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Former Flyte Tyme Studios, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis’s Edina hit factory, to be demolished

The room where lead vocals were tracked at what was then Flyte Tyme Studios. (Photos by Jay Gabler/MPR)
The room where lead vocals were tracked at what was then Flyte Tyme Studios. (Photos by Jay Gabler/MPR)

by Jay Gabler

July 11, 2018

Opening with a flurry of dissonant electronic clanking, "Scream" still sounds electrifying nearly a quarter-century after it was released. It was hard to believe I was hearing it in the very studio where Michael Jackson and his sister Janet recorded the duet, on a pair of powerful speakers that were in use there at the time — and that I'd be one of the last to do so.

An unassuming cream-yellow building in Edina was home to the hottest sounds in America in the late '80s, and now it's slated for demolition. Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis ran their Flyte Tyme Studios there for 15 years, from when they moved to Edina from a smaller Minneapolis studio in 1988 until they left in 2003 and moved out to L.A.

The building served as a school for many of the intervening years, and it just reopened as a rentable studio space in January. Jason Miller, who manages the facility now known as Runway Studios, said that he and the studio owners (Richard McCalley and Matt Hanson) always knew the building could be sold and redeveloped at any time.

"At least we get to take the building and go out with a bang," he said this morning, standing in one of the studios' control rooms. "Celebrate it, make people aware of it. I think it's cool that we have this time. There's going to be about a year's worth of more memories, more projects. We've been having some parties."

Knowing their time in the space could be limited, Miller and his colleagues installed flexible, digital equipment rather than the kind of massive consoles that would be expensive and difficult for DIY artists to use.

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Jam and Lewis took a lot of gear with them when they left, and most of what remained has since been sold; one of the former Flyte Tyme consoles, for example, is currently in storage at RiverRock Studios in northeast Minneapolis. The studios themselves are still intact, though — which meant I could stand in the very room where Janet Jackson issued her immortal shout-out to Minneapolis in "Escapade," just one of the number-one hits recorded there.

"Think of all the vocals," said Miller. "All those Boyz II Men records. Michael Jackson. Janet Jackson. All of those would have been tracked right here in this room. Cool to think about, it's even hard to imagine sometime."

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Although Jam and Lewis had decisively split from the Prince camp by the time they opened Flyte Tyme, the studio functioned in a manner not unlike Paisley Park. Artists could get away from the pressures of the coasts and disappear into the anonymity of the Minneapolis suburbs.

"It's amazing to think that all this was happening in this neighborhood and nobody knew," says Miller. "I mean, Michael Jackson had a bus parked out in the parking lot for a week! Apparently he had a studio in there too. He had all these rooms banging, he had a studio in a bus banging, and nobody knew."

Like Paisley, Flyte Tyme was a self-contained studio complex. While Prince experimented with renting the Paisley studios out before ultimately claiming them entirely for his personal use, Jam and Lewis kept Flyte Tyme busy exclusively with their own projects.

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"This place was just a factory for Jimmy Jam and Terry," explained Miller. He's learned a lot, he said, from members of the New Power Generation who've been rehearsing in the room where Janet Jackson and her dancers would practice their choreography. "She was pretty tight with her main dancers. They would come listen to stuff in Studio B when they were working on it, and I imagine they'd just grab a cassette fresh off the console and bring it in here, start working out their choreography."

Some of the NPG musicians explained to Miller how Jam and Lewis used the four Flyte Tyme Studios in the '80s and '90s.

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"Tracks would start over in Studio C," he continued, standing in Studio A. "They had synths and drum machines, things like that where you could build loops, build a little bed of something. Then they'd bring those tapes in here, load them up in that control room, and then the rhythm section would track in here: drums, bass, guitars, keys. They'd get their parts down, and then the tapes would go over to Studio B, which was Jimmy and Terry's room.

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"They would probably just finish things up: keyboards, vocals, background vocals, whatever they would add to it to make it a Jimmy and Terry production. When they were done the tracks would go down to Studio D down at the end of the hall. That's where Steve Hodge was holed up, and he was just mixing hit after hit."

Miller and the studio owners had high hopes for the studios when they opened in January, but in the era of home studios, professional spaces like the ones Jam and Lewis built aren't needed like they once were.

"These are cool and useful rooms now," said Miller, "but back then it was just necessary. You had a huge tape machine, and the tape machine made noise, so you had to be physically separate. It's not like today, when you can just get a $200 microphone and your decently [sound] treated bedroom and you can just plug it into your laptop and then cut a vocal."

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Clients haven't flocked to the studios, although Runway has hosted artists like Kathleen Johnson — a former Prince vocalist who's working on a new recording project with her brother Kirk.

Runway Studios will remain open until the end of October, when the building will be torn down to make way for a new affordable housing project. Developer “Aeon likes some of the specific features at the site,” reports Finance & Commerce, “including a private park with mature trees near the back of the property that Aeon hopes to incorporate in its design. [Aeon’s Blake] Hopkins said the location is well-positioned near transit, public parks and other amenities.”

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Miller says Jam and Lewis are aware of the building's impending destruction, adding that he the studio owners are working to remove and sell or preserve as many of the studio fixtures as they can. One of the studio ceilings has original art, for example, by local painter Ta-coumba Aiken. The studios still bear alphabetical labels designating the studios as Audacious, Bodacious, Contagious, and Dangerous. The carpeted walls even include a Ferrari logo.

"Jimmy and Terry loved Ferraris. I hear they had matching ones," said Miller with a grin. "Now, I hear, they have matching Teslas."

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Clean Water Land & Legacy Amendment
This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.