[This is a condensed version of an interview published in 2019 on TRB’s sister site, Speakhertz]
I first heard about Corney Mims through the release of his sample pack, Corney Mims Bass Pack Vol 1. I then became curious about his career and discovered that he’d done session work and live shows for the likes of Michael Jackson, Snoop Dogg and 2pac. So I reached out to him about doing an interview, and we ended up talking about his life as a bass player, his work with Quincy Jones and his current partnership of producing samples packs with MSXII Audio.
– Hi Corney. I heard you started in the industry by working alongside Freddie Perren, a famous producer in the 70s. Can you tell me about that?
Sure. My bass career began in 1980, right after graduating from high school. I’d been in college for less than a year when I got my first call to do professional session work for a producer named Sam Brown III. He had credits on big disco records at the time, and was also one of Freddie Perren’s staff writers. We’d run into each other earlier and he liked my playing, so when he called to offer a staff position, I took it.
I got my start at age nineteen, working on demo material for Freddie’s production company. We’d re-record the final versions if the demos were accepted and I later went to work with Freddie for about three years, playing bass for artists like
The Spinners, Tavares and Peaches & Herb.
– Was Freddie still writing for Motown Records when you started working with him?
No, he wasn’t. His work with The Jackson 5 and Smokey Robinson was over by the late 60s. But he had another run of success in the 70s, leading up to my job at his company, MVP Productions. By the time we met, he’d already become famous for other things, like his work on the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, and for writing Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive “, which was a huge record. He had a studio complex in LA and went on to have success with some other artists before his run ended. So I got involved at the tail end of that and was a part of his latter successes in the 80s.
– Was working with Freddie Perren a lucrative job?
Absolutely; it made me quite a bit of money. The music industry in the early 80s operated by the book, and many things were regulated by the unions. So I had a fixed rate for my work and got to a point where I was making two or three times that for a lot of sessions. It was a good time to be a young bass player in the industry.
– You worked with Quincy Jones in the 80s. Can you tell me how the two of you met and how that relationship evolved?
Ray Parker Jr’s best friend was a renowned drummer who had played with artists like The Rolling Stones and Stevie Wonder. His name was Ollie Brown, and he took me under his wing early on. I was fortunate to have a few other mentors that did the same thing for me at a young age, like Wah Wah Watson. It was through Ollie that I came to work with Quincy. He was doing a live show in 1985, and Ollie was playing drums on it. They needed a bass player at the last minute and Ollie gave me a strong recommendation. When I got the call, it came as a big surprise. This was Quincy Jones in late 1985 – he was a megastar at the height of his popularity. Everyone involved in the gig were stars as well, like Patti Austin and Brenda Russel, so I was the only musician with no reputation. But the show turned out awesome, and when Quincy was producing Michael Jackson’s “Bad” a year later, Ollie was called in to do drum work again. Drum machines had taken over by 1987. Bruce Forat and his brother purchased all of Linn Electronics’ remaining assets and released a remake of the Linn 9000, which they called the Forat F9000. It became a standard unit for most commercial studios, and I’d learnt how to use it pretty well. So when Quincy needed a programmer for it, Ollie Brown threw my name in the ring again, and I ended up at Westlake Studios to do drum programming.
– What was it like to work with Michael Jackson in the late 80s?
It was a great experience because of all the people involved. Frankly, the session musicians and engineers on “Bad” were the real stars in my eyes. People like Humberto Gatica, Greg Phillinganes and Bruce Swedien were fantastic at their jobs. To be completely honest with you, the only element that I found strange about those sessions was Michael Jackson himself. I thought he’d be more involved in the making of his own album, especially when someone like Quincy Jones was producing it. But Michael hardly left his loft above the control room. I think he had a video monitoring system there so he could see what was going on, but he never came down himself. So we’d work on his music for hours until Michael would yell from his loft, “Quincy! “, and Quincy would say, “Give me a second guys. Let me go talk to Michael “. Then he’d come back a few minutes later and say, “Alright, let’s get back to it “. That went on for two days straight, and I kept thinking to myself, “Is this guy ever going to come down from his loft and work with us? “. But no-one seemed to think it was odd except me. So I thought I’d never get to see him – until day three came. I had programmed a drum loop and was listening back to it when I inadvertently turned around and saw Michael peeking at us from around a wall at the back of the control room. But when he caught me looking at him, he jerked himself back around the wall like he didn’t want me to see him – I didn’t understand that at all; it was just weird.
My last day at Westlake was completely different though. On day four, a crew from HBO came over to film documentary footage of our session, and we had two studios filled with not only cameramen, but also children and pets. Quincy’s grand-kids were there, as well as Greg Phillinganes kids, Bruce Swedien’s dog, and Bubbles the chimpanzee. So the environment was different than it’d been before, and Michael decided to involve himself with the studio work that day. That’s when we worked on “Speed Demon“, which I programmed the drums for.
– What do you think was the reason for Michael’s odd behavior?
Well, entertainers don’t become successful just because of their own abilities or efforts. There are other elements that have to be aligned in order for someone to become a star. The work required for Michael Jackson to become an icon was a full-time job for the other people around him. So the conclusion I’ve come to is that being a star is overrated. I’d rather be the guy who helps to make the star. And nowadays, it’s rare to find a star who has undeniable talent like what we saw before, which makes their role even less appealing. When I grew up in the 70s, we were taught music at the most intimate level of detail; it wasn’t possible to work as a session musician otherwise. So it’s the knowledge of music that represents “talent” in my eyes, and not just knowing how to sing and dance, or operate recording software.
Y’know, I haven’t really looked into what Mark Ronson actually does. I don’t know if he’s a singer, a guitarist or a producer. It seems like he’s someone who brings different elements together to create a successful project, and I can respect that. But I’ve got to give it to Bruno Mars – I like him. He’s got talent, and has already said that he’s influenced by old-school music. In my opinion, if a person only wants to take inspiration from music made after 1990, they’re probably going to sound unimpressive. I think it’s a big mistake to neglect the music of the 70s if you’re trying to make something great.
– Your relationship with Michael Jacson continued after the “Bad” album, when you later signed to his publishing company, ATV Music. How did that happen?
My songwriting and production career kicked off in the mid-80s, and I ended up working on a project in 1986 with Bernadette Cooper, the front-woman of a band called Klymaxx. She got a deal on Atlantic Records for one of her groups called Madame X, and we partnered up to work on that. I co-produced a number of tracks on the album and co-wrote the lead single, “Just That Type of Girl“. It was sort of a goofy record, but it made noise on the RnB charts. Back then, publishing deals were being given out to anyone with a high-charting song, and the success of Madame X allowed me to shop around for my own deal. I took meetings with all the major publishers and received some interesting offers, but then Michael Jackson reached out from nowhere, even though I hadn’t solicited him. He’d just bought ATV Music, who owned the catalogs of major artists like The Beatles and Sly and The Family Stone, and was signing songwriters to produce new music the company. So he contacted me personally because of “Just That Type Of Girl”. My wife at the time called me when I was on tour to say, “Corney, I think Michael Jackson just called, so I gave him your hotel number “. Minutes later, MJ called my room, but I thought it was a friend of mine playing a joke, so I hung up. But he called back laughing, telling me it was actually him. He said, “I like your song, so we did some investigation and noticed that you don’t have a publishing deal “. He asked me to come by his house for a talk when I was back in LA, but I was worried because I didn’t want to sign all my publishing rights away, and I was afraid Michael would ask for that because of how aggressive of a businessman he was. But it was actually the opposite: when we met at his house and I told him about my other potential deals, he tripled the highest offer and only asked for 50% of my publishing over a period of four years. His deal completely smashed what Warner, EMI and Sony were offering, so I went with ATV.
– Were you able to write any lucrative music for ATV during those four years? Do you think Michael got his money’s worth for your deal?
I think he did. ATV believed in me and I absolutely did my best to produce good music for them. Michael may not have broken even, but I still had a lot of songs that did well, even though none of them were smash hits. My songs got a lot of placements in media, and some of them still provide me with residual income to this day.
– What was it like writing music for ATV and being an employee of Michael Jackson?
One of the greatest benefits of being signed to ATV was that I got to use Michael’s studio at the Hayvenhurst house for my work. He had a nice room that was compact and comfortable, and all three of the ATV staff writers got to make their demos there. I forget the first guy’s real name, but we called him “Skylark”, and I remember that he wrote a big song for Earth, Wind and Fire. I was the second writer to sign with ATV, and Michael asked me if I could recommend another person, so I brought in Keith Crouch. He went on to do great records for artists like Brandy, and I played bass on a lot of his stuff. So I spent a lot of time at that house from 1987-1991 and became good friends with the rest of the Jackson family since Michael was never there himself. He’d already moved to the Neverland Ranch by then.
– Did you have any more interactions with the Jacksons after your time at ATV was over?
Once the 90s came around, I became immersed in the hip-hop world because of my relationship with DJ QUIK. He brought me a lot opportunities, like working with Death Row Records and 2pac. So I didn’t communicate much with the Jacksons during that time. But I did reconnect with them in 1997. Tito Jackson’s sons had a group called 3T, and they were massive in Europe; it was like Beatlesmania for them over there. Tito was their manager, and due to my relationship with him, I ended up touring with them as a bass player. Tito had a solo project that I toured with as well.
During my time at the Hayvenhurst house, I also became friends with Randy Jackson. In my opinion, he’s the most musically talented of all his brothers, even more than Michael. He had a band called Randy and the Gypsys, and they released an album in 1989 that I was a part of. But the project never really took off because his label, A&M Records, also had Janet Jackson on their roster, and gave her all the attention. So Randy got lost behind his sister, even though his band had released a few singles and music videos. That was the extent of my association with the Jacksons after my ATV years.
– As someone who was a significant session musician in the 90s, can you tell me about some of your contemporaries? Who were the other in-demand session players of that time?
Well, things started to change in the 90s. In the 70s and 80s, certain musicians were being used to play on almost all the important records, and they were constantly in-demand. By the 90s, people had started sequencing with computers and samplers, so session work was drying up and it became hard to know who actually played on big records anymore. But if we look at the 70s and 80s, a name that comes to mind is Paul Jackson Jr. We’ve known each other since we were kids, and later went to high school together. He’s still a top-notch guitarist to this day. Ray Parker Jr was an impactful session player in the 70s, and Ricky Lawson was a great drummer from Detroit who recently passed away. I mentioned Greg Phillinganes earlier, who’s a keyboard player from Detroit. He’s Quincy Jones’ right-hand man on most of his music projects, and played on a lot of Michael Jackson’s records. Micheal Boddicker is a synth and drum programmer who became the guy of choice for everyone in the 80s. Another one that comes to mind is Wah Wah Watson, who I met through Freddie Perren. He passed away last year, but played on several big records from the 60s onwards, like The Temptations‘, “Papa Was A Rolling Stone” and Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On“. He even played on “Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite“ in the 90s.
In terms of contemporary session players, I can mention Rahsaan Patterson as a guy who makes great music, particularly within the neo-soul genre. There’s also a guy named Frank McComb, who’s like a combination of Herbie Hancock on keyboards and Donny Hathaway on vocals.
– Let’s talk about your work for Death Row Records. How did you become involved with them?
Death Row was initially built around Dr Dre, who’s my younger cousin, believe it or not. He’s a generation younger than me in the family. Since I was already established in the music industry by the mid-80s, he came to me for help during the N.W.A years. I played bass on the first Easy-E album, “Eazy-Duz-It “, but I was apprehensive to help Dre’s career because I didn’t think rap music would last. Obviously, I was wrong about that, but Dre and I still have a good relationship today. Anyway, after Dre and Suge Knight parted ways, I was connected with Death Row through DJ QUIK, who was doing some work there as producer. He brought me in to play bass on his records, alongside Robert Bacon on guitars and Warryn Campbell on additional production, and we became his go-to music crew. So once Dre left, DJ QUIK was offered his spot and brought his crew with him. That was how I became a part of the label in 1995 as a session bassist.
My first project was the soundtrack for “Murder Was The Case” – I played all the bass guitar on that. From there, we did the Tha Dogg Pound album with Daz Dillinger and Kurupt. But then 2pac joined the label roster unexpectedly. Suge had bailed him out from jail and signed him to Death Row, and we were told to put all other projects on hold and focus on his next album, “All Eyez On Me“. It took a lot of work to finish, and we were in the studio day in and day out. A lot of producers were involved, and a large part of the music we made was never even released.
(Below: “21 Jumpstreet” from “Murder Was The Case” soundtrack)
– What kind of relationship did you develop with 2pac during that time?
2pac wasn’t a guy I liked. Out of all the people I’ve worked with, I had the most unpleasant experiences with him. He had a negative energy around him that I could never relate to. We’d all be laughing and having fun in the studio until 2pac came around with a reckless attitude that never helped what we were doing. Because of the immediate success of “California Love”, he got caught up in the gangster persona that Death Row was about, and he wanted everything around him to reflect that. But I didn’t have patience for it because I knew it was contrived; I’d already seen him turn off his rap persona when he wanted to, so it annoyed me when he choose to portray that side of himself in the studio. But I did respect his abilities as a rapper; I watched him come up with a whole song in just five minutes, with nothing prepared beforehand. He’d walk into the studio and as soon as the beat started playing, he’d write his lyrics on the spot and be ready to record the whole song a few minutes later. So I felt like his talent was wasted because of how dedicated he was to his Death Row character.
– Can you tell me which recording engineers and producers worked at Death Row?
We had a few different engineers. Tommy D was one of them, who I still work with to this day. He worked on most of “All Eyez On Me”. John Payne was another engineer, and I also brought in some guys who worked with me at ATV, like Conley Abrams and Rick Clifford. Death Row also had in-house mix engineers like Dave Aron, who worked full-time at Can-Am Recorders, a studio that Suge had leased. We were there for a year and a half, doing different Death Row projects.
Johnny J handled most of the production of 2pac’s music. DJ QUIK had only made one album on Death Row before things fell apart due to problems with Suge. QUIK cared about making music and wasn’t into gangbanging and violence like Suge was. So he decided to leave Death Row, but his crew of musicians stayed on because we’d become friends with Johhny J, who became the new head producer. 2pac and Johnny had already worked together in the past, so he was brought in once QUIK left.
Johnny had been using samplers to sequence all of his past music and had never worked with live musicians before, so once he got a taste of that process, he became very prolific. That’s why we made so many tracks for “All Eyez On Me”. Also, he’d been given a virtually unlimited budget by Suge, and we recorded music like an assembly line, doing five or six tracks a day.
I also want to point out that Daz Dillinger was another producer for Death Row, which is something many people never gave him credit for.
– What’s your opinion on Suge Knight? The lore around him is that he was a strongman with aggressive tendencies, whilst others have said those stories were exaggerated.
I saw two different sides to Suge. Similarly to Johnny J, he came from a background where producers worked with samplers and drum machines. So when he saw how live musicians played together, he was impressed, and I appreciated that. But he had another side to him that was ruthless, just like 2pac, and there was a lot of violence at Can-Am as a result of that. I remember a bunch of times when we’d be in the middle of a recording session, and suddenly a guy would come running through the studio with eight other guys chasing him to beat him up. That happened regularly. Every time I looked up from my music work, I’d see someone getting beat up. Stuff like that was because of Suge and his street alignments. His gang affiliates would always have meetings at Can-Am, and if a member needed to be disciplined, they’d do it at the studio. I just thought it was unnecessary, but I stayed working at Death Row because we were all making so much money and the music was good.
– Is it true that Death Row refused to pay you for your last round of session work, and that Snoop Dogg had to intervene on your behalf?
Yes, that’s true. I’m surprised you know about that. After 2pac died, things went downhill for Death Row, starting in 1997. Snoop owed the label one more album, which became “Tha Doggfather“, but he didn’t really care much about that record; he just wanted to fulfill his contract and be done with Suge so he could join Dr Dre at Interscope. But he had to do a promo run for the album, and since I’d become the Musical Director at the label, he called me to help put together a band for his Saturday Night Live performance. He knew that I’d done the same for 2pac’s SNL show the year before, and the band sounded great. In my opinion, 2pac himself was the only one that didn’t deliver on his performance. He was screaming and jumping around for the first two songs, “California Love” and “So Many Tears“, and it sounded terrible.
– Why do you think 2pac’s performance was off? Hadn’t he rehearsed his parts?
No, he hadn’t. Death Row called to request that I put together a band for 2pac’s upcoming SNL performance in 1996. So I did that, and expected that we’d all get together to practice for a few weeks before the show. But 2pac never showed up to any of our rehearsals – not a single one, over a period of three weeks. I kept asking myself, “Where is this guy? We’re rehearsing for his show, yet he can’t bother to show up even once? “. The problems only became more embarrassing when the band showed up in New York at the set. SNL uses Thursday as an important preparation day for the final rehearsals, so any performing artist has to be present. But once again, 2pac didn’t bother showing up, and the producers were looking at me like, “Where the heck is 2pac? “, but I had no clue and could only shrug my shoulders and look stupid. They were like, “We’ve never had an artist just no-show for his camera block. So what do we do? Do we re-book him? Or find another artist? Is he even going to show up on Saturday? “. I don’t like being put in positions like that, and it’s the kind of thing Death Row did repeatedly. But thankfully, Pac and Suge showed up on Saturday morning, although they had a twenty-man entourage with them and started smoking weed in the studio. The SNL cast were looking at us like we were crazy.
Fast-forward to January 1997, and it was Snoop’s turn to perform on SNL to promote his album, and I got another call from Death Row to help out again as the Musical Director. But they owed me $25,000 for my past session work, so I refused to help them. Even when Snoop called me about it, I was like, “Look man, you’re my brother, but the label owes me a lot of session money and they don’t answer my calls about it. You know that paying their staff has become issue for them “. So Snoop said he would get my money and I received a call from the label shortly thereafter to pick up a cheque for $25,000. His SNL show turned out great. Snoop wasn’t like 2pac at all; he was about doing good business, making music and having fun, so working with him was a completely different experience.
– What if Death Row hadn’t paid you? Would you have sued them?
Absolutely. They had a year of outstanding debt owed to me and no-one was returning my phone calls, so I was already setting up legal action when Snoop intervened. It was a shame, because Death Row hadn’t always behaved like that. Their stinginess with money only started once “All Eyez On Me” went multi-platinum. Suge started blowing money recklessly by the millions, and I think it came back hurt the label. Interscope was like, “We’re not giving you any more money. We already paid you. If you owe someone, that’s your problem now “.
– Let’s talk about “All Eyez On Me”. I’ll mention some tracks, and you can tell me if you played bass on them, and what the recording process was like:
How Do U Want It: I played on that one. That track was interesting because when I came into the studio, Johnny J had already looped a sample that I recognized from Quincy Jones’ “Body Heat“, and I thought it was cleverly done. I remember telling Johnny, “You need to stop whatever else you’re doing and let me play a bass-line to that “.
All About U: I played the bass on that one, with Johnny J on production. Obviously, we just recreated Cameo’s “Candy“. The comical part of the song is how Snoop, 2pac and Nate Dogg came up with the hook. There were twenty people in the studio and everybody was passing joints around as the Million Man March was being shown on TV. Snoop caught sight of a CNN interview with a girl he recognized from one of his music videos. Back then, she played the role of a raunchy video chick, but now she was in the streets talking like a social activist and Snoop thought it was funny. That’s what inspired all of them to write “All About U”. It was also one of the few good experiences I had with 2pac. I think because Snoop and Nate was there, it created a positive atmosphere that made him want to have fun and make music.
Skandalouz: I was on that, and Daz Dillinger handled the production. He set up the track and I played bass, with Warryn Campbell on the Fender Rhodes. Daz did so many records that people don’t know about, and he’s a really solid producer in his own right.
2 of Americas Most Wanted: That’s a synth bass, so I wasn’t on that. But it’s another one of Daz Dillinger’s productions.
I Ain’t Mad At Cha: There are two versions of that song. I wasn’t on the original, which Daz produced. But I’m on the version that was used for the music video, which is a live recreation. I think we just started playing it in the studio, spontaneously recorded it for fun, and it later got used by the label for the music video.
– I’ll mention a few names in the industry and you can tell what interaction you had with them in your career.
Janet Jackson: Despite all the interaction I had with the Jackson family, I never had a personal relationship with Janet, even though the opportunities were presented. I was actually a part of the original band for her Rhythm Nation tour, but I was cut off by my band members before it started. Janet had reached out to our keyboard player, Chuckii Booker, to offer us the opening slot on the tour, as well as to offer Chuckii the position of Band Director. Since I was the bass player in Chuckii’s band on the opening slot, I assumed I’d also play bass for the main band with Janet. But the other members decided to bring in another bassist without any real explanation. These were guys that I went to high school with, like Thomas Organ, Kipper Jones and Derrick Organ. But getting cut from the band was a blessing in disguise because I ended up working as the Musical Director and Supervisor on a successful TV show called “Big Break” whilst the band was on tour. “Big Break” is where R Kelly got his start by winning the first season.
Dave Grusin: There’s a club in the San Fernando Valley called The Baked Potato, and a lot jazz and fusion music that came through there in the 70s. Back when we were in high school, Paul Jackson Jr and I used to sneak in there with help from Lee Ritenour, who took a liking to Paul and later became his teacher. Lee would play regularly at The Baked Potato and Dave Grusin would play keys with him. So Lee would sneak us in and let us sit in the back of the club, and we got a chance to know Dave during that time as well.
Prince: I used to be in a band called Tease with the guys I talked about from the Rhythm Nation tour. We were discovered by Ollie Brown, and he got us our first record deal in 1982. We ended up with the same management firm as Prince’s, and were later connected to him by our accountant, Fred Moultrie. So when he was in LA, we’d hang out backstage or at after-parties with him and his band, The Revolution.
– Despite your ongoing music career, you haven’t worked with Dr Dre since the 80s. Is there a reason for that, considering that you’re cousins?
It wouldn’t be hard to call someone close to Dre and ask to speak with him, but I guess there’s a pride element involved because of our history. Dre’s career really kicked off in the 90s thanks to “The Chronic“. I don’t know if he reached out to me for help during that time, but I was so far gone on drugs that I missed the boat if he did. So understandably, he had to keep moving forward without me, even though I was family. He’s only had success after success since then, from Aftermath to “2001” and Beats By Dre. So to call him up today would be tough. I’d have to apologize for not believing in rap music in the 80s, and for not being around in the 90s when he might have reached out to work with me. But to be honest, I’m happy with the path I’m on right now, and I’m also very happy for Dre’s success. I’m sure we’ll speak about everything that happened back then, since we still have a good relationship.
– Thanks for this interview Corney. Last question: would you say that you’ve done well in your post-Death Row era? Do you feel like your career might have taken a dip since then, since you’re no longer a part of production crews that make multi-platinum albums?
Great things have happened to me since working at Death Row, and I’ve never been without activity. My name is pretty solidified in LA and certain places around the world, and people still reach out to me for music work. So my career never really dipped, other than when I was sidetracked by my drug use. But ever since I got clean in the late 2000s, I’ve never had any problems in my career. I’ve always had friends who understood that I was a good musician, and they always said that I could call them for work when I’d fixed my personal issues. So I never burned my bridges even at my low points, and I’ve been able to stay involved in relevant music projects to this day. For example, I’m part of a band called Fantastic Negrito, and we won two Grammys for “Best Contemporary Blues Album” in 2016 and 2019. That’s been my highest accolade in the industry, and it’s funny how things change when you win a Grammy (laughs). People suddenly look at you a little different. I’m also on tour with the a group called the Dennis Jones Band, which is amazing. We’re doing well in the US, and just got back from a tour in Canada last week. So at almost 60 year old, I don’t feel like I’ve declined as a bassist. I don’t see myself waking up one day and thinking, “Wow, I’m not funky anymore. How did that happen? “. The work of a bass player will always be relevant in this industry. As long as I don’t start playing my bass like a lead guitar, which I see a lot of young people doing nowadays, I’ll be fine. A bass guitar has always been used to provide a song with it’s harmonic foundation, and there will always be good job security in that.