Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis’s Lessons from 40 Years of Music
Volume one is the first Jam & Lewis studio project in which their names appear in the album title instead of the credits. A star-studded line-up of singers perform on the 10-track recording, which has previously produced singles of Babyface (“He Don’t Know Nothin ‘Bout It”) and Carey (“Somewhat Loved [There You Go Breakin’ My Heart]). ”
Instead of their trademark black suits, sunglasses, hats and ties, Jam & Lewis wore an all-black casual outfit, including baseball caps bearing their “JL” insignia in white, on a recent day at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, California. There, they discussed the lessons and creative ideas learned from their 50-50 partnership, which began with a handshake in 1982.
Terry Lewis: Real production comes when you relate to the individuality of an artist by blending their performance and the performance of musicians into one work of art. It’s like play dough, although on a real level it’s much more complex.
Jimmy Jam: It’s communicating to understand how they like to work. Day or night? Do they like to be surrounded or to be alone? Do you take the artist slowly or do you jump right away? Can they sing for long periods or for a short time? You need to recognize what makes them comfortable. The most intimate relationship you can have is with an artist. They share their secrets with you. They trust you to help them perform their song.
Lewis: You are the mastermind of the situation: therapist, problem solver, mentor, parent, confidant, ego manager, friend. You have to allow them to let go and show their strengths and weaknesses. This is when you discover things about artists that you didn’t know. A small crack [in a vocal] can take you to an unexpected and good place. This is when you get your best grip.
Jam: When we arrived we were sensitive to the frequent “You look like Prince” comparisons. [Jam & Lewis were original members of The Time.] Of course we did, because Prince was us. He made those first Time records. “Just Be Good to Me” from the SOS group was our first big success. After that, people would come to us and say, “Give us something that looks like The SOS Band. And we would say, “This is their sound.” We will offer you something different. So we created Janet [Jackson]the sound of, the sound of the new edition and so on. It was never really about a Jam & Lewis sound. We are the common thread, but each costume is tailor-made.
Lewis: Cultivating a talent pool of different musicians is important. We’ve done R&B, gospel, pop, soft pop, rock, an Olympics theme, NBA music. Having people around who understand the different genres and different gears that you need to change can add another color or flavor to what you’re working on.
Jam: Under Prince, we learned spontaneity – get it on the first take. Then we worked with Leon Sylvers III. On an album we did with him, we only had rhythmic arrangement credit, no producer. When Leon did the vocals on the track again, we said, ‘How did you get these amazing vocals from these guys? And he said to us, “You’re not a producer until you can produce vocals. “
Lewis: Clarence Before [former head of The S.O.S. Band’s label, Tabu Records, and behind-the-scenes mentor known as “The Black Godfather”] taught us to know our worth. His thing has always been, “You FPs have to learn to count. “He said,” So-and-so wants to sign you for this deal, but you’ve already done it [level of] money. Why would you want to sign with him for the [same pay]? “And by the way, we learned to count. (Laughs.)
Jam: At our second meeting, Clarence was already asking what we were going to do in seven years – beyond trying to make hits. It was [asking], “Who will be the next Berry Gordy?” Who will sit on company boards or get involved in charity? He planted these seeds in us.
Lewis: When we first arrived in Los Angeles, Clarence told us not to look at the Hollywood sign when we were driving. He said we have to be careful about what we do and not what Hollywood is doing – or we would collapse. That’s why we ended up going back to Minneapolis [for 15 years. They returned to L.A. in 2003.] There were too many distractions for a young man – girls, cars, girls, and the perception of having money. Since then, we have remained focused.
Jam: People often tell us that they are waiting for their break. And we always tell them to replace the word “prepare” with “wait”. If there is an artist you want to record, you need to know everything about that artist: the key in which he sings, the engineers he likes, the studios he prefers to record, the producers, the writers and the A&R with which he worked on. Then when you see this artist and he asks you what songs you have, you’ll be ready to say, “I know you like singing in the key of E, and I have a song in that key that reminds me of you.” . “
Lewis: Networking and relationships can come from scaling in the studio. We were dragging like flies on the walls of each studio trying to figure everything out. You also have to understand the job. It’s like playing chess: you have to know what the players are doing, why they are doing what they are doing, and what you are bringing to the table. The hardest part is understanding your worth. I don’t know how many contracts I threw behind the bed because I wasn’t ready to sign with anyone.
Jam: After [Jackson’s 1986 album] Control arrived we said in minneapolis Star Tribune that we didn’t want to be the most prominent producers. We want to be warm for a long time. The decisions we made were never for the money or the quick hit. It was all about the big picture.
This story originally appeared in the July 17, 2021 issue of Billboard.