Jimmy "The Senator" Douglass is an American record producer, engineer and mixer who has worked in the business since he was a teenager, putting in hours copying tape in Atlantic Records' famous studios in New York in the '70s. He learned his craft by carefully studying the movements of Tom Dowd, one of the most famous engineers of the era, and soon started overseeing sessions himself. In the years since, he's worked with practically everyone: soul icons Aretha Franklin and Donny Hathaway; rock legends Foreigner, Genesis, The Rolling Stones, and Roxy Music; post-punk agitators Television and Gang of Four; R&B superstars Destiny's Child and Brandy; hip-hop moguls Jay-Z, Snoop Dogg, and Lil' Kim; and a clutch of FADER cover stars including Kanye, Blood Orange, and Kindness.
Perhaps his most famous partnership, however, is with Timbaland: they worked together during the producer's most prominent years, prolifically churning out era-defining records by Aaliyah, Missy Elliott, Jodeci, Ginuwine, and Justin Timberlake. While it might seem a little impossible to define Douglass' sound because of the utter breadth of his discography, it really wouldn't be hyperbole to simply describe it as the sound of American popular music of the last 45 years (his Grammy count currently stands at four). The FADER spoke with Douglass about working with Aretha Franklin back in the day, why his collaborations with Timbaland were so successful, and what's changed in the producing game since he started.
Jimmy Douglass: What's really changed from back then to now is that people didn't even know what the producer did really. If you go back into the era right before me with all the producers in the '60s—your Phil Spectors—basically they were in charge of gathering a lot of musicians. Not necessarily writing the songs themselves, but gathering them. You were like a director of a film. Your job became to get the best out of the artist—that they're sitting in the right light, the right setting, doing the right song, the whole nine [yards], and then getting them to perform their bit so that it came out [right]. The gig was: you don't erase anybody's vocals—that's just unforgivable; you don't punch in at the wrong place, you pay attention. That to me is the job, and when you don't do that job you really shouldn't be there. That's how I approached it then. Of course, with digital recording, you can now do all kinds of crap, and just fuck up left and right and still recover.
Everything that I learned, I kind of learned hands-on. At Atlantic Records nobody taught you anything, you just watched. It was like, "OK, you gotta go do this today." You just had to be ready. So I got to a place where they trusted me with somebody like Aretha Franklin cause I guess was decent enough, and I remember a couple of things: I'd be doing vocals and I really didn't know how to work the compressors, so whenever she put her arms down—like wings—to make that high note, I would just lower the fader. I was manually adding a compressor to her voice because I didn't know how to fix it, but I knew when she was about to belt out and kill it. Sometimes they'd even let me record with her alone. One day it occurred to me—I was sitting there, and it was Aretha. All my friends would kill to be in a position I was in. I just sat and looked and I thought, This is amazing. It's like Aretha came to my house, like she came to my living room to sing for me. [Laughs]
"Whenever Aretha put her arms down—like wings—to make that high note, I would just lower the fader. I was manually adding a compressor to her voice."
Every time you work with somebody, theoretically, a piece of them rubs off on you. I tell people this all the time: "If you work with me, there's no way you should ever make a record the way you used to make it. We're going to get into things and methods and some of it is gonna rub." So you know, I was lucky to touch a lot of great people and work with them and just share some of the knowledge.
Timbaland was really unique in what he did. He picks crazy samples and he knows how to put them together really well. He knows how to put a salad together with the dressing and all the whole thing and just make you go, "Oh my god." Then you have somebody like myself, who's actually not afraid of the process of the technology, so he could leave the room and I could do all the vocals for him because I've been producing records forever. I know how to do that. Like I said, I used to do vocals with Aretha all alone.
I was killin' the tape machine because I really didn't care. Cause I've made enough records that I really didn't care, and I never ever paid attention to "Don't go in the red!" [I.e. don't overload a recording signal so that the results sound distorted.] Timbaland was giving me signals that were just crazy and we were just making so much stuff so fast—it was just like, bam bam bam. It turns out that one of things about our kick drums that people were trying to emulate was that compression. I didn't use any compressors on the kick. It's actually just built in: Mother Nature did compression. It wasn't intended, I just wasn't looking when we were printing. [Laughs] And the thing is, he being who he is, he recognized it as something special. Cause there are people who would have been like, "What are you doing? It's in the red. Change that." He just went with the sound, and together we created something great.
Missy Elliott—she's a beast. Phew, she's writing arrangements for vocals like faster than I can think about it. That was a pleasure. It was always a joy to work with her. She was very challenging. She made you challenge yourself. And Ginuwine as well, he was just a really good vocalist—all he had to do was sing. He's a kid who sang in the church, he knows what to do, we just had to fill it in. That's really old school production actually, between Tim, Ginuwine, and me. That whole album [Ginuwine…the Bachelor] is just the three of us really.
Yesterday I was with [Grammy-Award winning record producer and engineer] Tony Maserati and we were just talking about stuff, cause he goes back a little ways there as well, and I was realizing for a lot of us—the modern mixer—people are sending us files, we're working on this album and sending comments and recordings back and forth [via] email. What I said earlier about the rubbing off, we're beginning to lose that. A few lines in an email is not the same thing as being in the room [in] real time. There's no emotion, it's all written thought. To me that's one of the things that we're all about to all lose, unless you can get back in the room.
It gives you the ability to challenge them as well as them challenging you, which was the old school way. You would get in there and make a record, you would roll up your sleeves, and you know what? "I don't like that part. I don't like the guitar part." Ok, well, then we're gonna talk about it. At the end of it, you can make me shut up and do what you want me to do. But that's not why you hired me, right? You hired me because I have some input and you'd like to hear it, but you don't want to hear it in an email. So that's kinda what the difference is [with producing together in the same room], it gives you the ability to negotiate and make a better record. Because more heads are involved in actually creating it.