Keith Sweat On Staying Relevant & The Decline Of Soulful R&B

You’d be hard pressed to find anybody that didn’t know Keith Sweat – if not the man, then definitely the music. Play “Nobody” or “Twisted” to an unassuming ear and it will no doubt be followed by cries of, “I used to LOVE this song!” or “That was my jam!” Well, the Sweat is back and he had a chinwag with Soul Culture’s Amber Yeshpaul about the new music, a new era and new horizons.

It’s a sunny day here in the London, putting me in a good mood to have a chat with Mr R&B himself, Keith Sweat. As the phone rings, the voice that answers is baritone drenched with an easy American lilt – the perfect compliment to this hazy summer day.  Mr Sweat sounds relaxed. He’s in the middle of a tour of the States and the Harlem native is in Atlanta, Georgia as we speak. He says the tour is going well and he’s been enjoying making new music.

Ridin’ Solo is Keith’s tenth studio album, his first release since being signed to former Motown president Kedar Massenburg’s label, Kedar Records. The album was released on 22nd June 2010 (Sweat’s birthday) and debuted at number 13 on the Billboard 200.

“With this new album I’m ready to come out there now and do different songs other than my catalogue that people have known me for like ‘Nobody’ and “’Twisted’,” he said, adding that he wants people to listen and say, “I’m happy he’s back, he was one of my favourites and I’m happy he’s doing his thing.”

Sweat is well aware of his existing fanbase and of what people expect from him, especially as he is known by many as the ‘begging R&B crooner’. The new single, “Test Drive” produced by The Platinum Brothers and featuring labelmate Joe, is no exception and it sticks to Sweat’s well-tested formula.

Strongly reminiscent of his older material, “Test Drive” is essentially the sound of a grown up Keith Sweat. When I tell him this, he says, “Well, that’s what I’ve been doing [growing up] That’s the kind of music I’ve always written – grown up music, grown and sexy music.“

According to Sweat the new album will have a lot of different sounds on it; some up-tempo, some slow but at the end of the day he’s sticking to what he knows.

“I’m accustomed to making a certain type of record, so when people buy Keith Sweat, they wanna hear Keith Sweat – ’cause I have my fanbase already. So if I do the songs that people have known me to do and are accustomed to me doing, then I add extra stuff, people will be happy about it,” he says before boldly stating, “I don’t feel like I have to change who I am in order to sell records, in order to be relevant, or for people to like me or like my music.”

He talks about current popular artists and says that he likes Trey Songz, Ne-Yo and Drake. He’s enjoying people like that, however he makes it clear that none of them are influencing him at this point in his career – “I set my own trend.”

Throughout his career, Sweat has been inspired by the likes of The Isley Brothers, Marvin Gaye, The O’Jays and Babyface. “Those people were inspirations to me growing up,” he acknowledges. “They were the people that I listened to that I got inspired by. People like New Edition, you know, those types of people.”

As we entered the subject of older performers I ask Sweat, who is of course one of the chat toppers from the New Jack Swing generation, how he feels the music market has changed since the peak of his career in the early ‘90s.

“It’s changed a lot because R&B is not the same kinda R&B that I’m used to… Music has changed a lot. To me, it’s not as soulful as it used to be, people have watered it down, trying to made it more mainstream so they can cross over a little more I think.

“I don’t think it’s like when the O’Jay’s were out or that type of stuff. I don’t really hear that real soulful sound anymore. What I knew was when people like Dru Hill was out, or Aaron Hall and Guy and Luther Vandross and those types of people. You don’t really hear that anymore.”

Keith’s plan is to be one of the people to bring that sound back, “Because I think it’s wanted and I think it’s needed.”

Part of his effort with this is demonstrated in his new reality show Keith Sweat’s Platinum House which airs on BET’s new channel, Centric. The series is based around Keith trying to rebuild ’90s R&B quartet Dru Hill by moving them all into a house for a kind of come back boot camp. They too were a sensation of the New Jack Swing era, and Sweat wants to “get them back to where they were musically and see if they have the same thing they had back in the day.”

As a former member of R&B group LSG, with Gerald Levert and Johnny Gill, Sweat’s knowledge of music groups coupled with his former business life as a stockbroker would make music management his forte. Reality shows, however, are not.

Being part of a show like this is quite a big thing for Sweat, since he expressed his unhappiness about his ex wife, Lisa Wu Hartwell appearing on Real Housewives of Atlanta and did not want his children to be part of the show.

Sweat has full custody of his and Wu Hartwell’s four children and, although he’s keen to keep them out of the public glare of reality shows, music is another thing; “A few of them are interested in music, but not in the level that I am. Maybe one is interested in being a producer”. He states that “They should be able to do whatever they wanna do, as long as it’s nothing criminal.”

I did ask if Mr Sweat had a special lady taking residence at the Sweat Hotel, to which he replied, “Not really. No one that I can really say I’m going to marry and I’m down with it and she’s down with it. Nah, I’m enjoying life, I’m just chilling, I’m being happy and I’m being blessed. I’m loving all the ladies that’s loving me.” Good news for all the ladies still nursing crushes for the crooner…

Getting back to the music, Sweat makes it clear that he is where he is because of all of you. “I just wanna thank all my fans, honestly, for supporting me all these years… ’cause I just feel like I’m at a certain place in my life and in my career because of the fans out there; whether it’s overseas or whether it’s in the States. I’ve had a lot of support from people in both places. They’ve kept me in the R&B game, they’ve kept me relevant.”

Keith currently hosts a radio show called ‘The Keith Sweat Hotel’ which broadcasts Monday-Thursday on over 30 radio stations around the states. His reality show Keith Sweat’s Platinum House currently airs on BET Centric.

Ridin’ Solo is out now on Kedar Records.

– Amber Yeshpaul

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