Rolling Stone Interview - Nov 28, 1996
WITH A LOVING WIFE AND A AND A BABY ON THE WAY, AND A 'SLAVE'TO WARNER BROS. RECORDS NO MORE 0(+> IS FEELING DOWNRIGHT GIDDY ABOUT HIS NEW, THREE-DISC-LONG EMANCIPATION
WE STILL ALL RIGHT? asks 0(+>, the Artist Formerly Known as Prince, with a maniacal grin on his face. "Let me know when I start boring you."
Not any time soon. 0(+> leaps off the arm of the couch where he had perched and bolts across the room to his CD player. He presses a button to interrupt his lovely version of the Stylistics' 1972 hit "Betcha by Golly, Wow," and then selects a fiercer, guitar-charged track called "Damned if I Do, Damned if I Don't."
It's the sort of scene you've been in a hundred times: A music-crazed friend ricochets between his seat and the stereo, torn between the song he's playing and the greater one you've just got to hear, between explaining what you're listening to and just letting you listen to it. Two exceptions distinguish this situation: First, this isn't one of my friends, this is 0(+>; second, the songs he's playing are amazing.
Of course, no such scenario would be complete without someone in the role of the indulgent girlfriend. Cast in that spot is 0(+>'s gorgeous and very pregnant wife, Mayte, 22. Wearing a short black dress with white trim, the word baby stitched across her chest in white above an arrow pointing to her stomach, Mayte sits quietly and smiles, shaking her head fondly at 0(+>' s uncontrolled enthusiasm.
I'm bouncing off the walls playing this, 0(+> says, acknowledging the obvious. His sheer white shirt, lined with pastel stripes, is open to the middle of his chest and extends to his knees. The shirt, open below his waist as well, contrasts starkly with 0(+>'s tight flared trousers. Black-mesh high-heeled boots complete the ensemble.
0(+>, who is now 38, is previewing tracks from his upcoming triple CD, Emancipation, which is set for release on Nov. 19. We're in the comfortable apartment-style office quarters within 0(+>'s Paisley Park studio complex, in Chanhassen, Minn., just outside Minneapolis, his hometown.
Eager to reassert his status as hitmaker, 0(+> is verbally riffing in a style that recalls one of his heroes, the young Muhammad Ali. "I ain't scared of nobody," he exclaims at one point, laughing. "I wanna play you the bomb. You tell me how many singles you hear - I wanna read that. The only person who kept me down is R Kelly, and when I see him, he's gonna pay a price for that!"
Producer and songwriter Jimmy Jam, whom 0(+> fired from the funk band the Time, in 1983, also comes in for some of 0(+>'s good-natured rivalry. Jam, along with his partner, Terry Lewis, has produced gigantic hits for both Michael and Janet Jackson, as well as many other artists. Like 0(+>, Jam has remained based in Minneapolis. But the town isn't big enough for both of them: 0(+> sees the days of Jam's chart reign as numbered.
As "Get Your Groove On" booms out of the speakers, 0(+> screams over the sound: "You can tell Jimmy Jam I'm going to roll up to his driveway with this playing real loud! Honk! Honk! What do you think he's gonna say about that?"
0(+>'s energy is so high because he is finally negotiated his way out of his contract with Warner Bros, for which had recorded since his debut album, For You, was released, in 1978. In his view, he is now free at last - hence the title of his new album. When I comment on the relaxed, easygoing groove of the new song "Jam of the Year," 0(+> smiles and says simply, "A free man wrote that."
When I'm reading a review of my work, he adds, referring to some of the negative comments garnered by his previous album, Chaos and Disorder, this is what I'm listening to. They're always a year late."
0(+>'s struggles with Warner Bros have wreaked havoc on his career in recent years. He could see no reason why the company could not release his albums at the relentless pace at which he recorded them. Meanwhile, Warner Bros., which had signed 0(+> to a hugely lucrative new deal in 1992, believed the singer should put out new material only every year or two, thus allowing the company to promote his albums more effectively and, it hoped, to recoup its enormous investment.
Matters deteriorated to the point where, in 1993, 0(+> disowned the work he had recorded for Warner Bros as Prince and adopted his new, unpronounceable name. He later scrawled the word slave across his cheek in frustration over his inability to end his relationship with the company and to put out his music the way he wanted to. Such moves have caused many to question not only 0(+>'s marketing instincts - his album sales have plummeted - but his sanity.
For Emancipation, which will be released on his own NPG Records, 0(+> has signed a worldwide manufacturing and distribution agreement with Capitol-EMI. While neither he nor Capitol-EMI would disclose financial terms, such an arrangement typically means that the artist delivers a completed album to the company and assumes the cost of recording it. For 0(+>, those costs are relatively minimal, since he plays virtually all the instruments on his albums and owns Paisley Park, the studio where he records.
Capitol-EM receives a fee for every copy of the album it manufactures, with the costs of the initial pressing possibly absorbed by the company in lieu of an advance to 0(+>. In addition, the company will assist in promoting and publicizing the album, which should retail for between $20 and $25. If Emancipation sells well - mind you, a triple album is a risky commercial proposition - 0(+> will make a great deal of money. There can be no question that he is determined to do all he can to make sure that the album finds its audience: 0(+> is abandoning his reclusive ways and planning a live global simulcast from Paisley Park and a Nov. 21 appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show. He will also launch a two-year world tour early in 1997.
0(+> is clearly stung by the skeptics who believe that he will never again achieve the aesthetic and commercial heights he scaled with such albums as Dirty Mind (1980), 1999 (1982), Purple Rain (1984) and Sign 0' the Times (1987). At one point, as we stroll through Paisley Park, he gestures toward a wall of gold and platinum records.
Everything you see here is not why I created music, 0(+> says. Every human being wants to achieve clarity so that people will understand you. But when the media tell somebody what success is - No. 1 records, awards - there's no room for intuition. You've put words in their heads. For me, the album is already a success when I have a copy. Lovesexy is supposed to be a failure, but I go on the Internet and someone says, 'Lovesexy saved my life.' "
As for people making fun of his name change - "The Artist People Formerly Cared About," in Howard Stern's priceless slag - and his branding himself a slave says, "The people who really know the music don't joke about it. A lot of black people don't joke about it because they understand wanting to change a situation that you find yourself in."
0(+> has erased slave from his face, and he now sports a neat, carefully trimmed goatee. Blond streaks highlight his brown hair, which is slicked back. He is delicate, thin and slight, almost spritelike - you feel as if a strong gust of wind would carry him across the room. But far from seeming shy or skittish, as he's often portrayed, he burns with a palpable intensity. He looks me in the eyes when he speaks, and his thoughts tumble out rapidly.
It is indicative of the idiosyncratic way 0(+>'s mind works that he does not permit journalists to record interviews with him because he is afraid of being misrepresented His fear isn't so much that he will be misquoted as that he will be trapped within the prison house of his own language, frozen in his own characterization of himself. For an artist who has built his career - and, to some degree, unraveled a career - by doing whatever he felt like doing at any particular moment and not looking back, that fear is deep.
Still, 0(+> is sufficiently concerned about saying that will damage the truce he's struck with Bros. that he initially requested that a court stenographer be present during our interview. Sure enough, when I arrived at Paisley Park, the stenographer was sitting in the reception area, transcription machine at the ready. But after 0(+> came out to greet me and took me on a tour of the studio, he felt comfortable enough to abandon the idea. The stenographer was sent away.
It's hard for me to talk about the Warner Brothers stuff because I start getting angry and bitter, 0(+> explains before beginning to play some of the so ngs from Emancipation. "It's like, to talk about it, I have to get back into the mind state I was in then. It's frightening."
Making a triple-album set, it turns out, was one of 0(+>'s long-standing ambitions - and one of his difficulties with Warner Bros. "Sign O' the T imes was originally called Crystal Ball and was supposed to be three albums," says 0(+> of the double album he released in 1987. `You'll overwhelm the market,' I was told. `You can't do that.'
Then people say I'm a crazy fool for writing my face, he continues. "But if I can't do what I want to do, what am I? When you stop a man from dreaming, he becomes a slave. That's where I was. I don't own Prince's music. If you don't own your masters, your master owns you."
As part of the deal to end 0(+>'s relationship with the company, Warner Bros. Retains the right to release two compilations of the music that the singer recorded while under his contract with the label. In addition, 0(+> has provided Warner Bros. with an additional album of music from the thousands of hours he has in his own vaults; this album would be released under the name Prince. "The compilations don't concern me," says 0(+> dismissively. "They're some songs from a long time ago - that's not who I am."
Despite all the bad blood that has flowed between them, 0(+> insists he bears no grudge toward his former label. He views his battles with the company as part of a spiritual journey to self-awareness "What strengthens is what I know," he says. "It was one experience - and it was my experience. I wouldn't be as clear as I am today without it. I don't believe in darkness. Every thing was there for me to get to this place. I've evolved to something - and I needed to go through everything I went through.
And that's why I love the folks at Warner Bros. now, he says with a laugh. "You know that Budweiser ad - `I love you, man'? I just want to go there with them!"
Asked about the concept behind Emancipation, 0(+> says, "It's hard to explain in sentences." The album is based on complicated - not to say incomprehensible - sense of the relationship among the pyramids of Egypt, the constellations and the dawn of civilization. Each CD is exactly an hour long and contains 12 songs.
Recently I thought about my whole career, my whole life leading up to this point - having a child helps you do that - and I thought about what would be the perfect album for me to do, 0(+> says. "People design their own plans. That's when the dawn takes places. The dawn is an awakening of the mind, when I can see best how to accomplish the tasks I'm supposed to do. I feel completely clear,"
0(+>'s marriage to Mayte and the impending birth of their child were two of the important inspirations. for Emancipation. It's no coincidence that what 0(+> describes as his "divorce" from Warner Bros. Has occurred right around the time of his marriage and Mayte's pregnancy. "I don't believe in coincidence," he says flatly.
Along with covers of such smoochy ballads as "Betcha by Golly, Wow" and the Delphonics' "La-La- Means I Love You," Emancipation is filled with what 0(+> sheepishly calls "sentimental stuff." Discussing how he has been affected by the prospect of fatherhood, he says, "You'll definitely hear it in my music." For the song "Sex in the Summer," which was originally titled "Conception," 0(+> sampled his unborn baby's heartbeat. "Of course, that 's a tempo," he says. "The nothing baby set the groove for this song. Mayte always smiles when she hears it."
0(+> may have used his baby's ultrasound as a rhythm sample, but he and Mayte did not ask to know which sex their child is. "It doesn't matter, " 0(+> says. "We all have the male and female with us, anyway. We'll be happy with whatever God chooses to give us." And just as 0(+> has no intention of once again taking the name Prince - the people around him refer to him simply as "the Artist" - he says, "The baby will name itself." As he prepares to preview a song called "Let's Have a Baby," 0(+> turns to Mayte and says, "You're gonna start crying - you better leave." Then he explains to me, "I got my house fixed up and put a crib in it. Then I played this song for her, and she started crying. She had never seen my house with a crib in it before." "Let's have a baby," the lyrics run. "What are we living for?/Let's make love." As for the song's spare arrangement, described by 0(+> as "bass, piano and silence," he says, "Joni Mitchell taught me that. If you listen to her early stuff, she really understands that."
He points to a portrait of Mayte that is framed in gold. "I can't wait for my baby to look up and see Mayte's eyes," he says, his voice filled with wonder. "Look at those eyes. That's the first thing the baby is going to see in this world."
0(+> has transformed Paisley Park in anticipation of the birth of his child. What had been a modern industrial park has become more playful and vibrant, like the psychedelic wonderland implied by its name. And it would warm the heart of Tipper Gore, who was inspired to found the Parents Music Resource Center when she overheard one of her daughters listening to the masturbatory imagery in the Prince song "Darling Nikki," to hear the singer talk about how he now sees things through the eyes of a child.
When I looked at some of the artwork around here from that perspective, pfft, it was out of here: `Those pictures go to go,' 0(+> says. "I also wanted to make this place more colorful, more alive. This place was antiseptic -- there's life here now."
The memory of the violence that his father introduced into the household when 0(+> was young preys on his mind. "How do you discipline a child?" he asks. "You have to imagine yourself as one of them. Would you hit yourself? You remember the trauma you suffered when you suffered that."
For all of the drama he has created around himself, 0(+> is about music The only time he seems completely relaxed is when he is jamming with his band, the New Power Generation, in a rehearsal space at Paisley Park. The band, including Kathleen Dyson on guitar, Rhonda Smith on bass, Eric Leeds on saxophone and Kirk Johnson on percussion - sets up in a circle, with 0 (+> facing the indomitable Sheila E., who is sitting in on drums.
Playing his 0(+>-shaped guitar, the singer smiles and leads his crew through a series of rock-funk improvisations. He roams the room calling for solos, pointing at whichever player is taking the music to a higher plane so everyone can follow on that journey. They goof around with a James Brown riff. Then, when Sheila E. introduces a syncopated Latin groove, 0(+> blasts off on guitar in the roaring style of Carlos Santana.
We don't really know any songs yet; we're just recording everything, 0(+> explains to me at one point, nearly apologizing. But the music just seems to course through him, and he fairly shimmers with happiness as he drifts from guitar to bass to keyboards as his mood dictates.
During a short break, 0(+> asks Leeds to play the theme of John Coltrane's immortal "A Love Supreme." As Leeds articulates the line, 0(+>, sitting at the keyboards, crumples with joy. "It's that one note," he says, laughing, isolating the highest-pitched tone in the sequence. "That's what tells you a madman wrote it."
0(+>'s identification with Coltrane - a driven musical genius and spiritual quester who seemed intent on playing himself out of his skin - is plain. 0(+> had spoken about the saxophonist earlier in the day. "John Coltrane's wife said that he played 12 hours a day," he had said. "I could never do that, play one instrument for that long. Can you imagine a spirits that would drive a body that hard? The music business is not set up to nurture that sort of spir it."
Let's see, he continued "According to some people, I'm bankrupt and crazy. I woke up one day, and the radio said I was dead. People say, 'He changed his name; he doesn't even know who he is.'"
The very notion that 0(+> could be perceived that way seemed painful to him. But then his spirit ascended. "I may not be like Muhammad Ali - I ain't predictin' no rounds," he said, looking at me directly in the eyes. "But I'm pretty well-focused. I know exactly who I am."