By early 2001, Teddy Riley’s yearning to reform BLACKstreet had became a serious impediment to progress on the solo album he was working on. “I found myself driving by Mark Middleton’s house every day,” he admits. “I guess I was hoping Mark would just be outside and we could talk, but I never saw him. Finally, one day I drove by and his family was outside, so I asked them to tell Mark I needed to speak with him.”
Middleton did reach out to Riley, and the two quickly agreed that it was time for BLACKstreet to regroup. “What’s amazing is how easily it all came together,” says Middleton. In keeping with this spirit of reunion, the quartet invited original BLACKstreet member Levy Little and mainstay Eric Williams back to recreate the original soul of the quartet. For the back story on this tale of voices rising once again in seamless harmony, one must travel more than a decade back in time. In 1992, Teddy Riley was widely viewed as a defining force in contemporary R&B. He’d guided albums by of-the-moment sensations like SWV and enduring superstars like Michael Jackson (earning a Grammy Award for Best Engineered Album for Jackson’s Dangerous that year.) He’d also been a founding member of Guy, which disbanded in 1991 after two platinum albums.
Having settled in Virginia Beach, where he’d opened Future Recording Studio, Riley was contemplating his next move. He longed once again to be part of a team. So, with singers Chauncey Hannibal, Levi Little and Dave Hollister, Riley formed BLACKstreet.
Brandishing an electrifying mix of soul, funk, hip-hop and gospel, BLACKstreet delivered its self-titled debut album in the summer of 1994. The disc was certified platinum, rose to #7 on Billboard’s Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart and spawned three hit singles: “Before I Let You Go” (Top 10 on Billboard’s Hot 100), “Joy” (#8 on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay list) and “Booti Call” (Top 20 Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay). These, combined with MTV and BET airplay and a thriving tour, established BLACKstreet as one of the most promising outfits on the R&B landscape.
Perhaps more importantly, though, their sound represented a new direction. Testified Spin: “Lest we forget, Teddy Riley’s spring-heeled, pyrotechnic production extravaganzas had a seismic impact in a field then dominated by obsequious balladeers dressed like head waiters” (August 1994).
Still, as history would bear out, BLACKstreet was just getting started. Little and Hollister departed the group to embark on solo careers, but in 1996, with Mark Middleton and Eric Williams on board, BLACKstreet defied the sophomore slump with an album that soared.
Appropriately titled Another Level, the disc debuted at #1 on the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart and at #3 on the Billboard 200 (it would reside on both charts for more than 60 weeks). This spectacular premiere was due in no small part to a Riley-produced monster called “No Diggity.”
Deemed one of the 100 Greatest Pop Songs by Rolling Stone and MTV, “No Diggity” broke new ground with its amalgamation of gritty hip-hop beats and smooth-as-silk harmonies. The sweltering intensity of BLACKstreet’s vocal performance, coupled with the track’s pulsating rhythms and G-funk-infused sonics (including a cameo from Dr. Dre), propelled the song to #1 (Hot 100) and platinum certification. It seemed “No Diggity” was everywhere. Among other achievements, it topped the Hot R&B Singles Airplay chart for seven straight weeks and the Hot R&B Singles Sales chart for a month. Also helping it along was a steamy video directed by a newcomer named Hype Williams.
As Another Level climbed to sales of more than four million units, BLACKstreet displayed a diversity only suggested by their debut. Where “No Diggity” was a bumpin’, no-holds-barred sexual escapade, its follow-up, “Don’t Leave Me,” was a captivating ballad, a heartfelt missive about lost love that brought the group another #1. “Don’t Leave Me” remained at #1 on the Billboard R&B Singles Airplay chart for three weeks, also hitting the Top 10 of the Hot 100.
A slew of awards and award nominations recognized these triumphs. In 1998, BLACKstreet earned the Grammy Award for Best R&B Performance By A Duo Or Group – a feat as yet unmatched by any other male R&B outfit – for “No Diggity.” There were also nods for MTV Awards and American Music Awards and an MTV Europe Award for Best R&B Album.
Artists lined up to ask BLACKstreet to appear on their projects. In 1997 they graced Foxy Brown’s hit single “Get Me Home”; the following year, they lent vocals to Jay-Z’s “The City Is Mine.”
In April of 1999, BLACKstreet issued their third album, Finally. By the time of its release, Terrell Phillips had replaced Middleton, who’d left to seek out solo opportunities. Finally was certified gold, but the quartet seemed to have lost some of its fire. The creative differences that had led to repeated lineup shuffling had begun to take their toll, and corporate restructuring at the group’s record company further stymied any forward motion.
Hannibal, Williams and Phillips returned to their solo careers, and Riley threw himself back into production, developing several tracks for a solo album while helping artists like Profyle, Joe, Janet Jackson and *NSYNC make hits.
“But,” he confides, “I was not happy.” Says Middleton: “This is what you have to understand about Teddy Riley: Music is like a sport for him. He loves to play ball, and he’d much rather be on a team then out there on his own.” Thus a hopeful Riley began driving past Middleton’s house.
Once the reassembled group was fully ensconced at Future Recording, they set out to recapture the magic that made BLACKstreet one of the preeminent pop ensembles of the 1990s. The members soon realized, much to their delight, that very little had changed since the good old days.
Riley ventures: “We’ve stayed true to who we are and that’s why I think BLACKstreet is as relevant today as we’ve ever been. It’s still about the music, not the image. It’s still about the voices, the harmonies – always has been, always will be.”
According to the members of BLACKstreet, the variety of sounds goes a long way toward explaining its appeal. “We’ve always been a mixture of gospel, street music and R&B,” Even when their lyrics are raunchy and over-the-top, you can still hear their roots in the Church. Riley informs: “Despite the success we’ve had with songs like ‘No Diggity,’ we’re probably best known for our ballads, we’ve been embraced because of our ballads and it’s very important to us to please the fans.”
Asked about the challenge of returning to the limelight after years away, Williams says: “What we’ve been able to achieve in the past has been remarkable, so yes, there is some pressure to live up to that. But after so many years, all that matters is that we are family. It feels so natural for us to be together and we’re having so much fun that we’re not really thinking about anything else.”
“I always knew BLACKstreet would reunite,” concludes Middleton. “I had faith that everything would come into place and we would continue to create beautiful music. I’m extremely blessed to find out I was right.”