‘Blue Gangsta’ and Michael Jackson’s Fascination with America’s 20th Century Underbelly

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Below is a chapter from my book Michael Jackson: Songs & Stories From The Vault, revised for this article. The full book is available via Amazon and iBooks.

Released in 1987 as part of the Bad album, “Smooth Criminal” is the culmination of years of Michael Jackson toying with the idea of doing a song based on early 20th-century organised crime in America.

The King of Pop’s ongoing fascination with the mobsters and gangsters of the criminal underworld is well-documented, and extends beyond his songs to his film projects.

For example, the “Smooth Criminal” short film borrows from the narrative of the life of Jack ‘Legs’ Diamond, an Irish-American gangster based out of Philadelphia and New York City during the prohibition era.

During the final years of his life, Jackson had reportedly wanted to direct a full-length feature film based on the concept, even inviting longtime collaborative partner Kenny Ortega to join him as co-director on the project. 

The song “Smooth Criminal” itself evolved from Jackson demo of the same era called “Al Capone,” named after the infamous Chicago-based gangster figure.

Above: “Al Capone” by Michael Jackson

An unreleased version of Jackson’s “Al Capone” demo took inspiration from yet another gangster tale of the same era – the William R. Burnett-written book and subsequent 1931 film adaptation Little Caesar, which tells the story of a hoodlum who ascends the ranks of organised crime in Chicago until he reaches its upper echelons.

Directed by Mervyn LeRoy, and starring Edward G. Robinson in his breakout role as Caesar Enrico “Rico” Bandello (a.k.a. ‘Little Caesar’), the film includes the famous scene in which a defiant Rico shouts: “You want me? You’re going to have to come and get me!”

Producer and musician John Barnes, who helped Jackson bring “Al Capone” to fruition, sampled Rico’s words in the unreleased version of the track.

Together with producer and engineer Bill Bottrell, Barnes also sampled a series of gunshot sounds, as well as vocals from various James Brown songs.

The samples were pieced together and edited to create a virtual gangster-inspired duet between the King of Pop and the Godfather of Soul – something that Barnes says Jackson absolutely loved.

An even earlier song called “Chicago 1945” – which Jackson worked on during the Victory era with Toto band member Steve Porcaro – also makes reference to Al Capone in its lyrics.

And so when songwriter and producer Dr. Freeze came to Jackson with a demo called “Blue Gangsta,” the pop star was excited about the idea of resurrecting his fascination with gangster themes in his music.

Written by Freeze and recorded by Jackson during the very early Invincible sessions, “Blue Gangsta” originates from the same era as “Break of Dawn” and “A Place With No Name.”

All three songs were recorded by Jackson during his time collaborating with Freeze and engineer CJ deVillar at the Record Plant in 1998.

“I introduced him to many songs,” explains Freeze, who also worked with Jackson on a number of tracks that were never completed, including one called “Jungle.”

For “Blue Gangsta,” Freeze says:

“I wanted to make a new ‘Smooth Criminal.’ Something more modern and rooted in the 2000s. That was the idea.”

Above: Michael Jackson’s short film for “Smooth Criminal”

Freeze composed the original “Blue Gangsta” demo on his own – including the background vocals, synthesisers and horns – before presenting it to Jackson.

Then, once Jackson had given the demo his tick of approval, the pop star brought in some of the industry’s best session musicians to play on the track. 

Brad Buxer – who did everything from digital edits to arrangements on all of Jackson’s albums from Dangerous in 1991 to The Ultimate Collection in 2004 – plays keyboards on the song.

Greg Phillinganes – who contributed his talents to each major studio album Jackson participated in between 1978 and 1997 (with the exception of Victory in 1984) – plays the Minimoog.

And legendary orchestrator Jerry Hey – who did the horn arrangements on everything Jackson did from 1978 to 1997 – fittingly leads the horn section on “Blue Gangsta.”

“The song was just awesome,” recalls engineer Michael Prince of “Blue Gangsta.”

Prince, along with arranger Brad Buxer, spent several years working on music with Jackson and Freeze.

“Michael obviously loved ‘Blue Gangsta’ because to bring in some of those musicians is very expensive,” says Prince.

“I mean, you’ve got Jerry Hey doing the horn arrangement – it’s no wonder the brass on ‘Blue Gangsta’ was so incredible.”

“Michael was the world’s biggest perfectionist,” says Buxer.

“Not only with music, but with sound. How loud it is. How it affects you. Where it hits your ear. What frequencies. A million things. So you’re not just talking about songs or mixing – you’re talking about arrangement, amplitude, and the instruments selected for the production.”

Talented percussionist Eric Anest – who played on a number of Jackson’s demos in the mid-to-late 90s, including “Beautiful Girl,” “The Way You Love Me” and “In The Back,” – was also given a copy of “Blue Gangsta” to see what he could bring to the table.

“Eric did wonderful percussion work,” recalls Buxer.

“Industrial types of percussion,” adds Prince, explaining that Jackson would never settle on an idea, sound or musician until he’d explored all the available options.

“Eric, Paulinho Da Costa or even Steve Porcaro might get the track for a day or two, and then send it back to us with forty tracks of what they’d added. Then we’d have to figure out what we were keeping, and what we weren’t. Sometimes we scratched it all.”

As previously noted by engineer Michael Prince, the caliber of session musicians used by Jackson on “Blue Gangsta” was a reflection of his love for the song. They weren’t just tinkering about the studio.

The same applies to the team of engineers who worked on it.

“Sonically, we always try to make sure we have pristine, detailed sounds,” explains Jackson, adding that he uses, “the best engineers and the best technicians available.”

And he wasn’t kidding.

Jackson recorded his lead vocals on the track were recorded by an all-star cast of engineers including CJ deVillar, Jeff Burns and Humberto Gatica.

Gatica in particular is one of the most acclaimed engineers in the history of modern music, having not only worked on Jackson’s Thriller, Bad, HIStory, and Invincible albums, but also on tracks with Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Andrea Bocelli, Barbra Streisand and many others.

An early version of Jackson’s 1998 recording of “Blue Gangsta”

Engineer and musician, CJ deVillar, believes that it’s possible that Jackson was at the peak of his vocal powers during the “Blue Gangsta” recording sessions.

“He may have been in his prime at that time,” says deVillar.

“Michael was forty years old when he recorded ‘Blue Gangsta.’ His mental attitude combined with his physicality was at its height, in my opinion. The calisthenics he was pulling off and the way he worked the microphone… it was ridiculous!”

DeVillar continues:

“When I was in that chair recording him I felt totally educated. And usually I’m running it. I’m producing it. But I felt totally educated when recording him. The responsibility was enormous to me.”

“Working with Michael Jackson was amazing,” recalls engineer Jeff Burns of the recording sessions.

“He really is an American treasure and a once-in-a-lifetime talent. The first day I met him, we were recording his vocals. I was running the recorder for him that day and was a little bit nervous to do punch-ins on his vocals. I had worked with a few singers where I did lots of ‘punches’ on their vocal tracks to correct timing or pitch problems. Anyway, I was amazed when Michael started singing that his voice was in perfect pitch and was just pure and magical. I didn’t have to do any punches on his vocal – he sang it perfect all the way down.”

“His tone is insane,” adds deVillar.

“Insane! It would be impossible to not be able to mix his vocal correctly. And Michael was even good with his plosives; when you breathe and blow air on the microphone. Those sizzles, you know, they f*ck up a microphone. But Michael was in complete control of those things. Most singers are nowhere near his vicinity. Michael understood the process so well that when he would hear himself in playback in the studio over the years, he found a way to get rid of those problems. Because when you go from the vocal booth back to the control room and listen, it’s a different dynamic. The microphone sensitivity is different depending on how you hit it, and of course Michael knew that. So I never heard a plosive or sizzles that were over the top.”

DeVillar continues:

“By the time he recorded ‘Blue Gangsta’ you’re seeing thirty years of a genius molding his vocal sound to fit the records. There’s the youth and power in the voice, but then there’s the smarts. Michael had them both going on and I think they really peaked at that point when we were recording him. The smarts, the experience, and the power just married and it was incredible. I was just beside myself.”

While Jackson recorded his leads, Freeze completed his own vocals for the choruses and background harmonies. 

Singing background vocals on the songs he writes and produces is Freeze’s signature, and he did it on all of the songs he recorded with Jackson, including “Break of Dawn” and “A Place With No Name.”

“Freeze would stack all his own backgrounds first,” explains engineer Michael Prince.

“And then Michael would come in and go: ‘That sounds perfect.’ Then he would sing one note of each of the harmonies so that there was a little bit of him on there too.”

From there, Jackson took a copy of “Blue Gangsta” home to study – to find areas that, in his artistic opinion, required improvement.

“It was incremental work,” recalls Freeze.

“He listened to the different mixes and changed some details around here or there. He was in full creative control.”

Jackson explains that when he listens to a work-in-progress copy of a song, his ears instantly identify everything that is missing.

“When you hear the playback, you think of everything that should be there that’s not there,” explains Jackson. “You’re hearing everything [in your head]. You wanna scream because you’re not hearing it [on the playback].”

Freeze recalls that when Jackson identified the missing pieces, they were added:

“When he returned [to the studio], changes were made and ideas were proposed. He listened attentively… Ultimately, all decisions were his. He was the boss. He was open to any criticism or suggestions beneficial to the song.”

Over time, several embellishments were made to the original recording.

For example, on March 6, 1999, Jackson wanted some very specific percussion sounds added to the track.

His instructions were so specific that Jackson had to phone Brad Buxer and Michael Prince at the Record One recording studio and have the call patched into Pro Tools in order to get down exactly what he was hearing in his head. 

“We set it up so that Michael could just call and record straight into Pro Tools,” explains Prince, “so he wouldn’t have to carry a tape recorder around with him all the time to capture his ideas.”

With Jackson on the line, Buxer and Prince opened up the “Blue Gangsta” Pro Tools session and played the track.

Then Jackson, over the phone, proceeded to orally dictate the precise percussion sounds he was hearing in his head by beatboxing them over the track.

“That’s how we would get it in the actual session, in the exact spot MJ wanted it, with the exact timing he wanted,” explains Prince, who recorded the call while Buxer communicated back and forth with Jackson amidst his private beatbox master class.

Buxer: “Killer! Killer!” (to Jackson as he orally dictates the percussion)

Jackson: “You know what I mean, Brad?” 

Buxer: “Yes, Michael.”

Jackson: “Are you hearing how I’m doing it?” 

Buxer: “Yeah. It’s killer! Killer. We got it!”

The very next day, Jackson had a fleeting Spanish guitar sound in “Blue Gangsta” replaced with the country-and-western whistle sound made famous in the theme from the 1966 Sergio Leone film The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, which was composed by Ennio Morricone.

Above: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly theme song.

Jackson had previously used the sample in live renditions of “Dangerous” – a performance which also includes gunshot sounds as well as the “You’ve been hit by, you’ve be struck by” line from 1987’s  studio version of “Smooth Criminal.”

“As I said, I wanted to make a new Smooth Criminal,” reiterates Freeze of “Blue Gangsta.”

“It was our objective – the new Smooth Criminal.”

Gunshots, whistles and beatbox percussion weren’t the most obscure sounds that Jackson experimented with in his music.

“Michael used to create sounds and put it in a record,” remembers Freeze.

“He’d thrown an egg on the floor and we’d record that… He would let me hear music from Africa, Japan, and Korea, and he would study this kind of stuff. He would really school me with that.”

Jackson explains that he’s inspired by music from every corner of the globe.

“I’ve been influenced by cultural music from all over the world. I’ve studied all types of music, from Africa to India to China to Japan. Music is music and it’s all beautiful. I’ve been influenced by all of those different cultures.”

After adding the whistle, Jackson also had the second half of the bridge extended so that it crescendoed with greater effect, allowing Freeze’s chorus vocals to slowly creep back in from underneath Jackson’s post-bridge vocal arrangement.

And after that, the song was shelved, remaining unreleased in Jackson’s vault for many years.

Then, in December 2006, two songs produced by American rap artist Tempamental emerged online – one called “Gangsta” and another called “No Friend Of Mine” – both of which were built around Jackson’s then-unreleased track “Blue Gangsta”.

The songs included rap verses from Tempamental, with “No Friend Of Mine” also featuring a verse by Pras of The Fugees.

This was the public’s first time hearing “Blue Gangsta,” albeit in a slightly abstract, reimagined way.

Tempamental’s “Gangsta” remix stays relatively true to Jackson’s arrangement, while “No Friend Of Mine” – the more popular of the two thanks to the highly publicised Pras feature and the song’s high-quality release via Myspace – rearranges the original track, repurposing Jackson’s first verse as the bridge.

Above: Tempamental’s “No Friend Of Mine” remake of “Blue Gangsta” featuring Pras

Shortly after they appeared online, Jackson’s then manager, Raymone Bain, commented that Jackson had not released any new music, indicating that the pop star was not directly involved with either of the Tempamental tracks.

“When I heard this remix, I could not believe it,” Dr. Freeze recalls.

“Many people called me because of it. I don’t understand what happened. The concerning thing is that I don’t even know who released the song… Why did they do that? Where did this rap originate? In fact, we knew nothing about it – neither me nor Michael. We really don’t understand where this leak came from.”

“‘No Friend Of Mine’ is not the name of the song,” adds Freeze. “It’s just the chorus that contains these few words. ‘What you gonna do? You ain’t no friend of mine,’ was just the chorus. The real title is ‘Blue Gangsta.’ This highlights the ignorance of people who are causing the leaks on the Internet. They take the song and put it online without knowing its origin. The song was not presented to the public [the way it should have been]. A guy has just stolen the song, added a rap, and swung it on the internet. I was not even credited. It just landed here without any logical explanation.”

Four years later, in late 2010 – 18 months after Jackson’s death – the latest version of “Blue Gangsta” leaked online.

Four years later, on May 9, 2014, an earlier version of the original track was posthumously released by Epic Records as part of the Xscape album, along with a remix produced by Timbaland.

Above: Timbaland’s remix of “Blue Gangsta”

Engineer Michael Prince insists that the record label’s decision to release the more primitive ‘original’ version – lacking all the changes Jackson went on to make – doesn’t align with the pop star’s artistic vision for the song.

“Michael was involved in every nuance of every sound on the record,” explains Michael Prince, “from the hi-hat to the snare to the sticks. If those sounds are removed from the track, it immediately takes a step away from his vision.”

“He’s totally consistent,” adds arranger Brad Buxer.

“He’ll never say one day, ‘Take this part out,’ and then the next day [ask], ‘Where is that part?’ He’ll never do that. He’s totally consistent. So all you’ve got to do is be on your toes and you’ll have a blast working with him. I’ve worked with him for a long time and it’s been the most wonderful experience.”

Producer Dr. Freeze reflects on working with Jackson:

“He was simply the most wonderful person with whom you could ever dream of working… From dusk till dawn, he created sounds, melodies, and harmonies… He could do everything himself. Michael was truly a living instrument.”

“His artistry and inspiration was something you could feel in the air when he walked in the room,” recalls engineer Jeff Burns. “He really demanded the best work out of everyone around him, and that has impacted me to this day.”

“He not only taught me how to create songs correctly, but also gave me advice on the music industry as a whole,” adds Freeze.

“He was an absolute genius. I was fortunate to have learned from one of the greatest entertainers of all time. I try to apply his advice to the projects I undertake today. I try to keep the artistic spirit of Michael Jackson alive. It’s like I graduated from the university of Michael Jackson. There are not enough words to describe what I learned from the King of Pop.”


Damien Shields is the author of the book Michael Jackson: Songs & Stories From The Vault examining the King of Pop’s creative process, and the producer of the podcast The Genesis of Thriller which takes you inside the recording studio as Jackson and his team create the biggest selling album in music history.

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