40 Years Later, Thriller’s Grammy Sweep Still Resonates

Professors Lil' John Roberts and Mimi Jones, part of the team leading the upcoming Michael Jackson Ensemble concert, share their thoughts on the most successful album of all time.

February 28, 2024
John Roberts Image

Lil' John Roberts serves as the concert's executive musical director.
Image courtesy of the artist

Image by Benjamin Brown

February 28 marks 40 years since Michael Jackson’s game-changing album Thriller took home eight trophies at the 1984 Grammy Awards. His wins that night included Album of the Year, Record of the Year, and Best Engineered Recording. This historic moment confirmed what many music fans already knew: Thriller was not only an all-time record (one that still holds strong as the best-selling album ever with over 50 million certified copies), but a masterpiece that would alter the direction of mainstream entertainment.

On April 12 and 13, Berklee will present Michael Jackson Ensemble: Human Nature as part of the college’s spring Signature Series. Tia Fuller, professor of ensembles, is the show's executive director, along with Lil' John Roberts, professor of ensembles and percussion, serving as executive musical director, and Mimi Jones, associate professor of ensembles, as director. Roberts previously worked with Jackson and toured extensively with Janet Jackson during her 1998 Velvet Rope tour.

In recognition of the anniversary, we spoke with Roberts and Jones about why Thriller has remained such a force that continues to inspire generations of artists.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

How did this album change people's perception about how a record could impact the global culture?

Mimi Jones: Thriller set a new standard in multimedia across the board for music, music videos, cinematography, choreography, and storyline for a song. The production of the music was a great combination of pop/funk with elements of other genres. It was classic and revolutionary at the same time. Could you imagine creating a 13-minute music video at that time and even in our present day? Videos after this would now take more time to create an actual storyline and incorporate a much higher level of cinema instead of a cheesy ad for the song. It was also rare to see an African American man and his African American girlfriend admired and be the stars of the video, where they both were depicted in a beautiful and normal light, when so many movies still had Black people looking angry, menacing, or on drugs.

The album took home eight Grammys, including Album of the Year, Record of the Year, and Best Engineered Album. Is there an aspect of Thriller that still stands out to you as particularly singular or genre-defining, such as the songwriting and the production?

Lil' John Roberts: The things that stand out to me is the production blend of programming and live musicians. They found a way to marry both and have it grooving so hard. The players were tight! My buddy Jerry Hey on the horn arrangements, David Paich, Tom Bahler, Brian Banks, Greg Phillinganes, David Foster, Jeff Porcaro, Steve Porcaro, Steve Lukather, and many, many others made profound contributions to the album. It changed the way that pop music sounded.

Professor Roberts, you've worked with Michael Jackson, and you toured extensively with Janet Jackson as well. What would you say are the essential hallmarks of successful entertainers such as Michael and Janet Jackson from the standpoint of creating and sustaining success as a performing artist?

Roberts: The things that stood out to me working with Michael and Janet was how hard they worked and their dedication to the art, striving to reach perfection the best way they could. Even if it wasn’t perfect, you had to bring your A-game all the time, and push past that to be even greater. We would rehearse for hours, days, weeks, months before we hit the road. We knew the parts in our sleep, and every night just got better and better! I didn’t get to tour with Michael, but I did a session in the studio for him, and later on he reached out to me asking if I was interested. I was elated just being asked by him.

Do you have a favorite song from the record and why?

Jones: This is such a difficult question; I seriously love every song on the record. The storytelling, harmonic movement, and production of all the sounds integrated in “Human Nature” were done so succulently, it's like fine chocolate. Michael's voice is hypnotic. [It felt like] everyone needed this in their lives. The groove alone in "Billie Jean" gives us all an empowered feeling. Even if we didn't understand all the lyrics or what the song was about. It's edgy and kind of angry. I love that it has so many strings playing but has more of a rock edge.

Roberts: OMG! It’s so hard to pick one song from that album that I like the most—they are all amazing! One that stood out to me was “P.Y.T.” because of the syncopated groove and those chipmunk-ish sounding background vocals in the chorus. But "Billie Jean" because of the video with the lighting up floor tiles was outstanding. But “Thriller”? No question that is the one! The groove, the theatrics of the song, accompanied by the video of course. Game changing!

Talk to us about the upcoming Michael Jackson Ensemble concert at the Berklee Performance Center.

Berklee's Michael Jackson Ensemble Group

Members of the Michael Jackson Ensemble.

Image courtesy of the artists

Roberts: I’m very proud of the work that we are all putting in for the MJ Ensemble tribute, from the professors Tia Fuller, Mimi, Jhony Keys, Anthony Burrell, and myself; along with the creative team, the band, and the students (vocalists and band, programmers, dancers)—it’s a lot! We have a working list of almost 50 songs! We would need a lot more time to really dig into the production and theatrical side of things. We’re trying to teach the songs and choreography first, but there will be some theatrics as well. Like Professor Fuller says in rehearsals, “the music comes first,” so we are trying to keep the integrity of that as the top priority.

Jones: Yes, of course, everyone is putting in so many extra hours just to be able to touch an inkling of the mastery that was created back then. In attempting to honor MJ's music in this upcoming production, I would say getting the students to have the maturity and finesse to play this music is one of the hardest things in this production. It's not just a repetitive loop, it was created by real instruments and offers so much emotion and passion. Not only that, but we need to study the choreography, Michael's exceptional and difficult vocal range and ability, and a multitude of other details and minutiae as well as the visuals, all while incorporating as many hits—and some lesser known but beautiful songs—into one concert. This is definitely not a task for those who don't feel like working or donating overtime!