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," Rai music 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.
Part of the problem may be Jackson's own lack of focus. His mind seems to be everywhere but on his music. The past few months have seen him meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon; speaking as part of Kosher Sex author Rabbi Shmuley Boteach's Carnegie Hall panel dubbed "Love, Work, and Parenting"; and flying off to England to address the Oxford Union. On the last occasion he delivered a tearful speech describing his pained childhood. "There was no respite from my professional life," he told the spellbound crowd. "But on Sundays I would go pioneering,' the term used for the missionary work that Jehovah's Witnesses do. Since I was already a celebrity, I had to don a disguise of fat suit, wig, beard, and glasses, and we would spend the day in the suburbs of Southern California, going door to door or making the rounds of shopping malls, distributing our Watchtower magazine."
Less moved by this recollection was the array of musicians and engineers left twiddling their thumbs back at the high-priced studio Jackson had booked simultaneously -- on Sony's dime.
Most music-industry observers agree that if this next album (whose release date already has been announced and then pushed back several times) flops, it's all over for Jackson -- at least in terms of another major label willing to subsidize his whims. His 1982 smash Thriller may have sold 40 million copies worldwide, but recent history has been less kind. According to SoundScan, his last two releases -- 1995's HIStory Lesson and 1997's Blood on the Dance Floor -- have moved a comparatively embarrassing 1.4 million and 230,000 copies respectively.
Sony certainly seems ready to try the tough-love approach. Chairman and CEO Tommy Mottola was supposed to have arrived in town last week to meet with Jackson and give a firsthand listen to his latest batch of tapes. The scene he would have observed would be a far cry from Criteria's heyday in the Seventies, though. Gone are the ubiquitous lines of cocaine, chopped up on the mixing board, that powered Fleetwood Mac's Rumors. Also a distant memory are the whiskey- and smack-fueled all-night jam sessions that produced Eric Clapton's Layla. The current drug of choice these days is sugar, in the form of the chocolate bars 23-year-old production wunderkind Rodney Jerkins wolfs down as he shepherds Jackson through each take. And none of the studio's staff is impetuous enough to suggest he try a nice piece of fruit instead. In a shift that speaks to the changing nature of the industry itself, the real star here isn't Michael Jackson. It's Rodney Jerkins.
"These Sony guys from Japan had arrived, and they were just standing there, staring at me," recalls one figure involved with the Jackson sessions. Both Jerkins and Jackson were taking a break and had left the studio. "Finally one them says to me: Is this the studio Rodney works in?' I said yeah, and they start getting all excited. Then they ask me, Which chair does Rodney sit in when he's working?' So I point to his chair, and they're oohing and ahhing, staring at a chair. Finally they ask, May we sit in Rodney's chair?' So they each took turns sitting in the chair. I thought one of them was gonna have a heart attack!"
Jet-setting Japanese executives attempting to channel Jerkins's talent via ass-transference may be a bit odd, but the young man does seem to have a magic touch. Or at least a Midas touch.
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Over the past two years, Jerkins has been responsible for mammoth hits from the likes of Whitney Houston ("It's Not Right but It's Okay"), Brandy & Monica ("The Boy Is Mine"), Destiny's Child ("Say My Name"), and Jennifer Lopez ("If You Had My Love"). Beyond the Grammy Awards and the fat paychecks (Entertainment Weekly reports Jerkins now receives a million dollars per song), he has helped to define the very sound of today's pop, reducing most of these stars simply to voices grafted atop his work. For anyone who's heard Jennifer Lopez struggle to hit her high notes live, sans Jerkin's studio sweetening, his talent is obvious.
An individual close to the Jackson sessions recalls hearing Jerkins and his assistants humorously calculating their net worth, realizing they had more than three million dollars of customized automobiles parked in The Hit Factory Criteria parking lot. In that light, neither financial rewards nor the lure of stardom may provide much motivation anymore. For Jerkins -- who openly refers to himself as a "franchise player" instead of a producer and scorns peers such as Timbaland who moonlight as artists -- resuscitating Michael Jackson's career may be the last challenge left. He recently was overheard musing as much in the studio: "Where do you go after Michael Jackson? How am I going to top this?"
It's unclear if Michael Jackson is feeling the pressure. Security at The Hit Factory Criteria is quarantine-tight. In response to an interview request, one staffer politely laughed: "I'm here every day, and even I haven't seen him yet." Inside the studio, windows have been fogged over. When Jackson and his entourage arrive from the Turnberry Isle Resort & Club in Aventura, they're whisked through their own secure entrance.
But once the music starts, there's little haughtiness on display. "Michael's son spilled some popcorn on the floor," recalls one insider, remembering a recent day the five-year-old Prince tagged along to the studio. "And Michael insisted, It's my son who made the mess. I'll clean it up.' All I could think was, I'm watching Michael Jackson on his hands and knees cleaning up the floor. I don't think you'd see Madonna doing that."