When former Fly Girl Jennifer Lopez decided she wanted to pursue a proper music career, she was just coming off her starring role as Selena Quintanilla-Pérez in the 1997 musical biopic Selena. But she faced plenty of skeptics — even after landing a record deal with Sony. “She wasn’t hearing it, though,” says longtime manager Benny Medina. “It would be like, wait a minute, don’t you understand? This is a girl that popped off In Living Color to become Selena — why would you ever second guess she couldn’t step out there and be J.Lo?”
Although some were wary, there were early believers – and influential ones. Once former Sony Music Entertainment chief executive Tommy Mottola heard her demo, he immediately brought her in to sign a contract. “I didn’t know what to ask for,” Lopez says now, speaking from a rehearsal in Los Angeles for her upcoming hits-filled It’s My Party summer tour (it kicks off at the Forum on June 7). “I was so young and clueless at the time, so I said, ‘I want an A-list deal like all the big stars,'” she recalls. “There’s something about being that young — there’s a little bit of ignorance that goes with it, because you don’t know what’s going to happen and so you have all these lofty ideas.”
Her naivete paid off. She inked a deal with Mottola at Sony, and her debut album, On the 6 — released 20 years ago this June 1 — was an immediate smash. “We had everybody who was anybody writing for the project,” says Mottola. “It was every great producer and hot writer at the time.”
That included songwriter and producer Rodney Jerkins, fresh off the Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 smash “The Boy Is Mine” by Brandy & Monica. “I didn’t sense any fear in her,” Jerkins recalls. “We knew that if we delivered the right song she could bring it home.”
And she did. J.Lo’s debut single “If You Had My Love” shot to No. 1 on the Hot 100 one month after its release and stayed on top for five weeks. It was also the No. 2 contender for Song of Summer in 1999, behind only Christina Aguilera’s “Genie In A Bottle.” “The whole experience was like a fairytale, watching the princess become a queen,” says “Love” co-writer and On the 6 co-executive producer Cory Rooney. “And I felt like her knight.”
“If You Had My Love” wasn’t the only hit off the album. Her Spanish-language duet with future husband Marc Anthony, “No Me Ames,” topped the Hot Latin Songs chart, and her club classic “Waiting for Tonight” hit the Hot 100’s top 10. On the 6 itself moved 1.9 million units in the U.S. in 1999, according to Nielsen Music, and has since sold another million. “[The album] showed us that Jennifer was going to go way past what our expectations were,” Mottola says. “She was relentless as a worker. Always on time, always pleasant, and unlike a lot of people, very grateful and thankful.”
“The combination of Jennifer Lopez and what was the Sony powerhouse machinery then and the quality of that music — it all hit the marks,” Medina says. “You felt it instantly. Every time she walked on a video set, it felt so magical. The truth of the matter is we’re in a business of magic, and that period in time and that group of people and the intensity and effort were magic. All the stars lined up.”
As for Lopez herself, there was never a doubt in her mind that it would work out. “I just followed my gut,” she says. “It is exactly what it was supposed to be for that moment. I’m proud of it and it set off an amazing journey for me musically that I’m still on today, and I couldn’t be more grateful.”
On its 20th anniversary, J.Lo, Mottola, Medina, Jerkins and Rooney are sharing memories of some key tracks from her blockbuster debut.
“Talk About Us”
“Talk About Us” was the first song recorded for the album, even though its writer was one of the last people to meet with Lopez when Mottola was introducing her to industry players at his office. Thanks to his car breaking down in a torrential downpour and temporarily being stranded on a bridge into Manhattan, Rooney arrived at Mottola’s office late to meet with Lopez.
Rooney: I was so soaking wet to the bone [that day]. The leather bomber coat I had, I threw in the trash the moment I got there. So I got late to the party. But Tommy had a piano in his lounge, and we’re all talking — the songwriters, Diane Warren and everybody — and I sing a song I had started writing.
Lopez: From Babyface to Diane Warren to David Foster, they all came in to meet me, and the last person who came in late [was Rooney]. He was soaking wet, and he was sitting at the piano playing when we came out. He was playing a song he had just written the day before called “Talk About Us,” and I was like, “I really like that, that’s pretty,” and Tommy was like, “You guys go into the studio tomorrow and record it.” And that was my first experience in a recording studio. It was fast.
Rooney: My first impression of her was that she was probably the hungriest artist I had ever worked with or encountered. She wanted it so bad. She didn’t know what to expect so she dressed really comfortably [for that session] — nice, but comfortable. It was like nice, elegant comfortable clothes, and she was really mellow. I don’t think she was expecting to come out with a song completed that night, but we did. We took our time. At the time, she didn’t feel comfortable as a vocalist, but it was something she had always wanted in her heart to do. So I immediately took on the position: “You know what? I’m gonna help you do it. I’m going to help you achieve this goal mainly because you want it, and your attitude is 1000% better than most of the artists who have been given this blessing of a record deal and come in and act like they barely want to get in the vocal booth.”
Lopez: He was like, “You have a really beautiful voice, you just need to have confidence and let it out.” Cory was a great writing partner for me, producing partner for me, and a great mentor – I don’t think he gets enough credit as a producer and artist with the guidance he gave to me and so many other artists. We had a very special relationship and we still do.
“If You Had My Love”
Sultry, confident yet vulnerable, the alluring “If You Had My Love” was Jennifer Lopez’s debut single, and a Hot 100 chart-topper. But before it established Lopez as a rising star to watch, the song’s writers almost accidentally gave it to the King of Pop.
Jerkins: [Mottola told me], “I have this artist who I believe will be a superstar really soon,” and he was looking for that breakthrough first single record. And me, at the time, it was like, “I get it. Let me go to the studio and create what I feel.” After studying a little bit and talking to him about it, and him playing me other songs she’d already recorded with Cory, I went into the studio and created. And myself and my team and Cory Rooney wrote this song called “If You Had My Love.”
Lopez: They would play me songs and I would say which ones I like. And luckily, I had an ear for good pop music. The minute I heard “If You Had My Love,” I knew, “I love that, I want to do that.” It was simple.
Jerkins: I started with the music first, because I wanted to make sure Tommy and everyone liked the music first. From what I understand, I wasn’t in that meeting, but the day I sent the track in to Tommy and Cory Rooney, they were in the office with Michael [Jackson].
Rooney: Michael’s listening to [various] tracks, and when he gets to that track I’m crossing my fingers going, “oh my god, I hope he doesn’t like it.” But instead – Rodney wasn’t in the room – but Michael starts going, “Oh, I like this one.” I’m glad because he likes it, but I felt it wasn’t a good Michael song — it was a great Jennifer song. So my heart is sinking. He goes, “Man, I like this one,” but then he looks at me, “But not for me! But man, this will be a great record for somebody.” And I just, I celebrated to myself quietly. Then we ran back to the studio, immediately, and LaShawn Daniels, he and I were in the studio, Jennifer met us that day, and we started putting together those lyrics.
Jerkins: It was always meant for Jennifer. It wasn’t meant for anyone else but Jennifer.
Mottola: We wanted everything to be perfect. I think we did a pretty good job.
Jerkins: It’s a song that forever will be played.
“Waiting for Tonight”
A dance-pop diversion on an album full of R&B, hip-hop and Latin influences, this iconic club track hit No. 8 on the Hot 100 and remains one of her best-loved songs. On the 6 also included a Spanish-language version of the song, “Una Noche Mas.”