Tuesday May 13, 2014 marked the global release of the latest Epic Records product; a collection of eight previously unpublished songs recorded by the King of Pop and remixed by modern-day producers. A deluxe edition of the album, Xscape, includes all eight remixed tracks in their ‘original’, unaltered form, plus a bonus track featuring Justin Timberlake.
As I embark on writing a track-by-track review of the album itself, I feel the it necessary to preface my thoughts with the following:
As I’ve previously stated, I would personally not be releasing items from Michael Jackson’s vault of unheard music. The man gave us, the public, more than enough material during his life. I see absolutely no need for, or benefit in, scraping the barrel for works he personally overlooked for public consumption.
Throughout his solo adult career spanning 30 years (1979-2009) Jackson officially released six full-length studio albums. That’s an average of one album every five years. This is not because he was lazy or uninspired. Nor is it because he was idle. The reason Michael Jackson took so long to compile and release studio albums is because he was a perfectionist, stewing over every minor detail. He wanted to create masterpieces; songs and albums that would stand the test of time and live on forever as his legacy.
Once pressed and distributed for sale around the world Jackson would often continue to tweak his work. This is evident from the countless pressings of the Bad album – originally released in 1987 – that have been issued over the years; each with its own unique amendments. Even when it was “done” it wasn’t done!
Jackson’s attention to the most subtle sonic intricacies was second-to-none, and that’s what made him perhaps the greatest recording artist in music history. His desire to perfect those intricacies may seem obsessive-compulsive to some, but when you play a song like “Don’t Stop Till Ya Get Enough” today, 35 years after it was originally recorded, there is no debating Jackson’s time and effort was well spent.
For Xscape, Jackson was not able to captain the ship. In fact, it’s debatable whether or not the ship would have ever left the port – at least with this particular cargo on board – had Jackson not passed away on June 25, 2009.
The songs on the album – ones Jackson consciously opted against releasing during his lifetime – originate from recording sessions between 1980 and 1999. L.A. Reid, chairman of Epic Records, assembled a team of what he considers to be the best producers in the business today to remix the recordings – a concept that Jackson himself made crystal clear he did not like – for the album. Epic Records and the marketing team involved are refusing to acknowledge them as remixes, but for me that’s what they are.
Reid’s first call was to Timbaland, who not only did not work with Jackson during his life, but never even met him. Norwegian duo Stargate, whom Jackson admired greatly and wanted to work with, Estate co-executor John McClain, and former Jackson collaborator Rodney Jerkins also got the call to be involved with contributing their efforts to the project. Michael Jackson’s only participation was that his voice would be the star of the show, with Reid’s newly formed production ensemble charged with the task of building brand new soundscapes around some of the most spectacular vocal performances ever laid on tape.
In many cases on Xscape the producers executed their remixes without even consulting Jackson’s rhythmic or melodic blueprint found on the original versions of the tracks. Instead, they endeavoured to start from scratch, using, they say, Jackson’s acapella vocals only. For me this is a catastrophic mistake. Michael Jackson songs were built from the ground up. The bass, the chords, the percussion and other embellishments were put in place before any lead vocals were recorded. Jackson’s lead vocals were sung to match the music he’d worked so hard to perfect, which is why his voice is so rich in rhythm. So for the producers to start with the vocal stems and attempt to work backwards by matching the music to the vocals just makes no sense to me. As a result I feel there are sequencing and timing issues on a number of tracks, where the vocal is doing things the music cannot keep up with. I’ll touch on that in my track-by-track review.
Just to be clear, this, in my opinion, is NOT a new “Michael Jackson album” per se. It is simply a compilation of songs – remixes and originals – on which Michael Jackson’s voice appears. And that’s how I’ll be reviewing it. The music on this album does not have Michael Jackson’s final seal of approval and, in my opinion, cannot be held to the standards of the material he willingly released during his life.
Love Never Felt So Good Recorded in 1980, not ’83 as is being promoted, this track is a collaboration between Jackson and songwriter Paul Anka. In its original form we hear a youthful Jackson recording a warm, sweet, joyous demo that was not meant for public release in any way, shape or form. The track is not a studio recording, but rather a songwriting session caught on tape and frozen in time. The original track, in the version we hear, is not finished. And it never was; at least not by Jackson. So when I heard that the track had been selected for the album I felt a bit uneasy. Then when I discovered that it had also been chosen as the album’s lead single, I was dumbfounded. However in hindsight, after hearing the newly-crafted John McClain and Giorgio Tuinfort co-produced Xscape album version, I can definitely understand Epic Records’ decision to use it. The production takes what was a sweet yet unassuming demo, featuring merely a piano and Jackson’s real-time finger snaps, and turns it into an Off The Wall-inspired track reminiscent of the funky-smooth “Rock With You”. I like it. I also really quite like the version that features Justin Timberlake, which was produced by Timbaland, and recalls samples of Jackson’s “Workin’ Day & Night”. Neither the McClain/Tuinfort version nor the Timbaland/Timberlake remix will leave you breathless, but all in all the track is an organic way to kick off the album.
Chicago This Invincible outtake was written in 1999 by super-producer and former record executive Cory Rooney (Jennifer Lopez, Destiny’s Child, Marc Anthony) and recorded by Jackson the same year at The Hit Factory in New York City. Originally called “She Was Loving Me,” this is one of only two never-before-heard tracks on the Xscape album. The original Rooney-produced version takes me right back to the mystical vibe and sonic tranquility that oozes from the King of Pop’s “Liberian Girl” from 1987’s Bad album. Jackson’s voice in the verses is as smooth as ever, before unleashing a powerful surge of vocal fire in the choruses. The original version suits the era from which it originates. Timbaland, who produced the remix, brings the song into 2014 by completely departing from the original’s feeling. At first I was taken aback by the new Timbaland remix, as I had previously heard an alternate mix co-produced only a few years ago by Cory Rooney with Michael’s nephew Taryll Jackson. The Rooney/Jackson production really allows Jackson’s vocal to soar, while the hard-hitting guitar and drum infused chorus really punches you in the gut. Their version reminds me of “Give In To Me,” “Billie Jean” and “Dirty Diana” rolled into one. Timbaland, on the other hand, has turned “Chicago” into a somewhat radio-friendly pop song with an RnB flavour for the Xscape album. Unfortunately in doing so he has also sucked some of the spirit and Jackson magic out of the track. The music, to my ears, is very generic and sounds like it comes straight from a free downloadable collection of bass sounds and drum beats. Enter the world of Timbaland and the 808 trap drum. To be continued.
Loving You This beautiful mid-tempo love song was written and recorded smack-bang in the middle of the 80s with musician John Barnes. Epic Records is marketing the track as being recorded during the 1987 Bad sessions, which it was not. It was done, dusted and shelved before the Bad sessions began. Regardless of its origins, the song is delightful. It reminds me of a cross between “Carousel” (a Thriller outtake) and “One More Chance” (from The Jacksons’ Victory album). Jackson’s voice, as usual, is divine. Timbaland delivers one of my favourite remixes on the album with this one, with an attention grabbing piano intro and some interesting embellishments throughout. For the second time in a row he resorts to the 808. Trap drums invade the chorus and remind us that Michael Jackson had absolutely nothing to do with this remix. I have to admit it took me about half-a-dozen listens to get into the remix, but the track is so strong melodically that it eventually won me over. Now I love it. I can absolutely imagine hearing “Loving You” on the radio and anticipate it will be the released as a single at some point.
A Place With No Name Co-written by Elliot Straite (aka Dr. Freeze) with Michael Jackson in 1998, the origins of this song date back much further than the King of Pop’s recording. “A Place With No Name” is actually a re-written cover of the 1972 hit “A Horse With No Name” by the group America – originally written by Dewey Bunnell. The original Michael Jackson rendition of the song, as it appears on Xscape, is very true to America’s version and packed with nostalgia. It even borrows the famous guitar riff that plays throughout. The track showcases Jackson’s innate ability captivate the listener by telling intricate, detailed stories through musically-engaging pop songs that are not only catchy, but timeless. Jackson continued to work on this track for a decade, and even after he last tweaked it with producer Neff-U in 2008 it was still not considered “complete”. The remix, carried out by Norwegian production duo Stargate, is a completely different from the version Jackson last worked on. This can be largely put down to the fact that it was constructed by Stargate, according to them, without them listening to Jackson and Freeze’s original composition. It has a European feel, is extremely funky and has a bass line fans are comparing to the one featured in Jackson’s “Leave Me Alone”. I personally think the remix sounds remarkably like Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground”. The remix builds really nicely, and breaks back down throughout to great effect. The only issue for me was the seemingly out-of-place MJ vocal tics and ad libs in the intro. Jackson would use vocal tics, grunts and breaths to enhance the percussion of a song. However during the intro there is absolutely no percussion and the ad libs sound, at least to me, like they do not belong there. Regardless, I personally love the remix. It’s another of my absolute favourites and makes me wish Stargate would have produced more than just one remix for the album.
Slave To The Rhythm Chairman of Epic Records, L.A. Reid, and his collaborative partner, Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, co-wrote the original version of this track way back in 1990. Jackson cut his ferocious vocal for it during the Dangerous recording sessions; twenty-four times over according to Reid! In its original version the track is a throwback to the late ‘80s Janet Jackson sound. To put it simply, the original version is awesome! But then we have the remix and the news is not so good. Timbaland tackled the reimagining of “Slave” but fell miles short of both the original version, and previously leaked remixes by Tricky Stewart and Max Methods. Timbaland has suffocated Jackson’s powerful vocal with a plethora of pointless electronic “sounds”. To me there is very little (if any) musical quality to this remix, and whatever melodic thread previously existed has been eradicated. “Abomination” is a word that comes to mind when describing this track. It is by far and a way my least favourite remix on Xscape – one which could have easily been among the best remixes if approached differently. Timbaland was way out of his depth on this one and ended up drowning in a sea of “noise”.
Do You Know Where Your Children Are During the 1980s Jackson became inspired by those classic late-night television commercials that implored parents to ask themselves the question (that became the song’s title): “Do You Know Where Your Children Are?” The original version of this track is simply magnificent and instantly reminds me of “Abortion Papers” from Bad 25. While there is nothing groundbreaking about the sounds Jackson used to create the demo, there is everything groundbreaking about the message. A chilling tale of a 12-year-old girl who falls victim to sexual abuse at the hands of her step-father before running away from home to escape said horror. The girl ultimately finds herself involved in child prostitution on the streets of Hollywood before being arrested by police. The King of Pop truly was the voice for the voiceless, finding a way to articulate this delicate story with both sensitivity and power, while delivering the track as an incredibly catchy pop song. Timbaland delivers his fourth offering from Xscape with a remix of this track that I actually really love. The new production is somewhat “video game-ish,” but in my opinion it works. Packed with pauses, breakdowns and muddy guitar solos, this remix is perhaps the most unique on the album. Most Jackson purists will be outraged that I like this version, but I can’t help it. Rodney Jerkins, who worked with Jackson from 1999 to 2003, believes Jackson would have loved the production so much that he’d have climbed atop the studio equipment and danced in celebration. While I don’t claim to know what Jackson would or would not have done or liked, I can tell you that this remix is coincidentally reminiscent of an unreleased track Jackson was working on in the final years of his life.
Blue Gangsta The original version of “Blue Gangsta” was written by Dr. Freeze. Contrary to the album credits in the Xscape liner notes, Michael Jackson did not co-write this song. The same thing happened with “Break Of Dawn” from the Invincible album – another Dr. Freeze track that Michael Jackson somehow got an undue co-writer’s credit for. Regardless of its authorship, Jackson delivers yet another powerhouse vocal performance. Personally I’ve never been much of a fan of the original version’s brass and accordion-infused composition, but when you hear Timbaland’s remix of the track you really begin to appreciate the original. The intro on Timbaland’s remix is dark and mysterious, and the first verse is chillingly cool with Jackson singing percapella. But when the first chorus kicks in we witness the not-so-triumphant return of the 808 trap drum, much to the track’s detriment. Judging by his remixes on this album it would appear the Timbaland has one of the music industry’s most limited percussion vocabularies. As soon as the chorus kicks in, I’m lost. Completely disengaged from the track. All I can picture is L.A. Reid’s “stink face” (dancers will know what that is) as he awkwardly grooves along to the track during the filming of the Xscape Deluxe Edition‘s accompanying making-of documentary. I had very high hopes for this remix but am left feeling massively let down. They should’ve let Stargate loose on this one.
Xscape The only track on the album that has been revisited and reimagined by the same producer who worked on the original version. Written and recorded in 1999, and worked on until 2002, Jackson sings of the the pressures that fall upon him in his not-so-regular everyday life. The original version has been online since late-2002 when the track leaked against the singer’s wishes. Because of the leak Jackson cancelled plans to release the song officially and it became yet another “unreleased” MJ track. This song is perhaps the only track of the collection that I’m comfortable seeing released in its original form, because Jackson had planned to let the public hear it. It’s done. Complete. And it’s excellent. The remixed version, however, leaves me with mixed feelings – mainly because I’ve spent the last decade hearing it the way I’ve always known and loved it. I’m having adjustment issues, but it’s nothing against the new mix. In the remix Jerkins seems to lift the track to a more breezy place. Industrial grunt and stick percussion is replaced with booming bass, 808s and punchy horns. It’s cool. It’s completely different. But I can’t help but consciously wonder whether Jackson would like it or not. I can’t seem to completely escape into “Xscape,” but I like it. I feel it’s a sonically sound effort and a palatable way to close the album that leaves me wishing Jerkins had done more than just one song.
Overall the Xscape album delivers pretty much what I expected. Trademark production-value of modern-day “musicians” who rely on computers and machines to recreate the sounds that form their compositions. When you consider that Jackson worked on perfecting some of the original versions of these songs (such as “A Place With No Name”) for up to ten years, and note that executive producer Timbaland, for example, came in and completed a remix a day, it’s no wonder that Jackson’s astonishingly brilliant back-catalog will sound as fresh in 50 years as it is today, while many of these remixes, as much as I do enjoy some of them, will likely sound dated by Christmas.
Supreme Court Judge Grills Sony Lawyer Over ‘Contradictory’ Arguments in Alleged Michael Jackson Fraud
A lawyer defending Sony Music and the Estate of Michael Jackson in a consumer fraud lawsuit has today argued that the billion-dollar corporations should be able to sell forgeries to unwitting consumers – without being held liable for doing so.
During the California Supreme Court hearing, which was streamed live around the world, Sony attorney Zia Modabber was pulled up for presenting contradictory arguments when attempting to justify the record company’s false attribution of three songs to Jackson on the 2010 Michael album.
The hearing centred around a class action lawsuit filed by Californian consumer Vera Serova – a Michael Jackson fan who purchased the Michael album under the premise that it was a collection of unreleased songs performed by the King of Pop.
In her lawsuit, Serova contends that three of the songs on Michael – “Breaking News,” “Monster” and “Keep Your Head Up” – are forgeries, and that Jackson’s estate and Sony misled her and millions of consumers around the world by falsely representing those forgeries as authentic Jackson material.
Today’s Supreme Court hearing focused specifically on Sony and the Estate’s culpability in the matter.
The corporations argue that the First Amendment (free speech) gives them the constitutional right to lie to consumers without remedy, and that they should be removed from the lawsuit because of this.
In fact, Sony and the Estate have been petitioning to be removed from this case for 6 years, alleging that plaintiff Serova strategically filed her lawsuit to prevent the record company from exercising their First Amendment rights by participating in the public dialogue regarding the authenticity of the songs.
The dialogue in question is the wording on the reverse side of the album cover, which stipulates that the vocals on the album were “performed by Michael Jackson” (see below).
In a 2016 hearing regarding this matter, attorney Zia Modabber argued on behalf of Sony and the Estate that if anyone were to be held liable for the fraud it should be the original producers of the songs – Eddie Cascio and James Porte – because they provided them under the false pretence that they were authentic.
Today, in front of seven Supreme Court Justices, Mr. Modabber made the same argument on behalf of Sony and the Estate.
In what was a rollercoaster hearing, Modabber told the court that Sony and the Estate were “100%” certain that the vocals on the songs in question were authentic based on an investigation conducted by former Estate attorney Howard Weitzman in November 2010.
A few minutes later, in a complete about-face, Modabber claimed that neither Sony nor the Estate were in a position to know who sang the vocals – a backflip which Justice Groban took issue with:
“How can it be both? Why is Sony saying with 100% certainty that Michael is the singer if you weren’t certain? Which is essentially what I hear you saying now.”
Mr. Modabber also made a number of arguments throughout his 30-minute presentation which seemed only to benefit plaintiff Serova’s side.
At one point, Modabber explained the identity of the artist is what gives art its meaning and value. In other words, if Michael Jackson wasn’t singing on the songs in question, they’d be irrelevant and worthless:
“The identity of the artist is part and parcel of the art. It imparts meaning to the art.”
The attorney, on behalf of Sony and the Estate, went on to give an example:
“There’s a song that Michael wrote called ‘Leave Me Alone‘, and it’s about being persecuted by the press. When Michael Jackson sings that song – because it’s Michael Jackson singing it – it gives a certain meaning to that song. If I sang that song – nobody cares about me – it doesn’t have the same meaning as if Michael Jackson sings that song. And that’s why authors and the source of the art are part of – and intimately connected to – the art itself… It undeniably adds to the meaning of the art.”
Without Michael Jackson’s name on the songs in question, they couldn’t commercially exploit them.
Therefore, according to Sony’s logic, the company had no choice other than to falsely attribute the authorship to Jackson in order to give them meaning and value in the eyes of consumers.
In what can only be described and an own goal, Modabber continued by asserting that the consumers of art want to know who the artist is, and that he cannot think of a scenario in which the identity of the artist doesn’t matter:
“Imagine art, out in the world, with no attribution of authorship. Imagine you just didn’t know who it came from or what the source was. It’s not the same. There is a character and a quality and an impact and a curiosity by those who consume the art about where it came from and what the source was. It adds meaning to it. We want to know who it is. We want to know where it came from. We want to know what inspired it. And part of that is the identity of the artist. And so I can’t think of a situation where the identity of the artist doesn’t matter.”
More to come when the California Supreme Court hands down their ruling on this matter.
For those of you who are interested, a podcast series detailing my investigation of this case, called Faking Michael, is currently in production. Subscribe to Faking Michael on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or YouTube to be notified when episodes are released.
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
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.
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.”
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