for my wife to get the test back; when she got it back, she was positive. I went two days after her, and it took ten days for me as well. When I got my test back, I was positive. That was 17 days after [I first felt sick]. I was in the studio hunkering down for 17 days. When I got the test back, I was already on the road to recovery, probably pretty close to negative at that point. Then I waited another week and went and got another test to make sure we were both negative.
There’s nothing they can really do unless you can’t breathe. They’re just going to tell you to go home and ride it out. So I was doing that — I’ll only go there if I have trouble breathing. Sometimes you psych yourself out thinking you are having trouble breathing but you’re actually ok. I was able to get one of those oxygen meters to watch that closely. That helped me get through it, knowing that my oxygen level was ok.
What did you do while hunkered down in your studio?
I did Netflix. I thought I was going to work, but I was too truly drained sometimes to even watch TV. It was hard. You just have to lay there. Ultimately I had to get up and walk around, walk around my building. I did slowly start feeling better. I had a mask, I had gloves. It gets past you, but you still feel the results of it. Now I’m like 100 percent. But even when you’re negative, you can still feel like something’s there.
Once you recovered, when did you start hearing about this potential beat battle?
I initially got a call about it from a couple friends. I said, “I don’t know about that. If I do it, I gotta do it with L.A. [Reid], because we did a lot of stuff together.” So I never confirmed it initially. Somehow or another it got scheduled, but I never confirmed it. So when that first date showed up on a Sunday, I didn’t show up. I wasn’t prepared. I wasn’t gonna do it. It became a big thing. Everybody was on me about it.
I ultimately heard from L.A. He’s like,” you should do this, and don’t worry about me.” Andre Harrell [founder of Uptown Records and later president of Motown] was calling. Puffy was calling. They were like, “this is something you should do. It’s not a battle, it’s a celebration of music, a celebration of black excellence.” They were pushing it in that way.
They made a point to me — it’s an escape for people. We’re all at home, we’ve got nothing to do. We need something to do. And what better than to go spend the night listening to great music from Teddy and myself.
So you were initially reluctant just because —
I don’t battle. That’s not my thing. That’s more of a hip-hop thing. That’s not a midwestern thing. That’s an East Coast thing, a West Coast thing. We from the midwest.
I’m sure Puff is persuasive when he gets on the phone.
The funniest stuff he did was he said, “Face, fuck that shy shit. Go do this.” It was hilarious. Ok, maybe I’ll go do this.
I was still a little nervous when we first started. The whole thing of doing Instagram, running it, that’s not something I do, something that I’ve done. It was new for me, the whole process. We got through it. It was beautiful to see so many people coming to hear the music. That’s ultimately why I ended up embracing it a little more. But it’s not like I’m gonna be — this isn’t my new thing.
But what I got out of it was there were a lot of people asking for music from Waiting to Exhale while I was on. I couldn’t play it, because I didn’t know what Teddy was going to play. We had particular songs ready to answer certain things; I didn’t want to go off-grid, leave the game-plan. So I thought it only makes sense to maybe do that again and just do Waiting to Exhale. I think Mother’s day would be a perfect time to do that.
How did you plot out your responses to counter Riley’s hits?
I worked with L.A. on trying to put the music together, what to answer [Riley’s songs] with. It was a lot of fun — almost like me and L.A. working together as producers again. We spent hours trying to figure out how to answer these hits that Teddy got. Cause Teddy’s got some big ones.
It was trying to figure out, how do you not be forgotten, whatever song that you play? You just have to listen to his songs and figure out what can I play that’s going to change the narrative. If you had to go toe-for-toe on grooves, there’s no way. Teddy’s an amazing producer. He’s the author of New Jack Swing. He brought that in a major way. It’s his. He owns that. No one’s going to do that better than he does. That’s just the reality. I have so much respect for it. All I can do was play songs that I wrote that hopefully people were in love with. It was fun to do it. But I’m glad it’s over.
You were working out in L.A. when the New Jack Swing stuff hit. Did you feel like you had to respond to that at that time?
No. We had to make sure things grooved. But we only did what’s natural for us. That’s all you can ever really do. You can’t really chase someone else’s sound and think you’re going to do it. You can only be yourself. Those that chase other people usually fail. Teddy did his thing, and no one’s going to do Teddy better than Teddy. We just have to do us, and hope that no one does us better than us.
Before you played “Soon As I Get Home,” you said that record got you in trouble back in the day. Why?
It’s just the whole idea of paying rent. [The lyrics include the lines, “I’ll buy your clothes/I’ll cook your dinner too/Soon as I get home from work/I’ll pay your rent.”] Guys were like, “don’t be saying that, don’t be offering that.”
How many Michael Jackson stories do you have?
I talked to him quite a bit. But not like what Teddy would have or Rodney Jerkins or Quincy Jones. I didn’t spend as much time with him as those guys did. I’m just a storyteller. If someone’s talking to me, I know how to turn that into a story. People in particular seem to love the stories that accompany the songs. I got so many stories about everything. That’s especially true with Waiting to Exhale, how it happened, what Whitney [Houston] said, how she looked at the whole thing. It’ll be fun to talk about and remember that moment.
Did you plan all along to pull out the guitar at some point in the battle?
Yes. Because I knew at some point I had no answer [for Riley’s hits]. Fortunately it worked.
You talked about not being a big remix guy, is there any particular reason?
I’m not a remix guy. I’m not the guy you go to to say, “make this hotter.” I literally did not have any remixes to play to compete. That was an honest answer. It just came off like it was shady. But it was not meant in a shady way.
You wrote multiple hits for many artists. How do you pick Johnny Gill’s “My, My, My” over “There U Go?” Toni Braxton’s “You’re Making Me High” vs. “Another Sad Love Song?”
It all depended on what Teddy played. There were a lot of songs we could still play that we weren’t able to get to. So one day I’d like to maybe figure out how to do that. There was a lot of stuff that was still culturally important, big records in the culture, even if they weren’t big singles. It’d be fun to do that one day just to reminisce with everyone, tell stories, talk about the songs as they happened. Sometimes it could be a story about the artist. Sometimes it could be about how the song was written and how we got there at the time.