20 years of HIStory: Michael Jackson’s longtime engineer looks back on album ahead of seminars in Germany and Spain

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MJ HIStory

As the 20th anniversary of Michael Jackson’s HIStory album approaches, Jackson’s longtime engineer and technical director, Brad Sundberg, reflects on the album’s creation, sharing intimate stories and anecdotes about his role in the experience. Sundberg will be bringing his popular In The Studio With Michael Jackson seminars to Germany and Spain in late June and early July. Check out his latest write-up, about the HIStory album, taken from his Facebook page with permission.

20 YearsWritten and originally published by Brad Sundberg.

Let’s set the stage.

In 1994 the world was not as innocent as perhaps it was a decade earlier. Rwanda was hit with a brutal massacre. Sarajevo was under attack by the Serbs, Chechnya was having some separation issues with Russia, and the US was sending the military to the Persian Gulf.

Nancy Kerrigan got beaten with a pipe, OJ Simpson was involved in the world’s slowest car chase, arrested and charged with murder and Kurt Cobain tragically ended his own life. Tom Hanks became Forrest Gump and Whitney Houston won record of the year with “I Will Always Love You”. And Nelson Mandela was elected president of South Africa in the country’s first inter-racial election.

All in the same year that we were in New York recording an album called HIStory.

Michael married a very pretty Lisa Marie Presley (a complete surprise to us), and we all enjoyed having her in the studio. She made him happy, and I think he did the same for her. They were fun to be around.

Michael had been through a crushing amount of stress those previous years since Dangerous. I can’t imagine many people going through what he went through, and coming out the other side with as much joy, laughter and love as he did.

As we plowed through the production of the album, we were told it would be a quick three or four month project. I good-naturedly nodded my head in agreement, knowing it would take much longer – Michael’s level of perfectionism was not something to be rushed.

Originally it was to be a “Greatest Hits” with a couple new songs. But the material was so strong, and Michael had so much to say that it was becoming a larger project. Brad Buxer reminded me of the day that he, Michael and I were in one of the lounges at The Hit Factory, and I looked at Michael and said, “You need to just do a full album of new music – there is too much good stuff here.” That certainly was not the moment that the double-album was hatched, but I am glad to have at least shared my opinion on the matter.

In the spring of 1995, after mixing and mastering were completed, we knew we were sitting on an amazing musical product. Bruce Swedien and Michael were so driven to perfection that I was actually sent to the CD plant to inspect the process and get some initial discs to take back to the studio for testing. In fact, we tested the first batch of CDs, cassettes, LPs and – Minidiscs. Remember those?

I had a full listening rig set up at Hit Factory, and I would evaluate one after an other after another. I had heard some of those songs for nearly 15 months by then. And in the case of “Earth Song” and “Come Together”, nearly a decade.

During one of those visits to a CD plant in New Jersey, I heard the news of the Oklahoma City bombing, killing so many people including a daycare full of innocent children. What a messed up world.

Michael used to talk about wanting to help every child in need, wanting to fix things that needed to be fixed. He was a dreamer, and he dreamed of a better world. He dreamed of a world filled with laughter and music, and in 1995 his contribution to our world was HIStory.

The greatest hits assortment truly was jaw-dropping in its depth of musical enormity, but Disc 2 was what people were waiting for. And the first thing Michael wanted them to hear was the duet with his sister Janet. He had a lot of stuff to get off his chest, and “Scream” was a good place to start.

By the time HIStory was released, I had known Michael for about 11 years. Was he the same young man I originally met during Captain EO? Yes, and no. But mostly yes. He had been hurt, he had been mocked, he had been bullied. But he still laughed. He still threw water balloons out of the studio window. He still was generous with his time. He still insisted that we bring fans into the studio and made sure they were fed. He still sent my family beautiful gift baskets when each of our daughters was born. He was still Michael.

Being so close to these albums, being a part of their birth, their growth and their graduation/introduction to the public is hard to explain, almost hard for me to understand. Michael moved so fast, he worked so hard, he pushed the team, the musicians and the technology as hard as possible, but he did it all with a smile. The work was enjoyable. The challenges were fun. Of course we can manage 14 studios across the country at once (I think). Of course we can harness nearly 200 digital tracks of music and nearly 200 moving faders in two studios side-by-side with miles of cable and millions of dollars of recording equipment and have it all come together flawlessly – just give us a couple hours to work out some of the details first.

“They Don’t Care About Us” has become an anthem for many people around the world.

To this day I get chills when I hear “Stranger In Moscow”, one of my favorite MJ songs of all time.

“Earth Song” points out so vividly the world that surrounded us in 1994 and 1995, and it remains just as strong today.

“2Bad” always makes me remember the insane video Michael produced for it.

I built a giant speaker rig for him to dance to on the set, and it was played so loud that I replaced many blown speakers to keep up with his desire to feel the music. “Hurt me, Brad!!” I still can’t listen to the song a modest volume – it must be loud.

“Childhood”, “Little Susie” and “Smile” are pure magic.

Each song on HIStory represents Michael wanting to tell you something. He had been through hell, and the world was not as soft as it was during “Off The Wall”. He was older, and, like I said, he wanted to get some stuff off of his chest. But he was still Michael. He starts the record with a scream, but ends it with a smile.

I am proud of each of project, song, mix, demo, video, tour, amusement ride and special project I worked on with Michael. But I am especially proud of the HIStory album. It was an amazing time, and I am grateful and blessed to have been a part of it. Looking back twenty years later, I am just as proud as I was the first time I saw it for sale at Tower Records on Sunset.

Happy 20th Anniversary to the HIStory album, and a deep, sincere “thank you” to Michael for letting me be a small part of his history.


See you in three weeks in Germany and Spain!


Click here to read the full story at Sundberg’s In The Studio With Michael Jackson Facebook page.


XO book layout imageDamien Shields is the author of the book Xscape Origins: The Songs & Stories Michael Jackson Left Behind about The King of Pop’s artistry, genius, and creative process in the recording studio. Click here to order your copy today – also available via Amazon, Kindle, iBooks, and Google PlayFollow Damien on Facebook and Twitter to stay up-to-date with Michael Jackson-related news.

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