Lopez at her debut-album release party in 1999.
Lopez at her debut-album release party in 1999.
Richard Corkery/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

Jennifer Lopez's 'On the 6' Turns 20: J.Lo, Tommy Mottola & Her Collaborators Look Back

When former Fly Girl Jennifer Lopez decided she wanted to pursue a proper music career, she was just coming off her starring role as Selena Quintanilla-PĂ©rez in the 1997 musical biopic Selena. But she faced plenty of skeptics -- even after landing a record deal with Sony. “She wasn’t hearing it, though," says longtime manager Benny Medina. "It would be like, wait a minute, don't you understand? This is a girl that popped off In Living Color to become Selena -- why would you ever second guess she couldn't step out there and be J.Lo?"

Although some were wary, there were early believers – and influential ones. Once former Sony Music Entertainment chief executive Tommy Mottola heard her demo, he immediately brought her in to sign a contract. "I didn't know what to ask for," Lopez says now, speaking from a rehearsal in Los Angeles for her upcoming hits-filled It's My Party summer tour (it kicks off at the Forum on June 7). "I was so young and clueless at the time, so I said, 'I want an A-list deal like all the big stars,'" she recalls. "There's something about being that young -- there's a little bit of ignorance that goes with it, because you don't know what's going to happen and so you have all these lofty ideas."

Her naivete paid off. She inked a deal with Mottola at Sony, and her debut album, On the 6 -- released 20 years ago this June 1 -- was an immediate smash. "We had everybody who was anybody writing for the project," says Mottola. "It was every great producer and hot writer at the time."

That included songwriter and producer Rodney Jerkins, fresh off the Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 smash "The Boy Is Mine" by Brandy & Monica. "I didn't sense any fear in her," Jerkins recalls. "We knew that if we delivered the right song she could bring it home." 

And she did. J.Lo's debut single "If You Had My Love" shot to No. 1 on the Hot 100 one month after its release and stayed on top for five weeks. It was also the No. 2 contender for Song of Summer in 1999, behind only Christina Aguilera’s "Genie In A Bottle.” "The whole experience was like a fairytale, watching the princess become a queen," says "Love" co-writer and On the 6 co-executive producer Cory Rooney. "And I felt like her knight."

“If You Had My Love” wasn’t the only hit off the album. Her Spanish-language duet with future husband Marc Anthony, "No Me Ames," topped the Hot Latin Songs chart, and her club classic "Waiting for Tonight" hit the Hot 100’s top 10. On the 6 itself moved 1.9 million units in the U.S. in 1999, according to Nielsen Music, and has since sold another million. "[The album] showed us that Jennifer was going to go way past what our expectations were," Mottola says. "She was relentless as a worker. Always on time, always pleasant, and unlike a lot of people, very grateful and thankful."

"The combination of Jennifer Lopez and what was the Sony powerhouse machinery then and the quality of that music -- it all hit the marks," Medina says. "You felt it instantly. Every time she walked on a video set, it felt so magical. The truth of the matter is we're in a business of magic, and that period in time and that group of people and the intensity and effort were magic. All the stars lined up."

As for Lopez herself, there was never a doubt in her mind that it would work out. "I just followed my gut,” she says. “It is exactly what it was supposed to be for that moment. I'm proud of it and it set off an amazing journey for me musically that I'm still on today, and I couldn't be more grateful."

On its 20th anniversary, J.Lo, Mottola, Medina, Jerkins and Rooney are sharing memories of some key tracks from her blockbuster debut.

"Talk About Us"

"Talk About Us" was the first song recorded for the album, even though its writer was one of the last people to meet with Lopez when Mottola was introducing her to industry players at his office. Thanks to his car breaking down in a torrential downpour and temporarily being stranded on a bridge into Manhattan, Rooney arrived at Mottola's office late to meet with Lopez.

Rooney: I was so soaking wet to the bone [that day]. The leather bomber coat I had, I threw in the trash the moment I got there. So I got late to the party. But Tommy had a piano in his lounge, and we're all talking -- the songwriters, Diane Warren and everybody -- and I sing a song I had started writing.

Lopez: From Babyface to Diane Warren to David Foster, they all came in to meet me, and the last person who came in late [was Rooney]. He was soaking wet, and he was sitting at the piano playing when we came out. He was playing a song he had just written the day before called "Talk About Us," and I was like, "I really like that, that's pretty," and Tommy was like, "You guys go into the studio tomorrow and record it." And that was my first experience in a recording studio. It was fast.

Rooney: My first impression of her was that she was probably the hungriest artist I had ever worked with or encountered. She wanted it so bad. She didn't know what to expect so she dressed really comfortably [for that session] -- nice, but comfortable. It was like nice, elegant comfortable clothes, and she was really mellow. I don't think she was expecting to come out with a song completed that night, but we did. We took our time. At the time, she didn't feel comfortable as a vocalist, but it was something she had always wanted in her heart to do. So I immediately took on the position: "You know what? I'm gonna help you do it. I'm going to help you achieve this goal mainly because you want it, and your attitude is 1000% better than most of the artists who have been given this blessing of a record deal and come in and act like they barely want to get in the vocal booth."

Lopez: He was like, "You have a really beautiful voice, you just need to have confidence and let it out." Cory was a great writing partner for me, producing partner for me, and a great mentor – I don't think he gets enough credit as a producer and artist with the guidance he gave to me and so many other artists. We had a very special relationship and we still do.

"If You Had My Love"

Sultry, confident yet vulnerable, the alluring "If You Had My Love" was Jennifer Lopez's debut single, and a Hot 100 chart-topper. But before it established Lopez as a rising star to watch, the song's writers almost accidentally gave it to the King of Pop.

Jerkins: [Mottola told me], "I have this artist who I believe will be a superstar really soon," and he was looking for that breakthrough first single record. And me, at the time, it was like, "I get it. Let me go to the studio and create what I feel." After studying a little bit and talking to him about it, and him playing me other songs she'd already recorded with Cory, I went into the studio and created. And myself and my team and Cory Rooney wrote this song called "If You Had My Love."

Lopez: They would play me songs and I would say which ones I like. And luckily, I had an ear for good pop music. The minute I heard "If You Had My Love," I knew, "I love that, I want to do that." It was simple.

Jerkins: I started with the music first, because I wanted to make sure Tommy and everyone liked the music first. From what I understand, I wasn't in that meeting, but the day I sent the track in to Tommy and Cory Rooney, they were in the office with Michael [Jackson].

Rooney: Michael's listening to [various] tracks, and when he gets to that track I'm crossing my fingers going, "oh my god, I hope he doesn't like it." But instead – Rodney wasn't in the room – but Michael starts going, "Oh, I like this one." I'm glad because he likes it, but I felt it wasn't a good Michael song -- it was a great Jennifer song. So my heart is sinking. He goes, "Man, I like this one," but then he looks at me, "But not for me! But man, this will be a great record for somebody." And I just, I celebrated to myself quietly. Then we ran back to the studio, immediately, and LaShawn Daniels, he and I were in the studio, Jennifer met us that day, and we started putting together those lyrics.

Jerkins: It was always meant for Jennifer. It wasn't meant for anyone else but Jennifer.

Mottola: We wanted everything to be perfect. I think we did a pretty good job.

Jerkins: It's a song that forever will be played.

"Waiting for Tonight"

A dance-pop diversion on an album full of R&B, hip-hop and Latin influences, this iconic club track hit No. 8 on the Hot 100 and remains one of her best-loved songs. On the 6 also included a Spanish-language version of the song, "Una Noche Mas."

Mottola: It was the one song that was not sort of an urban song. She really loved the song when it came in, and we all felt like, yeah, it's the odd man out, it's the thumb sticking up, but you never know. If we get lucky, this could break through and give us a whole other universe. And lucky enough, we were able to use it at precisely the right time and it did the trick.

Lopez: I grew up on freestyle music [a Latin music-indebted dance subgenre especially popular in the Bronx]. My whole thing was when Puffy, who also contributed to the album with "Feelin' So Good," and was kind of a mentor to me during that time as well, he said, "You have that Latin soul, and you can never go away from that. Just be who you are." He always reminded me of that: "There's nobody like you, you gotta be that girl from the Bronx. That's who you are, don't let them change you into something else." That went into not just the music, like a song like "Waiting for Tonight," but went into the styling of who I was. I was like, "No, I want to wear big hoops, I want to put my baby hairs down, I don't care if it's not fashionable in the big magazines." There were certain things I stuck to.

"Feelin' So Good"

The most heavily hip-hop-indebted song on the album, "Feelin' So Good" featured verses from Fat Joe and Big Pun; sadly, the latter died just weeks after its release. Sean "Puffy" Combs produced and co-wrote the track. Before the recording of On the 6 was over, Combs and Lopez would become an item, although Rooney says it never interfered with her drive in the studio.  

Rooney: The track, I shouldn't even say this, originally, the actual track for that – not the music, not the lyrics, but the actual track – was originally done for Mariah Carey by Diddy. She rejected it, Mariah. She didn't like the track. So those things become tracks that I have, Puffy has, and when you work with artists as a producer, you don't throw it away because one artist doesn't want it – you pitch it again. So he pitched it to Jennifer, or maybe I did. It was like a more broken-down version of the song. Then we sent what we wrote to Diddy, he embellished, build the track up even more once he realized there was interest. That track bounced back and forth. Lyrically, Jennifer and I, it was based on most of her days, how she feels.

Lopez: People interpret things because of what you want to put forward. I was actually going through a little hard time at that time, and I was like, "I’m going to write a happy song." I sat down [to write the lyrics] and to the beat that set it off, I decided to write "Feelin' So Good": "When I opened up my eyes today / felt the sun shining on my face / it became so clear to me / that everything is going my way." It's those songs you need when things are not going good, and that's what that was born from. I was having a few hard days for whatever reason and was like, "I'm going to write a song I can hear when I'm not feeling good that will put me in a good mood." That's "Feelin' So Good."

Rooney: Diddy always gave us our space to work, but then of course, at that time, it was her boyfriend. Which was funny, because at the beginning of the album, not only was he not her boyfriend, but she wasn't even interested. At all. She was like "oh my god please, he doesn't have a shot." You know, but after a few cheat codes he was given, he figured it out. And so yeah, he gave us our space. He was more around for the second album.

Medina: Puffy is the type of manager/producer/artist/entrepreneur who could very well see her potential, and I think he fell in love with that as much as he did her.

"No Me Ames" with Marc Anthony

A cover of a hit Italian song translated into Spanish, "No Me Ames" teamed Lopez with future husband Marc Anthony and gave her a smash on the Latin charts: The song topped both the Hot Latin Songs and Tropical Songs charts; it appears on On the 6 as both "Ballad Version" and "Tropical Remix."

Lopez: Cory had just worked with Marc, and Marc and I had just met. Cory was like, "You and Marc should do a record together, let's call him and see if he wants to do it." He came by the studio and we played him some of the stuff we were doing, he was like, "okay, okay," and I was such a huge fan of his music in Spanish, and I was like, "Maybe we should do something in Spanish, I just love your music." He was like "let me think about it." He left the studio, and literally five minutes after he left, he called and said, "I have the song for us, it's an old Italian song called 'Non Amarmi' -- and we can translate it into Spanish, do it as a ballad and do it as a salsa record.

Mottola: Just look at the video. There was magic all over the place. The guy is the best singer in the world in his game. We were constantly conscious of the global market and paying attention to the Latin roots as well as urban and pop. We knew would have multi-formatted music that would really gain all audiences and we wanted to take advantage of that. For me it started with Gloria Estefan and breaking her as a global artist as opposed to a regional artist with a pop hit with "Conga." Jennifer was really the next one. Shakira had come right after that, and then Ricky [Martin], and then Marc Anthony. I was laser-focused on the Latin. [I thought], "With all this talent and great singing and entertaining ability, why aren't these people global superstars?" We needed to create every vehicle possible to get them the opportunity. That was the goal and luckily it worked out.

Lopez: Tommy and Cory, they really gave me the confidence. Even meeting Marc on that first album, and me looking up to him so much as a singer, and him saying, "You have a beautiful voice, don't be scared"; they could tell I was insecure but there was something there and they wanted to bring it out in me. And we did through the process of making the album.

"Let's Get Loud"

Co-written by Gloria Estefan, one of Lopez's influences, the salsa-indebted party-starter has since become an anthem at sports games.

Mottola: That one is funny. That one was like a demo, it's not much of a song, it's really more of a chant. We used that particular, I'll call it a chant, to do a screen test with her for lighting for different video directors. Now you hear cheerleaders do it at football games – it's become an anthem at sports event. I'm happy and proud about that.

"Shoud've Never"

The second track on On the 6, this adult contemporary-oriented ballad from Lopez's pen actually pre-dates the album recording process.

Medina: Before she had recorded a note of this first album [she had demos], a mix of English and Spanish language. But there was one in particular that struck me, and I never forget it; I always think about it because she had written it, and I've always encouraged her to do more writing because she's a really profound thinker. It was a great personal reflection of who she was. That song was "Should've Never" and I still remember hearing it. I was like, "wow, you wrote that?" That ultimately was what she went into the room asking writers to do -- to tell a story relevant to who she is and is seen as.

"It's Not That Serious"

A rollicking, confident hip-shaker that plays to her Latin roots, "It's Not That Serious" came out of the home of another pop icon.

Jerkins: Myself and a guy named Loren Dawson, we were actually working out of Whitney Houston's house. Whitney Houston had a studio in her house and I was working there, I had rented her guest house for a whole month. And my thing was I wanted to create as many tracks as possible while there. And we went into this Latin flavor type of vibe one day and I was like, this could work with Jennifer as well. So I sent it over and everybody agreed. That was Jennifer's idea to give it some Spanish [lyrics] on top. It wasn't demo'd that way, she added that.

On the 6: Tim Robbins' Role In Naming the Record

Lopez: I was thinking of all these different names for my album. My agent at the time, who is now my producing partner, Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas, represented Tim [Robbins] at the time as well. I would be at the studio 'til all hours of the night, and one night I went to her apartment -- she was like, "I'm having a few people over, come over." And Tim was there, he was in the backroom, and I went back there, and we sat for a second. I said, "I'm trying to name my album right now," and he was like, "Where did you grow up?" I was like "I grew up in the Bronx." And he was like, "How did you get there, from the Bronx to where you are now? How did that happen, what was that journey like?" And I said very innocently, "well, on the 6," and he said, "well, that's the name of your album." I was like, "You think so?" And he was like, "Yeah, it has so many meanings to it." It was a clever thing, and I was like, yeah, I think I like that. The next day I went in and told Tommy "yeah, I'm gonna name the album On the 6 -- the 6 train [a New York subway line that runs from the Bronx to Manhattan]." And that was that.

A version of this article originally appeared in the June 1 issue of Billboard.