(Originally ran in EBONY Magazine, December
Sitting on the sofa next to Michael Jackson, you quickly look
past the enigmatic icon´s light, almost translucent skin
and realize that this African-American legend is more than just
skin deep. More than an entertainer, more than a singer or dancer,
the grown-up father of three reveals a confident, controlled
and mature man who has a lot of creativity left inside him.
Michael Joseph Jackson rocked the music world in December 1982,
when he exploded on the pop scene with Thriller, the rich, rhythmic,
infectious album that introduced many Whites to a talent that
most Blacks had known for decades, and shattered nearly every
industry record on the planet. The historic project was yet
another, albeit giant, step in a musical career that began 18
years earlier, at age 6, with his brothers in the Jackson 5.
In his first U.S. magazine interview in a decade and on the
25th anniversary of Thriller, Jackson sat down with Ebony magazine
for a rare, intimate and exclusive conversation about the creation
of Thriller, the historic Motown 25 performance, being a father,
the state of the music industry and the force behind his creativity.
Here is Michael Jackson, in his own words
Q: How did it all start?
A: Motown was preparing to do this movie called The Wiz
and Quincy Jones happened to be the man who was doing the music.
Now, I had heard of Quincy before. When I was in Indiana as
a child, my father used to buy jazz albums, so I knew him as
a jazz musician.
So after we had made this moviewe had gotten pretty close
on the film, too; he helped me understand certain words, he
was really father-likeI called him after the movie, out
of complete sincerity´cause I´m a shy person,
ESPECIALLY then, I used to not even look at people when they
were talking to me, I´m not jokingand I said, I´m
ready to do an album. Do you think
could you recommend
anybody who would be interested in producing it with me or working
with me? He paused and said, Why don´t you
let ME do it? I said to myself, I don´t know
why I didn´t think of that. Probably because I was
thinking that he was more my father, kind of jazzy. So after
he said that, I said, WOW, that would be great.
What´s great about working with Quincy, he let´s
you do your thing. He doesn´t get in the way.
So the first thing I came to him with was from Off the Wall,
our first album, and Rod Temperton came in the studio, and he
came with this killerhe´s this little German guy
from Wurms, Germanyhe comes with this
dakka dakka doop, dakka dakka dakka doop, this whole melody
and chorus, Rock With You. I go, WOW! So when I heard that,
I said, OK, I really have to work now. So every
time Rod would present something, I would present something,
and we´d form a little friendly competition. I love working
like that. I used to read how Walt Disney used to, if they were
working on Bambi or an animated show, they´d put a deer
in the middle of the floor and make the animators kind of compete
with different styles of drawing. Whoever had the most stylized
effect that Walt liked, he would pick that. They would kind
of compete, it was like a friendly thing, but it was competition,
´cause it breeds higher effort. So whenever Rod would
bring something, I would bring something, then he would bring
something, then I would bring something else. We created this
Q: So, after Off the Wall, in the spring of ´82, you
went back in the studio to work on Thriller.
A: After Off the Wall, we had all these No. 1 hits from
it Don´t Stop ´Til You Get Enough,
Rock With You, She´s Out of My Life,
Workin´ Day and Nightand we were nominated
for a Grammy award, but I was just not happy with how the whole
thing happened because I wanted to do much more, present much
more, put more of my soul and heart in it.
Q: Was it a transition point for you?
A: A COMPLETE transition. Ever since I was a little boy,
I would study composition. And it was Tchaikovsky that influenced
me the most. If you take an album like Nutcracker Suite, every
song is a killer, every one. So I said to myself, Why
can´t there be a pop album where every
used to do an album where you´d get one good song, and
the rest were like B-sides. They´d call them album
songs and I would say to myself, Why can´t
every one be like a hit song? Why can´t every song be
so great that people would want to buy it if you could release
it as a single? So I always tried to strive for that.
That was my purpose for the next album. That was the whole idea.
I wanted to just put any one out that we wanted. I worked hard
Q: So, the creative process, were you deliberate about that,
or did it just kind of happen?
A: No, I was pretty deliberate. Even though it all came
together some kind of way, consciously, it was created in this
universe, but once the right chemistry gets in the room, magic
has to happen. It has to. It´s like putting certain elements
in one hemisphere and it produces this magic in the other. It´s
science. And getting in there with some of the great people,
it´s just wonderful.
Quincy calls me a nickname, Smelly. Smelly came
from and [Steven] Spielberg calls me that, too. Back then,
especially back then I say a few swear words nowbut
especially then, you couldn´t get me to swear. So I would
say, ´That´s a smelly song.´ That
would mean, ´It´s so great´ that you´re
engrossed in it. So he would call me ´Smelly.´
But yeah, working with Quincy was such a wonderful thing. He
lets you experiment, do your thing, and he´s genius enough
to stay out of the way of the music, and if there´s an
element to be added, he´ll add it. And he hears these
little things. Like, for instance, in Billie Jean,
I had come up with this piece of the bass lick, and the melody,
and the whole composition. But in listening, he´ll add
a nice riff
We would work on a track and then we´d meet at his house,
play what we worked on, and he would say, ´Smelly, let
it talk to you.´ I´d go, ´OK.´ He´d
say, ´If the song needs something, it´ll tell you.
Let it talk to you.´ I´ve learned to do that. The
key to being a wonderful writer is not to write. You just get
out of the way. Leave room for God to walk in the room.
And when I write something that I know is right, I get on my
knees and say thank you. Thank you, Jehovah!
Q: When´s the last time you had that feeling?
A: Well, recently. I´m always writing. When you know
it´s right, sometimes you feel like something´s
coming, a gestation, almost like a pregnancy or something. You
get emotional, and you start to feel something gestating and,
magic, there it is! It´s an explosion of something that´s
so beautiful, you go, WOW! There it is. That´s how it
works through you. It´s a beautiful thing. It´s
a universe of where you can go, with those 12 notes
(He´s now listening to an early, writing version of
Billie Jean playing on an iPhone
What I do when I write is that I´ll do a raggedy,
rough version just to hear the chorus, just to see how much
I like the chorus. If it works for me that way when it´s
raggedy, then I know it´ll work
Listen to that,
that´s at home. Janet, Randy, me
Janet and I are
going Whoo, Whoo
I do that,
the same process with every song. It´s the melody, the
melody is most important. If the melody can sell me, if I like
the rough, then I´ll go to the next step. If it sounds
good in my head, it´s usually good when I do it. The idea
is to transcribe from what´s in your mentality onto tape.
If you take a song like Billie Jean, where the bass
line is the prominent, dominant piece, the protagonist of the
song, the main driving riff that you hear, getting the character
of that riff to be just the way you want it to be, that takes
a lot of time. Listen, you´re hearing four basses on there,
doing four different personalities, and that´s what gives
it the character. But it takes a lot of work.
Q: Another big moment was the Motown 25 performance
A: I was at the studio editing Beat It, and for some reason
I happened to be at Motown Studios doing itI had long
left the company. So they were getting ready to do something
with the Motown anniversary, and Berry Gordy came by and asked
me did I want to do the show, and I told him ´NO.´
I told him no. I said no because the Thriller thing, I was building
and creating something I was planning to do, and he said, ´But
it´s the anniversary
´ So this is what I said
to him. I said, ´I will do it, but the only way I´ll
do it is if you let me do one song that´s not a Motown
song.´ He said, ´What is it?´ I said, ´Billie
Jean´. He said, ´OK, fine.´ I said, ´You´ll
really let me do Billie Jean? He said, ´Yeah.´
So I rehearsed and choreographed and dressed my brothers, and
picked the songs, and picked the medley. And not only that,
you have to work out all the camera angles.
I direct and edit everything I do. Every shot you see is my
shot. Let me tell you why I have to do it that way. I have five,
no, six cameras. When you´re performingand I don´t
care what kind of performance you are givingif you don´t
capture it properly, the people will never see it. It´s
the most selfish medium in the world. You´re filming WHAT
you want people to see, WHEN you want them to see it, HOW you
want them to see it, what JUXTAPOSITION you want them to see.
You´re creating the totality of the whole feeling of what´s
being presented, in your angle and your shots. ´Cause
I know what I want to see. I know what I want to go to the audience.
I know what I want to come back. I know the emotion that I felt
when I performed it, and I try to recapture that same emotion
when I cut and edit and direct´.
Q: How long have you been creating all of those elements?
A: Since I was a little boy, with my brothers. My father
used to say, ´Show ´em Michael, show ´em.´
Q: Did they ever get jealous of that?
A: They never showed it at the time, but it must have been
hard, because I would never get spanked during rehearsals or
practice. [Laughter] But afterwards was when I got in trouble.
[Laughter]. It´s true, that´s when I would get it.
My father would rehearse with a belt in his hand. You couldn´t
mess up. My father was a genius when it comes to the way he
taught us, staging, how to work an audience, anticipating what
to do next, or never let the audience know if you are
suffering, or if something´s going wrong. He was
amazing like that.
Q: Is that where you think you got not just a lot of your
business sense, but how to control the whole package?
A: Absolutely. My father, experience; but I learned a lot
from my father. He had a group when he was a young person called
the Falcons. They came over and they played music, all the time,
so we always had music and dancing. It´s that cultural
thing that Black people do. You clear out all the furniture,
turn up the music
when company comes, everybody gets out
in the middle of the floor, you gotta do something. I loved
Q: Do your kids do that now?
A: They do, but they get shy. But they do it for me, sometimes.
Q: Speaking of showmanship: MTV, they didn´t play Black
folks. How hard was that for you?
A: They said they don´t play [Black artists]. It broke
my heart, but at the same time it lit something. I was saying
to myself, ´I have to do something where they
just refuse to be ignored.´ So yeah, Billie Jean,
they said, ´We won´t play it.´
But when they played it, it set the all-time record. Then they
were asking me for EVERYTHING we had. They were knocking our
door down. Then Prince came, it opened the door for Prince and
all the other Black artists. It was 24-hour heavy metal, just
a potpourri of crazy images
They came to me so many times in the past and said, ´Michael,
if it wasn´t for you, there would be no MTV.´ They
told me that, over and over, personally. I guess they didn´t
hear it at the time
but I´m sure they didn´t
mean any pure malice [laughter].
Q: That really gave birth to the modern video age
A: I used to look at MTV. My brother [Jackie], I´ll
never forget, he´d say, ´Michael, you gotta see
this channel. Oh, my God, it´s the best idea. They show
music 24 hours a day
24 Hours A Day!´ So I said,
´Let me see this.´ And I´m watching it, I´m
seeing all this stuff going on and saying ´If only they
could give this stuff some more entertainment value, more story,
a little more dance, I´m sure people would love it more.´
So I said, when I do something, it´s gotta have a storyan
opening, a middle and a closingso you could follow a linear
thread; there´s got to be a thread through it. So while
you are watching the entertainment value of it, you´re
wondering what is going to happen. So that´s when I started
to experiment with Thriller, The Way You Make Me Feel and Bad
and Smooth Criminal and directing and writing.
Q: What do you think about the state of music videos and
A: [The industry], it´s at a crossroads. There´s
a transformation going on. People are confused, what´s
going to happen, how to distribute and sell music. I think the
Internet kind of threw everybody for a real loop. ´Cause
it´s so powerful, kids love it so much. The whole world
is at their fingertips, on their lap. Anything they want to
know, anyone they want to communicate with, any music, any movies
This thing, it just took everybody for a loop. Right now, all
these Starbucks deals and Wal-Mart deals, direct to artist,
I don´t know if that´s the answer. I think the answer
is just phenomenal, great music. Just reaching the masses. I
think people are still searching. There´s not a real musical
revolution going on right now, either. But when it´s there,
people will break a wall down to get to it. I mean, ´cause
before Thriller, it was the same kind of thing. People were
NOT buying music. It helped to bring everybody back into the
stores. So, when it happens, it happens´.
Q: Who impresses you?
A: As far as artistry, I think Ne-Yo is doing wonderful.
But he has a very Michael Jackson feel, too. But that´s
what I like about him. I can tell that he´s a guy who
Q: Do you work with these young artists?
A: Sure. I´ve always been the type where, I don´t
care if it´s the mailman or the guy sweeping the floor.
If it´s a great song, it´s a great song. Some of
the most ingenious ideas come from everyday people, who just
go, ´Why don´t you try this, or do this.´
It´ll be a wonderful idea, so you should just try it.
Chris Brown is wonderful. Akon, he´s a wonderful artist.
I always want to do music that inspires or influences another
generation. You want what you create to live, be it sculpture
or painting or music. Like Michelangelo, he said, I know
the creator will go, but his work survives. That is why to escape
death, I attempt to bind my soul to my work. And that´s
how I feel. I give my all to my work. I want it to just live.
Q: How does it feel to know you have changed history? Do
you think about that a lot?
A: Yeah, I do, I really do. I´m very proud that we
opened doors, that it helped tear down a lot. Going around the
world, doing tours, in stadiums, you see the influence of the
music. When you just look out over the stage, as far as the
naked eye could see, you see people. And it´s a wonderful
feeling, but it came with a lot of pain, a lot of pain.
Q: How so?
A: When you´re on top of your game, when you´re
a pioneer, people come at you. It´s there, who´s
at the top, you want to get at them.
But I feel grateful, all those record-breaking things, to the
biggest albums, to those No. 1s, I still feel grateful. I´m
a guy who used to sit in my living room and listen to my father
play Ray Charles. My mother used to wake me up at 3 in the morning,
´Michael, he´s on TV, he´s on TV!´ I´d
run to the TV and James Brown would be on TV. I said, ´That´s
what I want to do.´
Q: Can we expect more of Michael Jackson?
A: I´m writing a lot of stuff right now. I´m
in the studio, like, every day. I think, like, the rap thing
that is happening now, when it first came out, I always felt
that it was gonna take more of a melodic structure to make it
more universal, ´cause not everybody speak English. [Laughter]
And you are limited to your country. But when you can have a
melody, and everybody can hum a melody, then that´s when
it became France, The Middle East, everywhere! All over the
world now ´cause they put that melodic, linear thread
in there. You have to be able to hum it, from the farmer
in Ireland to the lady who scrubs toilets in Harlem to anybody
who can whistle to a child poppin´ their fingers. You
have to be able to hum it.
Q: So, you´re almost 50 now. Do you think you´ll
be doing this at 80?
A: The truth is, umm, no. Not the way James Brown did, or
Jackie Wilson did, where they just ran it out, they killed themselves.
In my opinion, I wish [Brown] could have slowed down and been
more relaxed and enjoyed his hard work.
Q: Will you tour again?
A: I don´t care about long tours. But what I love
about touring is that it sharpens ones craft beautifully. That´s
what I love about Broadway, that´s why actors turn to
Broadway, to sharpen their skills. It does do that. ´Cause
it takes years to become a great entertainer. Years. You can´t
just grab some guy out of obscurity and throw ´em out
there and expect for this person to compete with that person.
It´ll never work. And the audience knows it; they can
see it. The way they gesture their hand, move their body, the
way they do anything with the microphone, or the way they bow.
They can see it right away.
Now Stevie Wonder, he´s a musical prophet. He´s
another guy I have to credit. I used to say to myself, ´I
want to write more.´ I used to watch [producers] Gamble
and Huff, and Hal Davis and The Corporation write all those
hits for the Jackson 5 and I really wanted to study the anatomy.
What they used to do, they used to have us come in and sing
after they did the track. I used to get upset ´cause I
would want to see them make the track. So they would give me
ABC after the track was done, or I Want You
Back or The Love You Save. I wanted to experience
So Stevie Wonder used to literally let me sit like a fly on
the wall. I got to see Songs in the Key of Life get made, some
of the most golden things. I would sit with Marvin Gaye and
and these would be the people who would just come
over to our house and hang out and play basketball with my brothers
on the weekend. We always had these people around. So when you
really can see the science, the anatomy and the structure of
how it all works, it´s just so wonderful.
Q: So, you play on a world stage. How do you see the shape
of the world today?
A: I´m very concerned about the plight of the international
global warming phenomenon. I knew it was coming, but I wish
they would have gotten people´s interest sooner. But it´s
never too late. It´s been described as a runaway train;
if we don´t stop it, we´ll never get it back. So
we have to fix it, now. That´s what I was trying to do
with Earth Song, Heal the World, We
Are the World, writing those songs to open up people´s
consciousness. I wish people would listen to every word.
Q: What do you think about the next presidential race? Hillary,
A: To tell you the truth, I don´t follow that stuff.
We were raised to not
we don´t look to man to fix
the problems of the world, we don´t. They can´t
do it. That´s how I see it. It´s beyond us. Look,
we don´t have control over the grounds, they can shake.
We don´t have control over the seas, they can have tsunamis.
We don´t have control over the skies, there are storms.
We´re all in God´s hands. I think that man has to
take that into consideration. I just wish they would do more
for the babies and children, help them more. That would be great,
Q: Speaking of babies, as a father now, rewind back 25 years
ago. What is the difference between that Michael and the Michael
A: That Michael is probably the same Michael here. I just
wanted to get certain things accomplished first. But I always
had this tug in the back of my head, the things I wanted to
do, to raise children, have children. I´m enjoying it
Q: What do you think about all the stuff that´s out
there about you, all the things you read? How do you feel about
A: I don´t pay attention to that. In my opinion, it´s
ignorance. It´s usually not based on fact. It´s
based on, you know, myth. The guy who you don´t get to
see. Every neighborhood has the guy who you don´t see,
so you gossip about him. You see those stories about him, there´s
the myth that he did this or he did that. People are crazy!
I´m just about wanting to do wonderful music.
But back to Motown 25, one of the things that touched me the
most about doing that was, after I did the performanceI´ll
never forget. There was Marvin Gaye in the wings, and the Temptations
and Smokey Robinson and my brothers, they were hugging me and
kissing me and holding me. Richard Pryor walked over to me and
said [in a quiet voice], ´Now that was the greatest performance
I´ve ever seen.´ That was my reward. These were
people who, when I was a little boy in Indiana, I used to listen
to Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, and to have them bestow that
kind of appreciation on me, I was just honored. Then the next
day, Fred Astaire calls and said, ´I watched it last night,
and I taped it, and I watched it again this morning. You´re
a helluva mover. You put the audience on their ASS last night!´
So, later, when I saw Fred Astaire, he did this with his fingers
[He makes a little moonwalk gesture with his two fingers on
his outstretched palm].
I remember doing the performance so clearly, and I remembered
that I was so upset with myself, ´cause it wasn´t
what I wanted. I wanted it to be more. But not until I finished.
It was a little child, a little Jewish child backstage with
a little tuxedo on, he looked at me, and he said [in a stunned
voice] ´Who taught you to move like that?´ [Laughter]
And I said, ´I guess God
Behind the scenes at Michael Jackson/Ebony Magazine cover
Meanwhile, more than 200 readers from around the world have
already written in over the past few days with questions about
the shoot, the interview and the star. Here are a few of those
questions, along with comments from the Ebony team -- vice president
and editorial director Bryan Monroe, creative director Cole
and senior editor Joy Bennett -- who were with him over those
Q: Will Michael Jackson do another world tour? -- Dusty
in Dublin, Ireland
A. (Bryan Monroe) | Michael didn't say specifically when or
if he would tour, but was hesitant about taking on another global
concert series. " I don't care about long tours,"
he told us in the interview. He doesn't want to grow old doing
concert after concert, flying from one mega-stadium to the next.
"Not the way James Brown did and or Jackie Wilson did,"
he said in the article. "They just kept going, running,
killing themselves. In my opinion, I wish [Brown] could have
slowed down and relaxed and enjoyed his hard work."
Q: Can he still dance as amazingly as he did before?
-- Gabriella in England
A. (Bryan Monroe) | For a man nearly 50, he was still incredibly
limber. He showed of a few of his classic moves during the photo
shoot - the leg twist/kick move in particular. Yes, he's still
Q: When is a new CD coming out? -- K. Hall in Alabama
A. (Joy Bennett) | Not sure. Michael told us repeatedly that
he was writing every day and recording in the studio. He also
says that he thinks he's got more blockbuster hits coming out
(see the story for more on his writing process). Neither he
nor his staff will confirm a date but we'll be on the lookout
for an early 2008 new release.
Q: Is he very shy in person? -- Stacie in New York
A. (Joy Bennett) | No, surprisingly he was not very shy. He
wasn't shrouded, masked or gloved and he answered questions
directly, and at great length.
Q: There has been talk about his skin color. Is he the whitest
person to be on the cover of Ebony?
-- Mae in Southeast
A. (Joy Bennett) | Not at all, the actor Carroll O'Connor was
on Ebony's cover as his character, Archie Bunker in June 1972.
But make no mistake, despite his unusually light skin, he has
said it is due to a skin condition called vitiligo, Michael
is still 100 percent African American.
Q: I think America still has yet to grasp the influence
and position Michael has internationally. You can ask a woman
who grew up in a small community in Norway, and a woman who
grew up in Africa, and they will know his name, and his music.
I have some questions: Who decided on the clothing? Was it picked
by the stylist, and approved by Michael Jackson beforehand?
Why this particular museum? Was the location picked by Michael
-- Annette in Norway
A: (Harriette Cole) | Michael wanted to be photographed in
an artistic setting and the Brooklyn Museum gladly accommodated
us all. We shot in the midst of ancient and contemporary history,
and it was powerful to be in that space. Regarding the wardrobe,
we worked with celebrity fashion stylist Phillip Bloch to develop
concepts for wardrobe and then he and his team went shopping.
We really wanted him to look elegant and timeless on the cover.
We found a number of looks that would achieve that and presented
them to Michael. He ultimately chose what he would be happy
to wear--which turned out to be far more outfits than we had
time to shoot! Michael Jackson was the perfect fit for everything
we put on him. It was a lot of fun to work with someone who
looks great in clothes, who knows how to move his body and who
understands the camera. It was magic!
Q: Did most of the people who worked with Michael, during
the interview or photo shoot feel intimated by him? How did
he interact with the crew?
-- Samantha and Michele
A: (Harriette Cole) What I loved the most about working with
Michael Jackson is how kind he was to everyone
. He was
gracious to the elevator operator, the guard and the executives
in the museum. He made sure to thank each person who was in
ear shot when the shoot was over. He was generous and kind.
Did some people feel intimidated by him? I don't know if that's
the right word. More, I think some people were mesmerized. Some
were pinching themselves wondering if they actually were in
the presence of the King of Pop.
Q: Michael looks healthier and happier than he's been in
years (not just in the photo shoot but in paparazzi pictures
even). In your time spent with Michael, did you get a sense
that he really wants to make a comeback and reinvent the music
industry again? The world is awaiting his next move, but I get
the feeling he doesn't even realize how much he is missed in
the music scene
. -- Robert
A: (Harriette Cole) Michael certainly seemed healthy and happy--and
more, content. He had a peace about him that was palpable. He
seemed comfortable in his own skin. Never mind, he's got the
body that any woman or man would die for! At 49 years old, he's
got a slim dancer's body, evidence of consistent, disciplined
exercise. So, could he make a comeback? He certainly seems strong
enough. We also know that he is actively in the studio creating.
He told us that he travels with a tape recorder so that whenever
he gets the inspiration to make music he can capture it for
later reflection. He also noted that many artists today are
not reaching inside to create their own unique music. He thinks
it's breakthrough time. That certainly could include a Michael
Jackson breakthrough--or should I say another one!
Q: Tell us about BLANKET! That little mysterious baby! How
did you find the little boy? Was he a well-behaved kid? How
are both father and son to each other? Do you get a real sense
of how Michael is as a father to his children from what you've
seen so far?
-- Melissa in Manila, Philippines
A: (Harriette Cole) | We didn't meet Michael's two other children.
His daughter, Paris, is 9 and he has another son, Michael Joseph,
10. Blanket was incredibly well-behaved while he was in our
company, which is saying a lot for a 5-year-old. He is obviously
very close to his dad. They walked into the fitting holding
hands and only separated when both of them became at ease. Michael's
parenting skills were to be commended. Without many words, with
very subtle gestures he offered discipline, guidance and support.
Michael also obviously wants Blanket to learn good manners,
so when the Ebony team came into the room for the interview,
Michael coached Blanket on the proper way to shake hands and
say hello. Small things, but isn't it the small things that
show the measure of one's true self?
Q: Are there plans for another Ebony/Jet/Michael Jackson
collaboration in the near future?
A. (Bryan Monroe) | As they say, "stay tuned." We
are planning one more cover, this time on our sister publication,
Jet magazine, to come out in mid-December. It is a weekly magazine,
so keep an eye out for it on your newsstand. We may even have
some breaking news in it, too!