The Making of Janet Jackson's "Rhythm Nation 1814"

Janet Jackson (1988). Photo by: Michael Ochs Archives / Stringer. Getty Images.
Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis (1982). Photo by: Michael Ochs Archives / Stringer. Getty Images.

Back in 1986, Janet Jackson released a record that catapulted her from behind her family and brother's shadows and into a commercially successful limelight of her own. It was her third album, titled Control, and the first of what would become a history of famed collaboration between Jackson and legendary producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.

Not only was that record significant for its commercial success, but it likewise represented a personal, professional, and musical breakthrough for Jackson. She used her lyrical space largely autobiographically, writing personal songs about her recent annulment and about severing ties from her family and father and former manager, Joseph Jackson. Her honesty was wrapped in Jam's and Lewis's groundbreaking production style, so inventive that it won them a Producer of the Year Grammy in 1987 and is regarded as one of the earliest originations of a genre of music that would become very popular in the following years called "new jack swing."

With this aptly named third release, the world saw Jackson doing just that—taking control—and they wanted more. But Jackson wasn't keen simply to make the follow-up that A&M Records was asking her for—the Control: Part Two that everyone thought they wanted, which would have delved more deeply into her family's salacious scandals and her own personal life dramas. "That's what I didn't want to do," Jackson told Jet in '89. "I wanted to do something that I really believe in and that I really felt strong about."

Though this thought was certainly top-of-mind when she returned to Jam's and Lewis's Flyte Tyme studio in the winter of '88 to start on her fourth record, it was little more than a thought at that point. The trio didn't yet know that their impending sessions would result in Rhythm Nation 1814—a 12-track (save interludes) concept album dealing with themes like drugs, racism, and poverty, or that it would go on to regularly garner favorable comparisons to Marvin Gaye's 1971 release, What's Going On.

No, most of that fell into place later. On day one, Jackson's creative output was of a different kind, coming in the form of her first snow angel, made on the ground outside of the Minneapolis-based studio.

"She told us, 'I've always wanted to do that!' We were like, 'Get in here. You're going to catch a cold. We're trying to get started here. You're going to mess your voice up!" Jam reminisced, laughing, in a 2014 interview with the Red Bull Music Academy. "It was so funny. I think that snow angel stayed on the ground the entire winter." And while that angel stood guard outside of Flyte Tyme, inside the studio is where the record would take shape over the next six months of sessions.

In the three-year gap between Control and Rhythm Nation, Jam and Lewis had further sharpened their technical skills, producing three new records: Keep Your Eye On Me by Herb Alpert, Crash by The Human League, and Heart Break by New Edition. The pair also seriously updated their studio and gear selection.

Console Upgrades and Vocal Mics

The main event was a brand-new mixing console called the Harrison Series 10, which was the first analog console to feature a digital control surface, with full automation of all parameters. Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis were the first studio to have it, according to Jam. This meant that they could cut down the time it took to switch songs to about 10 minutes because complex mixes now required little-to-no cross-patching.

The console upgrades also doubled the number of tracks they had been previously working with (from 24 to 48), which became especially handy when laying down Jackson's vocal tracks—all of which, lead and backup, she sang herself.

"The idea with [Jackson] has always been that she does all of her own vocals, so that it’s totally a Janet record. If you think about the way we did the harmonies for this album, I think about the song 'Love Will Never Do (Without You),' which had some of the most intricate harmonies, particularly at the end of the song, where things are overlapping each other," Jam said.

"There may be 32 tracks of vocals at that point in the song, where we would take a four-part harmony and we have her do each note four times, which would be 16 takes. If we had to put another part on top of that, we would do the same thing, so then there would be 32 vocal takes, not counting the leads. What we would do is we would do the backgrounds first to get her voice warmed up, so when it came time to do the leads, it was simple, because her voice had warmed up. It takes a lot of discipline and work ethic to do that."

When it came to recording vocals, their go-to mic at the time was the AKG C 12, unconventionally set in an omni pattern rather than the cardioid pattern most often used for vocal performances. Long-time Flyte Tyme mixing engineer Steve Hodge has explained that this comes down to the sound of the room's he's been fortunate enough to record in—because the rooms have sounded great, he's always wanted to infuse them into the vocals for a bit of extra character.

The open pattern also helped Hodge retain the youthful, girlish character of Jackson's voice, which he did by attenuating added high-end with an Orban de-esser. "The thing you have to understand with vocals," Hodge said in an interview with Sound On Sound, "is that every time you add something to the signal, it has a [knock-on] effect on everything else you have on the sound. It's like a chess game—you always have to consider what will happen three or four moves ahead of when you do it."

Keyboards and Drum Machines

A lot more had changed, gear-wise, at Flyte Tyme than just the console. Jam said, "Basically, everything sonically we had done on the Control record, I got rid of everything there, except for maybe one keyboard, called the Mirage. That's the only keyboard I used in common, because I wanted [these songs] to be fresh and have a new sound."

While the Oberheim OB-8 replaced the Mirage as Jam's go-to keyboard for writing most of this record, the Mirage was used on the first track written for Rhythm Nation, "Miss You Much," as well as on "Escapade" and "Love Will Never Do (Without You)"—all tracks that also featured the use of a new-to-them drum machine called the E-mu SP-1200, which was popular in rap music at the time. Previously, the Jam and Lewis had almost exclusively used a Linn Drum.

"'Escapade' happened because I plugged in the [SP-1200] and started playing a beat, and [Janet] said, 'That sounds like one of those beats you hear at a basketball game, and everybody gets up and starts cheering. I want a song like that.' So we were like, 'Cool.' She came up with the lyrical ideas for it, and it just had that type of feel."

A crowd-rousing anthem and two love songs, however, doesn't necessarily sound like the hard-hitting, socially conscious record that Rhythm Nation 1814 turned out to be. And that's because, at that time in the recording process, that's not necessarily what the trio was planning for. Rather, what motivated the direction that the album eventually took was the constant glow of CNN playing on the studio TV, always informing them of the most recent school shooting, overdose, or act of violence.

"You couldn’t help but somehow be impacted by the things that were going on. It was a crazy time," Jam said in 2014. "The Reagan years were ending. There were school shootings. There were all these unbelievable things starting to happen. We’re all sitting around watching this going, 'Man, that’s messed up. Somebody needs to do something about this.'"

It's moments like that in which songs like "Livin' in a World (They Didn't Make)" were written—that one specifically taking Lewis not ten minutes to pen the lyrics for in the wake of the Cleveland Elementary School shooting that took place in January '89.

What really solidified the concept of the album is its titular track, the opener, "Rhythm Nation." The idea for the song came to Jam while the group was out to dinner and Sly and the Family Stone's "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)" came onto the radio. Passively not-quite-listening, as you do, to a song he's heard a million times, Jam's ear all of a sudden caught a two-bar guitar breakdown in the bridge that he'd never heard in that way before.

Janet Jackson - Rhythm Nation (Official Video)

He told the Red Bull Music Academy, "I remember I went into the studio and all I did was [sample the] two bar guitar loop [with an AMS 1580) and put it in and started putting Linn drums over top of it. It was all I really had, and then, the little string line came and the song came together. Once this happened, we all knew what the direction of the record would be."

Once they had this purpose and direction, the sound of the record became much more industrial. It included sounds of the city and of the world the songs were about—glass breaking, trashcan lids smacking, feet stomping, and more. To get these sounds, they turned to the Sequential Circuits Drumtraks and particularly tuned its 13 drums sounds in just a way that made them sound like the real-world cacophony they were after.

Unlike most producers of the day, Jam and Lewis insisted on playing by hand and didn't sequence anything. Hodge told Sound on Sound, "They even had alternate patterns ready that they would hit a button and have them come up in the song, all on the fly. The beat was quantised, but the fills and turnarounds weren't, and that makes a huge difference in the feel of the track. We also overdubbed cymbals and other percussion live, just before we mixed."

In the same way that Jackson insisted on singing all of her parts so that what you were hearing was truly a "Janet record," the fact that Jam and Lewis played by hand makes this music feel quintessentially theirs as well, infused with so much of their natural character.

After the six months of Rhythm Nation sessions wrapped, the album was mixed and released on September 19, 1989. It saw record-breaking success, being the first record in the history of the US Billboard singles chart to have seven of its singles peak in top-five positions. It became the best-selling album in the U.S. in 1990 and has gone on to be certified platinum six times by the RIAA.

And today, 30 years later, it's still considered to be one of Jackson's finest albums—a socially conscious, hard-hitting commentary on the times, and one we could all get something out of revisiting today.

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