Backbeat: Professor ?uestlove Teaches Michael Jackson’s ‘Off the Wall’ at NYU ‘Classic Albums’ Class

To a certain type of music obsessive, a tutorial on classic albums with ?uestlove sounds more like a fantasy date than something you might actually get college credit for. Yet such a course exists at New York University’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music – and there, at the institute’s SoHo headquarters, 20-odd students and several journalists crammed into the recording studio’s control room on Monday morning.

Students in the program learn about recorded music from multiple angles – essentially the business, the studio and the criticism – and while part of the course’s objective is to help students understand what makes an album a classic (not to mention what the concept of “classic” means), it also is intended to develop their critical thinking around a selection of recordings that the instructors admit are “subjective” and “slanted toward post-1965 African-American expressions.”


 
Instructors ?uestlove and Harry Weinger teaching the "Classic Albums" course at New York University on Monday (Photo: Jem Aswad)

Jason King, director of history and criticism studies, said the course was inspired by ?uestlove’s response to a blog written by an NPR intern that dismissed Public Enemy’s “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” (which, not coincidentally, is one of the albums covered by the class). 

“I challenged them, ‘I want you to go meta, to make students think about the canon [of classic albums] and what that means,’ ” King said. “Students need to think and communicate in more sophisticated ways about music, and they need to be able to articulate clearly.”

And in?uestlove (Roots drummer, musical director of Late Night With Jimmy Fallon and, as the syllabus states with no exaggeration, “a potent musical archivist and informal scholar”) and Harry Weinger (a former Billboard contributor whose day job is as a VP and Grammy-winning reissue producer at Universal, where he’s helmed many a classic James Brown reissue over the years), the program could have found few better instructors.

For the class’s fourth session, the subject is Michael Jackson’s “Off the Wall,” pivotal not just because it’s a groundbreaking album, but because it was the then 21-year-old Jackson’s declaration of independence after having spent his entire life mostly within the confines of the Jackson 5, and under the domineering tutelage of his manager/father, Joe.


 
The formidable wisdom and perspective of ?uestlove and Weinger are what make the class fascinating – but so is their access to multitracks of many of the albums (which also include Aretha Franklin’s “Lady Soul,” Prince’s “Dirty Mind,” Marvin Gaye’s “Here, My Dear,” Mary J. Blige’s “My Life,” Sly & the Family Stone’s “There’s a Riot Goin’ On,” De La Soul’s “3 Feet High and Rising” and the Beastie Boys’ “Paul’s Boutique”). Outside of recording studios, multitracks – aka “stems,” the individual instrumental and vocal tracks that make up the recordings – are usually the domain of “Classic Album” documentaries and multi-disc boxed sets, and in this kind of study, they’re unusually revealing for a number of reasons.

?uestlove cued up several unused instrumental tracks to illustrate the genius of Quincy Jones’ production oversight on “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough.”

“My observation of this record was not what went into but what was taken away from it,” he says. “This is universally regarded as a very timeless record … When I’m working with a client, I might have an idea of where I think the song should go, but just for good solidarity, so they don’t think you're a dictator, you might want to let them exhaust all their ideas. ‘A/B-ing’ means you try every idea under the sun and then you sit on it and come back to it, and if it sticks you use it; if it doesn’t, you do away with it. On these [unused] tracks are a lot of ideas that I’m shocked they even attempted: There’s theramin tracks, cheesy sirens, overdone disco string arrangements, overdone percussion.”

He plays rejected examples of all of the above, which would have carbon-dated the recording in the late 1970s as vividly as a bushy mustache or a rugby shirt.

“Michael Jackson had a lot of ideas and he probably wanted to use all of them. … I would like to have been there to see Quincy Jones talk Michael Jackson off the ledge. And sometimes Michael did win – Quincy to this day will say that he hated ‘Billie Jean.’ But clearly, underdoing it is the key to success here – understatement is the magic of it.”

A playful moment occurs during a demo recording of “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough,” where you hear teenaged Randy Jackson and a 10-year-old Janet yelling at Michael because the music is too loud in the headphones. That demo wasn’t just played for entertainment value: The rough version of the song illustrates Jackson’s rigorous preparation and work ethic, and shows how complete many of the titles from “Off the Wall” were before the final recordings even began.

Yet most fascinating was hearing four different takes of Jackson’s lead vocal on “She’s Out of My Life.” ?uest told the story that Jackson had recently broken up with Tatum O’Neill and was hurting at the time he recorded the song – and emphasized that he used that emotion for his art. Indeed, you hear Jackson weeping during a couple of the takes, one of them – the master – so much that he says, “I’m sorry I messed that up” at the end.

“When I see [videos of] the song on the ‘Bad’ tour or wherever he does it, it’s theater, but for this one moment, [you] see him as a human being," ?uestlove says. "I’m curious to see if the caricature that Michael Jackson morphed into is still in your head when you hear this record, or do these moments where he allows his human side to come through …  do you feel differently now that you’ve heard him in this way?”

And with that, Weinger concludes the class and moves on to their, ahem, homework assignment: “Catch up with your Public Enemy reading, and watch the videos…”

Questions? Comments? Let us know: @billboardbiz

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