As the landmark Michael Jackson album turns 25, its legendary producer tells us what it means to him, what happened at his recent get-together with the King of Pop, and whether he's got more music to make (Snoop Dogg and Joe Pesci (?!) think so)
Quincy Jones could use a day off. Twenty-five years after producing Michael Jackson’s Thriller, at an age when some might be settling into a peaceful retirement, the 74-year-old music-biz legend stays busy crisscrossing the globe for various philanthropic projects. ”I’m so tired of these planes, man!” Jones kids. ”I’m going to go to Brazil tomorrow. It’s ridiculous.” During a rare free moment at his Bel Air, Calif., home, Jones chatted with EW.com about this month’s deluxe Thriller anniversary edition, his most recent visit with Michael Jackson, and whether the music industry is too far gone to be saved.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How do you feel when you look back at Thriller, 25 years later?
QUINCY JONES: I can’t believe it’s that long ago. When I go to Shanghai or Cairo or wherever, it’s shocking to see that they’re still playing it all over the world 25 years later. It’s an honor to me.
When you were in the studio recording that music, did you ever imagine it would be that timeless?
You don’t think about that kind of stuff when you make records. You want it to be played next week! [Laughs] It’s astounding. I picked one of the most incredible teams in the world, the guys that I worked with — [songwriter] Rod Temperton and [engineer] Bruce Swedien and [keyboardist] Greg Phillinganes and [horns/strings arranger] Jerry Hey — it was a divine situation. Everybody had this incredible respect and love and affection for each other. A team that is real honest with each other, that’s the key. Because there’s nothing in the world like getting a group of guys [like this] around…. I’ve seen a lot of people [whose] friends and cousins tell them everything they do is perfect. That’s a big mistake.
Have you listened to the whole Thriller album start to finish in one sitting recently?
God, no. I haven’t done that in 20 years.
I have it in my system in my home, but I’m not going to sit there attentively listening to every song. We had a lot of music out in the ’80s and the ’70s. So it’s never been a situation where I just sit down. Maybe I will one day, when I get time. Just sit down and relax and count the blessings, really. Because that’s what they are…. Michael came by here the other day.
What was that visit like?
It was great. We just hung out and talked. It was nice to see him. He came with [attorney] Peter Lopez. I hadn’t seen him in a long time.
What kind of things did you talk about?
He told me that they were doing some remixes [of songs from Thriller] and so forth. Somebody sent it to me, and they’re fantastic. Akon worked on one, will.i.am did one. They were beautiful.
Some people think it’s almost blasphemy to remix Thriller.
Look, man, stuff happens. What happens happens, right? Lord knows, Thriller‘s certainly had its time, and it still does. It’s still doing whatever it’s supposed to do, which is shocking in itself. I think the way the record business is now, it’ll never happen again.
Why do you say that?
It was the very beginning of MTV, back when MTV wasn’t even playing black music. In a way, Michael and MTV rode each other to glory, in terms of establishing the format for videos. I still see every day, videos that were made last month that look just like the videos that he made 25 years ago. It’s amazing. And, you know, everything grows. It has its natural evolution and it evolves. When you’ve been in the music business this long, nothing surprises you. I started back with 78 [rpm] records — that’s how long I’ve been in the business.
NEXT PAGE: ”I like it best when there’s no time for paralysis from analysis. We ended up making Thriller in eight weeks, the entire album. We didn’t have time to think about all that intellectual stuff.”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Do you think the music business will eventually recover from where it is now?
QUINCY JONES: Who the hell knows? I think the passion for music is as high as ever. I think the distribution system is a disaster, totally flawed. It’s a misunderstanding between Silicon Valley and the corporate bean counters at the record companies. And I don’t think anybody knows what to do. Binary numbers are not new — they had binary numbers in Egypt, in 3500 B.C. That’s still what drives all the high-tech stuff: permutations of zeros and ones. Once you get into the area of a CD or a DVD, you’re handing your customer a smoking gun, ’cause it has the same power as a master. You couldn’t do that with vinyl — vinyl would wear out and they’d have to buy another copy. It’s changed so much. The technologies ran by the record business. The genie’s out of the bottle, never to return. That’s what I think. What do I know? I’m old-school, man! [Laughs]
Michael’s also been recording an all-new album of his own. As someone who’s collaborated with him closely, where would you like to see him go with his music?
I don’t know. Right now, I haven’t been concentrating on that. I’ve been involved in a lot of things, mainly my foundation — running all over the world, trying to figure out what to do about these kids that are having a real difficult time in Cambodia, Rwanda, the favelas, Katrina, everywhere. I care about that more than anything in the world. I’m going to be 75 this year. At that age, you’ve got to come up with some big solutions.
Given all that, would you say music is in the past for you?
God, no. Are you kidding me? People couldn’t live two days without music. It’s powerful stuff, man. It’s the only thing in the world that engages the left and right brain simultaneously, emotion and intellect. Can you imagine one month with no music at all, not one note? You’d go out of your mind.
What about you personally, though? What would get you excited about making music again?
I’m going to. I’m working with Snoop Dogg, Joe Pesci…Tony Bennett called me a while ago, to do an album with him and Stevie Wonder. Music’s always going to be a part of my life, man. I don’t even know how to drive, so I guess I was born to do that.
Can you tell me anything else about those projects? What are they going to sound like?
I don’t know. I just listen to God’s whispers and when it’s time to go, just go. I like it best when there’s no time for paralysis from analysis. We ended up making Thriller in eight weeks, the entire album. We didn’t have time to think about all that intellectual stuff. It’s about blink! Malcolm Gladwell was absolutely right. You realize that we are all vehicles for a higher power to express what this is about. Music is a strange element of the planet, really. You can’t see it, taste it, touch it, smell it — but you sure can feel it. Since I was 12 years old, all I’ve ever wanted to do is orchestrate, arrange, compose, and so forth. And most people are serious about their music. That’s where it comes from. Mozart was not worried about making money off of music, you know. Money and bling-bling and Benjamins and all that stuff ain’t about nothing. When we came up, we couldn’t care, ’cause our idols were the raggediest dudes in the world.
Maybe these changes in the industry will help bring people back to what’s important about music, then.
Yes. It’s interesting to watch, though, isn’t it? Especially when you get older. You start to have a different perspective on what it’s really all about. I’ve been blessed enough, man, to work with almost everybody in the last 55 years of American music. It’s a huge blessing.