The time is always right for this iconic R&B production partnership           

By Michael Gallant

“Production is about getting it done and getting it to be the best it can possibly be,” says James “Jimmy Jam”

Harris III. Over the last several decades he and partner Terry Lewis have racked up a stunning roster of production credits for names including Michael Jackson, Usher, Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, New Edition, George Michael, Mary J. Blige, Boyz II Men, Patti LaBelle, Luther Vandross, Rod Stewart and many others. Their 20-year collaboration with Janet Jackson, in particular, has helped to define the sound of modern R&B. Revered for their production, songwriting and musical chops—Jam on keyboards and Lewis on bass—the team has demonstrated unprecedented endurance, deftly navigating new genres and musical technologies.

The duo’s success is rooted in their shared production philosophy. “It sometimes means playing the role of psychiatrist, listening when artists only want to talk about their problems,” says Jam. “You have to recognize and manage things like that. But whether you’re trying to recreate magic with an artist with a history, or you’re working with someone new and trying to figure out what that unique sound is, the fun is in the collaboration.”

Jam and Lewis got their start as members of funk-rock powerhouse the Time, formed 30 years ago in Minneapolis. The group has now reunited for its first new album since 1990 under the moniker the Original 7ven—former mentor Prince owns the Time name, and declined to allow them to use it (Jam insists there is no bad blood). Condensate is prime Time by any name, finding Jam, Lewis, charismatic frontman Morris Day, guitarist Jesse Johnson, keyboardist Monte Moir, drummer Garry “Jellybean” Johnson and percussionist Jerome Benton staying true to the band’s legendary bounce and swagger. “What was great about getting the Original 7ven together was everyone’s enthusiasm to work together again,” says Lewis. Jam and Lewis discussed with us the keys to their singular partnership, production philosophy and the ingredients to a perfect track.

How would you describe your sound?

LEWIS: It’s more based on personality than sonics. The deciding factor in the whole equation is, who is the artist we’re working with?

JAM: We liken ourselves to tailors. You can get a suit off the rack, have the waist taken in and the pants hemmed. Now you have a suit that a bunch of people can wear—maybe you can wear it better than everyone else, but it’s not unique. If you go to a custom tailor and pick the fabric and buttons from scratch, you’ll end up with a suit that fits you and nobody else. As tailors we have certain ways of stitching and sewing, but the materials should be individual to each buyer.


How have you seen R&B evolve?

LEWIS: R&B didn’t evolve. It dissolved into other things. It’s the soup base for a lot of music that’s around now, like gospel was the soup base for R&B and soul. R&B is the broth that makes a good amount of music—like a lot of rap—taste a certain way. What has evolved is radio, and changes in radio have forced artists to change their thinking if they want to get airplay. But that’s always going to happen. It always comes back to great melody, great lyrics and great performance. That’ll never change. You have to have a great melody and you have to be talking about something that catches you. Even if it’s just something fun, the subject has to have a hook that makes you want to sing about it.


How has technology changed?

JAM: One of the biggest changes is that you can record anywhere. I wrote one of the songs from Condensate while on vacation with my family. I don’t ski, but my whole family does, so I brought my MacBook with Logic, sat in the chalet one day and came up with a couple of ideas I thought were pretty cool—one of which grew into a song that ended up on the album. That definitely would not have happened 11 years ago.


Were you drawn to digital right away?

LEWIS: We grew up in a transitional age. When we first started playing there were no synthesizers and drum machines, but then there were. There was no digital recording, but then there was—and everything changed. You have to embrace it. Quincy Jones said it best: “You’re only as old as your ability to accept and process new things.” That reigns true in our careers and our lives. We always look at what’s going on, see what’s best about it and apply it to our own work.

JAM: I was talking to a young man recently who said he wasn’t going to play synthesizers—just piano, because Beethoven only played the piano. I told him, “Well, Beethoven only had a piano available to him.” If Beethoven were alive today, don’t you think he would have loved when the Moog, ARP and Oberheim synths came out? Wouldn’t someone with a creative mind like that try to touch every piece of gear available?


Are there downsides to digital?

LEWIS: I love the sound of analog but the ease of digital, so the combination of both is always wonderful. But when it comes to digital recording, people sometimes have too many options when they produce. You can record tons of tracks, never commit to anything and hide a record’s deficiencies just by adding layers and layers.


Who does what in the studio? 

JAM: You could ask any two artists we’ve worked with and get two completely different answers. Janet and I turned out to have a real affinity, and Terry would step back for a lot of it—but if Janet asked for help with lyrics he’d step in. Another example is with Usher. He and Terry had a creative connection that just works. I stay away from it until one of them comes to me for advice.


How do you approach business?

LEWIS: Jimmy and I have worked together for 30 years based on a handshake deal, a verbal contract that says that we split everything 50-50. If he goes out and writes with someone else, I own 50 percent of that. If I want to go record some gospel project, for example, he’ll own half of that.

JAM: The arrangement allows each of us to do what we need to get the project done without worrying about who did what. It’s easy to argue about, “Well, I wrote five words here,” “Hey, it’s my title,” “But I did the chorus!” Then you’re nickel-and-diming and it doesn’t get you anywhere. We shook hands and said that we’re in this for the long run. It’ll all balance out.

LEWIS: We’re both capable of doing everything or nothing, so it frees us up to do exactly that. We always bring each other in creatively and add to or subtract from what each other is doing. It’s a totally no-pressure, creative relationship.


How was Condensate recorded?

LEWIS: We constructed it in a very free-form way, with seven guys collectively putting together 14 tracks. We never put pressure on the music. We let it come when it came and live as it wanted to live.

JAM: Working with the Original 7ven was like going into the studio with people you really look up to: I’m a big fan of Morris Day, a big fan of Jellybean Johnson and so on. So as producers we tried to approach it like, “If I hadn’t heard an album from my favorite band in decades, what would I want their new project to sound like?”


What challenges did you face?

LEWIS: The biggest challenge was logistics. Everyone’s all over the place, working on their own. Monty and Jellybean live in Minneapolis, Morris is in Las Vegas, we’re in California. Getting everybody together was nightmarish.


How did you overcome that? 

JAM: We did whatever we needed to get the album done. Sometimes Terry would write lyrics on his own, and sometimes he’d work with Morris or me. Sometimes we’d go to Vegas to record with Morris, and sometimes Morris would come to our studio, Flyte Tyme. There are a few tracks where everybody played together. Other times Jesse would put together rhythm tracks at his house, send five or six different options to us and we would pick the ones we liked. Then we’d send those to Morris, who would say which ones he thought were cool, then he’d think of a subject to talk about through the song. It was an open way to work. Everyone was involved and everyone trusted each other, and that’s the pleasure of collaborating with world-class musicians. We never argued. We enjoyed hearing what everybody else added to the mix.


Did you try to keep things old-school?

JAM: We thought we were going to mix to half-inch tape, but at the end of the day it didn’t work. While we certainly want to be historically reverent in terms of the quality of music we create, just because the Time recorded analog back in the day doesn’t mean we need to do it that way now. We’re not the Time, we’re the Original 7ven. We can record on a laptop if we want to.

Reflecting on your distinguished careers, what are you proudest of?

LEWIS: The thing that I appreciate the most is being here and still being relevant. My understanding of music, business and my ability to communicate with people have grown. Being able to stay around for more than 30 years is the greatest award you could ever get.

JAM: At the end of the day, you’ve done your job if you’ve put the artist in the best light. It’s great seeing Janet Jackson touring the world, singing songs from nearly 25 years ago with the same excitement and passion that she had when we recorded them. That’s because those songs are her. She loves singing them every night. There’s nothing worse than being an artist who has a song they hate. It’s a hit and you have to sing it every night. That’s got to be tough. You want career songs that you can play for the rest of your life. As a producer, it feels good to be part of that when it happens. We’ve been lucky enough that it’s happened for us more often than not.

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