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Jam & Lewis: “With Prince, we learned to use synthesizers in a very musical way”

Jam & Lewis
Jimmy Jam (left) and Terry Lewis. (Image credit: Marselle Washington (Marco Imagery))

Perhaps most famous for igniting the career of Janet Jackson, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis pioneered a sound all of their own then gifted it to a list of artists that reads like the pop and soul Who’s Who.

Deeply technical, heavily electronic, but always shot through with a live funk and R&B feel, J&L creations dip toes in many genres and ace all of them. 

Now, after 35 years of helping artists to become household names, the daring duo are finally stepping forward to put their name on the cover.

Jam & Lewis: Volume One is a brand-new collection of unmistakable J&L tracks, made with some of their favourite collaborators including Mary J Blige, Boyz II Men, Babyface, Toni Braxton, Mariah Carey and more...

We’re here to talk about your debut album. So what took you so long?

Jimmy Jam: “Well, the origin of the album was when we were fired… or rather we were ‘freed from’ The Time. We started working on our own tracks around the same time we started working on the Control album with Janet [Jackson].

“When we thought we were done with the album, John McClain - who was the A&R person at A&M records - came up to listen to everything and we played him The Pleasure Principle… Control… Nasty… And he said ‘Yeah, sounds good… but I just need one more’. And we said ‘Nah, we got enough’.

“So we hopped in the car to go get something to eat and Terry pops in a cassette and says ‘Listen to this. This is from our album,’ and about the third track in John goes ‘THAT’s the one I need for Janet!’ And we’re like ‘What?’.

“So the next day in the studio we played the album for Janet. And she says ‘I love that, who’s that for?’ And we said ‘Well… it’s for you if you want it’ and she said ‘I want it!’. And she got it. That was What Have You Done For Me Lately. And that kind of launched her career.

“And so over the years every time we’d be working with an artist we’d always say ‘We’re working on our own album, would you contribute something for it?’ and they’d say ‘Yeah’. But when the song was done they’d say ‘Oh, I gotta keep that for one myself’… 

“So three years ago we finally got selfish! At the songwriter’s hall of fame they asked, ‘What haven’t you done? What do you still want to do?’ And we said ‘Well, we never got around to doing our own album…’ And Babyface got inducted that same year and we said ‘And we’ve never worked with Babyface. We should do that.’ And that’s what put us on the path to completing what we started 35 years ago.”

How has it been, recording in the current climate? Did you get some tracks down before lockdown?

Terry Lewis: “We worked through lockdown. The first month of lockdown we spent learning all the new technologies and catching up on things that when you’re in the middle of work, you never have a chance to do.

“We found some new remote recording technology. I guess the biggest one was Audiomovers Listento, and that allowed us to listen back with a stereo bus mix coming back to us with whoever was recording or mixing. That was our saviour for lockdown.”

What kind of gear have you been using on this album? What’s been your go-to gear?

TL: “A lot of our ‘go-to’ in this particular case has been gear we already had. We have a whole warehouse full of instrumentation, plugins, everything, that historically has always been part of our productions. And if you listen to a lot of the productions - like the Boyz II Men song [The Next Best Day], there’s real strings… drums… real instruments.

You gotta go to the Oberheim OB-8 and pull up all the variations of the Roland TR-808… Gotta have that.

“Certainly there’s the synthesizers; you gotta go to the [Oberheim] OB-8 and pull up all the variations of the [Roland TR-]808… Gotta have that. And you have the real instruments as well as synthesized and sampled. So the toolbox that we used was already in our possession.

“But the applications that we used, how we got it to the final stage, that was all new. Because it had to be. Everybody stayed safe and we were ‘you do your part over there and send it to me’. Luckily, we got a great start on this before we had to be in different locations.” 

Did you get face to face with any of the artists on the album?

JJ: “I think at some point, with the artists, we were in the same room together. Socially distanced… masks. For the bulk we did get a chance to really interact in the same big room. A couple of artists were all long distance, though.” 

How much would you say your productions have been driven by the tech over the years?

JJ: “You have to go back a little bit with us. We’ve lived through a really cool time in our careers. When we started off it was analogue tape… even synthesizers were fairly new. They used to be just for sound effects, but we learned with - and around - Prince to use synthesizers in a very musical way. 

“Equipment-wise we never used whatever the ‘norm’ was. My first synthesizer wasn’t a Moog or an Arp, it was a Roland. And then when we got into synthesizers in a big way they were Oberheim rather than [Sequential Circuits] Prophet 5s which were a big deal back then. And when we were using tape we were using Dolby SR to get better sound, but we used it at 15ips rather than 30ips. Instead of an SSL board we use a Harrison board.

“We were always a little bit off the known path. Some of it was economically driven, but a lot of it was ignorance. We just didn’t know any better. But we knew what sounded good and what felt good to us.”

What gives a track that Jam and Lewis sound?

JJ: “Like Terry said, our go-tos are to give the artist their own sound on the record. So Mariah [Carey] loves that OB-8. She says ‘I need that Jimmy Jam sound!’ So I’ll play [sings high synth part]. Or she likes that bass, so I do that [sings bass slide]. All that OB-8 stuff! 

“And this is our OB-8 from The Time days. We have all that stuff. And the 808 drum machine is a staple of ours.

“But if we go to the Charlie Wilson song on the album [Do What I Do], that’s a really different sounding song for Charlie. We did tracks that were really using those Gap Band kinda things, but that was a track that was totally done on my laptop - Terry heard it and said ‘This would be great for Charlie’. 

“Terry is very forward thinking. I remember when hard disk recording appeared with a thing called Soundscape and Terry had this program on his computer. It was the most glitchy, crazy thing, and I was like ‘What are you using that for?’ Eventually that turned into Pro Tools and Logic that we know now. But Terry had the first version. So I give credit to Terry, ‘cos Terry is always trying to figure it out, always trying to experiment with the next best way to do stuff, and I benefit from that.”

Control is such a groundbreaking album. How did you get that gig working with Janet Jackson?

JJ: “Well, actually there was another artist that we were supposed to be working with and - at that time - that artist didn’t want to work with us! So John McClain, who was A&R at A&M calls and says ‘Sorry, the artist doesn’t want to work with you. Guys, I’m really embarrassed. Is there anyone on the A&M roster that you’d like to work with?’

“So we said ‘Send the roster’, and this was before the internet, so he had to literally send the roster, and we were going down it and we said ‘Janet!’. And he said ‘Oh wow, that’s cool. Do you want to do two songs? Three songs?’, and we said ‘We want to do the whole album’, because we felt like we knew what we wanted to hear Janet Jackson sound like.

“And the other thing that happened at the same time is that we had an engineer walk out on us. We had this brand-new studio and we didn’t know how to work anything, and Cherelle was in the studio, so we decided that we’d never be dependent on anybody ever again. 

“Cherelle was the guinea pig of our experiments. We were blowing speakers up. Blowing headphones up… plugging the wrong thing in. She was so understanding. We learned to use the studio doing Saturday Love, and Control was the album after that and we ended up engineering it all ourselves.

“When we recorded with Prince, Prince would always record in the red. On the VU meter. So we were like ‘We need to record like Prince records’, so we recorded everything in the red. We were so proud of ourselves!

“But when Steve Hodge came up to mix it, he put the tape on and says ‘Who engineered this!?’ And we were so proud, we said ‘We did!’ And he said ‘Everything is recorded way too loud.’ We said ‘Yeah, we meant to do that - that’s the way Prince records…’. And he was like ‘Yeah, but what kind of machine does Prince use? An Ampex? On Prince’s machine zero is zero… Your machines are set to plus six… Zero is already six dB above… and you’re pinning the needles…’ And we were ‘Can it be saved?’ and he was ‘Yeah, yeah. But I’m going to have to come up and teach you guys how to record.’  

When we recorded with Prince, Prince would always record in the red. On the VU meter. So we were like ‘We need to record like Prince records’, so we recorded everything in the red. We were so proud of ourselves!

“So the way Control sounds is an accident because we didn’t know what we were doing and then Steve just basically saved us. He made it sound great. But it made the record sound frantic. That’s what Prince always said. When your ear hears distortion, it thinks something is loud. He always wanted his records to sound loud and a little bit frantic on the radio. That was what Control had.

Like those huge ‘trash can’ snare sounds. How were you getting that? It doesn’t sound like any drum machine we’ve heard.

JJ: “Well it is. It’s a LinnDrum, but you could put in all the little chips and change the sound. But then there was the magic of Steve Hodge - he would take that as a trigger for another drum of some sort and he’d gate things and mix it all together. He took those sounds that existed but he amplified it to sound like a whole different thing. But a lot of it was just how we’d recorded it in the first place.” 

What about the bass and keyboard sounds on a track like Nasty?

JJ: “The only keyboard on that track is an Ensoniq Mirage. We mentioned that in an interview once and the Ensoniq guys were like ‘We can’t believe that you mentioned us!’, and they sent us Ensoniq gear for the next ten years!

“We used it ‘cos it was really good gear, but it wasn’t what everybody else was using. That was a sound that was just in the Ensoniq library. If I can turn on a keyboard and flip through the presets and a song can pop into my mind based on the sound of a preset, then I’m like ‘Cool!’. And that’s the way Nasty was. I heard the way the bass sounded and Terry was like ‘Oh yeah, let’s do that.’

“That’s kind of the songwriting process. The technology, the tools. The way it all comes together.”

Jam & Lewis

(Image credit: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for The Recording Academy)

TL: “The technology is the inspiration. It’s not the complete thought. But it’s maybe the beginning. The genesis of whatever idea you might spawn. I can hear three notes and say ‘Ooh!’. That can be the beginning. So, yeah, the technology does help.

“And ease of use is very important. When you have to sit and fiddle… And learn and read? It all just kills the vibe. So very seldom do we read anything. We just start and go. And we do everything that something is not supposed to do.”

You’ve always been very electronic, but in a very US way. Tell us about working with The Human League who were very electronic in a European way. How did that combination come about?

JJ: It was John McClain. After we finished working with Janet he called and said ‘Do you know who The Human League are?’ And we said ‘Yeah, we love The Human League.’ He said ‘Well, they’re working on a record and when I asked them what kind of record they wanted to make they said ‘We’re trying to make a Jam & Lewis record’.’ They had written all these songs and John says ‘So why don’t you just get Jam & Lewis to make the record?’. And they hadn’t thought of that. But that’s what ended up happening.

The technology is the inspiration. It’s not the complete thought.

“The song Human was a happy accident. The drum machine for that song was an Oberheim DMX, and there were these little chips and you could put in sounds and exchange them. 

“What happened was that I had a program for the song that was all just little sounds, like 808 sounds, but I’d switched the sounds out, so when I played the pattern it played the wrong sounds. Instead of little 808 sounds it was these big explosive drums! And Terry was like ‘We gotta do something with that.’

“Then the song was a play on words. Their music was always so robotic, so if we did a song that was ‘human’ and they’re The Human League but they make robotic music… We combined an electronic sound with an emotional vocal.

“My favourite part of that whole song is where Joanne does the speaking part and says ‘While we were apart, I was human too…’ and I was like ‘Oooh!’ That sealed the deal for me. I thought that was like genius! And it was very successful.”

You’ve got a stellar line-up on the new album. It must have been great working with those guys again.

JJ: “Yeah, it was great to be back with friends.”

And working with Babyface for the lead single? We’d always imagined you’d be mad rivals with LA Reid & Babyface...

TL: [laughs] “Yeah, we’ve been friends for a long time. Really our own rivals are ourselves. We’re just trying to figure it out and leap forward. We just love the music. We just love the journey and I hope I never arrive at any destination. Being somewhere uncomfortable is where I love.” 

Who’s in charge of getting the amazing vocal performances from the artists you work with?

TL: It goes both ways. Like everything else. Sometimes it’s more comfortable for people to have less people… Artists are weird. We both have great relationships with all the artists but sometimes they feel more comfortable with one person.

“When I come in the room I’m a little pushy. Especially with the vocalists. But Jam is a little more forgiving. Depending on the artist, the push and pull works and we figure it out and get it done.” 

JJ: “Take an artist like Usher who Terry is very close with. When we did You Remind Me, Terry did the vocal on that and LA Reid wanted Usher to re-sing the song. But Usher said the only way he’d re-sing it was with Terry again. And he did, and it ended up being a number one record for us. So Usher was always like ‘Where’s Jam at?’ But a lot of times with Janet it would often be just me and her in a room and Terry would hang around, always available. And then it would be Terry to the rescue!

“We each have our own relationships. We can tag-team, or we do good cop/bad cop. We get a sense of how people want to work. 

“Some people like to work when there’s a lot of people around. I remember when we did The Spice Girls a long time ago. Posh Spice… There was a part we couldn’t get on one of the songs. And there was a camera crew coming in - and this is a proper crew not all on iPhones - and they came in, and it was all the lights and everything! And I was like ‘Oh man, I’m NEVER going to get this vocal.’ But as soon as the lights and the cameras came on she NAILED it.

“They need those lights. That performance. Like on the Charlie Wilson song on the album. Terry wanted him to perform it so he gave him a handheld mic and said ‘perform it’ and that’s what you hear on the song.  

The new album really hangs together. It’s like a single artist album with a sound and a narrative. Did you record everyone the same way or do they all have their own take on how they want to be recorded?

JJ: “We know the things we like as far as microphones and the mics that artists like. Mariah has a microphone that she likes.”

TL: “The Sony C800G.”

JJ: “Yeah, that’s her go-to mic. We’ve recorded her with different mics, but that’s what she likes to use. We make the artist feel comfortable. We like the Slate mic that’s out now, we used that. The Brauner mic, we used that. 

TL: “Yeah, we like that. We used Audio Technica mics. The Townsend mic. We use that because it interfaces so well with the Universal Audio Apollo. So you can do modelling and emulation and make it sound like whatever you wanted, like the Slate mic. Depends on the artist and depends on that day. They might wake up with that rasp. I like that rasp. A little character.

We never argue. An argument is something that you want to win. And I never want to win something at Terry’s loss.

“Someone like Toni [Braxton], she sounds good on just about any mic. Her voice is so wide and rich. But you gotta get the highs so you need something like the Brauner that can just reach in there.”

How do you work together in the studio? What does one guy bring that the other guy doesn’t?

JJ: “Terry is the most brilliant lyricist ever. It always takes me a paragraph for what he can say in a sentence. 

“If you take something like Livin’ In A World (They Didn’t Make) from Janet’s Rhythm Nation album, I remember we were putting a studio together and Terry comes in with a bunch of wallpaper and carpet samples and Janet and I were discussing these kids that got killed at a school and we wanted to say something. We were giving it a whole long dissertation about what the song should be about. And Terry’s there, listening, and he just says ‘Livin’ in a world they didn’t make’. And we were like… ‘Yeah…’. And he goes into a room and ten minutes later gives us the lyrics to the song… And then he’s like ‘So what about these wallpaper samples?’

“I tend to do more of the tracking. Terry does the lyrics. And we combine on the melodies. But we can both do everything. Sometimes we sit in a room together and we’ll hash something out. Sometimes Terry will take one of my hard drives.

“Like when we did a Peabo Bryson record. Terry had taken my hard drive and he said ‘Hey, listen to this’ and the song was finished - a song called Stand For Love. I was ‘Oh my gosh, this is amazing Terry. Where did you get this?’ And he was like ‘It was on your hard drive…’.

“It all comes down to that collaboration. Like in ‘82 when we shook hands. We just said 50/50. So even when I do a song all by myself or if Terry does the song all by himself it’s still 50/50. And that eliminates 99% of any argument you might have.

“We never argue. An argument is something that you want to win. And I never want to win something at Terry’s loss. It might be a disagreement… But a disagreement is something you’re trying to find a solution for. And the best idea wins. That’s always been our philosophy.”

Jam & Lewis: Volume One is out now

Editor-in-chief, Tech Group
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