Janet Jackson's album Control was one of the biggest hits of 1986 – and the Grammy-winning beginning of a legendary partnership between Jackson and the album's producers, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. Jam and Lewis would go on to produce a string of number-one singles for Jackson and many others as well over the proceeding decades, including Mariah Carey, George Michael, Boyz II Men and Usher.
Now, after more than 40 years of making music, Jam and Lewis are releasing their debut record: Jam and Lewis: Volume 1. The album, while a Jam and Lewis marquee, zeroes in on the deep collaborative relationships the pair has cultivated throughout its career, including guest appearances from Morris Day and Jerome Benton of The Time (alongside The Roots), Boyz II Men, Mary J. Blige, Tony Braxton, Usher, Mariah Carey, Babyface and The Sounds of Blackness.
Ahead of its release, the pair sat down with Morning Edition's Rachel Martin, a lifelong Janet Jackson fan, to talk about how it (finally) came to be.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity – you can hear the broadcast version in the player above.
Rachel Martin, Morning Edition: You guys have been at this for many, many decades. So the question everyone's asking you, no doubt: what took so long for the names "Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis" to appear on the front of an album cover?
Jimmy Jam: Well, what took so long was that we kind of got detoured in our original plan to do an album – and that was 35 years ago, the same year we ended up doing Control for Janet [Jackson]
So anyway, when we got the album done (or at least what we thought was done), [record executive] John McClain came to Minneapolis where we were recording, and we played him "Control" and "Nasty" and "When I Think of You" and "Pleasure Principle" and "Funny How Time Flies," "Let's Wait a While." We figure we're done, right? And like all people at record companies used to do, he would say, "Sounds good, but I just need one more!"
We hop in the car; Terry puts a cassette in and he says, "Listen to this. These are some things we're working on for our album." And about the third song, John goes, "Oh, that's the one I need for Janet right there!" ... That song became "What Have You Done for Me Lately." It was the song that launched her career basically and ended ours – at least as artists. [Laughs]
So your curse is that the two of you were too generous?
Jam: Yes! So we finally got selfish. Probably three or four years ago, we got inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, and they asked us what we hadn't done yet – well, to our right on the red carpet was Babyface, and we said, "Well, we never got around to ever doing anything with Babyface, so that would be cool."
And then we said, "We never got around to doing our own album." And the third piece of that was we never got around to doing any touring of our own music. So those are the three things we put on our selfish list of things we hadn't done yet.
Terry, this was this is a big, group effort. You don't sing on this album, but you've got huge names helping you – Babyface, Mary J. Blige, Boyz II Men, Usher, Mariah Carey. How does this go down? You guys just call them up and say, "Hey, Mariah, you got a couple hours to go into a studio?"
Terry Lewis: We get by with a little help from our friends. And over the many years that we've been working with all these ultra-talented people, we've established great relationships. It's been fairly easy for us because we just have a great time when we actually record. So it's a very simple call. Just, "Hey, you wanna record? We're working on a project." And it's a resounding "Yes!" from everybody. These are people that we love - and we love to work with.
Can you talk a little bit about how you paired the singers with the songs? Did you have the songs written for certain voices? Did you pair them afterwards?
Jam: We always write the songs for the artists. The artists are always the inspiration for the ideas, and that's the way we've always done it.
I remember when we did the Babyface record. Babyface, for the first time, really wasn't producing himself. He kind of left it to us to produce. When he heard the finished product, he just kept saying, "It sounds so good!" And for us, we're going, "Of course it does - it's Babyface! Like, what do you think it's going to sound like?"
But I realized that what happens is: as you're producing, you're listening for mistakes. So he didn't have to go through that process of hearing bad notes on the guitar and all of those meticulous things that you go through as a producer. He finally got to hear himself as just an artist and just appreciate how great he was. So I think from a fan perspective, it's a record that hopefully reminds you why you fell in love with those great artists in the first place.
And on the Babyface song, it was - I think somebody meant it as a as a criticism - they said, 'It doesn't really sound like Jam & Lewis - it sounds like Babyface.' And we said, 'Exactly!' That's exactly what it's supposed to sound like. It should sound like the most Babyface sound you could possibly get. And so that was kind of the idea across all the songs - writing specifically for the artists.
This is your big moment to be selfish and do this album of your own music – but it's still about lifting up those fellow artists and making them the best versions of themselves, musically.
Jam: A rising tide raises all boats. That's what it's about.
You guys started your career in a couple of Minneapolis bands, before Prince came into the picture. You worked with him in the band The Time. Can you talk a little bit about your interactions with him? How did Prince change you as musicians, as producers?
Jam: Well, I went to junior high school with Prince.
I did not know that.
Jam: Yeah, he changed my whole concept. ... I always thought of myself as a fairly good keyboard player because my dad played keyboards. Watching Prince play at that point, I'd never seen anything like it. He was my age – I think we were probably 12 years old at that point.
The moment that blew me away with him was later on: they put a band together for a school play or something, and they said, "Who wants to play in the band?" And we all raised our hands. They looked at Prince and they said, "What do you want to play?" And he said, "Guitar." And I looked at him like: "Guitar?! I thought he was a keyboard player!" So then they looked at me and said, "Jimmy, what do you want to play?" And I said, "I'll play drums." And Prince looked at me, like, "Drums?! I thought you were a keyboard player!"
Lewis: His musicianship was second to none. He always made sure, just by his presence, that you were on top of your game. We were all in rival bands across the city, and so any time that we were going to be in any kind of function where we all had to play at the same time, you had to be on your best behavior, on your best musicianship. The song choices had to be right because he was going to come out and funk you up. He was going to tear you up.
So after many years of going through that competition, he became that national artist that we all looked up to as our hope to get out of the Minneapolis scene. There was nowhere for black musicians to really play.
In terms of venues?
Lewis: Yeah, places to play. So we used to have to make our own like sets where we'd rent hotel ballrooms or whatever, and then we'd just go play. By doing that, we learned a whole lot. But watching Prince get out, it just gave us that hope that we could all get out.
And then I got a call one day to be his bassist. He said, "I want you to learn all my songs." ... A couple of weeks later, Morris Day [frontman of The Time] calls and says, "Hey, I'm starting the band. I want you to be in the band. Prince is going to produce it." I said, "Oh, yeah, yeah, I want to be in your band!" Because Morris was our boy. We just love hanging out with Morris.
And so when that happened, Prince is producing the album, therefore producing the project, therefore producing the band. So our rehearsals are grueling. And in those rehearsals, he pushes you to the extraordinary limits of your abilities. He pushes you and inspires you to do things that you didn't know you could do. We are playing, we are singing, we are dancing, we are animated. The work ethic that Prince had was just exceptional.
He could work so fast and efficiently. He would go home, he would rehearse us all day – five hours, six hours. He would go and rehearse his band, The Revolution, for five or six hours. And then he would go to the studio, and the next morning, come back with a full song, fully produced – or two, fully produced. Like, he'll play "1999" for you like the next day. The work ethic was just stellar.
So you put Morris Day on your new album – Morris Day and Jerome [Benton], both of The Time. You had them do this track "Babylove."
Jam: Morris basically gave us our break – [so] that connection was really important to have on the album. The song, to me, really captures the best of Morris and Jerome together; it's a lot of back and forth, almost like if you were watching a movie and listening to them have patter back and forth – and the song's funky. It really takes you back to that golden era, of when we first began in the '80s.
Overall we call the sound of the album "new-stalgia." Like if you walked into a brand new, beautiful restaurant and you sat down and you took a bite of something and you said, "Oh, my God, this tastes like my mom used to make!" That is what the album should be.
After the massive success of Control, what surprised you about that period in your lives? I mean, it did change everything for you, right?
Jam: It reminds me of when [Jon Bream, music columnist for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune] first interviewed us [just] after Control happened and was a huge record. His very first question to us: "How does it feel to be the hottest producers?" And we said, "We don't really want to be the hottest producers. We just want to be warm for a long time." That was always our philosophy.
I think the Control album really solidified that our theory in working with people was correct, which was talk to them about what they want to talk about. We didn't even go in the studio for a week with Janet. We just we ran around the town, we talked, we went to the lakes, we went to clubs. We just kind of hung out. And then she said, "When are we going to start working?"
And then we showed her the lyrics to "Control" – and she looked at the lyrics and said, "Wait, this is what we've been talking about! So whatever we talk about, that's what we're going to write about?" It was like a light bulb went off in her head ... That's what got her writing going, because then she realized that people were actually going to pay attention to what she thought and what she wanted to say. And that became the basis of "Control."
Back in the day she didn't do a lot of interviews and people would go, "I wish she'd do more interviews." And I said, "Well, anything you want to know about, just listen to the record. Everything's in the lyrics that she talks about. That's the way she feels."
This is maybe an awkward question, but why isn't she on the album?
Jam: Well, the album is called Volume One for a reason. It's the first chapter in this book of our life, I guess you could say.
Terry, you guys have a lot of plans. This is all part of the slow boil, the recipe for longevity?
Lewis: This is just about us having fun, just doing what we love to do with the people we love doing it with. The journey for me is the most important part of this all. And then who you meet along the way and those people that you do learn to love over the period of time is the most important thing. And I always say I hope I never arrive. This is so fun. I just want to be creative forever.