DUST IT OFF: Guy’s self-titled debut album… 25 years later

Soul and R&B were at a very unique place in the late spring of 1988. On one end, you had a number of artists still carrying on the traditions of the styles from the mid to late 70’s. You had a good share of artists who were also utilizing pop music formulas to create their hits. There were a growing amount of dance music offshoots that were heavily influenced by soul but couldn’t be called that with distinction. The growing rise of rap music’s popularity did leave many wondering if the ways of soul were dying. James Brown was still making music, but “Living In America” sounded nothing like “The Payback”, “Papa Don’t Take No Mess”, or “Licking Stick – Licking Stick”. The success of Prince’s career post-Purple Rain left many wondering if the Minneapolis man was soul, funk, rock, new wave, or pop, and when he embraced them all, that confused even more people, yet what he was doing showed how strong he was to music as a whole. The production of Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis lead to the great success of Janet Jackson’s Control, showing people that there was someone else from the Jackson household that could make incredible music. That lead to many people wanting to look and sound like Prince and Janet Jackson, they created the sounds everyone wanted to achieve. That’s not to say Michael Jackson wasn’t someone to look up to, but one becomes untouchable when you influence a group of people to impersonate you. However, there was something brewing in Harlem, something that was not expected but when it came, it seemed to arrive at the precise moment.

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By the time Guy released their self-titled debut album on June 13, 1988, the lineup on the cover was obsolete. The group had a vocal line-up of Aaron Hall and Timmy Gatling, but by the time the group had finished the recording of Guy (MCA), Gatling had left to try out a solo career. When the group had released their first video for “Groove Me”, there was a new man in his spot, Aaron’s brother Damion, and they would solidify the lineup and face of Guy. Created by producer Teddy Riley, Guy was his way of getting out a vocal group that could pull off the kind of music he wanted to create himself: a mixture of soul and R&B stylings, a hint of gospel, but also bringing in some of the elements that made hip-hop music work. No one in soul at the time was truly tapping into the essence of what made hip-hop work, except by bringing in a rapper to drop a verse. What Riley ended up doing was creating an all new sub-genre, bringing in something that would keep the people moving while showing the old heads what the new heads could do. This was new jack swing, and Guy were very responsible for a sound that is still tapped into, 25 years after the fact.

Guy’s album may seem formulaic from the outside: start the album with some great songs that will rev up the listener, move into some groove that are laid back, get them into a slow jam, come back for a refresher, move them into another slow jam, and then end the album on a bright and positive note. That is essentially the template for many soul/R&B albums, a formula that generally works with the right amount of talented people. For whatever reason, the Guy formula worked, and it all started with the immortal “Groove Me”.

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  • The magic may have started out with the video, as the group found themselves standing out in their slick and cool gear, impressed by a lady walking by, but was it Aaron Hall’s suggestive ways that brought people in? Many singers would say “hey”, “ho”, and “yeah” in their lyrics on a casual basis, but looking back, it seems like he’s singing “ho, really like the way you groove me”, and after the vocalized “groove me”, he responds with “ho”. As simple as that may be, one could also see how suggestive it was, or that it may allude to something else, a sign of Hall’s true desires.

    Suggestiveness aside, the keyboards and synths were a bit more than something you might hear in a song by Atlantic Starr or Starpoint, it was lush and full bodied, not unlike the way Prince would utilize it in his own recordings. However, there was also something else in the song that hooked many, or at least hooked the ear of anyone who loved hip-hop music: the very brief organ sample from The Mohawks’ “The Champ”. It would only take the chopping of three notes from the original song created by Alan Hawkshaw to ignite the start of the storm.

    There were also two other essential ingredients: the use of a single word (“funky”) from James Brown’s “Funky President (People It’s Bad)” and another word from “My Thang” (“yeah”) that would contribute to this moving instrumental. No one in soul music was using the sounds from another record, so this seemed revolutionary, leading me to say “wait a minute, these guys are doing what the rappers are doing”, but making it soulful and funky with their brand of boom bap. It was revolutionary, and it was the start of something major.

    As for the video for “Groove Me”, it was to be expected that if you were not Michael or Janet Jackson, your video would have a lower budget than your pop (read “white”) counterparts. The atmosphere of the video looked like a cross between a sweaty evening at a hot nightclub and high school or college assembly, complete with dancers wearing what look like cheerleader or stepping outfits. You have the sexy ladies showing a good amount of this and that, the men who wanted to show and prove, but what did it for me, what truly sealed the deal, was seeing the dancer in the video wearing a Public Enemy T-shirt, one I had myself, behind her denim jacket:
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    This was not something you’d see in a soul or R&B video, someone/anyone wearing the T-shirt of another artist. That was the rock and heavy metal thing to do, but here she was, grooving on the wall, almost as if she’s saying “I’m down with rap music, I am a public enemy, and yes, you may be able to groove me if you’re lucky”. For me, the video builds up to that moment right before everyone on the dance floor is getting down to the point of no return after the false breakdown. When Riley tells the listener that “it ain’t over” and that “the party’s not ever”, I absolutely went nuts. It was as if he was bringing back various elements in music that had been considered old or forgotten, or untapped in soul, and resurrected the goodness. There was no way anyone would dare attempt to do the same. The jump and groove in the song was different, there were extra beats heard throughout, as if there was a nice Latin touch/tinge at hand, and the constant repetitive James Brown and Mohawks sample stabs: I wanted to know who this was, what it was, and how could I get down with the program. It was glorious.

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  • On the album, “Groove Me” was followed up with an egotistical yet powerful song, not quite an instrumental but not having enough lyrics to where it could be considered something worthy for the radio. Or so they thought. “Teddy’s Jam” was the quickest way to let people know that Teddy Riley was the boss, for this was “his” jam, his track, the reason this music exists. Taking a hint from “Groove Me”, it also borrows a quick “tramp” vocal from The Mohawks’ “The Champ” along with Trouble Funk’s “Pump Me Up”, laid over atop some gorgeous keyboard and synth lines, and a bass synth. If “Groove Me” didn’t move you to dance, “Teddy’s Jam” would because it seemed fun and jubilant.

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  • With “Don’t Clap…Just Dance”, one realized that Aaron Hall’s vocal style owed a lot to Charlie Wilson of The Gap Band, those rich and husky tones that caused women to sweat and pant, and guys just giving it up for the funk. The way Hall sings this song is interesting, for he adds space and dimension to the meaning of the song, in anticipation of the true meaning behind the lyrics:
    “You know, girl, as I look into your eyes
    you got me hypnotized
    my tem…
    …perature’s about to rise
    oh, just get up on the floor
    baby, go for yours
    ’cause, I know that’s what you came here for”

    Add that with some of the countermelodies Riley is playing behind Hall’s voice, and there’s that bit of that something which is irresistible, wanting to hear more of what is being offered.

  • What comes next is the first of two songs featuring a lead vocal from Timmy Gatling, the excellent “You Can Call Me Crazy”, complete with a vocal lisp. The instrumental in this became the template for almost everyone from this point on: the snare drum snap, the vocal harmonies, the keyboard elegance, a nice sub-chorus, the vocal stabs, you can hear how everyone from Al B. Sure! to Tevin Campbell would take hints from this song, and most likely, Teddy Riley had something with those productions too. On Side 1 of the album, “You Can Call Me Crazy” is one of many highlights. (NOTE: After posting this article, a video has come to my attention where Riley reveals that Al B. Sure! handled the second verse, so he wasn’t taking possible hints, he was creating them. I always felt the background vocals were an uncredited B. Sure, but never the lead. Start the video below and head to the 22:30 mark for the beginning of the discussion about “You Can Call Me Crazy”.)
  • After four great dance floor tracks, Side 1 ends on a mellow note with Guy‘s first slow jam, the song that will forever be known as the one where Aaron Hall did or didn’t say the words “dumb bitch” at the 0:47 mark. It would be funny, as it seems to go back to what Hall made clear in “Groove Me”, saying “groove me, ho!” Here, the background vocals are saying “you can have a piece of my love” with Hall offering words that very much sound like “dumb bitch”. Maybe that attitude was appropriate, for the lyrics touch on things of his past, presenting himself as a bad boys of sorts, a player, but for “a little while”, you may indeed have a piece of his love. He may be with someone somewhere else tomorrow, but right now is the right time for Aaron. It is uncertain on how true these lyrics were, or whether it was written as a bit of an R&B bad boy romantic tale, but it worked and ended the first side on a barely delicate note.

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  • “I Like” opens Side 2 on a positive note, with the lyrics being a bit more poetic but also simple, especially the slight lullaby-ish melody that Hall sings in the song’s last minute. The core of the song tells the tale of what they like, with the background vocals saying “I like the way”, followed by Hall explaining the ways he is lured in by ones beauty:
    “my dreams are now reality
    each and every time, you are hear with me
    the touch you give me with your hands
    when you caress my skin, I’m under your command
    girl, you hypnotize me with your eyes
    it took me some time, now I realize
    it’s you to whom which I belong
    I love it, the feeling’s getting strong”

    It’s basically a song about a woman jacking him off, isn’t it? What she does is bringing out Aaron Hall’s ecstasy.

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  • The second song on Side 2 was also the album’s second single, the video of which begins in the same way “Groove Me” ends, with Riley stating “it ain’t over”. The musical cue was a way to let listeners know that this was the follow-up, as Hall shows more of his vocal stylings while throwing more sexual hints. If a relationship will lead to marriage, there’s still an obstacle that you must do:
    You can get this ring, if you can ride this thing

    As he states earlier in the song, he is the sole controller of his merry-go-round, and once she gets off, there is no telling when it’s going to end. We don’t know what will end, or if it responds to her rear end, but we know it involves riding it.

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  • While Riley had his own “Jam” on the other side of the album, he decided to make his true vocal debut in “Spend The Night”, which by title along could have been the most suggestive song. However, we would learn in later years that Riley is someone who never wanted to sing explicit lyrics, thus the reason this song mentions “milk and cookies” and how “we can do the nasty without no interrupts”. On the single version, Riley also adds a rap to the proceedings, which helped to open up the possibilities of other artists working with him, if he was open to do so. Throughout “Spend The Night”, Riley and Aaron Hall would interact each other as they both describe who they want to spend the night with. On the album version, Aaron introduces each member of the group to a lady but in the single version, it may very well be the same lady. Nonetheless, as the album’s sixth and final single, this would also mark a slight change in how Riley produced his works and what Guy would become with their follow-up album, as Riley’s presence in the lead would become more dominant. Right before the release of “Spend The Night”, the song “My Fantasy” was released, credited to “Teddy Riley featuring Guy”. It was released on the soundtrack to the Spike Lee joint Do The Right Thing, and the song would help to put Riley on the map for good.
  • “Goodbye Love” was the album’s second slow jam, featuring the vocals of Tammy Lucas. (NOTE: In the original version of this article, I posted that it was Mary J. Blige who handled the vocals, but she would have been 16 at the time, which would have been unlikely considering the timeline of her career.) After Aaron Hall shared a bit (maybe too much) of his swagger, he appears here in a song of heartbreak, not wanting to tear her heart but knowing that maybe it is best.
  • The album closes on a mid-tempo note with the second of two tracks featuring Gatling on lead vocal, “My Business”. It seems to end the album on either a “to be continued” note or “we lost the inspiration, let’s just fill the record up with this one”. It would have been more appropriate to close the album with “Goodbye Love” as a way to also say goodbye to the listener, but if anything, “My Business” showed that if there is a group that would make late 80’s soul and R&B something worth listening to again, it was Guy. For a little over a year, the hits from this album seemed non-stop and that was fairly good considering the two albums that would be released the following week in 1988: Bobby Brown’s Don’t Be Cruel and New Edition’s Heartbreak. Not only was quality soul/R&B reaching a new level, but it seemed MCA Records was the hottest record label in the land, and they were. Whatever magic was happening at those NYC and New Jersey recording studios at the time, it worked.

    Maybe looking back at Guy is a way of looking back at what we were like when younger, when love, romance, and sex was everything to look for and perhaps fear at times. We were tempted to play with, among many things, emotions, even though we couldn’t quite figure things out. We would learn right from wrong, but suffer many times when wrong got in the way. Nonetheless, it showed that soul music was one of hip-hop music’s roots and that it still had a lot to say and prove, and it was going to be said with some new kids on the block. Funky? YEAH!

    (P.S. When I bought and collected all of the 12″ singles from Guy’s album, I had made my own custom tape because MCA didn’t bother releasing one in the same way they did for Bobby Brown and Jody Watley. It featured all of the extended versions I had at the time, and I called the tape One, Two, Three…Swing It!, which I ended up playing for years.)