Culture Jamming, or Jam & Lewis

It’s no great revelation that popular music has largely shifted to a producer-centric culture, and though this is true not just in hip hop or house music, as discussed earlier, those were certainly two of the biggest influences. If you want to talk about great producer-centric music of the last twenty years or so, though, you owe it to yourself to visit the catalog of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. (Sadly, the best web resource on the duo, an old fan club site, is now offline. There’s a web archive record of it.)
There’s way too many of their songs to get into a full overview of their catalog (I have at least 250 of their songs in my collection), but at least I’ve got good starting point for n overview now. George had sent me a link to Stylus magazine’s forum on Jam & Lewis’ singles, which is like a link directly to my iPod’s cold little heart. I love Jam and Lewis because they’re such obvious and talented culture vultures, appropriating and approximating virtually every style of pop music. Sometimes it’s in service of an artist whom they’re producing, but honestly sometimes it sounds like they’re doing it just because they have the guts and chops to make it work.
So just to append my two cents to the Stylus overview:

  • Sounds of Blackness’ “The Pressure” is still one of my favorite songs any time I’m trying to feel motivated. I was always self-conscious about that because it’s the ultimate cheesy house song, but fuck it. It’s just a good song.
  • It is of course impossible to mess with Janet’s “Rhythm Nation”. Jam and Lewis clearly see the “Thank U Falettin’ Me Be Mice Elf Agin” as the funkiest backing track ever, and if it ain’t, it’s certainly tied for first place. They sampled it here, they sampled it on a remix of Michael’s “Scream” (see below) and they all-but-explicitly reference the track in nearly all their production on the Rhythm Nation album. I’m pretty sure that, the song dating to 1989, they didn’t clear the sample. That means that Janet denied her brother some royalties, since he owned the publishing to the song at the time. He still owns half, so maybe he gets a nickel when you buy the record.
  • I had always mistaken Michael’s “Scream” for merely overproduced until hearing the instrumental made me realize how well-produced the record was as well. All this depite the fact that “Scream” sounded dated right out of the gate, a thin retread of “Jam” from Dangerous. You kind of can’t listen to the song without hearing the sound of a video that cost too much. Much better is “Scream Louder”, Jam and Lewis’ remix of Scream built on top of, you guessed it, the rhythm track to Sly’s “Thank U”.
  • “Go Deep” was the first Janet single since before Control that wasn’t a total ass-kicker. Frankly the song was boring, and with Velvet Rope having tons of really interesting production, a song that sounded like Janet trying to sound like Aaliyah was a weak way to go.
  • Johnny Gill still scares the shit out of me, and his signature single sounds more like a threat than a come-on; Please, Johnny, don’t hurt ’em! Rub them correctly!
  • Now this is a Janet single, “Someone to Call My Lover”. The Jermaine Dupri remix is stupid but stil catchy as hell, but the original single with its America sample over Miami bass beats is still just too smart to ignore. The drums on this track were done by Alan Richbourg, who did a lot of the beats on Velvet Rope, and listening to that album, you could almost hear him saying “I’ve been listening to Björk lately.” Which is a good thing. I was very happy to hear him get a chance at going to bat on a single, although sadly the promotion on the record was kinda weak. With pop artists, you always want the single to do well because that means you’re more likely to get some cool remixes or b-sides. Plus Janet finally stopped her series of Great Samples From Adult Contemporary Female Singer-Songwriters of the Seventies.
  • The SOS Band always kind of messes with my mind, and I think the Stylus comments on “Just Be Good To Me” capture that sense nicely.
  • “Cherrelle – I Didn’t Mean to Turn You On” I saw this song mentioned on the page and actually said “Haaaaaaaay” out loud. That’s how I feel about this song. How great is this song? Not merely great enough that even the late Robert Palmer could make a hit out of it, but that Mariah Carey’s Prince-style cover of it in 2001 made for the only listenable song on the Glitter soundtrack. Now that means you’ve got a good song. And the best part? Jam and Lewis themselves produced that cover. Jam and Lewis, of course, started their careers working for Prince. It all comes full circle. Need to continue the circle further? Ponder the fact that Palmer’s version of “Addicted To Love” inspired Prince to create “U Got The Look” on a dare, to see if he could make his own version but still chart as a pop single. Prince tends to win his bets.