Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis Talk Janet Jackson’s ‘Unbreakable’ & Creating Timeless Music: Idolator Interview
Shifting gears a bit here, Unbreakable‘s release is in conjunction with the 30th anniversary of Control in a few months. How do you think that album has aged over the decades?
JJ: It has aged very well, just as Janet has! [laughs] I just heard the songs during her concert and the crowd sang every word to “Let’s Wait A While.” It shows me that it still resonates, and I’m still hearing those sounds today. There is also an appreciation for it with the new fans as well.
TL: I think Control is timeless, because it was basically the coming out of a budding flower. That was when Janet found her voice. Prior to that record, people just gave her songs to sing. But on Control she really had the opportunity to figure out who she was musically and what she wanted to say. That was the beginning of everything, in terms of success. If you think about what we’re doing now, we’re in the same place. [Unbreakable] is just the evolution of that.
Do you have a favorite Janet Jackson era? I personally love The Velvet Rope.
TL: I think every era is its own diamond. Starting from Control, that changed the sound of radio with “Nasty” and “What Have You Done For Me Lately.” Then Rhythm Nation starts out socially conscious on the first half of the album, and she’s like, “Okay, get the point? Let’s dance!” Then there’s janet. with “That’s The Way Love Goes”…man, you can just go on forever. It’s hard for me to pick my favorite because they’re all great bodies of work, which I like over singles. It’s hard to immerse yourself in one song. An album can get you in a mood and take you on a journey — not only a musical journey, but a life one. There’s something you can learn from and relate to, and that’s better than any “I’m gonna shake my tail-feather at the club” song that can be hot at the moment. But it’s not serving as a musical release.
With this current generation of music, is there anyone you’re looking at like, “Oh, this person is going to last for a while”?
TL: Right now The Weeknd is doing some great songs. I also love Ed Sheeran, he’s the real deal. My female pick is Tori Kelly. Once again, the bodies of work will tell more than the singles. That’s when people learn who you really are, when you start to define yourself. Before that, Usher [“Bad Girl,” “U Remind Me,” “Simple Things,” were produced by Jam & Lewis] inspired me to even want to do this anymore at a time when I wasn’t feeling inspired. He changed the way I looked at music. He was striving for excellence, and that made me want to work harder.
So you and Terry have been producing together for decades, and I always wanted to know if you ever had any disagreements when in the studio.
JJ: No we really don’t, and it’s due to the way our partnership is set up. When we started our company, we were 50/50 partners. That means we never have to concentrate on making decisions based on percentages, which is a huge advantage creatively. It’s not my idea or his idea, it’s the best idea — and that’s the reason we don’t argue. It never comes down to me and Terry. At the end of the day, the artist will break all ties.
I was going through your production discography, and I discovered that you and Terry worked on Jordan Knight’s “Give It To You” and Gwen Stefani’s “Harajuku Girls” — I love those songs!
JJ: John McClain, who A&R’ed the Control and Rhythm Nation records and actually was the person who put us in touch with Janet to begin with, also told us about Jordan Knight because he thought he was really talented. We probably had four or five songs we had done for Jordan that have never seen the light of day. We did a whole second album that never got released for whatever reason, but we loved working with him. The other thing was that we also worked with Robin Thicke on those records, and he was amazing. “Give It To You” was interesting because that was a song the public made a hit. It was very quirky and — this was the time before the Internet — the phone lines lit up every time the radio stations played it and people kept requesting to hear it. And Gwen Stefani was equally as amazing. She’s a person I wish we could have worked with again. We’re both still working, so you never know! “Harajuku Girls” was crazy and such a fun record to do. If you could name somebody too good to be true, it would be Gwen because nobody is that beautiful, nice, talented and works so hard — she really just has the whole package. I see her every once in a while at birthday parties and stuff, and she’s so genuine. We’ve been blessed to be doing this for so many years and have a ton of great memories with people we grew up with. I never thought we would ever end up working with [people like] Gladys Knight, Patti LaBelle, Rod Stewart or Sting. But like [Janet’s song] “Well Traveled” says, we’ve come a long way and we still have a long way to go.