Slavery, sin and salvation: The Artist speaks out.

Martin Keller

Visitors to the pop pantheon 50 years or more from now are bound to marvel at the astounding collection of rock groups, songsmiths, blues kings and queens, funk masters, rappers and electronica renegades that the late 20th century produced. They may give pause. however, when they come across one who changed his name from prince Rogers Nelson to a symbol. The radical name change transpired about the same time the ex-Prince walked away in anger and joy from a major recording contract at Warner Bros., painted SLAVE on his cheek and yet continued to make some of the most vivifying music of the past two decades, as exemplified by his latest release, a double-platinum three-record set, Emancipation, on his own New Power Generation Records label (distributed by EMI). A three-record set?! In 1997? Nobody ever said Minnesota’s most famous homeboy was one to settle for the record-business orthodoxy of releasing just one record every two to three years. And this three-record set is loaded with great music, underscoring the notion that if O(+> didn’t exist, no one would be able to invent him. A bundle of contradictions, the man most people now refer to as “The Artist” has confounded fans and critics alike over the years with his rich polyglot of rock, funk, blues, gospel and pop played against a canon of themes that often embraced sex, God and salvation ­often all in the same verse. Streetwise and world-class sophisticate, the Artist has always used enough hip argot and sexual imagery in his music to make Anais Nin and Henry miller blush, as he consistently­ and in his own singular way­ explored light and dark, male and female, straight and gay, the yin and yang of relationships, and himself. Despite the salacious R & B vamps and classic rockers he has penned, he’s also written some of the most moving songs about faith in all of pop music, including “The Cross,” “A Man Called Jesus” (written for Mavis Staples) and “The Holy River” on Emancipation. His tantalizing live show always combines elements of Little Richard, James Brown, Mick Jagger, and even Joni Mitchell. “You can say all you want about me and my bands over the years,” he said recently at his Paisley Park recording complex in a Minneapolis suburb, “but you have to admit, we attracted the most diverse crowds to our concerts: blacks, whites and people of all ages. We broke down a lot of barriers.” Through the late 80’s and into the early 90’s, while Michael Jackson, thuggish rappers and alt rockers from Pearl Jam to Nirvana dominated the charts, the Artist slipped momentarily from view. His peers may have sold more records then, but none of them had created as genuine a mystique as His Royal Badness, with the possible exception of another Minnesota enigma, Bob Dylan. Just 39 years of age, the brilliant musician has already left his indelible mark on the culture. The radical innovator of pop music in the ’80s single-handedly put the Twin Cities’ deep and diversified music scene on the world map in the summer of ’84, when his double-jab film and soundtrack album Purple Rain made him a household name. Thirteen years, millions of records and dollars, an Oscar and a Grammy later, the musician, composer and producer married Mayte Garcia, a beautiful 23-year-old Puerto Rican who sings and dances in his stage show, and became a self-described new man with poise, style and sense of humor and spirit­ that many have not seen before. “I worked a year on Emancipation, and I’ve never worked a year on anything,” he says, as if he can’t quite believe it himself. Quite a statement, considering that in his career he’s made three feature films (Purple Rain, Under the Cherry Moon, and Graffiti Bridge) and a critically acclaimed concert film (Sign o’ the Times), written the soundtrack albums for the first Batman flick and Spike Lee’s Girl 6, written and contributed music to the Joffrey Ballet’s Billboards and released almost a record a year since he wrote, produced and played all the instruments on his first album, For You, when he was barely 20 in 1978. On the eve of an impending world tour, O(+> is relishing his recent sojourn into the mystic, the music and his new found freedom.

LIVE: You attribute much of your current state of mind to the happiness you’ve found with Mayte, and you’ve said she “makes it easier to talk to God.” You remind me of another famous rock star, John Lennon, who went into semi-retirement to bake bread and raise his son with Yoko Ono.

O(+> No, no, the rock-star thing is dead. I mean, I still have bodyguards for my own personal safety, but the whole deal is over for me. I’m not that anymore ­that rock-star trip, I did it. It is finished.

LIVE: You’ve been telling the press for months how much you’ve changed and how you’ve changed the direction of your career by breaking out on your own. Have you been in some kind of therapy or program?

O(+>: I haven’t exactly gone through therapy, but I’ve watched and taken others through their therapy. I think it’s interesting you mentioned where John Lennon was at. Now lots of people say, “Oh yeah, Lennon lost his edge when he came out of that whole domestic scene and started to record again.” Man, what does that mean, lost his edge? It usually means some kind of dysfunction. The guy goes through whatever it is that makes him angry or alone or upset and comes out able to manage it at a personal level, and what happens to his music? They say it’s become domesticated. Hey, I hope they’ll say that about my music.

LIVE: You do?

O(+>: Hell, yes! John Lennon would have never written the beautiful music he wrote at the end of his life if he hadn’t gone through what he did with Yoko. He would have never written “Imagine.” And “Imagine,” thank God, is going to be around in 2,000 years, but a song like “I Am the Walrus” isn’t. You know why? Because John wasn’t the walrus, he was John. “Imagine” is a song about truth, and the truth will always win out in the end. If John had never climbed up that ladder in the art gallery to see what Yoko had written there when he first met her, his life would have been completely different. What he found was the word “Yes,” and to me that defined the beginning and the end of their lives together as people and artists. To me that one little word says it all.

LIVE: There must have been something that drove you to look so hard at yourself and then at your situation with Warner Bros., which you claimed was stifling you artistically and otherwise.

O(+>: It got to the point a few years ago where I really had to ask myself, who am I? And what was my music for? Who really was my boss, and where did the money go at Warner Bros.? Was music just for selling? And why did I have to have some marketing person tell me I can’t release a song like “Anna Stesia” [from Lovesexy] because it won’t play on the radio? I mean, Joan Osbourne’s “One of Us” [a song O(+> covers on his new album that asks, “What if God was one of us?”] is good and everything, but come on, we were rolling that way [with religious themes] in 1988! It got to the point where I realized I was an autonomous person on this earth and I didn’t need a lot of vendors to help me get my music out. I wanted a clear and free channel to my audience.

LIVE: You didn’t want any karmic debt.

O(+>: Yeah, karmic debt­ that’s exactly it. I didn’t want to stay in the music-business game the way it was being played, either. I can relate to rock groups like Pearl Jam, who won’t give interviews and never make videos. Why should a group like that overexpose themselves with a video and burn themselves out? Does Pearl Jam need that kind of marketing? I think they proved they don’t. Do I need that kind of marketing? I think I know I don’t.

LIVE: You’ve been notorious about not giving interviews, either­ until now, with Emancipation. For a while, it seemed as if you were the Howard Hughes of rock.

O(+>: I’ve got a new record to sell

LIVE: But you’ve always had records to sell.

O(+>: Yeah [laughing], but I didn’t own those! Warner Bros. owns those other ones, but I know how to play ’em all. All of my songs are my children, even if they don’t live at home now. But one day I hope they’ll all belong to me again. Bowie made $55 million by selling bonds on master tapes that he owns. All artists should own their masters if only for this reason alone. Sly Stone, the creator of the masterpiece “Everyday People,” does not own his master tapes. Different strokes for different folks. As far as interviews go, I didn’t talk for a long time publicly for the same reasons Miles Davis didn’t: A lot of people misunderstood him throughout his career. I didn’t want to talk to somebody if I didn’t know them.

LIVE: Getting back to the karmic thing, a lot of people would say you encourage sexual license among young people with your extremely suggestive lyrics and stage show.

O(+>: I don’t know if playing music leads to promiscuity and all that...In a lot of ways, I feel songs like “Sexy M.F.” and even “P Control” are affirmative messages. I’m no saint here, and I’ve made some mistakes. Operating four nightclubs called Glam Slam around the country was one of them. I only own one now in Miami, which is for sale. I owned the clubs so I could have places to play, but I’ve got this place [Paisley Park], too. After a while, you realize you’re selling people stuff that’s killing them, like alcohol. Same thing with cigarettes. I figured maybe I don’t want to be a part of that. That’s when you start to realize that you’re part of a bigger picture and the things you do have serious consequences. Maybe I’ve pushed a little too hard with sexuality. But if you listen to my music, it is always coming from a love-based place. I never talk about killin’ nobody and forcing yourself on anyone against their will.

LIVE: With the violent deaths of Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G. [a.k.a. Christopher Wallace], one has to wonder what impact gangsta rap is having on the culture, especially among kids. What’s your take?

O(+>: I hope people will look at the situations these guys are describing a little closer. You’ve got to go to the root of the problems they’re talking about. you can’t fault them­ or me­ for writing what we do. The wonderful thing about music is that it allows you to say what you want to say, and sometimes in saying those things, it helps you to get to where you want to be. The truth is, people need to understand black people’s problems, the fact that a lot of them are angry ’cause they’re oppressed; they are hungry, don’t have jobs and don’t know what to do. Outsiders should try to understand that, then help to do something about it. One of the more interesting things that I see in this whole rap issue, though, is that where Interscope Records goes, Congress follows. What is really going on with that? I think that all things must eventually come back to the light. The sun never ceases to rise, nor must we.

LIVE: Now that you’re no longer a “slave” to Warners, how do you feel about your career?

O(+>: Now that I’m free to record and release my work as I see fit, I feel brand new. In many ways, I feel like an underground artist again. I’ve wanted to be one ever since I recorded “Around the World in a Day.” Emancipation seems like my first record. For once, I own my work, lock, stock and biscuits! Never again will I go back to the narrow-minded approach of the business I was trapped in before. The slave thing was also about being a slave to myself, to the false values that maybe weren’t really about me.

LIVE: The prevailing wisdom in the music industry is that nobody could release a triple-record set in 1997 without its tanking. Did Emancipation really have to be three records?

O(+>: Yes. Being free to release this kind of record now is what emancipation is all about, to do what I want with my music. If I want to give it away, I can. I will. I have on Emancipation. the third disc is basically free. When we were planning to release the album, we did a little market research and asked, “What would you pay for a three-CD set, with 36 songs of my music?” Nobody said less than $60, and I sold it for around $25, so the third record of Emancipation is a giveaway. What we want in return for the free disc is for people to donate money to a foundation I set up [Love 4 One Another Charities] that helps out children and those in need of medical care. [To that end, O(+> held a series of benefit concerts at Paisley park and in select Eastern cities early in 1997, while performing an occasional gig for inner-city high school kids to reward them for their good scholarship and behavior.]

LIVE: There’s a rumor that you have an all-acoustic album ready to go called The Truth. You’ve also alluded to a three-CD bootleg collection called Crystal Ball. Tell me about these projects.

O(+>: The Truth album will probably be given away. I’ve got another set, yes. It’s previously bootlegged material; whatever the ultimate Prince fan can imagine is contained in this package. Bootleg classics, outtakes, rehearsals, jams with other artists, original demos ­you name it, it’s here. It looks like the package is going to be five CDs instead of three. There’s so much stuff, the elves are feverishly working...Christmas?

LIVE: You’re about to go on tour again. What’s the hardest part of touring­do you find it difficult to write on the road?

O(+>: I can write in my sleep, it doesn’t matter where I am. The toughest part of touring is leaving the stage.

LIVE: You’ve said that Emancipation finally signals the coming of “the dawn,” a phrase that has appeared in the liner notes of your records since the early 1980s. Can you explain?

O(+>: Emancipation is constructed on a harmonious model, as were the pyramids. Each disc is exactly 60 minutes long. It’s a kind of mystical blueprint for greater conscious awareness and spiritual growth. The’s here. I admit I never fully understood what it meant. I just knew I had to write it back then, Today, I see that this is what it’s all about; the dawn is here. It’s a time of greater consciousness and spiritual understanding