Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis: Our Life in 15 Songs
Janet Jackson's eleventh album Unbreakable marks a milestone for the singer, reuniting her with producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, the duo behind nine of her 10 Number One hits between 1986 and 2001. It's their first album-length collaboration since 2006, and is meant as a return to the energy and attitude of their first five albums together, which introduced career-defining songs like "What Have You Done For Me Lately," "Control," "Got 'Til It's Gone" and "That's the Way Love Goes."
"The best compliment to me, whether or not you like the new record, is 'Wow, it sounds like Janet,'" says James "Jimmy Jam" Harris III of the new album. "That means there must have been some records that didn't sound like Janet."
For more than three decades, Jam and Lewis have been phenomenally successful pop and R&B producers. Rolling Stone caught up with the duo at their studio/workshop on the outskirts of Los Angeles to talk about 15 pivotal songs from their career as producers, songwriters and musicians who've cut records with Janet and Michael Jackson, Prince and the Time, Mary J. Blige, Usher and more.
Janet Jackson, “No Sleeep” (2015)
Jam: We didn't work on the record before with Janet [2008's Discipline]. This album is a return to what we did on the first five records, which is everybody left us alone. The record company didn't even know we were working on it for six months, which was fantastic. There's no leaks, no A&R, no nothing. It's just us cutting songs. We're not disclosing where we did it, but it was never in a traditional studio. It was almost like making a record in Minneapolis, where everybody leaves you alone and whatever you come out with is what you come you with.
Lewis: "No Sleeep" is the re-introduction, the re-engagement point to the movement of "I love Janet." When Jimmy was playing that track one day in the background, I said, "What's that? Let me write to that right now!" That song is inspiring to me. It's unlike anything that's out right now. It oozes Janet. Nobody can do that track and make it work.
Jam: That track summed up the way we felt working together again. It was very comfortable and effortless. It was like a nice soft bench that you sink into and "Mmmm, this is nice. I remember this." We thought if we felt that way about the record, it would make other people feel the same way.
Usher, “U Remind Me” (2001)
Jam: We didn't actually write it. We produced it. We normally do both. "U Remind Me" was a record that [label executive] L.A. Reid had from a guy who had about 50 different names — he was Hustle Child, Eddie Hustle, Butter. He did a demo of the song and killed it. The demo was amazing. Usher was trying to sing it like the demo. He never heard himself on the record, but he knew it was a great track. He said "The only way I'll re-sing it is if Terry produces the vocal."
Lewis: That record personally was a milestone for me. It re-inspired me to want to produce music. It got to a point where all the artists were pretty lackadaisical — you could "tune" vocals. Everybody just wanted to make it easy on themselves and not really do the work. Usher would always want to strive to be better and better. I'd tell him, "Dude, you got to be singing on the bridge. You be bullshitting on the bridge! Come on, bring it." Then he would bring it and he'd be tired. It's a muscle and you have to build up to it. Now that's all he does. He sings full out. He can do it on demand. Very inspiring dude.
Mary J. Blige, “No More Drama” (2001)
Jam: I'm a big soap opera fan, and I always wanted to do something using The Young and the Restless theme. We figured Mary was at a point in her life that she knew about drama and it was a song lyrically she could sing. We wrote all the lyrics, but always with the intention that she would rewrite it to make it personal to her. When we went to New York, she listened to it and said: "You been following me around with a spy or something? This is exactly what I'm feeling. I'm not changing a thing on this one."
Lewis: Mary's just so soulful. She gives me chills when she sings. She's so committed to everything she does. When she grabs it, she takes it to a place no one else can take it. She's a special singer — a sanger instead of a singer. She sangs.
Jam: It was her album's title track and a very pivotal single for her because it was her declaration after all these records and all these years of abuse and sadness. She's putting her foot down and saying "No more drama." And ironically doing it to a soap opera theme with a hip-hop beat.
Yolanda Adams, “Open My Heart” (1999)
Lewis: With Sounds of Blackness, we dabbled in the inspirational part of music, but we had never really dealt with gospel artists. Yolanda Adams is a phenomenal singer. I always saw her as the Whitney Houston of gospel. Why doesn't this woman get the opportunity?
Jam: Co-writer on that song with Big Jim Wright, who was a member of Sounds of Blackness, and he started writing with us. He's Mariah Carey's musical director now. Next thing you know, she had a platinum album, Grammy Awards. If "Optimistic" made you feel good, "Open My Heart" just made you cry. To have those moments where a song touches people in that sort of way, beyond the charts and record sales, that to me is the true beauty of what we do. That is a pivotal record for us.
Janet Jackson feat. Q-Tip, Joni Mitchell, “Got ‘Til It’s Gone” (1997)
Jam: The Velvet Rope was different because that album was more her having the lyrics and we putting music to it. She already knew what the record was going to be. "Got 'til It's Gone" was the first single. It got absolutely no love at pop radio, just showing how things change, but it was a No. 1 urban record.
Q-Tip was a part of that record. J Dilla had done a remix of a Brand New Heavy song that had a feel to it I just loved. I thought if I could come up with something with that feel with Janet, and then put a Joni Mitchell sample over it, that would be a magic combination, taking things from different eras and weaving it together.
I always liked Joni's "Big Yellow Taxi' because it was a roller-skating song when I was younger. First thing we did was call Joni and say "We're thinking of sampling your song. Are you OK with that?" At that point in time, you didn't know if people were with that or not. Some people liked sampling, some people didn't. She said "I can't wait to hear how it comes out."
Michael Jackson & Janet Jackson, “Scream” (1995)
Jam: Michael had asked Janet to do a song with him. Janet came to Minneapolis just to give us some inspiration for some tracks. The song that ended up becoming "Scream." We went to his apartment in Trump Tower, put the track on and basically wrote the song lyrically in an hour. He definitely had things to get off his chest and that's what it was about. Recording the song was probably one of the most mind-blowing experiences ever. He walked into the studio, very nice and very kind: "OK, I'm going to try my part now. . . ." So Michael goes in and the moment the music starts, he turns into the Tasmanian Devil. He's a whole different person, stomping, clapping, he's got jewelry jingling — all the stuff you're not supposed to do in the studio. Me and Terry are sitting there going "Oh my God!"
Lewis: Screaming like fans.
Jam: He totally nails the song start to finish. Janet leans in and goes, "I'll do my vocal in Minneapolis." She wanted no part of following that. I don't blame her. So we do Janet's vocal, we send it to him. "Oh, Janet sounds really good. Where did you record her?" Minneapolis. "Oh, I want to come to Minneapolis and do my vocal." What you got was this sibling rivalry between brother and sister who are also competitive. Yeah, we love each other, but I'm going to sing my ass off.
Janet Jackson, “That’s the Way Love Goes” (1993)
Jam: She had just signed a contract that was the biggest a female artist had signed. A lot of attention was being paid to that record. . . . The idea was to take a sample of James Brown's "Papa Don't Take No Mess," one of my favorite records of all time, and put chords on it and make it something different. It was a combination of that and this other sample called "Impeach the President" [by the Honey Drippers], probably one of the most sampled drum loops of all time. That's as hip-hop as you can probably get. It set the tone for what the album is. In our minds it was always the first single. It was her longest-running Number One pop record. "That's the Way Love Goes" was a new era of Janet. It's so funky, but it's so smooth at the same time."
Lewis: Sweet, sultry, sexy.
Jam: If someone says, "What's your favorite Janet song," that's the one. We got to share it with James Brown. James wanted to know the lyrics before he cleared the sample: "What's she singing about on there?" Love, James, just love! He blessed it.
Lewis: For that album, that song is the anchor. Everything else came after that. If you get off on the bad foot, none of the other stuff happens.
Sounds of Blackness, “Optimistic” (1991)
Jam: We always say that's our favorite song we've ever done. Sounds of Blackness was a 40-piece ensemble gospel choir. They did all kinds of different music. They did all the African-American forms of music. We took Janet to a show when we were recording Rhythm Nation, and I remember she was nudging, "Hey, isn't that cool? They just went into a jazz thing. Now they got a hip-hop thing going. . . .' By the time she gets done, I see them totally different now.
When we started our label, Perspective, in late 1990 we signed Sounds of Blackness as our first group. When we did the song "Optimistic," it turned into a Number One urban record and won a Grammy. That record showed us the power of music — not about hit records, but really about how music can really move people and make their day feel better. As many hits as we had at that point, nobody has ever talked about a record like this: People would tell us stories about how when they feel bad that's the record they put on. It had this effect which was so much above having a hit record.
Janet Jackson, “Rhythm Nation” (1989)
Jam: The whole "Rhythm Nation" album concept didn't start until we were into the recording a ways, just from watching TV and switching between MTV and CNN. Watching music videos on one side and watching atrocities on the other. Somehow they all merged together. The idea for "Rhythm Nation" was you can dance, but we can also do something more intelligent. The blueprint for doing that is always Marvin Gaye's What's Going On album, which is my favorite album of all time. That was the spirit in which Rhythm Nation was done.
Where do you get a song powerful enough to convey what you're trying to do? I was sitting at dinner one night, and "Thank You" from Sly and the Family Stone came on. When it got to the bridge, I just was like "Oh, shit, that's it!" I put the guitar part in a sampler, put a beat around it. It took Sly to conjure that up. That album took six months. The title track is the centerpiece of the whole thing.
New Edition, “Can You Stand the Rain” (1988)
Jam: We had Johnny Gill joining the group. Bobby Brown had left for a successful solo career. "Can You Stand the Rain" was the record we needed to have that Johnny and Ralph [Tresvant] shared the lead vocal. That was a pivotal record for them. Lyrically, it could be about a girl, but it could also be about fans. You're there when things are great, but when things are funny, are you still with me? This was their grown-up album. It was a precarious record to make — they had made all these teen records. There was a lot of pressure on them.
Human League, “Human” (1986)
Lewis: Dealing with the Human League was total culture shock. Two black kids from Minneapolis, a bunch of British white guys from Sheffield, England — not even London. At that point it gave us confidence that we could do just about anything.
Jam: They come up to Minneapolis. We ended up writing four songs on the album and "Human" was one of the songs. Phil Oakey had a great, unique voice. Phil had never sang anything emotional. Everything was robotic at that point for them. Terry said, "No, no, no, you've got to sing this with some feeing." It took a week to do that lead vocal. Phil killed it. When it came time to do the background vocals, we got Lisa Keith, who did backgrounds on pretty much every record we ever did. There were two girls in the group, and one of the girls was Phil's girlfriend, and she says, "Who's that other girl on the track?"
Lewis: The relationship dynamic in the band got involved. The guys were cool. The girls just wanted to be more of a part, but there was no way to get the record right with them being that part.
Jam: To this day, I see articles where Phil says they felt they were puppets and we were the puppeteers. It wasn't by any means acrimonious. It was the first time we had to stand our creative ground — because at that point nobody had ever questioned anything we did.
Lewis: At the end of the day, did you get the result? Did you get a hit record?
Janet Jackson, “When I Think of You” (1986)
Jam: Terry plays guitar on that one. Was that the green guitar that was never in tune?
Jam: When the album was done, we took the album to her brother Jackie's house. All the brothers but Michael were there, and they all were excited to hear the record. Then "When I Think of You" comes on and Marlon comes to me and goes, "What's the name of this one?" Then Jermaine came over: "What's that one called? That's a Number One record." They were all in total agreement: "All those other songs are really nice, but that's the song." Of course they knew better than us because they were absolutely right.
Lewis: We don't think pop Number One records. That wasn't in our repertoire of thought because at that point in time, black people didn't get Number One pop records, unless you were Earth, Wind & Fire or somebody like that.
Janet Jackson, “What Have You Done for Me Lately” (1986)
Jam: The two records that Janet had done [1982's Janet Jackson and 1984's Dream Street] were both well-produced records, but we always felt they actually had none of her in it. It was just her showing up and singing. Our approach to the artist had always been, "What do you want to sing about?" We knew that Janet had a lot of attitude and a lot of feistiness just from watching her as a kid on the different TV stuff she did. Let's create music that has that kind of attitude and let her run with it.
Lewis: That's the first time we got to do a full album project.
Jam: If you're talking about songs that really changed the course of stuff, "Lately" was the first thing anybody heard — even though it was the last thing recorded. We had our studio in Minneapolis and Janet came to work, no security. For five or six days we just hung out. We went to the movies, hung out at the lake, went to some clubs. We would have conversations about different things. "Nasty" was about some guys bothering her at a club and she was like, "I don't like nasty boys." She was talking about 'I'm moving out on my own. I'm getting a place.' Great, we're going to write "Control." That was the process.
Jam: The "What Have You Done for Me Lately" concept was just that attitude that we always thought about her. So we made a sassy record lyrically. It became a catchphrase. It really changed a whole lot of things. The only way to get on pop radio if you were a black artist was basically to put a ballad out. Now all of a sudden you have this aggressive, hard-hitting female singing. It changed the way radio sounded. We'd walk through neighborhood and hear Janet just blasting out of people's houses.
Lewis: This is for a girl who never had a Top 10 before.
S.O.S. Band, “Just Be Good to Me” (1983)
Jam: We demoed "Just Be Good to Me" in the bathroom, using the echo for the handclaps. We had a little Casio keyboard and Terry had a bass. When we went down to Atlanta to record S.O.S. Band, it was the first time we were really on our own with choice of instruments and actual producer decisions. We had the 808 drum machine at the studio and we were among the first people to really use it. "Just Be Good to Me" ended up becoming our first big hit record. The timing of that happening was interesting because Prince basically fired us the night we mixed that record. When he called and wanted Terry back — he didn't want me back — that record came out and was a smash. At that point we were producers.
Lewis: I never knew what a producer did. I thought a producer was the guy that brought the money. I just knew I loved to write songs and play and be around my friends. That's all it was about.
The Time, “Get It Up” (1981)
Lewis: We were just band members, along for the ride for that one. . . . It was the introduction of the Time to the world, the introduction of ourselves to the world of music business and touring. It was all new, all fresh, everything you dreamed of as a young musician.
Jam: We learned that Prince is a genius. The studio experience overall couldn't have been a better learning opportunity because he was very unorthodox, but it was very spontaneous. Prince was always the most prolific, always the quickest and he was totally self-contained. He could engineer, write it, play it, he could do pretty much everything and do it efficiently. It was a great lesson to me, and valuable lesson, on how to record. His attitude towards music was "You've got to make visual records." The record has got to put you in a place where you visualize something.
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