The singer and producer behind hits for Michael Jackson says now that he’s just days away from his big show at the Apollo Theater — a return to his hometown in Harlem after more than 20 years — he’s struck with emotion, and fans will see that onstage.
“I get really emotional because I’m in such disbelief. I’m from the projects, man. To make it out of the projects, not too many people could say that,” said Riley, who grew up near the Apollo. “It’s going to be tears of joy.”
Riley, 51, spearheaded the New Jack Swing era in music in the ’80s and ’90s, bringing on a new and hitmaking sound that dominated radio and the charts. He sang in the successful groups Guy and Blackstreet — winning a Grammy for the R&B classic “No Diggity” — and also shined behind the scenes as a producer and songwriter, co-producing Jackson’s “Dangerous” album and also crafting hits like Johnny Kemp’s “Just Got Paid,” Wreckx-N-Effect’s “Rump Shaker” and Hi-Five’s “I Like the Way (The Kissing Game),” which hit No. 1 on the pop charts.
Riley, along with R&B maven Keith Sweat, will headline two shows Sunday at the Apollo, dubbed “The Kings and Queens of New Jack Swing.” It will also feature Doug E. Fresh, Kool Moe Dee, Al B. Sure, MC Lyte as well as members of Guy and Blackstreet.
“I’m performing around the corner from where I was raised. And all the guys can say that — Kool Moe Dee, Doug E. Fresh and Keith Sweat,” Riley said. “I get emotional, and I may be emotional on that stage. Some of the things that will happen is going to bring emotions. But it’s going to bring happiness. New Jack Swing always brought happiness, and that’s what we’re about.”
Riley has also produced songs for Lady Gaga, Bobby Brown, Heavy D and the Boyz, and Robin Thicke. He said he used to watch famous performers go inside the back of the Apollo as a kid from his school, which inspired him to become a musician.
Sunday’s shows will take place at 6 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. Eastern. Riley said returning home makes him “a little nervous,” but he’s hoping to also honor those who have died when he hits the stage.
“I don’t say fans, I say my friends. Harlem is my home,” he said. “I’m a little disappointed because everybody’s not able to make it to see, especially ones that’s not with us today. A lot of my friends, they passed away before 30. That’s the reason why I feel like we’re lucky.”