Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis Talk Janet Jackson’s ‘Unbreakable’ & Creating Timeless Music: Idolator Interview
When one thinks of a music producer who made waves in the industry, my generation may bring up names like Timbaland, Max Martin, Dr. Dre or Pharrell. But let’s not forget the ones before who have (and still are) breaking boundaries across almost all genres! In comes Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, who for decades have been putting their creative heads together to birth indelible, trailblazing songs for dozens of your favorite artists — most notably of course, Janet Jackson.
The legendary entertainer reunited with the equally legendary production team on her new Unbreakable album, which is Janet’s first since 2008’s Discipline. So naturally, Jimmy and Terry had a lot to share with me about this new musical chapter!
Read on to see what the production duo had to say about working on Unbreakable, their definition of a “comeback,” the 30th anniversary of Control, the new generation of music and much more below.
What was your reaction when Janet called you up and said, “Hey, I’m ready to make another record.”
JIMMY JAM: I was really happy because over the last seven years we’ve had a lot of conversations about working together on a new project. I remember having lunch with her probably two years ago, and we talked about everything else but recording — we didn’t need to. It was really about getting to know each other again and just catching up again. In that moment I knew we were going to do something musically. I didn’t know when, but I had that feeling. When it finally got serious was when her management talked about wanting to see something happen. Once that got formalized, we began the process like we did with every album. Just to clarify, I count from Control to All 4 U as the albums that were done the way we enjoyed recording with just the three of us and no outside influence — and those first five albums were done like that. For Unbreakable we felt the need to go back to that, and we basically recorded for six months. No one knew we were recording! Everyone kept asking, “When are you guys going to start?” We kept saying we were planning, meanwhile we already had six or seven songs done. The process worked fantastic!
TERRY LEWIS: One thing that I always say is that Janet is too important in music. She has a voice that people still value, so I thought it was a great sense of timing for her. And obviously she only does [record] when she has something to say.
So what made 2015 the right time to create an album?
TL: I think as an artist you feel it in your soul. It’s not a timeline based on years or what everybody else wants — it’s exuded by you. So she had to be comfortable in where she is in life to spread her music around the world, and that’s what she’s doing.
While recording the album, did you feel any pressure to compete with the new girls? For example, Madonna’s Rebel Heart album includes some sounds that are reflected in current pop music. Or did you just want to go back to the basics?
JJ: As far as competing, there was no sense of that because we’re fans of all the ladies out there doing their thing. I think it’s more about making an album that’s true to us and sounds like Janet — whether it’s a piano ballad or a house record. When you think about Janet’s history in music and her catalogue, you have uptempo fun sounds like “Escapade” and “Miss You Much,” the really funky “What Have You Done For Me Lately” and “Nasty” songs, and the rock-inspired “Black Cat” — and it’s all her! So it’s not about trying to be trendy, it’s taking all those kinds of music that she loves and making it sound like her. If it sounds like Janet, that means we’ve done our job. If we aimed the record at anyone, it would definitely be her fans. That was the whole spirit of the record.
A lot of divas are making comebacks lately, but there are millennials who may just be getting introduced to their sound now. How do you think Janet’s new record will impact the younger generation?
TL: You say “comeback,” and I just say come out! When artists that prolific don’t feel like putting out an album, it’s not that they disappeared — they just chose to live life. In order to put out new music and have great things to say, you’ve got to live some life! You can have writers put things in your mouth, but things that come from the soul reach the soul. Janet comes out when she’s ready, and so does Madonna and Mariah or anyone else. But what do they have to offer? Themselves and their individual style, and I don’t try to pit one against the other because I think that’s very unfair. And they are all very successful. If they announce a tour without new music, they can sell dates, right?
Oh, of course, in a matter of minutes!
TL: And some people can top the chart, and can’t sell tickets! So I think this whole old school vs. new school thing is crazy. There’s only school — either you learn or you don’t. Without the music before us, music now wouldn’t even exist. We can never lose sight of the quality of music from the ’70s and ’80s, for example.
So what was the most fun song to record in the studio while creating Unbreakable?
JJ: It’s tough because I haven’t had enough separation from it, and different songs have been my favorite at different times. It’s funny because no one has ever asked me that question! When I started playing the album, I end up listening to the whole thing without stopping. It’s like watching a really good movie. My son’s favorite song is “Broken Hearts Heal,” and his opinion means a lot to me. If I had to listen to a song right now, it would probably be “Well Traveled.” It really sums up her worldly experience. Plus I just got off the road with her and the song was kind of the soundtrack in my head. Have you listened to the album?
The one that stood out to me was “Night.” I love that song.
JJ: I gave that to Janet’s DJ before a few of her shows — she doesn’t have an opening act, it’s basically like a big party in the arena before the concert starts — and I told him to play that and “Damnnn Baby” to gauge the crowd’s reaction. We were in New Orleans the other night and had just put “Night” on, and the crowd was so into it! The DJ ended up playing it three or four times, and they really responded to it.
TL: “Night” is a great, great energy and what it’s saying is so profound. That’s a feeling you want to wake up with every day and the most peaceful feeling you could imagine, I think.
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.