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Nobody's been this excited about Jermaine Jackson in a very long time. "He dropped by and we spoke," gushes Algerian singer Cheb Nasro over lunch on Lincoln Road, recalling the fruits of a Los Angeles recording session in a studio owned by Jackson's long-time bassist. Apparently unaware that Jermaine Jackson -- let alone his bassist -- isn't exactly the most connected player in the music industry these days, Nasro continues. Thanks to the soaring vocal cameo of fellow Algerian singer Cheb Mami on Sting's "Desert Rose," Raimusic is back in vogue, and ol' Jermaine has hinted that a similarly styled duet featuring him and Nasro could be in the cards.
Confused by the nonchalance with which Kulchur seems to be taking the news of this career coup, Nasro repeats himself. Maybe Kulchur hasn't been listening closely. "I'm talking about Jermaine Jackson," he stresses, "the brother of [here his voice drops an octave] Michael Jackson."
It's not as though Nasro doesn't have other juicy anecdotes to offer. Back in Algeria during the early Nineties, he was one of that nation's most popular singers, selling hundreds of thousands of cassettes, performing on national television, and, he adds with a wistful gaze at the tables around him, constantly mobbed by fans whenever he ventured out to eat in a café. In 1995 his best friend and fellow singer Cheb Hasni was shot dead by Islamic fundamentalists. Continuing their jihad against what they considered blasphemous artists, the same gunmen then assassinated Nasro's frequent producer on the front steps of his studio. Fearing he was next, Nasro fled to a Parisian exile and eventually to Miami, though he returned to Algeria in disguise for Hasni's funeral.
Kulchur tries to explain that Nasro's own life story is immensely more interesting than the notion of riding Jermaine Jackson's coattails, but it's no use. Nasro is lost in a reverie for his teenage years, dancing around his bedroom to the Jackson 5's "ABC."
Of course if Nasro wants to bask in the presence of a Jackson, he hardly has to schlep all the way back to L.A. The King of Pop himself -- Michael Jackson -- currently is ensconced inside North Miami's The Hit Factory Criteria recording studio. Armed with this tidbit, Nasro no doubt would have jumped up from the table and commenced camping out just beyond the studio's fenced parking lot. This enduring fandom, even throughout the Third World, must be a comfort to the marketing executives at Michael Jackson's Sony record label, especially in light of the fact that the real story behind Jackson's arrival in Miami has nothing to do with a fresh round of creepy peccadilloes.
Forget about Bubbles the pet chimpanzee, that secret Presley wedding, plastic surgery, sleeping chambers, or even those troublesome whispers surrounding Jackson and his coterie of preteen "friends." Instead cast your eyes to The Hit Factory Criteria itself, where the endgame of an international pop icon's professional life is playing out. For nearly three years now, Jackson has been working on his new album. And working and working and working.
The gloved one has moved from studio to studio, hiring, firing, then rehiring some of the hottest producers in the music industry, meticulously laying down some 50 tracks, mixing, remixing, then scrapping song after song -- all in a quest to fashion the ultimate comeback. And though the project still isn't finished, it's already considered the most expensive album in music history.
Speaking to the press, Sony representatives have been calling the untitled record Jackson's best yet. And who knows? It could be. Remember the prerelease buzz on Titanic? The film supposedly was shaping up to be another Heaven's Gate, a wildly overbudget, career-killing turkey. Privately, however, Sony executives are anything but confident. Several have become practically apoplectic, watching in horror as millions of dollars disappear into the album's recording budget with no end in sight and no obvious hit single to show for all the trouble. At one heated label meeting, a screaming match reportedly broke out between a faction seeking to let Jackson head back into yet another studio -- this time to inject a more hip-hop, "street" feel -- and other execs who were ready simply to cut their losses. A source privy to the meeting explains the tension essentially revolves around the impossibility of controlling someone of Jackson's stature: "How do you say no to Michael Jackson? Hello? There are tribes in Africa that worship him as god! Do the words biggest pop sensation ever mean anything to you?"
Apparently such words don't mean much to Jackson's high-powered management team, The Firm (currently handling, among others, the Backstreet Boys and Limp Bizkit), which dumped him as a client in April. A spokesman for Jackson explained tersely: "It just didn't work out." But Firm staffers were said to be fuming at being continually ignored, with Jackson making business decisions that openly conflicted with their own plans for him. The final straw appeared to be the announcement of a Jackson family reunion concert at New York's Madison Square Garden this September -- a fete Jackson scheduled without consulting The Firm, and one the public hardly seems to have been clamoring for.