As Prince unveils his new album and prepares for his first U.S. tour in three years, Scott Poulson-Bryant asks, Can he ever regain his crown? A rare interview.
By Scott Poulson-Bryant
In people’s minds, it all boils down to “Is Prince getting too big for his britches?” I wish people would understand that I always thought I was bad. I wouldn’t have gotten into the business if I didn’t think I was bad.
— Prince 1985
SPIN: How did you manage to get Prince to sit down and talk?
ME: I don’t really have the answer to that question. I just sorta showed up at Paisley Park and, well, we chilled out.
There’s this guy, see. He’s from this midwestern metropolis that’s majority white and not really known for a whole lot of musical innovation. He comes out with this record, For You, full of falsetto vocals and sexual come-ons, and word is he played all the instruments himself, wrote all the songs, sang all the parts, the works. And his name is Prince. Not his chosen name; his given name. And he’s black. Then another record—a huge black radio hit. Called “I Wanna Be Your Lover.” Lyric: “I wanna be the only one who makes you come . . . running.” Then another record: Dirty Mind. And the brother is decked out in bikini drawers and a raincoat, high-heeled boots, hair a tattered mess of straightened locks. A screaming-guitar, keyboard-driven half hour fairly dripping with the barely—20s precum imagination of a brother who might as well be from another planet. Masturbation, incest, and an early Saturday Night Live appearance, complete with a funk-punk toppling of the mike stand, and a star is born. Rock critics can’t get enough—thought Hendrix died?—and hipper listeners settled in for a bumpy ride across the start of the Republican ’80s.
Controversy: some wack political stuff ("Ronnie, Talk to Russia"?) and some necessary questions asked. Is he black or white? Is he straight or gay? And 1999, an apocalyptic worldview at 23. Après ça? Le déluge: Purple Rain, Purple Rain, in which the Kid does his own dang, conjuring up the spirits of masters past and going crazy, crying like a dove, taking us with him, telling us he’s a star. Fifteen million folks worldwide agreed.
SPIN: So you met the band members first, right?
ME: I got to Paisley Park on a Saturday. Everything was quiet. Driving up, through the wooded terrain of Chanhassen, Minnesota, you don’t expect to find this gleaming metropolis of sound production nestled back from the road. The outside is a glittering, eye-catching white. I imagine that it might get lost in the snow of those Minneapolis winters.
It’s Saturday, so nobody’s really around except for a few engineers chomping away on cookies in the lounge-kitchen area who let me in. Everything is wood and pastels. Gray, blue, green, pink, and, of course, purple pastels. The couches in the waiting area, the tables in the dining space. Through here, I go to Studio B, where Rosie Gaines, keyboardist and vocalist and recent addition to the New Power Generation, Prince’s new band, is behind the spit-polished glass, tapping her feet to the beat of a slammin’ demo. Her blond hair, an amalgam of ’locks and braids and loose strands, is a colorful addition to an already colorful recording space, dominated by a sprawling mural (circa Graffiti Bridge) depicting Prince-ian signs of symbols of love and hope and sex and dreams.
Should they punch in a vocal here? Where’s the sample in this part? Questions asked in the serene blanket of recording hums, but none of the frantic hubbub often encountered in a recording studio, particularly when there’s a tour to rehearse for and multiple parts to learn and. . .
“I sang this melody to Prince, and he immediately wanted a demo put down. So I was up all night, in here all day, laying down these tracks,” Rosie says, smiling. “Prince makes you want to work. You learn. I’ve had my own band before, so I know how it can be to get people together to work.” We talk about the new Prince album, on which Rosie’s gospelized vocals are prominently featured, and the live dates already done in L.A., where Prince is now, doing Prince things. “He said you’d be in town,” Rosie says.
Oh, well, no meeting with Prince. Guess I’ll go to his new club.
Glam Slam is an old warehouse turned into a nightspot by Prince and Gilbert Davison. The crowd mixes hip hop hippies and tall white women in skin-tight dresses. Eight TV monitors play the Sign o’ the Times concert film, and it occurs to me that the oft-requested concert album is actually a concert film, filled with the fronts and poses that even a musician of Prince’s ability couldn’t convey on vinyl. The DJ from L.A. spins much Prince. I can’t remember a time when I danced to “When Doves Cry,” “Kiss,” “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” and “Alphabet St.” all at the same party.
I meet Damon Dickson and Tony M., dancers in the New Power Generation (Tony also raps). Cool guys, chatting with women, dressed to kill, guys from Prince’s ’hood who’ve waited out their talented time and joined the crew. Like Rosie, they don’t seem to be disciples of Prince, but rather members of a band, bringing their own funky cogs to a smoothly running machine. Quips Tony, “The New Power Generation is a band Prince doesn’t have to babysit.”
I didn’t speak to Michael Bland, the new drummer who rehearses eight hours a day with the band then plays several nights a week with local jazz or blues or rock bands. I didn’t have to get quotes from Bland—he speaks through the sticks and kit. His big drum sound says, “My addition to the band is a necessary addition. The drumming is real, the time changes are real. If one considers the new record to be kind of T. Rex meets the Ohio Players, my playing might have something to do with that. Whatever. I can play.”
So then he comes out with Around the World in a Day. The critic’s darling (All of them love you in New York, he reminded us on 1999), the cinema heir apparent to all those rebels without causes, the pop craftsman who proudly dangled an uncut heady mix of rock licks, synth-pop, and funk-fusion before the mass public locker room called popular culture—what does he do? A “psychedelic” album, the first under the Paisley Park auspice, and according to most, the beginning of the end.
Prince has shot his load, people seemed to say. Didn’t help that there were supposed to be no singles, no more touring, just this “artistic statement” to end all artistic statements. All the talk obscured the regal balladry of “Condition of the Heart” and customized brio of “Pop Life.” Classics both lost in the mix. Then a movie—Under the Cherry Moon—and a brilliantly wobbly foray into classicism. Parade’s orchestrally arranged strings and horns bumped up against grinders like “Kiss” and “Girls and Boys” and “Anotherloverholenyohead.” More classics lost in the mix.
Mix, did you say? Did anyone hear that mix on BLS the other night? That rap stuff, yeah, the DJ mixed Run-D.M.C. into L.L. Cool J, then spun right into something else hard-as-hell, taking no shorts, wearing no heels, perming no hair, not crying like any dove we’ve ever heard.
Questions asked, “Have you heard the new Prince album?” “Nah, but Raising Hell is dope. That shit is real.” Nubian princes strutting their stuff, out of the ghetto and into many other neighborhoods. This is the new black music power. No androgyny, all masculine brawn.
Then the masterpiece. Sign o’ the Times, another double-album effort, all over the place and in the pocket. Isn’t this man a musician? Five minutes and 34 seconds into “Adore": Listen to the piano arpeggios, the harpsichord dipping and spinning under the multitracked voice of Prince. But who needs musicianship? We want beats.
Lovesexy replaces The Black Album as the 1988 release, introduced by “Alphabet St.” a perky, danceable number that doesn’t prepare you for the incredibly fluid flotation sensation of “Anna Stesia,” a song with waves of raw emotions you can ride. Then Batman, with “Vicki Waiting,” the best Stevie Wonder cut Stevie never wrote after Hotter Than July. Set free by the movie’s utter ridiculousness, Prince’s sure-footed pop craft, fueled by some up-to-the-minute studio cutting and sampling only serves to bring him to the unfinished funk of Graffiti Bridge. Okay movie, one perfect song ("Joy in Repetition"), and boom, critics still loved him, but the fans said no go. (This is the Daisy Age, remember.)
Questions that don’t get asked. Everyone’s always ready to call Prince an heir to the self-styled antics of Hendrix and Clinton and James Brown and . . . but who stood up to say that Prince’s sex and race and faith debates filtered down through the minds of those hip hop nationals? The ’80s belonged to a newfound black expression—who were all these black folks, black men, adopting new names, flaunting their difference, grabbing their thangs, and talking about it? They were the nephews of one Prince Rogers Nelson, whose work said, “Here I am. I’m religious, I’m spiritual, but I like to fuck.” Sexuality is all I’ll ever need. Marcia, I’m not saying this to be nasty, but I sincerely want to fuck the taste out of your mouth. . . . Can you relate?
SPIN: So what was Paisley Park like? Did you meet Prince?
ME: Well it’s like this. Paisley Park is different during the day. A group of kids wearing Batman T-shirts are leaving as I arrive. They might have been recording gospel tracks in one of the studios. I meet Prince’s people in the upstairs office. I go to the wardrobe department and look at Prince’s shoes and the mannequins his clothes are fitted on. There are doves in a cage.
I go downstairs to a side-room where Grammys and American Music Awards and gold and platinum albums line the walls. To the left there is a heavy steel door, leading to what I’m told is the vault—where master tapes are stored. There are rumored to be hundreds of unreleased Prince tracks, including, I’m told, Prince’s version of Madonna’s ecstatic “Like a Prayer.”
Prince sporting his new ’typhoon’ ’do.Hmmm. Now let’s see, how can I get in there. I don’t have TNT, and I sure as hell can’t ask for the key. I’m thinking this as we make our way to the soundstage downstairs.
Thoughts of pillaging Prince’s proud paradise of old and new cuts diminish, though, as I enter the rehearsal studio. There he is, dressed in red from neck to toe, a halter-type vest covering his surprisingly well-built upper body and skin-tight red pants over red shoes. He’s doing a handstand. Prince can walk on his hands. All right! Directly across from the band’s setup, there’s a slide projector. And the slide is of LaWanda Page—Aunt Esther, Fred’s nemesis for the old sitcom Sanford and Son. Hmmm.
Finishing the song—"Elephants & Flowers” from Graffiti Bridge, Prince strolls over to me. We’re introduced. And what is my first question to Prince? “Why Aunt Esther?” And what does he do? He laughs a long laugh and says, “She’s our inspiration.” Shyly, he almost whispers, “Do you need anything?”
“I haven’t heard the new album yet,” is my answer, trying not to sound too greedy.
“You’ll hear it before you go,” he says, and goes back to the band.
They run through the songs: Prince at the piano for a “Nothing Compares 2 U,” the Ohio Players “Skin Tight,” a funky, trimmed arrangement of “Alphabet St.,” “Partyman” with snippets of “Party Up” chipped into the chorus. None of these or all of these could end up in the final show. They’re just rehearsing, loosening up to tighten up as a band. The Revolution has left a muscular mark on the live performances of Prince songs, but this new band, predominantly black—notably—thrives on challenges. As Levi Seacer, Jr., bassist-turned-guitarist, and the obvious bandleader when the real leader isn’t around, sums it up: “You got to learn your part. Prince can always come over and play your part.”
Rehearsal’s over for a few. Prince walks over again. “I’m going to play the album for you.”
I look at the publicists. They shrug. Who knew? He doesn’t talk to the press, he doesn’t do interviews, but you’re in there, go for it.
“Meet me in Studio B,” he says.
SPIN: So did he talk?
ME: Oh yeah, he talked. With no tape recorder, no pen or pencil or pad, I went into Studio B. Is this the same place I was in Saturday? There’s incense burning, there’re candles. Colorful cloths are draped over lights and the walls. With Prince, you get ambience.
Prince comes in, changed into black pants with a white shirt tied at the waist, carrying a CD. He directs me to the center seat behind the sleek, knobbed-down console as he puts the CD in. We get lyric sheets and the adventure begins. D
rums. Big, loud, funky drums announce “Thunder,” the first cut, and we’re off. The vague middle-eastern feel of the song—Around the World in a Day with a kickin’ bass and drum—prompts Prince to tell me that he’s writing a ballet for a corps of belly dancers. “I saw the Joffrey Ballet in New York, got interested, and the dancers asked me to do it,” he says, leaning in close, not really talking over the music—which is loud—but blending in with it. He has a flat speaking voice that sounds like several voices at one time.
I tell him about Rosie recording the demo on Saturday.
“I love her voice. Can you imagine her voice with some kickin’ rock track,” he says. And I can, because soon “Daddy Pop” is playing and Rosie’s voice is in there, complementing Prince’s. “This song is about people who talk shit.” And I can tell by his hooded eyes that he’s talking about critics like me.
I recognize “Willing & Able” from the rehearsal earlier that day. “I had a dream that I was playing this on MTV Unplugged.” The free-floating mid-tempo cut would work perfectly acoustic.
“Why don’t you?” I ask him.
“I want to. I will.”
Most of the songs on Diamonds and Pearls, written with the band, performed and recorded in the studio with the band, easily lend themselves to acoustic arrangements—smart, economical songs that deserve close inspection.
I ask him about the drum sound on the record, the most notable change from his earlier work. His answer?
“Everybody else went out and got drum machines and computers, so I threw mine away.”
As the album plays, one by one, the band members stroll into the studio. Prince receives the liner notes for the album, inspects them, and passes them around, even giving them to me to check out. This guy doesn’t come off as a control freak, I’m thinking, this homeboy in heels, telling me jokes about the women who come to his house when he blasts “Insatiable"—the ballad here—stripping off their clothes to the beat. Or when he talks about playing it for Patti LaBelle, stopping it mid-song before the climax, and watching her get mad. The most telling thing he said here was about the music. “If I was somebody else, writers and critics would be all up in the way the chords work and the keyboard lines. They just write off my slow jams.”
Now the whole band is in attendance and the album is starting again. “Thunder” gets people moving, as “Gett Off,” the funky first single did a few minutes ago. Soon Prince is spinning around, moving to the beat, air-playing every instrument on the track, leaning across me to turn the volume up and up and up.
Then, in his office upstairs, equipped with a bed, weights, a desk, couch, chairs, and a massive video console, Prince plays a Martika video for me. “I can’t watch it, too emotional,” he says.
The pastels and stained glass give the room a soft, otherworldly feel that is also rich with self-satisfied achievement.
Just outside the office, afterward, he asks, “Is there anything else you need?” And I shake my head.
I mean, I want to ask him a million more questions. But I don’t ask anything else.
This is the beginning of phase three. The hip hoppers have started sampling his stuff — that’s paying respect if ever there was paying respect. And Prince, always accused of being too into his own stuff and not paying attention to the stuff of the day (as if his day were done) has some rap stuff on his new record. It all evens out.
They called him pretentious. He was. He is. But no more pretentious than some of the hard-headed new jacks that spawned during the righteous days of late-’80s “realness,” carving out their own quasi-political/racial/sexual treatises.
Prince is pretentious. Prince is bad. Prince, dare I say it, is back.