Emancipation conversation

Edna Gunderson

You can call him Symbol Man. You can call him Girly Man. You can call him The Minneapolis Sex Dwarf Funkmaster in the Bad-Ass Elevator Sneakers. But you can’t call him Prince. At least not to his face.

The first time I spoke to The Artist Formerly Known As Prince, hereafter conveniently abbreviated as The Artist, he still had his pronounceable royal title.

“What do I call you now?” I asked him during a recent interview at his Park empire in Chanhassen, Minnesota, just west of his hometown Minneapolis.

He flashes a beatific (or is it diabolical?) smile. “Whatever you like,” says what’s-his-name, sporting a spiffy tangerine suit, high-heeled boots, and a goatee.

“Just not the P-word, right?” I venture.

“Right,” he says curtly. “Prince no longer exists.”

Taking Prince’s place is the newly liberated, highly visible TAFKAP, whose three-CD Emancipation contains some of the most dazzling and stylistically diverse material of his prolific career: from the swing of “Courtin’ Time” and the Spanish rhythms of “Damned If I Do” to the rap of “Mr. Happy” and the techno of “Slave.”

The set marks The Artist’s long-sought liberation from Warner Bros., his home from 1978 until last summer’s release of the overlooked Chaos And Disorder, an album that he says suffered from “chaotic and disorderly” promotion.

Though he re-upped with Warner in a much-hyped and lucrative 1992 deal, The Artist soon realized that he and the label were not in synch. Specifically, Warner did not warm to Prince’s boundless productivity. In 1993, Prince abruptly changed his name to the unutterable male-female glyph and grew even more alienated from Warner.

A couple years ago, he and Lenny Kravitz mulled the idea of making a record together and distributing it with zero label assistance. The notion stayed with The Artist, and he resolved to escape his contract and have full creative control over his career.

His split with Warner was only one high note in 1996. The other was his marriage to muse and former belly dancer Mayte. He married the 22-year-old Puerto Rican beauty on Valentine’s Day, then happily awaited the birth of their first child. That event proved tragic, though The Artist, 38, never confirmed any details of his baby boy’s widely reported death from severe birth defects.

Earlier, he had poured much of his newfound domestic joy into Emancipation’s 36 tunes.

“We worked nonstop,” says co-producer Kirk Johnson, whose first role at the kingdom was as a dancer during the Purple Rain tour. He evolved into Prince’s remixer and, a year ago, best man in his wedding and chief sounding board in the fevered Emancipation sessions.

“We’d cut three or four songs in one day,” Johnson recalls. “He’d come in with a new song or a new idea every day. In the studio, he was confident and relaxed, but so excited about the music he was making. We vibed off each other.”

So, how does Johnson, a fellow alumnus of Central High School, address his longtime pal and employer? He doesn’t.

“His name is not a problem,” Johnson says. “I agree with what he’s doing and I respect the fact that the name Prince is somebody else and is owned by somebody else.”

Of late, the notoriously press-shy ex-Prince has repeatedly subjected himself to the media spotlight, appearing on The Today Show, Rosie O’Donnell, and Oprah. He remains mum on the topic of his firstborn, but expounds freely on matters of music and freedom.

For someone who spent years ducking the press, you’re certainly keeping a high profile these days.

That’s because the music is so important. There was nothing in the way when I recorded it. This is the most exciting time of my life.

But you’ve made great music before now. Why didn’t you speak up?

I hate to do interviews because I can sound arrogant. I’m trying to speak the truth as I see it. Now I feel like doing a speaking tour. When I met with journalists and industry people in Japan, they talked to me with utmost respect.

You seem very eager to promote Emancipation.

I’m even doing my own commercials, like a used-car salesman.

In the song “Emancipation,” you say you’d “rather sing with a bit more harmony.” I presume you’re referring to your contract with Warner Bros. If it was so oppressive, why did you sign with Warner again in 1992?

It was fine for awhile, then it didn’t work. When I first got into it, there was tour support; (label executives) came to the studio. That stopped. I was a slave to their process, and it’s not a good process to put artists in. Artists are our creative flowers. You don’t run them out of the business or break their spirit or tell them how to create.

You lost a lot of money getting out of that contract, didn’t you?

Yeah, about $10 million up front for each album. But I had to get out.

Warner balked at your intention to release records frequently and argued that too much product creates a glut and hampers its efforts to promote your music and sustain a public interest in it. Why couldn’t you agree to stagger the releases further apart?

It’s hard to hear this music played complete in my head and not be able to get it out. If I don’t get it out, it won’t exist on earth. I can’t ignore what I hear in my head. They were like the king in Amadeus, telling Mozart his music has too many notes. Please. You can’t say or do much in just 10 songs, especially when you’re talking about someone who can play a lot of styles. Emancipation is what Sign O’ The Times was supposed to be. I delivered three CDs for Sign O’ The Times. Because the people at Warner were tired, they came up with reasons why I should be tired too. I don’t know if it’s their place to talk me into or out of things.

You don’t agree in principle that there’s too much music out there?

There’s not too much music. That’s censorship. But a lot of the so-called great new innovators are deconstructing music.

Were you ever frustrated to the point of wanting to quit?

I asked myself if I could stay in this business. I couldn’t stay and play by their rules, because I’ve always been honest in my music. But I never lost hope. I was disappointed to see the things that mattered to people in the end. When we got down to the wire, people started saying what they meant. They think of artists as children, not men and women capable of running affairs.

You scrawled the word “SLAVE” on your cheek, and it was apparent you were angry and bitter for a time.

I wrote “slave” on my face to remind them in meetings that I know what time it is. They put ceilings on us so we can only go so far in our experiences. If we let them stop us, we ARE slaves. A lot of artists are manufactured but that doesn’t work for me.

You seem more mellow on the issue now. How did you get past the resentment?

When I could see clearer, I became less bitter. I didn’t have anyone to be angry at. I started to look at Warner Bros. as my ally. I started to care about them as human beings.

So ultimately, the struggle was a positive experience.

Yes, once I just started focusing on the way out of the box. I designed that box to teach myself something.

Most musicians crave success and acceptance, yet they uniformly despise, or pretend to despise, the machinery that helps them get there.

Artists don’t like business. We like being successful and sharing an experience with an audience. In Mozart’s time, word of mouth built an audience. People found him and heard him play. Then someone came along and said, “We can sell this experience.” Right there, you got trouble. Music comes from the spirit, but where does the guy selling music come from?

In hindsight, do you see any drawbacks in leaving Warner?

I could have stayed longer and negotiated to get my masters back. That became less important than being here today. Emancipation is my first record. My name will mean this body of work, not what came before.

Didn’t you benefit from the label’s expertise in nonmusical areas, like advertising, marketing, radio promotion?

The audience is going to be my record company. And the deejays and the retailers.

And what about your arrangement with EMI (which will distribute and market ’s output on his NPG label)?

It’s not an “arrangement.” I’m not signed up with anybody. Why would I hook up with the monolith I emancipated myself from?

So how does this nonarrangement differ from conventional contracts?

I own my masters. I can do my own marketing. I can price records. That’s important. Emancipation will sell for the price of a double CD, a lot of bang for your buck. Artists can stay in the system if they want, but there’s an alternative.

Despite your protracted battle with Warner, Emancipation has a celebratory feel to it.

There’s an overall tone of joy and exhilaration. In the angry songs, I found a sense of closure. I don’t mind going into that dark corner to seek answers, but you gotta get out before the spiderwebs grow on you.

Like earlier albums, there’s an intriguing mingling of sex and spirituality. You seem simultaneously drawn to the carnal and the sacred. Can you explain that?

If there were no shadows, we wouldn’t know where the light was. We all want to be spiritually light, to walk on water. It’s just a metaphor. Jesus could do it because he was free of sin. On the other hand, we have too much cholesterol. (Laughs)

So, why does the name Prince no longer fit you?

My name’s been dragged through a lot of stuff, true and untrue. And I don’t own Prince’s master tapes. Besides, Prince was never a name I chose. My father gave me that name because he wanted his son to be greater than himself.

This entire building seems much more festive and friendly than when I first saw it eight years ago. There are white clouds on blue walls, astrological symbols in the carpet, a huge photo of your wife. Is this the result of Mayte’s influence?

Yes. When I met her, I started examining everything around me. Who do I want to be and what do I want to represent? When I opened Paisley Park, I was so excited to have my own studio that I just started recording and didn’t come out for 20 years. After I got married, I finally looked at the place.

Until recently, you never really seemed inclined toward monogamy. What happened?

Mayte changed everything. She was my friend and my sister for years. She’s the one person who never showed any malice toward anyone. Commitment is a complex thing. If you can’t completely love one other person, how can you learn to love everyone? I believe we’re here to get along and love each other. Everyone has a higher self they aspire to be. We want to be better, braver, stronger. You find that in love and commitment. I hear about these self-help programs people go into. It’s all about feeding their ego. All that goes away when you commit to someone.

Everyone is talking about your baby except you. Why not?

Mayte and I decided it’s cool to talk about ourselves. My child hasn’t told me it’s all right to talk. I care much more about my child than about what anyone says about me.

Do you want more kids?

Yes! The more the merrier. My child will have so much fun, all the fun I never had as a child.

How would you sum up your experiences in 1996?

I don’t regret anything. I can’t be lied to anymore.