Jimmy Jam Revisits the Making of New Edition’s Heart Break Album
By the end of the 1980s, New Edition had experienced numerous musical triumphs, lineup substitutions, and financial setbacks. After releasing platinum selling albums Candy Girl (1983) and All for Love (1985), multi-platinum selling New Edition (1984), and gold selling Under the Blue Moon (1986), they would launch themselves into another realm of superstardom with their next effort. On June 20th, 1988, Heart Break was released by MCA Records and it became they’re fifth highly successful album within the decade. The record would spawn five singles, including the hits “If It Isn’t Love,” “You’re Not My Kind of Girl,” “Can You Stand the Rain,” “Crucial,” and “N.E. Heartbreak.”
Behind the boards during recording were the titanic producing tandem of James “Jimmy Jam” Harris III and Terry Lewis. They played an integral role in the success of the album through their incorporation of groundbreaking production techniques. Heart Break encapsulated the maturity of the group both in their sound and appeal. As a result, it became the highest selling album for the group to date. For the album’s 25th anniversary, I spoke with Harris about recording this classic record.
How did you become involved with this New Edition project?
Well, it’s sort of an interesting story. What happened was we went into a meeting to talk with Jheryl Busby about his search for a male artist. He wanted to sign a male artist. He wanted to talk to us about who that male artist should it be and, if they signed him, would we produce him. So – we went into the meeting and he threw out a bunch of names of male artists that he thought were good or underrated. In our conversation, there was a name that was glaringly missing from his list. We told him we know of someone who fits the description you’re looking for. And we said, “Johnny Gill.” He said, “Wow. Johnny Gill. I didn’t even think about him. What is he up to?” I said to him, “He’s still singing and that he was what you were looking for because not only can he sing well, but he is really young.” He was much younger than the guys he was talking about to the other gentlemen in the room. The problem that Johnny Gill had was that he had a very mature voice, but he was a young guy. But then he grew into his voice. He said, “Well, that’s cool then. So if I sign Johnny, you guys will produce him.” We told him, “Sure. We’d love to do it.” This is where the beginning of the New Edition thing happened.
After this meeting, we actually ran into Johnny at a concert. Johnny came up to us and asked us how we were doing. I told him we looked forward to working with him and he said, “Yea, working together on that New Edition album is going to be great. We asked, “The New Edition record?” He said, “Yea. I’m part of the group now.” We called Busby and asked him, “What is up with the New Edition thing?” He told us, “Isn’t it great! We put Johnny with New Edition and you guys can work together with the group.” The cool thing was that we were huge fans of New Edition. The first time we heard their record “Candy Girl” was when we were on tour with our group The Time. We were in the club and when the DJ put the record on, we were like, “Who is that?” He told us it was a group called New Edition. I loved them. I recognized the name Maurice Starr because I was a DJ while producing music in my younger days. I remember his name because Maurice Starr had a single out that I really liked and it worked really well in my club. We went to some of their shows and the guys were really cool. We worked with them on a song called “Helplessly in Love” for the Dragnet soundtrack. So – we were familiar with the guys and we knew each other and we all got along. It was fantastic. We had no idea Johnny was going to be a part of the group. This was our introduction to knowing that he was going to be a part of the group.
Coming off their previous album Under the Blue Moon, the performance of it was lackluster compared to their other albums. They were going through multiple changes with Bobby Brown leaving the group and making the transition from a quartet to a quintet again when Johnny Gill joined the group. What type of direction were you trying to go in with their sound because they were growing up?
The first thing we did before coming up with song concepts was have a meeting with the guys. The biggest hurdle in doing the record wasn’t the songwriting process — it was getting everyone on the same page psychologically. We had everyone come to Minneapolis. I remember we were still in our first Flyte Tyme studio up there. And we sat in the conference room and had a meeting. We heard that there was this underlying tension in the group. We found out that two of the guys were for Johnny being in the group and the other two weren’t. We wanted everyone to talk it out and we wanted to make them understand our vision for the group. With all of them there, we said, “Johnny, we just feel like it’s Ralph’s group. Ralph is the lead singer. He’s going to be doing all the lead vocals and we’re not planning on having you sing any leads. How do you feel about that?” Johnny said, “Hey man, I’m a team player. Whatever you need me to do, I’m here to do it. I know it’s Ralph’s group and I’m fine with that. These guys have been doing it for years. I’m not coming in trying to change anything that they’re doing. I’m just here to compliment what they’re doing.”
And as soon as Johnny said that, the resistance from the two that were against him being in the group turned into them wanting him in the group. Obviously, we were going to have Johnny singing on the record. We didn’t prompt him to say that. We just wanted the group to know that Johnny was in as a true member of the group. That was literally the biggest hurdle. So – once that happened, we were good to go. When we started, the focus was to make songs that really lent themselves to the harmonies of the group. I thought their harmonies were always underrated in the music they had done previously. We wanted to really enhance their harmonies. We wanted to do songs that kept the fun in the music because whenever I heard New Edition songs, they would always put a smile on my face. Just because they were growing up didn’t mean they couldn’t have songs that would put a smile on someone’s face.
For instance, when we started making songs like “If It Isn’t Love,” it was the idea of still having fun with more mature lyrics and vocals because their voices changed a little bit. We just mainly wanted to keep the fun in the music and give people the feeling that we got when we first heard “Candy Girl.” We wanted people to feel when they heard “If It Isn’t Love,” that same feeling. In my mind, it was important that we would establish Johnny in some way. As we were making the record, we knew in our minds the sequence of singles that would come off the record. If you listen to “If It Isn’t Love,” you can’t detect Johnny’s voice at all in the song and that was on purpose. When you get to the second single “You’re Not My Kind of Girl,” then you started hearing Johnny’s voice, but a little more in the background. By the time we got to “Can You Stand the Rain,” it was basically a duet. This was the song that introduced him as part of New Edition and that was done on purpose too. The coolest thing about “Can You Stand the Rain” was Ralph and Johnny working together. We really made sure they were comfortable with what was going on. I remember they turned into the best of friends when we were making this record because they were the mutual admiration society.
Who was responsible in coming up with the harmonies and melodies for the songs on this album?
Well, the way we would do backgrounds is that Ralph would do every single background on the record and then the guys would go in and fill in their parts. They would sing the notes that Ralph already sang so it would have that true New Edition sound to it. We couldn’t shortcut it. We couldn’t tell Ralph to just go and do the backgrounds. We had to have all their voices and we found that out early on. The way that they sound is they all need to sing it. Ralph would be the one to put all the guide vocals down and make sure everyone was singing the right part. Now that’s very meticulous work. Johnny would sit down next to us and just shake his head and say, “I don’t know how that guy can do that. How is he hearing those harmonies? I couldn’t do all that.” And when Johnny would go into sing, everything with him was always first take. Johnny could never remember more than two words at a time. We could have the lyrics right in front of him, but we would tell him not to focus on the lyrics just memorize the line. Johnny would nail everything on the first take with feeling and everything. And Ralph would sit there at the board and say, “How does Johnny do that? I don’t get it.” So – they both appreciated what the other one could do. I think the fact those two were tightly knit fed energy into the whole album. The recording of the record was really fun.
What was involved in the recording process to make the album sound as great as it did?
I’ll tell you one technical thing we did with the record. At our studio, we had a 24 track analog machine and that’s how everything was recorded in those days. When we started recording with New Edition, we started recording with a 48 track analog machine; meaning we had to link two machines together. It was because we had so many vocals on them that we couldn’t fit it onto a 24 track tape. We actually took a space in our studio that was a garage and converted it into a second tiny studio — so that we could do New Edition songs. They were the catalyst for making that happen. We would be in both studios doing stuff. The guys had so much energy and they were really into it.
Earlier you spoke of the creative dynamic between Ralph and Johnny during the making of this record. Can you delve into the creative dynamic that existed between the remaining three members as well as yourself and Terry Lewis?
First of all, you have to have every member of New Edition engaged and involved. Ronnie was a great filter of ideas besides his singing. He would be the one if you had an idea or a lyric and you ran it past him, he would tell you it was wack. He was an arbiter of good taste. He would always be the one to tell us if someone wasn’t giving 100 percent. He contributed big time. Ricky was a really underrated singer. We always knew Ricky could bring it home. I’d like to think of him as the cleanup hitter. In Boyz II Men, Wanya is the cleanup guy. He would always be the last one to sing at the end of a song, but in New Edition, Ricky holds the same position but in a different way. He’s not necessarily the homerun hitter, but in every memorable New Edition song he has that one line people will sing along to. We knew that from listening to their old recordings.
We’re big into studying a group’s work. If they’ve recorded previous albums, we’re all over it. We’re trying to figure out what made it work, what made it unique, and what we can we do incorporate those elements into whatever we’re doing that’s new. Bivins was just a great conceptual idea guy. He’s like the one where there’s a pause in “Can You Stand The Rain?” and he said, “Jam, right here I should say something like come on baby, let’s go get wet.” I told him let’s do that, but it was like a hundred takes of doing it because he kept wanting to do it over and over again. From a concept perspective, he gets it. All these guys are just incredible and they had this bond of growing up together. I think people feel the same way when Terry and I are in a room together and we’re talking about things we know. They’re the same way. The fact that they let us and Johnny into the group was really important to the way the record ended up sounding. For this album, Terry handled the lyrical side and we split the melody 50/50 and I did all the tracks. Jellybean Johnson did a song called “Crucial” for this album, which was pretty cool. And the guys contributed a couple songs for the album too.
You talked about the technical aspects of shifting from a 24 track to a 48 track. What were some of the other things you and Terry Lewis incorporated during the course of the album?
We used a lot of different drum machines. I think that was the first time we used an SP-1200. It was a very popular drum machine with New York hip-hop producers and we wanted some of that East Coast presence on the record. So — a lot of the sonic choices we made were along those lines. Hip-hop was a huge influence at that point in time. We wanted to meld hip-hop into some of the smooth R&B sounds. And they were the perfect group to do it. For instance, when we did “N.E. Heartbreak,” that was a whole thing where each of them wanted to tell their own story whether they wanted to sing or rap it. I think, for us, it was just matter of us incorporating that because they always had that type of swagger any way.
Take me into the creative process of making each track on the album.
“If It Isn’t Love” started out as a track idea that was kind of taking the swing from “Candy Girl” and the records from back then, which I always thought was the definitive New Edition beat. We just contemporized it using newer sounds. I remember the bass line on that song is sort of a derivative of the bass sound that we used on Janet Jackson’s song “Nasty.” We thought it would be cool to have that bass line. We just wanted to make a classic chorus. I remember Terry came up with the lyric and melody for the beginning of the song because I didn’t have any ideas for that. The melody for the rest of the song was my idea and lyrically that was all Terry.
With “Where It All Started,” we wanted to have a song that talked about where it all started for the group. We thought they were a group that had a very interesting journey. I remember the drums we used on that song. We wanted it to have an East Coast hip-hop feel on the drums. I got this new Sequential Circuits Drum Machine and it had big pads on it where you could play them with actual drumsticks. That’s the way I did that. I grew up as a drummer and then Terry told me I was going to be keyboard player. [laughs] But I still had a lot of rhythm. I remember hooking this thing up to these pads. The drums on there aren’t actually sequenced.
On “N.E. Heartbreak,” we would always sit around and tell stories from our times on the road. We would tell stories about our touring days with The Time and they would tell touring stories about New Edition. We decided to turn that into a song where everyone could talk about their concert or tour experiences in a fun way. Bivins was a big inspiration on that song. He was very clear on what the messages on the song should be. We wanted to keep it fun and energetic. It just fit in well overall with what we were trying to do on the record.
“You’re Not My Kind of Girl” was very much a singing group type of song. This song goes back to my singing group days. This was a song that you could hear The Whispers doing. I thought lyrically it was really cool. It was another one of the songs that came from our conversations. So many of the songs that we write for all of the artists we work with come from conversations with them. We thought it was an interesting lyrical concept. The chord changes in that song were pretty sophisticated, but the guys really got with it and created great harmonies on it. This is one of my favorite records.
“Can You Stand the Rain” was musically and sonically reaching back to the days of The Stylistics. In my mind, we had to do something like their song “You Make Me Feel Brand New” to introduce Ralph and Johnny together. The whole idea was to create a song that would have a lasting impact to make people say, “Oh man, that’s New Edition!”
On “Boys to Men,” Terry started working on some lyrics to talk about their journey from being boys to becoming men. We felt that this song should be the last song on the album and it should be Johnny’s song. We thought Johnny could sing it from an observer’s point of view and from the point of view of now being in the group. We felt it could be his showcase on the record. So – all the guys were with it. Bivins loved the idea. When we did the song, we showed the concept of it to Johnny and he said, “I’m not really feeling it.” We told him to give it a shot. We thought it could be a pivotal song on the album. This was during the time when album concepts were still important and in the sequence they were told. He went in and sang the song and it sounded great. Even though he didn’t like the song, he was still going to give you his all when he got behind a microphone. I remember when the guys walked into the studio and heard the song, they thought Johnny was killing it. After the guys laid down their background vocals, Johnny was really starting to feel the song. So – he recorded his vocals again and he killed it even more. This song is the reason why the group Boyz II Men has their name.
How do you feel about the impact this album has made on popular culture twenty-five years later?
I see the impact of this album on popular culture when you go to a New Edition concert. A New Edition concert is like a must see event. It’s like a family reunion. We never miss a New Edition show when they’re out in LA. There are people we only see at New Edition concerts. What we have in common is a love for the group. I just think there’s something special about that. I think the album marks a special point in the group’s history. It’s the beginning of the second phase of their careers. Heart Break really solidified where they were at in terms of their career at that time. It served as bridge to where they are now as artists. It’s a really important album culturally.