An Interview with Jimmy Jam of The Original 7ven, Part Two

Jimmy Jam discusses The Time, Prince, and working with Janet and Michael Jackson.

By , Contributor

Jimmy Jam’s illustrious career as a musician, songwriter, and record producer began in the early ‘80s with The Time. The band scored Prince-produced hits such as “Cool” and “777-9311” while establishing itself as a live act not to be taken lightly. Prince, with whom The Time toured during that period, once told Rolling Stone, "They're the only band I've ever been afraid of."

After their forced departure from The Time in the mid-‘80s, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis formed Flyte Tyme Productions. Together the duo produced hit after hit, most notably for Janet Jackson, but also artists including Usher, Mariah Carey, Michael Jackson, George Michael, Boyz II Men, and many others.

After a 20-year-plus absence, The Time has reunited, albeit under a new name. As The Original 7ven, they have issued an all-new album called Condensate. Part one of my interview with Jimmy Jam focused on the conception of that album and the band’s future plans. As our conversation continued, we discussed not only The Time’s history, but also other aspects of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis’s career as producers.

Let’s look back to 1990 and the Graffiti Bridge movie. How did the original seven members of The Time come to be involved with that project?

Let me try to clarify a little bit. There might be a misconception that we got back together to do the Graffiti Bridge movie. That’s absolutely not the case. What happened, Morris [Day] was working on a project with Prince. It was basically going to be more of a solo project. Prince was going to do the bulk of the writing and playing. I think it was going to be called Corporate World, but there were a few different names floating around at that point. Around that same time period, we had also been working with Morris on different projects and things. We thought, let’s get The Time back together and just make a record. So we got back together and started making an album. This was with Prince’s blessing, by the way. And we had our own idea for a film.

What kind of film did you guys have in mind?

It was basically based on our own true story, rather than a fictional story. Purple Rain was a fictional story based in some truth, the whole backdrop of Minneapolis and the competition of the bands. The way that worked was very true and very well done in that movie. But we really wanted to make a film about our exploits on the road and some of the things that went on, because we had a great time on the road.

How far did you guys get with this project?

We actually brought in someone to write a screenplay. We sat and talked with a couple of screenwriters, telling them the stories we thought were funny, letting them weave a storyline around it. We were in talks with Warner Bros. to do it. The next thing you know, literally out of the blue, Prince called us for a meeting at Paisley Park. And I remember we walked in thinking it was going to be about the movie — the movie we thought we were going to do. All of sudden it turned into Graffiti Bridge, and we were like, “What’s Graffiti Bridge?” Prince was like, “This is my movie.” And it was, you know, this girl and a feather. [laughs] It was like, “No, no, no — we’ve got our own ideas for a movie.”

The Time still made a very successful album though, which includes some songs that were in the movie.

That’s the reason that, when everything was done, Pandemonium came out, which was basically our album. Then the Graffiti Bridge soundtrack came out, which had four of our songs on it. Just one soundtrack album probably would’ve made more sense. But it was because we were already doing our other things. We were like, “Okay, we’ll do your movie, Prince, but we’re still going to do our own album.” We were already on the path to do that.

How did the same basic track from “My Summertime Thang” on Pandemonium end up being reused for “The Latest Fashion,” which was part of Graffiti Bridge?

The origin of “My Summertime Thang” came about around Ice Cream Castle [1984], right around when me and Terry got fired from The Time. We always loved the song, so that was one of the ones we asked Prince for. We said, “Hey Prince, ‘My Summertime Thang,’ can we have that? That was our song from back in the day.” And he said, “Yeah, you can have it. But you know what, I changed the words. It’s called ‘The Latest Fashion’ now.” And we’re like, “No, no, no, no.” So that was sort of a compromise. He wanted it as “The Latest Fashion” because it worked in the movie for the scene. But we wanted it as “My Summertime Thang” because that’s what it was back when we had it. There was a lot of that kind of thing going on, which is why I make the distinction that we didn’t get back together specifically for Graffiti Bridge. We were already on our own path, doing our own thing. We kind of reached a compromise to do it.

The Time Graffit Bridge (380x213).jpg

What did you think of the finished movie?

I thought the music in Graffiti Bridge was great. I didn’t particularly like the movie. [laughs] But I thought the musical scenes were a lot of fun. We were sort of an afterthought anyway. Literally when we would shoot scenes, they would put makeup on us in the morning, and then we’d have to sit around all day in our suits. Then at the end of the day, after everything else was done, they’d go, “Oh, we have to shoot these other scenes.” There was no continuity, everybody looked different. There’s one scene, I swear to God, I have dark glasses on in one shot and regular glasses on in the next shot. There was absolutely no continuity in the movie whatsoever.

Do you think Prince was in over his head, wearing too many hats as writer, director, and star?

Well, I think the downfall of the movie was that it didn’t have a real director. I think that Prince was so accustomed to making music on his own, because he could be the engineer, the producer, the writer, the keyboard player, the guitar player. He could do it all himself without ever really having to communicate to anybody. And he’s a genius at doing that. Movie making is a whole different medium.

What was Prince’s directorial style like during production?

I remember the first day on the set, Prince walked out and said, “Okay, we’re going to shoot this scene.” And about five people standing around him start asking questions. The camera guy asked, “How do you want this shot framed?” And Prince goes, “What?”

He didn’t want to hear any of that stuff. It was more like, “Just shoot it.” He had in his head what it was supposed to be. But to make a movie, you have to communicate what’s in your head to other people. And that was not Prince’s strong suit. I think the movie suffered because of that. It didn’t allow everybody to do their best work. That’s why I say, to me, the best thing about the movie is the music.

The Time wasn’t involved in Under the Cherry Moon (1986), but of course Jerome Benton co-starred with Prince. That film, with Prince directing, was so much more technically accomplished.

That movie had a great look and was very creative. But that was shot on location in France and was a different kind of thing. Graffiti Bridge was all on a sound stage with sets and had a very claustrophobic feel. You weren’t filming at First Avenue, like in Purple Rain, which was already a real club with the vibe of a real club. You were shooting on a sound stage in a kind of fictitious set-up.

Graffiti Bridge almost has a fantasy look to it, like a slightly surreal fantasy.

You know, it’s interesting because now, with Glee and people being more used to seeing characters breaking into song, I think something like Graffiti Bridge could work really well. I’d love to see Prince do that now. I know he could make a great musical and I think it would work better now because people are seeing it more often on television. Who knows, he probably is going to do something like that. The way he writes his songs I think lends itself to that type of treatment.

While we’re talking about Prince, have you and Terry every talked about producing him?

We’d love to do it. And he knows it. We’ve talked about it over the years. When we were in Minneapolis, and had our studio up there, he came by and visited one day and fell in love with Studio A, the design for which was based on a studio called Westlake. It just was a great, big, comfortable room.

And we asked him at one point, “Could we ever go through your vault and just pick out some songs and maybe mix them or do something like that?” And he said, “Yeah that’d be great. I’ll let you guys have ten songs and you can do with them what you want.” So we’ve talked about that. We’ve talked about us producing him. We’ve talked about him using our studio to record. And I think Terry might have had a conversation with him in the last couple months where some of those same things came up. So you never know. I don’t even know whether that’s something that would be successful or not, but I’d love to try it. At the end of the day, I’m probably one of the biggest Prince fans ever.

You and Terry, of course, have done phenomenally successful work with Janet Jackson over the years, but weren’t involved with her last album, Discipline (2008). Any chance you guys might work with her again?

I think so. The ball’s in her court there. We started working on a record with her. Around the time that Michael passed, we were actually in the studio. Matter of fact, we had actually gotten one song done. She was going to take three weeks off to go down to Atlanta to work with Tyler Perry on Why Did I Get Married Too? When she was done, we were going to resume working. And of course, Michael passed. And we never really got back in the studio again. She went straight into another film and then did the Up Close and Personal tour.

We have songs for her that we think are great. And if she thinks they’re great, I think we would work together on something. If she doesn’t think they’re great, maybe we wouldn’t. It’s as simple as that. If we’re thinking along the same lines about what she should do next, then I think we’ll definitely work together again. There’s a comfort level there. There’s never been any animosity between us or any bad blood in any way. She’s like family to us. As a matter of fact, she’s the godmother to my first son. So beyond the music part of it, we’re close anyway. But we’ll see. I would love that.

Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis (380x316).jpg

Speaking of Michael Jackson, what can you share about working with him on HIStory (1995)?

Michael was amazing. I can’t think of a studio moment that blew us away more than the first time he got in front of a microphone on “Scream.” It was really funny. First of all, when we put that track together, I had Janet come to Minneapolis. I just said, “I need you to be here for inspiration.” So Terry and I put together four or five different tracks, and for one of the tracks, Janet said, “I hope he doesn’t like this one, because I want this one for me.” And another one of the tracks, she said, “This is the one he’s going to like, I know my brother.”

So we go to the Hit Factory in New York. We played all these tracks, and when the track that ended up being “Scream” came on, he said, “Yeah I like that.” Janet said, “I told you that’s the one he was going to like! I’m so glad he didn’t like that other track.” Well, the other track ended up being “Runaway,” her single from Design of a Decade. I actually thought that track would’ve been a great duet for them, but Michael wanted to be real aggressive and real hard. He had things on his mind about how he felt he was being treated in the press. And the track for “Scream” was sonically perfect for what he wanted to do lyrically.

When he went into the studio, the idea was that he was going to sing it first and then Janet would go in and sing after him. So Janet’s sitting there, me and Terry are sitting there, and Michael goes in. Before he sings, he’s just real calm and quiet, “Can you turn my headphones up a little bit?” Then all of a sudden the music comes on and he starts dancing around the room, hitting all his signature moves. And he’s like, wearing a bracelet or something while clapping — you’re not really supposed to do that when you’re on the mic, but it didn’t even matter. When it was over, I swear to God, it was just silence in the room. He said, “How was that?” We’re like, “Yeah, that sounded really good.” And I turned and looked at Janet and she said to me, “I’ll just do my vocal in Minneapolis.” It was like, “I’m not going to do my vocal right now.” Obviously he just killed it, right? [laughs]

So we go to Minneapolis with Janet, where she does a great job on her vocal. We send it to Michael, he goes, “Wow, Janet sounds great. Where did she record that vocal?” I said it was in Minneapolis. “I’m coming to Minneapolis.” So Michael comes to Minneapolis to re-record his vocal, and it was a real glimpse into his competitive nature. It didn’t even matter that it was his sister. It was just like, “No. I have to redo it. She did hers, I have to redo mine.” It was just crazy, his competitiveness even with his own sister. But it was that drive for perfection. And the original vocal he did in New York ended up being probably 90 percent of the vocal on the final song.

That’s pretty unique that you’ve had opportunities to work with both Prince and Michael Jackson.

It was great too, working with Prince and working with Michael, they were polar opposites in the way they worked. Prince would walk in the studio at the beginning of the day and he’d walk out with “1999,” done. Michael, we’d spend a day just on the volume of the handclaps. I mean, literally. And we’d turn them up and he’d say, “Okay, I’ll come back tomorrow and we’ll listen to it again.” We come back the next day, and he’d go, “Can we turn that up just a little more?” Yes, we turn it up. “Okay, make me a tape.” Okay. “I’ll come back tomorrow and we’ll listen again.” I mean, it was literally like that. But that was, you know, learning from people like Quincy Jones, people who were very meticulous about what they did.

What was Michael like on a personal level?

Michael was married to Lisa Marie Presley at the time we were working with him. And I remember my wife asking Lisa what attracted her to Michael. She looked at my wife and just said, “He’s the kindest man I’ve ever known.” And I remember thinking the same thing after working with him. Just a nice dude.

That reminds me, we used to get into these big, long conversations. And Michael would pick my brain about stuff, always curious about everything. He said to me, “Jimmy, how do you want to be remembered?” I asked him what he meant. “When people talk about you after you’re gone, how do you want to be remembered?” And I said, “I want to be remembered as a nice guy.” Michael goes, “No, I mean, as a producer, how many number one songs,” you know, whatever, whatever. I just said, “Michael, those are statistics. I don’t want someone to say ‘Oh yeah, that Jimmy Jam, he had a bunch of number one hits.’ I just want them to say, ‘Jimmy Jam, he was a nice guy.’”

Fast forward about a year later. We needed to get a sample cleared and he was the only one who could clear it. I ended up having to call him directly. I said, “Michael, how are you?” He said, “I’m good. I know you wanted to ask me something, but before that, can I just tell you something?” I said sure. He said, “Remember what you said about how you want to be remembered?” I said yes. “Well, every time someone asks me about you, I just say, ‘Jimmy Jam, he’s the nicest guy.’” And I said, “Great! You get it now, Michael?” And he said, “I totally get it.”

At the end of the day, after all the talent and all the groundbreaking stuff he did, he was just simply a nice guy. He was one of the nicest people I’ve met and worked with ever.

Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis 3 (380x252).jpg

What’s next on the horizon for you and Terry Lewis?

I would say the three things that are in various stages of being recorded, one would be Usher. We’re working with him on his new album. We’re in the studio with a group we just signed called the RoneyBoys. My 11-year-old son discovered them on YouTube, which I think is getting pretty common these days. They’re three young kids - 10, 12, and 16 years old - who play their own instruments and write their own songs. The 10-year-old sounds like the first time you heard “I Want You Back” by The Jackson 5. He’s got that voice and that kind of soul to him, pretty amazing. The older one, the 16-year-old, is basically John Mayer Junior, except on the ukulele. They’re super talented. So we’re in the studio with them right now.

And then New Edition is back together, all six of them. The last time they had all six guys together, we did a record called Home Again that was very successful. We did some stuff with Johnny Gill for his solo album, and now he’s saying that all the guys want to come down and get some new music out. If that happens, it would be fantastic. When we did the Heart Break album with New Edition, that was the point where they kind of grew up and went from being the little boys to the big guys. And they haven’t really looked back since then. We really share a great bond with them, so we’re looking forward to doing that.

And then of course, last but not least is getting The Original 7ven together to tour and go play these new songs from Condensate live in front of crowds.

What concluding thoughts you can share about the approach The Original 7ven took with Condensate?

As producers, one of the strengths me and Terry have had is being able to look at somebody who is already established and see them from a fan’s perspective. We simply think, I’m a fan and this is a record I’d like to hear them do. I think that was the approach with The Original 7ven’s Condensate. We tried to take ourselves out of it and go, “Man, if I was a fan of The Time and I hadn’t heard any new music in 20 years, what would I like to hear?” And we immediately wrote “Strawberry Lake.” It was like, “This is what I’d like to hear. I want to go right back to where I was 20 years ago.” And then together, all seven of us created that record.

Many thanks to Jimmy Jam for sharing his insights and experiences. Keep up with The Original 7ven on the band’s official website and on Facebook.

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Chaz Lipp is a Seattle-based freelance writer whose focus is music and film. As “The Other Chad,” he has written for the online magazine Blogcritics since 2008. When he’s not writing, Chaz can be found trolling jazz clubs, attempting to find somewhere to play his sax (whether anyone wants to hear…

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