Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis on milestone anniversaries of Janet Jackson’s ‘Control,’ Sounds of Blackness’ ‘Optimistic’

2021 marks the 35th anniversary of the production duo's landmark album with Jackson, while their hit with the Sounds of Blackness celebrates its 30th year

It may be a cliché to call someone an institution unto themselves, but other words and adjectives really fall short when trying to describe the talents and contributions of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.

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Not only have the songwriting and production duo been – and continue to be – responsible for making hits for artists like Janet Jackson, Usher, Mary J. Blige, and New Edition, but they, along with Prince, are the chief architects of the Minneapolis Sound, an eclectic brand of funk that was the bridge between post-disco R&B and boogie to New Jack Swing and hip-hop/soul.

2021 is a hallmark year for the five-time Grammy-winning duo. Besides gearing up for their first-ever album release as artists in the coming months, the world is celebrating milestone anniversaries for some of their most important work.

February is the 35th anniversary of Jackson’s 1986 album, Control, which Jam & Lewis chiefly wrote and produced. The third album for the then 19-year-old singer/actress, Control became a multi-platinum selling smash that not only ushered Jackson into musical stardom but also gave birth to several generations of female artists using their music to showcase unapologetic autonomy.

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Nesby performs with Sounds of Blackness onstage during BET Presents 19th Annual Super Bowl Gospel Celebration in 2018. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images for BET)

This year also marks the 30th anniversary of The Sound of Blackness‘ breakout hit, “Optimistic.” Not only did the song reach the top three on the Billboard R&B charts in 1991, but it also cracked the Top 20 on the Billboard Dance charts. More than just a gospel song, the lyrics, and spirit of perseverance and faith amid times of doubt and confusion have translated to people of all religions and backgrounds, enduring to this day.

Jam and Lewis spoke with TheGrio about these landmark projects, and how they’ve resonated with audiences past and present.

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After nearly a decade of making hits like Cherrelle and Alexander O’Neal’s “Saturday Love,” The S.O.S. Band’s “Just Be Good To Me,” The Force M.D.’s “Tender Love,” and New Edition’s “Can You Stand The Rain” just to name a few, Jam and Lewis launched their own label, Perspective Records, in 1991. While they’d go on to build a roster of artists that included Mint Condition, Lo-Key, and Solo, The Sounds of Blackness were their first signee.

The duo remembered the 40-strong collective from their own playing days in Minnesota. While with the band Flyte Time, which later morphed into The Time, Jam and Lewis often shared the bill with Sounds of Blackness at concerts and festivals during the 1970s.

It was actually Jackson who convinced them to sign the mammoth group.

“Janet was the one that really kind of opened our eyes to how unique and special Sounds of Blackness was,” Jam told theGrio. After taking her to a Sounds of Blackness show in the late 1980s, Jackson was impressed by how much the group had incorporated so many different styles and genres into their performance.

“The whole time we’re watching the show, she’s like elbowing us, going, ‘Oh, my God. Oh, they’re amazing. Oh, my God, listen to this. Oh, they’re amazing. You should sign them to your label,’ and we were like, ‘Yeah, we should.'”

Most labels would shy away from signing an act with such an unusual line-up, but Jam says it was all part of the plan.

“Our philosophy always was, if you want to build a tall building, the first thing you have to do is dig that foundation really deep. And we felt like Sounds of Blackness was the foundation in which we were going to build,” Jam explained. “So, it not only was a business decision but to give the audience the kind of music we felt they needed to hear; not always what they wanted to hear.

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Terry Lewis (L) and Jimmy Jam accept the Legend Award during the 2019 Soul Train Awards. (Photo by Gabe Ginsberg/Getty Images)

Jam and Lewis wrote “Optimistic” with Sounds of Blackness’s longtime music director, Gary Hines, but Jam insists that the song, which they call their “favorite” of their entire catalog, was a song that was “gifted” to them from God.

“Optimistic” helped their debut album, The Evolution of Gospel, go gold. Over the years, the fusion of any kind of gospel rhetoric with secular music can create a backlash, but Lewis contends that’s not what they were trying to do.

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“It was all done with the best intentions, just like we were just trying to do something positive for our people,” Lewis said, recalling an exchange between himself and Donnie McClurkin, who felt threatened by secular musicians entering gospel “territory.” “We weren’t trying to do something that would alienate anyone,” Lewis continued, insisting that “gospel is just the good news.”

One of the reasons Jam and Lewis had earned the caché to have their own label was their explosively successful work with Jackson, which started with 1986’s Control. The duo was able to craft an album worth of anthems of empowerment, self-respect, and ambition by mining these feelings from Jackson during their downtime while recording in Minneapolis.

“We basically just talked for the longest time before we even went in the studio just about what she wanted to do and what she liked and what she didn’t like and those types of things,” Jam recalls.

“And then she said, ‘When are we going to start working?’ And we said, ‘Oh, we’re started.’ And then we showed her the lyrics to what became ‘Control.’ And she said, ‘Well, wait, this is what we’ve been talking about,’ and we said, ‘Yeah,’ and she said, ‘So whatever we talk about, that’s what we’re going to write about.'”

The duo had been paying attention to Jackson over the years, and knew that despite the bubblegum production of her first two albums, she exuded a feistiness that would meld great with songs like “What Have You Done For Me Lately,” and “Nasty.” Jam says the goal was to use that attitude to make her stand out against the competition of the time, which was the likes of Patti LaBelle and Anita Baker.

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Janet Jackson looks on when Terry Lewis (left) and “Jimmy Jam” Harris accept their awards at the 2002 Essence Awards at the Universal Amphitheater in Los Angeles, CA in 2002. (Photo credit: Kevin Winter/ImageDirect/Fox).

From then on, Jackson, Jam, and Lewis would create a string of albums that taught listeners and artists, about independence, or what Lewis calls “growth.”

“On Control, she was just getting her independence from her parents. And then you go from there and then you figure out that, oh, I’m still not free, thus leading her to make grand political calls to action on their successive multi-platinum effort, Rhythm Nation 1814.

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Last week, USA Today reported that Control rose to number one on Apple’s US Top 40 Album chart as fans revisited the classic work. Lewis spoke about what makes that album and “Optimistic” still resonate with fans after three decades.

“There’s only one answer for me is they feel good,” Lewis said, contending that they sound better now because he and Jam were too busy being “fearless” and in the moment to realize to care about listener’s opinions.

“And now, after, what, 30 years of scrutiny, it even sounds better to me now because like Jam always says now, I don’t hear the mistakes. I don’t feel the pain of creation anymore. And so, now I’m just a fan, too. I can just enjoy it.”

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