August 1998

18 Questions for THE ARTIST (still generally known as Prince)

Ben Edmonds

How did you spend your 40th birthday?

Making a video for The One (from Newpower Soul). Maybe we went bowling. I don’t really remember. I stopped celebrating those things a while back. It’s the idea of age that causes you to get old and die, so I won’t even think about it on those terms, thank you.

As any performer – artist or athlete – matures, there’s a constant rebalancing: you lose things, you gain things. Where do you stand?

What have I gained? Everything. What have I lost? Nothing. I can’t think of a single thing I’m not better at now. An artist like Larry Graham or Chaka Khan doesn't lose anything. I saw Gladys Knight in New York last week, backed by Maceo Parker’s band. Don’t try and tell Gladys she’s lost anything, or that Midnight Train will roll over you.

You’re making albums with Larry Graham and Chaka Khan Are they signed to Paisley Park Enterprises?

They ain’t signed to nothing and that the way we like it.

There’s no contract between you?

We don’t need to piece of paper telling us who we are to each other. Like Larry commend, “ What would it possibly say?” (Laughs). That we love and respect each other and promise to be creative? We know what’s between us. As soon as it’s written down that piece of paper become something else, to words on that piece of paper.

So how do you recoup your costs?

What costs? I own this studio, all I have to pay for is the electricity. I play music with Larry, I don’t need to play electric company and send him the bill. All I’m doing is offering my time and friendship, and some of the tools I’m blessed to have at my disposal. Which I give freely and with love this man’s music with Sly and Graham central station I’ve given me so much over the years - hey, I named one of my earliest bands after him. But forget about me. How does he recoup all he’s given? Find me an accountant who can calculate that...

Are you producing these Graham and Khan albums?

I don’t know what that means. We’re trying to get beyond those designations. I couldn’t presume to produce a Larry Graham or a Chaka Khan. If anything these people have produced me, you know (chuckles)? So I’m grateful for the opportunity to offer them my creative support. Each of them is the creator of their own work. We’ve come you with saying: “Ask the creator.” It really simplifies things. If there’s a question that arises out of the art, don’t ask an attorney or a manager or a record company VP. Ask the creator.

I gather that there were times when all three of you were worknig on your projects simultaneously in the Paisley Park complex. What was that like?

I don’t think I’ve ever heard the words to describe it. It was incredibly intense, but easy at the same time. Larry says he has a mental picture of me dancing between the studios, literally off the ground. That’s what it felt like. You know good dreams, how they have that kind of flow? Like that. And when i flowed in another direction, something moved into the space where I had been. Example: one night Larry and I had recorded a vocal on him that we were happy with. When Chaka came in the next day she said, “ What’s Larry doing singing that part in falsetto? If he sings it lower, you’ll hear something you ain’t hearing now.” We didn’t see it, but why not? Because there was no clock there was no fear. And damn – the girl was right! It brought out something we didn’t even know was there. But does that make her the producer? No, we were just three free people sharing our creativity with one another. And it was one of the most beautiful experiences I have ever had in music.

What prompted you to become actively involved in resurrecting their careers?

This is not a rescue mission. These are not salvage projects. Here you have two strong, talented, creative people who have won their freedom. Like me, they won it the hard way. They’ve had plenty of bad advice, and bad decisions forced on them. With artist of their stature, you can always tell when it isn’t organic. With certain records they’ve made, you can hear the people behind the glass, you can see the machine at work here (gesturing at the Paisley Park complex around him) they can exercise the complete freedom that is theirs.

But the Paisley Park studios are no longer open to the public.

No, renting the studios turned out to be an unproductive arrangement for me and my friends. Like Lenny Kravitz... will come by, and we’ll be upstairs shooting pool and hanging out. Lenny’s a creative guy, and we spark of each other. If he says, “Hey I wonder what a backwards oboe sounds like doubled with a 12-string guitar,” we’ll run down to the studio and do it. There’s not much wasted space here. Contrary to what you may have heard I have quite a few friends.

Artists like Frank Zappa and George Clinton amassed such a backlog of work that producing an album became a matter of pulling stuff of the shelves. Sometimes the art suffered. You’re a prolific as either one of them. How do you avoid this trap?

Crystal Ball was that kind of an album by design. So were other compilations that we agreed to. Except for that I don’t have that much interest in the old stuff. It was recorded by somebody else. When I put a record out, I want to tell me something about myself when I made it. Look at Miles Davis or John Coltrane and you’ll hear distinct periods. It’s because they were free to follow Their muse and capture those changes. That’s important to me, too. Look, everybody thinks the breakdown with Warner Bros was over some flood of product I wanted to bury the world under. But it started over a single. One song. I had Let’s Work which was then called Let’s Rock and I wanted to get it right out on the street. Warners said no, and it escalated from there. Now we’ve got the process simplified.

From the outside that process can look dauntingly complicated.

Well, that’s what they’d have you believe. I was always told there had to be a six week delay for manufacturing and distribution. When I finally went to the plant to see for myself I discovered they can press 250,000 discs in a day. So it’s takes the other five weeks and six days to get from the plants to the store? You’ve got to find out about these things yourself, so you know what’s real.

What about the nuts and bolts dirty work of promoting the record?

Once again, you find it doesn’t take a degree in rocket science. I get the music to the radio and they play yet. I get the video to TV and they show it. I go on Vibe. I go on Oprah Winfrey. I talk to you. Isn’t that promotion? What else is there? When you break it down, it isn’t really that hard.

You’ve used the Internet to sell your music. How’s that worked out?

(Slightly defensive) Fine. Perfect, in fact. It’s done everything we wanted it to. If people don’t think it’s successful, maybe they need to change their perception of success. I may have sold a few less records doing it myself, but I make seven dollars on every one as opposed to a buck. Figure it out.

Beyond Larry and Chaka, can you see yourself working with any new artists?

I have no plans to do that. I have no plans not to do it either. I let the spirit guide me, where I am in my life, though it has to be more than music. I’ll only work with people I like, nice people who are comfortable to be around. I’m not the president of a record company. I don’t want to be the CEO of anything. No titles. The minute you’ve accepted a title you’re a slave to it. You’re no longer free.

Does that relate to why you changed your name to unpronounceable symbol – the ultimate non-title?

That’s a lot of it. Black people understand the yearning to find a name that’s your own. Show business people understand about reinventing yourself. So what’s the fuss? Mostly it’s about breaking down any barriers between you and the music. That’s all that counts.

Calling yourself by a symbol might be weird. But I imagine nothing could have been weirder to a child than to be called a name you were Formerly Known As.

Yes, I suppose it was. At that age you don’t understand the things that make you special –you can only feel it as being different. Children, as we know, and be quick to point those things out. That was when I began to find other people in myself. At first, it may be an escape, but at least it forces you to open up those other doors within yourself. Later, when you understand this, you can see it as strength, though it doesn’t erase the pain. But that was a long time ago.

What advice can you give to children who find themselves fascinated by the musical path you’ve gone down?

It’s quite simple. I said it before, I’ll say it again using the exact same words. If you don’t own your masters, your masters own you. Underline that. The more people you allowed to come between you and your music, the further it moves away from you. This isn’t your business, it’s your life.

Any final words of wisdom?