Super-producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis: ‘Prince sidelined us’

Some albums take a long time to make, but few have had the gestation period of Jam & Lewis: Volume One. The production duo started work on their debut artist album 36 years ago, just as their career was taking off on the back of the SOS Band’s hit single Just Be Good to Me, but they were thrown off-course working for a minor figure with a couple of flop albums to her name: Janet Jackson.

Together they started shaping what would become her 10m-selling 1986 breakthrough Control, which understandably “kind of stopped the progress on our own album”, as Jimmy “Jam” Harris, 62, puts it today, when he and his partner, Terry Lewis, 64, appear on a video call from their homes in Los Angeles. With Control ready to be delivered, they wrote a song for themselves that sounded the perfect calling-card for a Jam & Lewis album. “We thought we were done with Control, then Janet’s manager came to hear the album,” says Harris. “We played him Nasty, When I Think Of You, The Pleasure Principle … And he says: ‘I just need one more song, for Janet.’ I’m going: ‘No, man, no.’ We get in the car to go to a restaurant, Terry puts a cassette in, and about the third song in, Janet’s manager says: ‘That’s the song I need.’”

It was, inevitably, the song Harris and Lewis had earmarked for their own release, What Have You Done For Me Lately? “So it started her career, and ended ours, at least as artists,” sighs Harris. “That same scenario happened a lot. We would work with somebody, then we’d say: ‘Hey, want to do something for our album?” They’d say: ‘Great.’ Then when the song was done, they’d go: ‘No, that’s too good, we’ve got to keep that.’”

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

What they might have left to do is not an unreasonable question for the pair to ask themselves. It’s hard to quantify how many records they have sold as producers and songwriters: quite aside from their association with Janet Jackson, which yielded nine US No 1s, they have worked with her brother Michael, TLC, Kanye West, Spice Girls, Rod Stewart, George Michael, Bryan Adams, Luther Vandross and Gwen Stefani, among a host of others. They have also achieved industry plaudits: Harris was the first African American ever to chair the Recording Academy, the organisation behind the Grammy awards. They are, Harris says, “at a nice point in our careers where we have nothing to prove, but a lot to say”.

They first met at school in early 70s Minneapolis. Harris says it was “love at first sight … I was an only child and I saw my big brother”. Lewis was impressed by the audience Harris attracted with his keyboard playing, “a group of three girls around him at the piano – he was serenading them”. They eventually started playing together in Flyte Time, a fixture on the city’s ferociously ambitious music scene. “We grew up in a competitive environment but also in an environment of racism, 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 get our talent out there. We became entrepreneurs and would rent ballrooms from hotels that were going to be torn down and pack them full of people. Then the other clubs would all be sitting empty: ‘Where’s everyone at tonight?’ ‘Oh, they’re watching the black band you wouldn’t hire.’”

They were already aware of the city’s rising star, Prince – he would come to their school in order to use its music room, dazzling all present with his ability to play any instrument – before he essentially took over Flyte Time, installing his friend Morris Day as lead vocalist, renaming them the Time and getting them a record deal. 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 rehearse with the Time for four or five hours, then go rehearse with the Revolution for four or five hours, then go to the studio all night,” marvels Harris. “The next day, he’d walk into our rehearsal, put a cassette in and, like, 1999 would come out. ‘Oh, I did it last night.’It’s like: ‘Oh my God, this is crazy.’”

On the other, Prince was controlling: he wrote all the Time’s songs, and played all the instruments on their first two albums. “I never had any problem with him being the boss, because he earned that right,” says Lewis. “He had better ideas than any of us at that time. The problem only came when he didn’t want us to share our ideas … we felt like we were subject to an indefinite kind of sidelining, so we just started doing things … we needed to find outlets and when we did find outlets, it was torn down and we were told we couldn’t do that. I think his biggest fear was that we’d 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.”

They began “moonlighting or nightlighting or whatever you want to call it” as producers and songwriters – the pop-minded Harris providing the melodies, George Clinton fan Lewis coming up with “the funky bottom”. It was a development that Lewis says made Prince “just livid”: after they missed a Time gig, caught in a blizzard en route from a recording session with the SOS Band, he fired them. But by then, they had started having hits: with the SOS Band, Klymaxx and another Minneapolis native, Alexander O’Neal.

Then came Janet Jackson. They worked with her despite her career having stalled, Harris says, because they remembered her appearing on variety shows, “the Cher show or whatever, always with this feisty attitude thing”, and thought her music to date 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 their wildest production ideas at her: clanking, almost industrial rhythms, dramatic synth stabs and samples. “She was fearless, she would try anything,” says Harris. “It was literally like a blank canvas and we could throw any paint – we could put watercolours, we could do oil, we could do abstract, fine art, we could do anything and she could do it all.”

The results were startling, and defined a certain kind of futuristic 80s funk. Almost uniquely in the anonymous world of producers, they also developed a visual identity – I’m faintly disappointed that the two figures on my laptop screen aren’t dressed in the regulation Jam & Lewis uniform of matching suits, ties, shades and pork-pie hats – and turned out to be spectacularly adept at what Lewis calls the “overwhelming” business of production. It’s not just the music you have to worry about, he says, you have to be good at “psychology-slash-psychiatry” as well. They proved as capable of turning around the fortunes of an ailing British synth pop band (the Human League’s US No 1 Human) as they were of tailoring material to soul legends: Barry White, Earth, Wind & Fire, Aretha Franklin. “It’s more of a fanship that we have with the artists than anything – that relationship comes first,” says Lewis. “We try to navigate back to that position and say: OK, this is the kind of record as a fan I would love to hear you perform. We don’t really have any consideration of where other music is today, or analytics and all that stuff people go through.”

Among those whose ears pricked up was Michael Jackson, who apparently had a particular fondness for the hardest tracks the duo had devised for his sister – Nasty, Rhythm Nation, The Knowledge – and called upon the duo’s services. “He loved superhero music, as I call it,” says Lewis, “music that’s splashing and dashing and just like, industrial.”

When he turned up to record the ensuing single Scream, it was, says Harris, “the most impactful moment we’ve ever had in the studio”, despite the fact Jackson initially seemed to be doing everything wrong. “He’s dancing around, stomping, wearing clothes that jangled, all the things you’re not 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 does his take, kills it, and says: ‘How was that?’ We’re like: ‘Y-y-yeah, Mike, that’s good!’ Janet was supposed to do her take right after Michael got done. She just leans in and says: ‘I’ll do my vocal in Minneapolis.’ She wanted no part of following Michael – that’s how crazy it was.”

In the wake of their debut artist album, there is talk of a Jam & Lewis tour, an intriguing prospect. They haven’t played live since they left the Time, but as anyone who has watched an old YouTube video of the Time knows, they were quite the performers: Prince made sure their shows were as tightly drilled and choreographed as his own gigs. “I always thought I was better suited behind the scenes,” says Harris. “If I’m looking at me onstage, I’m thinking: I’d rather be looking at someone else. It gives me a bigger thrill to see New Edition or Boyz II Men, or Mary J Blige or Mariah singing our songs than to actually be on stage. But that being said, the chance to be on stage with Terry is very enticing. We realise, as we get older – or rather, as we age like fine wine – that there’s fewer first times that we’re going to be able to experience in our life. We kind of have to remind people that this is new experience for us. It doesn’t mean that we’re not producers – we’re not giving up anything else. But those first times, we really appreciate those.”

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