In 1987, ‘Make It Last Forever’ launched Keith Sweat from struggling independent artist to multi-platinum R&B superstar. A decade later, he would lay claim to over 10 million in album sales and a slew of top-5 singles on both the soul and pop charts. He's now added radio host and TV producer to his diverse entertainment résumé, and is ready to up the ante again with his tenth studio album, ‘Ridin' Solo’.
Justin Kantor: Hi Keith, how are you doing?
Keith Sweat: I’m doing well.
JK: My name is Justin Kantor and I’m writing for Soulmusic.com. It’s a pleasure speaking with you after enjoying your music for quite a while now. Could you tell me the inspiration behind calling your new album ‘Ridin' Solo’, and the concept of the song itself?
KS: The album is pretty much what I do musically. It’s time for a new CD. I’ve been doing music for all these years, it’s in my blood. Basically, I try to put out something that’s in my blood and people wanted me to put out a new album. They felt like it was time and they wanted to hear something new from me -- and that’s what I did for them.
JK: When you say it’s in your blood, is it constantly going, or is there a specific time when you feel something?
KS: I write music all the time, whenever I feel like I want to drop a new album I have tons of songs, so when I want to go out and promote and tour, I say, "Okay I like those songs, I feel the inspiration to do a new album. If I’m listening to some of my older stuff, it makes me want to put out a new CD.”
JK: This is your first album with Kedar. The previous one, ‘Just Me’ with “Suga Suga Suga” on it -- for that, you were with Atco. What made you want to make the move to Kedar for ‘Ridin Solo’?
KS: That was a one album deal. Before that, I had been with Elektra for so long. I didn’t want to be tied down to one label. It’s not a situation where I want to be committed. So, when I go do another album, it’s more like I’m free and not obligated to a situation. If I like their work, I can negotiate a deal for a second CD; or if I find a better deal somewhere else as far as my CD is concerned, I can look around without any strings attached.
JK: Is your approach any different now when you make an album compared to when you made your first album, ‘Make It Last Forever’?
KS: Not really. I’m just able to do more of what I want to do because I’ve branded myself and I have a fan base myself. I don’t approach it any differently. I do what I do and I try to do different things that I like to do; but it doesn’t go extremely outside what people know me for. I’m not going to try to do something that’s not me. I use my strengths. I just try to do Keith Sweat in 2010, as opposed to any other way.
JK: Are you looking to gain new audience members with this album, or focusing on the longtime fans?
KS: I’m not opposed to gaining new fans. I did that with all the albums -- bringing other people in the game. So, I’m happy to bring a new, younger fan base into what I’m doing, but also keep the loyal followers who have been with me since the beginning of my career.
JK: Let’s talk about a few of the songs on the album. First, there’s “Test Drive” with Joe. I read that you guys have wanted to work together for quite some time. What finally made that happen? How did you decide on the song to do?
KS: I reached out to Joe. We had crossed paths quite a few times. I love his voice; he has a loyal following; and it was only a matter of finding the time in our schedules to work together. Everybody pretty much knows that if we did a song together, it was probably going to be a great song. We made it happen and now it’s history.
JK: On “Do Wrong Tonight,” you also worked with two legends of modern R&B: Steve Russell from Troop and Chuckii Booker. I was curious, what brought about that collaboration, and what was the process like?
KS: Steve Russell came to my studio and we did it in my studio, and me and Steve have been friends since the Troop days. We’ve always been close. As a matter of fact, he sang backgrounds on “Merry Go-Round” back in the day. He’s like a brother of mine, we’re very close.
JK: In the last few years, you’ve added another dimension to your career by hosting your syndicated radio program Sweat Hotel and recently joining WBLS -- replacing Vaughn Harper on the Quiet Storm. How did you fall into that medium of radio?
KS: They called me from New York and said, “We would definitely like you to do the Quiet Storm show and see how it works,” so I fell into that because I’m from New York originally. They thought it would be a great look for me to do that show. Hopefully it’s doing well. They say that everybody is very pleased about it. We’ll see what happens.
JK: As a songwriter and artist who has been active through several periods of change in the music industry, what do you see as advantages that artists and fans have now that we didn’t have 10 or 15 years ago, or in the beginning of your career ?
KS: Well, you can hit more people now. If the internet was what it is now, when I came out I probably would have sold 20 million albums (laughs). Right now, with the internet being what it is, you’re able to go out there and do your own thing, put a ton of great music out there and the whole world can hear it. You’re not really dependent on record companies more so than anything. There was a time where the record company could put your music where it needed to be, but now you can tap into so many different markets and so many different people where the music industry is concerned -- and that’s a good look.
JK: Is there anything missing nowadays, music-wise or business-wise?
KS: Nowadays, the record companies are not making as much money, so they’re not putting as much money into marketing -- because people are downloading more these days. Those are the things that are missing; videos and all those type of things that used to play an important part in every artist’s career that came out. The record companies aren’t doing that anymore, because they’re scared. I can’t blame them. Because record sales are so low, it has taken a backwards turn. In the industry, that’s what’s missing, the marketing tools behind younger groups who are trying to make a music career. When I first came out, if it wasn’t for the record company putting the money and the marketing behind me, I don’t think I would have had the good look that I had. Nowadays, you pretty much have to do it all yourself. You can do it online by bringing people to your website, your MySpace or your Facebook and let people know what you’re doing. Because you have so many people doing it now, it’s so massive out there. It might be too much, because there’s a whole lot going on out there.
JK: Since most sales are downloads from iTunes and so forth, I would think that the profits would be much smaller not having to buy a whole CD. You can just choose a song and you’re paying a dollar or less for that. Does that change things for artists in terms of what you have to do to make money?
KS: It definitely changes it, because album sales used to generate a lot of income, and the singles now are 99 cents. It’s like when people used to do 12-inch singles and not make any money, so they'd go on the road and perform when the record was hot. Nowadays you go on the road, sing that song and hopefully you’ll get more dates because of that. It’s going back to the days where you don’t make a lot of money from the record sales, but if the record is good, you can go out on the road and tour.
JK: You mentioned the marketing and 12-inch singles. When you came out with ‘Make It Last Forever’, it appeared that you had come out of nowhere; but in fact you were working by day in the stock exchange and you wrote a lot of songs that you pitched to companies. You had already released a couple of independent records like “My Mind Is Made Up” and “Lucky Seven” for Stadium Records. What do you remember about those early experiences making those records as an independent artist?
KS: As an independent artist, I was just trying to get in the game as I am now. To me those were demos, and they gave me the ammunition to do what I’m doing now, to get into a bigger arena. Making those records on an independent label allowed someone on a major label to hear me and see what I can do on that level -- take me under their wing, brand me, and put me out there to sell a bunch of records.
JK: One of the early productions that you did was with the group GQ of “You Are The One For Me.” I wanted to clarify, since I read all kinds of things about this: Are you related to one of the guys in that group?
KS: Not at all.
JK: It was someone who had a similar name?
KS: My name is Keith Sweat, and they were calling me Keith Crier. I don’t know how they got that. I was born and raised Keith Sweat, and people don’t know that’s my real name.
JK: You’ve been involved in a lot of other aspects in the industry: you started your own label with Keia Records; LSG, which was the first big male R&B super group; and now, television production with the Platinum House reality series with Dru Hill. Are there one or two ventures that stand out as ones you're especially proud of?
KS: Not really, because anything I touch, I’m proud of. I wouldn’t waste my time if I didn’t put them in the same areas. Everything I do, I put my best foot forward. The key to me is making sure I’m branded and making it successful. I’m disappointed if it doesn’t become successful. I might blame the people that I’ve hired or myself if things do not work out. With my career, I take credit for that, and when the group’s out, I take credit for that. Even with the TV show, I created the idea, I went to the group that I wanted, and that’s Dru Hill. If it wins, then that’s another check on my accomplished list. If it doesn’t, then I have to go back to the drawing board.
JK: Are there any artists that you’re enjoying, in terms of music that’s out right now?
KS: I enjoy the classic R&B stuff: Joe, Melanie Fiona, and just good R&B music. To say there’s one particular group of people I listen to, I don’t think so. I might like a song or a record, but then somebody else might write a song and I like that record. There’s never just one. It’s more about the song than the artist for me.
JK: Do you think you’ll be touring for this album?
KS: I do tours anyway, so if anything, I’ll just add the songs to my show. I’m normally out every weekend doing shows. I’m always on tour, so it’s never like I have to do a tour -- because my catalog speaks for itself, like “Oh, I just dropped a record, so now I have to go on the road.” It’s never one of those things.
JK: You just work it in around your schedule.
KS: Exactly. There you go.
JK: It was a pleasure speaking with you.
KS: Thank you so much for the interview.
JK: Good luck with the new album.
KS: I appreciate that.
JK: Alright, thanks Keith. Bye.
About the Writer
Justin Kantor is a freelance music journalist with published works in Wax Poetics and the All-Music Guide. A graduate of Berklee College of Music's Business and Management program, he regularly writes liner notes for reissue labels.