Singer, songwriter, producer
As a child, Keith Sweat had a psychic intuition about his success as a singer. “I used to go to bed and dream I was on stage giving a concert,” he told Ebony. “I could see myself singing and the people were screaming and the whole thing was so real to me, I used to wake up and really believe I had done a show. You couldn’t tell me it didn’t happen.… I would get up in the morning and start looking in my pockets for all the money I’d made from my shows. I don’t know how to explain it, but those dreams seemed so real, I knew they were really premonitions.”
Sweat not only took those dreams to heart, he made sure they came true, becoming one of the founders of the 1990s musical genre known as “new jack swing,” a hybrid of contemporary street music and the traditional elements of R&B and pop. Born and raised the third of five children in New York City’s Harlem, Sweat began performing at the age of 14. His own style of smooth vocals developed when he played in a band called Jamilah.
After he graduated from City College of the City University of New York with a communications degree, Sweat worked his way up from the mailroom to a position as a brokerage assistant in a Wall Street firm. Every spare minute and dollar went toward writing and recording his music. He spent the rest of his time trying to sell his songs to record companies for other artists to sing. But, for a time, every door he knocked on seemed to slam right back in his face. Determined to continue his musical pursuits, Sweat decided to sing and record his own songs. He submitted a demo tape to Vincent Davis, president of Vintertainment Recordings, who signed him to the label immediately.
From Wall Street to Street Music
In 1987 Sweat recorded his debut album, Make It Last Forever —but kept his Wall Street job as a safety net. Although his professional life was heading in the right direction, Sweat was experiencing trauma in his personal life, following a painful split with his longtime girlfriend. The recording sessions provided the artist with an outlet for his emotions. “It was a heartbreak relationship for me—the kind where you are hurting so much, you have to find someone to talk to or go crazy,” Sweat told Ebony. “I didn’t really have anyone to talk to, so what l did was talk to my album.… I was writing about my life. And I really think that’s why people responded to it so strongly. They knew it was real.”
Sweat reached out and grabbed the hearts of millions of fans with Make It Last Forever. Co-produced by longtime friend Teddy Riley, the 1987 release sold
For the Record…
Began performing in clubs in New York City when he was 14 years old. Signed with Vintertainment Recordings, 1987, and released first album, Make It Last Forever, signed with Elektra Records, 1991; formed his own record label, Keia Records, with distribution through Elektra.
Addresses: Record company —Elektra Entertainment, 345 North Maple Dr., Suite 123, Beverly Hills, CA 90210.
more than three million copies and later won an American Music Award nomination for best R&B album.
Sweat and Riley collaborated on the single “I Want Her,” which eventually reached Number One on Billboard’s R&B chart and Number Three on their pop chart. Soul Train nominated the single for their “best song of the year” honors, and Sweat became the first artist in ten years to have the Number One R&B single and the Number One R&B album at the same time. Having accomplished that, he finally quit his day job and devoted all of his energy to making music. He went on tour with his own live band, playing in 6,000- to 20,000-seat arenas worldwide, with sold-out shows dominating the tour—including two at London’s Hammersmith Odeon.
In 1990 Sweat returned with a vengeance on his second effort, I’ll Give All My Love to You, featuring the hit single “Make You Sweat.” He produced the album himself and wrote or co-wrote each one of its songs. I’ll Give All My Love to You sold a million copies in less than two months and ultimately went multiplatinum. “On the first album, I felt completely relaxed,” Sweat explained in his press biography. “Working on the I’ll Give All My Love to You album felt like being in a pressure cooker. I felt pressure not only from the expectations of my fans, but also from myself to produce an album that was just as good or better than the first one.”
Sweat kept on working without slowing down. In 1991 he split with Vintertainment to sign with their distributor, Elektra Records. Around the same time, he discovered Silk, a band from Atlanta, Georgia, that would later become the first act to sign on his own label, Keia Records—named after his daughter. Sweat first saw Silk at a picnic singing Boyz II Men songs and soon enlisted them to sing background vocals on his album.
That same year, Sweat released his third offering, Keep It Comin’, with the title track as the first single. Both the album and the single quickly jumped to the Number One slots on the Billboard R&B charts. On the second single, “Why Me Baby?,” Sweat collaborated with Teddy Riley and hit rap artist L.L. Cool J.
Sweat joined the “Triple Threat Tour” to support Keep It Comin’, which featured New Edition spinoffs Bell Biv DeVoe and Johnny Gill in what Rolling Stone called the “New Jack all-star package.” Then, he moved on to his own “For Ladies Only” tour. By 1992, Silk had recorded and released their debut album, Lose Control, produced by Sweat. The following year, they topped Billboard’s R&B and Hot 100 charts with their hit “Freak Me.” Sweat soon began working with other artists for Keia Records, including hardcore rappers Triflin’ Pack and the female singing group About Face.
The singer released his next album, Get Up on It, with its first single, “How Do You Like It?,” in 1994. Collaborating with Fitzgerald Scott and working with engineer Michael Ffrench, Sweat recorded the album in the “Sweat Shop,” his own home basement studio in Atlanta, Georgia. Several critics have noted that on Get Up on It, the singer reached back to the style of his first release, Make It Last Forever. “My first album is like I was another person, and I [needed] to get back in touch with who that person was,” Sweat told Vibe. “I didn’t gettired. I’d work all night if I had to. That was the feeling that I had working with Silk.… I just had a vibe, and it felt good. It was like energy flowing that I wanted to get off my chest. It was like doing my first album again.” Having made his childhood premonitions of a career as a singing sensation come true, Sweat now believes his job is to keep making music-lovers happy.
Make It Last Forever (includes “I Want Her”), Vintertainment/Elektra, 1987.
I’ll Give All My Love to You (includes “Make You Sweat”), Vintertainment/Elektra, 1990.
Keep It Comin’ (includes title track and “Why Me Baby?”), Elektra, 1991.
Get Up on It (includes “How Do You Like It?”), Elektra, 1994.
Billboard, January 9, 1988; July 23, 1988; July 21, 1990; January 19, 1991; January 26, 1991; February 8, 1992; October 24, 1992; November 28, 1992; June 12, 1993.
Ebony, September 1992.
Entertainment Weekly, July 15, 1994.
Keyboard, March 1992.
Musician, May 1988; March 1992.
New York Times, January 14, 1991; December 11, 1991.
People, July 9, 1990; July 11, 1994.
Rolling Stone, September 22,1988; August 9,1990; November 15, 1990; February 21, 1991.
Variety, March 4, 1991.
Vibe, May 1994.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from Elektra Records press materials, 1994.
Sweat, Keith 1961(?)–
Keith Sweat 1961(?)–
Keith Sweat is one of the earliest practitioners, and some would say the inventor, of “New Jack Swing” music, a style of rhythm and blues that fuses soul singing and hip-hop beats. It should come as no surprise that “New Jack Swing” music became extremely popular, or that Sweat has enjoyed considerable success. Financial success has always been one of the keystones in Sweat's life, from his days working at the New York Stock Exchange to his career in music.
Sweat was born in the early 1960s in Harlem, New York. His father Charles, a factory worker, died in 1973. His mother Juanita, a hairdresser, was forced to raise their five children alone. Sweat would later credit Juanita for his strong sense of values, telling People Weekly, “She pushed me hard. I knew I didn't want to be on the street selling drugs—or using them.”
Sweat learned early in life that he had a gift for music, and for affecting women with his voice. “When he was four years old, he'd go outside and sing to the girls,” Juanita told People Weekly “I'd say, ‘Stop that noise.’” Keith would later remark that he had dreams of performing in concert that often seemed like premonitions. He told Ebony, “People might think I'm lying about them, but as a kid I used to go to bed and dream I was onstage giving a concert. I could see myself singing and the people were screaming and the whole thing was so real to me I used to wake up and really believe I had done a show. You couldn’t tell me it didn’t happen.… I would get up in the morning and start looking in my pockets for all the money I’d made from my shows.”
Following his graduation from high school, Sweat enrolled in City College of New York to study communications. He worked as a stock boy at Macy’s on weeknights and sang with a band called Jamilah on weekends. After graduating from City College of New York, he went to work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, starting in the mailroom at Paine Webber, and working his way up to a lucrative brokerage assistant job in only four years. Although he had advanced quickly in his new career, he still wanted to become a musician.
At a Glance…
Born Keith Sweat circa 1961 in Harlem, New York; son of Charles (a factory worker) and Juanita (a hairdresser) Sweat; three children: Keisha, Keia, and Jordan. Education: City College of New York, bachelor’s degree in communications.
Career: Paine Webber, mailroom, brokerage assistant; singer for band Jamilah; solo albums, Make It Last Forever (1988), I’ll Give All My Love To You (1990), Keep It Comin’ (1991), Get Up On It (1994), Keith Sweat (1996); singles, “I Want Her,” “Make You Sweat,” “Merry Go Round,” “Just One of Them Thangs.”
Awards: Double platinum album, Make it Last Forever; No. 1 New Male Artist, Black Radio Exclusive, 1988.
Addresses: Singer, c/o Elektra Records, 75 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, New York, 10019.
Near the end of his tenure on Wall Street, Sweat became convinced that he was destined to become a songwriter, not a performer. He spent most of his salary recording demos of his songs, but no one wanted to buy them. “All of the recording companies turned me down flat,” he told Ebony. “Everybody said the same thing: ‘Thanks but no thanks. Your songs just aren’t hot enough for our artists to sing,”’ he continued.
Abandoning his plans to become a major songwriter, Sweat started performing his own material. He finally attracted the attention of Vincent Davis. Davis owned a record label, Vintertainment, and had recently signed a distribution deal with Elektra Records. Sweat soon signed with Vintertainment and recorded his debut album, Make It Last Forever, which was a commercial success. It featured the hit single, “I Want Her,” and was heavily influenced by a style Sweat called “go-go music,” a percussion-based sound which was popular on the East Coast. Much of the material on the album was contributed by the well-known New Jack Swing producer, Teddy Riley. Although the album’s credits listed Sweat as a producer, many listeners believed that the album was solely produced by Riley.
Sweat would later tell Ebony that the success of the first album could be attributed to his break-up with a longtime girlfriend. “That was a very tough time in my life,” he declared. “I was coming out of a relationship where I was hurt and I mean really hurt bad. It was a heartbreaking relationship for me—the kind where you are hurting so much you have to find someone to talk to or go crazy. I didn’t really have anyone to talk to so what I did was talk to my album.” Sweat also credits Vintertainment with the opportunity to release his debut album. “If I had taken my demo tape directly to Elektra I would have been turned down, I know it,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “Frankly, a lot of A&R guys can’t hear the music. They go home to their big houses in upstate New York and lose touch with what the folks on the street want to hear.” Sweat took a leave of absence from his Wall Street job while his debut album climbed the charts. When the album reached No. 1 on the charts, he quit his job on Wall Street. “That’s when I knew I could do this for a living,” he told Rolling Stone.
Sweat’s second album, produced without the assistance of Teddy Riley, established more of his individual style. I’ll Give All My Love to You featured a simpler, more traditional rhythm and blues sound. The album climbed the charts quickly, selling one million copies in less than two months. It produced two more hit singles, including the signature song “Make You Sweat.” Although Sweat was pleased that his albums were performing well on the R&B charts, he was disappointed that they were not successful on the pop charts. He told the Los Angeles Times, “I want pop fans to know who Keith Sweat is. It’s not about ego. It’s about selling records—which is what this business is all about. I’ve hit a stone wall in the black community. There’s only so much money there.”
Sweat’s third album, Keep It Comin’, offered more of the same style of music expected by his fans. He marked the success of this album by moving to Alpharetta, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta, and building his dream home. He also concentrated on improving his abilities as a producer by working with other acts, most notably the R&B group Silk. Sweat produced their album, Lose Control, which climbed to the top of the R&B charts. That same year, Sweat’s music was also featured on the New Jack City movie soundtrack.
Sweat returned to the charts in 1994 with his fourth album, Get Up On It. This album resembled the musical style of Sweat’s other albums and produced another hit single, “How Do You Like It?” In addition to performing, he also pursued other business interests. He began his own record label, Keia Records, and opened a state-of-the-art recording studio called the Sweat Shop. He also produced a hit album for the group Kut Klose. In 1996 Sweat opened a new nightclub, Industry, in Atlanta’s Buckhead district. He explained the nightclub’s name to People Weekly, “This is a spot for people in ‘the industry.’ There’s no other place in Atlanta where celebrities can come and just be themselves. We’re people, too.”
A few months after opening his nightclub, Sweat released his fifth album entitled Keith Sweat. Two songs on the album, “Twisted” and “Nobody,” climbed into the top five on the pop charts. The following year, Sweat formed the musical group LSG with Gerald Levert and Johnny Gill. Their debut album produced the hit single “My Body.” In 1997 Sweat discovered the group 01’ Skool, which he considered a throwback to the 1960s and 1970s heyday of soul music. He told Jet that searching for talent for Keia Records was a full-time occupation, adding that he seeks “people who can sing and people who can put certain things together in terms of performance, stage presence and all of that, overall talent. I’m a hands-on person, so I still pay attention to what’s going on. I get demos; I listen to all kinds of music. Atlanta has certainly become a very important place within the music industry, but I search for talent from everywhere.”
Sweat believes that simplicity and honesty are the keys to his popularity. He remarked to People Weekly in 1997, “If I can’t feel it, I don’t want to write it. My music is true-to-life relationship music.” The consistency of Keith Sweat’s success suggests that he will continue to produce and sell hit records for many years to come.
Billboard, September 30, 1995, p. 22; October 25, 1997, p. 38-39.
Chicago Tribune, January 17, 1991, p. 3, section 5.
Ebony, September 1992, p. 82.
Jet, September 16, 1996, p. 30.
Los Angeles Times, March 20, 1988, p. C70; February 17, 1991, p. C64.
People Weekly, September 26, 1988, p. 115; January 27, 1997, p. 69.
Rolling Stone, November 15, 1990.
Best-selling album since 1990: Keith Sweat (1996)
Hit songs since 1990: "Make You Sweat," "I'll Give All My Love to You," "Twisted"
Arhythm and blues singer who has proved his influence over the course of a long and durable career, Keith Sweat is a pioneer of the sound known as "New Jack Swing." Bouncy, danceable, and exuberant, New Jack Swing was a key development in late 1980s R&B, paving the way for the brash hip-hop music of the 1990s. Known for his whining vocals, Sweat imparts a sensuous, urgent feel to both up-tempo songs and ballads. A factor in his success has been his foresight in choosing not to flood the market with album releases. Rather, he issues albums at intervals of two to three years, a tactic that allows him to maintain quality, consistency, and popularity.
Raised around the corner from the famed Apollo Theatre in Harlem, New York, Sweat began his career in the mid-1980s by submitting self-financed demo recordings to various record labels. An executive at Elektra Records heard one of these demos and offered him a recording contract in 1987. Late that year Sweat released his first and most influential album, Make It Last Forever. Boasting the thumping, insistent rhythms of the hit, "I Want Her," the album was a crucial bridge between the romantic R&B vocalizing of the 1970s and the aggressive hip-hop style that would predominate in the 1990s. Sweat's soulful rendition of "In the Rain," a song originally recorded by 1970s R&B group the Dramatics, suggested his admiration for the vocal traditions of the past, while "I Want Her" helped define the burgeoning New Jack Swing sound.
Sweat maintained his winning streak throughout the 1990s, delivering a solid follow-up to "I Want Her" with the driving hit, "Make You Sweat" (1990). Keith Sweat (1996) was a career peak; the success of its hit single "Twisted" propelled the album to the upper reaches of both the pop and R&B charts. Sweat's singing is distinctive and memorable, setting the trend for the nasal style favored by younger R&B artists such as Usher. The pleading quality of his voice gives his music a seductive undercurrent and erotic edge, although, unlike contemporaries such as D'Angelo and Next, Sweat rarely ventures into sexual explicitness. On Keith Sweat, he again displays his proficiency on dance tracks and slow love ballads, his assured phrasing adapting well to both formats. Although he failed to revisit the album's strong crossover success, Sweat continued to release quality recordings during the late 1990s and early 2000s, maintaining his professionalism and steady sense of groove. On Rebirth (2002), he proves that his voice is still strong, with the power to make a boasting track such as "100% All Man" believable. By this point in his career, Sweat had relocated to the R&B industry nexus of Atlanta, Georgia, where he established his own management agency and recording studio.
One of the few 1980s R&B performers who maintained a viable career into the 2000s, Sweat brandishes his unique, insistent voice on free-spirited dance music and intimate ballads, rarely deviating from his successful formula. Retaining a sense of youth and vitality into his forties, Sweat is acknowledged by fans as a father of hip-hop and a leader in contemporary R&B.
Make It Last Forever (Elektra, 1987); I'll Give All My Love to You (Elektra, 1990); Keith Sweat (Elektra, 1996); Didn't See Me Coming (Elektra, 2000); Rebirth (Elektra, 2002); Keith Sweat Live (Elektra, 2003).