retconning header

Features | Retconning

XI :: New Jack (and Jill) Swing

By Mark Abraham | 8 October 2007

For people of my generation or thereabouts who listened to this stuff at every sock hop and dance they attended between 1988-1995, new jack (or jill) swing provided our public cultural soundtrack. The grunge revolution, excepting maybe “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” was nowhere to be seen at dances. And while it’s easy to dismiss this shit in favor of the hip hop that came before or after, I’d make arguments.

First, the vast popularity of hip hop in the late 1990s was fueled by the commercial acceptance of new jack swing groups, many of whom were, at least in part, hip hop groups. For many kids, MC Hammer or Vanilla Ice might have been the first hip hop you heard, and even if I had a cassette copy of Straight Outta Compton (1988) hidden in my bedroom I never really understood the difference beyond the general level of cuss words. And, I mean, obviously the Canadian Maritimes weren’t exposed to a lot of underground hip hop in this period, so I’m giving a specific frame of reference here, but new jack swing is what prepared audiences for the hip hop commercial revolution.

Second, just think how weird it was to be 13 and 14 and hearing tracks like “Creep” and “Let’s Talk About Sex” and “Waterfalls” and “None of Your Business.” Though many of the men involved in new jack swing were performing the usual industry-accepted amount of sexism (“never trust a big butt and a smile”) the women were creating incredibly progressive music that we were being exposed to on a regular basis. I’m not saying we got it, necessarily, but I bet there aren’t many people of my generation who couldn’t still drop the lyrics to “Let’s Talk About Sex” if asked, which is pretty fucking impressive given the fear of AIDS at the time. Here’s a little tribute to some of the best/most fun tracks from this period.