Back in 2021, my friend Jesse Thorn interviewed two of my creative heroes, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, for an absolutely indispensible episode of Bullseye. The whole show is incredible, but the highlight for me is at the 47:43 mark:
Jesse: I have a friend who is king nerd of the Minneapolis sound. Just one of the greatest nerds of every tributary of that river—not least of which is your work. And he heard I was doing this interview and he sent me this stem that I wanted to play. So, this is from—and just ‘cause I just loved hearing it. So, first I wanna play a little bit of a hit that you guys made with Janet Jackson called “Love Would Never Do Without You”.
[Love Would Never Do plays]
Jesse: So, like, when I hear that record, I hear a lot of the—a lot of the kind of signatures of the especially kind of upbeat records that you made with Janet Jackson. Right? Janet has this beautiful—this beautiful light voice that always feels like it’s flying no matter what she’s singing. And you’re backing that up with those—you know, with those hard drums. You know, boom-BOP! You know? But he sent me—the stem that he sent me, and he like—he sent me a timecode. He wanted me to hear this particular—was the synth. Just halfway through the record. So, I just wanna play a little bit of that.
[plays the funkiest organ riff you've ever heard in your goddamn life]
Jesse: So, I gotta take us out of that or else I’ll just—
Terry: Ooooh, that’s funky.
Jesse: I’ll just listen to it all day long.
Jimmy: Yeah. That was my—that was my attempt at Sly and the Family Stone, right there. [Jesse and Terry laugh.] But played on a—played on a—played on an OB-8. That’s an OB-8 organ. It’s—A5 is the setting on the OB-8, on the original settings, that’s what that is. I know exactly the sound. That’s funky.
Jesse: What’s wild to me about that is that that is like a complimentary piece in this song. Right? Like, as I described, like as a casual listener to that hit record, I’m hearing Janet and I’m hearing that drum track. You know? And I’m hearing choruses of vocals. You know, you’ve got the kind of big call and response-y type deal going on. You know, there’s a lot of things going on in that song. And that part [chuckling] is so distinctive and so funky and it’s just in there. You know what I mean? Like, it’s just a piece of the puzzle.
Jimmy: It’s—yeah. You know, that’s the seasoning. When I—when we do—I talk all the time about the seasoning and stuff. It’s like when you cook in the kitchen. Right? You know, when you taste the food, you just taste it and it either tastes good or it doesn’t taste good. But if you’re an actual chef when you taste the food, you’re not only tasting that it tastes good overall, but you’re also deciphering all of the seasonings that are in there. So, that organ part is one of those things that you don’t necessarily hear it, but you feel it. Like if you take it out, it doesn’t feel the same. Like a certain spice, if you take it out, it doesn’t taste the same. Andi it’s not even that you’re tasting the spice, but you can taste when it’s not there. I love music nerds, because I’m a music nerd myself and I love when there’s things in there that only music nerds would ever hear or appreciate what they are. Because I just think it’s important. And I think to the casual listener—like I say, they don’t know that it’s there, but they know the way that it makes them feel when they hear it. You know? So, that’s cool. I—that’s awesome. I haven’t heard that part broken out like that before, either. So, that’s very cool.
The reason this conversation (and this riff!) stuck with me so much is because it speaks to the care, and the craft, and the belief that people will really hear what you're doing, even years or decades later, and know the love and the funk and the soul that went into making something.
Early the covid pandemic, when everyone was hanging out on Instagram live listening to DJ sets, I found myself listening in the wee hours of the night to one of Questlove's DJ sets, and reflecting on some of the beautiful details that buried in the mix. In doing so, I said that sometimes you have to "squint your ears", and one of the people who reacted most enthusiastically to that conversation was Jimmy Jam, who understood instinctively that this was just another way of getting to what he calls here the "right spices" to have in the mix.
I've constantly been inspired by someone like Jimmy because he can operate both at the most foundational level of being a brilliant working musician who instinctively knows how to make a timeless groove, and he can be one of the most effective and influential executives in the entire recording industry by leading the Recording Academy. Being able to keep the head and the heart so closely in sync while pursuing a legendary career and never, ever compromising is honestly the dream.
And being able to seamlessly articulate why he had such a funky little gift hidden for us in one of Janet's greatest songs gives me so much hope that maybe the rest of us can create that kind of greatness too.
From 2019: After the Rhythm Nation
In the year @JanetJackson finally will take her overdue place in the @rockhall an interesting perspective and good read from @anildash after the #RhythmNation #JanetJackson #JimmyJam #TerryLewis https://t.co/eU5OpzQGGK— Jimmy Jam (@flytetymejam) January 3, 2019