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Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis: Our Life in 15 Songs

The chart-topping producers on Janet Jackson smashes and more

Jimmy Jam; Terry Lewis

Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis in 1990

Layne Kennedy/Corbis

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.

Jimmy Jam; Terry Lewis

ca. 1990s, Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA --- Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis of Flyte Time Records --- Image by © Layne Kennedy/Corbis

Layne Kennedy/Corbis

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.

Jimmy Jam; Terry Lewis

ca. 1990s, Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA --- Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis of Flyte Time Records --- Image by © Layne Kennedy/Corbis

Layne Kennedy/Corbis

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.

Jimmy Jam; Terry Lewis

ca. 1990s, Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA --- Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis of Flyte Time Records --- Image by © Layne Kennedy/Corbis

Layne Kennedy/Corbis

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.

Jimmy Jam; Terry Lewis

ca. 1990s, Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA --- Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis of Flyte Time Records --- Image by © Layne Kennedy/Corbis

Layne Kennedy/Corbis

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?

Jimmy Jam; Terry Lewis

ca. 1990s, Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA --- Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis of Flyte Time Records --- Image by © Layne Kennedy/Corbis

Layne Kennedy/Corbis

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?

Lewis: Probably.

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.

Jimmy Jam; Terry Lewis

ca. 1990s, Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA --- Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis of Flyte Time Records --- Image by © Layne Kennedy/Corbis

Layne Kennedy/Corbis

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.

Jimmy Jam; Terry Lewis

ca. 1990s, Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA --- Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis of Flyte Time Records --- Image by © Layne Kennedy/Corbis

Layne Kennedy/Corbis

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.

Jimmy Jam; Terry Lewis

ca. 1990s, Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA --- Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis of Flyte Time Records --- Image by © Layne Kennedy/Corbis

Layne Kennedy/Corbis

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.