Janet Jackson, Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis, and The Making of “Control”
Note from Gino: An earlier version of this article had a few errors in the second paragraph that have since been amended. Please see the responses section for more info.
In 1983 legendary producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis were still an unknown quantity. As member’s of Prince’s band The Time, they had yet to establish themselves as solo artists. That all changed when they took on an outside gig producing S.O.S. Band’s “Just Be Good To Me”. After missing a Time concert due to inclement weather while working on the record, Prince fired them from the group. “It devastated me,” Lewis told Rolling Stone in 1987. “These are the guys I grew up with. It was like taking your family and splitting it in half.” Though the forced separation from Time was an emotional gut punch, it also set the wheels of their career as an unstoppable production duo into motion.
Three years after their unceremonious dismissal, Jam and Lewis were building a catalog of successful full-length releases for artists like Alexander O’Neal and Cherrelle. These albums were well received, but a true watershed moment occurred for the two producers when A & M Records exec John McClain gave them an opportunity to work with Janet Jackson. With her third album Control in the early idea stages, Jackson was looking to establish herself as a legitimate solo artist and create some separation from her famous family. Jam and Lewis saw the album as an opportunity to help the young singer reach her full potential.
For the Minneapolis-based duo, the process of working with Jackson and identifying the appropriate tone for the album started before they even entered the studio. Once Jackson arrived in Minnesota for recording, Jam and Lewis spent several days figuring out what made Jackson tick. “For five or six days we just hung out,” Jam told Rolling Stone. “We went to the movies, hung out at the lake, went to some clubs. We would have conversations about different things.”
“I wanted this album to be my success, not my family’s”- Janet Jackson
Hanging out together for a week wasn’t without purpose. The two producers wanted insight into Janet’s life that would help guide the recording process. Their efforts to connect on a personal level paid off, as Jackson opened up and tackled very personal subjects like her controlling family and romantic difficulties throughout the album.
Control, which turned 30 in 2016, remains one of the defining albums of Jackson’s career. With production that sounded unlike anything else in 1986 working in perfect harmony with Jackson’s beautiful voice, the album helped launch her into superstar status. Reflecting on the Control’s 30th anniversary last year, Billboard writer Julian Kimble wrote, “Not only was Jackson’s maiden voyage with producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis at the forefront of R&B, pop and hip-hop’s intersection, it birthed a novel sound in the process.”
Jam and Lewis are quick to credit their original mentor Prince with influencing their distinct production. “He kind of wrote his own rules, but still, being in sessions with him also teaches you things to do that are a little out of the box. He called it ‘visual records,’” Jam told ASCAP in 2013. “Prince was always making records that were really sonically aggressive, but also painted some sort of picture.”
“It made for an interesting sound because some of the things [were] fixed and some [were] left distorted. The record has this kind of loud, frantic sound.”- Jimmy Jam
Part of the aggressiveness attained on Control was due to Jam and Lewis’s relative newness to being in charge behind the boards. An engineer quit on the duo for unknown reasons and left them at the helm during the initial studio sessions. “We recorded Control ourselves because we had an engineer who walked out on us. So a lot of things were recorded too loud and were sort of distorted,” Jam told BBC in 2005. “But it made for an interesting sound because some of the things [were] fixed and some [were] left distorted. The record has this kind of loud, frantic sound.”
In an interesting aside, Jam and Lewis’s production was so frantic that it was difficult for some of their peers to digest. According to Spin, several of the tracks used for Control were originally submitted to former Atlantic Starr lead singer Sharon Bryant for her upcoming solo album. In what now looks like an epic career misstep, she turned them all down before the Control sessions started. Once the stars aligned and gave the production duo a chance to work with Jackson, their rejected work found a second life.
Jam and Lewis may have painted too far outside the lines for Bryant, but they provided the exact sound Jackson was looking for at that point in her career. “I wanted this album to be my success, not my family’s,” Jackson said in a 1987 Spin magazine feature. “And Jimmy and Terry helped me get it.”
“He [Prince] kind of wrote his own rules, but still, being in sessions with him also teaches you things to do that are a little out of the box. He called it ‘visual records.’”- Jimmy Jam
Likewise, Jam and Lewis also credit Jackson’s voice and breath control with being instrumental in the album’s production. “She sang, very forcefully, even with a soft voice. She had a great sense of rhythm. It almost became part of the instruments,” Jam told ASCAP.
Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis, and Janet Jackson have worked together on many other projects over the years, but this album is without question their most beloved collaboration. Jam and Lewis’s beautiful distortion formed a perfect union with Jackson’s alluring voice, helping Control sell over five million copies, spawn multiple hit singles, win a slew of awards, and remain one of the most enduring albums of the last thirty years.
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