Measured in miles, Keith Sweat’s commute was no sweat. But the subway ride from Harlem, where he shared his mother’s flat in a drug-ravaged housing project, to Wall Street, where he worked eight hours a day as a supervisor on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, was a trip between desperately different worlds. To ease the passage, Sweat, 32, turned his thoughts to love—and put them to music. At the end of each trading day, he headed for the recording studio where he booked time at his own expense to record those soulful tunes. Now Sweat is one of the hottest commodities on the pop market. “It feels good,” he says of his surprising success. “But I try not to let it feel too good because I know where it’s all coming from—Upstairs. I haven’t run out and bought a big car or a big house. I just have more money in the bank.” He hasn’t even run out and quit his job; in October he plans to extend a formal leave of absence.
Obviously Sweat is a conservative investor who knows a thing or two about holding on to his money. Soon, though, he may be tempted to spread a little of that fresh cash around. Sweat’s debut album, Make It Last Forever, has been riding high on Billboard’s pop chart for nearly a year, selling over 2 million copies and producing three hit singles, including the current duet with Jacci McGhee on the title track, the smash “I Want Her,” and “Something Just Ain’t Right.” “I wrote that song in a cab,” Sweat says. “I was telling my manager about this guy at work who was mad because his girlfriend was never home when he’d call. I said, ‘I don’t know. Something just ain’t right.’ It seemed like the kind of song everybody could relate to.”
Universal truths didn’t come cheap, but they were plentiful in Harlem, where Sweat grew up in the Grant Housing Projects on West 125th Street. “It’s really crazy there now,” he says. “When I was a kid, people were more into family things. Now it’s like, who cares. Drugs have definitely taken over.” Sweat credits his own escape from the city’s increasingly mean streets to the firm hand of his mother, Juanita, a Harlem hairdresser who has been his main influence since the 1973 death of his father. “She pushed me hard,” says Sweat. “I knew I didn’t want to be on the street selling drugs—or using them.” Instead, he enrolled at City College, supporting his studies by working as a Macy’s stock boy weeknights and playing with a Harlem band called Jamilah on weekends.
Scheduled to tour through November, Sweat, who is single, lives mainly out of a suitcase. But last May, he was still at home in the projects when he heard that fans were lining up outside the Apollo for tickets to see “Harlem’s Own Keith Sweat.” So Sweat went out to see for himself. “I walked two blocks down the street to see people’s reactions,” he says. “I saw the lines. All I could say was, like, ‘Wow!’ ”
—By Steve Dougherty, with Benilde Little in New York