Photo: James White
As Janet Jackson and her longtime collaborators, star producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, were recording Jackson's latest release, 20 Y.O. (Virgin Records), they wanted to celebrate the 20-year milestone of the artist's breakthrough third album, Control, which began their association and showed the public that the youngest sibling in the world-famous Jackson family was ready for stardom on her own terms.
Control also served as a declaration of independence for Jam and Lewis. They were up-and-coming studio sensations striking out on their own after hitting the big time under Prince's tutelage as members of Morris Day and The Time. Jam and Lewis spent the mid-'80s honing their production skills in their then-new Flyte Tyme studio in Minneapolis and took Jackson under their wing in 1985, believing that her greatest talents had not yet been tapped.
Together, they cultivated an energetic and ultimately classic pop/R&B album — with plenty of attitude — that established Jackson's artistic identity and launched her world tours, and heightened Jam and Lewis' visibility as first-call producers with a Midas touch. Control spawned the memorable hits “What Have You Done for Me Lately,” “Nasty” and the title track, and was followed by the even more successful and visionary Rhythm Nation 1814 (1989).
The three continued to produce albums together, expanding on Rhythm Nation's successful formula through the 1990s and into the 2000s, releasing All for You (2001) and Damita Jo (2004). Along the way, Jackson earned Grammy recognition, worked in combination with other songwriters and producers, and received mixed reviews from the critics.
Jam says that after the release of Damita Jo, Jackson experienced “sort of a rebirth, a rejuvenation of her passion for music and where she was in life.” He notes that production of 20 Y.O. “felt very much the way the Control album felt.” 20 Y.O. acknowledges Jackson's traditional sound while pushing forward with edgier hip hop and dance-oriented beats.
“Janet was ready to make a record,” Jam says. “There wasn't a clear direction on what that record was going to be, but she wanted it to be a little more up-tempo [with] more dance songs. The idea was to listen to tracks from different hip hop producers, try to marry some of the hip hop beats, write songs to them and then record them.”
Virgin Records charged the president of its urban-music department, Jermaine Dupri — the hit-making hip hop/R&B producer/songwriter who founded Atlanta's premier urban-music record label, So So Def Records, and whose credits include projects for Mariah Carey, Alicia Keys, Usher and many more — with overseeing Jackson's new album project as its executive producer.
“I think the last album [Damita Jo] didn't have enough Jimmy and Terry on it,” Dupri says. “I was talking to them about things that I listened to them do that I wanted them to bring back for this record.” The artist and producers understood that while Jackson's fans harbor certain expectations from her body of work, her new music must also compete for attention alongside today's urban hits. “With an artist like Janet, it's hard to make her records because the fans are really serious — they don't want you to mess with their artist,” Dupri says. “So it's hard to address the fans and address today's music, but I think we figured it out.”
Songwriting and pre-production commenced in February 2005 at The Village (West Los Angeles), where Jam and Lewis held court while awaiting completion of their new Flyte Tyme Productions facility in nearby Santa Monica. They also visited Hit Factory's Miami location and Dupri's SouthSide Studios in Atlanta. “Even though the mandate at that point in time was to try to come up with up-tempo songs,” Jam says, “we kept coming up with ballads and mid-tempo songs.” The project then returned to The Village. “We recorded about 30 songs that we finished, and probably another 10 or 15 that got pushed aside.”
Dupri then decided that he ought to become directly involved with the songwriting and production to realize his original idea. “I was hearing people [say], ‘Jermaine, it's crazy how you're not going to be part of this record,’” Dupri recalls. “Then I called Jimmy and Terry, and told them, ‘Let's reconstruct the project and create this album together.’ It was almost like a start-over process.”
20 Y.O. marks Dupri's first artistic collaboration with Jackson, Jam and Lewis. In Jam's words, it was a “convergence of creativity” among the producers that melded Jam and Lewis' distinctively funky grooves and lush orchestrations with Dupri's earthier, stripped-down style that features heavier, more aggressive beats.
The producers turned to their own trusted circles of songwriters and musicians, who further influenced the album's direction. Jam and Lewis included keyboardist/programmers Bobby Ross Avila and Issiah “IZ” Avila (aka The Avila Brothers), and guitarist Paul Jackson Jr. while Dupri incorporated his top collaborators from Atlanta: Johnta Austin, L-Roc and Manuel Seal Jr. He also invited Nelly to sing with Jackson on the album's first single, “Call on Me.” Technically, the producers relied upon their veteran recording engineers to capture each session: Los Angeles — based Ian Cross for Jam and Lewis, and Atlanta-based John Horesco IV for Dupri.
As construction continued on Flyte Tyme, the entire group rented the two rooms in Studio Atlantis in Hollywood so they could all work together. Jam and Lewis set up shop in Studio A, which has an SSL 9080 J Series console and a Pro Tools HD3 system, while Dupri and his crew occupied Studio C, with its Yamaha 02R96 (which they used only for monitoring) and Pro Tools HD2 system. The parties also moved some of their most essential gear into the rooms.
Executive producer for Jackson's latest, Jermaine Dupri
Photo: Lionel Deluy
The rooms are connected by a hallway, which enabled Jackson and the producers to visit each other's sessions and the engineers to exchange Pro Tools files on CDs, DVDs and hard drives. According to Dupri, “I would create music and come up with songs, and then Jam and Lewis would cut the vocals and add more instrumentation to what I did.”
“He's always looking for new sounds, and he doesn't deal with sample CDs,” Horesco says. “Jermaine is more interested in a vibe than in absolute perfection. What fits the song is what's more important. It makes it a little bit more real.”
Dupri's primary songwriting tool is a 1991 model Akai MPC60II sampling drum machine, the unit he used to teach himself to produce music. “He's blazing-fast on the MPC,” Horesco says. “I've seen him create whole new melody lines.” Dupri often samples patches from his synth modules and soft synths into the MPC; these include a Clavia Nord Rack 3, E-mu Vintage Keys Plus, Korg MS2000 and Triton, Moog Music Voyager, Roland Fantom-XR, Yamaha Motif and more. Dupri also uses iTunes to research and download songs, and a Pioneer CDJ-1000 as a turntable instrument that also stores songs and samples. He plays back vintage vinyl breakbeat records from the '80s on a Technics turntable.
In keeping with tradition, Jam produced all of Jackson's vocal sessions. With 20 Y.O., however, he had to find a way to enable Jackson's typically breathy and percussive vocals to sit comfortably in the mix with harder, heavier drum and bass patterns. “We want Janet to be heard, but she's a very rhythmic vocalist, so her vocals almost become part of the percussiveness of the track,” Jam says. “You don't want her too far in front because you obviously want the track to hit hard and you don't want her to be buried.”
Cross notes that he rarely compresses or equalizes Jackson's vocals, and that he hit upon a winning signal chain for 20 Y.O.: the Brauner VM1 KHE (Klaus Heyne Edition) tube condenser mic through a Chandler Limited TG Channel mic preamp and equalizer. “We wanted that big, open vocal sound,” Cross says. “She liked that the top end of the Brauner was clear and hyped in the way that her voice would be normally EQ'd. The VM1 also has a huge dynamic range, so there's a little bit of roll-off that needs to happen so it doesn't compete with those kick drums. The Chandler has a nice bit of punch to it, too.”
“Usually, the vocals for each song take a couple of days,” Jam adds. “We'll do all or most of the backgrounds in one day because Janet does all of her own backgrounds. That usually involves 30-some tracks of vocals. To me, Janet is a singer you sing along with, much in the way I think of her as a parallel to Diana Ross. I think Janet possesses that same quality, so we always wanted her to do her own backgrounds.”
“On the next day, Jimmy cuts the leads and then he comps them,” Cross says. “Jimmy is really a master of comping vocals. Even though we're working in Pro Tools, he comps vocals the old-fashioned way, where I actually set him up and I bus all the vocals to a track, and then he punches in all the parts. He listens to every breath and every vowel of every track and picks the ones he likes.”
Cross adds that Jackson's vocals require little processing after the fact. “We're getting plenty of aggressiveness and spit from the microphones,” he says. He used Waves' IR Parametric Convolution Reverb, Renaissance Compressor and Renaissance EQ on the vocals. “They do what you need them to do without really mashing up the sound in that digital way.” He also used “a little bit of [Metric Halo] Channel Strip 2 every once in a while to help bring out that SSL sound.”
In February 2006, three of the five rooms in Jam and Lewis' new Flyte Tyme Productions facility — each equipped with SSL AWS 900 consoles, Pro Tools HD systems and Apogee converters — finally opened. The last tracking sessions, as well as some mixing sessions, took place there. Flyte Tyme engineer Matt Marrin joined the production team for those tracking dates. Jam notes that Jackson was instantly comfortable at Flyte Tyme and delivered inspired performances.
Atlanta-based engineer Phil Tan mixed 20 Y.O. in Flyte Tyme, SouthSide and his own studio, Soap Box. “Because of the nature of this project and having to do a lot of recalls and revisits to the mixes, I pretty much stayed in the box the whole time,” Tan says. “Everything became audio and got imported into a Pro Tools session.” Tan used a range of plug-ins from Bomb Factory, Waves, McDSP, Unique Recording Software and SoundToys. “I'm not one of those guys who thinks too much about what I use,” he says. “I'll use whatever works, and if I can't find it in software form, then I'll go [to] hardware and just bring everything back and print it as audio.”
Tan sometimes determined the nuances in his mixes by referring to Jackson's previous albums. “She is an established artist and has a history of sounding a certain way,” Tam continues. “So that signature still has to be there in some form. For me, it was a matter of sometimes taking a break and listening to some of their older records to be able to establish a reference. For example, back in '86, [Jam and Lewis] used this predelayed reverb on the handclaps, and we did that on a couple of songs to give it that same feel where people would be reminded about how certain things sounded back then.”
Jam credits engineer Steve Hodge with helping to shape Jackson's essential sound. “We took a lot of our EQ ideas from what Steve Hodge did on all the Janet albums that he mixed,” Jam says. “We kept all of those notes, and it's one of those things that works.”
Perhaps the most notable aspect of the production of 20 Y.O. is the manner in which a superstar artist, three superproducers with distinct styles and experienced teams of engineers and contributors successfully collaborated to achieve a common goal. “It was a very democratic process, and we fought for the things that we were passionate about,” Jam says. “There wasn't any ego involved. Terry and I always say the best idea wins. I think that the public will judge whether it works musically, but I can certainly say that on a personal level, it worked very well. I wouldn't hesitate to work together again.”