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5 songs producers need to hear by… Jam & Lewis

Jam and Lewis
(Image credit: Lester Cohen/Getty Images for The Recording Academy)

After Prince gave them the high-heeled boot from The Time, multi-instrumentalists Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis quickly carved themselves a production style that was frequently copied but rarely bested.

While perhaps best known for their work with Janet Jackson, the length and breadth of their range and willingness to embrace the latest tech has kept them on the bleeding edge with R&B royalty and pop stars alike for the past 30 years.

Can you get some nasty bass? Of course. Look no further than our top five Jam & Lewis essentials.

1. Janet Jackson - Nasty

“No, my first name ain’t baby. It’s Janet. Miss Jackson if you’re nasty.” We’re circumventing the excellent What Have You Done For Me Lately in favour of its lumpier, thumpier follow-up, Nasty, a track that sounds just as brutal today as when it first came crashing out of speakers back in 1986.

Fierce and unashamedly cold and digital, it set the tone for Control, one the ‘80s’ defining albums and the originating influence on the short-lived but huge New Jack Swing genre.

While the machine gun tambourine, hi-hats and jump-out finger snaps provide an engaging, always exciting top, it’s the unlikely, technically ill-advised bass sound that truly fascinates and gives the track its identity.

Designed more as a quirky demo than a musically operational instrument, it’s the Electric Bass sample from the factory library of the Ensoniq Mirage - the crunchy 8-bit sampler that revolutionised productions at the time by delivering (short, poor-quality) sampling to those without the £18,000 necessary for the industry-leading Fairlight CMI.

Using such a sound certainly gives the track a unique ID but leaves Nasty high and dry and a remarkable record through lacking any kind of effective bottom end. However, it’s a move that just leaves more room for the stunningly funky yet entirely Linndrum powered robo-beat that’s glimmered at the start of this video version and truly kicks in at 2:39.

“I could learn to like this...” ponders Janet over the ebb and flow of the slurping trash-can battering. As could we all. 

2. Alexander O’Neal – Fake

Yes, we’re skipping O’Neal’s equally excellent Criticize in favour of this chiding ode to a lady so bogus that she doesn’t even possess her own hair.

Essentially the big brother to Janet Jackson’s Nasty, Fake features a near identical backbeat but an even sparser musical arrangement. All of the musical parts are effectively stripped out during the verses, granting O’Neal’s impassioned angry-man-scorned vocal all the room it needs over the tapping hi-hats and boom-thwack beat. 

O’Neal was originally signed to Prince’s label as vocalist for the The Time alongside Jam & Lewis, but like J&L, the inevitable fall-out with Prince soon left him looking for a gig. Backing vocal stints with The SOS Band followed, and thus began an ongoing working relationship with Jam & Lewis, including being together in the band Flyte Tyme. 

J&L produced O-Neal’s first, self-titled 1985 LP (check out the excellent A Broken Heart Can mend and mega duet with Cherelle, Saturday Love) but it was with his second album - Hearsay in 1987 - that O’Neal (with J&L’s help) truly earned his sound and persona as ‘wronged-man-in-a-suit’, keen to set the record straight.

Do listen to Fake in the context of the excellent Hearsay, in order to experience the Intro to Fake amateur dramatic preamble during which the protagonist of the title knocks a drink onto O’Neal’s $400 shirt due to not being able to see through her coloured contacts. And, in addition to enjoying the genre-defining video below, do take the time to check out O’Neal’s excellent live in London outing The Ladies Man to discover what 1988 really looked and felt like and just how much a man can sweat.

3. The Human League – Human

After The Human League’s fourth album - the less than stratospheric Hysteria - the slog to complete a fifth ground the band down to breaking point. With all their good ideas seemingly behind them, Virgin Records in the UK were desperate to prop up the creators of multi-platinum Dare and the biggest act in their roster.

Incredibly - hot off Janet Jackson’s stellar Control - Jam & Lewis were fishing for a new gig and, ever the businessmen, were keen to work with a band that had - at the time - scored a string of Stateside smash hits. Thus the unlikely combination was born and J&L beckoned The League to their Flyte Tyme studios to craft an album from the wreckage of in-progress recordings. 

Things immediately didn’t go well, however, and the band found themselves sidelined by J&L’s production methods and effectively unrequired. Meanwhile, despite claiming at the time that Phil Oakey was the “best vocalist [they’ve] ever worked with,” subsequent interviews spell out the lengthy, almost military regime Oakey was put through to record, re-record and perfect his performance to vocal boss Lewis’s sky high standards while the rest of the band were left on the subs bench.

Crash - the quirky, sore-thumb album that resulted from the liaison - spawned just three singles, all of which were written by Jam & Lewis, and despite disowning the project before its release (losing the three musician members of the band in the process) the remaining triumvirate of the Human League vocalists stuck around to front what turned out to be a massive hit.

Human is a prototypical, SOS Band J&L slow jam which reached the US Billboard Number 1 despite fans’ surprise at the band’s radical change in direction.

Disappointingly, the busy J&L production line didn’t afford this great track the remix it deserved, with the 12-inch ‘Extended’ version simply being the 7-inch with a longer fade. The B-Side is - of course - an instrumental of the A… Lazy.

Fortunately, fans have created their own extended edits, such as this one.

4. Ralph Tresvant – Sensitivity 

Ralph Tresvant came to fame as part of the early R&B boyband New Edition, which he formed alongside school friends Ricky Bell and Michael Bivins (to become Bell Biv Devoe) and R&B leviathan (later to become Whitney Houston’s spare part) Bobby Brown.

Keen to put together a ‘new edition’ of the The Jackson Five, the group were snapped up by manager Maurice Starr (later to do the exact same thing for New Kids on the Block) and handed a global smash in the shape of Candy Girl.

After falling out over money - with Starr famously being a big fan of the stuff at the expense of his greener underlings - Tresvant split the group and, after jealously eyeing Brown’s stellar post-Edition solo career, set about crafting his own. 

This loping, tapping super-smooth R&B track turned out to be the perfect match for Tresvant’s self-style urban gentleman schtick after - rumour has it - it sat shelved at Flyte Tyme waiting for Janet’s brother Michael to decide whether to take it on or not.

Notable for its ‘is-that-too-loud?’ cowbell track, do compare Sensitivity with the identically excellent (now cowbell-free) That’s The Way Love Goes groove that provided Janet Jackson with a smash three years later...

5. The SOS Band – Just Be Good To Me

Of course we’ve saved the best til last. If Jam & Lewis hadn’t written and produced another track after 1983’s Just Be Good To Me then they’d still be legends today. 

This shining, shimmering synth-heavy jam was spawned as part of their early work with Chic-soundalikes Change (check out the excellent Change of Heart) but delivered via Atlanta based long-term R&B stalwarts The SOS Band, who were in search for a fresh injection of talent for their fourth album.

While exceedingly skilled, gig-honed musicians The SOS Band (SOS standing for Sounds of Success) effectively take a back seat here, giving way to Jam and Lewis’s own keyboard and production mastery.

Just Be Good To Me is laden with J&L’s favourite Oberheim synths (in particular the OB-8) multi-layered and multi-tracked over a tapping Roland TR-808-derived beat. However, it’s the funky looping bassline that’s perhaps the track’s most memorable element. 

After discovering the line, Jam laid it down alongside the beat, playing it over and over manually for the duration of the track as he hadn’t at that point mastered the tricky Oberheim DSX sequencer. Perhaps due to the effort involved and the fear of losing his creation, the bassline ended up a constant throughout the song, with the verses and chorus effectively being identical, turning what was a test-run techno-jam into a full R&B smash.

Also thrill to the stunning Soul Train performance (above) of the band doing their best to front out J&L’s studio work, featuring a rare in-public outing for Moog’s ill-fated strap-on Liberator synth.

Pump up the Jam & Lewis: Further Listening

Just dodging our top five, here are six (more) of the best from Jam & Lewis

Change - Change of Heart
They might be a manufactured Italian Chic knock-off but this track bests at least half Rodgers and Co’s output.

The SOS Band - The Finest
Looking for that distinctive J&L ‘trash can snare’? Look no further than 2:56 on the extended version here, where it’s famously gifted to samplers everywhere.

Force MDs – Tender Love
A close second to its musical sister track, Human. Be sure to check out Stock Aitken Waterman’s shameless Bananarama homage Once In A Lifetime...

George Micheal - Monkey
Eyeing Stateside success, the fresh-from-Wham hit-maker tested the water with this quirky J&L one-off on the album Faith

Cherelle & Alexander O'Neal – Saturday Love
J&L were in such a hurry to record it they never wrote the lyrics for the second verse, so - remarkably - Cherelle and O’Neal trade identical lines.

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