In Effect Mode was released on May 3, 1988 to an ever-changing R&B fan base and it became an instant success for newcomer Al B. Sure! Upon its release, Al B. Sure! created quite a buzz with his lead single “Nite and Day.” At a time where the R&B genre was at a crossroads in terms of the musical and artistic direction, Al B. Sure! arrived on the scene with a groundbreaking sound called New Jack Swing.
New Jack Swing was a new movement dominating the R&B music scene in the late 1980s. Teddy Riley is credited with ushering in this musical genre after the pivotal success of Keith Sweat’s “Make It Last Forever” album that was released a year earlier. In Effect Mode was transcendent in proving how commercially viable New Jack Swing could potentially become as a musical genre. It helped to create a new wave of New Jack Swing performers for the ladder half of the 1980s and the early 1990s.
Alongside his cousin, Kyle West, Al B. Sure! produced, arranged and wrote every song on the album with the exception of two records. He ultimately became one of the more noteworthy figures in the R&B scene of the late 1980s and gave credence to a burgeoning genre of urban music.
Unlike most R&B singers, Al B. Sure!’s musical foundation was built in rap music. He was best friends with Eddie Ferrell (Eddie F.) of Heavy D & The Boyz while growing up in New York and his desire was to become a rapper initially, but it wasn’t until after listening to the music his cousin, Kyle West was producing that he decided to pursue a singing career.
In the course of a six month period, Sure! taught himself how to write, arrange and produce R&B songs in the same vein of his idol Michael Jackson. After turning down an athletic scholarship to play sports at the University of Iowa, he shifted his focus to become a full-time recording artist. For the last few months of 1986, he spent time honing his craft in as a songwriter and musician to begin producing his debut album. In January of 1987, he met Andre Harrell who was starting his own record label called Uptown Records and here is where his story begins.
Between the autumn of 1986 through the spring of 1988 the majority of In Effect Mode was recorded in Unique Recordings studio in New York, New York.
SoulCulture recently sat down with Kyle West, the first cousin of Al B. Sure! and co-writer and co-producer of seven songs on Al B. Sure!’s debut album, In Effect Mode to talk about the process of creating the album from start to finish.
West tells the story of how he and Sure! first collaborated on music and how Sure! made the transition from rapper to singer.
“He was really a rapper first. Back then he was running behind Heavy D and Eddie F. and they lived across town. We all grew up in the same city. He really wanted to become a rapper and I was still in college at the time. I had a Juno 106 keyboard and I really didn’t know much about music or record making to have a direction.
“For the most part, the music came first on that project and even working with Al today, the music still comes first. We really didn’t have enough background in knowing what to do and what not to do and it kind of helped us. There were no boundaries and it allowed us to do what we wanted naturally.
“Al was an artist first and foremost. Even growing up as a kid, Al B. Sure! was an artist. He liked the attention and he just needed to find something to do.”
“At that time, Rap was definitely bigger than R&B in the mid-’80s and that was it. I think once I began creating music I told him ‘You can’t rap over this, you’re going to have to do something else.’ So Al began teaching himself how to write songs and follow melodies and began writing strong lyrics and arrangements. He also taught himself how to sing. To this day, that still amazes the hell out of me. He learned all of this on the fly. Singing was not his passion. His passion was rapping, which he was very good at, but after listening to my stuff it was so musical that he had to do something else and he came up with something different and it worked.
“For him making the transition from rapper to singer took no more than six months. This process started toward the end of 1986. I remember we had a song that he was rapping on and we played it for Andre Harrell and Andre felt that it would be better to sing it. Al was a big, big Michael Jackson fan so he tailored everything to be smooth like Michael Jackson and how he learned melodies.
“The only thing he really had to work on were his lyrical skills because he was good with melodies and he knew how to use his voice so lyrics were the thing he had to master. We were learning everything on the run. When he got his record deal with Warner Brothers, we were still learning what to do. Even on the first album you’ll hear him perform raps on some songs like “Off On Your Own” and it showed that rap was still in him. As far as being an artist and putting that all on tape and learning how to tailor to vocals and getting those background mixes down, he learned all of that on his own. I brought the melodies to the music, but he brought the harmonies.”
West spoke on the collaboration with Teddy Riley and in formulating the New Jack Swing sound.
“I will definitely give credit where credit is due,” says West. “Teddy was the innovator for the New Jack Swing music genre. We actually worked with Teddy Riley for maybe a month or two on Al’s debut album. He was a staff producer for Andre, but he was never a part of Uptown Records. He was connected with Andre and he put us together with Teddy. Al and I already had the songs, but Teddy’s contribution was to give the music some direction. He wrote and produced one song on the album, “If I’m Not Your Lover,” but we didn’t work with him long enough though because he went on to produce Keith Sweat’s debut album. Keith Sweat’s debut album was the birth of New Jack Swing.
“I really do believe Al and I brought a polish to the New Jack sound. It had pop elements to it and more melodic. Yes, it was definitely a derivative of what Teddy did, but I just made it a little more polished and plush and it kind of separated itself. The “In Effect Mode” album definitely had a part in creating New Jack Swing.”
West recalls how the lead single “Nite and Day” came together for the album.
“Nite and Day” was the first record that we put together,” says West. “Musically, it was put together in early 1987. I just came back from college and I was messing around on the keyboard and I came up with the basics of the track. It definitely wasn’t the finished version, but I composed the music in January of 1987 and the music sat in a shoebox. When Al finally heard it a month or two later, he wrote the hook for the song and that’s all we had. So when we played the demo for Andre Harrell there was only the track and the hook, no verses. Andre and Teddy Riley called that song ‘the Michael Jackson song’, but the hook was very smooth and they could see where it was going.
“This was the first record we worked on and everybody who heard it knew that was going to be the main record. Even before the other eight songs came about, everybody knew that was going to be the song. We had the chance to cut the song in Unique Recordings here in New York. The first day in the studio is when the finished track started to come together.
“The next day the guy who was giving us studio time for free said ‘Come on in at eight in the morning.’ We got there at eight in the morning and Al still didn’t have verses for the song yet. So that same guy told us to go grab some breakfast and to come back in an hour. Within that hour is when Al wrote the lyrics for the song. He wrote them on a napkin when we were sitting and eating at McDonalds. Once we returned back to the studio, he put down the verses and that completed the song.”
“Nite and Day” became the debut single off of Sure!’s debut album and went on to land at #7 on the Billboard Hot 100 Charts and #1 on the Billboard Hot Black Singles Chart and it propelled the sales for In Effect Mode after its release.
Sure!’s second single off of the album was “Off On Your Own” and West remembers the process of putting the song together with assistance from Andre Harrell.
“Off On Your Own” stuck with Andre Harrell after he first heard it,” says West. “He made us go back over and over to fix it. We didn’t know what he was talking about and we said we’re not doing it over any more. From demo to how the song ended up sounding, there isn’t much difference. Andre kept saying no bring it back, do this, fix this, fix that and he knew what he talking about because it was a little vocal line that Al had to change and Andre wanted it wrapped right.
“He saw the vision in that song but in creating the song, Al came up with the hook first again and he would usually sit with it for a month or two. After he heard the verses again, Andre kept saying something was missing and he couldn’t tell us what he had envisioned for the record. I remember one time we had to bring in Eddie F. to ask him what was Andre hearing that we weren’t. The one time Al rapped on the track, I think that’s what made Andre feel that this was it. Once we came to the final version, it never was touched again.”
“Off On Your Own” peaked at #45 on the Billboard Hot 100 Charts and #1 on the Billboard Hot Black Singles Chart proving that “Nite and Day” wasn’t going to be another one hit wonder.
The next single to follow “Off On Your Own” was “Rescue Me” and West describes how difficult it was in getting the song to sound right musically.
“There were a lot of different versions for “Rescue Me” before the final version,” says West. “There were four songs that were on our original demo “Nite and Day” “Off On Your Own” “Naturally Mine” and “Rescue Me.” But “Rescue Me” was the song that had several different versions and we just couldn’t nail it down. One day, Al was in the studio and came up with beat for it. I was in a studio session at another studio in the city and I came back uptown and he told me this should be the new beat for “Rescue Me.” It took me an hour or two to rework all of the music and that ended up being the final version for the song. The hook and verses never changed throughout the process. The fifth version, which ended up being the final version took us a while to get there, but it was worth it in the end.”
“Rescue Me” peaked at #3 on the Billboard Hot Black Singles Chart.
The final two songs to be released from the project were a remake of the classic 1971 hit “Killing Me Softly” originally performed by Lori Lieberman, but popularized by Roberta Flack and produced by Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel.
The last single was a song produced by Teddy Riley and Timmy Gatling entitled “If I’m Not Your Lover.” Sure!’s remake of “Killing Me Softly” peaked at #14 on the Billboard Hot Black Singles Chart and “If I’m Not Your Lover” landed at #2 on the Billboard Hot Black Singles Chart. This version of the song featured up and coming Rap artist Slick Rick.
West went on to provide insight on how the final three tracks of the album came together.
“’Oooh This Love is So’ was the fifth track we put together for the album and it’s one of my favorites and it’s my favorite song by Al B. Sure! because there’s so much behind it,” says West. “After we got our record deal and the four major songs that were on our demo, we received some money from the label and we were able to buy better equipment. Once we set everything up, I composed the basic track and Al was supposed to record the vocal at Eddie F.’s studio. I told them we had to get the song done before a certain time because I had another studio session to go to. So they rode around the city wasting the whole day. I told them I was leaving and after I did my one track I left and they were pissed.
“So I get a knock on my door at about 5 o’clock in the morning and it was Al and Eddie. They came in and played the vocal Al laid down hours before. I was in a session with a girl group and I played it for them and they started crying because they thought it was so beautiful.
Al B. Sure!- “Oooh This Love is So”:
“The song came together in one day. When we went back to the studio, I added the bells and strings to the track and we had some singers do the background vocals for us. Al was so in love with his lead vocal from the demo that it’s the same one that’s on the album today. Al wanted us to find a way to get his vocal from the demo version to the final recording and he was so right in thinking that way. We started the song 7pm that night and finished it the next morning. To me, it’s the most magical record we ever did.”
“I had the music for ‘Naturally Mine’ in that same shoebox I spoke of earlier. Al wrote the song straight out first and it was one of the easiest ones to do. One day when we went to Chung King Studios we recreated the music and I remember everybody at the Uptown offices talking about the music and saying how good it was sounding. There were no vocals on it at all and because everyone was talking about the music so much it let Al know that he had to finish that song in the same night. He ran through those vocals so quickly and it was one of the quicker vocals he ever did. We never went back in to remove or add anything so it was one the easiest songs we’ve ever done together.”
“‘Just A Taste of Lovin’ was the last record we completed for the album. Honestly, the album was done and we weren’t in a real creative mode and it was kind of just thrown together. But we let the talent come out and one of the background singers, Terri Robinson pretty much came up with the hook for this song. We put that song together fairly quickly, but it didn’t have what the rest of the songs on the album had.”
There was only one song that didn’t make the final cut for Sure!’s debut album. The song was produced and written by Teddy Riley. It was entitled “You Can Call Me Crazy” and it ended up being on Guy‘s debut album, “The Future.”
In Effect Mode peaked at #20 on the Billboard 200 Albums Chart in the spring of 1988 and went on to sell more than 2 million albums in the US and it garnered a cult following. It sat atop the Billboard R&B Charts for seven weeks. To this day, it’s regarded as the one of the greatest albums from the New Jack Swing generation.
This album earned a plethora of Grammy, American Music Award and Soul Train Music Award nominations. He won Best New R&B Artist at the American Music Awards in 1989 and in the same year won Best New Artist at the Soul Train Music Awards. In Effect Mode holds its own among other classic albums from any genre in any generation of music, thus proving it will continue to stand the test of time.