A Year in the Life of The Artist

When Gil Kaufman was granted an audience with The Artist in New York recently, the two discussed music, power, the Bible, and why Elton John should mind his own beeswax.

Gil Kaufman




Hurricane Floyd is moving through Manhattan, dumping rain on the streets several stories below the New York Palace hotel suite where The Artist is holding court with various members of the press.

Inside, his majesty is blasting a remix of “The Greatest Romance Ever Sold,” the first single from his forthcoming album Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic. Across the room, a reporter leans forward, elbows resting on his knees, and attempts to synchronize his head-nods with The Artist’s.

Although we’ve never met, The Artist greets me with relaxed familiarity. “Listen to that!” he says, and reaches out to shake my hand. He falls silent for a moment as he moves his head meditatively to the funk groove. Then, as I open my bag, he looks up to make sure there are no recording devices in my backpack (per his request, interviews with The Artist are strictly pen-and-ink affairs).

“That’s a hit!” he says, plopping down on the overstuffed couch. The Artist is decked out in his trademark royal purple—this time it’s a velvet shirt with collar open to reveal a massive gold New Power Generation pendant, purple pants and scuffed yellow high-heeled boots. An oversized gold hoop dangles from his right ear. He looks me straight in the eye when he talks, rarely looking down or breaking eye contact.

“What [CDNow executive editor] Anthony DeCurtis doesn’t know is that I have the power of the Internet!” The Artist says, alluding to a Sept. 12 article in the New York Times that was written by DeCurtis. “I got on there and told people what was up. [Quoting DeCurtis:] ’A vulnerability he refused to acknowledge!’ Do I look vulnerable? I feel perfect!”

” ’Tell me that’s not a hit,’ “ the Artist is quoted as saying to DeCurtis in the profile. The profile continues: “His [The Artist’s] chest was puffed out and he was smiling. His hips and shoulders were moving. But in his dark eyes, beneath the bravado, there was a vulnerability he refused to acknowledge, as well as a hope that the answer would be what he needed to hear.”

The Artist will refer to these perceived slights from DeCurtis several times during our conversation about his new album, which marks his return to a major label (Arista) after a messy divorce from Warner Bros. four years ago.


PRESIDENTIAL TREATMENT

The next day I venture out to see Arista President Clive Davis play songs from the new album for members of the international press. The show takes place in the basement theater of the Equitable Building in New York. Davis does a stiff heel-toe boogie while blasting such songs as “Undisputed” (featuring Public Enemy’s Chuck D), the sexy funk tune “Hot With U” (featuring rapper Eve) and the pop-rocker “So Far, So Pleased” (featuring No Doubt singer Gwen Stefani). The label honcho—who most recently revived the career of legendary guitarist Carlos Santana—is effusive in his praise for The Artist, who later plays an eclectic 45-minute set of Prince classics, blues standards and soul rave-ups.

When The Artist takes the stage he launches into a version of “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man,” which segues into a 10-minute Chicago blues take on the standard “Motherless Child,” as well as runs through Sly & the Family Stone’s “Everyday People” and James Brown’s “Talking Loud and Saying Nothing.”

In our time together, The Artist talks less about the new album than he does about various types of ownership: ownership of his name, his music, his ideas, his money, his spirit. He also discusses the transformation he says he underwent in 1999 (maybe the song was prescient).


TONIGHT WE’RE GONNA PHILOSOPHIZE LIKE IT’S 1999

Addicted To Noise:
For an artist who’s released a flood of material over the past few years—two studio albums, a three-CD collection, etc.—you’ve been unnaturally quiet this year. Why is that?

The Artist: I took a year off and didn’t release any music in 1999. I wanted to focus on reflecting on everything I had done. I wanted to meet people and see if we came up with something. I wanted to meet Ani [DiFranco], [former James Brown horn player] Maceo [Parker]. I felt like I needed to talk to more artists. The more Lenny [Kravitz] and I hung out, the more we learned from each other. I talked to Chuck [D] a lot.

Addicted To Noise: What did you see while you were sitting back and reflecting?

The Artist:
I saw kids who lost their minds at Woodstock. What happened there? I didn’t understand what went wrong, why they thought that was OK. I think it says something about society.

Addicted To Noise:
I’m sure you watch the news. Why were you so surprised by what happened there?

The Artist:
OK, I’ll give you an example. When we play Japan, we take the first 200 seats and put tambourines on them, and the kids play them. Then, when the show’s over, they put them down and leave. Those are souvenirs! They’re supposed to take them! Why don’t they? Because nobody told them that this is there to take, that’s stealing. They didn’t bring them when they came in and so they don’t take them when they leave. There’s something lacking in our children.

Addicted To Noise: You’ve never had many guests on your albums. Why the proliferation of guests on this one? Did you start feeling more collaborative after reflecting a bit?

The Artist: I always thought that in this spiritual journey that we’re on, it’s not about all of us going in one direction. It’s not a gray area. I just needed to talk to more artists and hang out with them.

Addicted To Noise: One of the more left-field collaborations is with [No Doubt singer] Gwen Stefani. How did you two meet and what attracted you to her?

The Artist:
No Doubt digs us. We go to their shows and when we’re in town they go to our shows. When we play L.A. they’re all there on the side of the stage. I don’t draw any difference between us. Someone else drew that division.

Addicted To Noise:
What is it that you and Gwen have in common?

The Artist:
Gwen and I have a million things in common. What she does appeals to me and I hope she digs what I do. The first time I saw her was when they played on the David Letterman show and I knew I dug what she did. I loved it when she was thrashing around on stage, then jumped up on David Letterman’s desk. I would never do that.

Addicted To Noise: What about Ani DiFranco? I’m guessing that among the things you admire about her are her unwillingness to compromise and her ability to run her own label. Was it difficult for two people with such singular visions to accommodate each other?

The Artist:
She has a vision by nature and she made it come to fruition. I wanted to meet her because she doesn’t allow nobody to mess with her vision. I didn’t look at it as two people with strong visions colliding. She knows what she wants and I don’t think she thinks about it as someone trying to mess with that. She just views it as the absurdity of if someone did [mess with her vision]. I think Chuck [D] puts it better. It’s like giving up your business to someone. Like, ’Here, I gave you some paper that I know is valueless.’ It’s like you gave your art to someone and then they kept your gold. It’s your creation, your gold. I’ve been studying the Bible with Larry [Graham Jr., former Sly & the Family Stone bassist] and it says that God created the world and he saw that it was good, he saw man and saw that he was good, but then something happened there and man started creating things. What does that tell you?


YOU CAN HAVE MY BODY, BUT NOT MY MIND


The 41-year-old Artist appears to have been profoundly affected by his close working relationship with Graham. The bassist has been touring with The Artist for the past year and, in early 1999, The Artist released Graham’s album Graham Central Station 2000 on his NPG label.

Graham is someone who “makes my light shine brighter,” The Artist says. The pair share Bible study as well as an almost telepathic connection. “He’s a brother, mentor, advisor. I get things from him. He teaches me a lot about people,” The Artist says.

The Artist has had many musical foils over the years, from percussionist Sheila E. to multi-instrumentalists Wendy & Lisa, to singer Rosie Gaines and rapper Tony M. But Graham appears to occupy a different space than the others, who may have shared center stage but were clearly following The Artist’s lead.

The Artist speaks of Graham as an equal, an inspiration from which he can learn. The Artist gives nearly all of his dozen band members a chance to shine during the Thursday afternoon jam session, but he looks to Graham to help hold down not just the beat, but the flow of the show.

In a revealing moment, The Artist draws a distinct line between what he thinks he can and can’t learn from Graham.

Addicted To Noise:
Do you think your old band, The Revolution, knew what was on your mind when you wrote “1999"?

The Artist: The moment someone says they know what you’re thinking you just have to stop. Maceo [Parker] will never tell you he knew what James was thinking. He can tell you how he reacted and what happened, but he will never tell you what was in James’ mind. Same with Larry and Sly [Stone]. They can’t tell you that because they’re not that person. Nobody can tell you what James was thinking except James.

Addicted To Noise: What were you thinking when you wrote that song?

The Artist:
When I came up with that date, I just thought, ’Wouldn’t the future be a trip if things keep going in this direction?’ Reagan had just been shot then, drugs kicked in with a new thing with crack and I was just thinking ’Ya’ll can’t stop this.’ AIDS was kicking in. I just wanted people to know that I’m cool and not to be afraid. If you can say it, it’s so.


WHAT’S MINE IS MINE

Our conversation turns toward issues of ownership.

The Artist engaged in an epic battle with his former label Warner Bros. in the mid-’90s due to his frustration with the label’s reluctance to release his music as quickly as he was recording it. After changing his name to an unpronounceable symbol and abandoning the name Prince, The Artist took to writing the word “slave” on his cheek. He also expressed frustration about not owning his master recordings.

I ask The Artist if he can still appreciate the irony of an African-American man writing the word “slave” on his face because he was unable to obtain his “masters.”

He smiles, pauses awhile before replying. When the answer does come it’s a silently mouthed “exactly.”

The Artist: If I sell one million albums, two dudes from the IRS come in and take half. Like Chris Rock says, that’s a straight jack, they just take half. You ain’t in this, it’s all based upon a lie. It’s based on the CONstitution.

Addicted To Noise: But doesn’t it get confused even further by changing your name?

The Artist: Why do they try to take your name? [He leans in conspiratorially and whispers.] They’re just making it true, making it conscious. If they make you think he [Prince] is crazy, then he is. It worked on someone, they almost had me, but I did it for a reason. I wanted to make my point of view clear. If you don’t own them, they own you. I had this revelation about time recently. There are only four months, as opposed to 12. July is for Julius Caesar, August is for Augustus Caesar, that’s how time was measured for them. It’s their ego speaking.

Addicted To Noise:
How much does ego play into all of this? Yours or theirs?

The Artist: It’s our will or God’s. God’s way ain’t gonna be easy. There’s a hurricane the size of Texas out there. Can you imagine that coming over you? If you’re on the side of the truth, that’s scary, but you’re not scared.


THE ARTIST AS GRAND INQUISITOR


When The Artist poses a question, he’ll generally fix you with a stare that demands, ’Right?,’ until you answer—as he does when he asks if I think Chuck D is a racist.

“What do you mean?” I ask.

“Do you think Chuck’s a racist? Do you agree with him?” He gives me that look.

“I don’t think he’s a racist, necessarily, but I also don’t agree with everything he says. Some of it rubs me the wrong way,” I say, trying to meet his stare with an unblinking stare of my own.

“You have to agree with Chuck,” he says confidently. “Chuck understands what’s going on, and he speaks his mind.”

“I don’t think I have to agree with Chuck. I can respect him, but I don’t have to agree with him.”

The Artist smiles, never averting his eyes. I try to change the subject. Bolstered by this mini turf battle, I venture to ask him a sticky question about the production credits for Rave Un2 The Joy Fantastic. Although he retired the Prince name more than five years ago, the Artist’s new album is “produced by Prince.”

Addicted To Noise: I don’t get how Prince produced your album. I thought Prince didn’t exist anymore.

The Artist: It [production] is inspiring if it’s done properly. You can produce by opening channels. Prince can do things to me that others can’t. Jimi Hendrix can do a rock album and I want to ask him if I can use his name. If I listen to Jimi for too long, I’m tempted to fire my band and just use a bass and drums and do his songs.

Addicted To Noise: So you’re saying Jimi Hendrix is going to produce one of your albums? Now I’m really confused. How can you conjure Prince, or how do you communicate that you want him to produce you?

The Artist: Prince is a part of me. I can hum a beat to Kirk [Johnson] my drum programmer and ask him, ’Can I have something like that?’ Or I can just ask Prince, because Kirk can give me the same jive beat everyone else has got, but we don’t do it that way at Paisley Park. That’s why [’80s R&B group] Ready for the World broke up. They can use that, but that’s not what’s happening here.



Addicted To Noise:
Let’s get back to the Hendrix thing again. I know you’ve always been a big fan. Have you asked his family about recording his material?

The Artist: I’m thinking about doing a straight rock album. I wanted to do one dedicated to him [Hendrix] and I want to do it with him producing me.


TONIGHT WE’RE GONNA PARTY ...


Clive Davis wants you to know that he’s psyched about working with The Artist, and he doesn’t care what it takes to get that message across.

Standing alone on a stage in a 500-person theater in Manhattan’s Equitable Building, Davis spends a good hour playing nearly every track from Rave Un2 The Joy Fantastic at floor-shaking volume, prefacing each song with an anecdote or explanation that indicates he’s spent ample time discussing the work with The Artist.

Davis, a music-biz lifer credited with nurturing the careers of everyone from ’60s blues-rock belter Janis Joplin to punk godmother Patti Smith, says he sensed something special when he heard Rave. “I’ve been in this business a long time, and this is a very special day,” Davis says. “I’ve done this a few times in my career and there are very few albums that could withstand this kind of scrutiny

Davis says that, to that day, he and the Artist had never discussed business, that their arrangement began and ended with music, not commerce. Of course, Davis knows a bit about both. It was, after all, his idea to pair Santana with such modern-rockers as Rob Thomas of Matchbox 20 and rapper Everlast on the Latin rocker’s recent Supernatural album, the biggest hit Santana has had in nearly 30 years.

“The word ’rave’ was not chosen at will,” Davis says. “Its meaning is related to a party and this album is a celebration. The Artist means to be a counter to the darkness out there now, all the minor key music.”


And, as he plays the tracks, they are indeed a celebration, a lusty group of songs that hearken back to the early part of Prince’s career: the falsetto sensuality of Controversy (1981), the dance party vibe of 1999 (1982) and the funk-rock fusion of Purple Rain (1984). But, like Santana’s album, the effort also has its modern touchstones, courtesy of Stefani, Eve, Chuck D, DiFranco and Sheryl Crow, who duets with The Artist on the roadhouse blues “Baby Knows.”

In another nod to what Davis describes as the album’s classic yet contemporary vibe, many of the tracks mix the classic rock and soul of those early Prince albums with futuristic beats reminiscent of those created by Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott producer Timbaland.

Clapping his hands and snapping his fingers, Davis plays the album’s first single, “The Greatest Romance Ever Sold,” three times. The song, a collage of Arabic-sounding guitar lines, turntable scratching, booming bass, soulful lyrics and a flamenco-like guitar solo, seems to have its intended effect: Several attendees are humming the infectious chorus as they leave the building hours later.

“That is a hit record,” Davis says after the first play. “All over the world.” A sentiment The Artist is surely nodding along to as he waits backstage for his cue.


As “The Greatest Romance Ever Sold” plays a third time, The Artist, sporting red pants and blouse, yellow boots and a red scarf on his head, joins Davis onstage for a photo op. The two men share an awkward hug, The Artist smiling wanly as they turn to face the cameras.

EVEN ROYALTY NEED FRIENDS


For most of 1999, The Artist said he was reassessing and looking back, reflecting, figuring out what to do next. He also appears to have watched quite a few episodes of VH1’s “Behind the Music” ("They’ll never do one on me—it’s too late now,” he says). And he’s spent a lot of time jamming with friends: Kravitz became a frequent guest at Paisley Park and Santana dropped by for an epic jam session, as did DiFranco, Parker and Crow.

Chuck D spent a day with the Artist. “It was a gigantic vibe session,” Chuck D says. “I guess Prince has his particular way, because he’s first and foremost a musician, and second and foremost a master producer. So we gelled on many ideas and mutually expressed our admiration for each other.”

Despite the somewhat intimidating nature of The Artist’s history, Chuck D says he wasn’t nervous when meeting the singer. Instead, the rapper joked, it felt like meeting family.

The resulting rap-funk song “Undisputed” says it all, according to Clive Davis. “Over the years, they’ve both thought of the other as the undisputed [best at what they do],” Davis says.

“To be straight-up and honest, obviously I’m gonna have the utmost amount of respect and admiration for him,” Chuck D explains. “He’s a master at what he does and he’s been in the business much longer as a trendsetter. So I followed his lead, and now he’s following mine, of course.”

One has the sense that when The Artist calls there aren’t many folks who don’t run to the phone. Of course, he said he wouldn’t have hooked up with heroes Graham or Parker if he hadn’t run just as fast to call them.

The Artist seems particularly proud of his work with Eve, a tough-as-nails former exotic dancer who also happens to be one of the hottest rap acts around. The Artist has attempted to integrate hip-hop into his sound numerous times in the past, especially on his 1992 album bearing the glyph that became his name. That album featured such rap-inspired songs as “My Name is Prince” and “Sexy M.F.”

But the marriage hasn’t always been easy.

Addicted To Noise: You’ve tried over the past 10 years to work the hip-hop sound into your music on a number of occasions. This time you’ve tapped a legend in Chuck. Do you think it was easier with a guide like him?

The Artist: I’ve never tried to integrate hip-hop into my music. There’s just rhymes in there like James [Brown]. We’ve been doing that since 1982, before we even knew hip-hop, when they didn’t even use that term. It was not in the public consciousness. I’m not adding anything to my sound. I have the same people in my group, whether they’re hot or not.

Addicted To Noise: OK, what about having a hot rapper like Eve on the first single remix and the song “Hot With U"?

The Artist: I just like Eve as an individual, but she just happens to be a genius poet. When we really got into it and I talked to her, her spirit is why she’s here. I love her spirit. I know she’s not trippin’ on anything. I love what she does, her and Lenny, they’re my friends now. It just reflects where I’m at. Who knows whether she’s the flyest female rapper right now? That’s not what this thing is all about. It’s a luxury that I can do that. When I called her, she didn’t believe it was really me calling.

Addicted To Noise: What about working with a hero like Maceo? Would you have felt the same way if he’d called you and wanted to collaborate, instead of your calling him?

The Artist:
When we were doing “Pretty Man,” I was singing “Maceo blow your horn,” and I thought, what if I could get him on it? So I called him and he came in and laid down an eight-minute solo that just killed. He came down for two to three hours of jamming and by the end Maceo was lying on his back on the stairs playing, and everyone just stopped and we were just near tears. This is what life is about. Carlos came in and we jammed for three to four hours, then we danced for three to four hours. Everyone who came down wanted to jam for three to four hours. That’s what my summer was like. That’s what I wanted my 1999 to be like.


NOBODY ASKED ELTON WHAT HE THOUGHT


The Artist has said that he was frustrated by Warner Bros.’ refusal to release his music as quickly as he could make it. Following his departure from the label, he quickly released two studio albums: Emancipation (1996), distributed by EMI, and New Power Soul (1998), on his own label.

He also unleashed the three-CD set Crystal Ball, initially available only through his website and by mail order. A limited-edition version of the set also came with an acoustic album entitled The Truth and the instrumental album Kama Sutra, credited to the NPG Orchestra.

The question, then, for an artist rumored to have hundreds if not thousands of songs that have never been released: Is seven albums’ worth of material in two years enough?

Addicted To Noise: So, now that you have your freedom, if you could, how much music would you release per year? Are you releasing as much as you want to now?

The Artist: I do release as much as I want to! What do you think Crystal Ball was? I think I heard somewhere that Elton John said I release too much material. Let Elton talk.