by Chris Williams 19/09/2014
By the end of the 1980s, Janet Jackson rebounded from the underwhelming performance of her first two albums, Janet Jackson (1982) and Dream Street (1984) to deliver a multi-platinum smash record with Control (1986). After the release of Control, Jackson cemented her place among pop music royalty. It provided the fertile platform to expand her global reach on her next album. She would capitalize on the opportunity in the stellar fashion and launch her promising career into another stratosphere. On September 19, 1989, Rhythm Nation 1814 was released by A&M Records and it became her second consecutive record breaking album within the decade. The record would spawn seven singles, including five number one hits “Miss You Much,” “Rhythm Nation,” “Escapade,” “Black Cat,” and “Love Will Never Do (Without You’).” The other single, “Come Back to Me” landed in the number two position on the Billboard Music Charts. [Alright hit #4].
Behind the boards during recording were the titanic producing tandem of James “Jimmy Jam” Harris III and Terry Lewis. They played a pivotal role in taking Jackson’s career to the next level beginning with Control and three years later with Rhythm Nation 1814. Through their technical precision and huge talent, they were able to craft sounds that would capture the socially conscious theme of the album. Due to their contributions and the ravenous work ethic of Jackson, Rhythm Nation 1814 became her highest selling album to close the 1980s. For the album’s 25th anniversary, we spoke with Harris about crafting one of the most definitive records in the latter half of the 20th century.
You and Terry Lewis began working with Janet Jackson in 1985 on her third album, Control for A&M Records. How were you introduced to her?
We started working with her between the spring and summer of 1985. One of the things we did initially was to fly her out to Minneapolis to work with us at our Flyte Tyme studio, so we had her all to ourselves. It was a great way to get to know her, and to get her comfortable with the process and make her feel included in the creative process rather than just singing songs that people were putting in front of her. We wanted her to be a part of the process and kind of shape what that album was going to be. We had no idea what the album was going to be at that point. We just knew we wanted her input, and we did that with other artists’ we worked with back then. We felt like she had something to say, and it turned out that she did.
There is a story where you’ve recounted saying that you and Terry Lewis pointed to Janet Jackson’s name at the same time after John McClain asked the both of you what artist you wanted to work with on A&M Records. What was the thing that made you believe your union with her could potentially become a fruitful one?
As songwriters, you try to think of your muse so to speak. We always thought about what artist did we want to write songs for or artists we could imagine singing songs that we’ve created. Terry always called it “the combination” like it’s a lock, because there is always a certain combination that can get that lock to open, and not everyone knows what that combination is. And this was the analogy for Janet. She had done two albums before the Control album, and we loved her voice. We thought she was fine as heck, and we thought she was nice as a person from what we knew of her from back in our Time days. We felt like the records she made on her first two albums were made by producers, and she just sang them. She didn’t have any input on the songs.
I used to watch her on TV doing the Mae West impressions on The Jacksons television show. And you could see that she had a lot of attitude, and that attitude wasn’t coming across on her records. We recognized her attitude. Terry and I were couple of years removed from the Time, and we were used to dealing with Morris Day and Prince. We were used to people exuding attitude on a record. We felt that Janet had a great singing voice, but we knew that her attitude was what was missing from her records. By involving her into the creative process, I think we got her excited about making a record and excited about being an artist. If you remember, she was doing the FAME television show. When we started working with her, she got excited about being a singer. It wasn’t something that her dad wanted her to do or the record label; she was like, “I want to give this a shot and be serious about it.” So, we were also very fortunate to catch her at that time.
Following the multi-platinum success of Janet’s Control album, what direction were you and Terry Lewis trying to take her sound in for Rhythm Nation 1814 after a three year hiatus between albums?
Even before the creative process started on this record, there were three years between albums, and it was a good thing for us, because it gave us separation from the Control album. So we approached it as a new album, rather than a follow up album. Looking back, the other thing that was significant was the fact she never toured off her Control album. She was very smart because she felt like she didn’t have enough songs to do on a tour. She wanted to have a bunch of songs to perform before she went on tour. I think, because of that, we went into it with more hunger. We felt like Control was nice, but it was just the beginning of the story and not the end of it.
We wanted to do the record in Minneapolis, and basically, nobody was invited to join us. We wanted to insulate ourselves and go make the record we wanted to make. The A&M Records folks were cooperative with that, probably reluctant, but they were very cooperative. It was interesting because a lot of the album was recorded in the winter of 1988. It was one of the coldest winters that I can remember in Minneapolis. It was brutally cold. We had no desire to be outside, and we got a lot of work done. I have a lot of memories from the record, but one of the memories I have is Janet arriving at the studio, and when we opened the door, she threw herself to the ground and started making a snow angel in the snow. She told us, “I’ve always wanted to do that!” [laughs] We were like, “Get it in here. You’re going to catch a cold. We’re trying to get started here. You’re going to mess your voice up!” [laughs] It was so funny. I think that snow angel stayed on the ground the entire winter.
For us, the years between Control and Rhythm Nation 1814 were really good years creatively. We did Herb Alpert’s album, The Human League’s album, and New Edition’s Heart Break album. New Edition’s Heart Break album was important because it was the first album that we worked on at our old studio. At our old studio, we turned our garage into a second studio, so we could get more work done. At that time, it was analog recording, so we had a 24 track machine. Back then, what you would do is you would take two 24 track machines and link them together, so you could have 48 tracks to record. We upgraded our studio and upgraded our technology to have 48 track analog recording. So by the time Janet came back to record Rhythm Nation 1814, I think we were better as producers and more technically efficient in getting sounds.
I remember that she hadn’t seen that we expanded our studio. So, when she walked in the door, I was working on the track that would become “Miss You Much.” I remember we were playing the track super loud, and she walked in and I pointed at the keyboard, and she looked at me like, “Me?” and I was like, “Yeah!” I pointed to a note on the keyboard, and I told her to hit that note. I counted her in 1, 2, 3, 4, and she hit the note. It ended up being the high string patch on “Miss You Much” when it goes into the chorus of the song. It was the very first thing we did. When the song ended, she was like, “WOW! Is that for me?” We told her, “Yes. This one is for your album.” She said, “I love that! I love that!” This is how we got started on the album, and it was a great way to start.
Rhythm Nation 1814 is a record that stands out for its multifaceted approach to both subject matter and your production work. How was the collaboration process between you, Terry Lewis, and Janet throughout the making of it?
Well, the Rhythm Nation 1814 concept didn’t come up right away. I think the idea was to go in and make some songs. When I spoke earlier about getting different equipment and starting to experiment with other keyboards and drum machines, “Miss You Much,” “Love Will Never Do (Without You),” and “Escapade” were all done on a SP-1200 drum machine, which was a new drum machine to me. It was popular at the time in hip-hop music, but I hadn’t used it, because I’d been a more of a Linn Drum Machine guy. Control was almost all on Linn drum.
“Escapade” happened because I plugged in the drum machine and started playing a beat, and she said, “That sounds like one of those beats you hear at a basketball game, and everybody gets up and starts cheering. I want a song like that.” So, we were like, “Cool.” She came up with the lyrical ideas for it, and it just had that type of feel. I want to add one other person to the creative process and that is Rene Elizondo. Rene was Janet’s boyfriend at that point in time. Rene was an interesting guy because he was very creative, but he wasn’t a musician or a singer. Conceptually, he was so creative. The Rhythm Nation concept is something that she brought, but he would talk about it all the time. Sly & The Family Stone - Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)
We would have conversations all the time, and he would tell me what the song should sound like, but he didn’t know how to do the song. He would say, “It has to be done ethnic, but it has to be funky.” He was also a dancer, so conceptually he had ideas in his mind. Musically, we had no idea what that was going to be. But what had happened with me is that we were sitting in a restaurant in Minneapolis having dinner and there was music playing in the background. I remember them playing “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” by Sly and The Family Stone. I was kind of paying attention, but not really, because I’ve heard it a million times. It’s one of my favorite songs.
So, we get into a conversation and I forgot that the song was playing, and then all of a sudden, for some reason, it was the first time I heard this one part as its own part, but when it got to the guitar breakdown in the bridge of the song, I heard that. And I said, “Oh my God. That’s it! I got the idea.” They were like, “What are you talking about?” I said, “I got the idea for the ‘Rhythm Nation’ track. Listen to that! Listen to that right there!” They said, “Oh yeah. That is funky.” I said, “Yeah! When we get back to the studio, I’m going to lay it down.” I remember I went into the studio and all I did was take a two bar guitar loop and put it in and started putting Linn drums over top of it. It was all I really had, and then, the little string line came and the song came together. Once this happened, we all knew what the direction of the record would be.
When you’re sitting in the studio for long hours, you tend to watch a lot of television. Back then, there were probably 50 channels. You had to have MTV, BET, VH1, and CNN. These channels were constantly playing on our TV in the studio. We would flip between MTV to watch music videos and CNN to see what was happening in the world. Somehow, it almost became a blur to us. We would see something tragic happening like a school shooting or gang violence. These images became one thought and it was kind of a no brainer that this was going to be the theme of the album. “State of the World” and “The Knowledge” come to mind.
The title to “The Knowledge” stems from a trip Terry and I took to London, England. We were taking a cab somewhere in London, and we got into a conversation with the cab driver because we were giving him different addresses, and he knew exactly where everything was. So, we asked him, “How do you know exactly where to go? Because when we’re in the States, the cab drivers never know how to get anywhere. There always asking for directions.” The guy replied, “Oh. It’s the knowledge.” We asked him, “What do you mean by ‘the knowledge?’” He said, “The knowledge. It’s like the test you have to take to become a cab driver. You have to know all the streets and addresses before you can become an actual cab driver.” At that point in time, Terry and I kept what we called a book of titles where someone made a phrase or we heard anything and we liked it, we would just write it down and file it away. When he said, “the knowledge,” we just like the way it sounded. That’s where the idea for that song came from, but obviously, Janet expanded upon it lyrically.
At the end of the day, you end up with an album full of songs, but it’s all little things here and there. “Livin’ in a World (They Didn’t Make)” was created due to the school shooting that happened at the time. Janet knew what she wanted to say, but couldn’t figure out exactly how to say it. We were in the process of building a new studio, and Terry walked into the old studio where we were working at, and he had these wallpaper and carpet samples for me to look at. He asked us, “Hey, what do you guys think about this carpet with this wallpaper?” I told him, “Terry, no. no. no. We got this song. We got this concept for this song, but we need lyrics. We need to figure out what it is.” Terry replied, “Okay. What is the song about?” We go into this long dissertation about how it’s not the kids fault because it’s an adult’s world and blah, blah, blah. After we talked to him for ten minutes trying to explain what the song should be, he said, “Oh yeah. Living in a world they didn’t make.” And we said, “Yes. That is it!”
About ten minutes later, he had the lyrics done for the song. He handed them to us and said, “Here you go.” We were like, “Wow. Okay.” And then he asked us, “So, do you think this carpet goes with this wallpaper?” We told him, “Go away. We’re not messing with you right now.” [laughs] That was the way it all came together. That song was one where she knew what it was supposed to be, but she couldn’t figure it out. But Terry came to the rescue. I call him “lyric master” because he’s able to take long ideas and put them into short phrases that all make sense together. That is his gift amongst many gifts that he has.
Another important part of setting the stage for the sequencing of the record was the interludes. It really set the mood and direction for what was coming next. They made for a great complementary piece.
Well, it was back in the days of making an album, so you were making a piece of work. The idea of stringing it together in some sort or fashion was cool. I think a lot of people who are listening to the record now and that are new fans maybe haven’t heard that done and may think it’s something new. No. Not really. [laughs] It’s like we’re introducing our songs in a way. The way the record was sequenced, and remember, back then, when we were sequencing records, we were sequencing for side one and side two. So we were able to end the first part of the record with “Livin’ in a World (They Didn’t Make)” and then kick off the second side of the record with “Alright,” which was a celebratory song. So we were able to create moods and take people through ups and downs through the pace we thought was best. We ended with the sexy songs because that’s what we liked to do on those records. We had the opportunity to produce the whole album. Those opportunities are few and far between today, particularly and unfortunately in black music.
This record is one of the last albums that really addressed social issues in such a profound way. It seemed like the music was a perfect complement to the theme of the album. Take me through the process of crafting the music for this album.
This album is totally relevant to what is happening today. It’s weird. It seems to get more relevant the farther we get into the record. It’s really interesting to me. But one of the things we did early on, and the best example I can use is Janet’s song “Nasty” from the Control album. It had this loud, aggressive, industrial type of sound. Those kinds of sounds and sonics were always reserved for either hip-hop music or rock music and usually not with a female artist, and certainly not a female artist that most would think of as a soft spoken female artist.
Once again, as I mentioned earlier, attitude was the key. Because Janet had so much attitude, she could pull off a song like “Nasty.” Her rhythmic sense of singing was so perfect that she became of the funkiness and the instrumentation of the song. It’s akin to the way a great rapper becomes part of the rhythm of a song. Janet had the ability to do that. Going into it, we felt like we could be as aggressive as we wanted to be musically and sonically, and she was going to be able to handle it. So the idea was the use a lot of sounds that were street sounds and sound effects that we would chop up and make and use for drum loops. We used glass breaking, trashcan lids, and stomping feet to create the imagery for the record.
We went back to something that Prince told us a long time ago when we were working with him on the Time records. He always said, “You guys need to make these visual records.” At that time, he wasn’t a big fan of music videos. He felt like music videos put a visual in your mind. He expressed that it should be the music that puts a visual in your mind. We always kept that in mind, in particular, with Rhythm Nation 1814. The album needed to sound angry, stark, and have wind blowing in the middle of nowhere. We had it sound that way because we knew Janet could handle it.
But we were also able to have fun and do “Come Back to Me,” which is one of the most beautiful songs she has done. It was her idea to put the live strings on that record. I never heard strings on the record. I just heard it as a very simple song. She said, “Don’t you think strings would sound great on this?” I replied, “I don’t really hear them.” She said, “No. They would sound beautiful.” We had a gentleman in Minneapolis named Lee Blaske, and Lee had done strings for us on other projects. We gave it to him, and we told him, “Okay. String arrangement!” Lee said, “What do you hear on it?” We said, “We have no idea. Janet wanted strings on here.” He came up with this beautiful string arrangement. If you listen to the end of the song, we actually ended it with just the strings, and we faded the music out. We let the strings sing because it was amazing what he came up with.
Do you believe it was Janet’s intent to leave an indelible mark in recording history with this album?
I think she always had the aspirations to do such an album. The comparison that we always hear about is to Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On album from 1971. In our minds, we wanted to make something significant, but at the same time, we knew the way to reach people was through dance, because that was the thing that Janet did really well, and she understood that. So while lyrically it was important to reach people, it needed to be dressed up in a way where people didn’t know they were learning something. It was our sense to do that and how to achieve both things, and I think we were able to do it.
Beyond the making of the record, the presentation of it was just as important as the making of it. If you think about the sequence of the record, it makes total sense to me to start with “Rhythm Nation” because that’s the theme of the album. We go straight into “State of the World” then to “The Knowledge” and the three songs segued together and that was perfectly done. Then we go into “Miss You Much,” which was a number one hit smash for four weeks. Now, think about this for a minute. I think it was gutsy on her part and on A&M Records part to allow us to go with those three songs up front with black and white imagery and a long film, but all of those things worked well together.
If you take the same album – and this would’ve been the safe way to go – imagine a beautiful colored picture of Janet on the cover, the album is entitled Escapade, we start the album with “Miss You Much” then to “Love Will Never Do (Without You)” then to “Escapade,” and we put all the fun songs up front, and then, on side two, the last three or four songs would’ve been “Livin’ in a World (They Didn’t Make),” “The Knowledge,” and “Rhythm Nation” and they would’ve been an afterthought. They’re the same songs, but would we have made the same impact?
Can you talk about the film a bit?
It took us about six months to do the album. The only person who heard anything that we were working on was John McClain. I remember at one point there was this guy named Rich Frankel. Rich Frankel was the art director for A&M Records. He was a super talented guy. He created the artwork for the album. He had the artwork for Rhythm Nation 1814, which all of us wanted to see. As the album was finishing up, we knew in our minds, conceptually, what it should be. It should’ve been black and white imagery. We wanted to know what he came up with.
Rich decided he was going to come to Minneapolis to show us his artwork. I remember Rich gets to the door of the studio. I opened up the door and said, “Hey Rich, how are you?” He replied, “Good. How are you?” He was freezing his tail off and just shivering. In his hand, he had an envelope. I asked him, “Is that the artwork for the album?” He said, “Yes.” I took the artwork from his hand and I said, “Thank you very much.” And I closed the door. Rich never got in the door to hear the record. He flew all the way in the town just for that. I tell that story to say that we were pretty much done with the record, and we were in the mixing stage. Nobody from the label has heard anything. They knew Rhythm Nation 1814 was the concept because they had to start doing the artwork for the album and generating photo sessions.
Janet wanted to do this short film to incorporate “Miss You Much,” “The Knowledge,” and “Rhythm Nation,” and tell the story of the album conceptually. Janet went to the record company and asked them for one million dollars to do the short film. The record company told her that they haven’t heard any music and you want us to give you one million dollars. Janet called me and said, “They want to hear some music. What should I do?” I remember at the time she just brought a brand new Range Rover, and she was living in Malibu. I asked her, “Who do you need to play the music for?” She said, “I need to play it for Gil Friesen.”
At that time, Gil Friesen was the president of A&M. I said, “Okay. Here is what I would suggest. Pick three songs that you think that are cool. Don’t go to his office. Pick him up in your brand new Range Rover and drive him down Pacific Coast Highway. You’ll have the ocean at your side. Blast the three songs that you like. If sitting in a brand new Range Rover in Malibu looking at the ocean with Janet Jackson playing you songs that nobody has ever heard, doesn’t get you your million dollars then nothing is going to get your million dollars.” That was my theory. Janet called me back three or four hours later, and she said, “We got our budget.”
What musical instruments and equipment did you and Terry Lewis utilize to craft the overall sound on each record on the album?
I already mentioned the SP-1200, which was a significant drum machine. I thought the drum sounds were a big part of the Control album. We always thought that “Miss You Much” was going to be the first single. If you think about the way that song starts out, it’s just the drum beat, but it has this sound underneath that comes from a keyboard called the Mirage, and that sound was the only sound left over from the Control album that we used on the Rhythm Nation 1814 album. It was about creating a different landscape sonically, but having one thing to tie it together. If you listen to the beginning of “Nasty,” underneath the drums on that song, there is this wind sound. That same sound is in some of the drums at the beginning of “Miss You Much.” In a subliminal way, I thought it was great way to bridge Control to Rhythm Nation 1814 and not look back. The Mirage keyboard was the only one that got used from the Control album. The Mirage sound was also in “Escapade” and “Love Will Never Do (Without You).”
There was a lot of sampling. Nowadays, you can make a sample as long as you want it because everything is digital recording. But back then, I had an AMS delay that had six seconds of sampling on it. I would do it either by hand just by pushing the button and triggering the samples or I would feed the kit drummer something on the one, so it could trigger the sample. It was very old fashioned. I had to not only sit there at the control and turn the wheel up to let the pulse come in to it to start the sample, but then I would turn the wheel off. Somehow it worked. There were other ways to do it, but I wasn’t technically proficient at sampling, but I did know how to get things into the AMS.
There was a drum machine that a company called Sequential Circuits made. It had these great sounds like trashcan lids and all that. It wasn’t supposed to sound like that, but if you tuned it, that’s what it sounded like. So we ended up using a lot of that, and I played that by free hand. I never sequenced anything on those records back then. Everything was on analog tape and nothing was sequenced, although I would put a sequence in the drum machine, but then I would switch by hand from part to part, but I never sequenced any of the keyboards.
This drove people crazy because when we put something out for a remix, they would ask, “What’s the start time? We would say, “We don’t know.” We would just turn the tape on and start playing, and it drove people crazy. We actually devised a way to get people the information they needed. There were a lot of great remixes to this record. Shep Pettibone did a lot of great stuff on that record. Frankie Knuckles did some stuff for us on that record as well. The usage of live strings on “Come Back to Me” and “Livin’ in a World (They Didn’t Make)” was really cool. I had the Oberheim 8 (OB-8) keyboard in the studio and that was my go-to instrument.
We mixed Rhythm Nation 1814 at our new Flyte Tyme Studios. We bought this new board called a Harrison Series 10. We were the first ones to have it. The whole studio was basically saw dust and shambles except for the mix room. The mix room was immaculate. It was the first record we did at our new studio. Technology-wise it was about as state-of-the-art as we could get.
After the success of Control, Janet was still regarded as Michael’s little sister and a one album wonder. Can you delve into Janet Jackson’s work ethic and talent during the making of this album?
She outworked most of the people we worked with. Janet did all of her background vocals and not just the lead vocals. The idea with her has always been that she does all of her own vocals, so that it’s totally a Janet record. If you think about the way we did the harmonies for this album, I think about the song “Love Will Never Do (Without You),” which had some of the most intricate harmonies, particularly at the end of the song, where things are overlapping each other.
There may be 32 tracks of vocals at that point in the song, where we would take a four part harmony and we have her do each note four times, which would be sixteen takes. If we had to put another part on top of that, we would do the same thing, so then there would be 32 vocal takes not counting the leads. What we would do is we would do the backgrounds first to get her voice warmed up, so when it came time to do the leads, it was simple, because her voice had warmed up. It takes a lot discipline and work ethic to do that. To me, the only person close to Janet in that regard is Ralph Tresvant from New Edition.
Once Janet goes in the room to sing, she is not coming out until she’s done. She may be in there three to four hours or sometimes longer and we felt really bad, but she wanted to stay in there. So, she would work and hit every note. Sometimes, I would give her a harmony where the notes would be right next to each other and they would sound horrible. It just wouldn’t work. I would say to her, “These two notes may not sound right until I get the next note on here, but trust me it’s going to work.” She said, “Okay. I trust you, Jimmy.” She would sing it. Then, when we put the next note on it, it would be this harmony, and it would turn out crazy in a good way. Janet was totally committed to everything. She worked long hours.
Away from the studio she was still doing the business of being Janet Jackson. She was setting up the tour, because she knew she was going to go on tour behind Rhythm Nation 1814. She was going through artwork and credits that needed to be done. There were several deadlines outside of the recording of the record. The other thing she did and I liken her to a fighter between fights, Janet loves food between fights, but when it came time to take those pictures and make those music videos, Janet would shut all that down.
She would work out every single day with her trainer, Tony Martinez. She would be on a limited number of carbs she could eat, and we could always tell when she was doing that, because she wasn’t quite as nice as when she was allowed to eat what she wanted. [laughs] But she would work. We would watch her transform the last two months of doing the record. She would work so hard to lose the weight and there weren’t any tricks involved. She would be in the snow running, or on the bike in the studio. She worked her butt off, so when you talk about work ethic, it’s not only about what she did in the studio, but it was her handling the business of being Janet Jackson.
As you look back 25 years later, how do feel about the long lasting impact the album has made on popular culture, and how it transformed production methods for both pop and R&B music thereafter?
The album has taken a life of its own and it’s still current. It’s a reflection of how music is heard today. It did statistically well. All those statistics are the last things that Terry and I worry about because we don’t think it tells the whole story. At the end of the day, you have a bunch of number one records, top five records, and you’re on the charts for three different years. They’re great stats, but it’s all the little stories and little things that all go to what the result that Rhythm Nation 1814 became. It goes to not only the choices that were made, but the ones that weren’t made.
Steve Hodge, the engineer, was in an absolute zone, because he mixed Janet’s Control album, then he started working full-time for us when we started working with The Human League. Everything fell into the right places. A&M Records was in a great place. Charlie Minor was a great promotion man. I mentioned Rich Frankel before. Herb Alpert was great. John McClain, who is a genius in my book, was important to this record. We just had all the right people involved. It was the right time. We’ve been fortunate the have this happen to us a few times. Rhythm Nation 1814 was one of those albums that had the hand of God on it, for whatever reason. The mistakes we could’ve made; we didn’t. I’m very proud and humble to have played a part in making this album.