The recording booth at Runway Studios
It doesn’t look like the kind of place where Janet Jackson would hang out. But for 15 years, some of the pop diva’s biggest hits—along with songs by Boyz II Men and Mariah Carey—were created in a nondescript office building just off France Avenue in Edina, near Centennial Lakes Park.
Until 2003, this was Flyte Tyme Studios, the home base of Minneapolis superproducers Jimmy “Jam” Harris and Terry Lewis. It’s where Janet recorded “Scream” with her brother Michael, where she and her dancers rehearsed, where she shouted “Minneapolis!” in the middle of “Escapade.”
It looks a lot better on the inside. Well, it does now, anyway. For more than a year, Richard McCalley, Jason Miller, and Dave Lapsley worked to construct Runway Studios, refurbishing the building when its previous tenant vacated. Now there’s an impressive, state-of-the-art studio space where Flyte Tyme once operated. It opened to the public in January. It’ll close at the end of October.
That’s when real estate developer Aeon will take possession of the building and the two-acre lot it sits on, with plans to construct a $22-million, 80-unit affordable housing project on the site. You probably could’ve guessed that’s how this story would end.
By 1987 Janet’s Control had made Jam and Lewis highly in-demand producers, and they’d outgrown their old studio space on 43rd and Nicollet. Rather than leave town, though, they headed out to the ’burbs and constructed a five-studio complex up to their exacting specs.
But the demands of the industry meant the producers had to spend more time in Los Angeles, and in 2003, tired of the commute, Jam and Lewis officially moved their business out west. The Edina building was sold for $2.3 million the following year. It wound up back on the market in 2008.
That’s when the building passed to local music industry veterans Richard McCalley and Tom Tucker. “Tom called me one day and said, ‘Hey, let’s buy the place,’” McCalley remembers. “It was just sitting here, and it had such a cool history, so many stars have been through here.”
As you may recall, 2008 was hardly an ideal time for real estate investment. After the market crash, “it was pretty rough going,” McCalley says. But he found a tenant: the Minneapolis Media Institute, a branch of the Madison Media Institute, which stayed there for eight years. When the music school moved out, McCalley placed the building on the market. (Tucker had died a few years earlier.) But he still had plans for the space.
“Richard had the idea to open the studios to the public, since they never had been before,” Miller says. “I started putting together a plan of how to do that strategically, and we decided to move forward.”
Then McCalley lost his wife, Joni, to cancer, and he could no longer play as active a role in the project as he’d planned. So Miller took the reins and brought in Lapsley, a Nashville native whose family had relocated to Minnesota. He’d worked in his hometown music industry and spent nine years touring as Kip Moore’s guitarist.
“When we came in there were half-working fluorescent lights in an empty room,” Miller says of Studio A. There wasn’t much remaining from the Flyte Tyme days other than a series of original Westlake speakers that needed rewiring and an old Yamaha drum kit. But the space itself, soundproof and constructed for an ideal balance of tone, was the kind nobody builds anymore, according to Miller. “They really built it out the way it should be,” Miller says, complimenting the studios’ “acoustical infrastructure.”
The results of the restoration project are gorgeous. With walls of finished wood, the rooms have a vibe that’s both casual and professional, and the recording desk Miller fashioned combines modern capabilities with an old-school analog look. A piano he found on Craigslist for $40 and rebuilt offers what he calls a “kind of an old-school soulful sound.” And the old drum set’s been brought up to speed.
The Runway crew has preserved what little remains of the Flyte Tyme era. Images of great African-American musicians, including Duke Ellington and the Supremes, gaze down on musicians from the ceiling of Studio A. This series of works was commissioned by Terry Lewis from the great Minneapolis artist Ta-coumba Aiken.
When you enter the front lobby, you’re greeted by a familiar framed and autographed photo of Jam and Lewis in their shades and fedora, as well as a desk with a foundation made of glass blocks that give off pink light—the height of ’80s kitsch glam. And on each studio door you’ll find another remnant of the old days: a plaque with a colorful name matching its corresponding letter. Studio A is Audacious, Studio B, Bodacious. Studio Contagious and Studio Dangerous are just down the hall.
“Our goal when we first went into this was, because of the facility we had here, is we really wanted to make this place a hub,” says Miller. The rise in home studio technology, while a boon, has atomized the music scene, creating what he calls “the biggest issue with the Minneapolis recorded music scene.” According to Miller, “There are so many talented people and they’re all on their little islands all over the place, and people don’t interact as maybe they think they do.”
But Runway hasn’t quite taken on the central role that its creators envisioned. The New Power Generation rehearses there; NPG drummer Kirk Johnson has booked some additional projects. And there are other clients as well. But if you’re looking to book studio time at Runway, they’ve probably got some free.
And they still are looking for business: The studio will remain open till the end of October. “We wanted to build more of a community,” Miller says. “We just never quite got there. Hopefully we’ve made some connections.”
Still, none of the men involved seem to have any regrets about the effort they spent. “It would have been a shame to bring it all down without people getting an opportunity to experience it,” Miller says. “We wanted to see what was possible.”