Michael Jackson’s HIStory: An Essay.
Michael Jackson was quite simply one of the biggest celebrities of the 20th century, a distinction that brought with it endless coverage and speculation of his personal life by the press and public alike. As Michael’s success continued to rise and his solo career took traction, this exposure would continue to build to epic proportions. By the end of the 1980s, he was one of the biggest pop stars on the planet, attaining a commercial success few artists could dream of. While Jackson was viewed as somewhat of an eccentric oddity, his talent and artistic excellence would generally have the last word. In summer of 1993 however, this relationship with the press would take an insidious turn with Jackson enduring a scathing and relentless dissection of his personal life following an extortion attempt fuelled by allegations of sexual misconduct. These accusations would take a significant toll on the artist with Michael canceling the remainder of his Dangerous World Tour and entering rehab for an addiction to prescription medication. Despite the conjecture and controversy surrounding his personal life, Jackson was first and foremost an artist. A man who often described feeling most comfortable on stage and uttered in an interview as a young boy, “Whatever I sing, that’s what I really mean. Like, I’m singing a song, I don’t sing it if I don’t mean it.” Michael would respond to the emotional and psychological turmoil of those events two years later, not in a long and extensive interview with the press but how he does it best, through his art and music.
Michael Jackson’s HIStory: Past Present and Future Book 1 is as an expression of catharsis for the artist and a response to the circumstances of the previous two years of his life. The album was largely inspired by the turbulent events surrounding the allegations of 1993. As Jackson noted, “The new songs are very different. They are autobiographical, I mean they came from the heart — they are myself. They are not my songs anymore, it’s the way I feel they belong to everybody now. Sometimes the only thing you can do is scream. Don’t you ever feel this way? You just wanna let it all out. People should listen and decide for themselves.” Michael would use the project as an outlet to channel his anger and continue to push the boundaries of his own artistry through experimentation and collaboration. While there would be commercial hits, Jackson would also explore fewer mainstream genres he had touched upon in previous work and immerse himself in styles such as classical orchestration, industrial rock, and current hip-hop.
The genesis of the HIStory project did not begin with the intention of creating an expansive two-disc set. Originally Jackson’s new project was to be a greatest hits collection with a couple of new songs, much like the aborted Decade project of 1990. Michael, however, was in a prolific phase of creativity and continued to record new material with long-term collaborators, Brad Buxer, Bruce Swedien, and a host of other producers and engineers. The excitement of these sessions meant that Michael wanted to record a new full-length album as opposed to a few songs. As Jackson noted, “In truth, I really didn’t want the album to be about old songs, you know. It is a Greatest Hits album — to me most Greatest Hits Albums are boring, you know, and I wanted to keep creating.” Rob Hoffman, an engineer who worked extensively during these sessions, noted a similar evolution, “When we were brought on to work (on HIStory) we were told there would be two to four new songs, probably just two and the rest would be the greatest hits… Once Michael got to New York that plan completely blew up because he’s like “I got a lot to say” and we were immediately working on 8 to 12 songs, which I think expanded into the neighbourhood of 30 to 40 songs in six months.”
Jackson would begin work on new songs, largely referencing the psychological toll of the events the previous year had taken; but the sessions would also be used as an opportunity to resurrect previous incomplete songs and ideas. The recording would take place for over a year, to the frustration of record label Sony who were eagerly awaiting a new release from Jackson. Hoffman recollected that in December of 1994, “there were over a thousand tapes, and we had invented an entire library system to track which tape went where, and what song.” It was clear that the sessions would produce enough material for a full-length album with tracks to spare, however, the greatest hits concept would still materialise on the completed project. With the album configured, Jackson and the team had the monumental task of editing the album down to fit onto a CD by removing either one full track or editing some of the others. This proved to be a difficult task, Michael was not happy with the suggestions by engineer John Van Nest to edit certain parts as he recollects, “What saved us all was Bruce coming in, appearing somewhat of an authority figure and simply telling Michael that I either had to make the cuts or we would have to cut one song off the album… The CD format was not capable of handling 80 plus minutes. And over the course of about five hours, we got it down.”
HIStory: Past Present and Future Book 1 would be released on June 16, 1995, as an expanded two-disc collection. Disc 1 would be comprised of the greatest hits format, featuring 15 of Jackson’s past hits spanning 1979–1991. Disc 2 would feature new tracks, primarily recorded and completed during the 1994–1995 sessions. The title for the album was inspired by the wordplay of Madonna’s 1990 greatest hits release, titled The Immaculate Collection. Dan Beck, an Epic executive and marketing assistant for Jackson at the time, came up with the title. He elaborates, “It seemed to be ‘his story’ about the past year or so, and the double-album also included the greatest hits, which was his musical history. So I wrote it down and played around with it, and came up with HIStory.” Michael similarly discussed the over-arching theme of the album noting, “It’s about people looking at their lives and taking any seconds of their well being and making something of yourself — creating a legacy so you can look back and look at what you have done. I always wanted that, that’s why I like working very hard.”
The album begins with the first true collaboration between Michael and his sister Janet on the bombastic track Scream. While Janet had contributed back-up vocals on Michael’s 1982 track P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing), she had since established herself as one of the most important acts in popular music, attaining both commercial and critical success. Janet notes that Michael had requested for a duet as early as during the 1989 Rhythm Nation Tour, however, this wouldn’t come to fruition until 1995. The collaboration on Scream would extend further than just a duet between Michael and Janet. Legendary producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis who worked extensively with Janet would also lend their talents in producing the song as requested by Michael. Jam elaborates, “Michael didn’t really give us any direction. He just said, ‘Come up with a bunch of tracks and I’ll listen to what you come up with’. So over a period of three or four days, we began creating about five different tracks at our studio in Minneapolis. We had Janet come over because we wanted her here for inspiration; we felt it was important for the tracks to have a Janet vibe.”
Approximately eight instrumental tracks were recorded and three were presented for consideration, with Michael ultimately choosing one due to the commanding nature of the composition. Jimmy notes, “Michael said, ‘This is the one I want, it’s angry, aggressive, that’s what I wanted’. Janet just started laughing and said, ‘Told you so’. It’s clear that Jackson was using this project as an outlet to channel his frustrations and this would extend into the hard-hitting and relentless compositions of the tracks. Janet discussed the collaborative writing process with her brother, “He and I worked on the melody and the lyrical content together and it was really representing what he was going through at that time in his life which was a ton of drama. Me being the little sister, my role still to this day, having his back and supporting him.” She would also contribute the title of the track and the lyrics featured on the bridge, however, Michael would write the rest of the song. Jam notes how the melody was more catered to Michael’s strength as a vocalist, but Janet would take up the challenge of broadening her vocal style, “Michael said, ‘I have an idea’, and began coming up with a melody and rhythm for the track, but no words. Then he started singing the melody, but we realised it was too low for Janet. It was more to his strengths than hers and we needed to make sure Janet fared well, but she just said, ‘It’s his album, his song, and his feeling, and I’m just the guest’. She had no expectation beyond helping her brother.”
Hoffman recollected on the collaborative process between the two music legends, “We did that entire background session with Jimmy, Terry and me in the room and that went really, really incredibly smoothly. I can remember Michael and Janet having fun together and they sang a lot of show tunes that day, songs from their childhood and Broadway shows. But it was also two great minds getting back together figuring out how to make things work…So they would sing the parts and Jimmy had a keyboard right in front of them, and he would play the notes within the chords and Michael and Janet would double up notes.”
It’s evident from the incredible vocal performance from both Michael and Janet that there was a sense of catharsis during the sessions. Jimmy discussed witnessing Michael recording his supreme vocals in the studio and the unorthodox nature of the artist’s recording process, “He definitely had things to get off his chest and that’s what it was about. Recording the song was probably one of the most mind-blowing experiences ever. He walked into the studio, very nice and very kind: “OK, I’m going to try my part now. . . .” So Michael goes in and the moment the music starts, he turns into the Tasmanian Devil. He’s a whole different person, stomping, clapping, he’s got jewellery jingling — all the stuff you’re not supposed to do in the studio. Me and Terry are sitting there going “Oh my God!”
Janet would record her vocals in Minneapolis with Michael also following to perform further vocal takes while also adding some extra hand claps to the track. Scream would be the first single released from the album and an adequate reflection of Jackson’s artistic direction with the new album.
Jackson would continue to become increasingly philanthropic and political in his songwriting as his career progressed. As Michael became more aware of social issues, he would begin to incorporate the subject matter into his art while also contrasting them with his own experiences. One such example is the compelling track They Don’t Care About Us. An early foundation for the composition was developed during the Dangerous recording sessions, as noted by producer Bryan Loren who worked with Jackson during the early Dangerous sessions in 1990. “This was a song that he’d started even before I joined him for Dangerous. One of the first things I heard was this song, but it got bumped at the time.” The track would ultimately be recorded and completed for the HIStory project, as producer Brad Buxer noted, “We didn’t start it from somebody else’s initial work, we started that from scratch.”
The track begins with a chant akin to a protest, abruptly interrupted by sirens and a prominent drum line. The song continues to grow in intensity with a build-up of strings and luscious harmonies performed by the Andràe Crouch Choir. Buxer noted Jackson’s significant input in the creation of the iconic song, “Michael wrote the whole track, of course. He had everything in his head and it was me and him sitting at the control room each day with other people around like Rob Hoffman, Andrew Scheps, Eddie Delena… we did percussion parts because most of the song is just percussion and we worked forever on them.” Brad Sundburg, one of Jackson’s technicians, discussed the creation of the iconic drum line featured on the song. “When we started recording, it started with its own loop, and to Michael’s request we made the sounds as sharp and pointed as possible.” Hoffman, who also worked on the track recalls further, “It was a song that MJ had written a long time ago, and it got resurrected on every album from what I heard. We finally got it right on HIStory. It was basically a click track for the longest time with Michael and Brad adding new percussion elements everyday, and Andrew and I building sample libraries for it every night. Sticks, claps, snares, hits.”
The composition would build to a sonic explosion in the bridge, with prominent guitar emerging. Rob discussed the recording of the guitar on the bridge, “We had tons of programmers and guitar players come in and everyone filled up their own 24 track tape with overdubs — Jason Miles, Jeff Bova, Trevor Rabin, Slash, and many more… Apparently, after Trevor and Slash played their parts, someone realised they had played the wrong notes on the main bridge riff. They pulled me in to replay it.” A fusion of all these contributions, including Hoffman’s own guitar work would eventually become the bridge featured on the completed track. Lyrically, Jackson takes a universal perspective on the song, playing the part of those who throughout history have been victimised or encountered prejudice. He provides commentary on the abuse of the judicial system and the consequences of being falsely accused of a crime. Michael, however, takes it further; contrasting the universal perspective with his own personal injustices, proclaiming “Don’t you black or white me.” The use of a Jewish slur on the track garnered controversy when the album was released with many publications denouncing the inclusion of the term and labelling the song as Anti-Semitic. Michael responded to the New York Times in a statement noting, “The idea that these lyrics could be deemed objectionable is extremely hurtful to me, and misleading. The song in fact is about the pain of prejudice and hate and is a way to draw attention to social and political problems. I am the voice of the accused and the attacked. I am the voice of everyone. I am the skinhead, I am the Jew, I am the black man, I am the white man. I am not the one who was attacking. It is about the injustices to young people and how the system can wrongfully accuse them. I am angry and outraged that I could be so misinterpreted.”
It is abundantly clear within the context of the track that there was no anti-Semitism intended, for a song quite literally about social prejudice and discrimination. The song would ultimately be released as the fifth single from the album with two iconic music videos being filmed, both directed by Spike Lee. The track is a testament to Jackson’s increasingly passionate devotion to shedding light on social injustice through music.
One of the greatest demonstrations of Jackson’s talent, as a songwriter would be featured on HIStory with the haunting ballad, Stranger In Moscow. The song is one of Michael’s most introspective and fascinating from a lyrical perspective but also features a sublime composition arranged by keyboardist Brad Buxer. The two wrote the song in a hotel room in Moscow during the European leg of the Dangerous Tour, a few months after the initial reports of child abuse allegations surfaced. Michael recollected, “Stranger in Moscow was written when I was in Moscow on the Dangerous-Tour. And it was just a strange, eerie, lonely time for me. Outside my hotel was just a sea of faces of… of fans chanting and screaming. But I was inside my room and I felt so all alone, like I was the last person of the planet. And in the song I say “How does it feel when you’re alone and you’re cold inside.” I say “It’s like a stranger in Moscow” and that’s pretty much how I felt. And the people were some of the nicest people I’ve ever met. And the concert was very successful, but that day, especially that day, I just felt this different feeling and the song “Stranger in Moscow” came to me. So, that’s how it was written.” Buxer recollected on how the song was birthed, “We were on tour in Moscow, and he called me up and told me to come to his room. I thought he wanted to hear some of the cues I was working on for the video game, Sonic The Hedgehog 3… He was really depressed at the time with everything going on.”
Buxer then sat at the piano in the room, and began to play, as he notes, “I played several things, among them was the verse for Stranger in Moscow. It was actually one of the cues I had written for the Sega game but I played it more like a song and he loved it.” At Jackson’s request, Buxer began to adjust the chords, eventually finding the right ones to fit the developing track “And those two chords became the chorus on Stranger In Moscow. There’s no ambiguity about this. We worked for an hour and a half then we tried to find the chords for the 3rd section but the song didn’t need one.”
Further development on the song would not continue until after the Dangerous tour was finished, and the HIStory recording sessions began. As Buxer notes, “Then we finished the tour and started working on the HIStory album. I went up to New York with Eddie DeLena, a wonderful engineer. So I was there for a month without Michael and I started working on Stranger In Moscow. Then Michael came to New York and he loved it so much. It was exactly what he had envisioned the production would be. I had split up the sounds, sequenced them and chopped the sounds really short. The piano was an MKS- 20 Roland digital piano module sound and the strings from a combination of my Emulator.” Jackson would contribute his talents as a beatboxer to the composition, forming the template of the percussion with his own voice. As Hoffman notes, “The “Stranger In Moscow” track starts with MJ’s beatbox by itself. Andrew Scheps spent some time dropping the original beatbox into the synclav and chopping all the middle bits out. I can’t remember if it was from a micro-cassette or not, but there was lots of background noise. Not much processing after that.” The resulting drum pattern feels both fluid and unique, a demonstration of Jackson’s unorthodox talents as a composer.
Michael’s vocals are a highlight on the track, with the singer perfectly emoting feelings of isolation and despair, captured through the vulnerability in his voice. There is a perfect intertwine between Jackson’s lead vocals and the background vocals acting as a sort of call and response. Hofmann recollected on the recording of Jackson’s vocals on the track, “We recorded the backgrounds up in Studio 1 of the Hit Factory which had this huge orchestra room. Michael stood very far back from the microphone so he could get the ambience, the room tone.” The lyrics featured on the song would be some of Jackson’s most interesting and poetic, filled with metaphors relating to Russian history contrasted with Michael’s own internal emotional turmoil. While the song would be credited to Jackson alone, the track is a demonstration of the incredible accomplishments of Michael and Buxer’s collaborative process and simply one of the best songs in Jackson’s catalog.
Michael and producers would often work on a track and if he felt it was not complete or didn’t fit the sound or concept of an album, it would be abandoned. Often, however, he would resurrect the song or idea during recording sessions for subsequent projects. Earth Song is one such example as producer Bill Bottrell notes; “Michael has always felt better really fleshing out something over a long period of time to discover everything that he can about it.” Jackson discussed the genesis of the writing of this acclaimed song, “I remember of writing Earth Song when I was in Austria, in a hotel. And I was feeling so much pain and so much suffering of the plight of the Planet Earth. And for me, this is Earth’s Song, because I think nature is trying so hard to compensate for man’s mismanagement of the Earth. And with the ecological unbalance going on, and a lot of the problems in the environment, I think earth feels… feels the pain, and she has wounds, and it’s about some of the joys of the planet as well. But this is my chance to pretty much let people hear the voice of the planet. And this is “Earth Song”. And that’s what inspired it. And it just suddenly dropped into my lap when I was in… on tour in Austria.”
While the basic structure and melody of the track would be developed during the Bad Tour in 1988, some lyrics would slightly differ from the completed track.
“What about sunrise, what about rain, what about all the things that you said would come again?
What about wishing wells, what about time, what about all the things that you said was all mine?”
Did you ever stop to notice all the things we’ve done before, did you ever stop to notice how I’m walking out the door?”
The lyrics would continue to evolve with Jackson taking a more expansive and universal perspective to the songwriting. An early version of the track entitled What About Us was recorded during the Dangerous recording sessions in 1990, produced by long term Jackson collaborator Bill Bottrell. The instrumentation differs slightly from the eventually released version on HIStory, most notably Jackson’s vocals are altered during the climax, replacing a sublime falsetto with the powerful vocals featured on the release. Steve Ferrone, who played drums on the track, recalled his discussion with Jackson around the percussion to be featured, “Michael came into the studio and he said he wanted me to materialise what he had in mind for two songs, I think. So I listened to the first song and then the second song, which was Earth Song. That’s when he said he wanted electronic drums on it. I said to him “why on earth do you want electronic drums on something called Earth Song?” Ferrone would perform with electronic drums as Michael requested, but then also presented a version on live drums. Jackson ultimately chose the live drums to feature on the song.
The track would also feature a prominent bass line, driving the pulsing and dramatic nature of the composition. Guy Pratt recollected on his experience playing bass on the song, “The track was pretty much done and it sounded amazing and so expansive. I just went down to the studio but Michael wasn’t there. He had just said, put some ideas down. He wanted something kind of like Like A Prayer… I think the bass line I came up with sounds pretty much like the bass line on Bad.” All these contributions to the developing track would take place during the Dangerous recording sessions. Four years later, Jackson and producers would once again come back to the song. Hoffman notes, “Earth Song initially started prior to the HIStory sessions and came back to life for us in New York. There were the drum tracks and other bits laid down, like all the synthesizer intro that was already completed, some of the vocals was fairly well done with Bill Bottrell.”
Composer David Foster who had been working with Jackson on the orchestral arrangements for other songs during these sessions also worked on the track, bringing in composer Bob Ross to add a similar arrangement to the song. Bottrell at times became apprehensive with Foster’s involvement on a track he initially worked on. “Foster became frustrated with Michael because he kept going back to my version. I was not happy to find David Foster’s name on what I considered my best production ever.” Foster would suggest Michael Thompson contribute a guitar part to the track, as Hoffman notes, “not to diminish Michael’s work but we actually tried to get Eric Clapton to play for that but he declined to do it. He (Thompson) did an amazing job as he is one of the best guitar players ever.” Jackson also took the opportunity to re-record his vocals for the climactic finale, replacing the falsetto with the compelling vocals featured on the finished song. Hoffman recollected on the recording of Jackson’s incredible voice, which would ultimately be the final vocal performance recorded for the album, “He still had to sing the last bit of the song, and the reason why it was left for last is because he destroys his vocal cords in the end. He knew it had to be the last thing he was gonna sing because nothing was gonna to follow it for some time… He knew of that power and of that last giving of his voice, and that’s what you hear in those ad-libs. That was a huge amount of that last weekend.”
Originally the track was to be comprised of three parts, the first being a spoken word poem entitled Planet Earth and featured in Jackson’s Dancing The Dream book released in 1992, over an orchestral backing. The second part was to be the song we all know today and the final, an orchestral epilogue, which remains unreleased. Earth Song would prove to be extremely successful commercially, becoming Jackson’s biggest number one hit in the UK and Germany, while also rightfully receiving critical acclaim. The song is a crowning achievement and a highlight both on the album and of Jackson’s career.
As Jackson continued to explore new sounds and genres throughout his career, he would increasingly attempt to appeal to an urban audience with his music, beginning most notably with the Dangerous project and further developing during the HIStory sessions. By collaborating with more contemporary producers such as Teddy Riley, Michael would begin to embrace genres such as new jack swing, hip-hop and also incorporate rap into his music. Dallas Austin who had attained significant commercial success producing TLC’s CrazySexyCool album in 1994 and Madonna’s Bedtime Stories the same year, worked with Jackson on the rap driven track This Time Around. Michael would ultimately choose this song to work on from approximately a dozen basic track ideas Austin presented to the singer. Colin Wolfe, a bass player who worked on This Time Around discussed the genesis of the song, “The song was created in Atlanta at Dallas’ studio. At least the track was. Dallas gave me the direction and I would put my feel on it and embellishments… There were other demos but This Time Around stood out from the rest. Initially, Dallas Austin sent instrumentals and them Michael would send back his idea.” Hoffman recollects, “Dallas came with thirteen tracks and This Time Around was one of those songs”. Other contributors to the track would include producers Rene Moore and Bruce Swedien, albeit not as heavily involved as Austin. The song would be developed during the latter part of the HIStory recording sessions with Swedien adding a bridge to the track. Hoffman notes, “That whole bridge rap section was really created by Bruce, and Simon Fanglen played keyboards on the section… That song came about fairly close to the end, in the last four months, so it was fairly easy.”
To further add to the urban element of the track, Notorious B.I.G would feature, providing a rap during the bridge section. Engineer John Van Nest recalled that the track was “pretty finished musically but Bruce added a bridge to it” by the time B.I.G had come to the studio to record his parts. He recalls, “During his first take, Dallas and I looked at each other, because it was spot on. wow. I was impressed, and so was Dallas. We listened back, and Dallas was like, “Wow, I think we got it”. As I recall, we took another take for good measure, but I’m fairly certain that we ended up using the first take.” The song would receive moderate success as a promotional single released in the US and would emerge on the charts based on radio airplay alone.
The events surrounding allegations of sexual misconduct in 1993 would play a large part in the lyrical inspiration for many songs on HIStory. Jackson would explicitly touch on the emotional consequences of the extortion attempt throughout the album. One of the most overt references to the case itself would be found on the track D.S. worked on early during the HIStory sessions. It’s abundantly clear that the subject of the track was late district attorney Tom Sneddon, a man who led the 1993 investigation and attempted to prosecute Jackson in 2003. Sneddon’s tireless pursuit of prosecuting Jackson, despite the evidence saying otherwise became somewhat of a personal crusade. Michael references this throughout the song with a powerful sentiment.
“They wanna get my ass dead or alive, You know he really tried to take me down by surprise, I bet he missioned with the CIA, He don’t do half what he say.”
Hoffman discussed the development of the song lyrically, “I do recall that the song initially started out as a set of initials before there was any vocals — the initials were in place early on. As the lyrics came out, I do recall Bruce Swedien trying to be a voice of reason and guide Michael towards the right decision.” Jackson would sample a drum break from English rock band Yes’ 1983 single, Owner Of A Lonely Heart. Slash would once again work with Michael on this project, contributing the guitar solo featured on the bridge coupled with a synthesizer solo by Larry Williams. Williams recollected on the experience, “I played the Roland VP-70 solo on the track with Slash — I think it was D.S. I played the solo in an hour.” Buxer would also contribute on D.S. playing keys, he recollected on the experience. “I was sitting at the keyboard with Michael who was writing everything and I was just executing it.” Like others working on the session, Brad was becoming aware of the subject matter of the song as Jackson continued to develop the lyrics. He recollects, “When I realised what the song was becoming I never mentioned it because it was none of my business… I don’t think Michael tried to send a message to anybody: he did the song because he was upset. I don’t think he was overthinking this. He just did his own thing about it: write a song.” Jackson was passionate about his art and it’s logical that he would use this outlet as an expression for his thoughts and feelings, as evidenced on D.S. and the entire project.
Money is one of the most unique and impressive tracks on the album, both in terms of the nature of its composition and also Jackson’s experimental vocal delivery. Beginning with shuffling drums and an irresistible bass line, the song continues to build in layers and intensity. Developed early during the HIStory recording sessions, Hoffman discussed the genesis of the percussive groove prominent on the song, ‘It started with a loop and a bass line, the loops are off a CD called Skip To My Loops and anyone can get them. It was also the way he layered them, and they were all laid out on a keyboard and he sat with Brad and said “ this loop goes here and this loop goes there, then you’re gonna lay a snare drum on top of this.” The way Michael used almost the same tools as everyone else had available to them and put it into this song and it’s the bones of the song.” Jackson delivers what is akin to a spoken word rap on the verses, referencing the extortion attempts he was subjected to with a conviction that is compelling. The chant of background vocalists brings an urban dimension to the track as Hoffman recollects on the recording, “Michael’s vocals is the primary one but there are bits of lines and doubles in the verses “they don’t care, they do it for the money;” singing backgrounds on that. We did that in Studio 3, fairly early in the process, two of Bruce’s FET 47' pointing in different directions with two guys on each side…They took directions, did it, they were out of here in the afternoon, it was amazing and you can hear it on the record.”
Legendary musician and producer Nile Rodgers would feature on the song, playing guitar. Hoffman recollected on how this came about, “it was fairly close to being done and one of the earliest tracks to be done and one of the earlier tracks to be close to finishing and Michael said “Oh we need a really funky guitar player.” Hoffman would suggest bringing in Rodgers who had been intermittently working at the Hit Factory around the time Jackson was recording. Rodgers recollected on the experience, “I came, it took me about ten minutes to play the part because Michael knew exactly what he wanted, and then as I was leaving he says “Nile, can we talk for a minute” and then we sat down and talked for hours and hours.” Nile’s signature guitar work would elevate the funk elements of the track and the song would shine was one of the more underrated pieces featured on the album.
Jackson’s most autobiographical song Childhood would find its place rather fittingly on the HIStory album. The track is a display of Michael’s supreme ability to emote raw vulnerability with his vocal talents and technique. Michael noted the meaning of the track and the importance of it lyrically, “It’s about the pain, some of the joys, some of the dreaming, some of the mental adventures that I took because of the different lifestyle I had in being a child performer. I was born on stage and Childhood is a mirror. It’s my story.”
Michael’s vocals would be complemented by a luscious orchestral arrangement composed by composer Steve Foster as requested. The creation of the instrumental track, however, began with Jackson and musical director Brad Buxer. Brad notes, “Childhood had not begun in any form so we did it from scratch. Brad Sundburg was in the studio and I was at the piano with Michael right next to me singing the chords. The demo took three hours: at the end the piano was done and I put strings on it… Every voicing I did on that first session was kept afterwards-they didn’t change anything. I think David Foster took what we had and his gorgeous playing made it into something beautiful.” Foster took this demo and re-interpreted the music with a fifty-piece orchestra. William Ross, a conductor present during the recording noted, “It was a relatively large orchestra. I believe that David and Michael wanted a ‘big’ orchestral presence on some of the tracks.” Hoffman recollected on the recording session further, stating “Smile and maybe Childhood were recorded maybe on the same day and David Foster, of course played piano on that. There was also a massive set up for the session.”
The production and arrangement is almost akin to a show tune acting as an auditory companion to the lyrical content and Jackson’s vocal motifs filled throughout the song. It’s not the kind of the song you’d expect to feature on an album by a pop artist. Childhood is arguably one of the best examples of Jackson continuing to evolve as a songwriter while also steering away from traditional pop conventions. It would come to be one of the most emotionally cathartic songs on the album, with Jackson taking an introspective approach to the writing of the track. He would attempt to authentically explain his untraditional, yet benign relationship with children after facing scrutiny from child abuse allegations two years earlier.
Michael was due to perform a rendition of Childhood with mime artist Marcel Marceau for a televised HBO One Night Alone special in December 1995. The show was to feature the singer performing old and new material in an intimate setting. The song would be interpreted on a stage fashioned as a courtyard, with Marcel acting out the lyrics being sung on the other side by Jackson. Marcel recollected on the rehearsal of the performance, “I was greeted by Michael Jackson in great shape. He was happy to have me, and we started working immediately,” “[He] wanted something concrete. Mimicking is cryptic; you can not imitate gestures in a song, there must be some kind of operetta, and ‘Childhood’ is a great song lyric flight. For this particular version of ‘Childhood,’ Michael said I was free to do what I wanted. Yet at the same time, I asked Michael if he liked what he was doing with his song, so you could say that we have worked together. I did everything [in New York City]. Direct contact with Michael was essential.” One Night Alone was abruptly canceled after Jackson collapsed during rehearsal due to dehydration and the performance was never rescheduled. It isn’t hard to imagine how quintessential this performance would have been, both as a display of two masters at their work, but also a visual representation of the playful nature of the track. Jackson recollected on the rehearsal; “I adore this version of Childhood, it’s strange., nobody ever saw it.”
It cannot be argued that Michael has greatly influenced the sound and direction of pop music with classic pop tracks like Billie Jean, Beat It and a host of number one singles. Childhood, however, is the most essential song to understanding the artist beyond the moonwalk or the sequined glove, and rather as a human being who’s unorthodox lifestyle was a largely a product of his unorthodox past.
Prior to any allegations of sexual misconduct, R.Kelly would collaborate with Jackson during these sessions, after Michael contacted Kelly’s manager, requesting the R&B singer contribute a song to the project. He would present two lyrically complete songs to Michael; You Are Not Alone and Life, with Kelly imitating Michael’s vocal style in the demo as a guide. Sound engineer Peter Mokran recollected on Jackson’s excitement for the track, “the demo was sent to Michael Jackson and I heard from Bruce Swedien that he just absolutely loved it and that when he sung it for himself, it felt amazing.” While Jackson originally favoured Life, Kelly convinced Jackson that You Are Not Alone would be more commercially viable noting, “It’s gonna be big.” The abandoned track would eventually be released by RNB duo K-Ci and Jo Jo. Kelly worked on You Are Not Alone extensively before it was sent to Jackson who enlisted Steve Porcaro to work on the song further. Jackson recollected on the genesis of the song, “R. Kelly sent me this tape of the song and I liked what I heard. It had no harmonies and it had no modulations so I told him he wrote a great song is it OK if I just go in and do what I think this song should have. He said ‘sure’, so I went in and produced it. I put a choir in the end and did a great modulation so the song had a sense of climax and structure.”
Peter Mokran who worked on the track, programming synthesizers and drums noted, “The original track was done with R Kelly and Lafayette Carthon. A lot of those sounds were just basically what we used… In terms of the drum sounds, that was R Kelly’s idea. He wanted that simple Roland TR-808 “Marvin Gaye” kind of sound so that was a real 808 that I had sampled.” Hoffman further notes, “The very basic RNB groove in the verse is really the primary part of Rob’s track: that’s what the majority of the song sounded like when it came to us. Later it starts to build a little more orchestration wise with acoustic guitar coming in. Then there were Steve Porcaro’s parts and the Andrae Crouch’s claps.”
As Michael began recording his own sublime vocals for the track, Porcaro would continue to flesh out the composition, developing a luscious soundscape, adding touches to the sparse slow jam nature of the track. He recollected, “I did the synth stuff, the pads and.. oh yes I did an acoustic guitar part on this! The guitar part on the chorus, very gentle, that’s me. It was a Kurzweil GX that has these guitar samples on it. That was the main thing I did on the song.” Mokran recollected on the development of the song with Michael, “I would say all the original ideas were there and he was adding on top of it. Even during the vocal sessions, he would have ideas to try on the track. At one point he wanted live strings but decided against it. We would try different keys for modulations of song, many different arrangements and edits, and he would do endless takes of vocals.” While You Are Not Alone may not be as experimental or eclectic as the rest of the album, it’s an impressive display of Jackson’s smooth vocals, demonstrating his supremacy at still delivering an exceptional ballad, thirty years into his career.
Being the biggest celebrity of the latter part of the 20th century, Jackson was no stranger to being subjected to salacious tabloid fodder. Stories painting the star in a bizarre and strange light were rampant as Michael’s profile began to grow, and his eccentricities were magnified and subjected to hyperbole by the press. While Jackson was somewhat to blame for the arguably benign early tabloid stories, this precedent took a particularly insidious turn after the events of 1993. This extortion attempt fuelled an array of ex-employees selling fabricated stories to tabloids and details about the case being misconstrued.
While Michael would address the tabloids in earlier work such as the 1986 track Price Of Fame and the short film for Leave Me Alone, Tabloid Junkie would be the artist’s most direct and scathing commentary on the disingenuous and unethical nature of the tabloid press. The song would be another Jam & Lewis production, with the team originally submitting the basic track to Jackson with an early version of Scream. As Jam notes, “we were originally brought in just for the Janet duet, but Michael really liked another of the tracks that we played for him in New York. He said it sounded similar to Janet’s’ song “The Knowledge, which he loved.” Jam & Lewis would work on the track in Minneapolis, as Hoffman states, “It was probably one of the last songs that were worked on for the record… It was fairly close to being done actually by the time we first heard it.” Jackson’s talent for beatboxing is further illustrated on the track, forming the percussion line. Before its completion, the song had to go through an extended mixing process after being sent to Jackson in LA. As Hoffman recollected, “If you listen to the Janet mixes, there are very dynamic things moving all over the place. When Bruce would do the mix of one of the Jam & Lewis songs, of course, it sounded sonically amazing, but it didn’t have the little splices as you call them that Jam & Lewis had. So they would work with Steve, figuring out how to marry those two sounds. It’s hard to put a person on everything but I would say that Tabloid Junkie is probably mostly Steve’s as far as the mix goes, and very much built on Michael’s beatbox, of course.”
Jam further discussed Jackson’s significant contribution to track, “The song was really simple, Michael had a concept for it already and wrote the lyrics, and we brought in the completed track and did all the blurbs that feature on it.” Rather interestingly the track was originally titled “Tabloid Jungle” as Jimmy further elaborated in a 1995 EW interview, “We were gonna call it ‘Tabloid Jungle,’ because we felt like the tabloids were the hunters and Michael the prey, He’s the biggest prize in the jungle, and the media’s on this mission to capture him.”
Jackson’s words in Tabloid Junkie continue to resonate even more strongly today, after the recent airing of the HBO film Leaving Neverland. Despite the fact that the film is riddled with inconsistencies and facetiously discards key facts that discredit interviewees, Jackson’s reputation has seen some damage. Leaving Neverland fits all the key marks for tabloid press, relying on sensationalism and emotional manipulation rather than the strong conviction of direct or circumstantial evidence (because frankly, there isn’t any.) As the film was screened at Cannes Film Festival, a prestigious accomplishment in itself, and was also aired on HBO, it seems to have created underserved credibility of the claims made. Tabloid Junkie will continue to be a key track in understanding the strained relationship between Michael Jackson and the press, a dynamic that still continues to exist almost ten years after his death. As Jackson would declare, “Just because you read it in a magazine or see it on a TV screen, don’t make it factual.”
2 Bad would be a track worked on early during the HIStory sessions. The song is produced and co-written by Rene Moore, Bruce Swedien and Jackson. Jimmy Jam contributed clavinet and bass on the song later in development. As Hoffman notes, “Initially the track was done in New York through the very first writing sessions that Rene and Bruce did. I don’t know how many songs Rene worked on, maybe a dozen, twelve or fourteen tracks, and that was one that Michael really wanted. So Rene would go away and work on it, and Michael would come and listen.” Once again Jackson would use his talents at beatboxing to communicate the percussive sounds required for the track. As Hoffman recalls, “On tracks like “Tabloid Junkie” and “2 Bad” there are beatbox loops all over the place. Either things MJ had sung into a micro-cassette or during vocal takes. Again, very little processing beyond chopping and looping.”
A catchy synth line and prominent bass would compliment the percussion featured. The bridge is one of the highlights of the track as the tempo abruptly changes and a striking horn line enters. Hoffman recollected on Jackson’s involvement in creating the bridge, “If you listen to the bridge of 2 Bad, the entire horn thing was Michael’s idea. He had Jerry Hey come in, and sang him all the parts. Jerry went away, arranged it, and came back a bit later to track it.” The arrangement, however, would need to be modified as he further recollects, “After it was done, it sounded amazing but it actually sounded too much like Off The Wall, Thriller and Bad — it sounded too clean and not Hip-hop enough, not current enough. So Rene asked me what we can do about it and we did a few things: we took all the horns and made a quick mix, then we processed it through the filter of the Minimoog, You can hear that kind of riding and overdriving through the whole horn section. We then also took all the horns and sampled them on the MPC 3000 drum machine that was used throughout the record.”
Jackson would also bring Jam in to work on the percussive elements of the track, as Michael was a big fan of the drum programming featured on Janet’s classic Rhythm Nation 1814 album. His contribution would also see a similar altering, as Hoffman recalled, “Jimmy came into the studio and played a fast hi-hat pattern, and again, Rene thought it was too pristine and really sounded a lot like what Jimmy had already done on Rhythm Nation six years earlier. So I took that and a sample of a robot and I triggered the robot with the hi-hat sounds.” He notes how Jackson and Jimmy looked at past artists for inspiration on the track, “Jimmy and MJ spent a fair amount of time listening to Sly and the family stone tracks for background arrangement ideas on “(2)Too Bad”. MJ had access to their multi-tracks so they even listened to those but I was not there to see that.” Basketball player Shaquille O’Neal would also contribute a rap during the bridge of the song, further bringing an urban quality to the track. Jackson would go on to perform a dazzling rendition in his 1996 short film Ghosts.
Michael would include his cover of the classic Beatles track Come Together on the HIStory album. Interestingly, the song had previously been released on the single for Remember The Time featured on Michael’s previous album Dangerous. The recording of the song, however, took place in 1986 and would be heard by the public first with Jackson showcasing an electric performance at the end of the Moonwalker film. Bottrell recollected on the making of the track, “During the Bad sessions, Michael asked me to drive him to Westwood one night. During the drive, we played lots of Beatles songs he had compiled on a tape; he was pretty interested in my opinion, and I told him we should pick Come Together. Within a couple of days, I had thrown a track together, playing guitars and using some crude midi stuff.” He notes how his initial role as an engineer developed into a producer for the song, “In Michael’s case, “Come Together” would fall in that category. I was officially just an engineer, but I played and produced the whole track, (in very crude midi fashion) and never thought it was release material. But Michael supported and motivated me, and changed my life. . . and put it out.” The version featured on this album would differ slightly from the previously released track. Most noticeably, the bass is replaced and featured more prominently, and the track is significantly edited. Jackson’s vocals are the highlight, with the singer displaying his talent for producing a powerfully raw and soulful performance. Michael recollected on the recording, “I just went in and in one take started singing it. We kept it raw and funky. It was just spontaneous but I knew I wanted to do something with it.” There is a loose quality to Jackson’s vocals that meld with the spontaneous nature of the composition, bringing a softer and lighter tone to the album.
One of the most uniquely composed tracks on the album is the title track. HIStory would be comprised of samples from famous sound bites and compositions, but also newly recorded voice-overs by members of the recording team, identifying key dates in the evolution of social progress. The origin of the song traces back to a recording session between Jackson, Jam & Lewis in Los Angeles. While working on Tabloid Junkie, Michael mentioned to the production duo that a title track would need to be written. As the HIStory recording sessions progressed, Jackson would continue to collaborate with Jam more, outside of the duet with Janet. As Jimmy notes, “At that stage I was just around, It was mostly me there and not Terry, I wasn’t an advisor as such, just a confidant. I could make musical decisions and Michael was always inquisitive as to how I did certain things.” The song began to be developed as he recollects, “I think he gave it a couple of tries himself and then asked us to give it a go. We went back to Minneapolis and made the music track, and them Michael did his thing on the melody.” The duo would continue to build the composition while Jackson would work on the lyrics. Hoffman recollected on the recording of the spoken word parts, “HIStory was one song that all of the studio was asked to participate in, so everybody’s got a voice over in there.”
The Andràe Crouch Choir would contribute to the track, as would RNB group Boyz 2 Men who provide luscious vocal harmonies on the bridge. The successful group expressed in a 1995 interview, “This is the guy that we all looked up to, we couldn’t help but to look up to him and still do in a lot of ways. We never imagined we’d ever meet him and to have him even ask us to be on his album, it’s a true honour.” The eclectic track would end up being one of the last worked on before the album was completed and would pose a technical challenge during the mixing process. Hoffman notes, “The track was mixed at Larrabee and Michael wanted so many elements live that we couldn’t sub-mix or make the mix smaller, so the song was mixed on four Sony 3348 machines- that is 192 tracks! Boyz 2 Men’s choir is on there, Andràe Crouch’s choir is on there, the Elmer Bernstein Orchestra is on there… It’s a massively spread out track.” Jimmy Jam would also assist with the complex task of mixing the track, he recollects “We wanted to pare it down to 96 tracks so mixing would be easier but Michael did not want to sub mix anything.” While the task seemed impossible, with the help of mixer Andrew Scheps, Swedien and Hodge were able to successfully mix the song without compromising on the integrity of the track. Jam, however, was not completely satisfied with the finished product as he notes, “You shouldn’t have to rush a production like this. And then Michael began altering the mix, turning up claps and snaps again. There were elements of the song that I just didn’t feel were right. We needed more time but it is what it is, in the end we just gave up and let Michael have his way.” The song best exemplifies the pathos of the album, with Jackson referencing feats of humanity as a quest in creating and defining history for the present and future. This extends into Michael’s own legacy within the music industry and the structure of the HIStory project, with Disc 1 featuring the old hits as HIStory Begins, and the new material as HIStory continues. Brad Buxer reflected on the track and its eventual inclusion as the final performance on the HIStory tour, “the title was politically what he was trying to say through the message… Of course at the end of any show the artist always wants to send these world changing special messages to the audience and HIStory was a good vehicle for that.”
Michael’s love for classical music would continue to be demonstrated on the ambitiously written and composed track Little Susie. The lyrical content is arguably one of Jackson’s most morbid and visual, detailing the death of a young child. Michael sings of the dangers of child neglect over haunting string arrangements, “neglection (sic) can kill, like a knife, On your soul, oh it will.”
Interestingly, the genesis of the song lyrically predates any other song released on the HIStory project, with Jackson writing the lyrics approximately around 1979, the same year he released his classic Off The Wall album. Handwritten lyrics for the track, entitled Little Suzy would appear in a personal notebook written circa 1978, which eventually went up for auction. The song would begin with a classical requiem, known as the Pie Jesu segment featured in Reqium Op.9, by classical composer Maurice Durufle. The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus would perform the requiem featured on the track. Jackson had opened the classic ballad Will You Be There from previous album Dangerous in a similar fashion, with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony performed by the Cleveland Orchestra.
Brad Buxer would work on the string arrangements as the next stage of the song begins, and an orchestra was originally featured. Buxer notes, “When I got a hold of it, Little Susie was kind of already there, at least in its most basic form. I did all of the strings on it and Geoff Grace helped me. Then they put the orchestra on it and it was beautiful, but Michael decided to completely redo it, note by note, sound by sound.” Grace discussed the removal of his orchestral arrangement, “Michael wanted some orchestration re-done on Little Susie, and my version was at least the second time it had been orchestrated.” Steve Porcaro, a member of the band Toto, had previously collaborated with Jackson on songs such as Human Nature while also working on You Are Not Alone during these sessions. Porcaro was brought in to replace the live orchestra with synthesized string arrangements at Jackson’s request. He recollected further, “I remember Andrew Shceps was there to help me with the string sounds. It might have been a matter of key- maybe they changed the key. I’m not sure what the problem was and why he wouldn’t use the real strings. They sounded great. We worked very hard on it. There was a printed-out score and we just used it. Michael was very trusting of me.”
Hoffman noted the challenging task of replacing the orchestra, “Steve and Andrew Scheps completely redid the orchestra with synthesizers, which was extremely difficult with the technology of the 90’s. So they sat with Bruce in Studio 4 and rebuilt it using samples from the Synclavier and other synthesizers. It was a massive undertaking, every part played by one and re orchestrating it the way Michael wanted it.” A visual companion of the track is presented in the HIStory CD booklet with a 1976 image from photographer Gottfried Helnwein entitled, Lichkind (Child of Light) recreated at Jackson’s request. Heniwein’s take on photography perfectly captures the lyrical content and essence of the track as one of Michael’s most ambitious and artistic.
The final track on HIStory would appropriately be Jackson’s cover of the Charlie Chaplin song Smile. Composed by Chaplin and featured in the 1936 film Modern Times, the lyrics were written by John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons and added to the composition almost twenty years later. Jackson had always shown deep admiration and kinship to Chaplin, expressing this in a tribute photo-shoot in 1983, in which he stated “This is in memory of a great man who has touched the hearts of the world with his art of making people laugh and cry. You will always be in my heart. I love you, Charlie Chaplin.” Jackson also met with Chaplin’s relatives in 1988 during a stop of the Bad Tour in Europe.
Michael’s decision to record a cover of what he deemed his favourite song came about during a recording session with David Foster. After a discussion about Chaplin, he convinced Jackson to record a cover of Smile, which would appropriately include an orchestral arrangement produced by Foster. Michael would record his vocals live with the orchestra at the Hit Factory for both Smile and Childhood on the same day. Swedien, discussed the recording of the track, “Part of the music, but more or less incidental, is a rhythm section, mainly electronic, with synthesizer parts and colours that have been overdubbed.” The composition is quite unique in that it combines the use of electronic drums and keys with a traditional orchestra arrangement creating an interesting and contrasting sound. Swedien further recollected on the studio chosen to record the orchestral arrangement, “The studio I selected for this recording was a large musical studio at the Hit Factory in New York. In some recordings of this type, I would have chosen to record the orchestra in a concert hall to give the music the acoustical ambience of true concert orchestra reality. However, since this piece is rather pop music in concept, I figured that a large music studio would be the place to realise this piece.” Hoffman also recollected on the setup, “Those were massive sessions! Smile and Childhood were recorded maybe on the same day and David Foster, of course, played the piano on that. There was an incredible massive set-up for the session with three assistants.” Jackson would perform multiple vocal takes of the track, unhappy with the initial performances. Hoffman notes, “They were huge days and obviously emotional for everybody and, of course Michael sang Smile perfectly every time. We did maybe three or six takes with the orchestra, but also laid down 14 other vocal takes which were all incredible.”
Once recorded, Jackson and Eddie DelLena had the task of going through each vocal take, extracting various elements from each performance such as vocal phrases to create the performance heard on the finished track. As Hoffman discussed further, “It was a massive undertaking, and any of the vocals that Michael sang on Smile would have been the take of a lifetime for any other artist! It was very meticulous and Michael’s choices were very purposely emotionally, to get the performance that you heard.” Jackson’s vocals are the highlight of the track, with the singer emoting the pathos of the song while also bringing a playful and theatrical quality to the vocals, most notably in the outro. HIStory began with a scream and ends with a smile, as Michael perfectly captures and presents a complex emotional journey throughout the album, There is simply no other track that would resonate as the closing song off an album as emotionally turbulent as HIStory like Smile does.
During the recording sessions for the project, Jackson would call on a number of producers to come to the studio and potentially collaborate. Babyface was arguably one of the most commercially successful producers to submit tracks to Michael for the HIStory project. Jackson had collaborated with Babyface previously on a 1990 unreleased track entitled Slave To The Rhythm prior to the new sessions. Hoffman recollected on the work produced by Babyface when he came to record again for Michael in 1994 noting, “He came into the Hit Factory and worked his butt off to get the songs recorded and they sounded amazing. They were demos, that was the idea but they were record ready.” One track entitled Willing And Waiting was presented to Michael for possible inclusion on the album. Babyface was involved heavily in the production of the track and recorded a somewhat Jackson inspired vocal guide. The song was developed quite extensively for a demo, featuring background vocals, polished instrumentation and completed lyrically. Hoffman notes the high caliber of the demos as possibly being somewhat of a deterrent for Michael to record the tracks for himself, “They were done so well, I’m sure it had to have been in Michael’s head ‘Well what do I do with that? I can’t change that, that sounds amazing”. Babyface’s demos were so good that Michael couldn’t hear himself in it.” One could see how the song would have been an appealing choice for Michael; it features a catchy melody and is commercially accessible. The tone of the track, however, contrasts quite considerably with the musical and lyrical content of the completed album. As Sundburg notes, “A very pretty song — but I think Michael was looking to push things pretty hard on HIStory, Willing and Waiting was maybe a bit softer than the direction he was going.”
Jackson would also work on another Babyface-produced track entitled Why. Hoffman notes that while the song was worked on during these sessions, the track was ultimately abandoned. The song would see a release, being recorded and released by Jackson’s nephews in the group 3T. Taj Jackson recollected, “We kept the vocals for the chorus and redid the verses in our own voices. Uncle Michael was there with us for the recording. He helped us out on the placement of our verses and just the whole feeling of the song.”
Another track that would be worked on early during the HIStory sessions, but would not be a contender on the album is the acoustic ballad Much Too Soon. The song is sparse, raw and unlike any track Jackson had recorded previously. There are no finger snaps or claps, no vocal adlibs or kinetic dance beats, simply Jackson’s voice an acoustic guitar and some string arrangements. It’s not clear how long the song had been in development before the 1994 recording session, however, two songs entitled Learned My Lesson and Much Too Soon were registered at the US Copyright Office 12 years earlier, indicating Jackson may have written the song at that time. Hoffman recollected on being re-hired early during the HIStory sessions and witnessing the creation of the track. “Within a few weeks of being re-hired on the sessions, we recorded Much Too Soon…The version that we did was really simple. It was originally recorded with just Michael singing on SM-57 in the control room with Jeff Mironov playing guitar in Studio 3.” Mironov discussed his contribution to the track, “It was just a guitar and vocal. There might have also been a click track. He sang on every take, every performance. It was a really interactive recording and I remember it went well and fairly easy… I remember he was very meticulous, very focused and his singing was quite amazing.”
It’s abundantly clear when listening to the track how invested Jackson was in the vocal performance. There is a naïve vulnerability that recalls vocal performances during the Off The Wall and Thriller days. Hoffman notes how instrumental Michael was in the composition of the track outside of just his vocals and extending into the chord progressions, “Michael sang him the melody and Jeff picked chords that fit. Jeff is of course an incredible guitar player, but the amazing part of that day was that Michael could sing all of the individual notes of the chords! So Jeff would be harmonising with his melody but if the chord wasn’t right, Michael would be like “Oh no the chord has to be this, not that.” Mironov recollected on a similar collaborative experience, “He was quite involved and very clear in his direction and gut, so it was very easy to do and there wasn’t much to figure out. He gave instructions but he was always open to and accepting of any input and feedback that I produced.”
While Jackson could not play any instruments, his unique way of communicating to musicians present in the studio how he wanted a song to sound was in full demonstration during the recording of Much Too Soon. As Hoffman notes, Michael “had the entire composition of the song stuck in his head which is really impressive and something we saw all through the progress of the record: He could easily sing all the parts in a song! He would say “The high strings would do this, the low strings would do this” He had all the arrangements in his head.” It’s somewhat of a travesty that such an amazing track would never be released during Jackson’s lifetime, as the song would be shelved and remain unreleased until a posthumous release in 2010. The released version, however, differs in arrangement from the original completed track, featuring strings and a harmonica solo. The released version pales in comparison to the original track, which will remain a raw unsung gem in Jackson’s catalog.
Jackson would record a vast amount of songs during the HIStory sessions, all in various stages of completion. Tracks worked on during the production of preceding albums such as the Babyface collaboration Slave To The Rhythm and the Bad era track Do You Know Where Your Children Are, would be briefly re-worked and ultimately abandoned during these sessions. Another song created during these sessions, entitled Faces was originally due to feature Nelson Mandela reciting a spoken word poem, followed by a drum groove contributed by percussion group Stomp. Mandela would not contribute to the track, and it would continue to stay unreleased. The song is a highlight, not just for the intense percussive beat contributed by Stomp but also Jackson’s own convicting delivery of the spoken word poem.
While 15 songs would ultimately make the final track-list of the album, others that were worked on would eventually find their place on the preceding album released two years later. Blood On The Dancefloor: HIStory In The Mix. Jackson had originally wanted to release a maxi- single as a promotion for the HIStory tour, however, at the request of Sony, these new tracks would be bundled with various remixes of album tracks. Jackson was initially critical of the inclusion of remixes stating, “I don’t like that they come in and change my songs completely, but Sony says that the kids love remixes.” The purpose of the remixes was to market to an international audience as Jackson was preparing for the European leg of the HIStory tour. Possible contenders for inclusion on the album included tracks left over from previous sessions that needed minor work done to be completed.
On The Line, a collaboration between Jackson and Babyface was reportedly a contender for the album, as was another track entitled In The Back. On The Line was originally due to be featured on the soundtrack to Spike Lee’s 1996 film Get On The Bus, however, these plans were ultimately abandoned and both tracks saw a release in full on the 2004 box set, The Ultimate Collection. Engineer Dave Way who was present for the sessions notes, “All the songs were from previous sessions and they were doing anything to find songs. I really felt a contrast between Dangerous and those sessions. During Dangerous there was a real buzz, and Michael was in great spirits… This was before those allegations had such an effect on him. But Blood On The Dancefloor was different, it was quiet. By the time I worked on the record, it was just Michael, Matt Forger, a few others and me. And Michael seemed unhappy; he was very secretive, something just wasn’t right with him.” Bottrell also notes that during the sessions Michael was “angry and abusive.” It’s clear that Jackson may have been going through some turbulent issues within his personal life at this time, and this would extend into the dark and gritty material featured on the album.
Blood On The Dancefloor: HIStory In The Mix was released on May 20, 1997, approximately two years after HIStory Past Present and Future: Book 1. The album would feature five new original tracks and eight remixes. It would go on to become the most successful remix album of all time, while achieving a somewhat lukewarm critical response. The five new original tracks featured on the album would become favourites among fans as Jackson continued to deliver exciting and artistically eclectic new material.
The album begins with the stellar title track, Blood On the Dancefloor, immediately drawing the listener into an irresistible groove featuring aggressive percussion and a menacing bass line. The genesis of the instrumental track dated back to the Dangerous sessions in January of 1991 when producer Teddy Riley brought a number of grooves to Jackson for consideration early in their collaboration. Riley notes that Michael was instantly captivated by a particular groove, which would ultimately become the track, although no words or melodies had been created yet. Engineer Dave Way, who was present for this listening session described it further, “This DAT had the original writing tracks for In The Closet, Remember The Time and I think I Can’t Let Her Get Away plus about 8 or 10 other ones. When we got to L.A., we sat down in the control room with Michael and played him these ideas. I’ll never forget pushing play and the first track slamming out of the monitors at Record One’s Neve room. It was a hard hitting, powerful groove that we thought was the best track from the Soundtracks sessions. They of course had no titles, maybe some working title. But after this first track was done, Michael said, “ Wow, play it again!”. So we did, and we then went on to play the others, all of which seemed to get Michael excited. But that first track was always his favourite and he played this one a lot.”
The title of the track came to Jackson first, as recollected by Bottrell. “Blood on the Dancefloor was a song I wrote for MJ during the sessions when Dangerous was written, sometime in 1988. I thought I’d be a clever salesman and I teased Michael about this great song I had called Blood on the Dancefloor. He was out of town and I was trying to tweak the song and this went on for weeks. He was really intrigued, so much so that before he ever heard what I did, he wrote his OWN Blood on the Dancefloor.” Michael would favour the title and use it for the untitled groove that Riley had recorded. As Riley noted, “I remember he came back with this melody, ‘Blood on the dance floor, blood on the dance floor.’ I was like, ‘Wow!’ He came up with these lyrics and harmonies. Then we just started building it up, layer by layer.” Jackson would originally include lyrics from an earlier composed track entitled Sunset Driver in the original version of the song, however, these lyrics would ultimately be scrapped during development.
While Riley discussed Michael’s enthusiasm for the track, it would not be completed during the Dangerous sessions, “It wasn’t quite finished, “There were still some vocal parts missing. Michael loved the song, but he would listen to it and say, ‘I like what you did here, but we still need this here.’ He was a perfectionist.” As he often did with incomplete songs, Jackson decided to come back to Blood On The Dancefloor six years later, in 1997 to complete and feature on the album. Way recollected, “Cut to 5 or 6 years later when I’m mixing for Blood on The Dancefloor. Michael plays me some of the other tracks that were being worked on and he plays me the “title track”. He pumps up the monitors and out comes that first track from the DAT we played him at Record One, but now with lyrics, vocals and some extra claps and synths. But the basic track, which was very developed and immediately obvious to me, was directly from that original DAT. Apparently, he was never satisfied with how the track sounded after being multitracked when compared to the original DAT and so they just transferred the DAT mix to multitrack and built on top of that.”
This time, Michael would enlist Buxer to assist in finishing the track as the musician notes, “We took Teddy’s DAT (Digital Audio Tape) and worked it over with a four-man crew.” Blood On The Dancefloor would ultimately be completed in Switzerland, approximately six years after it’s initial conception, and is one of the most kinetic dance anthems of Jackson’s latter career. The song would be released as a single featuring an explosive film clip directed by longtime Jackson collaborator Vincent Paterson. Two versions would be shot for the song, with one rejected for release by Sony.
Jackson would continue to explore unmarked territory and experiment with different sounds on the new project, venturing even further from his familiar styles as his musical taste continued to expand and develop. One of the most evident examples of this eclecticism in Michael’s latter work can be found on the industrial rock sound of Morphine. The composition is heavily influenced by the sound of Trent Reznor and the alternative rock band Nine Inch Nails. Hoffman notes that Jackson became a fan of Reznor after being played one of the band’s tracks during the HIStory recording sessions, in which the singer would be provided with a mix CD of contemporary hits. “He was a huge fan of Nine Inch Nails Downward Spiral . . . . It was amazing how he’d come in with some song he liked and want to capture something about it — the energy, the tone, the mood.”
Jackson would begin working on Morphine during these sessions, writing lyrics based on his own battle with addiction to prescription drugs and his experience being admitted to rehab the previous year. The lyrics are dark, visceral and aggressive, complimenting the distorted and menacing composition of the song. Jackson samples audio from the 1980 film, The Elephant Man, adding to the warped visual image of the track. The hard-hitting composition of the verse and chorus is juxtaposed by an abrupt change in tempo during the bridge, incorporating piano and strings while Jackson changes his vocal delivery, demonstrating fragility in his voice. Hoffman notes that the song was largely completed during the HIStory sessions and not much work was needed to complete the track for HIStory In The Mix, “Really most of what you hear, like Morphine was complete during the HIStory sessions. There was not too much more that needed to be done apart from vocals and mixing on those. Those songs were kind of pulled off the HIStory record because we were under the pressure from Sony.” Bottrell, would contribute background vocals on the track, alongside Brad Buxer and engineer Jon Mooney adding to the heavy nature of the track. Bottrell recollected on the experience, “Michael and I sang a loose, rowdy chorus, and it was the most fun I had during those weeks.” The finished product is both confronting and exciting, displaying Michaels’ determination to explore new sounds and heavy subject nature while also challenging himself as a songwriter.
Superfly Sister would be the one Bryan Loren/Jackson collaboration that would feature on HIStory In The Mix. Loren worked extensively with Michael during the early Dangerous sessions, working on tracks such as Man In Black, Work That Body, Homeless Bound and other songs that remained unreleased. Loren discussed the creation of the track, “I brought him the title, the track and the basic melody for what I was calling the chorus but he used what I was calling the chorus melody for the verse. It was the same kind of pocket but he used that for the verse.” Jackson wrote the lyrics within a few days and the song was recorded rather quickly. While the track would be worked on during the Dangerous sessions, it was not completed in time to be featured on the album. The song was then developed further in 1997, as HIStory In The Mix was being compiled. At Michael’s request, Loren would also work on another track entitled Seven Digits to complete for the album. Due to lack of time, Seven Digits was abandoned and work was resumed on Superfly Sister, which was already relatively finished. Loren would come back to the track, overdubbing guitar parts, recording a solo and adding some extra synths. The completed track is a funky and flourishing mix of various percussive sounds, an irresistible synth line and Jackson’s playful vocals and ad-libs.
Another Dangerous session track that would be completed for HIStory In The Mix is Ghosts. While Riley initially developed the track, Jackson would continue working on the song during the HIStory sessions as Hoffman notes, “Ghost was a rework from Dangerous as Teddy started the track, and Rene Moore worked on it quite a bit with Bruce and me during the fall of ‘95.” While the instrumental would not change drastically during development, Jackson would record his vocals for the track in hotel rooms while traveling on the HIStory tour.
Blood On The Dancefloor would include another Jam & Lewis collaboration with the haunting ballad Is It Scary. The song originally evolved from Teddy Riley and Bryan Loren collaboration entitled Family Thing, as Jackson began developing a track to contribute to the 1993 comedy film Addams’s Family Values. The song, while vastly incomplete shares the same tempo that would eventually be reused on Is It Scary. While Michael had not yet recorded lyrics for the verse, the chorus features Jackson singing:
“I don’t care even if it’s wrong or right, it’s a family thing. Like a dance take me deep into the night, it’s a family thing.”
Jackson produces some luscious background vocals during the verses. While the song was ultimately abandoned, elements of the song would be used for future productions. As Forger notes, “He worked on a track for the Addams Family movie at Larrabee in 1993 with Teddy, and others worked on ideas as well. I don’t believe ‘Ghosts’ or ‘Is It Scary’ were developed yet, one of the ideas may have evolved into what became ‘Ghosts’ later. There were many tracks titled ‘Scary’ or ‘Is It Scary’ from that time. Even when Addams Family didn’t work out, over the next couple of years, Michael had several people like Bruce [Swedien] develop music for the film.’Ghosts’ became an extension of the original Addams Family idea.” Jam recollected on the involvement in the track, “While Michael was in Minneapolis, he told us about the lyrics and melody for this song idea he had. I think he had already worked with Teddy Riley on a track with a similar theme. He asked us to write the music track for this song he had in mind, and we just created this sort of sinister track. We weren’t sure if Michael was going to include the song on the album or what he wanted to do with it. Although Michael had done his lyrics, the track wasn’t fully finished so we went in later and finished the track and mix.”
The track would continue to be worked on during the production of Jackson’s short film Ghosts and would be present in the film, released in October of 1996. The song would not see a commercial release, however, until its appearance on the remix album. Hoffman recollected on the experience of mixing the tracks during the production of Ghosts, “I worked on the Ghost film for quite a while. Michael would have ideas, much the way he makes a record, and he would dictate to one of the crew what he wanted — singing, and beat boxing. As the film progressed those ideas would be refined, often while filming was taking place. We would get video from the set and need to edit and make changes, sometimes with MJ there, sometimes without. There would be remixes, and original music based on stuff the choreographers would do. They might dance to something on the set with either a click track or loop, and then we would build the track around their movements.”
As work continued on mixing the tracks for Ghosts, Hoffman became aware of the intention to use the various tracks for the Blood On The Dance Floor album. “Is It Scary, Ghosts BOTDF, and 2 Bad all were circulating within that film in various remixes and incarnations. We didn’t really know, obviously we knew about the film, we were delivering mixes and everything to them. We didn’t know that was going to evolve into Blood On The Dance Floor until the end of that year.” He further notes, “That really started to come about at the end, we had moved from Record One to Record Plant, work that we had done on Is It Scary, Ghosts and Blood On The Dancefloor started to evolve into more of a record shape than a film shape.”
Sonically the track is atmospheric and sinister, filled with malevolent sounding synths and sound effects that conjure up images of horror and the grotesque. The contrast between Family Thing and Is It Scary is quite interesting to note. While the former song was in no stage of completion, it’s clear from the distinct change in tone between the tracks that Jackson was in a particularly dark mind frame, taking elements from Family Thing and putting a dark twist on it as it evolved into Is It Scary. The new composition is complemented by the lyrics, which would be interpolated on Ghosts. Jackson plays the part of the grotesque and bizarre role that had been created for him by the press proclaiming, “If you want to see eccentric oddities, I’ll be grotesque before your eyes.”
It’s clear from the material released on HIStory and Blood On The Dance Floor that Jackson was continuing to evolve as an artist while exploring new sounds and broadening his musical palette. The era would also feature some of Jackson’s greatest demonstrations of his talent as a songwriter as he expresses his emotional complexities through introspective lyrics. Michael recollected on his intention with the project and his personal highlights, “My favourite songs are Earth Song, Childhood and You Are Not Alone because I like songs with emotions and a message, and a sense of immortality. I like there to be some depth in the lyrics as well as a melodic simpleness that the whole world can sing them. That was my goal to capture that on those songs and I think I came pretty close.” Part of what also makes these sessions so exciting is the eclecticism of the released and unreleased content. While albums like Thriller and Bad may have defined pop music for an era, HIStory, and Blood On The Dancefloor: HIStory In The Mix will be Jackson’s crowning achievement as an artistically daring and accomplished masterpiece.
“I never categorise the music ’cause I never sit down and say I’m gonna write a disco song, or pop or rock or…. I just kind of write according to the emotion, according to what I’m going through in the moment, I get caught up in the moment wherever the moment is, wherever the emotion is.” — Michael Jackson
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