In the Studio with Michael Jackson

By special guest contributor Serena Butler.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a Michael Jackson fan.

One of my earliest memories of is watching the Dangerous in Bucharest concert, in which Michael would fly out of the stadium during “Man in the Mirror” with a jet pack. I knew there was something special about this man. He was magic. He was my hero. Maybe it’s because I was born 10 years to the day of the release of Off The Wall. Perhaps it was a connection I had to a song…or was it written in the stars? I had to know more about this man.

Five years after his untimely passing, I was honored to attend the In The Studio With Michael Jackson seminar at Westlake Studios (Studio D) in West Hollywood; hosted by one of Michael Jackson’s longtime engineers and technical directors Brad Sundberg. Westlake Studios is where Jackson recorded Bad – this studio was built specifically for the development of that album.

Walking into the room, I could feel the energy oozing from those walls. From “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” to “Dirty Diana”- it all happened there.

The informative session gave so much insight into Jackson’s artistry, more so than any televised documentary on the singer ever has before. For the next 7-8 hours I would hear the story behind every song that touched my life from Sundberg’s the first-hand experiences with Jackson. And without giving too much away (if you love MJ you have to go to this seminar!) there were a couple stories that really were poignant.

I am a 10-year cancer survivor; before that I really had a rough childhood. I had a so-called friend who was terribly abusive to me. This pattern followed me well into my early teens. Two incidents in particular came back to me during the session when Sundberg told the story of “Keep the Faith.” In Junior High and High School, I was beaten up. In Junior High, a girl attacked me unprovoked. I told school officials, but they did nothing. In High School, another girl started beating me up over a disagreement regarding a band. This time it was different. The school administration brought my parents in. They said she had admitted to “wrapping me” in the head because I wouldn’t “shut up.” They told me “she has problems” with no idea what I had just gone through. I had cancer. I had lost all faith and trust in a lot of people that day. I went home that day, still shaken, wondering why it hurt so much to be me. I turned on my iPod “Keep The Faith” came on. I was taken to a happier place. I knew I would overcome.

Sundberg told us of how “Keep the Faith” had to be rearranged because Jackson struggled to hit the high notes and his voice cracked. Michael called the studio sobbing – knew he was getting older and had lost some of his range. Michael’s powerful voice would at certain points “crunch the Dolby” as Sundberg put it, where a faint grind can be heard in the background during the outro. Thankfully, engineer Bruce Swedien kept the take as it was. Michael truly believed himself that day. That song will always have a special place in my heart. Now it’s shining a little brighter.

Another story that really stood out was the story of “Streetwalker” which was eventually released as a bonus track on the remastered version of Bad. When it came to formulating the final track listing for Bad it was a toss-up between “Streetwalker” and “Another Part Of Me.” Michael loved “Streetwalker” but producer Quincy Jones HATED IT. Jones eventually got his way, however, Jackson still recorded “Streetwalker” in secret at the studio next door.

Steve Porcaro (Toto) was also on hand to discuss how tracks from Off The Wall, Thriller, and Dangerous came together. When he sat down in front of the keyboard and started playing “Human Nature,” everyone in the room just started singing. It was a magical feeling – a beautiful feeling of unity that I’ll never forget.

I have some unpopular views regarding the “new” Michael Jackson album Xcape. It just doesn’t feel right to contemporize the man who invented contemporary pop music. For this reason, I spent my money elsewhere, to see the people Jackson actually worked with, watch the actual video tapes and listen to Jackson’s music in its truest form, and hear the stories that only those who were there could tell.


About nakedhighway

Naked Highway is a multimedia electro-glam outfit from NYC, and most definitely the club-kid of the #plusheartstar family! Skating a thin line between clubby beats & new wave sensibilities, Naked Highway’s recent string of DJ-friendly singles & viral music videos provide a blueprint for group’s impending world domination.