On a visit to Switzerland in the summer of 2013, the legendary African-American impresario spoke about his approach to the music industry, his social activism and his continuing involvement in what he describes as the ‘Rolls-Royce of festivals’
You have achieved so much, as a conductor, director, producer, musician. How important is the business side to you?
I have always followed my heart. I do what I want to do because it’s something I want to hear, and it gives me goose-bumps. I didn’t do Thriller for business—if you do something because it’s what someone else wants you to do, God walks out of the room. There’s a lot of divinity in making music: twelve notes—that’s all there are. You can’t be thinking about making money when you’re doing music. We came from the Be Bop era, when nobody gave a damn about money. Do what you love, and if it happens, it happens.
I had to learn about the business side, of course. I toured in Europe in 1959 and got stranded here aged 26 for seven months with 33 people. They say you learn by making mistakes, and Steve Ross [former chief executive of Time Warner] taught me the business. So I know more about business now. You need to, so you don’t get killed—it took me seven years to pay for getting stranded in Europe. But I always go with my heart—and the goose-bumps—first.
You produced the We Are the World recording in 1985 which became the fastest-selling American pop single in history, eventually selling more than 20 million copies. Sales raised more than $10 million for Africa, with donations and merchandise sales bringing the total to more than $60 million. How did it come about?
It started with LiveAid in England, and Harry Belafonte said we had to do something similar in America. I was called in because I had done an album with Donna Summer just before Thriller, with a song called State of Independence. For that, I had put together what I called the best choir in the world, including Michael Jackson, Lionel Ritchie, Stevie Wonder and Diana Ross. They called me because they said I was the only one crazy enough to deal with all those superstars—and we got it done. We had it very well-planned, and we calculated that you have to do the backgrounds first because if you do the solos first, the superstars leave. So we did the backgrounds first and planned where everybody stood—you can’t let that many superstars make the decisions.
Do you feel that We Are the World changed the way that the music business does social responsibility?
When everyone came in that room, we all became one. We didn’t need a sign saying ‘Check your egos in’, because they had come to do something good for people. I always respect them for that, but it was hard. After we had recorded the background, I had to tell 44 people that only 21 of them could sing solos. That was not easy and some were not happy. But the language then changed in the business, from ‘me’ and ‘I’ to ‘we’ and ‘us’—which was important, because we had to stop thinking about ourselves and think of others. When people walked into that room, they left behind their egos, because there were so many people there. It was a good song, but you never know whether it’s going to work. And the second one was terrible, because there were a lot of people interfering. That’s why I don’t like to do the same thing over again.
So we did something different in Rome in 2004, with 800,000 people in the Circus Maximus to raise the money for eight centres to educate children in the worst cities on the planet like Kigali, Nablus and Kabul. We had technology from Microsoft, Oracle and Cisco. Recently we’ve taken this forward with a big conference in Boston with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Google, which is setting up funding and education for African-American and Latin American kids – it’s going to be great. There’s some smart kids out there and they just need a chance.
How long will it take to make an impact?
I don’t know—just do it! We can give them a place to study and acquire information, and there’s no better place than MIT. I’ve been on its board for years with people like Marvin Minsky, Ray Kurzweil and Dean Kamen—they’re so smart. We are at a place in computer technology now where there’s going to be a jump in ten years from silicon microchips to carbon and hydrogen nanotechnology which will be a billion times faster. You’ll be able to buy a nanotechnology computer for $1,000 capable of 1 trillion transactions a second—it takes a million people to think like that. It’s going to turn the world upside down.
You faced difficulties when your career took off in the 1960s, but now there is all this technology. Is the world a better place now?
It’s better and worse, because there’s always yin and yang. Twenty-one countries could not have done the Arab Spring without technology, but in the wrong hands it can be used for bad things. That’s the chance you have to take, like in medicine: you can’t stop progressing because someone is going to mishandle it. You just have to pray for the best.
What advice would you give to a young musician—a 20-year-old Quincy Jones?
Work hard and study your craft, so that you know what you’re doing. The rappers are very talented, a lot like jazz musicians. I’ve worked with all of them, and my son produced a lot of them— Tupac, Ice Cube and all those guys. But they sample other people’s tracks, and don’t write any music. So I say to them: ‘What are you guys going to play in 20 years? You won’t have any music!’ Their background music samples everybody else’s music, and that’s not a good habit as far as I’m concerned. They should write some of their own music. All the musical geniuses have a common trait: they have their own identity—they know who they are. That’s why they have their own sounds, from Bob Dylan to Ray Charles.
You are here for the Montreux Jazz Festival. What attracts you to Switzerland?
I worked very closely with Claude Nobs [the Festival’s founder, who died in January 2013]. We met in New York and were friends for life. In 1991, he had me come over here to produce with him for nine years, the first including Miles Davis’s last concert. Montreux is the best festival in the world — the Rolls-Royce of festivals. I want to see Claude’s legacy kept alive. He was unconventional and mixed all the music up.
I’m the same way: after I co-produced a television show for Duke Ellington, he said that I could be the one to decategorise American music. What matters is that it is good music, and if you don’t work hard and study, it won’t be good — it’ll be accidental.