"I did [American Idol]—just thinking it would be something fun and interesting to do. I never knew or thought it would get this big."
——Randy Jackson


An exclusive HITS interview with American Idol’s Randy Jackson by Gary Jackson
A recent airing of the wildly popular Fox Television reality show American Idol revealed that co-judge and industry A&R legend Randy Jackson can’t go more than a minute without saying one of three choice words: "man," "dawg" and "dude." The show’s host Ryan Seacrest threw down a $100 challenge to Jackson to see if he could last the entire program without using those three words. Co-judges Simon Cowell and Paula Abdul immediately threw in matching bets, bringing the ante to $300. Dude didn’t last 30 seconds before "dawg" flew out of his mouth!

Randy Jackson rocketed to instant fame on the show in the summer of 2002 after a very distinguished career as a session musician and as VP of A&R for both Columbia and MCA Records. He continues to be one of the most in-demand session musicians in the business, having put his thunderous bass to work on over 1,000 albums in his 20-year career. After landing a seat as one-third of Idol, Jackson now knows what public life is like. He talked recently with yet another Jackson (no relation), HITS writer Gary "Rabid" Jackson, whose dulcet voice causes coyotes to howl in pain when he croons in the shower.

What’s life like outside of American Idol?
I’m writing songs for an artist and a side project called Great Wide Mouth. We’ve got about 10-12 songs for a cool, vibe-y project, like the Roots meets Portishead. It’s not for the money; it’s a fun offshoot project. I never got into music for the money; but ‘cause I love it and had the passion to become the best that I could be as a musician, a producer and as a writer. I really bought into the title of Donny Hathaway’s album Extensions of a Man. I’ve tried to expand my life and keep things moving.

Where did you grow up?
Baton Rouge, Louisiana. I grew up in a neighborhood that had block parties where the hottest band in town would play or practice on their front porch, and all the kids in the neighborhood would gather around. I grew up in the ‘hood and people would say, "Don’t you hate growing up in the South with all that racism?" I said, "You know what, man, I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world." It’s the only area in the country that I know of that has its own ethnic, very rich culture, and its own styles of music; zydeco and Dixieland were born in Louisiana. You had a huge jazz culture, a huge blues culture, a huge rock culture, everything that you can imagine. So, a kid growing up loving James Brown, Motown, Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin to death, getting turned on to the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Chick Corea and Stanley Clarke, Miles Davis and John Coltrane when I was 15… I couldn’t replace it for anything. I immersed myself in music; that’s all I could think about. I practiced, took every lesson, listened to every record, hung out every place I could hang out where the music was happening. I really went for it. And that’s kind of the way my personality is, and what I do with almost anything I get into.

What was your first paying gig?
When I was 20, I had a chance to audition for [drummer] Billy Cobham, because I was so into jazz fusion. I won the audition over 30 players. I did two albums with Billy, Depth of Expression and Magic. All during that time, I just tried to soak up, be the sponge and learn everything I could. After Cobham, I joined Jean Luc Ponty, worked with Herbie Hancock, just everyone.

Who were some of the artists you've worked with?
Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Carlos Santana, Billy Joel, Aretha Franklin, Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, Whitney Houston, NSYNC, Dionne Ferris, Bon Jovi, Madonna, Kenny G., Angela Bofill, Patti LaBelle, Gladys Knight. I did four records with Frankie Beverly and Maze. I was in Jeff Lorber’s band for a while. Journey—I was with them the last three years of the band’s existence; I ghosted on Frontiers. But I never boast about my credits that much, because that’s just not who I am.

How did you get into A&R?
I knew David Kahane, a producer up in the Bay Area. He helped to form 415 Records, which had distribution through Columbia. Then David moved to L.A. and took a job as Columbia’s A&R guy. When I moved from San Francisco to L.A., I met with David and he asked if I was interested in getting into A&R. I said I didn’t want to get into A&R because I always hated A&R people. I always blamed them for the bad music that’s on the radio. [Laughs] I still kinda feel that way! The Internet is a big culprit, but I really think—having been a producer-musician, and having worked at labels—if it’s great, it sells, Internet or no Internet. We need to make better records and sign more stars. To all my A&R brethren out there, I know your pain.

And now American Idol.
I’d wanted to get into TV for some time because I felt the next place for music to be broken was TV. Like it is in Spain, like it is in Japan. I felt that radio alone wasn’t gonna be enough. I believe that true stars are born; they aren’t made.

Does that contradict the basis of American Idol?
No. The artists that win are those that the public believes are stars. The public believed Kelly Clarkson was the best talent. I thought Tamaya Graves should have been up there with her because she’s also a star; but that’s just the way things happen.

What’s your take on the current state of the record business?
What surprises me is, you can walk into any label today, and there are very few people who are happy. It’s the most unharmonious place, but it’s supposed to have passion and creativity.

How do you determine whether an act will succeed?
When I see an act, I think about a bunch of things: Are they good? Do they have hit songs? Are they stars? If they’re stars and they have hit songs, they’re gonna be signed really quick. And, you’re competing to get those songs with everyone else in the industry. The star thing is everything to me, because as I look around the charts, watch videos and think about the Grammys, there just aren’t a lot of them. And that kind of bugs me because that’s what motivated me to get into this business. Sly Stone at Woodstock is still a star today. I met Paul McCartney the other day; he’s a star today after 40 years! I was talking with somebody the other day, who said, "This is a terrible time in the music business." I said, "True, but you know what? It’s also the best time for the real artists to come out."

You were let go from MCA several years ago.
I was definitely ready. I had a couple of, umm, interesting meetings with [then-President] Jay Boberg, so I knew it was only a matter of time. I was actually relieved because, since leaving Columbia, I would say to my wife, "I gotta get out. I just can’t do it." Some people are cut out to do A&R; I’m not cut out to do it for life. I love music too much and I want to be as creative as I can. There are too many shackles on the inside, too many hurdles. I just don’t think some record companies are good. I have a theory: at every company, there might be 10 people who know what they’re doing. Everybody thinks they know everything, but nobody’s having success. I just think it’s time for a new model in the record industry. I think American Idol has really helped, believe it or not.

How so?
What American Idol affords these kids is, if you can show up with your talent, show up with your star potential, go through the ridicule of the public and the judges, you’ll maybe win the whole thing and come out of it a celebrity.

How did you land the judge’s seat?
An agent friend called and said, "There’s a show starting that’s coming over here from Britain. You may want to check it out. Somebody mentioned your name. Make the call and see if you’d be interested." I called his people and learned it was headed by [Executive Producer] Simon Fuller, whom I’d known through the Spice Girls and Annie Lennox, both of whom he managed. I went to a bunch of meetings and really loved the concept. I did it—just thinking it would be something fun and interesting to do. I never knew or thought it would get this big.

In the first year, Simon was the evil judge, Paula was the favorite, and you were the safe one. You got a little edgier this year.
If you show up for this, you need to be really good. You can’t tell these people they aren’t really good, that they can’t sing. You can’t tell them that. It’s a joke, and it bleeds into everything. I think karaoke has ruined singing. That’s why I get a little tougher because I want to say, "Yo, wake up! You can’t be horrible and expect us to put you through because you’re cute." Cute does not create an artist. Cute creates, maybe, a pop star—once. My thing is, I love artists, ‘cause that’s what feel I am, internally.

What else do you do?
I manage a couple of artists; one is Van Hunt, who is on Capitol, a throwback to Sly Stone-meets-Curtis Mayfield. He made a brilliant record that’s coming out soon. Then there’s Nikka Costa, who is on Virgin. She’s brilliant, with passion, personality. I remember when I first started working with her. We were at a Prince concert, and she said one of the most amazing things, that still moves me to this day. She said, "Man, you know what? Every time I see him, it just reminds me of how much harder I need to practice my piano and guitar." An artist who is that talented is still trying to get better. For somebody like me, who busted my ass trying to become a good musician, I love that. That’s amazing.

Watching American Idol, you can see some kids are only looking for 15 minutes of fame.
I can be in a room and see an act and within four bars, I can tell if they’re talented and know what they’re doing. I’ve been doing it for so long, I can see it right away. I don’t care who’s performing; I’m looking for the passion. I’m not looking for how many notes they played right. It ain’t about the notes; it’s about the passion. If you listen to Bob Dylan, people would say, "Well, I don’t know if I like Dylan’s voice." But the passion, the deliverance, the lyrics... I don’t care what he’s singing; I love the passion in this guy. That’s the problem. The industry is focused more on the dollar than the art. It’s about art and commerce. You need to commercially be able to sell art. It ain’t just about commerce. It never will be for me. Now is the time for everyone to be as creative as they want to be. Try everything. Forget any old pattern. Try something different.

How are you handling your celebrity?
It’s still weird to think of myself as a celebrity. As big as some people think my ego is, it ain’t that big, trust me! But it’s interesting for my kids, and it’s interesting to now live full circle and see the other side of it. I feel so fortunate. I used to be in a band with Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, a blues guy from the South, and Clarence used to always say, "You know, young’un, you gots to learn to take the bitter with the sweet!" So, I don’t think anything is really bitter; you take everything in stride. If you’re gonna be in the public eye and it’s too stressful, hey, don’t be in the public eye. Work in a job at some plant.

What glass ceiling? (3/4a)
The planets align for genre-transcending artist. (3/4a)
Hip, hip, hoo-RAYE (3/4a)
A talk with Top Dog's "Top Dawg." (3/4a)
He is incomparable, but not in a good way. (3/4a)
Just kidding. But we'll get there.
How guitar music got big again.
Start digging out your formal wear and let's do this.
it's not what you think.

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