Songwriter Interviews

Jimmy Jam

by Dan MacIntosh

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Along with his partner Terry Lewis, Jimmy Jam Harris is the most absurdly prolific hit producer of the last 30 years. He brought Janet Jackson out of the shadow of her brothers, crafting the funk grooves that made her early songs so popular. Prince gets a lot of the credit, but Jimmy - also a Minneapolis guy - helped define this sound and evolve it into hits of many colors spanning decades. You've heard his work on tracks by Boys II Men, Mariah Carey, Mary J. Blige, Usher, Keyshia Cole and so many more.

Jimmy is also an outstanding keyboard player, and was an original member of The Time, a group assembled by Prince. The Time went on the "Triple Threat" tour in 1982-1983, where along with Vanity 6, they would play before Prince took the stage. The Time turned out to be more supergroup than spin-off, and after three albums they went very successful separate ways: Morris Day and Jesse Johnson going solo and three other members forming The Family. Jimmy and Terry were well on their way to chart domination at this point, as they fell out with Prince and left The Time in 1983.

The Time split in 1985 but got back together in 1990 for their Pandemonium album, which contained the hit "Jerk Out." They parted ways soon after, but got back together for a memorable appearance at the 2008 Grammy Awards ceremony, which led to their 2011 album Condensate, named after a Morris Day saying: "I don't sweat, I condensate."

Prince owns the rights to the name The Time, so the group is now known as The Original 7ven. They've had serious beef with Prince in the past, with Jesse Johnson calling him an a--hole in a 1986 NME interview and accusing him of ripping off the band. Jimmy shows no sign of any animosity in this talk, and what's clear is that these guys love performing together and are thrilled to be joining forces once more to bring us some much needed funky revelry, just with an updated sound and more modern versions of their famous Zoot Suits.
Dan MacIntosh (Songfacts): This being Songfacts, I want to talk about some of the songs you've written and produced. On "Rhythm Nation," as I understand it, Sly Stone gets writing credit because his song is sampled. Did his spark the idea for "Rhythm Nation"?

Jimmy Jam: Totally. Totally. Not for the lyric. But I remember vividly that song was – first of all, I'm a huge Sly and the Family Stone fan.

Songfacts: Aren't we all?

Jimmy: Yes. And "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)" was one of my favorite songs ever, just the funkiness of the guitar lick. I was actually at a restaurant, I might have been with Janet, I can't remember who I was eating with. But I remember they were playing music in the background, sort of ambience. And I remember all of a sudden just hearing the guitar lick on the break of "Thank You," which is "da jing da jing jink." I heard that, and I've heard that a million times, but it was the first time I heard it kind of out of context where I wasn't really listening and all of a sudden that part just grabbed my ear. And I immediately said, "I'm going back to the studio because I'm going to loop that part and make a song out of it." I had no clue that it was going to be "Rhythm Nation" or anything like that. I just knew that that track, that was fine. That that was going to be just beyond – that was the spark of the idea.

Songfacts: Why do you think your collaboration with Janet Jackson has been so successful?

Jimmy: Wow. I think it's a whole lot of things, probably in equal parts. First of all, she's a huge music fan, she loves music. But she's also a very diverse music fan. Obviously, anything funky she absolutely loves and anything danceable she loves. But she's a big fan of opera, she's a big fan of Flamenco music, she's a big jazz fan. She likes all kinds of music. And so if you have a blank canvas and you just limit yourself to rhythm and blues, there's only so many things you can do. But if you can bring in all the different hues and colors, and somebody speaks that same language, then it makes it really a lot of fun, and it takes the limitations away. It can be intimidating sometimes - even when you know people, sometimes it's intimidating to bring an idea forth. But you basically can do anything. So that makes it very cool. It makes it so that it's like a flawless type of way to work.

It basically takes the limitations off of what you can do and what you can come up with and I think that has a lot to do with it. So you can say to Janet, "Hey, let's do a rock song," or you say, "Let's do a song with opera involved in it," or "Let's do a song with some hip-hop and some rap involved in it." Sometimes I would play her old samples; like when we did "All For You" and I played her the "Glow of Love" sample from Change, she had never heard that song before. But she loved it. And for "Someone to Call My Lover," she hadn't heard the "Ventura Highway" sample before. She hadn't heard those songs. So it's kind of fun to come up with stuff like that and play it for her. And she hasn't heard of it, but she still really likes it. So you have something that's going to appeal to people that haven't heard it before, it's going to catch them, but it's also going to catch the people who are nostalgic about it.

So the idea of being able to do something like that, and then sit down at a piano and do something simple like "Again," just with the piano, and something classic or something danceable like "Together Again," or something I think kind of avant-garde, funky, like "Got till It's Gone" with a Joni Mitchell sample, she's a huge Joni Mitchell fan. I was, too. So really it's a clean slate. You can do whatever you want to do and for a creative person, it doesn't get any better than that.

Songfacts: So she's open to trying new things, and as a songwriter and a producer, you couldn't ask for anything more.

Jimmy: Absolutely right.

Songfacts: I was amazed by the variety of things that you've done. You co-wrote the song "On Bended Knee" for Boyz II Men. I think of you as a sonic person with instrumentation, and yet this is a vocal group. How was it different to work with Boyz II Men and what did you learn from that experience?

Jimmy: Boyz II Men, they're so incredibly talented. "On Bended Knee" came up because we didn't work on their first album, we got to know them on their second album. And our thought was that they sing what we'd like to call "begging" songs really, really well. And when they played us their album and said, "We want you guys to add something to this," we didn't sense that there were any begging songs on there. And so that's how we came up with "On Bended Knee."

Songfacts: Had you written anything like that before?

Jimmy: Sort of. Actually our first Top Ten pop record was a song called "Tender Love" by the Force MD's. And it's interesting, because that song was actually for a movie called Krush Groove, and all the other songs on that soundtrack were Hip-Hop songs. I remember LL Cool J made his debut in that movie and all that. But we did a love ballad for that movie and it was the first time anybody paid attention to us writing songs like that.

Myself and Terry, we grew up very musically diverse. My influences were America, Seals and Crofts, Chicago, that kind of thing. Terry's were P-Funk, George Clinton, Parliament/Funkadelic, all that stuff. We have both sides of that. So a song like "Bended Knee" or "Tender Love" - "Can You Stand the Rain" would be another one for New Edition that I would put in the same category – I grew up listening to those kinds of songs with those kinds of harmonies in the Major 7th chords and all of that. So I always enjoyed doing that. So with Boyz II Men that sing so well and arrange their harmonies and stuff so well, we basically moved out of the way and let them do their thing. It was the first time I've worked with somebody that we didn't really need to give them the harmonies. They just knew how to do them. They just knew what it could be. And that was kind of cool.

Songfacts: That's almost like innate, huh?

Jimmy: It is. It's a talent. But I also say it's a talent to move out of people's way and let them do what they do, and it's one of the things I think we've always been really good at. We're certainly happy to lend a hand where needed, but we're just as happy to step back, and when people know what they're doing, just let them do their thing. Some of our best decisions have been things that we haven't done, so to speak, where somebody's played us a song and said, "What would you do to this?" And I go, "Well, I'd go to the store and buy it." (laughing)

Songfacts: I like that. Tell me about the "Minnesota" sound. When you hear that term, what comes to mind as far as the evolution of what's come to be known as the Minnesota sound?

Jimmy: Well, actually, small correction: the Minneapolis sound is really the moniker that it goes under. And when I think of the Minneapolis sound, really Prince is the one that I think introduced it. I think that it has a lot to do with the diffusing of rock elements, guitars, and that type of thing against synthesizers. But synthesizers not as a solo instrument – a lot of synthesizer work was either a solo instrument or it was a sound effect type instrument. I like to think that in the time of Prince, people in Minneapolis really pioneered the idea of having multiple keyboard players, and having keyboard players playing lines that normally would be reserved for horn sections, but doing them on keyboards, but doing them with sounds that were different. I can't explain it, but Terry always says synthesizers to him always were the instruments, they were going (makes weird sounds). They were just making noise. I think that has a lot to do with it.

And I think the idea that Prince, being the genius that he is, coming from Minneapolis, really put a lot of attention on the city, and everybody said, "Wait, he's from there? What else is up there?" And we were the recipients of the "What else is up there?" thing. There wasn't black radio in Minnesota growing up, and in Minneapolis, there was a sunup to sundown AM soul station that you could maybe get if you were in the right part of town. We didn't really grow up with a lot of that music; we grew up with pop music or rock music. So when we started making our own music, we had no influences naturally with it. But funk was always mixed with the rock, and the rock was always mixed with the keyboards and the synthesizers. And our synthesizers were even different. Rather than using the Moog or the ARC Synthesizers, which were popular in the day, we used Oberheim synthesizers, which had a different sound and a different sonic palette than the Moog. So I just think we just – it was just different. But we really didn't know any better. It was just the way we played and went about it.

Songfacts: One of the big songs for The Time, or the Original 7ven as you're calling yourselves now, was "Jerk Out." What do you remember about that?

Jimmy: It was our first No. 1 record, was pretty amazing, I do remember that. And one of the funnest videos I've ever worked on.

Songfacts: Why did you decide to get back together with the original guys and how that has that felt for you, how rewarding has that been?

Jimmy: First of all, rewarding is a great word, I think it describes what it's been. I mean, it's been amazing. I think as far as getting back together, we all have remained friends over the years. We'd all worked together in various threesomes, duos, foursomes, whatever, if not all the original guys, but Jesse (Johnson) had worked with us on a Chaka Khan album we did a few years back. Morris (Day) has worked with us from time to time on his solo stuff since then, we have a #1 record with him on that. Monte (Moir) and Jellybean (Johnson) have both done production work - Monte was actually the writer on "Pleasure Principle" for Janet and Jellybean was the producer for "Black Cat" for Janet and was in the "Control" video and so on and so forth. So we'd always been in contact and kept up with each other.

The thing that really brought us back together was being asked to perform on the Grammys a few years back (2008). That was the thing that got everybody together and really focused us. Because my analogy is when you see an old friend and they say, "Hey, let's get together sometime," or "we should get together sometime," you never do it. Nobody ever sets that date. Well, the Grammys set a date. Either we were going to make that date or not do it. And we made the date. It was a great experience and we performed with Rihanna, she was a total sweetheart, and it was great. That was the thing that really got us back in the mode of, Wow, we miss this, we should do more of this. It's been journey over the three years from then to now. In putting the record together, we did a bunch of live performances - we did 15 shows in Vegas, like a mini-residency there, which got us back tight and got our chops back up. Also allowed us to reconnect with our fans that came up to see us, which was great. And then we just set about to make the album, and it was a great experience. You're working with the best of the best. I got to work with my partner Terry, not so much as a producer, but as a bass player, just as a musician. Jesse Johnson, world class guitar player; Jellybean Johnson, world class drummer; Monte Moir is very underrated in what he does in his talent. And the best front man ever in Morris Day. So to work with those kinds of people is one of those situations where, as a producer, sometimes the artist just makes you look really good. And in the case of our band, I got to sit back and produce, but really more like just be a fan. Just sit back and in my mind go, If I was a fan that hadn't heard new music from this collection of guys in 21 years, what would I want it to sound like? And be able to actually execute it. And that's what it was. So we're loving it. The response from the public has been wonderful. And we couldn't be happier.

October 28, 2011
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Comments: 7

  • Bob from Bridgeport, CtToo bad Jimmy couldn't speak about the new JANET album.
  • Jb from AustinYou know before you hang Prince out to dry for not allowing the to use the name...Perhaps there is a reason behind this? Now don't get me wrong, on the surface I think P is wrong for this but in his defense perhaps he doesn't want to use the name The Time, and The Family because Warner's somehow will profit from it?
  • Mojo from Sacramento, CaI read this and think, wow for a white boy I grew up listening to more funk and R&B than Jimmy Jam and he still had the recipe to make some great hits. I've always been a big fan of Prince, but when you hear stories of greed it tough to respect an artist. These were great times!
  • Dan from Norwalk, CaYep, The Time ain't The Monkees. :)
  • Shawnerz from Anytown, MdNo mention of the S.O.S. Band? :( Oh well. But Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis are top line performers, producers, and musicians. :)
    Even though it's Morris Day saying it on The Time's 'Pandamonium', when I'm cooking, I still sing, "Gimme lil bit of that pepper, Gimme lil bit of that salt, Put it in a skillet and cook it, On that stove I bought!"
  • AnonymousI'm a big fan of The Time (yeah, THE TIME! Sorry Prince, but they will always be known as that regardless if you allow them to use the name or not) Jimmy and Terry are excellent producers, too.
  • Preston from Hartford,ctThe baddest band to ever hit the stage,and Prince knows it! I will always idolize THE TIME till the day I die !
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