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“The key elements to any relationship are trust and respect. We have a lot of both.”
——Terry Lewis
TAKING FLYTE
Top Producing Duo Love Their Work, Hate Us
“There is no Jam/Lewis sound because we never do the same thing twice.” That’s a quote that greets visitors to Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis’s Flytetyme Studio’s website (www.flytetyme.com) and it’s an out-and-out lie. They seem to return to the top of the national song charts on a regular basis. Check it out: as the highest-charting production team in music history, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis have every right to wear 10 times their trademark hat sizes. Their 16 pop (and 25 R&B) #1 hits, all with various artists, place the dynamic duo behind legendary Beatles producer George Martin’s 23, and tied with Elvis Presley producer Steve Sholes. Tack on seven nominations in the Grammy Producer of the Year category—with two wins—as well as taking home this year’s “Best Dance Recording” for Janet’s “All For You,” and you can see their greatness is cemented. Jimmy and Terry are currently celebrating their 20 years together as a production team, not to mention 30 years of friendship. In reality, you’d be hard-pressed to find two more down-to-earth human beings. That is, if you discount owning courtside seats for the hometown Minnesota Timberwolves, where they are the Jack Nicholsons of the 10,000 lakes area. Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis are entitled to the spoils of success, but success hasn’t spoiled them. However, this interview with HITS denizen Gary “One Eyed” Jackson stands a chance of falling through an ice hole quicker than you can fish out a wall-eyed pike.  Or something like that.

Terry, you’re known as the quiet member of the duo.
Terry Lewis: Jimmy’s usually the big commenter. But I don’t mind speaking. Everybody says, “You’re shy” or wonder if I’m articulate. I hate the word “articulate.” It’s a word they made up for black people who speak “proper” English. I hate that! When people talk about things that I really care about, I have a great deal to say. You talk about kids or helping people, things that mean something in life, and I’ve got a great conversation for you. What I do for a living is a blessing for me. It’s what I love to do.

When you’re by yourself, what do you do?
Lewis: I do some reading, though not as much as I used to. I just mostly try to stay undercover, spend some quality time just with myself. I used to be able to stay up and do 20 hours a day, seven days a week. Now, I do 20 hours a day, TWO days a week!

You don’t find many people with 30-year friendships.
Lewis: The key elements to any relationship are trust and respect. We have a lot of both. The one thing we’ve been able to do, as far as our business partnership, is keep our personal lives separate from the business. And in turn, keep our personal lives in order, which helps the business stay in order.

Do you ever get sick of one another?
Jimmy Jam: No. It’s not that we’re joined at the hip. Here’s a perfect example: Terry is in Los Angeles mixing Nodesha, and I’m here in Minneapolis working with Boyz II Men. So we split the responsibility. It happens naturally. We never designate; it just all falls into place. That allows us to be more productive. And allows us creative freedom. We each get to work on projects that we feel really strongly about, ’cause usually, one of us feels stronger about a project than the other. That’s a natural thing because there are certain people you vibe with better, and we instinctively know that. It’s like our handshake deal back in the day; it’s all still 50-50.

Does the business sometimes take you away from the creative side?
Jam: No, thank goodness. I don’t like the business end particularly, but I know you’ve got to deal with it, so I do. I really like the creative end. One of the nice things about being in business with L.A. Reid is that L.A. Reid is a producer who runs a label. He enjoys that, and he knows that we don’t really like doing it. He really takes care of the day-to-day stuff along with our staff in Los Angeles and [Flytetyme GM] Gwen Irby, so we can do what we do, which is write and produce. I was talking to Quincy Jones about that. I asked him, “How do you like running a label?” And he said, “I hate it.” He said it’s necessary to get new talent—talent that you discover or that people turn you on to—out to the public. Without our label, there’s no Sounds of Blackness, no Mint Condition, no Solo. It gives those acts an opportunity to get out and make some noise the way they want to, with their musical integrity intact. We’re not going to change what they do; we’re just taking it and improving upon it.

What was your first recording session like?
Lewis: Our first “professional” session was a blissful situation because we always thought we had things to share, musically. More than producers, we saw ourselves as songwriters. A lot of people confuse the two, especially these days. We had to learn to become producers to get our own songs across. The first sessions that we did were for a song titled “I Can’t Stand It,” which is a club classic now. Those were what we called the “Golden Bird Sessions,” because we weren’t making any money, but we made enough to buy some Golden Bird chicken! A three-piece, French fries and a strawberry soda. Those were our first sessions, and then we moved on to Klymaxx.

How big is the Flytetyme Studios staff?
Jam: About seven people, total. It’s very efficient.  Steve Hodge, our mixer, has been with us since 1986.. One of the things we did when we built the studio is, rather than hire a bunch of engineers, as we put the equipment in, we taught the producers on-staff how to work the various rooms. If they needed help, Steve was there. We have a guy named Xavier Smith, who started out as a food runner. When he was just sitting around, he’d pick up a manual and learn how to do different things. When we got into hard disk recording, Pro Tools, those types of things, he knew all about them. The funny thing is, he still runs for food for us, but he’s really a great Pro Tools programmer, too. Alex Richburg, who was part of Trackmasters out of Atlanta, has his own room. He’s technically very proficient, but also a good musician. Big Jim Wright, who has been with us since Sounds of Blackness, has co-written and produced many records. Susan Owens, our administrator, was the very first person we hired; she’s been with us for 16 years. Debbie Morrison, who is Terry’s executive assistant, has been with us for 13 years. Then we have Jane Laub, our accountant. Brad Yost is our tech, who not only keeps everything running, but he actually wired the studio, initially. The other thing is, we haven’t had turnover. We’ve pretty much kept the same employees. It’s like family. Everybody knows that their job is not really defined by any parameters except whatever it takes to keep the ship running. That means, if I have to take out the trash, I take the trash out!

How has Flytetyme merged all its various arms together?
Jam: We do a lot of things that complement each other. Our songwriting gives us the product to produce. The production of the songs gives us the reason for having this studio. Our publishing company publishes the songs—in partnership with EMI Music. So, it all kind of stays in the family—each business is run independently, but complements each other. The studio allows us to work whenever we want to and be creative. What I like to do is look at the businesses and say, if we were just writers, are we pulling our weight? Are we doing OK? And we go, “yeah.” If we were just publishing, are we doing OK? If we’re just running a studio, are we doing OK? It all seems to work.

You called your first label Perspective Records rather than Flytetyme.
Jam: We wanted Perspective to have its own identity.  We didn’t want anybody confusing it with our production company. We already had Flytetyme Studios, Flytetyme Publishing, Flytemtyme Productions. At the time, we just thought, let’s do something different. We thought Perspective was kind of a nice name that showed that we were trying to do things from a different perspective, as we like to say.

Who is currently signed to Flytetyme?
Jam: We have two artists. One is a 16-year-old named Nodesha and then there’s a three-piece group out of New York called Morrison Slick. Terry calls them Mint Condition on steroids! They are very, very musical. They all play, they all write, they all produce, they all sing. I think they fit neatly into that neo-soul category, but it’s different too. We’re excited about that. The nice thing about Nodesha is, besides being a singer and a really great dancer, she’s also a really good songwriter. That’s great for us because we’ve always been collaborative people.

How do you prefer to collaborate with an artist?  Do you sit down and write together?
Jam: Absolutely. That’s part of the theory about having our own studio. Where that really bore out was doing the Control album with Janet. When she came to town, she kept asking when were we going to get started working, because we didn’t just run to the studio right away. We just kinda sat around, talking. I told her, “We’re already working.” She said, “What do you mean?” We said, “We’re just vibin’, we’re getting to know you.” That kind of thing. The first song we did was “Control,” and we played the idea of taking control of her life, that kind of thing. And she said, “Oh, so the things we just talked about is what the album’s gonna be!” We said, “Yeah.” And she said, “Great!” You see, nobody had ever said anything like that to her before. Everybody said, “Here are the songs. Go in and sing.” That opened up a whole perspective for her. If you give people the opportunity to collaborate, some people will say, “Well, that’s OK… You guys can just write it.” But Janet was like, “Now, I want to talk about this!” Having our own studio affords us the luxury of taking the time to be creative without watching the clock, thinking about how much we’re spending. That’s a major part of the way we work, and it translates to all the artists we work with.
Lewis: That’s the inspiration for everything. If you don’t get inspiration for every project, you’re doomed. There are only so many songs in you, so there has to be inspiration that comes from other people to bring everything together.

Give me an example of how “The Vibe Room” works.
Jam: Studio B is “The Vibe Room,” where we sit and start the process of formulating the songs. Usually, we don’t have anything pre-prepared.  I’ll usually sit at a keyboard. Big Jimmy Wright, one of our staff producers, will sit at a keyboard. Terry will sit either with his bass or with a notepad, and then we’ll just sit and talk. And as the artist talks to us about the kind of music that they want to do, we’ll just start playing, based on that, and the ideas start flowing. What I think the artists really like about that is the songs are truly tailor-made for them. They are songs that come based upon what they think, what they feel. They know their song isn’t going to sound like everybody else’s on the radio; it’s not going to be part of a hot sound where five other songs sound just like it. It makes the artist feel comfortable, gets them involved with the project. They bring that extra energy to it, makes them work harder, sing better, and at the end of the day, I think we manage to do a good job in capturing the essence of the artist.
Lewis: Most artists want to get involved, but what we try to do is incorporate everybody’s vibe into it. That’s what makes every project special.

And that keeps you fresh.
Jam: It’s funny, because we do have those moments. We just started working a Boyz II Men project. They walked in and said, “What have you got?” We said, “Ain’t got nothing… But we’re gonna have something.” And at the end of the night, we had a great song. The energy comes to us when the artist is there. Remember, it’s not our album. The artists have to know what they want at some point. Otherwise, you’re not going to be a very good artist if somebody always dictates to you who you are.

Do you ever see yourselves working with Prince?
Jam: We’d love to. We have had ongoing conversations with him about it. As a matter of fact, when we first built the studio, he came over and just kinda looked around. Said he liked it. He never said he’s proud of us, but I know he is. I know he has to be, in the way that a father would be proud of his son. Prince was the one who opened the way and showed us—more than anything—the work ethic it takes to do something. He is not only one of the most talented artists ever, he’s also the hardest-working. And that is so scary. Usually, someone who has natural talent could bluff their way through things and show up. He was the hardest working guy we’ve ever been around.

Terry, Jimmy calls you the visionary of the two of you.
Lewis: I can see into the future, but I can’t see things right under my nose. I’m always looking out, trying to see what’s going to keep us competitive—not necessarily with anyone else, but with ourselves.

What three songs have you written that have given you goosebumps?
Jam: Sounds of Blackness’ “Optomistic” is always at the head of our list for many reasons. It’s one of those songs that just happened. We knew we wanted a song that really showed the talent of Sounds of Blackness. It was gospel music, but not limited to traditional gospel; it embraced a great many musical genres. The other two would be really tough to call. I would have to say the entire Janet Jackson catalog of songs, and that whole relationship—if you could roll it into one song. But “When I Think of You” was our first #1  pop hit. When I listen to Yolanda Adams’ “Open My Heart,” I definitely get chills.

You’re tied for # 2 for all-time top producers in chart-topping pop hits. Can you put that into perspective?
Lewis: We never set out to do that. I never paid any attention to it until someone pointed it out. And I really don’t pay that much attention to it now. Every time I go into a studio, I’m just making music. But what makes it very gratifying to me is that we’ve done it with artists that everybody knows and loves; we were able to help their careers in some way.
Jam: Hit records are wonderful. But records that can uplift and do other things… that, to me, is the divinity of music. It’s a privilege to do what we do. I don’t think it’s a matter of repaying—if you can ever really do that. I don’t think you can ever save a part of yourself for that. We still have more positive things within us. God’s saying, “Stick around, y’all. Still got some good things to do, and you’re gonna do ’em.”

How long do you think it’ll be before you catch up to George Martin?
Lewis: I don’t even think about that; we just make music. One thing I know is, if you love the music, the music will love you back. It’s not an ego-driven thing. We make music because we love to make music. We used to pay to make music. Now, we get paid to make music. What a blessing!

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