THIS autumn saw two of the most influential figures of modern soul and rnb performing in South Wales.
Teddy Riley and his reformed vocal group Blackstreet toured Europe with Keith Sweat, stopping in Newport in October, while British soul singer Omar’s latest UK tour included a Cardiff gig at the end of September.
Both Riley and Omar made their initial breakthroughs in the 1980s but are perhaps most closely associated with the 1990s.
Riley is the visionary behind new jack swing, usually described as the blending of rnb vocals with hip hop beats. The movement so influenced mainstream US rnb throughout the 90s some now see hip hop and rnb as one in the same.
The super producer demonstrated his influence when his Blackstreet group members left the stage and he performed a string of hits from artists including Bobby Brown and Michael Jackson and reminded the crowd: “I’m not playing anyone else’s music, I made these.”
The tools Riley has used to shape modern rnb were also plain to see with large banks of keyboards on stage. Another keyboard was tilted slightly towards the crowd for Riley to play and he often delivered his vocals through a vocoder, the voice synthesizer whose use he popularised.
Blackstreet and Riley were followed on stage by Sweat, a singer who had never matched the commercial success Riley achieved in the UK with Blackstreet’s No Diggity.
Sweat however posses a string of rnb hits from a time when the music was less likely to trouble the charts.
It was in some ways fitting Riley and Sweat, two acts so synonymous with the 90s should appear at the Newport Centre. The council run leisure centre is where gig-goers pass evening swimmers and the stage is in the sports hall. In the 80s and early 90s, before the construction of the Cardiff International Arena, it was the main venue for large touring acts on rare visits to South Wales.
While there was no doubting the quality of Sweat’s songs or vocals his ‘Sweat Hotel’ show came across a little dated. It featured a bar – a table covered with a white sheet, stocked with wine bottles from the local Spar and decorated with red roses. Sweat never made use of the prop but took the momentum out of his performance when he invited various audience members – single ladies (obviously), couples, single men – to stand on stage. Sweat quizzed them game show host style before continuing through his set with his guests remaining on stage.
There was nothing dated about Omar’s performance at The Globe in Cardiff. The singer’s biggest hit ‘There’s Nothing Like This’ reached the top 20 in 1991 but Omar has never stopped making music and songs from his 2013 LP ‘The Man’ were just as much a feature as those he recorded in the 90s.
Omar opened with Feeling You a song especially written for him by Stevie Wonder, who the Englishman has always acknowledged as an influence. Omar though is also a link between vintage 70s soul and the generation of rnb singers who trod a different path to the one laid out by Teddy Riley.
The natural, organic soul crafted by Omar, who like Wonder and Riley has no fear of using synthesizers, is credited as influencing the neo soul movement spearheaded by D’Angelo and Erykah Badu who reconnected US rnb with its roots.
While Omar may not have the production credits to his name that Riley has, and would never claim ownership of a sub genre in the way Riley does, both are important, influential figures who it was a privilege to see live on local stages.