From Usher to "Scream": We Spoke to Jimmy Jam About the Greatest Shit He's Ever Made

The legendary producer regales some stories about pissing off Prince and watching Michael Jackson slay a vocal session.
01 February 2016, 10:00am

This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.

A great producer is like a really great wing buddy: They accentuate all your best points and they make other people love you. They'll pay you compliments when you need them, and the truth when you don't. And if we take this hastily-constructed analogy as gospel, then Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis would truly make the world's greatest wingmen. They could get you laid at a Toploader gig.

The legendary songwriting and production duo's roll call reads like who's who of Grammy-brandishing alumni, and in their 30-plus years in the game they've worked with (amongst others): Janet Jackson, Michael Jackson, Prince, Luther Vandross, Usher, Beyonce, Mariah Carey, Shaggy, Gwen Stefani, TLC, and Kanye West. Basically, all the artists you bang on at 6 AM at a house party once everyone is too tired and too fucked to keep pretending that they truly enjoy PC Music, and everyone just wants soothing classics. Hell, they even worked with 5ive once, but the less said about that the better.

Anyway, Jam and Lewis recently went back into the studio with Janet Jackson to record her Unbreakable record, so we got to sit down for an hour with Jimmy Jam himself to chat about some of the most memorable shit he's ever contributed to; a task that, due to the breadth of what his golden fingers have touched, he says is "basically impossible." Still, he tried, and this is what came out of it.

THE TIME - "777-9311" (1982)

Jimmy: For me, the distinction on this song is we got to play it live. The other songs we're going to talk about, I've never had the chance to play live as an artist. The Time used to play before Prince on tour, and we prided ourselves on our live performance. We would go out each night trying to kick Prince's arse. There was a definite rivalry between us and him, but he was never like, "Don't show me up, Don't play so well." He had a lot of pride in us.

So, we'd add stuff to the show that he didn't know we had, and we'd look over to catch his reaction. He'd be laughing about it, cracking up, like "Man, that is funny." Then he'd get a look, saying, "Shoot, I gotta go on and follow that." He was proud of us, but also he was competitive. He thinks there's no-one better than him, and, to be honest, he's pretty much right.

JANET JACKSON AND MICHAEL JACKSON - "SCREAM" (1995)

Jimmy: Michael had told us he wanted to do a song with Janet, so she came to the studio and we came up with five or six ideas to take to him, one of which would become "Scream."

Michael comes into the studio that day very quietly, wearing a bunch of bangles, jewelry and hard shoes – all the things you're not supposed to have in a studio. He's all timid, very quiet, and says [Jimmy affects a perfect Michael voice], "Go ahead, play it from the top." Straight away he turned into some sort of Tasmanian devil; dancing all around the studio, clapping, snapping, stomping his feet. Normally you'd say something like, "Hey, you gotta stay on the mic." But we were just were like, "We're just gonna watch this while you do your thing." Janet—who was supposed to be recording her vocal the same day—saw this, turned to me and said, "Erm, I think I'll do my vocal down in Minneapolis."

I'd never seen anything like it before. I've never seen anything like it since. Over the years I've had some wonderful and moving studio experiences, but there was an earthquake in New York that day, and it was Michael. The force of Michael. He had just got married to Lisa-Marie Presley at that point. We asked her what brought them together, besides the fact they had showbiz in common, famous families and everything. She said he was the kindest person she'd ever met. That really struck me because that's exactly what I thought about him too.

USHER - "U REMIND ME" (2001)

Jimmy: We've worked with the likes of Luther Vandross, Alexander O'Neal and Michael, and, vocally, I would put Usher in that group. I think maybe he's not fully reached his potential as a singer yet, just because he doesn't necessarily think about singing as much as he does about entertaining, songwriting, conceptual creativity and a whole load of other things.

This one day LA Reid called Terry, and said, "Terry I got this song. Usher isn't quite nailing it." So we told Usher he needed to go back and re-sing the song and he said the only person he would do that with is Terry.

I call Terry the 'vocal master' and he has a magic chemistry with Usher specifically; he really challenges him to create something. They went to Los Angeles to record this while I stayed in Minneapolis. I remember Terry literally went underground for like 5 days, Then he came back and said "I think we got it. The biggest thing was Usher was trying to sing it like the guys that did the demo for the song, rather than himself. So I had to un-teach him the way he was hearing it, then teach it to him again so he'd approach it like an Usher record."

Two days later we got a call from L.A. Reid. He said, "Remember how I told you it was gonna be either the first single or scrapped off the album entirely? It's the first single."

MARY J BLIGE - "NO MORE DRAMA" (2001)

Jimmy: Ninety-five percent of the songs you hear from us were made with the artist we wanted in mind, and we went to New York to play this for Mary. We had done all the lyrics—we had basically done the whole song—but the intention was to let her tailor it to whatever she wanted. We played it to her, and when it ended she just looked at us, and said, "Wow, have you guys been following me around with a private detective? You've nailed this. I'm not changing a word."

Just before we left she said, "Don't take this the wrong way, I really love the song. But not for this album. This song is saying that I don't have drama in my life, and I still do have drama in my life. But the next album I'm not gonna have drama and it's gonna be the title track."

The song starts quietly, then it builds to a point of frustration: There's strings, tenseness, a lot of dramatic, cinematic sounds. I think we put a helicopter in there somewhere. It builds to this point of things getting ready to just really fall apart, and then it goes simply back, ending the way that it starts. I love songs that do that; that take you on a ride then drop you back at the beginning, like a circle of life.

One of the things that makes me happiest is when we do songs that can transform and propel people into different places. Mary was already an established artist and had sold a lot of records. But there are certain songs that are turning points in their lives. For that song to be a turning point in Mary's career, her life, was pretty amazing.

JANET JACKSON FEATURING MISSY ELLIOTT - "BURNITUP!" (2015)

Jimmy: Janet wanted to do something with Missy from the beginning of the Unbreakable album, but we realised none of the songs we had written at that point were the perfect song for her. So that was one consideration. The other thing was Janet wanted something uptempo, a dance record: something she could open shows with. She thinks about all those aspects as we're recording: choreography, where things will fit into her performances.

We had the melody and stuff, and we sent Missy the track. She put her magic on it and sent it back. The recorded version is actually a demo vocal. She was going to redo it. She kept on saying, "I'm going to redo it, I'm going to redo it." But we loved it so much we told her it was perfect. That often happens actually, because there's a creative energy to the way a singer sings something for the first time.

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