‘When You Write Music History, You Can’t Leave Us Out’: Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis Stake Their Claim as Music Royalty

Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis attend the 62nd Annual GRAMMY Awards “Let’s Go Crazy” The GRAMMY Salute To Prince on January 28, 2020, in Los Angeles, California.
Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis attend the 62nd Annual GRAMMY Awards “Let’s Go Crazy” The GRAMMY Salute To Prince on January 28, 2020, in Los Angeles, California.

Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis are kind of a big deal.

In the decades since Harris’ humble beginnings as the 16-year-old secret weapon behind the Minneapolis-based funk outfit Mind & Matter, the legendary production duo has accrued over 100 platinum certifications, 16 Billboard Hot 100 number ones (and counting), five Grammys, a star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame, countless other awards, and the unwavering respect and adulation of their peers. They’ve also had the privilege of helping to thrust burgeoning talent like Janet Jackson into superstardom, while also handing out hits like Halloween candy to everyone from Elton John, to Michael Jackson, to George Michael, to…well, everyone.

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As such, it’s an impossible feat to encapsulate such an illustrious, 40-year career over the course of a single conversation—so I didn’t even try. But with Jam and Lewis—two literal pillars of contemporary music—set to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on Saturday, what I did try to do was get a deeper understanding of their brotherhood, the “comfort zone” they create while working with your favorite artist’s favorite artist, their candid thoughts on the legacy they want to leave behind, and who could possibly be on the bucket list of artists that they’d still like to work with.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

The Root: First and foremost, I want to congratulate y’all for such an amazing accomplishment. And I guess I’ll start with this: How does it feel to know that after your humble beginnings with Mind & Matter, that nearly five decades later, you’re about to be inducted into something as prestigious as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on Nov. 5?

Jimmy Jam: It feels great! People have asked if it’s something we aspired to and it wasn’t.

Terry Lewis: I don’t think it even existed when we were young. [Laughs]

Jimmy Jam: Yeah, that’s true. It didn’t exist. But we do feel like it’s an acknowledgment that when you write music history, you can’t leave us out. You have to include us in at least a paragraph or a chapter or somewhere in there. And so, for that reason, I think it is very prestigious. And also, the artists we’re going in with are people that we respect and admire and either grew up listening to or became fans of when they came out. So for all of those reasons, it’s very significant and we’re really excited about it. It’s very surreal.

The Root: Yeah, I can’t even imagine. But with that being said, 40 years is a lot of damn music. So one of the things I’ve always wondered is what inspires the two of you creatively?

Terry Lewis: Well, these days, just waking up every day is a good thing. [Laughs] We’ve happened to work with some amazing artists, and they’re always inspiring because whatever they’re going through becomes kind of the thesis or theme of our creations. And that’s always an interesting venture.

Jimmy Jam: Yeah, the artists are the inspirational part. We rarely write songs without having someone in mind for those songs. I mean, we occasionally do, but normally we know who we’re going to work with or who we want to work with, then the songs are inspired by that. So, as Terry said, we get a chance to work with such great people and they make us look really good.

The Root: I would argue that you make each other look really good. I’m just sayin’.

Jimmy Jam: But that’s what collaboration is though. It should always be a win-win. And I think in the best collaborations that’s exactly what it is.

The Root: For sure. And to that point, throughout the course of your careers, you’ve had plenty of collaborators. From fellow The Time bandmate Jellybean Johnson to Big Jim Wright and plenty of others. But of all the amazing talent you’ve had the privilege to work with, who’ve been some of your favorites?

Jimmy Jam: There are too many! I mean, everybody’s been a favorite. We’ve done a really good job over the years of picking people to work with who bring something to us, and we bring something to them. We haven’t had any bad relationships with anybody, and even a couple that got off to a rocky start ended up still being good in some way. So it’s all worked out really well. [But to answer your question,] I think Janet is probably [the] obvious [person] for many reasons.

Jimmy Jam, Janet Jackson & Terry Lewis during MTV Icon Tribute to Janet Jackson in Los Angeles, California, United States.
Jimmy Jam, Janet Jackson & Terry Lewis during MTV Icon Tribute to Janet Jackson in Los Angeles, California, United States.

We’ve been on a journey with her for almost 40 years now at this point. And also, the fortunate thing with Janet was back when we first started working with her, we were able to do full albums together, rather than just two songs here or three songs there. We were able to really create bodies of work. So when you listen to Control and Rhythm Nation, or Janet, The Velvet Rope—which just celebrated its 25th anniversary—or All for You, those albums were complete thoughts. It wasn’t about, “Let’s try to make a hit.” It was about, “Let’s try to make an album of songs.” And then, there’d be certain songs that we’d raise our hands and go, “Hey, that’ll be the first single.” But we weren’t doing it with that intent, which is the reason our body of work stands so strong and our relationship with her has been so great over the years. Because we created a comfort zone for her to enjoy doing music, which started off as her dad’s idea. That wasn’t really what she aspired to do; she wanted to be an actress.

When we got with her, she was at the point where she wanted to give music a try. But we made it fun for her because we opened her up to the creative process of actually writing songs. It wasn’t like we were just giving her songs. We hung out with her for a week, got to know each other, she told us stories, [shared] what she was thinking, and then she said, “When are we going to get to work?” And we said, “Oh, we’re already working.” And then we started the beginning of [what became] Control. That’s when she realized that whatever we talk about, that’s what we’re going to write about. And that’s what made it fun for her. So she’s [the] obvious person for all the right reasons.

The Root: Terry, does anyone else stand out to you as far as people you’ve worked with throughout the course of your career?

Terry Lewis: You could name dozens for different reasons. Mariah, just a great vocalist and songwriter; Mary J. Blige, just the heart of a lioness who gives you everything she has. Usher, Charlie Wilson, who’s arguably one of the top five vocalists of all time. Ron Isley, Rod Stewart, Sting. I mean, it just goes on and on. [Trumpeter] Herb Alpert. They’ve all been special in their own way.

Jimmy Jam: They’ve all contributed to our longevity in some way also. It’s funny. Right after Control came out, [Minneapolis Star-Tribune music columnist] Jon Bream—who did one of our first interviews back in the day—said, “How does it feel to be the hottest producers?” And I said, “We don’t want to be the hottest producers. We want to be warm for a long time.”

The Root: Mission accomplished. [Laughs]

Jimmy Jam: We joke every time we talk to him now, because he’s been covering us for the last 40-plus years, and it’s like, “Yeah, warm for a long time.” That was really what we set out to do. But each of those people that Terry mentioned along the way, and obviously the influence of [music exec] Clarence Avant in our lives, along with the S.O.S. Band, Cherrelle, and Alexander O’Neal, was pivotal to us. As were things like Krush Groove, where [we provided] the intersection between R&B and hip-hop with Force M.D.’s “Tender Love.” So we’ve been fortunate to be in the middle of a lot of intersections of different generations, different genres of music, and put that together. Think about a song like “Got Til It’s Gone,” with Janet and Joni Mitchell. We sampled an old folk song, put the hip-hop beat on it, and then [added] Q-Tip. Those are the kinds of things that we’ve explored over the years, that have been wonderful to do: make those intersections when people think [they] don’t even exist.

The Root: That’s also a testament to your staying power, you know what I mean? But to that point, longevity is something that’s incredibly hard to sustain, yet even harder when you’re part of a duo or group. How have you two been able to maintain your brotherhood throughout the years without it impacting your ability to churn out so much timeless music?

Terry Lewis: Brotherhood is easy when you love your brother. One thing I always say is respect respects respect. You should never expect something that you’re not willing to give yourself. And we’ve had a great relationship because it’s built on that and honor. We have each other’s back all the time. So I’m always going to do the right thing on his behalf, as well as my behalf, because his behalf is my behalf. So we just respect each other and our relationship is built on freedom. He’s free to do whatever he wants to do, work with whoever he wants to work with, however he wants to work with them. And I’ll chime in with whatever I can offer. Whether I’m into [the project] or not doesn’t really matter. Because I love what he loves for him. If he loves it, I love it for him. I want him to do it and vice versa. So we’re able to just be free and do the art that we want to create. And it’s been an outstanding relationship [because of that].

Jimmy Jam: I feel the same way. I think it’s funny because watching The Beatles documentary, there were so many parallels in the way [John Lennon and Paul McCartney] worked together. I just imagined them in a room together, actually hashing songs out. But a lot of times, it was just Paul’s song or it was John Lennon’s song. But at the end of the day, it was a Lennon/McCartney song. There are songs that are Jam and Lewis songs that I never even heard until they were on the radio. I’d be like, “Terry, when did you do that, man?” “Oh, I did that a couple of weeks ago or whatever.” “Oh, yeah? That’s jammin’!”

The Root: I love that.

Jimmy Jam: As Terry said, our foundation was built on trust, loyalty, and respect. But also, we shook hands and we said, “50/50.” Once you do that, you eliminate about 99 percent of anything you’re going to argue about. “Well, it’s my title! It’s my melody! It’s my track!” You take all of that out [of the equation] because you’re not picking percentages. It’s 50/50. So everything I do, even if it’s just by myself, it’s 50 percent Terry’s and vice versa. What that does is you don’t worry about anything creatively, you just do whatever feels right to you to do. But it’s not about my way or his way, it’s about the best way. We’re individuals, but we each get to do exactly what we want to do, then share it with each other. And it’s the best. We used to say in the old days, “We have no slack.” Because we pick up each other’s slack. Whenever one of us is unable to do something or doesn’t feel strongly about it, the other one of us picks it up.

The Root: That’s what’s up. I love that you two have been able to remain committed to 50/50 for so long because like you said, that eliminates so much. Another thing I was curious about is of all the projects you guys have worked on, which one presented the biggest challenge?

Terry Lewis: Wow. Because of the obvious culture shock, I would say The Human League.

The Root: Ooooooh. Okay.

Terry Lewis: [Laughs] Because you’ve got these people from Sheffield—

Jimmy Jam: Sheffield, England.

Terry Lewis: Which is the outer banks of London or whatnot, coming into Minneapolis. This cold, cold territory with some Black men.

The Root: [Laughs] In some black fedoras.

Singer Alexander O’Neal during a recording session with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1988.
Singer Alexander O’Neal during a recording session with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1988.

Terry Lewis: [Laughs] Whatever we were wearing, it really didn’t matter. We were Black men and that was different for them. It was different for us too because we never really had any British people in Minneapolis. So it was just that culture shock all the way around. They had never been as cold as they were and that was our domain. [Laughs] That project had its difficult times, but the thing that made it beautiful was the music.

Jimmy Jam: Also the lead singer, Phil Oakey, was dating one of the girls in the group.

Terry Lewis: Oh yeah.

Jimmy Jam: So whatever happened at the studio went home with them. Phil was never able to get away. And then, if there was something that the girls thought was wrong—like on “Human,” they wanted to do the backgrounds on it, but we had our secret weapon, Lisa Keith, do the backgrounds—they didn’t like that “other girl” singing on the track.

Terry Lewis: [Mocking Oakey’s British accent] “I have to say!”

Jimmy Jam: Right. [Mocking Oakey’s British accent] “I just have to say!” And we said, “Oh, you just have to say.”

The Root: [Laughs]

Jimmy Jam: So we knew what that was. And another thing: When people think about producers, they think about the beat, the engineering, all of those things. But it’s the psychology and the psychiatry of the relationships that are key to being a good producer. The idea is not only to deliver the best project you can, but actually get it done and get it out. That means you have to negotiate with the artists involved and the way they like to work. Are they late? Are they early? Some people like to work a very concentrated amount of time, for like an hour, and that’s all they’re going to give you. Some want to work 12 hours. Some people like it candlelit and dark, with nobody around. Some people like spotlights blaring.

When we worked with the Spice Girls, I remember Posh Spice wanted a spotlight on her because that’s when she sang the best. So you figure out all those things psychologically as a producer: how to put everybody in the best position to make the best thing. Then also, you’ve got the record company calling, “Well, we need this for the single” or “We need this.” And the manager wants to do some other thing. So it’s really about the trust you establish with the artists—and the psychology and the psychology of it is very important.

I remember there were days we’d be working with somebody like Patti LaBelle or Chaka Khan and they just weren’t hitting it on that particular day. Terry would go, “Don’t worry about it today. We’ll go to my house.” He had a lake in front of this house, so we’d hop on the Sea-Doos and do that all day because that’s what they needed. Or he’d made turkey chili—Terry makes the best turkey chill in the world—and we’d just sit out and do that. Or one day, I remember Patti came to the studio and just did a fish fry. She was like, “I just want to do a fish fry today.” “Okay, great.”

Terry Lewis: Bring your own hot sauce. [Laughs]

Jimmy Jam: So those are the things that I think people miss out on when they think about [music] production and those elements, because yes, what microphone to use, the sounds and all that, that’s part of it. But the biggest part is the human part—no pun intended. The culture shock that Terry mentioned made working with Human League a tough project. But at the end of the day, it also gave us one of our biggest records. And that’s what you’re always looking for: a great result.

The Root: For sure. With you two being producers that have worked with almost literally everybody, I gotta ask: who’s on your bucket list as far as artists that you still want to work with?

Jimmy Jam: There are so many.

The Root: Besides me, of course.

Jimmy Jam: Exactly! [Laughs] My stock answer has been the same for probably 20 years—and that’s Sade. For a while, I felt like I didn’t really care about working with her—even though I always wanted to—because I loved her records so much that I just didn’t want to mess it up. And now, I still love her records, but I feel like we know enough now to actually enhance whatever she’s doing. Terry likes to say, “A barber can’t cut the back of his own head.” I feel like our vision of her might be a little different or a little more elevated than even the way she thinks of herself. So we’d love that opportunity. There are tons of other people, but she’s the one. I’ve been saying this for 20 years, so I’ll just be consistent.

Terry Lewis: Absolutely. But I always say Janelle Monae. And I say her because I just think she’s such a fantastic performer and personality. She’s like a high-test car that’s been getting regular gas. If she gets the right gas? Whoo! It’s going to be amazing.

The Root: She’d be outta here, yeah. I’ve been rockin’ with her since [Outkast’s final album] Idlewild and she should definitely be way bigger than she is.

Terry Lewis: I mean, she’s huge in her own way, but on the music side of things, with the proper songs, she’d be on another level.

Jimmy Jam: There are artists that sometimes you like more than the music they make.

Terry Lewis: Right.

Jimmy Jam: And sometimes vice versa. But you know where it can go.

Terry Lewis: I feel a kinship with her. She could have been in Minneapolis in our era.

Jimmy Jam: Oh, absolutely.

Terry Lewis: That’s why I feel that connection. It’s like, “Oooh!” Because I only see that person every once in a while. When I identify that person—H.E.R. is that kind of person as well. Like, “Oooh! I know you.” I know what to do with you. Even if I don’t, I think I do. [Laughs]

Jimmy Jam: Right. Exactly. [Laughs]

The Root: At least let me try! [Laughs]

Terry Lewis: I’ve got some ideas for you that I don’t even have to do! Just let me give you the ideas! “The rising tide raises all boats.” We just make as many people as important as we can. They say, “You’re too important not to be important.” So you got to put the work in. Let’s go.

Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis perform onstage during the 64th Annual GRAMMY Awards at MGM Grand Garden Arena on April 03, 2022 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis perform onstage during the 64th Annual GRAMMY Awards at MGM Grand Garden Arena on April 03, 2022 in Las Vegas, Nevada.

The Root: Yeah, y’all gotta make that happen. Here’s my last question: After everything you two have accomplished, and everything you continue to accomplish, what’s the legacy you want to leave behind?

Jimmy Jam: For us, it’s the legacy of partnership. Next year, Terry and I will be going into our 50th year since we met.

The Root: Wow.

Jimmy Jam: Hopefully, that’s inspiring to people and something that they can follow. We set an example by shaking hands on a 50/50 partnership, and [allowing] the creativity and everything to work from that. So we want to be remembered for that. At this point in our career, we feel like we really have nothing to prove, but we still have a lot to say. So I feel like now’s the time where we’re really going to do some significant things because God has allowed us to stay relevant for such a long time. Now we can take all the expertise and knowledge we’ve gathered to do some really great things and leave music in a better place than we found it—because music was in a great place when we discovered it. We want to make sure that it’s there for all the future music makers and future listeners to do what they do. So I hope people come away with that.

Terry Lewis: Legacy is really hard because [my] legacy [has] more [to do] with my family than with the music. Because legacy with the music is just someone’s opinion of what I’ve created or what we’ve created. How we measured our success was an internal thing. We never let anybody steer us a certain way based on what they thought. So we created all these songs with beautiful artists that went out and performed the songs and actually made the songs hits—and there’s a whole lot of moving parts in there. So legacy of that? Whatever.

But at the end of the day, I’m just a nice guy that loves to do music. I love music and I love my family, and sometimes my family has to suffer because I love music so much. But they allowed me to do what I love because they love me. So that’s the legacy I have six beautiful children and a beautiful wife. I have a beautiful partner, Jam, and he has a beautiful family. We actually invested in those things, not just the music, and didn’t lose anything. That’s where it turns into a beautiful Disney story. Because most people’s stories don’t end up like this. It’s a blessing just to be able to do what we love to do.

Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis’ Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction takes place on Saturday, November 5th, at 7 p.m. PST at Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles, Calif.

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