New York Times
November 17, 1996
A Reinventor of His World and Himself
By JON PARELES
[C] HANHASSEN, Minn.-- Paisley Park, the studio complex Prince built
in this Minneapolis suburb, is abuzz. On a 10,000-square-foot sound stage,
workmen are rolling white paint onto a huge runway of a set, preparing it for
a video shoot later in the day. In a mirrored studio down the hall, two dozen
dancers are rehearsing. Upstairs, an Olympic gymnast, Dominique Dawes, is
trying on a wispy lavender costume. A sound engineer is editing a promotional
CD; a graphics artist is putting the final touches on a logo. Through it all
strolls the man in charge, attentive to every detail. A hole in the gymnast's
leotard? A bit of choreography that needs broadening? As songwriter, video
director and record-company head, he takes responsibility for everything,
makes all the final decisions and couldn't be happier about it.
The 38-year-old musician who now writes his name as a glyph is
gearing up for the release on Tuesday of "Emancipation," a three-CD, 36-song,
three-hour album intended to return him to superstardom. Over a recording
career that stretches nearly two decades, the musician who was born Prince
Rogers Nelson earned a reputation for unorthodox behavior long before he
dropped his name. Just in time for the music-video explosion, he invented
himself as a larger-than-life figure: a doe-eyed all-purpose seducer for whom
the erotic and the sacred were never far apart. Outlandish clothes,
sculptured hair and see-through pants made Prince a vivid presence, but
behind the costumes was one of the most influential songwriters of the
He toyed with every duality he could think of : masculine and
feminine, black and white, straight and gay. While he made albums virtually
by himself, like an introvert, his concerts were in the grand extroverted
tradition of rhythm-and-blues showmen like James Brown. His music pulled
together rock and funk, gospel and jazz, pop ballads and 12-bar blues. His
most distinctive rhythm -- a choppy, keyboard-driven funk -- has permeated
pop, hip-hop and dance music, while his ballad style echoes in hits like
His only guide seemed to be a musicianship that drew admiration from
many camps. Peter Sellars, the revisionist opera director, once compared
Prince to Mozart for his abundant creativity. Yet for much of the 1990's, the
quality of his output has sagged -- a result, he says, of his deteriorating
relationship with his longtime record company, Warner Brothers.
He's one of the greatest ones, says George Clinton, himself an
architect of modern funk. "He's a hell of a musician; he has really studied
everything. And he's working all the time. Even when he's jamming he's
recording that. He gets to party; he listens to everything on the radio; he
goes out to clubs, and then he goes to the studio and stays up the rest of
the night working. He has more stuff recorded than anybody gets to hear.
"Sometimes I think he puts too much effort into trying to take
what's out now and put his own thing on it. To me, ain't none of the pop
stuff happening that's half as good as what he can do.
Emancipation is a make-or-break album. It will inaugurate a new
recording deal with a gambit that may turn out to be bold and innovative or
utterly foolhardy; will the 3-CD set be received as an act of generosity or a
glut of material? For a major performer in the 1990's, releasing a three-CD
set of new material is unprecedented; even double albums are rare and
commercially risky. And "Emancipation" is financed and marketed by the
songwriter himself. "All the stakes are higher," he says as he picks a few
berries from a plate of zabaglione in the Paisley Park kitchen. "But I'm in a
situation where I can do anything I want."
His day's project is to direct the video for the first single from
Emancipation, a remake of the Stylistics' 1972 hit "Betcha by Golly, Wow."
At the same time, he's making last-minute marketing decisions and doing a
rare interview. Ever the clotheshorse, he's wearing a long, nubby gray-and-
black sweater and a shirt with lace tights. A chevron is shaved into his hair
next to one ear, with glitter applied to it. Clear-eyed and serious, he
speaks in a low voice, in a conversation that veers between hard-headed
practicality, flashes of eccentricity and professions of faith in God. He is
businesslike one moment; the next, he invokes his self-made spirituality, in
which musical inspiration and carnality are both links to divine creativity.
For all the music he has put out since the first Prince album in
1978, he has remained private. The songs on "Emancipation" take up his usual
topics -- sex, salvation, partying all night long -- along with new ones like
cruising the Internet. But a few have hints of the personal. On Valentine's
Day he married Mayte Garcia, who had been a backup singer and dancer in his
band. A few months ago, he announced that she was pregnant and that the child
was due in November. Since then he has refused further comment. "I'm never
going to release details about children," he says. "They'll probably name
Let's Have a Baby. Asked about that song, he talks about the
couple's wedding night. "I carried her across the threshold and gave her many
presents," he says. "The last one was a crib. And we both cried. She got down
on her knees in that gown, and I did next to her, and we thanked God that we
could be alive for this moment."
Marrying Mayte, he says, seemed inevitable. Her middle name is
Jannelle; his father is John L. Her mother's name was Nell; he was born
Prince Rogers Nelson : "Nell's son," he says. "Am I going to argue with all
these coincidences?" he asks, at least half seriously. Like a man in love, he
adds: "She really makes my soul feel complete. I feel powerful with her
around. And she makes it easier to talk to God."
Emancipation includes shimmering ballads and fuzz-edged rockers,
bump-and-grind bass grooves and a big-band two-beat, Latin-jazz jams, and
dissonant electronic dance tracks. "People will say it's sprawling and it's
all over the place," he says. "That's fine. I play a lot of styles. This is
not arrogance; this is the truth. Because anything you do all day long,
you're going to master after a while."
On the new album, keys change and rhythms metamorphose at whim. One
tour de force, "Joint 2 Joint," moves through five different grooves and ends
with all its riffs fitting together. The seeming spontaneity is more
remarkable because nearly all the instruments are played by the songwriter
himself. The toil of constructing songs track by track is worth it, he says,
for the unanimity it brings. "Because I do all the instruments, I'm injecting
the joy I feel into all those 'players.' The same exuberant soul speaks
through all the instruments."
I always wanted to make a three-record set, he adds. " 'Sign o'
the Times' was originally supposed to be a triple album, but it ended up as a
double. For this one, I started with the blueprint of three CD's, one hour
each, with peaks and valleys in the right places. I just filled in the
[W] hile most songwriters are hard-pressed to come up with enough
worthwhile material for an album a year, he has never had that problem. He
can't stop writing music; his backlog includes at least a thousand unreleased
songs and compositions, and new ones are constantly pouring out, all mapped
in his head.
You hear it done, he says. "You see the dancing; you hear the
singing. When you hear it, you either argue with that voice or you don't.
That's when you seek God. Sometimes ideas are coming so fast that I have to
stop doing one song to get another. But I don't forget the first one. If it
works, it will always be there. It's like the truth: it will find you and
lift you up. And if it ain't right, it will dissolve like sand on the beach."
Commercially, "Emancipation" hedges its bets. There are
straightforward groove songs and lush slow-dance tunes alongside the more
idiosyncratic cuts, and there are remakes of other people's hits, including
One of Us from Joan Osborne and "La, La (Means I Love You)" from the
Delfonics. An associate producer, Kirk A. Johnson, punched up the rhythm
tracks, giving some of them the crunch of hip-hop.
The album is priced under $30, like a two-CD set. "Emancipation",
produced by the performer's own label, NPG Records, is his first album to be
distributed by EMI. The album title is a pointed reference to the end of the
reported six-album deal, potentially worth $100 million, that he made in 1992
with Warner Brothers. He had been making albums for the label since 1978 and
sold millions of copies in the 1980's; the soundtrack for his 1984 movie,
Purple Rain, sold more than 10 million copies. He continued to release No.1
singles as late as 1991, with "Cream."
But once Warner Brothers had committed such a large investment, the
label wanted to apply proven hit-making strategies: putting out just one
album a year, packing it with potential singles, issuing various trendy
remixes of songs and following the advice of in-house experts on promotion
and marketing. Rationing and editing his work grated on Prince, and he began
wrangling with Warner Brothers over control of his career.
The music, for me, doesn't come on a schedule, he says. "I don't
know when it's going to come, and when it does, I want it out. Music was
created to uplift the soul and to help people make the best of a bad
situation. When you sit down to write something, there should be no
guidelines. The main idea is not supposed to be, 'How many different ways can
we sell it?' That's so far away from the true spirit of what music is. Music
starts free, with just a spark of inspiration. When limits are set by another
party that walks into the ball game afterward, that's fighting inspiration.
[T] he big deal we had made together wasn't working," he says of
Warner Brothers. "They are what they are, and I am what I am, and eventually
I realized that those two systems aren't going to work together. The deeper
you get into that well, the darker it becomes."
In 1993, he adopted an unpronounceable glyph as his name, ignoring
warnings that he was jettisoning the equivalent of a well-known trademark.
His associates now refer to him as the Artist, a merciful shortening of the
Artist Formerly Known as Prince. He knows the name change caused confusion
and amusement, and he doesn't care. "When the lights go down and the
microphone goes on," he says, "it doesn't matter what your name is."
As an experiment, Warner Brothers gave him permission in 1994 to
release a single, "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World," through NPG Records
on the independent Bellmark label. It was an international hit, further
straining his relations with Warner Brothers. He began performing with the
word "slave" written on his cheek. "We never were angry; we were puzzled,"
says Bob Merlis, senior vice president of Warner Brothers Records. "He
evinced great unhappiness at being here. He wanted to release more albums
than his contract called for; he wanted a different contract, which ran
contrary to good business practices. Eventually, we agreed that his vision
and ours didn't coincide on how to release his output."
There were rumors of bankruptcy in Paisley Park, that the entertainment
empire (which for a short time also included a Minneapolis nightclub, Glam
Slam) was too expensive to maintain.
Eventually, Warner Brothers agreed to end the contract. Warner
Brothers still has rights to one album of previously unreleased material, and
it owns the master recordings of the Prince back catalogue, a situation that
rankles the performer. "If you don't own your masters," he says, "your master
Under the new arrangement, he finances all his albums and videos and
puts them out when he wishes. He pays EMI to manufacture the albums, and the
company provides its distribution system and overseas marketing clout. He
describes EMI as "hired hands, like calling a florist to deliver some flowers
to my wife." (Other NPG albums, including his ballet score, "Kamasutra," and
Mayte's debut album are for sale through a Web site : www.thedawn.com.)
Once he explains his business arrangements, he shows a visitor
through Paisley Park, which is the size of a small shopping mall. In the
recording studio, a half-dozen guitars are lined up, each with specific
qualities: the leopard-patterned one is "good for funk"; the glyph-shaped one
is "the most passionate." Paisley Park was once painted all white, inside and
out, but after he got married he decided that the place needed some color.
Now there are carpets with inset zodiac signs, a mural of a tropical
waterfall behind the water fountain, walls of purple, gold and red and a
smiley face in Mayte's office.
Past a birdcage holding two white doves named Divinity and Majesty
is his office. A photograph of Miles Davis and Charlie Parker is by his desk.
He shows the visitor an inch-thick worldwide marketing plan, with sales
targets and promotion strategies, just like an executive. But as he plays the
album, he gets caught up in the music.
Sometimes I stand in awe of what I do myself, he says. "I feel
like a regular person, but I listen to this and wonder, where did it come
from ? I believe definitely in the higher power that gave me this talent. If
you could go in the studio alone and come out with that, you'd do it every
day, wouldn't you?"
It's a curse, he concludes. "And it's a blessing."
CREDIT: EMI Records
Copyright 1996 The New York Times Company