There is no question that Michael Jackson’s music speaks for itself. But since the reclusive singer’s acquittal on child-molestation charges in June 2005 and his subsequent move overseas, he’s shied away from the public even more, withdrawing into a succession of revolving associates and advisers.
But with this month marking the 25th anniversary of Jackson’s landmark album, Thriller, the King of Pop granted Ebony an exclusive interview for the magazine’s December issue, in which the singer recalled how he was inspired by Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, how hip-hop has evolved since its inception and Quincy Jones’ unusual nickname for him. The magazine hits newsstands Monday.
“Quincy calls me a nickname: ‘Smelly,’ ” Jackson told the mag. “Back then, especially back then — I say a few swear words now — but 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 [Jones] would call me Smelly.”
Jackson noted how he met Jones while the two were both working on Motown Records founder Berry Gordy’s film “The Wiz.” According to MJ, he asked the jazz producer to recommend a musician to work with on his solo debut, and Jones hailed himself. The two collaborated on Jackson’s Off the Wall, which spawned four top 10 hits and sold millions of copies. The former Jackson 5 frontman said in the interview, however, that he was unsatisfied with the album, but he retained Jones to work on the follow-up, Thriller, right away. Jackson wanted to put more of his heart and soul into an album, he said.
“[It was] a complete transition,” he said of his mega-selling opus. “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 [song is a killer]?’
“I do that same process with every song,” he added later of the approach. “It’s the melody, the melody is the most important. … If the melody sounds good in my head, it’s usually good when I do it.”
Jackson also shared his thoughts on hip-hop. In the past, Jackson had collaborated with the likes of the Notorious B.I.G., Heavy D and New Jack Swing producer Teddy Riley. At first, he didn’t think the music was melodic enough to travel beyond the regions it was created in. He said it would take a more relaxed sound to carry the music worldwide, which it’s certainly done since.
“The rap thing, that is happening now,” Jackson said. “When it came out, I always felt that it was gonna take more of a melodic structure to make it more universal, ’cause not everybody speaks English. [He laughs.] 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 that 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.”
Jackson heaped praise on Ne-Yo, Chris Brown and Akon, as far as contemporary acts. The singer is long-rumored to be working with Kanye West and Will.I.Am on a comeback album slated to be released sometime in 2008. While Jackson said, “I’m writing a lot of stuff right now,” and, “I’m in the studio, like, every day,” he didn’t reveal if and when a new LP would be coming.