After parking his Escalade, James Harris III – better known as Jimmy Jam – walks down Hollywood Boulevard towards the appropriately titled shop/fashion gallery Freak City. Filled with disembodied mannequins, crude graffiti and space-goth gear aplenty, it’s a rather unexpected destination for one of R&B pop’s most noble players. With fellow producer Terry Lewis, he created some of the biggest hits of the past 30 years, including 16 #1s, working with just about anyone who’s had a game-changing influence on pop culture (Prince, Janet and Michael Jackson, George Michael, The Human League, Chaka Khan, Spice Girls, Mariah Carey, Usher...).
Despite the blazing LA heat the 54-year-old is dressed all in black and looks as cool as ever, with not a wrinkle in his custom-made “Jam” suit shirt. An aging b-boy (known as Silver because he used to bust his moves painted head to foot in, you guessed it, silver) stops and stares. “Hey man, you’re one of those famous guys! Wait – didn’t you work with Janet?” Jam smiles. “I’ll give you a hint!” he says, and points to the sidewalk. There, on Hollywood’s famous “walk of fame”, sandwiched between the stars of Victor Young and Edmund Lowe, the sun lights up a star that reads: “Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis”.
Jam and Lewis met while at high school and formed funk band Flyte Tyme, which evolved into the Prince-assembled band The Time. After three albums together, they were
famously fired from the band by Prince after missing a performance in San Antonio in 1983 – they had been producing the SOS Band in Atlanta, and were snowed in by a blizzard. Fortunately one of the SOS Band tracks, “Just Be Good to Me”, was a hit, and their pop-production career was on its way. In 1986 they won the first of five Grammys for Janet Jackson’s breakthrough album, Control (1986), the first of a long series of massively successful collaborations with the singer that also included Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814 (1989) and janet. (1993). “Twenty years ago we got a star on the Walk of Fame,” Jam quips, “and people have been walking all over us ever since!"
Inside Freak City, Dev Hynes – the Essex-born, New York-based singer/songwriter, producer, author, comic artist and general shapeshifter also known as Lightspeed Champion and Blood Orange – is creasing up. “I had no idea your star was right outside this store!” the 27-year-old says, adjusting his Knicks hat. “It’s a complete coincidence. My friend Vally (Girl) owns this place. She was in one of my videos (‘I’m Sorry We Lied’ by Blood Orange).”
The business will drive you crazy, but the music will not drive you crazy. The music is always great – Jimmy Jam
As a producer, Hynes is hotly tipped; indeed, he’s almost a one-man new-school Jam & Lewis, simultaneously upholding the underground and invading the charts through production, arranging and vocal work with the likes of Florence + the Machine, Basement Jaxx, Sky Ferreira, the Chemical Brothers and Solange, with whom he worked closely on the EP True and its soulful anthem “Losing You”. Despite the world of hype that bubbles around him (he can occasionally be found rubbing elbows with Jay Z and hanging out in studios with William Orbit), the sweetly unpretentious Hynes admits to being “a bit nervous. I don’t really do press, like, ever. Plus I’ve never really met one of my idols.”
“Here, I brought you a little something,” Jam says, passing the surprised Hynes a CD box set. Watching the two sift through a dusty record rack and discuss 505s, 909s, softsynths and how to deal with the ever-shifting music industry, suddenly Freak City – a unique place with an uncompromising aesthetic in an otherwise plastic neighbourhood – feels like a most apt place for these two innovative minds to meet.
Dev Hynes: You’re working with one of my best friends, Adam Bainbridge (aka funk-house pop creator Kindness). I grew up with him. We worked together a lot over the last few years.
Jimmy Jam: That’s right – he mentioned you and said I’d love your music. You’re working with Solange, right? I saw her at the Grammys last year. She told me, ‘Oh my God, we just did you! This record I’m doing is so inspired by you.’ I haven’t heard her record but I saw her perform on Letterman. I loved the song (‘Don’t Let Me Down’ from True).
DH: Oh, thank you. Control was the soundtrack for when we were making that record. It’s funny, Solange and I had these weird serendipitous moments between the last few years. When we met, I was producing a rapper (Theophilus London) and she came into the studio to sing on a track. At the time I was working on some music for myself and I played it for her, and she asked me to write for her. We started sending emails of music we were listening to, and at the exact same time, we sent each other ‘Tell Me If You Still Care’ (by the SOS Band). Literally at the exact same time! It was then that we were like, ‘Okay, we have to work together.’
JJ: That’s awesome. That used to happen a lot with Janet. Before we’d ever start working together on a project we’d always play a lot of music back and forth, and we’d get those couple of songs that we’d just connect on.
Dazed Digital: Jimmy, I read an old interview where Terry said that you two gauge success as being if someone leaves the studio happy.
JJ: That’s the success you can control. What happens after that is you release it to the world, and they either hopefully embrace it like you do or may very well not like it. Or it can be that it’s really great but somebody had a bad week at the record label and instead of pushing your record they’re doing something else. We once had a programmer pull every song we had off the radio in their programming system. Her boyfriend was up to do a song for a soundtrack we were working on and the director decided not to use his song. There’s so many things that could go wrong.
DH: Some people say I do it too much, but I’m always asking the artist questions. Sometimes – especially with new artists – you can see they’re compromising in their mind. You see that look when they’re listening to a vocal take and there’s hesitation. And I’ll be like, ‘Are you sure you don’t want to do this again?’
JJ: It’s good that you do that because the artist has to live with that song for the rest of their life. For us, it’s ending but for them it’s just beginning. They still have to make videos and go on TV shows and promote it and tour.
Dazed Digital: You both write lyrics for other people, particularly for women. Is it difficult to channel someone else?
JJ: I never really thought about it! For me personally, with a lot of the music I listened to growing up, particularly melodically, I always liked hearing a woman. Writing-wise, Terry and I always try to get to know the people we work with and try to figure out what their story is, and write based on that. I think part of it is we get along really great with women. We respect women and treat them as equals – or actually what we do is put them on a pedestal, as they should be.
DH: It’s pretty similar for me. In fact, I just finished working on a soundtrack for a film. I kept using female voices, and the director of the film was saying it made her realise the quality in the female voice. The tone can emote a feeling, a very particular feeling.
JJ: In our case, one of the first records we did was this 12”, a song called ‘Bad Times’ for this singer named Kim Ball (and Captain Rapp). We went from her to Klymaxx, which was an all-female group, then the SOS Band, which is male apart from Mary Davis. We did Cherrelle, Cheryl Lynn and then Change, which was male and female, but mainly female with the way we did the vocals. It wasn’t until we got to Alexander O’Neal that we even did a male vocalist. Then we did Thelma Houston, Patti Austin. For some reason those were the people asking.
DH: I remember Adam sent me a picture of you guys with the 808. In the library of the studio where I was doing that film soundtrack, they actually had an Arp 2600.
JJ: We used to call that the – not the telephone booth, but it sounds like a telephone operator. I can’t remember the first album I saw it on - it might’ve been Rufus and Chaka Khan – but I remember seeing the words Arp 2600. I was a huge liner-notes reader. I’m actually part of an effort through The Recording Academy; we went to Washington last year and that was one of the things we put on the table. In an age where we’re talking about access, how did we lose liner notes? We basically wrote a letter that became a petition called ‘Give Fans the Credit’ (to make sure digital music includes credits for all the people who worked on it). We made enough noise that Rhapsody has committed to it. Now we’re trying to get the others. When I was younger, I’d always read the liner notes: who was playing what, the studio it was recorded at, who produced it. It’s what made me want to be a writer and producer. I never cared about being an artist myself.
DH: Same here. It’s funny you mention liner notes because I just finished a new album, my own record (Cupid Deluxe by Blood Orange). And there’s tons of different singers all the way throughout – a lot of my friends played amazing performances. But the back cover of the record is just credits, it’s just liner notes. It’s not going to say features in the songs, I want people to look at the notes.
Dazed Digital: Where do you both sit on the analogue vs digital debate?
JJ: I hate to disappoint people but we are fully digital. We stayed analogue for a long time. For us, honestly, it was very cost-prohibitive; we owned our own studio, so if we went to digital, it would’ve been a complete overhaul. But slowly, the ease of working and of course the sonics got better and better, to the point where now it’s really hard to tell a difference. The other thing that changed and evolved is, of course, how you listen. Now everyone’s listening with earbuds. So I’m going to go through all of this extra work and expense to do something on analogue that’s going to be degraded down to these little $10 headphones? It’s really not worth it, particularly not at the expense of the creativity. Of course there’s nothing like being in the same room as somebody, but digital opened up a whole different world of collaboration.
DH: I’m pretty much fully digital. I’ve basically spent a few painstaking days putting sounds into my laptop, just banking them, because I love playing and I love visually seeing it on my screen and being able to change the sounds more, with different plug-ins. I’ve created my own synth sounds. You know, I actually bought two issues of vintage Keyboard magazines that you and Terry did. One is from ’83 or ’84 and the other is from the Rhythm Nation time. I remember reading them and then looking for the plug-ins of things you guys were talking about in the magazine. I ended up learning how to use analogue stuff via using the digital versions. So eventually when I could get my hands on analogue gear it wasn’t such a crazy foreign thing.
I’m a strong believer in making yourself happy. Almost in a selfish way. There are trends and obviously you can get swept up into them, but you don’t stop loving songs – Dev Hynes
Dazed Digital: With today’s consumption of music, is an album still a relevant concept?
JJ: Nowadays people are definitely used to picking and choosing individual songs. But I think it’s about re-teaching. For instance, with ‘Poetic Justice’ by Kendrick Lamar and Drake (which samples Janet Jackson’s ‘Any Time, Any Place’), it made people go back and listen to the janet. album, playing it from start to finish, with all the interludes. A lot of people have told me they didn’t know what an album really used to be.
DH: One thing I’ve always thought about now is, say there’s an artist that you’re a fan of. And you’re waiting and waiting for that new album to come out. You get it and they’ve gone in a different direction that you weren’t ready for. But you listen to it constantly. Again and again. You almost make yourself love it because you love them so much that you want to just see what they wanted to do. That doesn’t exist any more. Because of how we get our music now, it’s not that treasure. You used to learn every part of it, study it, learn all the lyrics.
JJ: When we were able to do the whole album – particularly with Janet and Cherrelle and Alexander O’Neal – I always enjoyed it, but now I realise what a blessing it was. We always paid a lot of attention to sequencing. With Rhythm Nation, I don’t think it was necessarily a daring record, but I think the sequencing was daring: putting ‘Rhythm Nation’ first, ‘State of the World’ second and ‘The Knowledge’ third. Hoping that people will listen to those three to get to ‘Miss You Much’ as the fourth song, that’s a little risky. People loved that we put the weight right up at front. At the time we had a book that we called ‘the book of titles’; whenever we’d hear words together that we liked, we’d write them down.
DH: I have a similar thing, actually. All my titles are written. A lot of my titles are mishearings. You know, the first Blood Orange album, Coastal Grooves (2011), was because I misread a Tropicana carton. The juice was Coastal Groves lemonade and I was like, ‘Coastal Grooves’?! As for ‘Champagne Coast’, someone said ‘champagne toast’ and I misheard.
When I was younger, I’d always read the liner notes... It’s what made me want to be a writer and producer. I never cared about being an artist myself – Jimmy Jam
JJ: Sometimes you get that block and it makes you feel so worthless. When we were doing (their second) SOS Band album, ‘Just Be Good to Me’ had just come out and it was a big hit. It was really our first time having to follow up something that was successful. The record company kept saying – as record companies always say – ‘We need another one that’s just like ‘Just Be Good to Me.’ Which is the worst thing someone could ever say to you! We finally got a track that we were happy with but we couldn’t figure out what to call it. Late night we went to a diner, and right by the coffee there was a sign that said ‘Just the Way You Like It’. I turned to Terry and said, ‘There it is!’ It’s crazy where inspiration comes from. But my whole test for working with somebody is, do they inspire a song? When I hear them sing, do I want to write a song for them?
Dazed Digital: How do you approach creating something timeless nowadays, in a world that revolves around instantaneity?
DH: I’m such a strong believer in making yourself happy. Almost in a selfish way. There are a lot of trends and obviously you can get swept up into them. But I feel like if you just write songs you love, it can have trap beats in it or whatever’s going on in the moment, but you don’t stop loving songs.
JJ: We always thought, ‘If I’m a huge fan of an artist and I’m going to the store and getting their new record, what would I want to hear on that record?’ It’s funny – we worked with Earth, Wind & Fire and I asked them, ‘What’s your goal?’ And they said, ‘We want to get on the radio.’ I said, ‘You’re on the radio all the time!’ They said, “But that’s the old stuff.’ And I said, ‘Wouldn’t it make more sense to make more songs like that?’ And it was like a lightbulb. It’s like you’re chasing something – you’re chasing it maybe for yourself because creatively we all want to move forward. But if you’re asking what your fans want, they want more of that because that’s what they love about you.
DH: I actually tracked Verdine (White of Earth, Wind & Fire) on Solange’s ‘Bad Girls’. I just remember being in my bedroom when I was writing that, and being happy because there were certain slaps I’d pulled off, you know, getting that Verdine sound. And then two months later, he was sitting in front of me playing the basslines. I was just like, ‘What?’
JJ: To me, the moments like that are – despite the politics and all the crap – what you live for. It’s why you do it. And if you never lose sight of that, then you’re gold. The business will drive you crazy, but the music will not drive you crazy. The music is always great.