Anyone who doubted that production dynamos Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis could write a dance hit was quickly silenced with "Rub You the Right Way," the Johnny Gill single that rocked clubs in 1990. An effective showcase for Gill's robust vocals, the floor burner became a massive hit, topping the R&B charts and peaking at number three on the Billboard Hot 100. It signaled Jam and Lewis' mastery of New Jack Swing as well as their ability to combine R&B, soul, hip hop, and pop for mass appeal.
By the time Jam and Lewis encountered Gill, the singer was already an industry veteran. Hailing from Washington, D.C., Gill honed his vocal skills in the church before pursuing a secular solo career in 1983. He gained attention when he recorded a duets album with Stacy Lattisaw; a single, "Perfect Combination," reached the R&B top ten in 1984. A followup disc did not duplicate the success, but his career was revived when he joined New Edition in 1988.
Since Bobby Brown had departed the group to record his debut album, they were short a singer; looking for a change in sound, they recruited Gill.
Gill's new position came as a surprise to Jam and Lewis; in 2013, Jam told RapRehab that he and Lewis attended a meeting with then-Motown CEO Jheryl Busby in 1988. At the time, Busby was scouting for new talent to sign to the label; Jam recommended Gill, and added that he and Lewis would produce his album. Not long after, Jam explained, he and Lewis ran into Gill at a concert and learned, to their surprise, that the singer had just joined New Edition. Confused, the duo contacted Busby; he told them that Gill's news was indeed true and that he wanted them to produce New Edition's next album. The subsequent album, 1989's Heart Break, rejuvenated the 1980s boy band creatively and commercially. Jam and Lewis brought their patented modern R&B sound to the group, earning them hits such as "Can You Stand the Rain," "You're Not My Kind of Girl," and "If It Isn't Love." Gill's mature voice allowed New Edition to graduate to a sophisticated, more contemporary sound.
Capitalizing on this success, New Edition members split to embark on their own careers. Gill tapped Jam and Lewis to write and produce select tracks for his self-titled album (not to be confused with his 1983 self-titled debut). This collaboration resulted in 1990's "Rub You the Right Way," a harder-edged track showcasing Gill's rich voice. He growls, snarls, and roars out the suggestive lyrics: "Can you feel the magic in my hands / When I touch and rub you the right way," he proclaims. A lesser voice would have rendered lines like "customer satisfaction is a guarantee" cliched, but Gill's confident delivery sells the seductive words.
Meanwhile, Jam and Lewis provide a slamming beat and funky bass line, enticing listeners to the dance floor. Unlike their smoother 1980s work, "Rub You the Right Way" contains a harder sound, that relentless rhythm contrasting effectively with the old school soul backing vocals. In other words, Jam and Lewis update Temptations-style singing with New Jack Swing, and the combination is irresistible.
"Rub You the Right Way" exemplifies how Jam and Lewis did not restrict themselves to a particular style. Unlike other producers, they varied artists and genres enough to keep listeners guessing. Not content to be labeled "pop" or "R&B," they experimented with genres and in turn encouraged artists to expand their vocal ranges. "Rub You the Right Way" scored Gill a major hit, demonstrated his power as an uptempo singer as well as a smooth balladeer, and helped define 1990s R&B.