Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis: How Janet Jackson Made Her Greatest Hits

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Brian Hiatt
·5 min read
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35 years ago, Janet Jackson broke out as a superstar with her third album, Control, which marked the start of a decades-long collaboration with Minneapolis producers and songwriters Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. As former members of the Time, Jam and Lewis were the bridge between the Jackson family and Prince – which is one of many subjects they addressed on a recent episode of our Rolling Stone Music Now podcast, along with the stories behind the creation of some of Jackson’s greatest hits.

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“Nasty” (Control, 1986) “‘Nasty’ was cool, because there were a lot of factors there,” says Lewis. “Number one, the overall philosophy with Janet was that she had a lot of attitude in her earlier things; when we saw her on TV, she was always this little girl with this feisty attitude. And when she did her first two records, they were nice, but they didn’t have any of that attitude. So our thing was, what can we do to get the attitude back? We wanted to make tracks that were really aggressive, and then have her sing them very aggressively. And ‘Nasty’ was one of those.”

“When she went in to sing it, she started singing it in the [high] Janet voice we all know. And we said, Janet, what if you sang it an octave lower? And she said, ‘Oh, I don’t know, that sounds really weird.’ And then I remember the next day she came to the studio and we played it back for her. And she got this look on her face. It’s the best look an artist could ever give you, that look of surprise and satisfaction. And that was the thing that fueled us, because ‘Nasty’ was one of the earlier songs we did in making Control. That kind of took off of the any apprehension she had, any nervousness. She knew we had her back.”

“What Have You Done For Me Lately” (Control, 1986) “What Have You Done for Me Lately” was supposed to be a song for Jam and Lewis’ debut album under their own names, which they ended up scrapping. (Only now decades later, are they getting around to working on their own album, which they’re hoping to release before the end of the year.) “We ended up thinking we were done with Control,” says Lewis. “And [Jackson’s A&R rep John John McClain], like all A&R people, he said, ‘I just need one more.’ We said, ‘What are you talking about? Forget it, man.’ And we just said, ‘Let us play you some stuff from our album.’ The third track from our album, he goes, ‘That’s the one I need for Janet.’ And that song ended up becoming ‘What Have You Done for Me Lately?’ It basically started her career and ended ours.”

“That’s The Way Love Goes” (Janet, 1993) “The song is a great example of the funky bottom and the pretty top,” says Lewis. “It doesn’t get funkier than James Brown. So at the foundation of that song, you have the most famous hip hop samples that existed. You had [the Honeydrippers’] ‘Impeach the President,’ which is the drum beat, and then you had, along with that, James Brown’s ‘Papa Don’t Take No Mess,’ which is one of the funkiest James Brown songs ever. The idea was to take that and make a song out of it. Put chords over the top, add a B -ection, and all those types of things. We were using beautiful, soft synthesizers, and we thought it was a great kind of sonic palette to work with.”

“And I remember playing the song for Janet the first time – not even the song, just the track. She kind of said, it’s okay. But she took the song with her on cassette, and when she was on vacation, they played the song, and if you remember the ‘That’s The Way Love Goes’ video, that was kind of what happened. Everybody started going, ‘Oh, man, Janet, this is amazing.’ And so when she got back to Minneapolis, she said, “Oh, my God, we have to work on that track.” She was staying at my house, and about two in the morning, she hit me on the intercom. And she said, ‘I got it. It’s gonna be called ‘That’s The Way Love Goes.’ It was just kind of magic.”

“All For You” (All For You, 2001) “All For You” was built on a sample from “The Glow of Love,” the 1980 dance hit by Change, with Luther Vandross on lead vocals. “We love sampling,” says Lewis. “We embrace sampling. A lot of people think we should be music purists, but we use whatever tools are available. I was a DJ in my early days, and ‘Glow of Love’ was one of my favorite records. ‘All For You’ really connected. The little ‘all the girls at the party, look at that body’ part of the song was [originally] at the end of the song, and we moved it and made it a cappella.”

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