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Randy Jackson: The Reality Rocks Interview

Lyndsey Parker
Reality Rocks

Randy Jackson is best known these days for his role as voice-of-reason judge on a little show called American Idol (perhaps you've heard of it?). But long before he took that seat on the panel next to Paula Abdul, Randy racked up an impressive list of music-biz credits performing and recording with artists like Aretha Franklin, Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, Celine Dion, Destiny's Child, *NSYNC, Madonna, Elton John, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, and many more. And now he's releasing his first solo album, Randy Jackson's Music Club Vol. 1, out this week.

Randy Jackson's Music Club Vol. 1 is actually more of a compilation a la Quincy Jones's Q's Jook Joint or Carlos Santana's last few star-studded albums, featuring an unexpected hodgepodge of guest vocalists. For instance, Joss Stone jams with Three 6 Mafia, former Idols Katharine McPhee and Elliott Yamin reunite for a duet, and Mariah Carey guests on a gospel number with Bebe Winans. And perhaps most notably, Paula Abdul makes her recording comeback on the album's kickoff track, "Dance Like There's No Tomorrow."

So on a day shortly after American Idol's '70s Week, I got the chance to speak with the top dawg about his new venture. But of course, within a few minutes of me picking up the phone, the conversation naturally gravitated toward all things Idol: i.e., Josiahgate, the Carly Smithson scandal, the all-important issue of song selection, Danny Noriega, Vote For The Worst, and whether or not American Idol has finally jumped the shark.

And I was pretty amazed at how willing Randy was to talk. So read on for the interview. It's a hot one!

RANDY: Lyndsey, what's going down, man?

REALITY ROCKS: Not much! Where are you calling from?

RANDY: I'm in Hollywood.

REALITY ROCKS: Ha ha. Of course you're in Hollywood! You're through to Hollywood!

RANDY: [laughs]

REALITY ROCKS: So tell me about your album. Your press release says you want it to be like a "great radio station." What do you mean by that?

RANDY: Yeah, if there was one. It's like, there's something for everybody on it, from age 5 to 105. This album was set up to be a fun project that would announce my label, Dream Merchant 21, which I started with the Stax/Concord guys about eight months ago. The idea behind the label is, whatever music that's great, that are real artists, I want to sign--be it a country act or a gospel act or a hip-hop act or a pop act, whatever. I don't want to be held down by genres so much. So it's kind of a fun experiment, if you will. I didn't do this record to compete with Rihanna and Usher and Jay-Z and Justin Timberlake and the Jonas Brothers. It wasn't that kind of record.

REALITY ROCKS: That multi-genre philosophy is actually kind of similar to American Idol's approach, since the show takes singers of all these different styles and then makes them sing songs from different genres and decades.

RANDY: Yeah, the album's more like that in a way. Although with the songs in mind and also with certain singers, it's not even the biggest-name singers in the world on my album. It's just people that I thought would be cool, who are friends of mine. I made a record similar to this about a year ago with Sam Moore that had a bunch of great guest stars on it. I really loved making that, and Sam told me then, "You know, this is how records were made back in the day." So it was a little more like that, a fun experiment. What inspired me is, I never made a solo record but I always said that if I ever did, it would be like those old Quincy Jones records. He'd always have a compilation, because he's a producer, not a singer. And on this record I'm not really singing--thank God! For everyone out there, thank God! I've saved you guys from that!

REALITY ROCKS: So you don't think you'd make it on American Idol, then?

RANDY: Nah. As musician I would, but no, singing is not my thing!

REALITY ROCKS: So tell me about the people singing on your album.

RANDY: Well, basically I have a lot of friends because I've been in the business a long time and worked with a lot of people. I thought as I wrote songs along the way, who would sound best on each song? The Joss Stone song ["Just Walk On By"] came about because it was a very different thing for her, almost more of a hip-hop thing for her. And I always loved the song "Home" by Michael Buble and thought it would make a great country song, so I got Sarah Watkins from Nickel Creek and my boy John Rich from Big & Rich for that...but then I put another good friend of mine, Anthony Hamilton, on it too. Because I truly believe that the further apart you think genres are, the closer they actually are. I also think that if you're really talented, you can sing anything. That was my whole thing with Elliott and Katharine. People say, "Why'd you choose those two Idols for the album?" Well, the thing with those two is, people really need to know how good they are. Those two can really sing, dude. They can blow. They came in the studio and just blew this song out in an hour, it was crazy. I was like, "Oh my God! You shoulda sung like that on the show!"

REALITY ROCKS: I actually think the season of Idol they were on, season 5, was probably the best.

RANDY: It was the most diverse season, definitely. Listen, we've had some really strong seasons, and I guess potentially--it depends on how America votes--this could be one of our strongest seasons yet. But judging from last week ['70s Week], I'm not quite sure America's going to be voting that way!

REALITY ROCKS: I predict it's going to be all about the guys this season.

RANDY: It is definitely about the guys this year. It's the guys' season to lose.

REALITY ROCKS: Yeah, I'd say if I named my five top faves, only one is a girl.

RANDY: And I bet that girl is Carly Smithson, huh?

REALITY ROCKS: No! I like Brooke White!

RANDY: Aw! Get down! Look at you! Yeah, Brooke's mad cool. I love her.

REALITY ROCKS: So who are your faves?

RANDY: There's four or five boys, and definitely those two girls, and maybe one other girl, but I do think it's a boys' season to lose. The Michael Johns, the David Archueltas. And Carly and Brooke. It's probably those four in the top right now, for me.

REALITY ROCKS: What about Danny Noriega? He's fierce!

RANDY: Aw, I love Danny, man. Danny's mad cool, dude. He's a fun, cool guy and he doesn't take himself too seriously. That's what I love about him. He's got mad personality.

REALITY ROCKS: And he's no Sanjaya. I'm tired of people comparing Danny to Sanjaya.

RANDY: Oh, he is so different than Sanjaya! So completely different. He's definitely more out-there. He's cool, he dresses cool. He's a different guy.

REALITY ROCKS: So a lot of publicity surrounding your album focuses on "Dance Like There's No Tomorrow," the first new Paula Abdul song in 10 years. How did that come about?

RANDY: We'd been taking about it every season. Paula and I go way back. We always talked about doing something, and I found this song that I absolutely loved. When I heard it, I said, "This is soooo Paula." And we were down in San Diego doing the Idol auditions for season 7, and I was like, "Dude, I got this song. You're gonna love this joint right here, man. Come ON! WHAT!?" She heard it, she loved it. Probably more than anything, I just wanted to go back to where she was 10 years ago, and update that. I wasn't trying to reinvent the wheel or whatever. I just think she's an amazing talent and I wanted a vehicle where she could show that. I was dusting off my old A&R chops!

REALITY ROCKS: Think you two will do any future recordings together?

RANDY: Oh, we've been talking about it. I think that she will at some point, and it's a great idea. We gonna work it out, man. It's time for Paula to COME BACK! All the way back. She dipped her toe in, now it's time to dive in!

REALITY ROCKS: Is it true she didn't like video for  "Dance Like There's No Tomorrow"?

RANDY: No, the video's hot. Are you kidding?

REALITY ROCKS: Well, I read that she didn't like it.

RANDY: No, no. Don't believe what you read...unless it's on Yahoo!

REALITY ROCKS: Ha! I'll quote you on that! So, are you and Paula always on same page when it comes to judging Idol? It seems you two tend to agree, while Simon Cowell is the odd man out.

RANDY: Well, it goes week to week. It just depends. It's been tough the last couple of weeks because of the genres. Like, you think, the '70s was TEN WHOLE YEARS. And these are the songs they chose for '70s Night? What? It's 10 years of songs to choose from! Why choose those?

REALITY ROCKS: Yeah, Jason Yeager made a bad choice with that Doobie Brothers song...

RANDY: Yeah, like, what? What??? Come on!! Weird.

REALITY ROCKS: Why did you have decade-specific theme nights for the top 24? You didn't do that before.

RANDY: We were just trying something new. But the truth is, it doesn't matter what the theme is. They need to be able to sing the face off anything. The people who won in past years sang the face off of whatever was given them.

REALITY ROCKS: But you judges always make such an issue out of "song selection."

RANDY: Well, what song selection does is...for the people who are not that good, it shows them up right away. It's like, "Listen, you don't want to be singing that song. That song is WAY too big for you. You don't want to be tackling that. You ain't got them guns like that!"

REALITY ROCKS: I think Beatles Night will be toughest yet, in terms of song selection making or breaking it. People don't like Beatles songs being messed with!

RANDY: Oh yeah, are you kidding? And a little insight: Songs like that, that seem like they're easy to sing, those are the hardest ones to pull off.

REALITY ROCKS: Oh? Why is that?

RANDY: Because when things are difficult, people bear down and they get into it. When it's a little easier, they kind of just float through it. It actually takes more precision to do something easy, because remember, it's the Beatles. It's legendary. Everyone knows the Beatles. Everyone.

REALITY ROCKS: It will be interesting to see what songs people choose.

RANDY: Hey, you're pretty good with the insights, man. You should be doing A&R!

REALITY ROCKS: Hey, if I was doing A&R, I'd sign Josiah Leming! [laughs]

RANDY: OK, OK. Josiah good. He's a talented kid. But he's no David Archuleta!

REALITY ROCKS: I dunno, people really liked him. Maybe it was because he got so much screen time, people made a connection.

RANDY: He got a lot of screen time. Listen, I like him. I think he's a talented kid. But it's hard. You gotta be great every time, and I gotta tell you, during Hollywood Week he just sort of fell apart. But you know, Chris Daughtry just sold 4 million records and he didn't win, so if Josiah's got it going on--and I know there's a lot of labels out there looking at him--then we'll see! The proof is always in the end.

REALITY ROCKS: American Idol is a great equalizer in that way. Because the public makes the ultimate decision.

RANDY: Look, I did A&R at labels for years. Every label thinks, when they sign someone, "This is the perfect pedigree to sign. They're cute, they can sing, they can dance, et cetera." And they say to the public, "Here, this is what you're gonna like." But you might say, "No, I don't like that!" You'll probably say "no" many more times than you'll say "yes"! So the idea on Idol is, if we present the public with the artists and said, "Hey, you tell us which one you like best," the public always--no matter what the artist looks like--picks the best singer. ALWAYS. That's why the show is really cool. What it does is it puts the talent first. And for a guy like me, who's a producer and a manager--I love artists--the quality of music is what this is about. The public always picks quality. That's the coolest thing about the show and what I love the most.

REALITY ROCKS: Even with Taylor Hicks?

RANDY: Hey, I liked him too! Yes, America got it right. I truly believe every season they get it right.

REALITY ROCKS: The other cool thing about Idol is it introduces old music to a younger audience--like Burt Bacharach, or the Zombies, or whoever.

RANDY: That's by design. We did that so it would be a great family show. You could sit there with your parents, who don't know what the latest Young Jeezy or Panic At The Disco song is. But you know, I want people to know who Led Zeppelin is. I want people to know the Beatles.

REALITY ROCKS: But you just said everyone knows the Beatles!

RANDY: Yeah, but look where we're going. I truly believe today we're not building those legendary stars anymore. Labels aren't signing legends, it's more of a cash-and-carry business: Sign an artist, get a hit, and make some money fast before the whole thing crashes into the ground. It's almost like everyone's running for shelter!

REALITY ROCKS: Speaking of labels and signings, I must ask you about the "semi-pro" controversy surrounding of this season's finalists, like Carly Smithson and Michael Johns.

RANDY: Look, if you want to audition for Idol, that tells me one thing: You're trying to make it! Idol is the rocketship show to the top. So guess what that means? You're looking for a record deal, management, any leg up you can get to make it in this industry. Obviously, if you want to go on Idol and take this criticism, and go through the hardship that it takes to win on this show, you're trying to make it. And by the way, none of those people's things happened. I could see if we'd said, "Nickelback just sold 8 million copies; why doesn't Chad Kroeger come down and try out?" That's different. But the people who have come down and auditioned need this. Their deals didn't work out, period. I don't care if you've had 12 deals; the rule just said from day one that you can't currently be signed to a record deal. The fact that they had deals before doesn't give them a leg up. We don't know who's going to win this year, and it could be one of the ones that hasn't had a deal!

REALITY ROCKS: So you don't think previous industry experience gives some contestants an advantage?

RANDY: No, you're born with this gift. Kelly Clarkson was as great the day we first saw her in Dallas as the day she won. Ruben and Fantasia were as great on day one. It's not like they just got better over time. People think that they did, but I'm telling you, these people were the bomb on the first day. We thought in our minds, "Where have they been all this time? Why has no label signed these guys yet?" So whoever wins this season, it won't be because they had some record deal before. Whatever. You had a record a deal and you sold 40 records? Whoa, whoa! Stand back! You're blowing the roof off the joint! [laughs]

REALITY ROCKS: Speaking of people with industry experience...can you reveal who the celebrity mentors will be this season?

RANDY: We're going to switch it up a little bit this year. We've got some of the older ones coming back, and we've got Mariah Carey coming in. We got some flavas for ya!

REALITY ROCKS: It's interesting you have Mariah coming in, because so many of the contestants blow it when they try to do their songs!

RANDY: Yeah, in my mind Mariah, Celine, and Whitney are three of the greatest singers ever.

REALITY ROCKS: So what do you have to say to people who say American Idol has gone downhill and has jumped the shark?

RANDY: Come on. Let me ask you this--are there 30 million people watching any other show, any five nights combined? No. So I don't think that's a concern at all. I think this show could go on for another 20 years. It's the best talent/singing show that there's ever been. I think people always just wanna hate, don't they? There's a lot of haters, man. This is what we always say in the music business: Do you know when you've made it? When people hate you.

REALITY ROCKS: How do you feel about the website Vote For The Worst?

RANDY: I don't even know what that's about. It's just more haters cashing in.

REALITY ROCKS: Well, people are saying it's Vote For The Worst that's keeping Amanda Overmyer on the show.

RANDY: Yeah, those two girls that went last week [Alaina Whitaker and Alexandrea Lushington] shouldn't have gone. Those girls deserved another week or two. The public gets it confused sometimes, especially this early on. Whaddya gonna do? But I truly believe in trusting the public that the right one will win in the end. America always gets it right. I gotta give props to my country!

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