In 1999 Prince was in comeback mode. After massive success in the ’80s, he was in the throes of a public legal battle with Warner Bros. over the rights to his music. Upset with the situation, he thumbed his nose in the face of the music industry and changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol. At the time I was the Editor-In-Chief of Mixer, a monthly DJ magazine published by DMC. A publicist I had worked with over the years, Lois Najarian, pitched me on interviewing the Purple one about his new album, Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic. The only caveat was the interview had to be a cover story. The decision was a no-brainer.
A few days later I was in the studio at Paisley Park interviewing Prince. Some things I vividly remember from that day: 1. He had a major disagreement with the photographer from Interview. The row actually set the stage for what became an interesting discussion about ego, something Prince told me he’d been working on. 2. Our pizza-and-salad lunch was inspected by his security people upon its delivery (“he doesn’t allow meat on the premises,” we were told.) 3. Prince arrived three hours late, wore heels and make-up. 4. He was personable, friendly, funny, charming and engaging. 5. Prince’s recording studio was a sight to behold, boasting a massive SSL mixing desk and an arsenal of studio gear. Before Prince switched on the lights, I accidentally touched the neck of his famous symbol guitar that was perched on a stand while he was turning on the lights in the control room.
An invitation to interview Prince is one of the highlights of my career. I was not allowed to record the interview but was allowed to take notes. I came prepared with a thick pad and filled up every page by the time our chat was over. I wrote so much, so quickly, that my right hand hurt for a week.
Prince disrupted the world of music, fashion, movies and never apologized. He was a showman, an iconic provocateur whose impact will be felt forever. As is evident in the interview below, he pulled no punches and made no apologies. As the song says, I was dreaming when I wrote this, forgive me if it goes astray.
Prince is anxiously swiveling back and forth on his chair that’s poised behind a gargantuan mixing desk at his palatial Paisley Park studio. A rack of guitars stand in a row behind him, and a string of rainbow-colored effects pedals lie neatly in order on the floor by the console. Judging by the exasperated look on his face, his Purple Majesty is royally pissed off.
A few moments ago over the reception area, where Pottery Barn and Saks Fifth Avenue catalogs sat neatly stacked next to this week’s TV Guide (addressed to Prince Rogers Nelson) and this month’s Vegetarian Times (addressed to Mayte Garcia-Nelson), a New York photographer with just a little too much attitude for her own good asked Prince if she could photograph him outside in the suburban splendor of his Minneapolis oasis, specifically because he “always looks so artificial” in all his photographs. Prince rolled his eyes upon hearing the comment, promptly turned heel and decided he’d rather speak to this writer than throw a needless fit.
For an icon who’s spent the better part of two decades developing his strut and his swagger right alongside his funky pop pastiche that sounds as good on the dance floor as it does in the bedroom, this lens person — who should’ve know that he’s walked out on cover shoots for Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair — could not have made a bigger faux pas.
“Never call a black man artificial!” Prince declares, snickering like Flavor Flav and slapping his hands on his knees as if he’s just uttered the funniest joke ever. “Nah-huh. N-O!” He scolds his finger in the air because he ain’t having’ it. Is there a problem? “No, just hers. She’s weird.”
“I’ve messed around with a few actresses and they all look the same when they come outta the shower.”
Dressed in a rust two-piece outfit with flowing sleeves, his straight black shoulder-length locks wrapped up in a matching handkerchief, requisite heels and a few dollops of make-up (“I look like this every day!”), he pauses to take a breath, perhaps mentally chanting a few meditative oms before once again bursting into laughter. Prince rolls his eyes and smiles like he knows something that you don’t. Finally, he seems to be over the mini-drama. “Words,” he explains, “can be so powerful and evil.”
So there he is. The Sexy M*F. The guy who would die 4 U, staking his turf and willfully defending it like only a superstar of his caliber should. Mentioning in passing that he has a slight cold, Prince seems vibrant and bereft of any alleged eccentricities he’s often accused of. Whereas a situation like the one he just faced may have internally devastated him at another stage of his journey through this life, Prince says that he’s worked hard over the past year — “a year of reflection,” he succinctly describes it — to further explore and peel away the tightly-wound onion that comprises his ego and soul.
Still realizing that he’s “been in a universe of my own creation” and working to broaden his horizons doesn’t mean guaranteed exemption from having differences with others. In fact, just yesterday Prince’s will was tested when MTV’s Kurt Loder visited Paisley Park along with his camera crew to interview him about his recent album, Rave Un2 The Joy Fantastic. Loder, Prince says, initially didn’t want to sign the four-page rider exercising Prince’s control of whatever is created at Paisley Park. As Loder balked and put up a voracious stink, Prince grinned and took a firm, yet unemotional tact.
“[Viacom/MTV head] Mr. [Sumner] Redstone ain’t in the building,” Prince told Loder with a smile, “so get the lawyers on the phone. I’m gonna get myself some lunch.”
When the issues were ironed out and the interview began, Loder, who’s blatantly kissed Madonna’s ass in past interviews, typically asked lightweight question, incessantly grilling Prince about his unpronounceable name, a seemingly non-issue at this point. Loder prodded him, a person who said he doesn’t believe in time and doesn’t wear a watch (no wonder he was three hours late for this interview) about the significance of his seminal single “1999” and his plans for New Year’s Eve 2000. Dressed in dark sunglasses, the Purple one — The Artist Formerly Known as Prince — replied with the poise of the most skilled politician when it came time for his close-up. “I want to be in the light.”
The calm, cool and collected man we meet today amid his stacks of awards — Grammys, Video Music Awards, an Academy Awards, a People’s Choice Award and dozens of gold and platinum records (“They’re good at marking time,” he says in his deep, robust voice, “but I don’t trip on that too much.”) admits that he hasn’t always been in a higher state of consciousness. While publicly battling with his former record label, Warner Bros., Prince formed NPG Records. What would’ve become the story of just another genius who became pissed off with the system and decided to become a lone wolf, Prince questioned the rules he felt were unfair: Why can’t artists own their masters? Why can’t profits be equally split between an artist and their label? And while we’re at it, why can’t we all get along?
With that mindset, he reached out to the global monolithic corporate entertainment giants of the world — the Brooks Brothers set he once loathed with all of his purple passion. When they got the call, they were naturally eager to do what they do best — win and dine a potential cash cow. He tells me he went to dinner with these “major dudes,” all men who consider themselves creative types, Prince says with a straight face. They talked about music and life with his not-so-hidden agenda of wanting to pick their brains out on the table. After all, they couldn’t sing in a falsetto, write an anthemic single like “When Doves Cry” or cavort with a litany of beauties (“I’ve messed around with a few actresses and they all look the same when they come outta the shower.”), but he came at the opportunity with an open mind. With his spirituality now providing him with an even stronger foundation – Prince frequently reads the Bible with legendary bassist/band member and Jehovah’s Witness Larry Graham), he even took the like-minded Chuck D of Public Enemy (who appears on Rave‘s “Undisputed”) along with him. The experience, he says, provided him with how people on the business side of the industry operate.
The last bigwig Prince met with was Arista’s Clive Davis, the man with a Midas touch who made Whitney and Toni household names. At one point during their chats, Prince asked Davis an important question. “[Sounding like Chris Rock] I asked him, Clive, TLC’s bankrupt. Bankrupt, Clive! Bankrupt, why?” He says Davis sat him down and explained how one of his favorite acts blew their millions. Not too long later, a deal — a fair and equitable one between Prince’s NPG label and Arista — was inked.
“Life is good. I have two arms, two legs, two eyes. Whoa! Life is good, y’all. Ain’t nobody tripping here. Nobody! No, sir!”
“I realized contracts don’t work, agreements do. Contracts tell you what you can’t do, like you can’t record with [close friend] Lenny [Kravitz], while agreements state what everyone will do.” Prince looks around his Star Trek-like recording suite and looks puzzled. “Who set these rules up anyway? Why does someone have to spend $250 per hour to record in a studio I mean, run an 808 too loud in my place, bust a speaker and then you got to pay me. But this right here is what it’s all about — artists owning their own studios and creating.”
“You know what I learned about the industry?” he asks me. Prince rests his elbows on his knees and puts his hands together in a prayer-like pose. “They’re all my brothers — all of the people in the industry. An adversarial mentality got us here, now we need to work on this to make it better.”
With his first major-label release since 1996’s Chaos and Disorder, the Artist seems to have gotten back in touch what he does best — funk the place up. With the help of rapper Eve, folkie rebel rocker Ani DiFranco and No Doubt’s Gwen Stefani, tracks like “Undisputed” and “Hot Wit U” harken back to the hip-shaking, booty moving bliss of so much of his earlier output. Are they as memorable as Sign O’ the Times or Purple Rain? Well, no. Still, Rave, which was produced by Prince, is a good album and contains some of his best work in recent memory.
With an almost West Coast earthiness mixed with Midwestern common sense, Prince goes on at length about the workings of the music industry, using frequent analogies to The Matrix, one of his favorite films, and talking about some of his favorite acts, such as Rage Against The Machine.
“I don’t bite my tongue anymore. Either pay me or let me out,” he offers, looking like he’s waiting for me to exclaim hallelujah! Hip-hop, he says, is its own matrix. You can go in one way and come out the other side as something completely different. “The matrix will do things to you, so you have to learn it. Unless you’re Lauryn Hill. She went in as Lauryn Hill and she came out as Lauryn Hill. That’s rare. I was always able to keep the I and Me intact.”
As this conversation ranging from the wealth of unreleased tracks in his vault (including sessions with Miles Davis) to the type of common ground he wishes all creative types can finds comes to a close, it’s more than evident that this Prince now wants to lead by example. Maybe that’s the feeling you’re supposed to get when you’re 41. Several times he mentions bassist Larry Graham, marveling at the strength of his presence and vitality of his commitment to doing the right thing.
“Larry hugs everyone when he comes into the room,” Prince marvels. “We could be here working on a track and the next thing you know he walks into the room and people will stop swearing. It’s as if they change almost by the virtue of his knowledge. Amazing.”
With this, we leave the studio and make our way through a hallway that’s tastefully decorated with awards and achievements on our way back to the reception area. The photographer who dissed him is still standing there amid all of her gear, and after a discussion Prince allows her to snap a few Polaroids. Prince takes a look, turns around and walks toward his office, where a huge framed poster bearing his likeness hangs over his desk. Prince summons his publicist, who enters, closes the door and emerges ten seconds later. “Sorry, but he’s going to pass,” the publicist tells the photographer, “but he’ll pay all of your expenses.”
A few moments later Prince appears from the office and silently heads upstairs to the second floor to do an interview with People in a room located near the two seven-foot high cages containing doves who sing all day long. As the photographer curses Prince’s vanity while she packs up her gear, I remember something that Prince said to me just a few minutes ago. “Life is good. I have two arms, two legs, two eyes. Whoa! Life is good, y’all. Ain’t nobody tripping here. Nobody! No, sir!”
Indeed. Long live this Prince.
As featured in the December 1999 issue of Mixer Magazine. Images by Steve Parke.