Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis on how 'Control' and Janet Jackson 'revolutionized female artistry' 35 years ago

Lyndsey Parker
·Editor in Chief, Yahoo Music
·11 min read

Thirty-five years ago, Janet Jackson unleashed Control, one of the most important pop albums of the ‘80s, or really of any decade. While Control was actually Jackson’s third studio LP, in many ways it was the then-19-year-old icon’s proper debut — her declaration of independence, from its opening title track through the assertiveness anthems “Nasty” and “What Have You Done for Me Lately” and the sexual-agency ballad “Let's Wait Awhile.”

Control also marked the beginning of one of the greatest partnerships in music, between Jackson and Minneapolis hitmakers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. Jam and Lewis went on to produce seven more landmark Jackson albums (and nine of Jackson’s 10 No. 1 singles between 1986 and 2001), and their work on Control won them their very first Grammy, for Producer of the Year, Non-Classical, in 1987.

Janet Jackson withTerry Lewis and Jimmy Jam at the opening of Jam & Lewis's Flyte Tyme Studios in Minnesota in 1989. (Photo: Raymond Boyd/Getty Images)
Janet Jackson withTerry Lewis and Jimmy Jam at the opening of Jam & Lewis's Flyte Tyme Studios in Minnesota in 1989. (Photo: Raymond Boyd/Getty Images)

“Just because her of her willingness to try things that a lot of people were afraid to … I think she revolutionized female artistry in a way,” Lewis tells Yahoo Entertainment. “She's just a revolutionary person. She's always going to go and paint outside the lines a little bit, just because that's just the way she is — in a quiet, sweet way, though. It's a crazy dichotomy. It's like, you would never think of a person that is so soft-spoken could be that forceful. And that is an amazing combination, because you get your point across in a different way, without people feeling like you're shouting at them. They process it a little different. So, I think it really worked to her benefit.”

“The records she’d made up to that point were all these very kind of soft, pretty records. And we were like, ‘Let's get that attitude back, and let's give her tracks that are aggressive.’ And then when you give her that kind of track, and you have her sing in a low voice, like ‘Nasty,’ all of a sudden to me, that was kind of where the magic was,” says Jam. “And once she figured that out and we had the trust with each other, she trusted that whatever we threw at her, she could do. And she trusted that whatever she threw at us, we could do. And that was the magic that has continued to this day.”

It most definitely has. Last week, Control jumped back to the No. 1 spot on the iTunes album chart — an event that was cause for quadruple-celebration, as it coincided not just with the record’s 35th anniversary but with Black History Month and the unofficial fourth annual holiday known as Janet Jackson Appreciation Day. Jackson reacted to this full-circle moment with a tearful, grateful Instagram video message thanking her devoted fanbase. “I just love to see her happy,” gushes Lewis. “She's always about the music and about the fans and entertaining and being the example that she needs to be, and I just like to see her get the accolades.”

Jam was equally thrilled by the chart news, but he admits he was irked by incorrect reports that Control’s return to No. 1 was the direct result of Justin Timberlake’s long-overdue and much-hyped apology for what happened at Jackson’s infamous Super Bowl halftime show in 2004 — reports that unfortunately stole focus from Jackson’s latest achievement. “The thing that was interesting to me, or my observation of it, was the way that it got reported [in the media],” Jam begins. “So, Janet's record went back to No. 1 because Janet Jackson Appreciation Day coincided with this Super Bowl day, as it has, thanks to [film director and former football player] Matthew Cherry and a few other people, a few other fans that were really got involved with that [grass-roots campaign]. That was a very positive story. And then when Justin Timberlake, a few days later or whatever it is, does the apology, all of a sudden the story becomes somehow that the record goes back to No. 1 because of Justin Timberlake. And so, the narrative is so screwed up, as it has been for years. To me, it showed the societal thing that happens, that females have been saying for years: how things get hijacked from them. … It really rubbed me the wrong way.”

Jam and Lewis worked on Jackson’s excellent eighth album Damita Jo, which came out six weeks after the so-called “wardrobe malfunction” scandal and was dead on arrival, as it received almost no television or radio exposure at the time due to the Super Bowl backlash. (For instance, Timberlake was allowed to attend the 2004 Grammy Awards — which aired on CBS, the same network as Super Bowl XXXVIII — while Jackson’s invitation was rescinded. Jam, who is an honorary chairman of the Grammys’ Black Music Collective and has long been active in the Recording Academy, stresses that that decision did not come from the Academy itself, but from since-disgraced CBS executive Les Moonves.) While Lewis is happy to observe that “most people have moved on,” when asked about Justin’s apology, he does answer: “All I can say is, Justin, what took you so long? To let her take all of the heat from that and to kind of remove yourself from the circumstance? I mean, when you were actually the one that pulled everything and actually were part of making it happen. It's kind of odd to me, but as I reflect on it, at the time I probably was really pissed off because he didn't say something, but now I've definitely moved on. How hypocritical are we to sit around and talk about what she did wrong? Everybody's seen a breast before. … So, you know, reflecting back, I just wish he would have stepped forward earlier and kind of laid his self in the line of fire too, and took his shots. But now, who cares?”

Janet Jackson Appreciation Day actually began in 2018 as a protest to Timberlake being invited back by the NFL to headline that year’s Super Bowl halftime show; Jam admits that it bothered him that Jackson wasn’t a part of Super Bowl LII, but mainly became the game took place in Minneapolis, where Control was created. He and Lewis have fond memories of when the young artist first visited their home city — the beginning of the journey that led to Jackson finding her true voice.

“I think for the first time, when she came up to Minneapolis, she was exposed to just the free life. Because as a Jackson, I can only imagine the amount of scrutiny and sequestering that you would have if you were moved from place to place, always with some kind of bodyguard, or with some kind of supervision,” muses Lewis. “When she came to Minneapolis, she came to Minneapolis alone, with a girlfriend. And so we were just hanging; there was no agenda at all, other than, ‘Hey, let's get to know each other and figure out what we want to do creatively.’ And so once she figured out that she could just be whatever she wanted to be, it was a breeze from there on. I mean, she just jumped right in, both feet.”

“We just talked, we hung out, we rode around, hung at the lakes. We went to the movies because it was summertime, so it was actually nice weather. And then we'd go hang out at clubs at night and just that kind of thing. And after about four or five days of that, I remember her saying, ‘When are we going to get started working?’ And Terry and I said, ‘Oh, we've been working!’ And we showed her the lyrics, or at least the skeletal lyrics, to ‘Control,’ talking about her leaving home, moving out on her own, asking her parents’ permission. And when she looked the lyrics, she just said, ‘Wait, this is what we've been talking about! … So whatever we talk about, that's what we're going to write about?’ And we said yeah. And then she said, ‘Oh, well, then I want to talk about this. And I want to talk about this!’ The light bulb came on in her head, because it was the first time that someone had said to her, ‘What are your ideas?’ … And I think that's when it came to her mind that, ‘Wow, I can really say something here that means something.’”

 Terry Lewis and Jimmy Jam present  Janet Jackson with the Ultimate Icon Award at the 2015 BET Awards. (Photo: Mark Davis/BET/Getty Images for BET)
Terry Lewis and Jimmy Jam present Janet Jackson with the Ultimate Icon Award at the 2015 BET Awards. (Photo: Mark Davis/BET/Getty Images for BET)

Jam and Lewis recall just one time that Janet’s controlling father Joe Jackson, who’d had a big hand in her previous two unsuccessful studio albums, intervened in the making of Control. “We only had actually one meeting with Joe, where he told us, ‘Don't make my daughter sound like Prince!’ Don't make my daughter risqué!’” laughs Lewis. A similarly amused Jam adds, “That's exactly what he said. He started off by saying, ‘You guys are from Minneapolis?’ And we said, ‘Yeah.’ And he said, ‘Prince is from Minneapolis.’ And we said, ‘Yeah.’ And he goes, ‘Don't have my daughter sounding like Prince.’” (Interestingly, Jam and Lewis, who'd worked with Prince when they were original members of the Time, did once imagine Janet’s Rhythm Nation 1814 hit “Love Will Never Do” as a Prince duet. “That's the reason to Janet sings the first verse low, and then the second verse is high, because we were thinking that it might be cool to put Prince on the first verse. It didn't ever happen, but it was thought about and talked about. It just never came to fruition,” Jam reveals.)

Jam and Lewis’s last collaboration with Janet Jackson was 2015’s Unbreakable, a critically heralded comeback album that was part of a larger Janet renaissance that included her successful “State of the World” concert tour, Billboard Music Awards lifetime achievement honor, BET Ultimate Icon Award (which was presented by Jam and Lewis), and induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Jam and Lewis don’t have any immediate plans to work with Jackson on an Unbreakable follow-up, although Jam says, “When we put a wish-list [of production projects] together, she's always the top of the wish-list.” But right now, the producers are finishing up their first-ever Jam & Lewis-billed album (featuring guest vocalist Babyface and others to be announced), tentatively slated for June. And that’s a full-circle moment as well.

“Continuing on the Janet theme, which is always a great theme to be on… We had started on Jam & Lewis record at that point in time [in 1986], and when the Control record was done, John McClain was the head of A&R for A&M Records. He comes to Minneapolis. We play him ‘Control,’ we play ‘Nasty,’ we play ‘Pleasure Principle,’ we play him ‘Let's Wait Awhile,’ we play him ‘Funny How Time Flies.’ Like, we're playing all these hits, right? … And like all A&R people, he goes, ‘I just need one more!’” McClain then suggested that the production duo play one of their own album demos for Jackson. “And that song ended up becoming ‘What Have You Done for Me Lately’ Started her career, ended ours!” Jam chuckles. “And so, that was it. Now, over those 35 years, we had always in the back of our minds thought, ‘Well, we should do an album.’ So we're excited about the record, and I think hope hopefully people enjoy what we've been working the 35-year journey on this.”

And as for Jackson’s 35-year journey, Jam and Lewis are immensely proud to be of part of it, and seem to harbor no regrets that their own recording career went on the back burner in the wake of Control’s blockbuster success. “I think people are just reminded, after you get a whiff of that smell that you really love, you just crave that, to be reminded is something that was so impactful in your life,” Lewis says of this new wave of appreciation for Janet’s artistry. “It's just a special time.”

“You may not remember what you were doing 35 years ago, but if you put on ‘Nasty’ or you put on ‘What Have You Done for Me Lately’ or you put on ‘Control,’ all those memories all come back to you,” says Jam. “And there's something that's very divine about that, that I think is really cool and people should recognize.”

Watch Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis's full, extended Yahoo Entertainment interview below, covering their work with Janet Jackson (including the under-appreciated Damita Jo album), their own upcoming album, and more:

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— Video produced by Jen Kucsak, edited by Jason Fitzpatrick