Jimmy Jam

Apr 1, 2004 12:00 PM, By Heather Johnson

Three Decades of Hits, One Seamless Partnership


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Prince must have kicked himself squarely in his purple paisley derrière after firing his keyboardist and bassist back in 1983. Unaware of their seemingly limitless potential as musicians, songwriters and producers, the diminutive pop/R&B star axed Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, then members of Prince protégé Morris Day's band, The Time, and now arguably the most successful production team of the past three decades.

The Twin Cities natives and high school friends practically defined modern R&B with their mix of edgy yet classic melodies, street-smart but sophisticated lyrics and funky beats. Fresh out of the starting gate, their first production gig, a series of songs for the S.O.S. Band album, On the Rise, yielded a Top 5 R&B single (“Just Be Good to Me”), but also marked the end of their reign with Prince, who did not allow bandmates to produce outside projects. “It was really one of the worst days of our lives,” says Jimmy Jam on getting fired from his sideman gig. “We were perfectly happy being bandmembers at that point in time. But [getting fired] forced us to really take it seriously, and we were lucky to have lined up a couple projects at that point. All's well that ends well, I guess.”

The unintentional career change certainly turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as the charmed two-some immediately pumped out successful projects for Gladys Knight, Patti Austin and Klymaxx, before teaming up with Janet Jackson in 1985 to produce the multimillion-seller, Control, catapulting both artist and producers to superstar status.

Their working relationship with Miss Jackson continues nearly 20 years later. Jam and Lewis have produced all of her albums thus far, including the just-released Damita Jo. Their massive discography also includes megasellers from Mariah Carey, Boyz II Men, the Spice Girls, Michael Jackson, TLC, Mary J. Blige, Patti LaBelle, Aretha Franklin and new R&B sensation, Heather Headley, as well as boundary-stretching acts such as Human League and Japanese artist Hikaru Utada.

In addition to a seemingly inexhaustible creative supply that's resulted in more than 40 Number One singles and more than 100 albums surpassing Gold status, Jam and Lewis also have sharp business minds. Presently, the entrepreneurs own their own record companies (Perspective Records, Flyte Tyme Records), publishing companies (New Perspective Publishing, Flyte Tyme Tunes) and private recording studios. The original Flyte Tyme Productions, opened in 1982 in Minneapolis, has grown to become a sprawling 17,000-square-foot complex in nearby Edina, Minn., containing five studios, a rehearsal facility and one serious game room.

This year, the dynamic duo expanded their enterprise yet again, launching Flyte Tyme West, a five-room facility temporarily housed at The Village Recorders in Los Angeles. The West Coast site will allow them to devote more of their time and talents to the film, television and advertising industries, an interest that first surfaced in the mid-1990s. Their soundtrack work includes such films as How Stella Got Her Groove Back and Mo' Money, the Janet Jackson — starring Poetic Justice, Prince of Egypt, The Best Man and The Fighting Temptations, which they also scored and music-supervised. During the last year, Jam and Lewis composed tracks for The Gap and FreshLook Contacts commercials, and produced music for the 2004 NBA All-Star Game, as well as India.Arie's song, “Look With the Eyes of Your Heart,” for the Radio soundtrack and A Shark's Tale, starring the voices of Robert De Niro and Will Smith.

Despite the buzz of recent film activity, Jam and Lewis continue to crank out top-tier pop and R&B albums. At the time of our conversation, the team was working simultaneously on albums for Janet Jackson, Usher, New Edition, Mariah Carey and Yolanda Adams — all at Flyte Tyme West.

With 30 years of friendship and more than 20 years of “Flyte Tyme” logged, Jam and Lewis produce consistently cutting-edge music not by following trends but by looking at what's ahead. Furthermore, by treating their clients and each other with respect, they've enjoyed career longevity in an industry known more for spitting out one-hit wonders than developing long-term success. Dressed in his trademark black suit and hat, Jam spoke openly about the production philosophies he shares with Lewis, the Flyte Tyme evolution and the technology they've adapted to along the way.

Your career exploded when you started working with Janet Jackson. Were you prepared?
At the time we signed on to do Janet's [album], it was at a point in her career where, as an artist, she hadn't really achieved a high level of success. It's just an instinct thing. Literally, John McLain, who was the A&R person for A&M at the time, gave us the roster and said, “Pick somebody.” We picked Janet, and he asked, “Do you want to do a couple of songs?” And we said, “No, we want to do the whole album.” We really felt like there was something there and wanted to work with her.

The difference in what we did was that we asked her opinion and got her involved in the actual writing process, so the ideas that came forth were her ideas — the ideas of an 18-year-old girl striking out on her own — and it touched a chord with people. At that time, there wasn't really a girl singing over funky tracks like that. It's almost like we were doing the tracks like what we would do for a male artist, but she had so much attitude when she sang that it totally worked. It was fun watching her get excited about recording because up to that point, I don't think she was that enamored with the recording process, but once she had a chance to have input and knew that her ideas were actually going on the record, that's when she got excited, and I think that made all the difference in the world.

Of all the producers we talk to, each one has a different answer as to his or her role in the studio. What is it for you and Terry?
To get the best performance from the artist, very akin to what a director does with actors in the movies.

What you're doing is you're kind of reading and assessing, and you actually end up having a very intimate relationship with the artist, because they have to trust you to let their guard down, to let you know their feelings and let you get a great performance out of them. You can't give a great performance when you're holding back and thinking about what you're doing, so you try to take their mind off of any sort of pressure.

For the Control record, the first week Janet came to Minneapolis, we didn't even go into the studio and record. We just hung out. We went and hung out at the lake, went to clubs, and just talked and got to know each other. At one point, she asked us, “When are we going to start working on the record?” And I said, “We already started working on it.” Because, really, we were trying to learn what she was about. Then we showed her some lyric ideas and concepts we came up with, and she said, “Wait a minute, this is what we've been talking about,” and I said, “Yeah.” And she said, “So whatever I have on my mind, that's what we're going to put on the record?” And I said, “Yeah,” and that made it exciting for her. That to me is all part of the producer process.

It's a very collaborative process for us. We try to tailor-make each song and each recording to the specific artist rather than do a bunch of songs and pull them off the shelf. When you do that, you end up with the artist's personality truly in the record, and they feel that they're part of the creative process.

So does your level of input in the songwriting and arranging process vary with each artist?
Yes, because sometimes an artist doesn't physically write, but they can tell you how they feel. You can pick up a certain phrase that they say or a thought that they have about a certain subject, and those things lead to song ideas. Mariah Carey, for instance, is very much involved in the songwriting process. We sit in a room with her — usually myself, Terry and a couple of the other Flyte Tyme musicians — and we'll bang out maybe 10 or 12 ideas in a two- or three-hour period. Not fully realized, but just enough to know whether we're going down a path that we like. It could be based on a keyboard lick that I play or it could be based on just us having a discussion about something. It's a collaborative effort, but she's very much a songwriter in the sense that she enjoys the lyric-writing process and putting the format of the song together — whether it should have a modulation at the end, whether it should have a double chorus, et cetera. Janet is sort of the same way.

And then there are people like New Edition. They'll have a brainstorming session, talk about the million ideas they want to do, and then go, “Okay, now y'all do your thing and we'll be back.” And then they'll give it either the thumbs up or the thumbs down. There's one New Edition song that deals with Johnny Gill being onstage singing to a girl in the audience. Terry said to Johnny, “Rather than me write the words, what would you say to the girl if you were onstage looking down?” He incorporated that into the lyric. That way, when Johnny sang the vocal, it came across a lot more true, a lot more like a performance. It sounds like him.

Your career has now spanned three decades. Has your approach to production changed during the years?
The basic premise has not changed: Get the best performance — that is still the thing. And the ideas always have to evolve and flow. We've never gotten into a nostalgia trip — obviously, we've had a nice history, and at some point when we retire we'll probably fully appreciate it when we look back — but we're constantly looking forward, utilizing new ideas and working with new people, new technology and new artists. That's the way you stay fresh.

The past was great, but if you spend too much time dealing with that, you kind of lose sight of the things that the future holds. We've always been very cognizant of that and always think about the next move, the next thing we want to do. I think you have to have that mindset, because it's too easy to get into a sense of, “Oh, back in the day when we recorded analog, that was the real music.” That's a bunch of crap to me. You offend current music by saying that, because current music is real music, too. It's not supposed to be the same; it's supposed to evolve. Everybody thinks, “Well, it's just a fad; it's not going to stick.” I'm sure that's the way jazz people felt when rock happened, and the way rock 'n' roll people felt when hip hop happened, or the way R&B people felt when hip hop happened. But all of a sudden — listen, it's here and you've got to deal with it.

Our music now is very hip hop — influenced, because music is hip hop — influenced. Whether it's a sample or using a turntable, that is part of the way music sounds today. And if you want to make music that sounds like today, then you need to utilize those elements. Otherwise, you can just make nostalgia records, I guess.

Speaking of new things, I understand you recently opened Flyte Tyme West in Los Angeles.
We are in the process of opening it. The Village in L.A. had a whole third floor that they basically were not using, and we set up temporary studios and offices there. We've been working there over the past year, and we'll probably be in there another six months.

Why build a new studio now when so many others are shutting down?
We've been doing a lot more film work, and we saw that it would be nice to have our own West Coast place, so we're now in the process — we've already bought the building — of building our studios.

We pretty much know where our work is coming from. So when we opened our very first studio, we built it so that it was a place that was more creatively based. There were rooms that we'd call vibe rooms, just a place for people to get together and go over ideas and be able to put them on tape. But wherever you were in the building, you could record. We have a rehearsal studio, and you could have a big live setup and tie-line right into any of the rooms and record whatever you were rehearsing. It was important to have a place that was like home, because you want to get people relaxed and take the pressure off. That's hard to do in a commercial facility because there are so many people running around — unless it's designed so that there's different entrances and everything.

And the clock's ticking…
When we built our first Flyte Tyme studio, really, that was the motivation behind it. We were working with an artist named Cherrelle in '82 or '83. It was her first record, and we didn't feel that we were getting a good product. We went back to Minneapolis where some friends had a studio in their basement, and instantly knocked off like four songs. We said, “You know what? This is the way we need to do it,” because we're taking the pressure out of it, taking the clock-watching out of it, and basically creating an environment where you come in, take your shoes off — we're not smokers or drinkers so there's no smoking or drinking in the building — and it becomes like your home. But rather than trying to make a business out of it, it's really a place to facilitate us and our creativity and the creativity of the people we bring in.

The theory on Flyte Tyme West has been the same but a little more based in film music, television music and commercials, which we've been doing more of in the past couple of years. It allows us to have a place where, if we have a meeting to discuss music, we can go straight from the meeting to our studio, work an idea up and have them listen to it. It's easy to work with the music community from Minneapolis. It's a much less collaborative process in the sense that you're collaborating with the artist, but you really don't need a lot of the other components to be there. In the film business, you would like to have the director come by, or the music supervisor, as ideas are forming. In our case, we felt like there was a need to have a West Coast presence if we were serious about doing that. We can make records forever, but the opportunity to stretch out, do some different things and do film scores — we did our first film score this year for The Fighting Temptations, which was great and, of course, we did that at The Village — those kinds of opportunities are ones that we almost have to be on the West Coast to do. A lot of our current projects are being generated from there, but most of the projects we got the Grammy nomination for this year — Mya, Heather Headley — were done in Minneapolis.

What equipment will you have at Flyte Tyme West?

We're going to wait until the last minute to decide, because stuff is ever-evolving and ever-changing. Right now, we're running all Pro Tools|HD. We have three rooms [on The Village's third floor], but since we don't have a bunch of people sitting around doing nothing, we took a couple of the lounges and made pre-production rooms with drum machines. The Avila Brothers do some drum programming and songwriting for us. So we ended up with five rooms, which is what we have in Minnesota, which are pretty much running all the time.

Probably the biggest difference between what we've done in Minneapolis and what we'll do at Flyte Tyme West is just the studio size. We built [Flyte Tyme] 13 years ago to the standards of studios 13 years ago. Westlake [Audio] did our design, and it's very reminiscent of the way Westlake Studios in L.A. looked. Now you can build rooms a lot smaller because you're not moving in multiple machines, outboard gear and that kind of thing. You can depend pretty much on plug-ins, although we do tend to insert some analog stuff into what we do. We have small racks of Neve and Focusrite stuff. What we do in Minneapolis in probably 20,000 square feet of space we can do in L.A. in about half that.

Will you keep Flyte Tyme Minneapolis open?
As of right now, yes. We kind of go back and forth and rack up a lot of frequent-flyer miles. Northwest Airlines loves us! But Steve [Hodge, engineer at Flyte Tyme Minneapolis] has a setup there that he really loves. He does a lot of outside mixing for people, too, and they like going to the room in Minneapolis. I like mixing there, and right now I still like creating in Minneapolis. Some of our L.A.-based guys like going there, too. There's something about it that organically still feels right. Thank goodness, with the studio economy, both places are doing very well. Over the summer, we were probably busier than we've ever been that I can remember in our careers. One project might be in a pre-production stage, one might be tracking, we might be doing vocals on another and mixing [another]. But during the summer, we probably ended up working on eight or nine projects at the same time, and very diverse.

How involved are you guys in the technical process of recording an album?
It varies. On some songs, we're very hands-on. Both Terry and I like to run our own equipment when we do vocals. The engineers set up Pro Tools differently for us than they will for themselves. They'll set it up for me so that basically it's just a tape machine — I never even touch the keyboard or the mouse — I use Pro Control. I just put the tracks in Record, get everything I want and then step back and give it to the engineer. But we're involved in comping vocals; I can't leave that to somebody else.

We're finishing up with them and for the first time in a long time, Steve took the vocal. We've been working with New Edition for so long, he said, “I know what you want out of the vocal,” so he went in and comped it and, for the most part, did a really good job. Some of the newer engineers that we're working with — Matt Marrin, who's doing a good job for us, and a guy named Ian Cross on our West Coast side — are getting more familiar with what we want, so we begin to trust them a little bit more for stuff.

During the past 30 years, what technical advancements have made your lives easier in the studio?
What Apple's done is incredible. It's funny. We walk into the studio and we look like an Apple commercial. Literally, everybody walks in with their G4 laptops, sits down, opens up iTunes, opens up iChat…

Obviously, [the Internet] has been bad in a sense because of piracy and those types of issues, but the same resource that can be used in the wrong way can be used in the right way, and we use it in the right way and it works very well for us. Also, things like two-way pagers, e-mail and things like that where you don't even have to get on a phone anymore, you can just text [message] somebody what you need. When we sit down at the studio, we open up our iChat and we're connected totally with the Flyte Tyme in Minneapolis. They also have the iDisc, so when Steve gets done with a mix, he just posts it to my iDisc and I can download it. Now, when the record company says, “I need five CDs,” I can tell them, “Just go on my iDisc and grab the song” and just do FTP files.

We did a project with Bryan Adams for a film called Spirit, and I still have not met Bryan Adams. He did it in L.A., we did our thing in Minneapolis, sent files over the Net and good old-fashioned ISDN lines, which work very well. We did it in four days, and it was a project we couldn't have done if we physically had to travel to be with each other. The technology totally allowed it to happen.

And the whole idea of direct disk recording: Back when that first started, we got a Synclav. With the Synclavier, we had 16-track direct-to-disk recording. When digital recording started, when it was the battle between the Mitsubishi machine and the Sony, Steve Hodge said, “Don't get either machine. You already know there's going to be recording with no tape. You know that because you already have it in the Synclav, so why would you spend money on digital tape when you know that's just a temporary thing?” And for us, not really needing to have the latest and greatest whatever, we opted for Dolby SR on our analog machine, and then when RADAR came, and Pro Tools and Sonic Solutions, to me, all of that was sort of a revolution. I was shocked at how quickly things came along from the time we got Pro Tools to the point where the analog machines don't get turned on anymore. They just sit there now, and it's the weirdest thing to me.

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