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Web Exclusive: Q&A With Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis

Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis

In the October issue of Mix, producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis chat with editor Sarah Jones about settling into their Santa Monica studios, gigging with The Time, and the state of the music industry. Check out our exclusive Web interview, and read the entire article in the October issue of Mix.

It’s been more than 35 years since Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis 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 single “Just Be Good to Me” put them on the production map, and after their 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 being 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. Mix caught up with the duo at Flyte Tyme, their Santa Monica, Calif., facility, to hear about their latest projects, and get their views on the state of the industry.

Terry, I read an old interview where you said that without the business there wouldn’t be music. How does that ring true today?
I think there will always be music. Music is the soundtrack of life. If you go outside, there’s music in the air—you hear the birds tweeting, the cars, the rumble of just the air itself. That’s all musical; it’s all melody, it’s all rhythmic. But when you take it and put it in a format that you try to sell—you make it an industry—there has to be business. There have to be dynamics and rules and things that make it acceptable or palatable, and knowable, by all, so everybody can work the commerce. So I think the two go hand in hand. But we made music when it wasn’t business, it was just a hobby, it was just something that we love to do. We’d pay to do it if it didn’t pay us. I always say if you love music, it will love you back.

Jam: I’ve heard Terry say that, and a lot of times, when he does say it, it’s to record company people who somehow rather than listening to what the actual record is or what the music is, they’re too busy trying to think about the marketing; and it’s like, listen, if the music isn’t there, then all the rest of the stuff doesn’t matter.

In the recording industry, the guys who were great music guys, who had great ears and had great passion, a lot of those people either aren’t around or they’re working independently, but they’re not really working under the major structure anymore; and those jobs have been replaced, it seems, with a lot of lawyers and accountants and people that think about, “How much is this going to sell?” rather than, “Wow, what a great song.” And that’s the problem.

Lewis: You just took the entrepreneurs out of it. The music business was built by entrepreneurs. It was a guy who had an affinity for music, who had an affinity for a particular artist. That guy would go find that artist, pay for everything out of his own pocket, and would know the process through and through, from the production, from financials, from an artistic, actually know that artist. And when it came time when that product was done, they would go to market with it, there would be a marketing plan because you lived with it the whole way. When the music business took over, it changed that format. Now it’s very impersonal. You can turn your record in at the last minute, and in two days somebody says, “I like it,” “I don’t like it.” Nobody’s involved anymore. And it totally changed the whole fabric of the industry.

How does that concept trickle down to your role as producers?
It affects us, absolutely. Because it affects the talent base. It affects the attitude of the very companies that we try to do commerce with. We will always do music, whether the business is the same or not. I love music, I’m gonna always love music. For my kids, I want my kids to take piano, I want my kids to love bands, I want my kids to know songs, I want other kids to know that same thing. But it’s a generational thing. We grew up at a great time for music. So we learned great things from music, whether it be musically, whether it be socially, whether it be philanthropically. Music had stories, it was like the soundtrack of life, like I said. I’d know a girl by a song, by how she smelled, where I was…I don’t think our kids have that same spirit. It’s because everything in our world has become so disposable: You know, you drink the water, you throw the bottle away. It wasn’t like that when we were growing up.

It seems like there are more opportunities to hear music than ever before, but at the same time people seem to be listening a lot more passively.
I don’t think so. Music is not engaging. If music is not saying anything, then it’s just a beat. Then it’s hypnotic. But if music is actually speaking to you, melodically, when you listen to an emotional song, it touches your heart. You choke up, tear up, cry, whatever—because it’s speaking to your soul, your very being. You don’t listen to that music as a casual thing. But I think that we’ve gotten so into the impersonal, casual thing, that the other stuff is not valid anymore. So, you don’t get to hear those songs very often.

Jam: When we were kids coming up, we had a thirst to hear music, and you had to work to hear it. You’d wait all day to hear the song you liked on the radio, and then if you couldn’t hear that enough, you’d actually go to the store and you’d buy it so you could play it as much as you like. And a lot of what Terry said; it’s just society, everything is instant.

What we try to do is, make sure that that moment that you’re going to hear the music, that it’s certainly saying something. So try to have some substance to it, or as we like to say, put some seasoning on it. Don’t just give me the burger with no seasoning on it; at least, you know, let it marinate a little bit. That’s just kind of the way we came up. So we still try to put that in the work that we do.

So with all that as context, let’s talk about your move to LA. What made you finally say, we’re moving west?
L.A. was a good idea because we were heavily into making records. And our main client started to want to work out here; that was Janet. And that was a small percentage of it, but there were all kinds of opportunities for film and television and commercials that we never could take advantage of in Minneapolis. So we thought if we were out here in the middle of it, maybe things would be a lot simpler. It was just time for a move. You’re at a place for so long that you can become so comfortable that your inspiration level drops. And you just can go through the motions. It was just time to do something different.

Jam: I think a lot of it was timing. Being in Minnesota, before September 11, people were very willing to hop on a plane and fly anywhere on a whim. If there was an artist that wanted to work with us, they’d hop on a plane and come to Minneapolis, and that was part of the fun of working with us. Matter of fact, there’s artists that we would work with and we’d say, “We’ll come to L.A. to work,” and they’d be, “No, I gotta come to Minneapolis, and get the full Flyte Tyme experience.” After September 11, a lot of that changed. People feared for safety; obviously, the price of traveling went way up, and with budgets shrinking, record companies discovering that downloading was becoming very prevalent, it was a big economic shift. And it was a shift in people’s willingness to fly and the record companies wanting to foot the bill. And so we thought, why not just be here? Because you could just run into somebody at a party or whatever and say, “Come on by the studio and let’s try something out, see how it works.” So 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. There’s a lot of that people like to work here, people like Jermaine Dupri when he’s in town, Rodney Jerkins. I remember we went through a period of time when we were at The Village, when I was still in Minneapolis and Terry was out in L.A. 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!”

How do those concepts translate into your vision for this facility?
It’s a few thoughts. One is, we always liked the idea of having our own place because we had our own place in Minneapolis, and we liked the idea of having the freedom and flexibility of being able to work when we wanted to work, whenever creativity strikes. We also liked the idea of having artists in, particularly new artists, and not having to be quite so budget-conscious, looking at the clock.

The rooms we had in Minneapolis were quite large rooms, and a lot of that was because of the recording equipment; we had big sound boards, we had big 2-inch tape machines and equipment rooms. At The Village, we took the third floor; it was a series of rooms, and made them into studios. Because once you move a Pro Tools unit in—and we had a Control 24 board—all of the sudden you’ve just really turned anywhere into a studio.

We want to have an environment where people want to hang out, stay, feel comfortable, intimate rooms where if you’re just writing with another person you’re fine, and then utilize the fact that we’re in L.A. We didn’t do a huge room because there are 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, office space, a recreation area in 30,000 square feet—and we’ve done the same thing here in about 9,000 square feet. And have everything that we want, equipment-wise, and made choices like for instance, yeah, there’s a 2-inch tape machine, but rather than doing one for all five rooms, we did one tape machine. And everything’s tielined to any other room. Same with a lot of the outboard gear we did, because there’s certain gear that we just love, like some of the old Lexicon stuff, some of the old AMS stuff; rather than buying one for every room, we have one, tielined from every room, most of the time there’s not going to be five people that want to use it at the same time, so there’s a lot of ways that we thought we could be really efficient with the space. And because we’re on a few levels, the whole first floor is pretty much dedicated to office space and recreation, and then the upstairs is all dedicated to studios, so it also kind of separates psychologically. You know when you go upstairs, you’re there to work. And we didn’t do a lot of hangout space on the studio level, because we don’t really want people hanging out there; just the people that are working to be there. All of the feedback that we’ve gotten has been really good. And it’s trying to think about the future, because literally you can have a studio in your laptop now. So if you’re going to have a building, you’re going to have a place where the environment is a creative environment because that’s the one thing you can’t have in a laptop.

Would you say that at this point you’ve made a complete transition from analog to digital?
The analog recording that we do now is pretty much older stuff that we have. We have tons and tons of songs that we’ve recorded that we’ve never used; for instance, the Time album that we’re working on right now, a lot of those tracks began back in the early ‘90s as a follow up to the Pandemonium album, but we broke up. So we now are resurrecting some of those tracks, because they were great tracks, and so that stuff is still on analog, and at that point we’ll transfer it to Pro Tools and then work on it from there. So no, we don’t do a lot…Mary J. Blige always wants the mixdown to go to 2-track ½ inch tape. And there’s probably some other artists like that, but she comes to mind. So we have a nice Studer machine just for that. For the most part, it’s pretty much digital now. And the thing we liked about the SSL 900 board was that it gives you the best of both worlds—it gives you a Pro Tools controller as well as it’s just a board, 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.” I like the idea of having that in my room; basically I do a bunch of tracking. And I like to have physical keyboards set, rather than one controller and a bunch of soft synths. When we’re working on a Time album and I wanna hear the sound of an Omni, I want to talk over to an Omni and play an Omni. That’s what I want to play and feel and hear. That’s kind of the old-school mentality blended with the idea of obviously being able to record digitally.

Lewis: I actually like to touch the knobs; I like to see the fader doing what it’s supposed to be doing.

Jam: There’s a feel. The engineer, a lot of times we’ll say, “bring that vocal up,” and he’ll go, “how many dB?” “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.”

It’s easy to get mired in workstation details, working visually, looking at waveforms…
Right, that used to kill me. One thing about the way we record—we never have really sequenced; we generally like to play everything live. We may sequence drums or something like that, but we always like to have drama in our productions; the songs always kind of start off at a lower point, and then we’re always adding stuff to it so the song grows; the beginning doesn’t sound like the end. And we had a couple of younger engineers come in—and of course now that we’re in the digital era, yeah, you’re seeing the waveforms—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?” [laughs]

We would have to tell the engineers to go back and listen. They would loop a vocal, and they’d take it and go from here to here, and then loop it ten times, or whatever, and we’d be like, “Aren’t you going to listen to that back to make sure?” because we’re all about, “Well, if the breath comes in the wrong place, it doesn’t sound natural, so maybe you need to move it a little,” and they would do it, and then we’d listen to it back, and they’d go, “Oh yeah, that doesn’t quite sound right.” but [to them] visually it all looked right, it all lined up. So there are still people with an old-school mentality.

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.

Jam: Three plus three on a piece of paper is the same as three plus three on a calculator.

Lewis: Exactly. So you gotta learn the basics. Because one day you might not have the technology. Then what do you do?

Do you feel like the evolution of technology has changed the way you guys collaborate?
Sort of. I mean, we’re on our laptops all day; there’s been times that have been hilarious—I always say it should be an Apple commercial—where we have like six people in the room, everybody’s got their laptops open and we’re all either playing stuff for each other or ideas are going back and forth or we’re sending lyrics back and forth, and we’re literally a lot of the time not even talking to eachother. [laughs] For mixing, we just finished working on a project with Deborah Cox, and Dave Rideau who’s been a longtime collaborator with us mixed everything at his studio, which he has at his house, and we basically did it back and forth. He’d send the file, we’d do some tweaks, and so on and so forth. So in that sense, yeah, it allows you to utilize the people who you love to work with so that technology is great.

Is it harder to find a balance between an intellectual process and an emotional process when you work that way?
It definitely is. I mean, music really stopped being emotional when we started getting synthesized instruments, anyway. 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.

Jam: A great band is like a great conversation. 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.

If you think about the impact of R&B bands that we were influenced by growing up-everybody from the Commodores to Earth, Wind and Fire, to Parlaiment/Funkadelic and Tower of Power; they were all bands. And it was all about, “ooh, listen to the drummer,” “listen to the way the bass player’s playing with the drummer,” “ooh, listen to that guitar solo.” It was all about the collaboration of a group of people. And that’s the thing that we personally miss a lot in music. But the Time album we’re doing, a lot of it is live, in the sense that we’re playing together. We can set up basically a live thing where we’d have the drummer play, I can be in one booth in the studio doing keyboards, and Jesse can be in another one.

One of the things we built in the studio is a bunker for all our amplified stuff so we don’t have bleed through the wall. So for instance, we have a big B3 organ but the Leslie for the organ is permanently miked in this bunker. Paul Cox did this beautiful thing where he put a speaker on top of the organ, made it look exactly like the wood of the organ. So you can sit at the organ, you can play it, and you have a cue system where for five studios whichever studio is utilizing you at that time you just click “B” and now everything is going to “B”. It’s amped down in the basement; it’s permanently there; you just call it up there, it just saves time and it’s just a simple way to do it. It allows us to all play together, even in different locations around the studio, because we can all monitor each other and play a riff off of each other.

Do you feel like now you have more responsibility as producers to create that “band feeling” than you did in the past?
I’m just shocked that there’s not more bands. We’ve talked about it at length, and I think a lot of it the first part is economic: When you can do something by yourself, why split something six or seven ways? But as Terry said earlier, you have to take the money equation out of it, and it has to be for the love of music, and if you love the music and the music loves you back, then the business or the money will come. Or not come. But it doesn’t matter because it’s all about the love of music.

Playing the Time shows recently in Vegas, it was like a broken record every single night. People would go, “This is what we need to be hearing; we don’t have this anymore, we need to hear that.” I don’t feel a pressure of responsibility, but I do feel the way the fans are putting it to us, I think we have an obligation to do it.

Lewis: It’s the pleasure of responsibility. That’s the love, that’s the passion. I forgot after so many years of not performing and playing the bass, how much I like just being a bass player. It’s fun.

Jam: it’s the easiest thing that we do. Somebody asked me the other day,” how does it feel playing with a group?” I said the greatest thing is, I’m just a keyboard player. I don’t have to make all of the decisions, I just go in and play my keyboard part. So it took 18 years for us to get back together finally, but we’re enjoying every minute of it. We’re just kind of living in the moment right now and loving it right now and everybody’s on the same page.

Lewis: And you know the greater part of that is, our children have seen us perform, and they love it. They know every word, every step. All of the kids have instruments, and my son would never play his bass; he’s always got it now, trying to figure it out, and that makes me feel good.

So they got into it?
Totally into it. It’s inspiring that that touches them on a couple of levels: one, because, hey, we’re dad; but also, just the enthusiasm for the type of music it is.

I think that ties into what you’re saying about music education, kids being exposed to live music, something that they can connect with.
What’s interesting is my kids will get in the car now and they’ll still want to hear Lil’ Wayne and Kanye, they’ll still want to hear the stuff that they like, that they grew up with –and I like both of those artists and they’re obviously good—but then they’ll also put on The Time, or my younger son will say, “put on James Brown,” or “put on Jimi Hendrix,” because now they have a hunger to hear other music, music that influenced us. So that expands it in a way for them; it’s certainly gotten them excited about music.

For me, the responsibility that we have is such a divine responsibility, because we’ve been blessed to be able to do it for so long, that the giveback now is every bit at the forefront of our lives as anything we do. We have a great facility here where we’re able to do that. We just hosted a Grammy camp experience here; 60 kids came through and got a chance to see what a studio was like, and hear music, and we want to be able to do a lot of that. We did that in Minneapolis, too. And that’s important because we want to get kids excited about the possibilities that are out there, so it’s all very cool. We are very privileged to be in the position we are.

Sarah Jones is the editor of