Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis on the stories behind their biggest hits with Janet Jackson, Mary J. Blige, and more
Sixteen No. 1 singles, tens of millions of records sold, and two iconic hats.
Stories Behind the Songs is a recurring column where iconic musicians share behind-the-scenes details of their hit singles.
Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, one of the most iconic producing/songwriting teams in the business, employ a unique analogy when describing the key to their musical success.
“Microwave popcorn is great — until you’ve had real popcorn. We feel music is the same way,” Jam says. “It’s not that it’s bad, it’s just you’ve been consuming microwave music, so here’s some music that’s actually cooked on a stove… so people when they hear it, will hopefully have that like ‘Damn, this sounds different to me, this makes me feel different.'” Adds Lewis, “You don’t miss what you’ve never had.”
The Minneapolis duo, who began their careers as musicians affiliated with Prince and Morris Day, are best known for being Janet Jackson‘s most trusted collaborators, from her third album Control all the way up to 2015’s Unbreakable. They’ve also written and produced No. 1 songs for game-changing musicians including George Michael, Mariah Carey, and Usher.
Ahead of a new set of superstar collaborations dropping this fall — one that is sure to give fans that authentic popcorn experience — the pair gave EW an inside look at some of their best-known tracks.
“Nasty” – Janet Jackson (1986)
“For Janet, we wanted to bring back the attitude in her,” says Jam (born James Harris III) of making Jackson’s breakout third album, Control. “When she first started singing [‘Nasty’] she was singing it in her regular voice — like in her high voice — but I think she had a cold, and we were like, ‘Why don’t you sing it an octave lower? Can you do that?’ And she said, ‘I don’t know.'” But the duo had developed enough trust with her at that point that “she was cool with trying anything,” says Jam. “Nasty” went on to hit No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100.
“Human” – The Human League (1986)
Jam and Lewis — original members of the Prince-assembled funk group The Time — enlisted Lisa Keith, an artist signed to their label imprint Perspective Records, to sing background on this track, ruffling the feathers of some of the female members of the English band. After Human League lead singer Philip Oakey made the duo aware of the issue, Lewis wrote a new spoken-word section just for them: the memorable “I forgive you, now I ask the same of you / While we were apart, I was human too” lyrics slid in after the second chorus, in an iconic twist for the No. 1 hit about a man asking his partner to forgive him for being unfaithful. Jam calls it the most killer line of all the Jam and Lewis records.
“Can You Stand The Rain” – New Edition (1988)
This New Edition tune helped popularize the “nayhoo” sound that became ubiquitous in ’90s R&B. “I did it on ‘Can You Stand the Rain’ and also ‘On Bended Knee’ [by Boyz II Men],” says Jam. “That was my go-to…” “…Ad-lib,” says Lewis, finishing Jam’s thought. Adds Jam: “I used to do the demo vocals when we would write a song — which everybody called blackmail tapes because they were so bad. It would feel like, ‘Oh, I might sing the sh— out of this.'”
Jam calls the single “a glue record psychologically” for the boy band because it was the first to feature new member Johnny Gill. Prior to making the song, Jam and Lewis sat the group down and said, “This ain’t your group, Johnny. You’re not going to really do any singing.” Gill replied, “That’s cool with me. I’m a team player,” and when the song evolved into a back and forth between original member Ralph Tresvant and Gill, Jam says they would stay in the studio to watch and support each other’s recording sessions. Jam and Lewis would go on to make solo hits for both Gill and Tresvant but still maintain that the recording process of “Can You Stand The Rain” was “that moment that really solidified them in their new formation as a group.”
“That’s The Way Love Goes” – Janet Jackson (1993)
According to Jam and Lewis, Virgin Records wanted “If” to be the first single from 1993’s janet., but Jam says they were adamant about “That’s the Way Loves Goes” as the album’s table-setter. The label finally conceded after they played the song for “New Agenda” collaborator Chuck D, who called it “some Sade sh—.” Jam and Lewis also saw the single as a perfect segue into a new era following Rhythm Nation 1814. “To us, the next chapter was ‘That’s the Way Love Goes,’ because the janet. album was much more of a love album,” Jam explains. The song would become the longest-running Jackson family single ever at No. 1, with an eight-week stay at the top of the Hot 100.
“Together Again” – Janet Jackson (1997)
“Patti LaBelle or Whitney Houston… those are people you listen to sing. There’s other people like Diana Ross that you sing along with,” Jam says. “That’s the voice that we always felt Janet had.” The singer achieved sing-along status once again with the No. 1 single “Together Again,” an upbeat track about a fallen friend. Lewis says the magic of the Velvet Rope hit is that Jackson’s “intention is always there,” but she leaves space for you to grow into it.”
“Give It To You” – Jordan Knight (1999)
Jam and Lewis had not met the New Kids on the Block member before they collaborated on the Top 10 single, but “the one thing we did know about Jordan is he could dance his ass off, and we were like ‘Let’s give him something that he can dance to, but something that’s quirky and different,’” Jam explains. The pair wrote the song with a pre-fame Robin Thicke who Jam says was “a very clever lyricist,” but “would take a lot of breaks.” According to the pair, he’d come in, write a line, sing it, go “‘Okay, I’ll be right back,’ and then he’d come back five, 10 minutes later, ‘okay, play that again.’” “Eventually we would actually get a verse,” Jam jokes.
“I’m Good At Being Bad” – TLC (1999)
Jam and Lewis’ goal in making the hype track for the multiplatinum Fanmail was “to try to utilize the roughness of T-Boz’s voice with the sweetness of Chilli’s voice and then the perspective of Left Eye on the rap side, to have a song that was aggressive but also soft at the same time.” Jam adds, “They were on top of the world…just fearless. I love that we got a chance to work with them” before Left Eye died in 2002.
“No More Drama” – Mary J. Blige (2001)
“We’d spent a lot of time with her,” says Lewis of Queen of Hip Hop Soul Mary J. Blige. “When we created the concept for this song, I remember we let her hear it. Her rebuttal to it was ‘Did you guys follow me around before you created this?’” Jam, touched, recalls Blige saying, “I’m not changing a word of this song. This is it, this is me. I absolutely love this song, but not for this album that I’m doing right now. I want this to be the title track to my next album.”
“At the rehearsal, when they put her on to do the  Grammys,” Jam recalls, “she’s up there and she starts singing [‘No More Drama’], and everybody’s doing what they’re doing.” The producer says there were some 50 people in the room sweeping, chatting, making phone calls, “and about halfway through the song, everybody stops sweeping, everybody’s not on their phone, now they’re all watching the stage, and when she got to the end of that song… it sounded like 18,000 people.”