L.A. Reid and an all-star cast of producers re-imagine archival tracks by the King of Pop
A little less than a year ago, L.A. Reid met John Branca for dinner at Cecconi's in West Hollywood. Reid had been the chairman and CEO of Epic Records ("the house that Thriller built," as Reid calls it) since July 2011, and he'd inherited a cold label that so far hadn't gotten much hotter. Branca had resumed his role as Michael Jackson's adviser and lawyer shortly before Jackson's death in 2009, and during his time as co-executor of the Jackson estate had erased the estate's $500 million debt, thanks to the This Is It concert film (which grossed $261 million worldwide), and lucrative Jackson performance properties with Cirque du Soleil.
One of the items on the table that night was Reid's idea for a Jackson biopic covering his life between the age of 19 — when he filmed The Wiz, and first worked with Quincy Jones — and 24, when he and Jones reshaped the world with Thriller.
Branca had simple answer for Reid: No.
"John said to me, 'That's wonderful. Why? Why should we allow you to do that?' " Reid, 57, remembers today. Branca complained that during his time at Epic, Reid had done nothing for Jackson. Reid's first two years at the label had coincided with his tenure as a judge on The X Factor on Fox (a decision he now calls "horrible"), and Branca seized on this too. "He said, 'You don't talk about Michael when you're on TV,' " says Reid. "He starts to berate me. I walked right into it."
But Reid saw a chance to prove himself, and so asked for something else, something bigger: to go into the vaults and hear the recordings that Jackson — who was known to work on as many as 70 songs for each album — had left behind. "Let me hear everything," he said to Branca. "And then let me go out and put my team together and make an album on Michael."
"I was just being a lying-ass record man," says Reid. "Because I had no idea what was in the vaults." But he says this now with a smile, and the confidence that comes with pursuing an unorthodox strategy and creating something no one believed possible — an album that deserves to be discussed in the context of the remarkable music that Jackson made from Off the Wall in 1979 to Invincible in 2001.
"Xscape," which comes out May 13, is eight tracks of Jackson vocals set to new music from Timbaland and J-Roc, Rodney Jerkins, Stargate and John McClain, the former A&M Records executive who is co-executor of the Jackson estate with Branca. The originals they worked with were recorded from 1983 to 1999, the period just after Thriller to just before Invincible.
The finished songs are not remixes. Reid chose a riskier path, charging each of his producers to create what are essentially new songs based only on Jackson's vocal tracks. Timbaland — the project's executive producer, who oversaw five tracks with his collaborator J-Roc — talks about it almost like a ghost story, Jackson's disembodied voice urging him on, dissuading him from sounds that weren't innovative enough, and giving his blessing when they were.
This is the second full album in a deal between the Jackson estate and Sony Music to put out previously unreleased material, reportedly worth $250 million. The first, 2010's Michael, focused on the most recent material Jackson was recording in the years leading up to his death. It was completed by a half dozen producers, many from the original sessions, who tried to carry out his intentions as best they could. The results fell well short of Jackson's studio perfectionism. Branca calls the process "somewhat chaotic" and notes it lacked an overall guiding vision.
In the time since its release, Michael has posted sales of 540,000 — by no means overwhelming. Still, Jackson remains, five years after his death, big business. Last year, Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour, a partnership between the Jackson estate and Cirque du Soleil, became the ninth-top-grossing tour of all time, passing The Rolling Stones' Voodoo Lounge tour in 1994 and 1995 with earnings of $325.1 million from 407 shows that drew almost 3 million concertgoers. Immortal is back on tour in North America, and a second Cirque du Soleil show, One, began a residency at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas in May 2013.
Jackson's albums have sold 12.8 million in the United States since his death, according to Nielsen SoundScan — 8 million of those in the months immediately following his June 25, 2009 death, making him the best-selling artist of that year. Since then, Jackson's sales have slowed. Last year, his albums moved 584,000, less than Elvis Presley (1.1 million) and Johnny Cash (969,000), but more than Whitney Houston (310,000) and Jimi Hendrix (539,000). "Xscape" will provide a lift, though how much of one is unclear.
As welcome as a hit record would be, Reid and all involved also see a higher purpose: To reanimate Jackson's presence in today's pop universe. There is no question his influence lives on. Listen to the songs on the Billboard Hot 100 most weeks and you'll hear tracks by Jackson disciples — right now it's Pharrell Williams, who has long chased what he calls Jackson's "stutter pop" sound, at No. 1 with "Happy" and Justin Timberlake at No. 9 with "Not a Bad Thing" — co-produced by part of the "Xscape" team, Timbaland and J-Roc. In working on the album, Timbaland says he asked himself, "How would I hear this on the radio against Katy Perry? Would it sound old, would it sound new? [I] had to make sure that it can compete with everything that is going on today in the pop world."
In April, Reid gathered with the producers who worked on "Xscape," save McClain, to talk with Billboard about the making of the album, and to shoot a documentary. They met at Henson Studios in Hollywood, the former A&M Studios on La Brea, built in 1966 on the site of Charlie Chaplin's studio. Jones and Jackson recorded "We Are the World" here in Studio A, and Jackson — who obsessively screened footage of Chaplin as a form of study — was known to rehearse on the soundstage.
Some of these men had known and worked with Jackson — Jerkins, 36, a hitmaker for Brandy and Destiny's Child, first met Jackson at 16, and began work with him at 19. "He asked me for a year," says Jerkins of Jackson. It turned out to be more like three, from 1999 to 2001. Reid himself produced one of the source tracks on "Xscape," "Slave to the Rhythm," with his partner Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds in 1989 (and almost signed Jackson in 2005 when he was chairman/CEO of Island Def Jam). It has been refashioned for "Xscape" by Timbaland. "He asked [Rodney] to work with him for a year," jokes Reid. "This shows you where I'm at as a producer — he asked me for two weeks."
Jackson had wanted to work with the Norwegian production duo Stargate — Mikkel Eriksen and Tor Hermansen, both 41 — known for their hits with Rihanna and Perry. The singer was a fan of their songs for Ne-Yo, and he met with them at the Midtown Manhattan Chinese restaurant Mr. K's to discuss future projects. "Just the two of us, and managers, and Blanket was there as well," says Eriksen. "Down in the basement."
"Did he eat?" asks Reid.
"He ate — he brought his own chopsticks," says Hermansen.
As for Timbaland, 42, Reid felt his consistent innovation was in tune with Jackson's desire to always carve out a unique sound. As Jackson did, Timbaland acts out the sounds in his head, beatboxing and vocalizing in the studio. And like Jackson, he's relentless in his search for new approaches. "I always felt like I was ahead of the times and nobody understood my method of music. I feel like everything around us is music. That's why I use crickets in songs and birds and spoons and door knobs or a car motor, and I just make it a rhythm."
Timbaland was Reid's first call. "I said, 'I want to come into the studio. I don't want to talk over the telephone,' " remembers Reid. The two met at Jungle Studios on West 27th Street in Manhattan. "Like normal, the studio control room was full of people — musicians, sound engineers, assistants, friends, songwriters — a lot of people in the room," says Reid. "I didn't want to talk about it in a group setting. So I said, 'Tim, can we talk?' We walked out and I'm whispering into his ear, like it's this big special project. I said, 'Listen to this: "Michael Jackson produced by Timbaland." ' "
"I felt like he was giving me a task," says Timbaland. "Like, 'Let me see how good you really are. How about Michael Jackson?'"