Goodbye 1999

O(+> produced by Prince: the Ultimate New Power Collaboration of the Millennium

Ernie Rideout

The vibrant summer foliage of the Minnesota countryside lines the gently winding road, empty but for a distinctive purple roadster. Outside the air is still, benign cumulus dotting the sky, but inside the car it’s a world within a world. The massive sound of Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic, the first album by the Artist in three years to be distributed by a major label, fills the cockpit. “This is my favorite way to listen to new music,” says the Artist as he shifts into high gear. The title cut, an airtight classic Prince jam from 1988, gives the car’s suspension a workout. Public Enemy’s Chuck D raps over “Undisputed,” a characteristically dense mix, alive with sonic one-liners and interwoven tonal messages.

My mixes have always been terrible,” he says with a slow, deep laugh and a humorous gleam in his eye. “All of them. Listen to anything — ’1999,’ ’Darling Nikki,’ ’Purple Rain.’ They’re alt that way.” Twenty years of bad mixes? Most of us were probably too
busy dancing to notice.

We pull into a cul-de-sac with a handful of modest homes on it, and angle into a driveway. A wrought iron gate bears a heart and a peace symbol, and beyond it is a large but not ostentatious purple house. “That’s where I used to live, in much less clear days,” he says. “That’s where I recorded ’1999,’ ’Purple Rain,’ all that stuff with Apollonia. My dad lives there now.”

Less clear days? Whatever was going on behind those gates notwithstanding, there’s nothing unclear about the albums he came out with during that time. Sure, the stylistic contrast between 1999 (1982), Around the World in a Day (1985), Sign o’ the Times (1987), and Lovesexy (1988) caused a great deal of confusion. But the result is a remarkable body of booty-shaking work documenting the growth of one of the greatest musical forces of these times — a major instrumental and vocal talent who believes in the power of that venerable institution, the live band.

He turns onto another rural road, “Greatest Romance” rocking the car. A layered synth horn line snakes by, an unusual sonic pairing that rapidly mutates into frenzied reverse-loop mayhem. He does this brilliant stuff all the time. The questions can’t wait any longer. What synths, what production secrets tie in store for us? “Look at that sky,” he says, gesturing at the clouds and sunlight through the windshield. Purple rosary beads and a pair of purple panties hang from the rearview mirror. “How could anyone look at that and not think that a higher intelligence created it?” A pause. He smiles. “I’ll show you the synths when we get back to Paisley.”

Longtime readers will have noticed that this is the first time the Artist has ever agreed to be interviewed by Keyboard. From the ’80s Revolution through the New Power Generation of the ’90s, we’ve had great luck talking to several of his keyboard-playing associates, but the Man himself was never accessible. Our January 1991 cover proclaimed,” Not an Interview With Prince.” Frankly, it drove us nuts; such incredible keyboard work and production, such massive grooves, yet so little opportunity to get behind the music.

But here we are hanging on to the end of 1999. Whether you believe in the party or the apocalypse as portrayed in “1999", can it be a coincidence that the Artist chose to open up to us now, nearly 20 years since out first inquiries? As always, the answer is in the music.

“This is the deepest record I’ve ever made”

Quite a claim, coming from the creator of such dancefloor bombshells as “Sexy M.F.,” “Let’s Go Crazy,” and “Days of Wild.” But a lot went into the making of Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic, and at the heart of the entire disc are two secret weapons.

The first is a pristine Linn LM-1, pulled from the mothball fleet deep in the vault at Paisley Park, the very LM-1 that featured prominently in many of Prince’s earlier recordings. Now it occupies an altar-like position in the control room of Studio A, surrounded by a fiber-optic sculpture and a framed drawing by Ani DiFranco. “Nothing has the timing of that thing,” says the Artist. “It locks up differently than any other drum machine. And believe me, I’ve had every drum machine ever made. When I put my own internal rhythm on top of it, there’s nothing like it. Kirk Johnson [drummer for the New Power Generation, the Artist’s band] did some of the programming for the album, too “

The second surprise lies in the production credits. Advance publicity for the album indicated that the Artist wanted to work with a producer with whom he was familiar. “That’s why I asked Prince to produce the album,” says the man who changed his name in the early ’90s legally from Prince to the Artist to distance himself from contractual hassles, imitators, and his own past. We could debate the meaning of this relationship for pages, but suffice it to say that when you listen to the album, it’ll come to you. “I can sound like Prince should sound in 1999, now that everyone’s gone the other way,” he explains, not without humor. “I always wondered what he d sound like now.” The album features collaborations with several Artists who are in fact not the same person. This is by no means in itself an unusual move for the Artist, and the results are remarkable. On the ballad, “I Love U but I Can't Trust U Anymore,” the Artist played a lush, sustained part on his 7' Steinway, singing the lead vocal simultaneously in a single take. He brought Ani DiFranco in to overdub acoustic guitar, and the part she laid down was characteristically idiosyncratic, resulting in some intriguing and unusual accents. The Artist overdubbed synth parts matching the guitar’s rhythm, and the result is an orchestrated track that seems organic yet completely composed. He also teamed up with Chuck D for the rap on “Undisputed,” with Sheryl Crow on “Baby Knows;’ with James Brown’s sax mainstay Maceo Parker on “Pretty Man;’ with Gwen Stefani of No Doubt on “So Far So Pleased,” and with Eve, his current favorite vocalist, on the deeply grinding “Hot With U” “Eve is incredible,” he says. “If you don’t say anything else, at least tell everybody that”

Another common element between Rave Un2 and the Artist s previous work is the presence of a couple of lush orchestral arrangements by Clare Fischer, the Los Angeles-based jazz piano virtuoso and arranging phenomenon. Though they’ve collaborated since the early ’80s, they’ve never met. “At this point, muses the Artist, “I wouldn’t want to jinx it by meeting him. His arrangements are incredible. I just send him a tape, we talk on the phone, and he sends me the finished orchestra tracks. Hear that?” He points at the monitors as the arrangement emphasizes a chord substitution in the Artist’s original track, thick with jazz extensions. “I’m gonna get that chord on the radio, baby!”

The Artist is infamous for his incredibly thick bass lines, and they abound on the new album. The secret is in how he layers the bass sounds, often three deep. Occasionally an electronic kick drum becomes a bass sound, too, adding two-fisted punch to already bowel-shaking analog synth lines. One line in particular seems like it could be felt back in Minneapolis, but when queried, he smiles, “Sorry, that one s a secret.” Damn. Now how we gonna make that booty boom?

Whether you agree with the Artist’s earlier assessment of his mixes or not, they are often packed with guitar lines doubled with keyboards, whimsical synth licks that appear and morph into sampled snippets, countermelodies layered in dissonant internals, and many other techniques that keep pulling you into the tunes. Rave Un2 is filled with prime examples. Does he make these up as he overdubs, or does he have them in his head from the beginning? “I see everything in my mind,” he reveals, “but as I overdub synth parts, I flip through the presets I like until I find the sound I want for the next phrase. I listen to what tone goes with what color. I usually don t change the sounds themselves.”

One ear-catching sound design technique pops up in the hi-hat part on “Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic.” The tone of the hi-hat seems quite unusual, but really effective in the song. A synth hook at the end of the phrase belies the fact that it and the hi-hat are coming from the same synth patch. “It’s a gate effect,” says the Artist, “triggered by the hi-hat. When the hi-hat hits, the gate opens, and all you hear is the synth patch while the gate is open, but it sounds like a hi-hat.”

The Artist’s instrumental virtuosity is legendary, and his playing seems free of technical limitations or concerns. His albums have consistently been keyboard and synth showcases, and in his view, synthesizers have always represented freedom itself. Keyboardists who have worked for him report tales of running up against their own technical limitations when trying to execute a keyboard part, only to have the Artist demonstrate to them how it can be done.

One of the most amazing live displays of his prowess occurs from time to time during live shows as he takes a guitar solo, then after a few phrases, fingers the guitar with his left hand while doubling the improvised line with his right on a synth. After 20 years of recording your own keyboard and guitar lines, you might expect that this would follow. But then he’ll harmonize his improvised line with one instrument or the other. And then he’ll improvise two independent, contrapuntal lines. And they’ll both burn. He may latch onto an ostinato pattern on keyboard, then he’ll drag someone up from the audience to play that part while he invents additional lines on top of that. Whether it’s 3 A.M. at Paisley or 10 P.M. onstage, the guy just doesn’t stop.

Interestingly, he has no keyboard heroes in particular, whereas he’s obviously a Hendrix and Santana fan on the guitar side. I think the keyboard player I’m most influenced by is Sly Stone,” he says. “But I never have studied anyone’s style or licks.” For the Artist, the most important element of good keyboard playing is rhythm. “Most keyboard players don t have good rhythm. You have to have an intimate relationship with the beat. And you either have it or you don’t. You can’t learn it.

"I’m new at this Freedom thing”

The Artist is hands-down one of the most prolific recording artists in pop history. A glance at his discography is like looking at the tip of an iceberg, though; there’s no telling how many partially finished or completely mixed recordings he s got sitting in the vaults of Paisley Park, ready to be brought to the light of day. Crystal Ball, his five-disc independent release of last year, is a compilation of just such buried treasures.’(It has reportedly sold upwards_of 250,000 units from, his Web site.) The tide cut of Rave Un2 is a late bloomer Itself, having been laid down in’1988; the rest of the tracks have only recently been completed.

How does he do it? Well, it’s certainly helpful that he regained ownership of Paisley Park studios a couple of years ago after he operated it as a public facility for years. (REM recorded there, and Grumpy Old Men was filmed on the main soundstage.) That means he has 24/7 access to three interconnected state-of-the-art studios, and one of the best, most devoted engineers in the business, Hans Buff.

But for the Artist, 24/7 means just that: He works around the clock without sleep for days at the time, sometimes working from initial drum tracks straight through mixdown, at other times flitting from one song to another. My job is mainly to make sure to document the sounds he’s making,” says the soft-spoken Hans. “ He works the board himself [a fully automated digital SSL occupies the control room of Studio A], and when he’s tracking his vocals, he doesn’t even let me in the room.”

So what’s it like to work on a tune with the whole thing visualized in your head, from start to finish? “The question is always, ’What needs to be here right now?’” explains the Artist. We sit at the massive console, him reaching over from time to time to pull a fader up or down as we listen to the new tracks. “Ifs not about what’s hittin5. What sound needs to be here at this moment? If s all about trust, and keeping the channel clear. ’The Greatest Romance Ever Sold’ [one of the new tracks on Rave Un2] already existed. I just yanked it out of the sky.”

How does he get these airborne sonic visions to stick to tape? Does he just yank gear familiarity from the sky, too? “I don’t ever read manuals,” he says. “I don’t want to have a preconception about what a piece of gear should or shouldn’t do. I just start using it, I start pushing buttons, and I discover the sounds that I can make with it. Sometimes a particular sound will give me a whole song, like the harpsichord sound on ’Manic Monday.' [He plays air harpsichord and sings the intro, made famous on a recording by the Bangles.] That sound just dictated that part.”

Okay, seems pretty easy. When you work a hundred times harder than your muse, you’re bound to have a pretty well-oiled creative process — especially after more than two decades of phenomenal concentration and self-discipline. But what comes up next is surprising. “I’m new at this freedom thing, though,” he says. Now, freedom is a loaded term where the Artist is concerned, what with his highly publicized contract battles with Warner Bros. in the mid-’90s and the recent redefinition of his relationship with his partner, Mayte. But the freedom in question is of the relative spirit. How could anyone be artistically freer than the Artist is already?

"When Ani DiFranco first came in here,” he explains, she curled underneath that chair over there, and we started talking. She didn’t sit in it, she curled up underneath it, like a child. Ani has known freedom from the first record she ever made, when she was still a kid. So it’s natural. I never was able to be like that, until now. Freedom is something I’m still getting used to.

"Why should we give away our creations for a piece of paper?”

Freedom takes on another dimension when the conversation turns to the record business. Rave Un2 is the Artist’s first release on a major label since Emancipation on EMI, just prior to that company’s restructuring. The arrangement is very clear: The Artist retains ownership of the master tapes and licenses their use to Arista for a specific time. He is thus free to produce his own release with a slightly different track order, new mixes, and additional music.

"Where’d we get the idea that we had to give away the store?” he exclaims, leaning over the SSL’s remote transport. “Why shouldn’t every artist own their creations? We should still own rock and roll. We should still own jazz. I pulled ’The Greatest Romance Ever Sold’ from the sky — so who should own that? I’ve produced and distributed my own CDs, so I know what the economics are. And the artist is supposed to give up their creation for a piece of paper with a pyramid and a bunch of other Masonic symbols on it? [Laughs deeply.] No way. See, that piece of paper don’t mean nothin’. Money is of no value. The creative work has value. “I used to be intimidated every time I had to go up in that elevator to meet with Warner Bros. Those cats would be like, ’Oh, boy, here comes moneybags again; and they’d be rollin’ their eyes. Now that I understand what the game is, I don’t feel intimidated anymore. I understand that they’re just playing the game that they created. I respect [Arista CEO] Clive Davis. He’s got where he is today by playing that game. Now I can play that card; I can say, ’I know what it takes; And nothin’ against him, he can play his next card, too, and say. All right, so you know that much about us. But I’m still gonna play this card. But now I can say, ’Hey, Wall Street. Y’all gonna play by my rules now, baby!

To that end, the Artist is focusing his considerable energies on re-recording his entire catalog of masters that he recorded under contract to Warner Bros. That’s a lot of tunes. Sure, he played almost all those parts himself the first time, but still.... “Gear is so much easier to use now, though,” he says. “And it sounds so much better. It’s gonna be easy to re-record all that music.” So, what’ll it be, the Artist playing Prince, or Prince on original instruments? How about the Artist produced by Prince? Choices like these may inspire a new generation of musicians to think hard about who owns their creative product.

Back out in the dining room at Paisley, the legendary bassist Larry Graham, close friend and collaborator, is hanging out with his family. Graham is a Jehovah’s Witness, ringing almost as many doorbells as he pops bass strings these days. “Larry’s trying to get me to give up profanity,” mentions the Artist with an affectionate glance at the founder of Graham Central Station. Graham hoots and laughs, “That’s right!” Larry’s wife, Tina, chimes in with her beaming, good-natured assent. There’s definitely some love going on at Paisley Park. “Love4oneanother” isn’t just a song title around here.

"I’ve been examining my spiritual base more,” says the man who nearly 18 years ago sang, ’When I woke up this morning/I thought it was judgement day,” to begin one of the biggest party hits of the century, “1999” “Let me move on,” he concludes. “I want to know God.” The more he knows, though, if past experience is any indication, the more were likely to be dancing.