Super Producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis: “Prince Has Sidelined Us”

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Super Producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis: “Prince Has Sidelined Us”


SSome albums take a long time to make, but few have had the gestation period of Jam & Lewis: Volume One. The production duo started working on their debut artist album 36 years ago, just as their careers were taking off thanks to SOS band’s hit single Just Be Good to Me, but they were turned down while working for a minor figure with a few flop albums to her name: Janet Jackson.

Together they began to shape what would become his revolutionary control of 1986, which sold 10 million copies, which naturally “kind of halted our own album’s progress,” as Jimmy “Jam” puts it. Harris, 62, when he and his partner, Terry Lewis, 64, appear on a video call from their home in Los Angeles. With Control ready to ship, they wrote a song for themselves that sounded the perfect calling card for a Jam & Lewis album. “We thought we were done with Control, and then Janet’s manager came over to listen to the album,” says Harris. “We played it Nasty, When I Think Of You, The Pleasure Principle… And he said, ‘I just need one more song, for Janet.’ I’m going, ‘No, man, no.’ We get in the car to go to the restaurant, Terry puts on a tape and towards the third song, Janet’s manager says, ‘This is the song I need.’ “

It was, inevitably, the song Harris and Lewis had reserved for their own release, What Have You Done For Me Lately? “So it started his career and ended ours, at least as artists,” Harris sighs. “This same scenario has often happened. We’d work with someone, and then we’d be like, “Hey, do you want to do something for our album? They were like, ‘Great.’ Then when the song was over, they’d say, ‘No, that’s too good, we have to keep this.’ “

Harris says they “finally got selfish” and embarked on their own album – which comes with a star-studded guest list including Mary J Blige, Mariah Carey, the Roots and Usher – three years ago, after tried to figure out what they “always had to do on our bucket list, or our fuck-it list, as Terry likes to call it: shit, let’s go”.

Jam & Lewis in their studio. Photographie : Philip Cheung/The Guardian

What perhaps remains for them to do is not an unreasonable question to ask. It’s hard to quantify how many records they’ve sold as producers and songwriters: besides their association with Janet Jackson, which has earned them nine US No. 1s, they’ve worked with his brother Michael, TLC, Kanye West, Spice Girls, Rod Stewart, George Michael, Bryan Adams, Luther Vandross and Gwen Stefani, among a host of others. They also received accolades from the industry: Harris was the first African American to chair the Recording Academy, the organization behind the Grammy Awards. They are, says Harris, “at a good point in our careers where we have nothing to prove, but a lot to say.”

They first met at school in the early 1970s in Minneapolis. Harris says it was “love at first sight… I was an only child and saw my big brother”. Lewis was impressed with the audience Harris attracted with his keyboard playing, “a group of three girls around him at the piano – he was serenade them ”. They eventually began performing together in Flyte Time, a staple of the city’s fiercely ambitious music scene. “We grew up in a competitive environment but also in a racist environment, where we couldn’t play in the best clubs,” says Harris. “So we not only had to learn our instruments, but we also had to figure out how to bring out our talent. We became entrepreneurs and rented ballrooms from hotels that were going to be demolished and filled with people. Then the other clubs would all be sitting empty: “Where is everyone tonight? “Oh, they’re looking at the black group you wouldn’t hire.” “

They already knew the city’s rising star, Prince – he would come to their school to use his music room, dazzling everyone in attendance with his ability to play any instrument – before he essentially took over. controlling Flyte Time, setting up his friend Morris Day. as lead singer, renaming them Time and getting them a recording contract. Harris and Lewis enjoyed what you might call a mercurial relationship with their new mentor. On the one hand, they were amazed and inspired by his talent and work ethic. “He would come to rehearse with Time for four or five hours, then go to rehearse with the Revolution for four or five hours, ensuite go to the studio all night, ”marvels Harris. “The next day he would go to our rehearsal, put on a tape and, like, 1999 came out. ‘Oh, I did it last night.’ It’s like, ‘Oh my God, this is crazy.’ “

“I never had a problem with him being the boss because he deserved that right”… Terry Lewis, left, with Jimmy Jam. Photographie : Philip Cheung/The Guardian

On the other hand, Prince was in control: he wrote all the Time songs, and played all the instruments on their first two albums. “I never had a problem with him as a boss because he deserved that right,” says Lewis. “He had better ideas than any of us back then. The problem only came when he didn’t want us to share our ideas… we felt like we were subjected to some kind of indefinite marginalization, so we just started doing things… we had to find outlets and when we found business it was demolished and we were told we couldn’t do that. I think his biggest fear was that we would learn too much from being in his presence and then share that with the world in a way that he didn’t want us to do.

They started out “dark or dark or whatever you want to call it” as producers and songwriters – pop-minded Harris providing the melodies, George Clinton fan Lewis providing “the funky backdrop.” This is a development which, according to Lewis, made Prince “just mad”: after missing a concert of Time, caught in a snowstorm on the way to a recording session with the SOS Band, he fired them. . But by then they had started having hits: with the SOS Band, Klymaxx and fellow Minneapolis native Alexander O’Neal.

Then came Janet Jackson. They worked with her despite her career stalled, Harris says, because they remembered her appearing on variety shows, “the Cher show or whatever, always with that fiery attitude,” and thought her music to be. that day hadn’t reflected that. They moved her from LA to Minneapolis, “somewhere she knew she was going to be an artist, not an artist / actress,” threw her their craziest production ideas at her: rattling, almost industrial beats, Dramatic synth hits and samples. “She was fearless, she would try anything,” says Harris. “It was literally like a blank canvas and we could throw in any paint – we could put watercolors, we could do oil, we could do abstract art, we could do fine art, we could do it. could do anything and she could do anything. “

Alexander O'Neal during a recording session with Jam & Lewis in Minneapolis in 1988.
Alexander O’Neal during a recording session with Jam & Lewis in Minneapolis in 1988. Photographie : Jim Steinfeldt/Getty Images

The results were surprising and defined a certain kind of futuristic ’80s funk. Almost only in the anonymous world of the producers, they also developed a visual identity – I’m slightly disappointed that the two characters on my computer screen laptop were not dressed in the Jam & Lewis regulatory uniform of matching suits, ties, sunglasses and pig – pie hats – and turned out to be a spectacular follower of what Lewis calls the “overwhelming business” ” from production. It’s not just the music you need to worry about, he says, you need to be good at “psychology-slash-psychiatry” as well. They were also found to be able to turn the tide of a struggling British synth pop group (the Human League US No 1 Human) as they were able to adapt material to soul legends: Barry White, Earth, Wind & Fire, Aretha Franklin. “It’s more of a passion we have with artists than anything else – that relationship comes first,” says Lewis. “We’re trying to come back to that position and say, OK, that’s the kind of record as a fan that I’d love to hear you play. We don’t really have any consideration for where other music is today, or the analysis and everything that people are going through.

Among those who pricked up their ears was Michael Jackson, who apparently has a particular fondness for the harsher tracks the duo dreamed up for their sister – Nasty, Rhythm Nation, The Knowledge – and enlisted the services of the duo. “He loved superhero music, as I call it,” Lewis says, “music that is splashy and dashing and just like, industrial. “

When he arrived to record the subsequent single Scream, it was, says Harris, “the most impactful moment we’ve ever had in the studio,” despite the fact that Jackson initially seemed to be doing it all wrong. “He dances, stomps, wears banging clothes, all the things you aren’t supposed to do in a recording studio. And we were like little girls: ‘Aaaah! It’s Michael Jackson! ”But Jackson delivered a brutally funky performance. “He takes his take, kills her and says, ‘How was that?’ We’re like, ‘Yeah-yeah, Mike, it’s good!’ Janet was supposed to take her take right after Michael was done. She leans in and says, “I’ll do my voice in Minneapolis. She didn’t want to follow Michael – this is how crazy it was.

In the wake of their first artist album, there is talk of a Jam & Lewis tour, an intriguing prospect. They haven’t performed live since leaving Time, but as anyone who has watched an old Time YouTube video will know, they were quite performers: Prince made sure their shows were as well drilled and choreographed as his own concerts. “I always thought I was better suited behind the scenes,” says Harris. “If I look at myself on stage, I say to myself: I prefer to watch someone else. It makes me more happy to see New Edition or Boyz II Men, or Mary J Blige or Mariah singing our songs than to be on stage. But that being said, the chance to be on stage with Terry is very enticing. We realize, as we age – or rather, as we age like a good wine – that there are fewer first times that we will be able to live in our life. We have to kind of remind people that this is a new experience for us. It doesn’t mean that we are not producers – we are not giving up anything else. But those first times, we really appreciate them.

Jam & Lewis: Volume One releases July 9 on Flyte Tyme Records / BMG

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