An Audience With The Artist

Michael Goldberg




The security guard in suit and tie who is watching the closed door to The Artist’s upstairs dressing room on “The Tonight Show” set in Burbank, Calif., is given the nod by The Artist’s aide, and opens the door.

I can’t quite believe it. Coming toward me is The Artist himself, looking even cooler in person than in the countless photos and videos I’ve seen. He smiles and extends a hand.

I’ve waited fifteen years to interview The Artist Formerly Known As Prince. Back when The Artist was still calling himself Prince, back before he became a superstar, thanks to the success of Purple Rain (the movie and the album), I was scheduled to speak with him in Los Angeles, on the eve of the release of 1999.

I was waiting for a cab to pick me up and take me to the airport when the call came. It was Prince’s publicist. The interview was off. Prince had arrived in L.A. the day before, and had met with an Los Angeles Times reporter. The experience, the publicist had explained, was so “traumatic” that Prince had canceled all other interviews.

Ouch! So close, I thought. I was dying to speak to the man responsible for Dirty Mind and Controversy. I had been grooving heavily to his music. Prince was the dude—Sly Stone, James Brown and John Lennon rolled into one.

Sadly, the interview was not to be.

And, for many years to come, as his fame increased, the hits came fast and furious and the platinum records piled up, Prince did not speak to the press.

But time heals many wounds, and now, arguably the most talented musician of the past 40 years is shaking my hand and inviting me to sit anywhere I like, to make myself at home in his dressing room.

"I’m brand new,” he says, explaining his decision to begin speaking to the media—something he’s done only occasionally, but with increasing frequency, in the past few years. “With Emancipation [the three-CD set released in 1997] there was so much to talk about. My life has changed. I’m with a group, the New Power Generation, and we have an album [NewPower Soul] and I want to promote it.”


“EVERY DAY IS A HAPPY DAY"

Brand new? Without a doubt. At 40, The Artist, born Prince Rogers Nelson on June 7 1958 in Minneapolis, Minn., seems a new man. The key to his current happiness seems to be the freedom he has experienced since parting ways with Warner Bros. Records three years ago.

"I’m not bitter,” he says, after taking a seat on the dressing room couch so that he is just a few feet away, facing me.

He introduces two of his bandmates, New Power Generation keyboardist “Mr. Hayes” (Morris Hayes), who is sitting in a corner chair, looking decidedly uptown in a shiny olive-green suit, and drummer Kirk Johnson, a towering man with a shaved head who is dressed casually, in a sleeveless black T-shirt and black slacks.

The Artist does not allow the few journalists he does speak with to tape-record their interviews. “That’s because taping him creates software that can be used by others,” explains his attorney, New York entertainment lawyer Londell McMillan, a few days after the interview. “He’s concerned about people using his image, likeness and voice in ways that it was not originally intended [to be used].”

Prior to this meeting, his current publicist told me that it would be all right to shoot video. But when I tell The Artist that I’m going to get out my camera, he replies that he had not been asked whether or not he wanted to allow the interview to be videotaped, and that, therefore, he isn’t prepared. “That won’t be possible today,” he says, in a polite but firm voice.

Concerned that, without a video or a recording, I will not be able to preserve everything The Artist has to say (the original plan was to run a Q & A), I suggest that he allow me to make an audio tape, so that every word of the interview will be accurate. “This isn’t a deposition,” he says, grinning slyly. “Now you don’t want to start our relationship on that note, do you?”

Quickly pulling out my notebook, I suggest that we begin.

He wants to make it clear, right at the outset, that this is a New Power Generation interview, which is why Mr. Hayes and Johnson are present (the rest of the band consists of singer Marva King, bassist Rhonda Smith and guitarist Mike Scott).

"I think it’s a landmark record for me,” he says of NewPower Soul. “I allowed other sounds made by other individuals. ’Mad Sex’ is a creation of Kirk’s.” He raises his right hand and gestures in the direction of the drummer. “I let that dictate how I wrote and arranged it. I respect the one, the first.” [On The Artist’s website there is an explanation of “The One.”]

For The Artist, the New Power Generation is more than a band. “The New Power Generation is like a studio, like an idea,” he says. “It’s a way of doing things.”

"It’s really a way of life for him and all of us that believe in the New Power Generation for the new millennium,” McMillan says.

While The Artist and his extended family understand, much of the rest of the world doesn’t get it yet. The Artist complains that Leno is promoting tonight’s appearance as “The Artist and the New Power Generation.” “They don’t say ’Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones,’ “ he notes.

Make no mistake, he clearly understands that it’s his fame, his success that is carrying things. It may be an NPG album that the band’s here to promote, but it’s The Artist who appears, alone, on the NewPower Soul cover. It’s The Artist whom Leno wanted on his show. And it’s The Artist who dominates the interview.

And why not? The Artist is the only superstar in this room. Certainly Hayes and Johnson are awesome musicians; they bring plenty to the table, whether performing New Power Generation songs like “Come On” and “The One,” or older material written by the man sitting before me (both when he was working under the Prince moniker and after the name change). Still, it is The Artist who has written and produced and performed the countless hits—from “I Wanna Be Your Lover” to “When Doves Cry” to “The Most Beautiful Girl In The World"—that have earned him the respect of the music industry and fans the world over.

His bandmates clearly understand this. “It’s amazing,” Johnson says, explaining what it’s like working with The Artist. “I have an idea, some beats. So me and our engineer leave some ideas on the board and when we come back it’s a whole new beast.”

In 1978, the then 20-year-old Prince’s first album (For You) was released by Warner Bros. He recorded seventeen albums for that company as Prince, and another two as The Artist (fifteen of the albums went platinum, with Purple Rain selling more than 14 million copies; 12 of his singles went gold).

For more than a decade, it seemed a relatively smooth artist/record company relationship, from the outside anyway. But, by the early ’90s, Prince—who changed his name to a male/female symbol in 1993 (he’s also been going by “The Artist” since at least 1995)— became frustrated by Warner Bros.’ reluctance to release his music as promptly as he wanted.

He tried to get out of his recording contract. He protested publicly, appearing in photos and on television with the word “slave” scrawled on his face. He did a rare interview, complaining about his situation to Vibe. In 1995 he enlisted the help of McMillan. “The idea was to seek someone who could relieve him of the restrictive covenants of the Warner Bros. record contract,” McMillan says. “We explored contentious and amiable options to relieve him of the agreement. Fortunately, we were able to find a way to terminate it amicably after much negotiation and effort.”

The Artist was released from Warner Bros. in the spring of 1996. “The goal was to help him wipe slave off his face,” McMillan says. “Because freedom is very liberating and allows one to be as creative and productive as possible.”

"The reputation I gained for being bitter was probably because I had ’slave’ written on my face,” The Artist tells me. “As you can see [he smiles, rubs his hand across the side of his face], I don’t have anything written on my face now. I’m free. Every day is a happy day.”


THE ARTIST AS KING

Today, he looks like the happy king of funk ’n’ roll, like a soulful King Arthur holding court. His clothes (which The Artist himself designs) are custom-made, fantasy rock ’n’ roll wear that just about anyone else, star or not, would look silly wearing. Who but The Artist could wear a blue spangled jumpsuit cut low so his chest is exposed, a mid-length purple velvet frock coat with foot-deep white sheepskin cuffs and the hugest collar anyone has worn since the early-’70s heyday of “Superfly"?

His hair is tied in numerous mini-pigtails. A gold three-inch-in-diameter hoop earring dangles from his right ear. A fat ring with row after row of diamonds glistens on a finger of his right hand. A diamond version of the now-legendary morphed male/female symbol hangs from his neck.

And then there’s the cane—it’s clear, and filled with a translucent liquid in which multi-colored stars float.

I have come to this meeting expecting The Artist to elaborate on how he has set himself up to operate independently of the traditional music business. After all, since leaving Warner Bros., The Artist has started his own record label, NPG Records, and released several albums. The first, Crystal Ball, was initially only available by ordering it online or via an 800 number. More than 150,000 copies of the five-CD set—selling for $50 each—were ordered in one of those two ways, according to McMillan, before The Artist made a three- and four-CD edition of the album available in record stores. He says that 250,000 copies of the album have sold to date.

The Artist came in for some criticism from fans for the extended period of time that elapsed between when orders for Crystal Ball were first taken (May 1997) and when the albums were finally shipped (spring 1998). “[It bothers me that people have said] we’re running a bad business,” The Artist says. “That’s not true. We probably have more satisfied customers than anyone. Thousands of satisfied customers. The newspaper says my name is mud. Excuse me! What’s the point? It’s so one-sided. It’s not proper.”

Recently, he decided to let his fans download a new 26-minute song, “The War,” off the Internet (the single is also being sent to everyone who ordered Crystal Ball). He requests that they mail him a $1 donation, a portion of which will go to charity, but it’s not required.

When I open the interview by bringing up his autonomy from the biz, The Artist shakes his head. “No,” he says flatly. “My intention is never to disassociate from or disenfranchise anyone.”

"Not to dis!” Mr. Hayes says.

The Artist nods in agreement. “I have no problem with record companies. Record companies work fine. We’re taking a different approach to marketing. We’re not cutting into their business. Their business is their business and our business is our business.”

He smiles as though he’s just told a joke that only he and his bandmates truly understand. “I have good friends in the record business,” he continues, looking me straight in the eye. “I still have friends at Warner Bros. [Sony Music Entertainment Executive Vice President] Michele Anthony is a very good friend. My next record will probably be at a major.”

"The records we’ve released [independently], it’s an alternative,” he says. “We’re getting our feet wet.”

"Stepping out into uncharted territory,” Mr. Hayes says.

In the late ’80s, The Artist built Paisley Park, the 65,000 square-foot studio complex outside Minneapolis where he now does most of his recording. Paisley Park includes four recording studios, a soundstage and a rehearsal hall. “Paisley Park is set up so we can do what we do,” Mr. Hayes says. “Rehearse, sleep, eat, record. It’s outfitted so if he has an idea, you just hit a button and go.”

Over the course of the interview, the Artist returns often to the subject of his artistic autonomy. “[Since going independent] I’ve made a lot more money,” The Artist says. Now he’s really smiling. “I can say that and feel good. With a lot of money you can resuscitate the careers of Larry Graham and Chaka Khan [both now record for NPG]. People say we’re not as successful as before. Well, what is success? We define our success. One hundred thousand copies, when most of the profit goes to us is [he slaps his leg] like Nelson Mandela just got free.”

He pauses, lets what he’s said sink in. “I understand money more now. I don’t trip on it. I always have it, and so I don’t worry about it. [When you have money] it takes the worry away.

We look at the criticism: ’He ain’t selling like he used to’ ... We don’t think in those terms. It’s not all about the Benjamins. It’s back to the fun of just making music. It’s not about the Billboard charts.”

"Long as people can eat and groove,” Hayes says, “it’s pretty cool.”



A FREE MAN

I used to think of The Artist as a shy man who only came out of his shell during performances. This was a man who could sing frankly about oral sex and incest, but didn’t want to speak to the media.

While he may have been bashful once, there is nothing shy about The Artist now. As he sits before me, laughing and cracking jokes, he is a forceful, luminous presence. You can practically see the charisma; star power emanates from him in waves.

For nearly an hour he answers my questions. He never raises his voice. He never appears to get mad. He is calm and comfortable addressing everything from his past career problems to the state of the world, from the creative process to artists that he likes (Björk, D’Angelo, the Tony Rich Band).

"We’re just out here having a good time,” he says of “The Tonight Show” appearance, not “tripping like we used to. When you do music, it’s the freedom you best prosper in.”

He recalls that he felt no restrictions when he recorded Dirty Mind, one of the greatest rock ’n’ roll albums ever made. “Dirty Mind was a demo tape,” he says. “Recorded in my basement. I had complete freedom [making that album]. You lift the veil and see what’s inside. When they [Warner Bros.] first heard it—’Oh boy, we’re in trouble now.’ “

The problems that The Artist had in the past extended beyond a record deal he couldn’t stomach. “I had a group of people making decisions for me. [Saying things like] ’you’re too prolific.’ What does that mean? Too prolific? That’s like too wealthy.

"I used to ride my bike to the record store and I bought every single James Brown put out. He’d have a new single every three months. No one said James Brown was too prolific.” He laughs. “I wasn’t mad if James Brown put out ’Lickin’ Stick.’ “

Mr. Hayes says quietly, “Mad if James had skipped putting a record out after three months.”

In June, The Artist had some lyrics he was “messin’ with.” He brought them into the studio and “we just jammed on it.” The result, released in mid-July, just a month after it was recorded, is a 26-minute epic social statement, “The War.”

"The War” is an apocalyptic cut that features vocals, guitar, keyboards and percussion work by The Artist, and the refrain “One! Two! The evolution will be colorized,” a reference to social critic and singer Gil Scott-Heron’s classic poem, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.”

"We are about to challenge what you believe/ If you do not wish to be challenged, you should leave now,” The Artist says over a funky groove. “Do you love your country as much as you love God? ... We are running out of the essentials of the life. Oxygen, water, food, fertile earth.”

"It’s self-explanatory,” The Artist says when asked to elaborate on the song’s lyrics. “It’s a challenge. All I can say is, if you accept the challenge, then you can deal with what’s inside.”

The Artist says that releasing “The War,” (which isn’t on NewPower Soul), so soon after the NewPower’s release is another example of the freedom he now enjoys. “In the past [when he was signed to Warner Bros.] they’d have said, ’You can’t put out a 26 minute song—it’ll kill the album.’ We’re not tripping on that. We got in it for the funk of it.”

He glances at Hayes and Johnson. “Anybody begins a sentence with the word ’but,’ we figure that’s where their words are coming out of.”

The three men laugh.


"WHAT’S THAT STUFF IN THE CANE?”

What many people don’t seem to understand about The Artist is that while he has a shrewd understanding of the music business, his art has nothing to do with the biz. At one point he says that he wants the conversation off the record for a moment, and then explains something to me. In the course of his explanation, he says something that I ask him about once we’re back on the record.

He had said that his work reflects “a life that I’m living.”

I tell him that when he said this, what struck me was the idea that for 20 years his life has served as the inspiration for the records he has written and produced. In other words, he doesn’t go into the studio to write a hit, he goes in to document where he’s at.

The Artist turns serious. “It’s a record of the event,” he says. “Now the biz wants you to put something out [every few years]. I don’t do things like they do. I’m an artist and for me that isn’t rewarding. I handed you a copy of [the new single] ’The War.’ That was recorded a month ago. Not six months ago.”

He tells me about a song he once recorded, called “The Rock,” inspired by a dance he’d seen kids doing at the clubs. He wanted it released right away but, he says, Warner Bros. wouldn’t release it. By the time it could be released, the moment had long passed, so he rewrote it, and it was finally released as ’Let’s Work.’ “

Johnson says they sometimes joke about record executives lying on the beach “sippin’ their drinks, and talking about what you can’t do.”

"I sold out Wembley Stadium [in London] in a day once,” The Artist says. “So when I heard that I said, ’then put another day on sale.’ And they [his advisors at the time] said, ’No, you don’t want to do that. It might be half full.’ So? I’d play a half-full stadium.” 

We wouldn’t want to turn away people who want to see us perform,” Mr. Hayes says.

The subject switches to Love 4 One Another, the children’s charity that The Artist and his wife Mayte founded in 1996. These days, in each city where he performs, he does something for the underprivileged. “Tithing works,” he says. “I wish you’d title this article that, ’tithing works.’ You help somebody and you’ll get rewards upon rewards. Love life, love life.”

As I look at The Artist, I want to tell him how much his music has meant to me. How I’ve played “When You Were Mine” hundreds of times over the 18 years since Dirty Mind was released—literally wearing it out. How I grooved through the years to Controversy and 1999. The ecstasy of listening to Purple Rain and Sign ’O’ the Times. How cool “Manic Monday” [the song he wrote for the Bangles] is, and “Nothing Compares 2 U,” a song he wrote that was a breakthrough hit for Sinéad O’Connor.

I want to be sure he understands the kind of impact he’s had on contemporary music, and all the musicians he’s influenced and who love his work. And the fans. The millions and millions of music lovers who have danced and loved and grown up to his songs.

Instead, I ask for an autograph, and he politely tells me he doesn’t do that.

The audience with The Artist is at an end. He indicates that he’s got to prepare for the New Power Generation’s “Tonight Show” performance—but that it’s possible we’ll talk again. He rises from the couch, picks up his cane and leans on it, waiting for me to leave.

"What’s that liquid in the cane?” I ask, as I pack up my notebooks.

He raises the cane in the air and rotates it, so that the stars floating in the liquid catch the light and sparkle.

"Sperm,” he says, and laughs. “When I’m 75, I can break it out.”