The evening before Prince died I sent a copy of his dope album 3121 to a few friends, having played the recording steadily for a week. Although the disc came out 10 years ago, I’d only recently discovered its funky majesty and was acting as though it was once again the ‘80s when I’d be in front of my glass-enclosed stereo for hours playing air guitar to “Partyup,” slow dancing with myself to “Do Me Baby” and drowning in the “Purple Rain.”
Always stylish and fresh, for years Prince created brilliant cathedrals of sound that influenced and inspired more than a few. With a silken falsetto that was difficult not to adore, Prince straddled the fence of pop as he embraced Jimi Hendrix’s guitar fury with the same intensity as Chaka Khan’s brassy soul, Smokey Robinson’s falsetto, Earth, Wind & Fire’s rhythmic magic and Joni Mitchell’s blonde-black poetics.
For many artists, including myself, he taught us to go for broke, do your thing and never let go. Prince was a prolific dude, but even his bad songs sounded better than everyone else’s tracks. Coming of age in the ‘80s, Prince became my generation’s literal poster-boy for the kind of fearless journey many of us (writers, painters, dancers, artists of any like) wanted to take.
However, like many Prince fans over the years, I had a love/hate relationship with the man and his music, and somehow missed out on the Blackadelic beauty of 3121. Still, after I few listens last week, I was once again transformed into a disciple ready to spread the word that 3121 was better than anything else happening in the world. Nearly 17 hours later, the news broke that Prince had slipped into the darkness at the age of 57 at his home and studio, Paisley Park, and suddenly he was gone.
While the media reported that he had been suffering from the flu, there hasn’t been an official cause of death cited as of yet. Even in death, Prince left in a veil of mystery and mystique that has always been a part of his purple persona. When I heard the news yesterday, I automatically rejected it as yet another hoax, but then gliding through Facebook, I began seeing the R.I.P.’s and various news sites reporting that what I had hoped was a trick was indeed the truth. I’ve been a fan since my long gone high school days in Baltimore, a city that Prince would later embrace in song after Freddie Gray’s death in 2015 at the hands of police. It feels as though I am mourning the loss of a family member— my cool, older cousin who always drove the flyest car, pumped the latest soul sounds and kept the finest girls.
Shortly afterwards, my phone started ringing. I was hearing from friends in faraway places who remembered how I once held Prince’s music so close to my heart. I argued fiercely with anyone who denied his genius, refused to date women because they rejected Around the World in a Day, dragged my clique to Times Square to see Under the Cherry Moon on opening day in 1986, camped out all night with other devotees in 1988 to see the Lovesexy tour at Madison Square Garden. The night of that concert, with Eddie Murphy sitting behind me, Prince drove on stage in a badass imported white sports car, because that’s the kind of brother he was.
PRINCE LIVE, 1988:
Numerous thoughts and memories drifted though my mind when I heard the news. I remember the day that the bi-sexual ballad “Bambi” changed my life as I played his self-titled studio album in my real cousin’s bedroom in 1979 to chilling at the maestro’s spacious Paisley Park studios some 20 years later as Prince himself played me his then-newest single “The Greatest Romance Ever Sold.” Leaning over as I scribbled notes, Prince said, “I’ve been tripping lately on how wack R&B sounds these days. I wanted this song to be my answer to the sorry state of soul music.”
It was one of the most exciting moments of my life as a journalist. After our interview, Prince gave me a guided tour through the multicolored musical funhouse that could’ve been designed by Dali with its purple walls painted with fluffy clouds. But as much as Paisley Park was a playful place, it was also a sanctuary where he worked on music for himself and a few of his famous collaborators including George Clinton, Mavis Staples, Chaka Khan and Larry Graham.
“It’s not always about just getting paid, but about respect,” he said, showing me one of the studios. “If somebody like Babyface wanted to rent my studio, I would charge a lot of money, but what would I look like asking Chaka or Larry for any money? If I help support them, then it sets an example for others.”
Prince’s Tribute to Chaka Khan
Certainly, even though not many musicians could compete with Prince when it came to throwing down with the new noise, part of what made him such an incomparable artist was the fearlessness he projected in conjunction with a sense of competition with the rest of the world. It was that same sentiment that drove him to the studio to quickly record his third album, Dirty Mind after touring with the original raunchy by nature Rick James and then years later when I witnessed him on stage at the Palladium, wailing guitars with Lenny Kravitz and Vernon Reid. While the other ax-men were just having fun, Prince was in it to win it.
Although Prince had nothing to prove, I read an interview where he claimed that after making a particularly hot record, he drove to Terry Lewis and Jimmy Jam’s studio, blasting his latest track in the car. “Can you make anything this funky?” he screamed before zooming away.
Of course, Prince wasn’t just funky, he was everything: gospel, blues, jazz, soul. Depending on how he felt that day, he could hang onstage with either guitar slinger Eric Clapton or trumpet legend Miles Davis, who became a close friend and yet another collaborator. “I loved Miles, because he was more of a music fan than most people would expect,” Prince told me in 1999. “Miles loved good musicians and cool people.” Obviously in Prince, whom Miles once compared to Duke Ellington, he got both.
Miles Davis on Prince
Dearly beloved, we already knew the man was a sexy M.F. by his Afro-blow-out picture on the cover of his 1978 album, For You or that time he got naked and perched himself majestically on a Pegasus on the back cover of Prince. While that self-titled disc was a product of the R&B environment in 1979— when the Minneapolis boy wonder shared the soul charts with the likes of Cheryl Lynn (“Got to Be Real”) and Kool & the Gang (“Ladies Night”)— he was more than ready to ride into the next decade to give American pop a taste of future shock. The year before the Isley Brothers asked to be taken “to the next phase,” Prince was already on his divine, white horse contemplating a magical land that was “Uptown.” Perhaps it was supposed to be a utopia that might have been an foreshadowed version of Paisley Park, a dystopian electro landscape where “Annie Christian” dwelled and erotic cities where “Do Me Baby” and “The Beautiful Ones” played on a continuous loop. That creative war that Prince waged against the world kept us coming back for more because musically, sonically, Prince’s records simply sounded better than anyone else.
“What I learned from Prince about the studio was there are absolutely no rules,” former Time guitarist Jesse Johnson told me in 2012. “Stuff people said about spending a million dollars on equipment and going to recording school, he flushed all that down the toilet. When I first moved in, he had garbage speakers and a 16-track board that was made for live sound; it wasn’t even a recording board. The studio itself was just a regular bedroom, but whenever you walked in, Prince was recording some incredible stuff. He always worked in the middle of the night on some vampire shit, but dude knew how to make records.”
From the beginning of his career, Prince liked to publicize that he was a prodigy, but that didn’t mean he didn’t practice. “Prodigy is not the right word, but I don’t even know what to call somebody like him,” his friend, bassist Esperanza Spalding explained to me in 2011. “It’s almost beyond genius. He’s worked very hard at everything he does. It’s not miraculous. Not sure what word is best to cover his talent and work ethic.”
Early in Prince’s career, as we clearly saw in the semi-autobiographical Purple Rain, he didn’t always play well with others. He could be selfish with credits, freeze out band mates, and thought nothing of firing those who didn’t follow his lead, but as he got older, he seemed to embrace becoming an elder statesman as he got cool with his younger idol worshippers like Dallas Austin, Joi, D’Angelo, Lianne La Havas, Q-Tip, Janelle Monae and Esperanza Spalding, schooling them about music and the industry.
It might have been easy to mock his rich booty when he scrawled “slave” on the side of his face as he fought to be released from his original Warner Brothers record contract. The deeper intention was in fighting for artist’s rights within the record company system. “Any creation should belong to the artist,” Prince said that day at Paisley Park. “I’m not a brat, but I do know that Western society is based on taking without giving back. What began with one thing became completely about my legacy as an artist.”
If there is anything I know for sure it is that whatever spiritual plane he might be grooving on right now, cousin Prince, don’t worry: your legacy is solid.