Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis
The legendary Minneapolis-born production duo found their musical roots through curiosity, playing drums, keyboards, strings, or anything that emulated the greats they listened to during their early years in the mid-to-late 1960s.
In 1972, James Samuel Harris III and Terry Steven Lewis met. And it would be the start of something so special it’s now spanning half a century.
BET.com recently spoke with Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis about their pending Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction, their early years collaborating with Prince, moving on from The Time to working with Janet Jackson, forming their own label during the early 1990s, and what their new album, Jam & Lewis: Volume One will hope to inspire among their contemporaries and younger artists alike.
BET: What was your reaction when you learned they wanted to include you in this year’s Hall of Fame induction group?
Jimmy Jam: Shocked would be the operative word for me. It was interesting because I had gone last year to watch Clarence Avant get inducted, I wanted to be there for that, so it was on my mind – the Rock Hall – not that we would be a part of it but just that having experienced it so recently and enjoying the experience of it.
I actually, when we got the call about it, thought they were calling because I had found out that it was going to be in L.A. this year. And I thought they were calling about maybe partnering because I'm on the board of the Grammy Museum and I thought they maybe wanted to partner with the Grammy Museum and do some things, and that was a thing. Then when they called they were like, ‘No, that's not what we're calling. We're calling because you're in.’ Like what do you mean we're in? ‘You’re in, you're going into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.’ So it was a bit of a shock that I think we're probably still a bit shocked I think at this point.
Terry Lewis: Yeah, definitely. My take on it is: amazing honor. I still don't know how to feel because it's not something that you grow up thinking about, when I was growing up the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame didn't exist. And so now it's there and available and we've been inducted or about to be inducted, and while it feels amazing, I just don't know how to feel about it. I just don't know. So I just want to enjoy the moment no matter what it is and just take it all in and enjoy it.
BET: What does this Hall of Fame induction mean to each of you and perhaps where does it rank among the myriad of accomplishments you already have achieved?
JJ: For me, I think I would wrap it up just by saying that it means that when you write in the history of music, there has to be, if not a chapter or at least a paragraph about us somewhere in there. And I also think it's significant in the sense that rock and roll to me is always more than a genre of music. It's an attitude, it's a lifestyle, it's about breaking rules, it's about making change, it's about being rebellious, and I think Terry and I fit that. I also think we are also at an interesting musical crossroads of a whole lot of styles of music, obviously, the Minneapolis sound, but also music that has gone from the R&B style of the Gamble and Huff – our mentors – to through Hip Hop. We've been at that intersection and I think that's important and significant. And I also think it's significant, I've heard from a lot of people that the fact that we're going in as songwriters and producers, which is significant to other songwriters and producers as they should be. I think that's really important, too. So I guess all of those ways it's very meaningful and it's a shared experience because we obviously don't do what we do alone. It's always a collaborative process, whether it's the artists we work with, the engineers, we work with other songwriters or whatever. It's always the other musicians. So to me, it's a recognition for all of those who have supported us over the years and hopefully they're all proud to be a part of what we're being inducted into.
BET: You mention Minneapolis. Take me back to those early years – even before music would become a major part of your lives. Spending days at The Way community center and some of your regular haunts during the late ‘60s, early ‘70s…
TL: There really wasn't a scene, it was just life. We were in school at the time, but we met at Upward Bound, which was a program for peer teaching, where we will go to college in the summer and stay in the dorms and learn how to teach kids math. We used to go back to school during the school year and teach kids math a grade below us or even sometimes I will teach kids on my own grade level. So that's where I met Jam, and as far as you said, the music scene, we were just breaking into being just musicians at that point. Jam had probably been a musician longer than I because that was just part of his family lineage. He played with his father and I was an athlete. I was always playing any sport. If it had a ball I played it. You know if it had some running, I ran it. And music was way back in the background as something that I kind of liked but it was never in the forefront of things for me.
So I ended up getting injured and that cast music into the forefront because I had nothing else to do but play music because I couldn't perform my athletics anymore for a period of time. Then my friends all were athletes but they also were musicians. So that kind of thrust me into that light of music a little bit more and places like The Way was a hub for actually more just community activity and more civil rights than it was music. It had a nice back room where you could rehearse and everybody used to end up there for different reasons.
Spike Moss was the guy in charge. He used to let people come and they created bands there. So the family was created there and the rest of us, we really didn't rehearse at The Way very often, but we also would play there sometimes for festivals or just events that they would have at The Way like battle the bands, they would do outside summer gigs, festivals, and it was just a real cool place to get your skills together because if you went down there half stepping you’d get stepped on. Somebody would get that ass for sure.
The music community around Minneapolis was very, very competitive. A lot of great musicians, singers, they all wrote songs and performed incredibly as young kids and that's where we all were born from. Now Prince being the guy that got out first and became the world-renowned Prince and kind of gave a vacuum to the rest of us to get swept up in and get out of there too with that opportunity. Gotta give Prince all the praise for reaching back and grabbing a bunch of us and The Time and all the other bands that he pulled together. But Minneapolis was a great place and I'm not naming all the musicians that were there because there were so many, and there were actually so many that came before us that were just outstanding musicians.
BET: Jam, you’ve previously noted that being denied by white clubs to play early on in your career helped sharpen your non-musical skills because it made you a better entrepreneur with adversity making you stronger. What about being denied initially by those clubs made you guys better in the long run?
JJ: Yeah, I think the saying that gets said a lot I hear now all the time is when they talk about a seat at the table, and we had to build the table because there were clubs that bands were playing R&B music but they were white bands. So after banging on doors and trying to get into those clubs, after a while we finally just decided, you know what, we'll just do our own gig. We printed up flyers, we got with the local sunup to sundown little radio station, KUXL on the AM dial, and we did a promotion. We had I think 1,000 or 1,500 people come to the first one, the clubs were all sitting empty, and they were all going, ‘Wait, where's everybody at?’ And they're like, ‘Everybody's just going down and watching the band you didn't want to play.’
It was interesting because what it did was made those clubs all want to hire us, but at that point we were like, ‘No we'll continue to do our own thing.’ So it was a great lesson, even in life going forward, there were so many decisions that we made that were sort of based on that, where we wouldn't go to people for money or for budgets or that – we would just take the money out of our own pocket and do it. When we started doing our demos in L.A. nobody was funding that, we were funding ourselves and just whatever it took to get things done.
I always say about the whole idea of rock and roll to me – it's not a genre of music, is it's an attitude towards music and that was our attitude. We were a bit of a renegade, I guess, and a little bit of in the way we approach things a little bit rock and roll.
BET: Speaking of Prince, how influential was the movie Purple Rain in giving viewers a look into Minneapolis’ music culture even though it was fictional?
Jimmy Jam: Billy sparks I remember, what was his line? He says, ‘I got 4x but I only got three spots. That kind of competitiveness was very much apparent there. There was so much good musicians but only a few places we could actually play. So in that sense, it was very telling of what the Minneapolis scene was like.
The other piece of that, though, that was pivotal for us was Purple Rain actually solidified Terry and my relationship because Prince had fired us, or as Terry likes to say, freed us. But Prince had fired us and then at one point in time, he tried to get Terry to come back, but not me. And it was to come back to do Purple Rain and I said to Terry, ‘Yeah, do the movie, man. I'll be here, whatever.’ He said, ‘Nah, man. If you're not part of it, I'm not part of it. That's what solidified us as our production team, we went forward from that. So yeah, Purple Rain was very pivotal. I thought it showed, like I say it was fictional, but it was very much based in truth in the way that the Minneapolis music scene was back in that day.
TL: The other thing about Purple Rain, while it was a bit fictional, it became actual because everybody followed that motif. So people's expectations in Minneapolis became that. People came there to go to First Avenue and for us First Avenue was one of those places where we could never play. We got to play at the end of our tenure there. Seventh Street entry, which was the little grunge part of First Avenue. You know, very few Black folks got to play First Avenue, which before that was Uncle Sam’s.
BET: Equipment-wise, what made the Roland TR-808 a go to machine for you – particularly during the 80s – because you guys were early users of it?
TL: The way it started was we had a machine, and I think it was a [Roland TB-303] or something like that. It was a small Roland drum machine, I forget what the number was, that had kind of the same sounds but just a little toy-ish and we made songs with that and we were working on the S.O.S. band record. We wanted to have those songs implemented into the song but we couldn't stem the sounds out because it only had a stereo output on it. So we ordered a drum machine from the drum services down there that they had and they brought the 808, which was very similar to what we had already.
That's when we began to use the 808 and it served us really well because it was different than anything that everybody else was doing with it because I think at the time, people were into the [TR-909] and doing different stuff with the 909s but not the 808. So [The S.O.S. Band’s] “Just Be Good to Me” was the first first time we used that thing.
JJ: Yeah, we were definitely learning as we were doing it. It was cool because that's where the whole boom came from as the tracks were going down because we're just recording straight on tape. But as the tracks were going down, I'm just flipping knobs and stuff and holding the K that's on the kick drum with the boom. I was just putting that in there at various times, and then Terry said, ‘Well, let's make it a musical part.’ So [lyrics: “listen to my heartbeat”] boom! Like that kind of thing.
It was just experimentation and just having fun. I will say S.O.S. Band was very much pivotal in allowing us to do that because we're just two kids from Minneapolis who nobody really knew at that point in time, but they really were welcoming to us and really took all of our kind of crazy suggestions. And were great musicians. They really enhanced whatever it was we were doing. They were such great players.
BET: Take me back to making Janet Jackson’s Control because not only is it one of my favorite albums you did, but it was influential in that it melded a bunch of genres together and was maybe a precursor to New Jack Swing…
JJ: Well, Control was great because I remember having a meeting with Janet and her father before we started the project. Before we got to the meeting I remember they had played for her – I think the latest project we had done at that point was probably Patti Austin’s, which we had done for Quincy [Jones]. So very lush, strings, just kind of that sound. And I remember Janet saying, ‘I'm not sure whether I want my album to sound like that.’ And we said, ‘No, no, your album will be totally different.’ We gave everybody their own sounds so your album will be totally different. She was like, okay. Then as we were leaving the meeting, I remember her dad coming up to us and going, ‘You guys are from Minneapolis,’ and we said, yeah, and he said, ‘Prince is from Minneapolis.’ And we said, yeah. He said, ‘Don't have my daughter sounding like Prince.’ Okay, Mr. Jackson, you got it.
So when we did Control, it was really what we thought was the missing piece of Janet. What wasn't coming through was when she was young she had so much attitude, I always called it a feisty attitude. She had so much feisty attitude when she was young – like on her brother’s variety show or on The Sonny and Cher Show, and all these different shows you'd see her on, it was always all this attitude. But then when she made these records, they were all kind of just kind of soft and sweet. So our philosophy was let's try to make records that give her that attitude back and let's try to make records that are relevant to her as far as lyrically what she wants to talk about.
We didn't go in the studio. We just sat around and talked for like five days before we even went in the studio. She kept saying, ‘When are we going to go to work?’ And we showed her the beginning lyrics to Control. And she said, ‘This is what we've been talking about,’ and we said, yeah, and she says, ‘So whatever we talk about, that's what we're going to write about?’ And we said, yeah. It was like a light bulb went on her head. So it was really opening the door for her to be creative in our own way. That was an important step, and then sonically, it was about giving her tracks that had attitude to them because she could sing with so much attitude, but the tracks had to match that. So really what we tried to do is just make just a super aggressive album and the kind of tracks that a rapper would rap over.
I think “Nasty”, as far as New Jack Swing, my whole connection to that and what's kind of funny is, “Nasty” is definitely a swing beat song for sure. But I remember being in a club, I think we were at Carlos and Charlie's if I remember correctly. It was me and Terry and then Babyface and [LA Reid], we were all together and I remember “I Want Her” came on and we all kind of said ‘This sounds like “Nasty” don’t it?’ I said who is this? And Babyface said ‘This is Keith Sweat.’ Oh yeah. He's dope. And then babyface said, ‘Yeah, he's dope, but the dude who produced it is dope – Teddy Riley. So then we started looking Teddy Riley up.
So I think that it was a part of that and I think that that kind of connection that we've had to music, whether it's the Minneapolis sound, through obviously all of its iterations and up through Bruno Mars, and that to this day, or the kind of S.O.S. Band leaking into the U.K., whether it's Loose Ends or those type of bands. Obviously, the Janet sound creeping into all the Swedish production music that happened through NSync and Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears and all those records that were done over there. I think our biggest thing is just kind of the musical connectivity. We're at the intersection of so many different kind of musical genres that have happened over the years. But it all really started with Control.
BET: Jam you mentioned that Terry said you were “freed” from The Time rather than being fired. No rehashing necessarily about the specifics of what happened at that time, but how did moving on from being under Prince help you both as a duo become more musically autonomous?
TL: Going back as far as I remember, Jam and I both were ultra creative and active and getting into The Time, where we knew that we were going to give up some of our autonomy as producers or songwriters because, to be honest with you, early on I didn't even know what a producer did. Like man, you just do music and you just do it because you love to do it and never got paid to do it, actually paid to do it. Prince had an Iron Fist approach to production and everything else and you couldn't be mad because the things that he was doing were awesome. I heard the early Time records, actually, I heard them before they were even Time records. I heard them before anyone had sang on any of the stuff. Actually, Alexander O'Neal was going to be the singer for The Time, not Morris Day. It was going to be like a new wave-type band. Fast forward, we become the time and we become successful and Jam and I both have all these creative aspirations and abilities and we wanted to do something with them and it was never given the opportunity in that environment.
We were making very little money, we had very little creative outlet and it just kind of forced us into a situation where we had to make some choices. So we have started looking for outlets to get some of those things off our chest. And so we started looking outward and started making advancements to LA to get some outlets. Long story short, we met up with some people, Leon Silvers was one of the people that we met up with, and Sissy Nash, who worked at [SOLAR Records] at the time, gave us our first opportunity.
Cletus Anderson gave us the first opportunity to get in and for a couple hundred dollars we did so many tracks for him that ended up being successful. One of them was “Cold Wind-Madness” and another was “Bad Times (I Can't Stand It)”. Those were both early Jam and Terry Lewis records. First record Ice-T ever rapped on was a Jam and Lewis track.
JJ: That ended up becoming “Cold Wind-Madness”. That's what I say when I talk about connections – I'm talking about from Ice-T’s first record to making a record sampling a folk Joni Mitchell song and putting Q-Tip on it. It's about that intersection of music where we're in the center of it and that transition from R&B of the Gamble and Huff era to the New Jack Swing era, to the Hip Hop era, and so on and so forth.
BET: Moving into the ‘90s, you created Perspective Records, your own label. Why was that something you wanted to take on, especially since you had so much success without running your own imprint?
JJ: I think we felt like we wanted to make music that people we felt needed to hear as opposed to wanted to hear. And I think, sitting in Minneapolis once again, we were sitting around so much great talent. I always give Janet A&R credit for Sounds of Blackness because we grew up with them and played on the same gigs as them in a lot of places. But we took her to one of their shows and the whole time she's nudging us going, ‘Oh my god, they're doing jazz. Oh my god, they're doing rock. Oh my god, they're doing R&B. Oh, my god, they're doing blues.’ And we're like, Yeah, that's what they do, that's what they've always done, but it's through her eyes watching the way that she responded to it. Then when the concert was over, I remember she said, ‘You guys should sign them.’ And then we were like, okay yeah, that's actually a good idea because we had actually signed Mint Condition already.
We knew once again, there were no bands out there, but Mint Condition’s a great band, let's sign them. So it was kind of about signing the things that weren't there that we felt people needed to hear and Sounds of Blackness was a perfect example of that. And the fact that some 35/36 years later, you still hear “Optimistic” for all events – whether it's a happy event, a sad event, whatever it is it becomes a soundtrack to people's lives, and I always say that song for us is our favorite song that we've ever been involved with. It’s hard to even say that we wrote it because God wrote that song and just allowed us to deliver it.
Just the effect that that song had on people. It was successful, obviously, Grammy-winning #1 record – I think was the first number one gospel record since “Oh Happy Day” if I'm not mistaken. The best part was the way that it affected people's lives and continues to this day because it's what music should do. It's the way music should be used – to enlighten and to inform and to uplift people and we think that song if you were just going to put one song in a time capsule, so the aliens could come down and figure out what was happening. They listen to that song and they've not only learned about music was, but also they've learned about Jam and Lewis and who we are.
BET: Is there something you produced in your career that you believed was underrated or that you thought would do better commercially than it actually did, or even vice versa?
JJ: The one that always pops into my mind but it's not an album. It's just a song – when we did the second Cherrelle album [High Priority]. I remember we had done, I think "You Look Good To Me" was the single and it was going up the charts and doing really well. Then all of a sudden stopped at like about 25 or 30 and we were like what's going on? I remember we called Tabu, the record company – Clarence Avant’s label – and he said, ‘Oh, everybody switched to the other one.’ We said, what other one? He said “Saturday Love.” To us it was like, it wasn't a throwaway, but I'll tell you how much we thought about the song. When [Alexander O'Neal] and Cherrelle recorded – Cherrelle came in and did her part and then we were supposed to write a second verse for Alex to sing. We never wrote a second verse. We just had Alex go in and sing the same verses Cherrelle was saying but in his own way.
Now, people nowadays look back on that as that's genius. But it wasn't genius. We totally ran out of time and we just had to have the song done and Alex was ready to sing it and Terry said, ‘Oh, just sing what Cherrelle sang. Okay, perfect.’ That's what we ended up doing, so that was a total surprise. The fact that that record today is one of our biggest songs. We didn't think of it. I was almost embarrassed when I came up with “Sunday, Monday, Tuesday” because I was like, ‘It’s kind of stupid, Terry's, like Sesame Street or something.’ I went “Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday.” And Terry said, ‘That's dope.’ So those kinds of things happen all the time where there's a certain song that you don't think that's gonna be that big or anything, and then all of a sudden, it just turns into a huge record. So that definitely.
TL: Yeah, it’s more of the disappointments were records that we thought were great that never got the opportunity to be released.
JJ: Yeah, yeah and that's the key to that, Terry, is they didn't even get released.
TL: But they were great records, though. Yes. And we have lots of those.
JJ: And the great and the great news is they're still around so they will see the light of day at some point. I will say that, and we talk about degrees of success, like to me to even make an album is a success, particularly nowadays.
I look at our album, our Jam & Lewis: Volume One album, which is the first of many volumes to come. We're working on Volume Two right now. But you know I would only be disappointed if people didn't enjoy what we did. When we did the Jam & Lewis album I remember we debuted at number one on iTunes, which I guess is kind of a nice arbiter of where things are at nowadays. And that's wonderful, but to me it was more important to make an album to uplift the artists that were on the album, to make them fall back in love with themselves again, as well as the fans falling back in love with them or remind them why they fell in love with those artists in the first place.
I remember when we did that Toni Braxton record and we played it for the label and when it was over one of the girls in the meeting just said, ‘I just remembered why I fell in love with Toni Braxton.’ Good, that's the way you should feel. Babyface fell back in love with himself. He heard the record when it was done and he was like, ‘Man, it sounds good.’ And we said, of course it sounds good, you’re Babyface, what do you think it’s gonna sound like, but he had to be reminded. You have to remind these artists. This is Boyz II Men, this is Mariah Carey, this is Morris Day – you have to remind people that y'all are great and let's make you feel that way about yourself. That to me was the success of that album.
BET: I was about to ask about your album, Jam & Lewis Volume One, with my next question but you already covered a little of what I wanted to know. But maybe how did it all come together and how long did it take to form?
JJ: We wanted to make an album that me and Terry could listen to as an album and feel like we're hearing Sounds of Blackness the way we want to hear Sounds of Blackness or hearing Toni Braxton who we've never had a chance to work with. I remember when we did Tony's record, we actually had LA Reid come to the studio to listen to it because that was his artist, and I remember he said it was like a cavity had been filled and that he didn't know he had the cavity, but when he heard “Happily Unhappy”, that's the way that song made him feel. That was the way the artists responded in hearing the finished product of their stuff. Mary J. [Blige] was like, ‘Man tell Terry, he killed me on that vocal but that vocal was so good. I need to sing like that all the time.’
It’s kind of motivating making a record that we wanted to listen to ourselves that held together as a record. A record that Usher really sings like Usher, like the amazing vocalist he is. Where Charlie Wilson is one of the all time greats and stretches it out to do his thing, but on a different type of sounding record.
BET: Volume One suggests it’s just the start. Could you elaborate about a follow up(s)?
JJ: I would say expect two things: expect more of the same and expect the unexpected. I think that there's obviously people who we love to work with who weren't on Volume One we would love to have a part of Volume Two. Obviously, Janet would be top of list, New Edition would be top of list, Alexander O'Neal and Cherrelle would be top of list, S.O.S. Band would be top of list. Then there's a lot of new artists who we really enjoy from around the world – from the U.K., from Japan, from Sweden, so on. I think we plan on doing back when LeBron took his talents to South Beach, and his whole speech – not one, not two, not three. That's the way we feel about Volume One.
BET: Who are some of the artists out today in any genre that you each are big fans of?
JJ: On the top of my list there's a vocalist from the U.K., Cleo Sol who also had my favorite album of last year. But her husband produces those records, Inflo is his name, and he’s amazing and I've gotten a chance to know him and I love the work that they do together, but I'd love to be in some way collaborative with them on a project Also, it's like a music collective over in the U.K. So I love that a lot. That's probably top of my list but there's so many other people.
TL: I really haven't had a lot of thoughts about that lately but the people that I love they have that kindred spirit, that Minneapolis spirit and one of those people was H.E.R. and Janelle Monáe. They got that Minneapolis thing. Giveon, I like the fact that we have a baritone singer out here singing again. I think that's good. There are some new artists that we're working with now that will be coming out in the coming year and loving that journey. Not names you would know but just being creative in a different environment is always fun for me. So I don't have to be the one who's guiding it, I just like to be a fly on the wall.
BET: Finally, what are you guys expecting in regards to the actual day of your Hall of Fame induction?
TL: Try not to be late.
JJ: Ain’t that right!
TL: I'm bringing a whole infrastructure and party in tow. So like to get the ladies ready, I'm bringing my mother. I'm just trying not to be late.
JJ: What's so funny about that is… same thing. I remember when we got inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame five years ago. I was late, but it was two things. It was yes, the ladies getting ready was part of it because I have my daughter and my wife with me. But the other piece of it was I remember the elevators went out or something happened. So I got there late. It's like one of those things that you never can catch up with again. I’m going to be there even if they’re not there yet.
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