Live from Janet Jackson’s recording studio: an interview with Jimmy Jam

I had the privilege a couple of weeks ago to chat with Jimmy Jam – thanks to my everyday job. He gave me a great insight of how it is to work with Janet Jackson, how they worked with Missy Elliott, to – bonus – how it was to record Scream with Michael Jackson. Are you ready to #BurnItUp ?

Jimmy Jam, Janet Jackson, Terry Lewis

Jimmy Jam is one of the most brilliant producers around here and for the last 3 decades, to say the least. He’s working with Terry Lewis – who wasn’t there during our chat – and the two of them are the ones to thank for the New Jack, “some” massive hits in music and that Janet Jackson’s sound. She’ll start her European tour in two months and be in Paris on the 10th of April (March 31 in London). They started working with her from the Control album and, of course, they worked again with her on her last album, Unbreakable. Interview.

Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis

Unbreakable is the first album in 7 years for Janet Jackson. You said recording Unbreakable was like recording Control. Why?
Jimmy Jam: The way we did the Control album was, you know… Janet came to Minneapolis, and it was just her, myself and Terry (Lewis), and we just set up to make an album. There was no real expectation, nobody knew what we were doing, what we were working on and quite honestly, I don’t think anybody cared at that point. It was the same for Unbreakable.

On top of that, with Control, you created a brand new sound, the New Jack…
Right… But we were able to do that though because nobody really cared of the expectations. So we were able to just make a record and I think, if it would have been made in Los Angeles or New York or somewhere like that, it would have turned out the same. But there was nobody to telling us what to do. So you could experiment with the sounds and the different things, and sing different kinds of songs. And the other big breakthrough was, of course, involving Janet in the creative process.

You even said that you had to get into her head. How was it to get into her head?
It was great because of the things that we did. And what it did is that it made her excited about being in the studio and actually writing. Because she knew that whatever we came up with, we could actually put it into a song. And so that was much more exciting than just being in the studio with the songs already done and her singing. I think that was a major breakthrough.

Each album you made with Janet Jackson, there’s that specific sound. You just recognize it’s a Janet album no matter it’s been recorded in the 80s or 00s. Is it important for you?
Well, we hope that’s what happens because we’re trying to make the record sounds like her. With Unbreakable, it was interesting because, first of all, the process of recording was very much like the Control album. We were basically by ourselves. Nobody knew there was an album coming. So there were no pressure, no expectations and it was the chance to just almost have the same type of vibes as we had in Control.

Janet Terry & Jam
with Janet Jackson

There’s a lot of diversity in Unbreakable, showing different sides of Janet Jackson’s personality…
Janet is all those people. Janet has a really deep musical power. She grew up obviously around her brothers, she grew up in music. She was a big fan of musicals when she was growing up and she has a funny habit of, whatever if she’s in the middle of a conversation she plunges into a song from a musical that she remembers from when she was a kid, and she also phrases it which is very funny. She loves all types of music. This is one of the things why we enjoy so much working with her, it’s that we can do anything, from a ballad like After You Fall to something that has a bit of a country edge to it like Real Trouble or a more up tempo song like Burn It Up with Missy Elliott or something that has more a feel like Michael (Jackson) in Broken Hearts Heal. And at the end of the day, all sounds like Janet. It’s different pieces of her.

She is the one who call you to make this record, that’s right?
Yes, she is. Matter of fact, when Michael passed, we were actually in the studio, we had started working on a couple of songs, with the idea of doing a record. Obviously, things changed after that. But the experience of being together again was amazing. The best part was, when we played, nobody knew we were working on anything, so when we finally came back – we have worked on the record a little bit everywhere, we went in Dubaï, in Paris, in New York – and in fact when we came back to L.A. we had the meeting with the label. We played them the music and they kept asking when are we gonna start. And we said “We started already”. And so we played After You Fall, we played I Should Have Known Better and a couple of other things, and they were blown away.

What was the best for you at that moment?
It was interesting that their comment was “It sounds like Janet”. And that was the best compliment to me because it wasn’t about “Do you like the song or not”. If it sounds like Janet, to me, we’ve done our job. And that seems to be the case, which is wonderful. You don’t have to worry to be trendy or whatever. You just make the record you wanna make. It’s just organically the right record. And Janet had a lot to say. She hadn’t made a record for a while and I think it’s one of her strongest album. It was a pleasure doing it and I hope when people listen to it they feel the joy we had at making this album.

Talking about Michael Jackson, they recorded Scream, that you produced with Terry Lewis. Don’t you think this song is one of the most underestimated in the pop history?
I don’t know if it was underestimated or not (Laughs)! The whole idea of doing it was fantastic. We loved the whole experience of doing it. When I listen to it now, I think historically it’s one of our best songs, just the way that it sounds, and also I think this is one of the best videos ever! I like it. I don’t know if it’s underestimated or not, it’s hard  for me to say, but it’s one of my favourite and I’m glad we had a chance to do it; I’m glad we had a chance that Michael wanted to do it; I’m glad Janet wanted to do it. I think we’re all happy with how it turned out. At the end of the day, if the artists are happy with it, that’s always the first thing, and then the people like it and so the song has a life and moves on. The song has definitely lived up.

You said once during an interview that Michael asked to record many times his vocals. Can you explain why?
Oh yeah! They didn’t record at the same place. Michael did it in New York and the idea was at first: we’re gonna do the vocals at the same time in one day. Michael is gonna do his, Janet is gonna do hers and that’s it. And when Janet heard Michael sings, she just said: “I’ll do my vocals in Minneapolis”. I didn’t want to have to do anything with that (laugh)!

How did it turn up?
Well, I agreed, so I remember when the session was done, and Michael came in the room and said: “Janet, are you gonna do your vocals now?”. And Janet cleared her throat and said: “Hmm Hmm well, Michael, I think I’m gonna do my vocals in Minneapolis”. And Michael was like “Oh really? OK, that’s fine”. So when she did her vocals in Minneapolis, we sent to Michael the vocals and he called us and he said: “Janet’s vocals sound really good”. I said “Thanks, Michael”. And he said “It sounds REALLY good. When did you do that vocals?”. We told him we did that in Minneapolis. He said “Oh… Can I come to Minneapolis?” I was like “Sure Michael but we’ve got your vocals, and they’re good”. And he just said: “No but I just wanna come to Minneapolis, and maybe try a couple of this”. Ok fine. So he came to Minneapolis.

He started all over again because he thought Janet was singing better than him?
That’s it. And the funny thing is, of the new stuff he did, we probably used 5% of it. Everything you hear is from the New York session. The first take was perfect. It was the most incredible session. We’ve been in amazing sessions with a lot of incredible people, but Michael was absolutely… It was just to me the combination of everything. We were just all blown away. And thinking about it now, it’s really funny because the one person who wasn’t really moved was the engineer because for him that was the norm. But for us… And for Janet, I think it was 20 years she hasn’t been in a studio with him, since P.Y.T, and she was as blown away as we were. It was just one take and it was amazing.

You seem to enjoy sharing that kind of piece of music history, quite unknown, just as what you’re doing on your Twitter account. You’re sharing a lot of memorabilia. Why is it important for you share all these?
When I grew up, there was no Twitter and no internet. The way you felt connected was when you picked up an album and checked the credits. You could see everyone who was involved in the project. It made me feel closest to the music, but also, it made me realised I wanted to become a producer. I was looking at all the names of all the great producers. And when I hear a song I like, my first thought will be “Who produced it?”. It’s interesting now we live in an age where things are so technologically advanced, that there are no credits on songs.

What do you mean?
You have to hunt. Sometimes there’s a writer’s credit, but never a producer or else credited on your mp3 or Shazam or whatever. For me, Twitter – and soon I’m gonna have an Instagram account cause apparently it’s the new place to be – I think it’s fun for people, and particularly the fans, to see some of the physical work that goes into it. To me, it’s just to make you feel closer to the song. And if you are a fan of somebody, you wanna know as much about something as you can. I just think it’s important to do. We have loads of Janet’s stuff from all over the years. It’s kind of fun to share and people seem to enjoy.

You should organise an exhibition with all the stuff you have!
Our studio is a bit like that! Our studio is a warehouse. It would basically have every piece of gear, everything from track sheets, the test press records, all of those things. It’s pretty amazing to have all of that stuff. And sometimes I tweet it. Sometimes we’re looking for something and I come across something else. So it’s fun to share.

About your studio, this is where you recorded Unbreakable and Janet Jackson was rehearsing for her tour there too. How did it help to record and work at the same time on the tour?
What’s so great for all of us, but in particular for Janet, is that after 10 or 15 songs recorded we were “What do we need?” and Janet, as she was also in the rehearsals for the tour, she said “I need another up-tempo record like a great dance record and I want to do something with Missy”. That’s how Burn It Up arise.

Then you called Missy Elliott?
We worked with Dem Jointz, who is an amazing producer, we love his work. We came up with the beat and all the things and we sent that to Missy. Missy came back with the rap and all. But Missy’s vocals were actually the demo. She said “I’m gonna redo it” but we said “No no that’s perfect, don’t change a thing”.

Do you mean this is Missy’s demo on Burn It Up?
Here it is. We didn’t have any idea of lyrics and she’s the one who came with the “Burn It Up” idea. Also the bridge of the song: we wanted a part where Missy actually sings. Missy is not only a great rapper, but also a great singer, a great writer, a great producer and very innovative in what she does. She was saying “but this is just an idea” and we told her “no no, it’s perfect”. And what you hear is exactly what it was. The song has not only been created for the album, but also for the tour.

On the 10th of April, Janet Jackson will be on stage at the AccorHotels Arena in Paris. Do you have any idea what surprise the French audience can expect?
I don’t know what surprise but I know she’s preparing something. She’ll definitely have some great stuff for Paris. She’s been there a lot of time. We recorded a lot of Unbreakable there. It’s a very special place for her. The fans will not be disappointed.

Book your ticket for Janet Jackson in Paris here

©Caroline Madjar (aka Paris London Style) and a french version of this interview is also available on .


2 thoughts on “Live from Janet Jackson’s recording studio: an interview with Jimmy Jam

  1. It’s so great Janet is OK and tour dates are rescheduled. Waiting on for her in Austin! Looking forward to her “surprise” in Paris – hopefully, you write about in your blog 🙂


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