Taking listeners inside the recording studio with Michael Jackson and his production team, The Genesis of Thriller tells the story behind the creation of the biggest selling album in music history. Using rarely heard Jackson demo tracks, work tapes and outtakes, combined with archival interviews of those who worked on the album, the documentary is a captivating exploration of what inspired them to create Thriller, and the process they went through to bring their extraordinary vision to life.
Invincible, ‘Xscape’ and Michael Jackson’s Quest for Greatness
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.
In order to fully appreciate the origins and evolution of “Xscape” – an outtake recorded for Michael Jackson’s Invincible album – it’s important to first understand Jackson’s relationship with its co-writers.
The journey begins in early 1999, when in-demand producer Rodney ‘Darkchild’ Jerkins received a phone call from renowned songwriter Carole Bayer Sager.
Bayer Sager’s working relationship with Michael Jackson dates back to the late 1970s, when she and producer David Foster co-wrote “It’s The Falling In Love” – a duet recorded by Jackson and R&B star Patti Austin, which was released on Jackson’s Off The Wall album in 1979.
Two decades later, Jackson and Bayer Sager were again working together.
During her 1999 phone call with Jerkins, Bayer Sager explained that she and Jackson were writing songs for Jackson’s next studio album at her home in Los Angeles, and that they wanted Jerkins to join them.
“He was this guy who went around Hollywood, and around the industry, saying his dream was to work with me,” explains Jackson.
“I was at Carol Bayer Sager’s house, who is this great songwriter who has won several Academy Awards for her songwriting, and she said: ‘There’s a guy you should work with… His name is Rodney Jerkins. He’s been crying to me, begging to meet you. Why don’t you pick up the phone and say hi to him?’”
Jerkins recalls that in the end, Bayer Sager made the call:
“Carole called me and said that she was gonna have a writing session at her house with Michael Jackson and she wanted me to do a track. I was like, are you serious?”
And so the producer immediately booked a flight from New Jersey to Los Angeles and headed straight to Bayer Sager’s home.
“I went over there and it was just an amazing experience. I was in awe,” recalls Jerkins.
“I’ve always heard people that worked with him say, ‘When you meet Michael, it’s crazy!’ But I’m the type of guy who’s like nah, I’ma be okay, I’ma be cool. It’s just another artist. And then once I got there, and was in his presence, I was like whoa, this is crazy!”
Jerkins explains that not seeing Jackson at the industry events or private parties added to his untouchable mystique, but that once the pair got in the studio together a friendship was born:
“Once I got in the studio, and once he felt comfortable with me, and I felt comfortable with him, it was like the best thing ever. And we just built a really solid friendship throughout the years. And we stayed working and stayed in contact and he was just a great guy.”
But the collaborative relationship between Jackson and Jerkins almost didn’t come to fruition.
Jackson recalls that when he met Jerkins at Carole Bayer Sager’s home in early 1999, Jerkins asked Jackson if he could have two weeks to work on a collection of ideas to present to him:
“He came over that day and he said, ‘Please, my dream is to work with you. Will you give me two weeks and I’ll see what I can come up with.”
Two weeks later, Jackson met with Jerkins for a second time, and Jerkins played him the collection of tracks he’d come up with.
“The day that Rodney met with Michael, he played him all these records,” recalls Cory Rooney – a songwriter and producer who was working as the Senior Vice President of Sony Music at the time.
“Michael was like, ‘It’s not that the guy’s not talented, but everything he plays me sounds typical. Like Brandy and Monica,’ whom Rodney had worked with previously.”
According to Rooney, the pop star didn’t want to fit in with the current industry sound of the time. Jackson wanted to pioneer his own new sound.
“And Michael just said, ‘I don’t wanna sound like Brandy and Monica. I need a new Michael sound. Big energy.’ And this is after Rodney played him twenty records.”
At this point, Jackson wasn’t sure whether Jerkins was the right man for the job.
“So Michael came back to me and said, ‘I don’t know if he’s the guy.’ And I was so sure that Rodney Jerkins was the most rhythmic, hard-hitting sound out there in terms of producers – other than Teddy Riley who was that at one point for Michael – I just said this is the guy. Rodney’s the guy.”
Rooney’s belief that Jerkins could essentially be Jackson’s ‘new Teddy Riley’ was no coincidence given that Jerkins grew up idolising Riley’s production style.
“Teddy Riley was the producer that changed my life,” recalls Jerkins.
“I remember being eleven years old and trying to emulate Teddy Riley. He was everything. He was everything to my career. Then having the opportunity to meet him at fourteen years old, and to play my music for him, and him telling me that I was good enough to make it was the inspiration and extra encouragement that I needed to know that this was real; that I wasn’t just some kid in a basement trying to make beats, but actually someone who could have a career.”
Riley went on to mentor Jerkins for years, and was reportedly responsible for Jerkins’ first encounter with the King of Pop at age sixteen, five years before he got the chance to work with Jackson.
And so despite his reservations, based on Rooney’s strong recommendation that Jerkins could deliver, Jackson remained open-minded about working with the producer.
“So Michael said, ‘I’ll tell you what, Cory. Do you think Rodney would mind me telling him that he kind of needs to reinvent himself for me?’” recalls Rooney.
“I said of course Rodney wouldn’t mind. I said I’ll have the conversation with Rodney, then you can have the conversation with Rodney. So I went, on my own, and talked to Rodney and told him what Michael felt.”
Following Rooney’s heart-to-heart conversation with Jerkins, the producer met again with Jackson. Rooney recalls:
“At that point, Michael set up the meeting and said to Rodney, ‘I want you to go to your studio and I want you to take every instrument, and every sound that you use, and throw it away. And I want you to come up with some new sounds. Even if it means you’ve gotta bang on tables and hit bottles together and make new sounds. Do whatever you’ve gotta do to come up with new sounds and use those new sounds to create rhythmic big energy for me.’ Michael put the challenge to Rodney, and Rodney accepted.”
“I remember having the guys go back in and create more innovative sounds,” recalls Jackson.
“A lot of the sounds aren’t sounds from keyboards. We go out and make our own sounds. We hit on things, we beat on things. They are pretty much programmed into the machines. So nobody can duplicate what we do. We make them with our own hands, we find things and we create things. And that’s the most important thing, to be a pioneer. To be an innovator.”
“He changed my whole perception of what creativity in a song was about,” explains Jerkins.
“I used to think making a song was about just sitting at the piano and writing progressions and melodies. I’ll never forget this crazy story. Michael called me and says, ‘Why can’t we create new sounds?’ I said, what do you mean? He was like, ‘Someone created the drum, right? Someone created a piano. Why can’t we create the next instrument?’ Now you gotta think about this. This is a guy – forty years old – who has literally done everything that you can think of, but is still hungry enough to say ‘I wanna create an instrument.’ It’s crazy.”
Jerkins recalls that following Jackson’s orders, he went out and began sampling sounds to use in their records:
“I went to a local junkyard and I started gathering trash cans and different things, and I began to hit on them to try to find sounds. Michael told me to. Michael said, ‘Go out in the field.’ That was his term. He used to say, ‘Go out in the field and get sounds. Don’t do it like everybody else and go to a store and buy equipment. Go out in the field and get sounds.’ So I went out in the field and got sounds.”
After building a library of junkyard sounds to use in the tracks Jerkins, his brother Fred, and songwriter LaShawn Daniels – who form the Darkchild production team – started the writing process.
But they were unsure of exactly how to write for Jackson, especially since he hadn’t been thrilled with the first batch of songs.
Cory Rooney recalls:
“Rodney called me and said, ‘Cory, we’re still confused. We don’t know what to write about. We don’t know what to do.”
At the time, Rooney had just written a song for Jackson called “She Was Loving Me,” which Jackson had flown to New York to record with Rooney at the Hit Factory.
Upon his return to LA, Rooney says that Jackson played the track for Jerkins and his team.
“Rodney said, ‘Cory… he loves your song. All he keeps playing for us is your song. What is it about your song that you think he loves? So I told him I got a little tip from Carole Bayer Sager. She told me that Michael is a storyteller. She said Michael loves to tell stories in his music. If you listen to Billie Jean, it’s a story. If you listen to Thriller, it’s a story. If you listen to Beat It, it’s a story. He loves to tell a tale.”
The Darkchild production team began working on music for Jackson at an LA studio called Record One, where other Jackson collaborators including Brad Buxer, Michael Prince and Dr. Freeze were already working on their own ideas for the pop star.
“Rodney was running his sessions like twenty-four hours per day,” remembers Prince.
“They even brought beds in to sleep on. When Rodney would get tired, he would go and lay down and Fred would come in and work on lyrics. When Fred would get tired, he’d go and wake up LaShawn, who would come in and work on some things.”
“Michael would call the studio at two or three o’clock in the morning to just check in and see what we were doing,” recalls Rodney’s brother, Fred Jerkins III.
“He was constantly motivating us to think beyond the scope of our normal imagination with these songs. It was incredible.”
“I used to sleep in the studio,” recalls Rodney.
“At every studio that I worked, I would make sure that they had a pull-out bed or something brought in for me because I would stay there for weeks at a time.”
Recording engineer Michael Prince recalls that the Darkchild production team worked so hard that the studio engineers couldn’t keep up:
“At some point, I remember the engineers coming to me and saying, ‘We can’t keep doing this. This is killing us!’ And I was like, just tell them. They’re people too! But they hung in there as long as they could.”
Producer Rodney Jerkins says that his work ethic was inspired by Jackson.
“He told me that if I was willing to really work hard, that we could make some magic together, and that’s what I did… I went in the studio and just really locked in and started creating nonstop every day.”
“We were in the studio for maybe a month before Mike came in, and we had all our ideas down. We had our melodies down, everything,” recalls Darkchild songwriter LaShawn Daniels.
“So when Mike finally came in, it was like the President coming in. The place was swept. Security came in, and it was going crazy.”
But it was Jackson’s knowledge of each member of the Darkchild production team that impressed Daniels the most:
“He came into the room and – surprisingly – he knew who each one of us was and what we did in respect to the project! Mike was so in tune with music as a whole that the stuff he told us still blows my mind.”
In a further attempt to point the Darkchild production team in the right direction when working on songs for Jackson, Cory Rooney suggested that they start simple:
“I told Rodney, let’s start with the rhythm. I said if you’re confused on the rhythm, just start with that four on the floor beat, because that never goes wrong. And just create your rhythms to counter the four on the floor.
With that advice in mind, the Jerkins brothers and LaShawn Daniels wrote a song that they believed was a hit.
“And that became the track for You Rock My World. And the rest is history because LaShawn Daniels and everybody dug in and wrote a story to it.”
Rodney Jerkins explains how “You Rock My World” came to be:
“Rock My World came about because I’m a fan of old Michael – like Off The Wall, Thriller, and The Jackson Five.”
Jerkins recalls that while Jackson was demanding new sounds, he felt it was also important to write songs that retained Jackson’s classic sound:
“Michael was like, ‘I want you to go outside and to take a bat and smash it against the side of a car and sample it.’ And I was doing it! He had me at junkyards with DAT recorders. And I was like, that’s all good, I’ll give you that, but you have to do this over here. And Rock My World was actually the first song that we wrote for Michael.”
By the time the demo to “You Rock My World” was ready for Jackson to hear, studio sessions had been shifted from Record One in Los Angeles to the Hit Factory and Sony Studios in New York City.
Rooney recalls that at that time, the Darkchild production team called him and invited him to come down to the studio to take a listen:
“They called me at the Hit Factory and said, ‘Cory, you’ve gotta come over. We think we’ve got it.’ When I walked in and they played me Rock My World, I almost passed out! I thought it was so amazing that I almost passed out. I was really, really blown away.”
Rooney recalls that he took the song to Jackson, so that he could hear the track:
“When I first played it for him he, asked me: ‘Do you love it?’ And I said yeah, yeah, I love it! And he said, ‘Well, I know you wouldn’t have come over here and played it for me if you didn’t like it, but do you love it?’ And I looked him right in his eyes and said Michael, I love it. I love this record. And he said, ‘Okay. I’ve got to be honest with you. I do like it. I don’t know if I love it yet, but I like it, and I’m going to just keep on living with it.’”
“If Michael is just a little bit interested in a song, you’re never gonna get him in the studio to record it. And so he lived with it, and showed up at the Sony studios in New York about a week later, with Rodney, and he kind of ran through the record.”
Darkchild songwriter LaShawn Daniels – who was an integral part of writing “You Rock My World” – remembers the moment Jackson came to the studio to work on the track.
“He had Rodney just play the track, and he said, ‘Who’s the guy doing the melodies?’ And it was me!”
“So I came into the room and Michael is standing there – freakin’ Michael Jackson! – and Mike comes up to me and says, ‘Rodney, play the track.’ And Rodney says, ‘Sure.’ Then Michael says to me, ‘Can you sing the melodies into my ear?’ And I’m like, are you serious? He’s like, ‘Just sing it in my ear.’ So I go right next to him, and I pull towards his ear, and I start singing.”
Daniels recalls that Jackson stopped him, and suggested they make minor change.
“He puts his hand on my shoulder and says, ‘No. Let’s change this part.’ And I’m like, oh, my god! When he asked me to do that, I was done. I couldn’t even continue, and I had to stop. I said, Mike, listen, I appreciate you being so cool, but you can’t be this cool with me. I don’t even know what to do right now. And I can’t concentrate on the melodies because I’m singing to Michael Jackson! And he burst out laughing and just made us comfortable.”
Former Sony executive Cory Rooney recalls that from there, Jackson had Jerkins repeat the track a few more times before recording a scratch vocal to see how he felt about it with his own voice on it.
“He played with it a little bit and sang the first few lines. And then he played it back, listened to it with his voice on it, and said, ‘Okay, now I love it! So let’s go to the top, and I’m gonna kill this record.’ And everybody was so relieved.”
Rooney recalls that Jackson loved the background vocals LaShawn Daniels had recorded, and he wanted to include them on the Darkchild tracks – something that Jackson had also done with songs he recorded with producer Dr. Freeze a year prior.
“Michael said: ‘Man, you’re killing it. I love it! Sounds great.’ He loved LaShawn Daniels’ background vocals so much that he left them on You Rock My World and other songs they worked on together. Michael did the main notes but he left LaShawn in the background.”
Once “You Rock My World” was completed, Jackson challenged his newfound collaborative team to create even greater material.
“Those times with Michael… he taught me to challenge myself,” recalls Daniels.
“When we came up with the Rock My World melodies and everything, it felt great. We knew that was the record. But he came back and he said, ‘Challenge yourself. I’m not saying that this is not it, but can you beat it? If you can beat it, you’ve only touched greatness even more!’”
To guarantee that their focus would be on his project – and his project only – Jackson reportedly paid Rodney Jerkins the Darkchild production team not to work with anyone but him.
“He told me he wanted me to camp out and work on his album,” recalls Jerkins.
“I was slated to do about seven or eight artists… and Michael said, ‘No, no, no. You have to really focus on my project. I need you to really focus on this.’ And I was like yeah, but I got bills to pay. And he said, ‘I’ll take care of those. Tell me what they’re gonna pay you and how many songs and I’ll take care of it.’ So I ended up not working with all those different artists and just focusing on Michael.”
As production on the album progressed, the Darkchild team returned to New Jersey to continue working on unique sounds for Jackson, crafting rhythmic tracks from their library of sampled sounds – including sounds from those initial junkyard recordings.
“The process of working with Michael Jackson was so intense because he pushed me to the limit creatively,” explains Jerkins.
“He loves to create in the same kind of way that I like to create,” Jackson says of Jerkins.
“I pushed Rodney. And pushed, and pushed, and pushed, and pushed him to create. To innovate more. To pioneer more. He’s a real musician. He’s a real musician and he’s very dedicated and he’s really loyal. He has perseverance. I don’t think I’ve seen perseverance like his in anyone. Because you can push him and push him and he doesn’t get angry.”
“Michael would call me at four o’clock in the morning and say, ‘Play me what you got,’” remembers Jerkins.
“I’m like, um, I’m about to go to sleep. But that’s how he was. He was so into the creative zone. On most of the stuff I did with him, the snares were made out of junkyard materials.”
One of the songs that sprouted from the 1999 Darkchild sessions in New Jersey sessions was “Xscape” – originally penned as “Escape” per an early ASCAP Repertory listing.
“Xscape was a record that I actually wrote the hook for myself,” recalls Fred Jerkins III, adding that he even sang the very first demo of the track:
“I don’t do any singing on songs at all. But on that one I actually had to sing the demo first, before it went to LaShawn to do the final demo version. So I actually had to get in the booth and sing it, and then the rest of the song was built around the hook idea.”
An early demo of “Xscape” was first shown to Jackson during a phone call with Rodney Jerkins.
When Jackson heard what they’d come up with, according to Jerkins, he went crazy:
“He was like, ‘That’s what I’m talking about! That’s what I’m talking about!’ It made him want to dance… Michael, he just loved to dance and would always tell me, ‘Make it funky.’ So musically I kept the promise and he kept the promise melodically, and we made up-tempo songs that made you wanna dance.”
As with Cory Rooney’s “She Was Loving Me” a few months earlier, Jackson was so in love with “Xscape” that he wanted to recording it immediately.
Instead of travelling to New Jersey – where the Darkchild production team was working – Rodney Jerkins had Jackson use a new recording technique designed by EDnet that allows engineers to capture high-quality audio through a phone line.
And so Jackson sang the background vocals – usually the first part of a song Jackson would record – down the phone while Rodney recorded them.
“From that point we would go in and do the complete demo version,” recalls Rodney’s brother, Fred Jerkins III.
“LaShawn was the one who would demo on all of the songs for Michael, and he did a good job of trying to imitate him. We would try and provide the best feel for Michael about how the song should be.”
When the demo was ready, producer Rodney Jerkins collaborated with Jackson on the lyrics before recording the lead vocals. Co-writer of the track, LaShawn Daniels, explains:
“What we did with Michael – because he was a great songwriter – is we had the tracks and we put the rhythm of the melodies down so when he came in he could hear the basic idea of what we wanted to do, but allow him to be a part of the creative process of lyrics and all that type of stuff.”
Allowing the hook to lead the way, the track’s lyrics became a defensive musical exposé in line with previously-released tracks like “Leave Me Alone” and “Scream” – about how the pop star’s privacy is rarely respected, and how details of his private life are often twisted or fabricated when reported on in the media.
As with all of his music, Jackson was intimately involved with every nuance of “Xscape”.
Over the course of two years, Jackson and Jerkins continued to tinker with the track, adding new sounds and samples while bringing it closer and closer to completion.
“I tell them to develop it, because I’ve got to go on to the next song, or the next thing,” explains Jackson of his collaborative relationship with producers and songwriters.
“They’ll come up with something, working with my] ideas, and they’ll get back to me, and I’ll tell them whether I like it or not. I have done that with pretty much everything that I have done. I am usually there for the concept. I usually cowrite all the pieces that I do.”
“That was our process,” explains Rodney Jerkins.
“That’s the way we worked. We just kept at it until it was ready. We just worked on ideas, added this and that to the mix. Michael was like, ‘Dig deeper! Where’s the sound that’s gonna make you want to listen to it over and over again?’”
Engineer Brian Vibberts recalls working with Jerkins on “Xscape” at Sony Music Studio in New York City during the summer of 1999.
Vibberts, who also worked on Jackson’s HIStory album in 1995 and music for his Ghosts film in 1996, claims that Jackson was physically present at the studio far less during the Invincible sessions when compared to previous projects.
“Rodney would send the song to Michael, then talk to him on the phone. Michael would give him input on the song and request the changes that he wanted made. Then we would do those changes.”
One of the changes that was made to the original Darkchild demo was the addition of a cinematic spoken intro.
“He called them vignettes,” says Rodney Jerkins. “I call them interludes.”
“It was a really fun process, working on that project,” adds Rodney’s brother, Fred.
“We would actually sit in the studio in LA and act out the whole Xscape concept, the intro, just acting crazy and making video footage and all that kind of stuff. Almost like our video concept of the song.”
Another interesting addition to “Xscape,” which Jackson brought to the table, is the Edward G. Robinson line from the 1931 film Little Caesar: “You want me? You’re going to have to come and get me!”
Fifteen years prior, the same line was lifted from the film and sampled in an unreleased version of Jackson’s demo for a song called “Al Capone,” as outlined in the Blue Gangsta chapter of my book Michael Jackson: Songs & Stories From The Vault.
In “Xscape,” however, Jackson himself speaks the famous line, shortening it to: “Want me? Come and get me!” ‘
Of the decision to include the Little Caesar line, producer Rodney Jerkins says: “It was MJ’s idea.”
By the middle of the year 2000, the Jackson’s new album seemed to be nearing completion.
Since he started working on it in 1998, Jackson had recorded more than a dozen tracks including “She Was Loving Me,” “You Rock My World,” “Xscape” and “We’ve Had Enough” – the latter of which spawned from the early 1999 writing session Jerkins attended at Carole Bayer Sager’s home in LA.
With enough tracks in the bag to finish the album, the mixing process began.
To assist Jackson’s team with mixing the album, producer Rodney Jerkins brought an engineer named Stuart Brawley on board.
“Michael’s longtime engineer of many years, Bruce Swedien, was looking for someone to come on board to help mix what we all thought at that time was a complete record,” recalls Brawley.
“It was supposed to be a month-long mixing process in Los Angeles and I just jumped at the opportunity to be able to work with both Michael and Bruce.”
But what was supposed to be just one month of mixing ended up being much more.
“It turned into a thirteen-month project because as we were mixing the record that we thought was going to become Invincible, Michael decided, in the mixing process, that he wanted to start writing all new songs,” recalls Brawley.
“He was like, ‘Let’s start from scratch… I think we can beat everything we did,’” recalls Rodney Jerkins of Jackson’s decision to start afresh by writing new songs.
“That was his perfectionist side. I was like man, we have been working for a year, are we going to scrap everything? But it showed how hard he goes.”
“It just turned into an amazing year of watching him create music,” recalls engineer Stuart Brawley. “We ended up with a completely different record at the end of it.”
While some of the early material – including “You Rock My World” – would ultimately make the cut, the majority of what became the Invincible album was recorded between 2000 and 2001.
During this period, the Jerkins brothers and LaShawn Daniels continued working on new songs, while Jackson’s longtime producer Teddy Riley also joined the team.
At the time, Riley was working out of a studio that was built inside a bus.
Upon joining the project, Riley would park his bus outside whichever studio Jackson was working in, and and the pop star would bounce back and forth between Riley and Rodney Jerkins.
Meanwhile, arranger Brad Buxer and engineer Michael Prince worked out of makeshift studios set up in local hotel rooms.
Towards the end of the project, Riley moved his sessions to Virginia – where he had a recording studio – to finish the tracks he was working on.
Recording engineer Stuart Brawley – who was instrumental in recording and editing some of the newer songs, like “Threatened” – recalls what it was like to work with Jackson:
“It was amazing just to have him on the other side of the glass when we were recording his vocals. It literally was that ‘pinch me’ moment, and I don’t get those. He was just one of a kind. There was no one else like him.”
“Being in the studio and just having the a cappella of Michael’s vocals and listening to them, you start to really understand how great he really was,” explains Rodney Jerkins of Jackson’s performance on “Xscape.”
“The way he crafted his backgrounds, the approach of his lead vocals, and how passionate he was. You can hear it. You can hear his foot [stomping] in the booth when he’s singing, and his fingers snapping.”
During the second phase of the Invincible album’s production – between 2000 and 2001 – Jackson and Jerkins continued to work on “Xscape.”
“Wait until the world hears Xscape,” Jerkins recalls Jackson saying to him.
“MJ loved everything about it. The energy, the lyrics. It’s kind of a prophetic song. Listen to the bridge. MJ says, ‘When I go, this problem world won’t bother me no more.’ It’s powerful.”
“The thing about Michael is he will work on a song for years,” adds Jerkins.
“We never stopped working on the song Xscape.”
“A perfectionist has to take his time,” explains Jackson.
“He shapes and he molds and he sculpts that thing until it’s perfect. He can’t let it go before he’s satisfied; he can’t… If it’s not right, you throw it away and you do it over. You work that thing till it’s just right. When it’s as perfect as you can make it, you put it out there. Really, you’ve got to get it to where it’s just right; that’s the secret. That’s the difference between a number thirty record and a number one record that stays at number one for weeks. It’s got to be good. If it is, it stays up there and the whole world wonders when it’s going to come down.”
“I’ve had musicians who really get angry with me because I’ll make them do something literally several hundred to a thousand times till it’s what I want it to be,” says Jackson. “But then afterwards, they call me back on the phone and they’ll apologise and say, ‘You were absolutely right. I’ve never played better. I’ve [never] done better work. I outdid myself.’ And I say, ‘That’s the way it should be, because you’ve immortalised yourself. This is here forever. It’s a time capsule.’ It’s like Michelangelo’s work. It’s like the Sistine Chapel. It’s here forever. Everything we do should be that way.”
After three years of work, the Invincible album was released on October 30, 2001.
The album contained 16 songs. But to the surprise of some who worked on the project, “Xscape” was not one of them.
“There’s stuff we didn’t put on the album that I wish was on the album,” explains Jerkins, whose unreleased material includes “Get Your Weight Off Me” and “We’ve Had Enough” – the latter of which was later released by Sony on a box set called The Ultimate Collection in 2004.
A number of tracks Jackson recorded with Brad Buxer and Michael Prince also missed the cut, including “The Way You Love Me,” which was also released on The Ultimate Collection box set.
Several tracks Jackson worked on with producer Teddy Riley did make the cut. But one, called “Shout,” did not.
“Shout” was slated to be on the album, but was replaced at the last minute by a track Jacksons’s manager, John McClain, brought brought to the table called “You Are My Life” – co-written by McClain with Kenneth ‘Babyface’ Edmonds and Carole Bayer Sager.
“I really want people to hear some of the stuff we did together which never made the cut,” laments producer Rodney Jerkins.
“There’s a whole lot of stuff just as good – maybe better [than what made the album]. People have got to hear it.”
Despite it not being included, Jackson continued working on “Xscape” with Jerkins.
The producer explains that selecting the tracks for an album isn’t always about which tracks are best in isolation, but which tracks fit together to create a cohesive and organic flow:
“Michael is like no other. He records hundreds… really, hundreds of songs for an album. So what we did [was] we cut it down to 35 of the best tracks and picked from there. [It’s] not always about picking the hottest tracks. It’s got to have flow. So there’s a good album’s worth of [unreleased] material that could blow your mind. I really hope this stuff comes out because it’s some of his best.”
Engineer Michael Prince recalls a conversation he had with fellow engineer Stuart Brawley about the unreleased track “Xscape” after the Invincible album had been released.
“I was talking to Stuart Brawley on the phone… And I said to Stuart, this song is awesome! And he goes, ‘I know. It’s an amazing song. I really, really wish they would have put that on the album and took something else off. I told Rodney, I told Michael, but they’re not putting it on the album.’ And after I heard it I felt the same way. I really like the song Xscape.”
“I had a conversation with MJ in 2008, and I asked him if he was a fan of the British act Scritti Politti,” adds Prince.
“He said he was. I asked him that because the original version of Xscape has some of the same type of short staccato sounds and sampled percussive sounds that Scritti Politti use in their music. They also used very inventive sequencing, as Michael and Rodney Jerkins did on Xscape.”
“When we originally did Xscape, Mike felt it was some of his best new music,” recalls Rodney Jerkins.
“So I asked him, Michael, how come Xscape is not going on Invincible? And Michael was like, ‘Nah… I don’t want it on this project. I want it on the next project.’ Michael was very clear in telling me that one day that song has to come out… It was one of his favourite songs… It was one of those songs where he specifically said to me, ‘It has to see the light of day one day’… He felt compelled to let the fans hear it. What does it do for a song that Michael really loved to just sit in the vault somewhere?”
And eventually Jackson’s fans did hear it – but not in the way he or Jerkins had hoped.
In late 2002, “Xscape” leaked online.
“The reality is that you get upset when something gets out there that’s not supposed to be out there,” explains Fred Jerkins of his feelings about the leak.
“You want it to come out the way it should, and to give it the best possible chance of doing what it needs to do. But at the same time, as a fan – if you step aside from the songwriter side – you’re excited that you have something out there. And you watch other people get excited.”
Reflecting on their work with Jackson on “Xscape” – and the Invincible project as a whole – the thing that sticks with Darkchild teammates Rodney Jerkins and LaShawn Daniels more than anything is his desire to be great.
“Michael embodied greatness in everything that he did,” says Jerkins.
“Not just as an artist, but as a humanitarian and as a person. That was his life. He was all about being great and he preached it all the time.”
Since he was a teenager, Jackson’s artistic philosophy has been to ‘study the greats and become greater,’ and for the duration of his four-decade career, that pursuit of greatness never faded.
“Michael would be in the lounge watching footage on Jackie Wilson, James Brown and Charlie Chaplin,” recalls Jerkins.
“And I walk in and I say, what are you doing? And he said, ‘I’m studying.’ Now mind you, he had all of the Grammys, millions and millions of albums sold, and I said why are you studying? And he said, ‘You never stop studying the greats.’ And he was about 40 years old when we were working together. That was a serious, serious lesson for me as an up-and-coming person to hear him say that, and to witness that.”
“Even if you’re sweeping floors or painting ceilings,” explains Jackson, “do it better than anybody in the world. No matter what it is that you do, be the best at it.”
In 2013, President of Epic Records at the time, L.A. Reid, recruited several of A-list producers to reimagine 8 unreleased songs from Jackson’s vault.
Rodney Jerkins was one of those producers.
Initially Jerkins was hesitant to be involved, and resisted producing his remix until he had heard the material other producers were contributing.
“I care,” explains Jerkins.
“Michael was a friend of mine. I had a good relationship with him. He knew my family and I knew his family. So I would tell L.A. I’m not doing a song until I hear the rest of the album… I wanted to make sure that everything stood up to what Michael would have wanted. That was important to me.”
Eventually, when he felt the project was worthy of Jackson’s dedication to greatness, Jerkins agreed to participate.
The song he produced was “Xscape”.
On May 9, 2014, five years after Jackson’s death, “Xscape” was officially released by Epic Records on an album of the same name.
“It’s about being great. It’s about being groundbreaking. If it can’t be great, we shouldn’t be doing it,” explains Epic boss L.A. Reid of his philosophy when putting the album together, adding:
“Michael Jackson tapped us on the shoulder and said would you just do me one small favour and remind people that I’m the greatest.”
‘Blue Gangsta’ and Michael Jackson’s Fascination with America’s 20th Century Underbelly
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.
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.”
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.
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!”
“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.”
“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.
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.
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.
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.”
Michael Jackson Meets America in Invincible Album Outtake ‘A Place With No Name’
On May 20, 1997, Epic Records, released Blood on the Dance Floor: HIStory in the Mix – a compilation album including five new songs by Michael Jackson and eight remixes of tracks taken from his 1995 album, HIStory.
While some of the new songs are arguably among the best of Jackson’s illustrious career, only three of them had never been heard at the time of Blood on the Dance Floor’s release, leaving fans hungry for more new music from the pop star.
And so in 1998, Jackson turned his attention towards his next full-length album, returning to the recording studio to work on ideas with his team of trusted collaborators.
As was customary when recording a new album, Jackson also invited a number of new personnel into the fold with whom he had not yet worked, to see what they could bring to the table.
The newest member of Jackson’s team was singer, songwriter, and producer Elliot Straite, who goes by the name Dr. Freeze in the music industry.
Prior to working with Jackson, Freeze was best known for his New Jack Swing style production, and for having co-written the 1991 hit “I Wanna Sex You Up” for boy band Color Me Badd, and “Poison” for Bell Biv DeVoe.
In 1998, Freeze had been working on an album with one of his collaborative partners. But unfortunately, the album never saw the light of day.
“After completing the album, things did not go as planned and we had to cancel the project,” Freeze recalls in a 2011 interview with MJFrance.
At the time, Freeze was being managed by record executive John McClain.
Disappointed that his prior project had failed, Freeze recalls that he received some news from McClain that changed his life forever:
“I was very upset. And then John McClain said, ‘Don’t worry, Freeze. I have another project for you. You’ll be in business with Michael.’ I said, ‘Michael who?’ And he said, ‘Michael Jackson!’”
At first, Freeze thought McClain was crazy, not believing that Michael Jackson would actually want to work with him.
But then, Jackson called Freeze, telling the producer that he was returning to the studio to record another album, and he wanted Freeze to join him.
The collaboration was possible for Freeze because McClain was also managing Jackson at the time. And soon after their initial phone call, Freeze began preparing a collection of songs to present to Jackson.
When the songs were ready, the pair got to work on the tracks Jackson liked best.
“I introduced him to many songs,” recalls Freeze.
“The main songs on which we worked were ‘Break Of Dawn,’ ‘A Place With No Name,’ and ‘Blue Gangsta.’ These three songs were our priorities. He adored them.”
Though already an accomplished artist in his own right, and fully capable of holding his own in a recording studio, Freeze was intimidated during his first studio session with Jackson.
“It was pretty scary for me,” recalls Freeze.
“I felt like I was back in primary school, and not knowing anything about production. With Michael, I relearned everything. The other producers and I were [like] students facing a teacher. With Michael, it was as if we knew nothing [about] the business. We had to start over and relearn everything. He taught us to do everything the best way possible. Michael was a perfectionist… I was very nervous. Very nervous, but very honored. He knew all about the music industry; everything about everything. Nothing was foreign to him, and he taught me a lot.”
“Michael and I, we have a knack for melody,” Freeze continues.
“So every time I proposed something, it was easy for him to study the song because it was as if he already knew it. I gave him some songs that he adored. He cherished them… I did all the music, and he only had to learn the lyrics.”
For “A Place With No Name,” Freeze envisioned a hypnotic song themed around escapism.
“[It’s] a song where you just close your eyes to find yourself instantly transported into a wonderful world,” explains Freeze.
“This song is very cinematic. It would have been a perfect song for a movie like Avatar, because it reveals to us a wonderful world where people are different, but happy. This song is like an escape from everyday life. [It] was inspired by ‘A Horse With No Name,’ by the group America. The lyrics of this song are very deep. I wanted to refresh it and make a version for the 2000s.”
“Michael knew the guys from America,” recalls Jackson’s recording engineer, Michael Prince, who worked on the track with Jackson and Freeze.
Jackson also knew America’s longtime manager, Jim Morey, who had co-managed Jackson with Sandy Gallin for a period of time years prior.
“So he called them to ask if it was okay to use the sample from ‘A Horse With No Name,’ and they said yes,” explains Prince.
“I know from my personal time with Michael that he was a musical fan of America. He mentioned it to me several times, actually,” recalls Morey.
“Michael himself never actually spoke to Dewey Bunnell, who is the original writer of the song. What happened was a publishing rep from Warner-Chappell Music notified me that there was going to be a use of the song which Michael had changed and needed permission for. Dewey agreed to the changes subject to payment and I negotiated the fee with Michael’s lawyer. It was very simple. No dramas.”
This wasn’t the first time that Jackson had taken someone else’s song and covered or repurposed it for his own project.
Jackson performed a rock version of The Beatles’ 1969 number one hit “Come Together” in his 1988 feature film Moonwalker, later including the track as a B-side on his “Remember The Time” single in 1992, and again on the HIStory album in 1995.
The HIStory album also features a stunning Jackson rendition of “Smile,” originally composed as an instrumental by Charlie Chaplin for his 1936 film Modern Times and later recorded by Nat King Cole in 1954 featuring newly written lyrics by John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons.
Jackson and Freeze’s 1998 reimagining of “A Horse With No Name” also wasn’t the first – or the last – time a Jackson family member had recorded a track inspired by America’s music.
In 1985, Michael’s sister, Janet Jackson, was working on what would become the Control album.
At the time, Janet had recently hired John McClain as her manager, and McClain brought Minneapolis-based production duo Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis on board to help bring the album to fruition.
One of the first tracks Jam and Lewis penned for Control, released in 1986, was “Let’s Wait Awhile,” which bears striking similarities to America’s 1975 hit “Daisy Jane.”
Fifteen years later, Jam & Lewis penned another America-inspired track for Janet, called “Someone to Call My Lover,” released as part of her All For You album in 2001.
“Someone to Call My Lover” directly samples the Dewey Bunnell-written guitar riff from America’s 1972 track “Ventura Highway.”
“I love sampling,” explains Jimmy Jam, who together with Terry Lewis worked on some of the most sample-heavy songs of Michael Jackson’s career, including “History” and “Tabloid Junkie” from Jackson’s 1995 HIStory album.
“I’m not into stealing. I’m not into taking something illegally and using it. But if people get credit for it, [I love] the idea of introducing people to new music through old music, and music I grew up with.”
Dewey Bunnell recalls that “Ventura Highway” was inspired when he, his brother, and their father encountered a flat tire during a family trip many years earlier.
“It was 1963, when I was in seventh grade,” recalls Bunnell. “We got a flat tire, and we’re standing on the side of the road, and I was staring at this highway sign. It said ‘Ventura’ on it, and it just stuck with me.”
In what appears to be an unimaginable coincidence, thirty-five years after the Bunnell family’s highway flat tire, the lyrics to first lines of “A Place With No Name” go like this:
As I drove across on the highway,
My jeep began to rock.
I didn’t know what to do so I stopped and got out,
And looked down and noticed I got a flat.
“America loved the idea,” says Freeze of he and Jackson’s new version of the 1971 chart-topper.
“They found this update absolutely terrific. They were really excited about [the] project.”
“A Place With No Name” was first worked on at Record Plant Recording Studios in Los Angeles in August of 1998.
At the time, CJ deVillar was the Record Plant’s chief engineer.
DeVillar is not only an engineer, but also an accomplished musician. In the early 1980s, deVillar played bass guitar in a couple of moderately successful bands, one of which was signed to Epic Records in 1984 – the same time that Michael Jackson and The Jacksons were.
As chief engineer at the Record Plant, deVillar was responsible for overseeing the recording sessions of high-profile artists, and was always present to ensure the more technically challenging sessions ran smoothly.
When Jackson first arrived at the Record Plant to begin working on new music with Dr. Freeze in the summer of ’98, Jackson wanted to hire a new engineer to assist with their sessions. DeVillar, who had worked with Jackson before, was assigned the task of helping him find the best man for the job.
To test out their skills, Jackson threw several tasks at the engineers, including asking each of them to compile a vocal using a variety of multi-track machines.
However, unfortunately for the engineers, Jackson’s requests were too complex, with deVillar having to constantly step in and fix a problem, or complete the task on his own.
After trialling three different engineers, it became clear that deVillar himself was far more capable of giving Jackson what he needed than any of the engineers they’d trialled.
“So three or four days later,” recalls deVillar, “Michael looked at me and said, ‘Why don’t you be my engineer?’ And I said, ‘Yeah! I’m ready. Let’s do this. Let’s work.’ And he said, ‘Great!’ And the next day I was working in the studio with MJ.”
The first track deVillar, Jackson and Freeze worked on was “Break of Dawn,” which Freeze had written for Jackson.
Production on “Break of Dawn” moved quickly, with Jackson recording it early on in the Record Plant sessions, before moving on to other songs, including “Blue Gangsta” and “A Place With No Name.”
During an early collaborative session for “A Place With No Name,” Jackson recorded a scratch vocal for the track with Freeze, deVillar, and another engineer, Eddie Delena, with whom Jackson and deVillar had previously worked a few years earlier.
At one point during the session, Freeze mentioned to deVillar that he wanted to have a ‘real’ (live) bass guitar on the track.
“Michael’s music usually uses a synth bass,” explains deVillar in an interview with The MJCast,
“So the minute I heard [Freeze say he wanted live bass] I was like, ‘I play bass! I’ve played for years. I could drop in and see if you guys like it.’ And they were like, ‘Yeah, bring it down!’”
DeVillar took Freeze at his word, bringing his bass guitar to the studio.
“I bring it down, and I take it out of the case,” recalls deVillar, “and I sit it in the corner so they can see it. Because I’m not gonna mention it again. I don’t want to be forward and rude [and] I don’t want to be forceful.”
But he didn’t have to be forceful at all. Before long, Freeze had suggested the timing may be right for deVillar to plug in and see what he could come up with.
Jackson, however, was still at the studio, and deVillar insisted that he and Freeze should wait for Jackson to leave the studio before entering the booth to record the bass.
DeVillar’s concern was that he didn’t want to jeopardize his position as an engineer on the project by being caught playing something that Jackson had not requested. And so they waited.
“Michael usually left around the same time every evening,” recalls deVillar, “so we waited for him to leave before I did my thing. The reason I didn’t want Michael to see me play was in case he didn’t understand that I’m also a bass player. I was scared of him seeing me and wondering why his engineer was messing around with his song. I didn’t want to get fired.”
It was a Tuesday evening on August 25, 1998, when deVillar finally laid down his bass parts at the Record Plant. And it was that same night that his worst nightmare became a reality, with Jackson catching him in the act almost immediately after plugging his bass guitar in.
“I saw Mike appear from the studio lounge through the glass right when I had just started playing,” recalls deVillar, “and I was like, ‘Oh, God!’”
Jackson asked deVillar what he and Freeze were doing, to which deVillar replied sheepishly: “Laying down some bass, Mike.”
Jackson wanted to hear what they’d done so far, and questioned whether anything had been recorded.
“Um, no, Mike,” said deVillar. “I’m just trying to find a vibe.”
Jackson encouraged deVillar to keep playing, and for Freeze to record it all, which is exactly what they did.
Jackson liked what he heard so much that he entered the booth and began rocking out with deVillar.
“I had Michael in my face, and he cranked the speakers up loud,” recalls deVillar.
“I’m hearing his voice, he’s dancing, popping and locking. I’ve got total Michael Jackson immersion. It was like I’d been zapped, like some crazy channeling was going on. It was like some kind of musical blessing that his aura and his power ended up in my space. And that bass line was created. It wouldn’t have happened if he wasn’t there, because he’s standing right in front of me. He’s dancing. He’s making faces. He’s cheering me on. He’s playing air guitar. He’s giving me affirmations while I’m playing, and I’m absorbing these affirmations like he’s a fan in the audience. It was like a live concert, and he was producing me live on stage. He kept saying, ‘Oh, yeah, CJ. That was stinky. Hurt me! Let’s do another.’ His enthusiasm was inspiring me. It was hypnotic, and Freeze wanted the track to be hypnotic.”
“I dropped in a total of five or six times, with the last one being a solid groove track so we didn’t have to compile a bunch of bass ideas to make the song listenable right away,” explains deVillar.
“After a few loud playbacks, I put together a quick rough mix and made him a DAT tape to listen to. He graciously thanked me again and then went home for the day… I had a lot of fun recording [with] Michael and Freeze. It showed me Michael’s relentless musical energy so vividly… The whole session went down in about thirty minutes, and it gave me a whole new level of respect for Michael.”
The next day, Jackson arrived back at Record Plant Recording Studios ready to record the background vocals and “na nas” with Freeze.
While the majority of the background vocals on the track belong to Freeze, there are a few instances where he and Jackson have recorded in harmony, with their vocals being layered seamlessly together by engineers.
Early versions of “A Place With No Name” ran eight minutes in length and were recorded across forty-eight tracks including conga drums, wind effects, shakers, claps, the guitar sample from America’s original version of the song, and, of course, deVillar’s live bass part.
After about a week of tweaking and editing the rough “A Place With No Name” mix, Jackson was ready to record the lead vocals.
The recording session, engineered by Eddie Delena with the assistance of deVillar, took place at the Record Plant on September 8, 1998.
Dr. Freeze recalls what it was like to witness Jackson in full force, recording vocals in the booth:
“When he came into the studio to record, he stood before the microphone and set fire to the song. As he left, the studio was in ashes and our jaws on the floor. It was really impressive to see.”
“He sang so well that when he was in the booth, magic was coming out,” recalls deVillar.
“I had to hold my emotions, because I’m more of a music guy than an engineer. When Michael would sing, sometimes he would hit these notes where I would jump out of my seat like, Oh, my god! And I’d have to stop myself, because I’m the engineer and I can’t jump out of my seat. But I did a few times!”
“The pyrotechnics that came out of this man were ridiculous. And it came out like that all the f*cking time. It’s powerful. It’s magic. It was like he was channeling when he would sing. It was scary sometimes. He would actually grab the microphone with his hands and roar and just get into it. Then the part would be over and he would let go of the mic and he would just sit there and simmer. And I would wait sometimes up to twenty or thirty seconds until he got his composure back. He was gathering up energy, widening up his body and then, Bam! Letting it loose. Then relaxing, composing himself, a slight little five-second meditation and then we’d do another take. He was really focused on every part, every swing at the ball. There was a lot of force behind every single take.”
Jackson’s lead vocals were recorded using a Neumann M149 microphone.
Additional leads were recorded on October 16, 1998, by engineer Mike Ging at the Ocean Way Recording facility – commonly referred to as Record One.
The following day, Ging worked on a new mix.
From there, “A Place With No Name” did some serious studio hopping.
“It was such a round robin back in those days,” recalls engineer Michael Prince, who was bouncing back and forth between a room with Jackson’s longtime arranger, Brad Buxer, and another with Dr. Freeze.
“At one point we ended up at Marvin’s Place. We then moved back to Record Plant, then back to Record One again.”
“Typically, I was working mostly on the songs Brad and MJ were writing,” recalls Prince. “We had our hands busy with about five or six songs.”
Two of those songs were “The Way You Love Me” and “Hollywood Tonight.”
“A Place With No Name” was again revisited throughout February 1999, with Jackson, Prince, Buxer and Ging making further edits to the track at Record One.
“We were very happy at Record One, and that’s where we got the majority of our work done,” recalls Prince.
“That’s when Rodney Jerkins joined the team. Rodney, Fred Jerkins, and LaShawn Daniels were there for at least the last month that we were at Record One.”
Then, at the end of March 1999, Jackson flew out to New York to work at The Hit Factory recording studio with producer Cory Rooney on the song “She Was Loving Me,” which Rooney had written specifically for Jackson.
After a month of recording, editing and hanging out in the studio, Jackson decided to leave the completion of “She Was Loving Me” in Rooney’s hands, while he moved on to other songs.
But Jackson wouldn’t resume recording in Los Angeles.
Jackson’s month on the east coast had inspired him to move a selection of his production team from LA to New York City, where they would continue working at The Hit Factory, Sony Music Studios, and even in Jackson’s hotel room.
Much to their disappointment, CJ deVillar and Mike Ging did not receive a call to join Jackson in New York. Brad Buxer and Michael Prince, on the other hand, packed their bags and headed to the Big Apple.
Moving studios was a major task back in the days of recording to tape, especially the way Jackson composed songs.
Some of Jackson’s more complex pieces consisted of upwards of one hundred individual tracks.
“It took us days to make copies of all the tapes and hard drives, and to label them,” recalls Prince, “and then everything got shipped to The Hit Factory in New York and we spent months there.”
In early May 1999, once all the tapes had arrived in New York, Hit Factory engineer Paul J. Falcone worked on yet another mix of “A Place With No Name.”
However, as recording sessions for the work-in-progress album advanced, “A Place With No Name” was put on the backburner, along with Cory Rooney’s “She Was Loving Me” and Freeze’s “Blue Gangsta.”
At that time, Jackson shifted his focus to working with producer Rodney Jerkins, and Jerkins had done the same in return.
In the end, the Invincible album was released on October 30, 2001, and “A Place With No Name” was not included.
Years later, in early 2004, when working on music in a makeshift studio at his Neverland Valley Ranch, Jackson revisited the track with engineer Michael Prince.
“It has improved gradually,” explains Freeze.
“It was incremental work. He listened to the different mixes and changed some details around here or there. He was in full creative control. We wanted the song to be perfect… It was a bit like a director looking to improve his film by changing the script or changing players. This is the type of process that was used to create this song, and overall, the album Invincible… All that interested him was to have number one hits.”
Freeze’s sentiments about Michael wanting to have hits have been echoed by many over the years, including producer RedOne, and also by Jackson himself.
“Michael always has been focused on having hits,” says RedOne, who spent time working with Jackson during the final years of his life. “He always records a lot of songs and takes the best of them. That’s his formula, which I love.”
“It was Tchaikovsky that influenced me the most,” revealed Jackson in an interview with Bryan Monroe from Ebony magazine.
“If you take an album like Nutcracker Suite – every song is a killer. Every one! People used to do an album where you’d get one good song, and the rest were like B-sides. They’d call them ‘album songs,’ and I would say to myself, ‘Why can’t every one be like a hit song? Why can’t every song be so great that people would want to buy it if you could release it as a single?’ So, I always tried to strive for that… That was the whole idea… I worked hard for it.”
The 2004 version was briefly considered for a box set called The Ultimate Collection, released by Epic Records on November 16 the same year. But as with the Invincible album three years prior, it was again not included.
The track was then shelved for four more years, before being resurrected merely a year prior to Jackson’s death.
In January 2008, Jackson and his three children had moved into a rented mansion in Las Vegas.
The property was equipped with a home recording studio, in which Jackson began working on music, including with a producer called Neff-U, with whom Jackson had worked for several years.
During their 2008 collaborative sessions, Neff-U was also given a number of Jackson’s unreleased songs from the vault, to see if he could give them a fresh new sound.
“Michael had favourite songs, or songs that were works in progress,” explains engineer Michael Prince.
“Once Neff-U took over in 2008, Michael brought out some songs, including ‘A Place With No Name,’ and said: ‘Here, work with this song. See what you can come up with for this song.’ The vocals were always pretty much the same, but Neff-U would put new music on them.”
Minor edits were made by Neff-U in 2008, at Jackson’s home studio in Vegas. And coincidentally, the song’s original producer, Dr. Freeze, also visited Jackson at his home studio that year.
The pair had reunited to discuss the next chapter of Jackson’s musical journey.
“I was in the studio with him shortly before his death,” recalls Freeze.
“To be precise, I remember going to see him at his residence in Vegas, and there was a studio there… Nothing was recorded. We just brainstormed. We were about to start recording sessions… I offered a few new songs I had written especially for him. He loved [the songs] very much,” says Freeze.
But their work musical reunion wasn’t to be, with Jackson tragically passing away on June 25, 2009 – before they’d actually got in the studio and recorded the new songs.
“This was our last discussion,” recalls Freeze.
“He said ‘I love you’ and voila, it was over. He wanted to [record the songs], but he died.”
Three weeks after Jackson’s death, in July 2009, a short snippet of “A Place With No Name” leaked online, and it was quickly identified as a remake of America’s “A Horse With No Name.”
Following the leak, the writer’s of its predecessor – America’s Dewey Bunnell and Gerry Beckley – expressed their desire for Jackson’s rendition of their 1972 hit to be released in full.
“We’re also hoping it will be released soon so that music listeners around the world can hear the whole song and once again experience the incomparable brilliance of Michael Jackson,” they said in a joint statement in July 2009, adding: “We truly hope his fans – and our fans – get to hear it in its entirety.”
Despite America’s enthusiasm for it to be released, the Jackson’s version remained unreleased for five more years.
Then, in May 2014, the track appeared on Xscape – the second posthumous album of Jackson material from the singer’s estate and Epic Records.
Two versions of “A Place With No Name” appear on Xscape – an original version and a remixed version.
The remix was done by Norwegian production duo Stargate, who had met with Jackson shortly before his death to discuss a potential collaboration.
President of Epic Records at the time, LA Reid, who was overseeing the Xscape album project and recruiting the team of A-list producers who worked on it, discusses Stargate’s approach to their “A Place With No Name” remix.
“They approached it was so creative,” recalls Reid.
“They listened to the time signature of the song, which was a 6/8 time signature. So the guys from Stargate asked: ‘Which songs have had the 6/8 time signature?‘ There were songs like Stevie Wonder’s ‘Higher Ground,’ which was an influence… It’s a really special record.”
Stargate’s remix indeed had a strong Stevie Wonder “Higher Ground” vibe about it.
Tor Erik Hermansen recalls how Jackson’s rhythmic vocals inspired he and Stargate co-producer Mikkel Eriksen when working on the remix:
“When I listened to Michael, he’s in the booth snapping his fingers, clapping his hands and stomping his feet. He’s doing all these energetic things that gave us a vibe where this track should go. That’s when we started to experiment with the bassline. We didn’t even have the drums on it yet, just the bassline and a chord progression that really worked for something more danceable. Then we started working on drums. But all of that stuff really came from Michael Jackson.”
On August 13, 2014, Stargate’s remix of “A Place With No Name” was released as the second single from the Xscape album, along with a music video directed by Samuel Bayer.
The original version of “A Place With No Name” included on Xscape is what Jackson heard during those 2008 collaborative sessions with producer Neff-U and recording engineer Michael Prince.
“Compared with the 2004 version, you can hear the drums are different in the final version,” observes Prince.
“It has a different kick drum pattern, a little stronger snare, and the ‘na nas’ are copied to repeat through the fade.”
One element of the track that Jackson never changed, however, was engineer CJ deVillar’s bass part.
“That bass credit is the greatest highlight of my career,” beams deVillar, “because no one told me what to play. Michael just said he wanted to hear some live bass, and I played. Michael used that bass, made it part of his lexicon, sang to it, and kept it on the track for the next decade. He never had anyone redo it. He never removed it. He kept that bass for over ten years. How on earth did I get that privilege? I’m beside myself just thinking about it.”
“Michael loved that song. I mean, who didn’t love that song? It’s still a huge classic,” recalls deVillar of Jackson’s affection for the original, original version – “A Horse With No Name” – by America.
“Michael was a real artist’s artist. He wanted to work on things just because he wanted to. I don’t think Michael made plans with music. I think he sort of just mused and had fun with music [and] I think he just loved that song so much.”
“In hip hop culture it’s just so natural to flip anything – just flip any song you want. And so that was just Michael and Freeze putting love into it. I don’t think they went after that track like it was supposed to be put on a record. I think it was even more personal than that. The feeling I got during that time was that they were just having so much fun trying to play with the melody and the lyrics and the music, and were really just having a great time flipping this classic track. And a successful flip isn’t easy, but I thought that was just wonderful.”
The song’s original writers, Dewey Bunnell and Gerry Beckley, agreed.
“We’re honoured that Michael Jackson chose to record it, and we’re impressed with the quality of the track,” they said.
“Michael really did it justice. It’s really poignant.”
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