On the Cover: Jam and Lewis Keep the Hits Coming at Flyte Tyme

Oct 1, 2008 12:00 PM, By Sarah Jones


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Jam (left) and Lewis in Jam’s studio, which includes an SSL AWS 900, Pro Tools and, of course, a TR-808

Jam (left) and Lewis in Jam’s studio, which includes an SSL AWS 900, Pro Tools and, of course, a TR-808
Photo: Mitch Tobias

The walls of Flyte Tyme studios tell a story. Here, at Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis' Santa Monica, Calif., facility, Gold records line the hallway: Janet Jackson, Michael Jackson, TLC, Boyz II Men, Usher — the list goes on. A glass case overflows with Grammy awards, ASCAP Awards, a Billboard Award, an NAACP Award. A plaque commemorates a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. And there are the dozens of pictures of the duo posing with a who's who of R&B and pop legends — always looking sharp in their signature bespoke suits and crisp fedoras.

Upstairs, five studios buzz with activity. In one room, Asian pop sensation Tiana Xiao is tracking her latest album; in another, work is being done on The Time's upcoming release. Four years after moving to Los Angeles and two years after settling into their own digs, it's clear that the pair is working harder than ever and business is good.

It's been more than 35 years since these R&B/pop icons first connected as high school students. Although their roots were in performing — the two founded Minneapolis funk band Flyte Tyme, which evolved into The Time — their work on the S.O.S. Band's hit “Just Be Good to Me” put them on the production map, and after collaborating with Janet Jackson on her 1986 smash Control, their careers skyrocketed. Jam and Lewis became one of the most successful and influential songwriting/production teams of the '80s and '90s, shaping the pop sounds of those decades and laying the groundwork for pop and R&B music made today.

The sheer number of hits they've produced is staggering: 100 Gold, Platinum and multi-Platinum albums; 16 Number One pop singles; 26 Number One R&B singles. Just as far-reaching is the diversity of talent they've fostered, from Mariah Carey to Sting, from Mary J. Blige to Bryan Adams.

These days, Jam and Lewis continue to produce music and are involved in various business ventures including a record label and a publishing company — and Jam is heavily involved in industry outreach through his role as Chairman of the Board of the Recording Academy.

California Love

Various factors contributed to the duo's decision to move to Los Angeles from Minneapolis: Travel became difficult post-9/11, clients wanted to work in a warmer climate, and opportunities simply abounded out West. “The idea was to be able to have more spontaneity in who we worked with, and just more efficiency as far as getting people into the studio,” says Jam. “I remember we went through a period of time when I was still in Minneapolis and Terry was out in L.A. [at The Village]. And Terry would be working on two or three projects at the same time, and I'd be working on one. And Terry would go, ‘Jam, you need to come to L.A., man; it's jumping out here!’”

Jam says that downsizing from their sprawling Minneapolis facility to their temporary home on the third floor of The Village taught them the importance of streamlining workflow in comfortable surroundings. “So the thought of this place was, we want to have an environment where people want to hang out, feel comfortable; intimate rooms, where if you're just writing with another person, you're fine,” says Jam. “And then utilize the fact that we're in L.A. — we didn't do a huge room because there's many huge rooms around L.A. to do huge string sessions or huge choir sessions.

“Basically, we took what we had in Minneapolis — which was five rooms, an office space, a recreation area in 30,000 square feet — and we've done the same thing here in about 9,000 square feet,” he continues. “We made choices — like for instance, there's a 2-inch tape machine, but rather than doing one for all five rooms, we did one tape machine. And everything's tie-lined.”

For the most part, production has transitioned to digital with a few exceptions: when resurrecting old Time archives, for example, or working with artists such as Blige, who prefers to mix down to analog. “She likes the sound and somehow that feels like a finished master to her, so we have a nice Studer machine just for that,” says Jam. The studio is equipped with Pro Tools rigs and SSL AWS 900's, which Jam says offer the “best of both worlds; it gives you a Pro Tools controller, as well as it's just a sound board. One of my pet peeves is that I hated walking into a room and I would hit a keyboard and nothing would happen, and someone would say, ‘Oh wait, let me get the Pro Tools up.’”

Both agree that focusing on extreme detail can block the creative flow. “The engineer, a lot of times, we'll say, ‘Bring that vocal up,’ and he'll go, ‘How many dB?’” says Jam. “I don't know, just turn it up. I don't know the difference between 1 dB and 3 dB, but I'll know it when I hear it.”

Jam is also amused by the way DAWs allow engineers to work from a visual perspective: “We always like to have drama in our productions. The songs always start off at a lower point, and then we're adding to it so the song grows; the beginning doesn't sound like the end,” he says. “And we had a couple of younger engineers come in, and somebody said, ‘You know what's cool about your songs? The waveforms always start off kind of little and then they get bigger,’ and I'm thinking, ‘What does that have to do with how it sounds?’” Adds Lewis: “I don't believe in old school, new school; I believe in school. You just need to learn. Because three plus three has been the same math forever. You gotta learn the basics because one day you might not have the technology. Then what do you do?”

Digital technology has certainly changed the way they collaborate, from iChatting to exchanging tracks remotely — which can make it difficult to strike a balance between emotional process and intellectual process. “Music really stopped being emotional when we started getting synthesized instruments anyway,” says Lewis. “Because then we could separate; one person could sit at home and make a whole track. When we first started out playing instruments, we needed a drummer, a keyboard player, a bass player; they'd all have to be in the room at the same time, so it was always that personal, emotional interaction.” “A great band is like a great conversation,” adds Jam. “When you're with a group of people and the conversation is just flowing, and it's maybe a serious conversation, and then the jokes start flowing back and forth and somebody adds two cents here and two cents here — that's what a collaboration of a band is.”

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