Michael Jackson’s bodyguards Bill Whitfield and Javon Beard imagine how the King of Pop would have reacted to a remixed album of unreleased tracks.
Ever since Michael Jackson died, there have been many arguments over how his estate has handled his musical legacy. The latest one erupted last month with the release of Xscape, the album of Michael Jackson’s unfinished demos, updated and polished by LA Reid, Timbaland, Rodney Jerkins and others. Last week, we even got a hologram of Mr. Jackson, singing and dancing from beyond the grave. Some fans are overjoyed just to have his music back in the spotlight. Others are calling it a terrible violation of what Jackson would have wanted if he were alive.
In the studio, Jackson was a perfectionist, carefully obsessing over every detail of his songs before releasing them to the public, and it was well-established in his lifetime that he didn’t like his record label remixing and changing his music. But whenever you’re dealing with the legacy of a great artist, things are going to get complicated. Having worked as Mr. Jackson’s personal security team for two-and-a-half years, spending days and weeks at his side, going to and from the recording studio and listening to him work at home, we feel we can offer some unique insight on how he might feel about this album and the controversy it’s created.
We were with Mr. Jackson during the time he was working on the remixes for the 25th anniversary release of Thriller. Those remixes were Sony’s idea, not his. We’d hear him on the phone all the time, arguing with his manager about not wanting to do them. Whenever the subject of the remixes came up, he’d say, “There are some things you should never touch.” We must have heard him say it a dozen times. As far as he was concerned, that album was perfect. You don’t go back and add hip-hop beats to Thriller. It’s a classic, and you don’t touch it. But Sony told him he had to. They told him he had to get in the studio and do these remixes to make himself new and hip again.
We first started taking him to the studio to do work on the tracks around February of 2007, and from there the process just dragged on forever. At that point, the anniversary of the release date was ten months off, in November. That came and went, and the album still wasn’t done. He kept putting it off and putting it off and the remixes kept taking longer and longer to finish. All sorts of stuff had been planned, TV specials, appearances-none of it happened. He wasn’t cool with it. By January of 2008, Jackson was living at the Palms resort in Las Vegas, using the recording studio there. One of us was with him in the studio nearly 24/7 while he worked, trying to catch up and finish these songs he was contractually obligated to do, but that he didn’t want to do. He wasn’t going in there with enthusiasm. You could tell that. Once the album came out there was all this hype in the media, but inside his camp it barely registered. He never talked about it like it was a big deal. We heard more excitement in his voice talking about going to the movies than we ever heard when he was talking about Thriller 25.
So, yes, he hated remixes. But we saw another side of Jackson, too. There was one night when we were staying at the Palms, at the same time he was working on these remixes for Thriller 25. He told us he wanted to go to the club downstairs. He didn’t want to make an appearance; he just wanted to hang out and do some people watching. This club had a VIP balcony that overlooked the crowd, so we set it up for him to go down there. We were in the club for maybe two to three minutes when all of sudden the deejay started playing one of his songs; they were mixing it, cutting it together with a bunch of other tunes. Mr. Jackson was bopping his head along to it, and he said, “Wow, I didn’t know that they still played my music.”
We were like, “What?!” We told him, “Sir, they still play your music all the time. In bars, clubs, everywhere.”
He said, “Really?”
He seemed surprised. He’d been out of the spotlight and beaten up by the tabloids for so long at that point that he really felt like maybe the world had moved on, that he wasn’t as popular anymore. It really made him happy to hear his songs in the club like that. He wanted his music to be remembered. Other artists often reached out for permission to sample his songs. Jackson’s attorney would call and say, “Tell Michael that Kanye West wants to sample such-and-such. What does he want to charge?”
We’d relay the message to Jackson, and he’d say, “Nothing. Tell them it’s fine if they just use it. The more they use my music, that means my music stays alive.” He could have charged a fortune, but he didn’t. He just wanted his music to be out there in the world. He wanted to be an inspiration, to be connected to this younger generation of artists and producers who were following in his footsteps. He wanted them to build on his legacy.
Jackson believed there are some things you should never touch, but he also wanted his music to be used and kept alive. So what would he have thought of Xscape? Honestly, he probably would enjoyed some aspects of it, and other aspects not so much. If he were here and he listened to the album and he heard even one wrong note, he’d be furious. He’d obsess over it for days, not stopping until he found a way to make it right. But if he saw young people in the club, dancing to this new single “Love Never Felt So Good”? That would have filled his heart with joy like you couldn’t imagine. To hear all these young producers talking about his genius in the studio? To have the #1 album in over 50 different countries? To know that he was still the King of Pop? That was important to him, too.
Michael Jackson’s final years took a heavy toll on him. He was hunted by the paparazzi, run down by the tabloids, beset by legal and financial problems. That we witnessed, only two things brought him real happiness during that difficult time: the love of his three children and the dedication of his fans, the people who never forgot about the music while the media was only obsessed with scandals and rumors. Those fans may never agree on whether the Jackson estate is doing the right thing or the wrong thing. We may never agree about the best way to honor his legacy, and we will all make our own choices about what albums to buy and what projects to support. But we can all agree on one thing Michael Jackson would have wanted: he’d want us to keep the music alive-in the club, on the dance floor, and in our hearts.