The Sound of Emancipation



Robert L. Doerschuk




THE WEIRD COMPLEX, anchored on the Minnesota tundra like a space probe on the moon. The paranoia over tape recorders. Those gaudy evocations of martyrdom on his last Warner Bros. albums. Twenty years of provocative imagery and sullen seclusion. And now, that business with his name.

Nothing about the artist once known as Prince is easy to explain. The surreal vibe at Paisley Park doesn’t clear things up either; here his employees and intimates call him “Boss” and pass beneath Orwellian reproductions of the unpronounceable glyph that has become his signature.

Real or illusory, all of this is distraction. Though all the hype made good copy, none of it is as impressive as hearing the Artist actually play.

Which is why we’re in Studio C, the smallest recording room at Paisley Park, the former Prince’s sanctorum, on the evening of the first serious blizzard of the year. As it is, there’s plenty of room for the band, which is spread out against one wall. In sweater and black beret, keyboardist Mr. Hayes is on a riser in the far corner, surrounded by synths, a bag of popcorn perched atop the customized Plexiglas frame of a Hammond B-3. Guitarist Mike Scott, the latest addition to the band, is trying out a few funky licks on his Gibson 335, while Kat Dyson uses her Tele to shower the room with samples from her Rocktron Chameleon. Bassist Rhonda Smith is next to Dyson, and to her left Kirk A. Johnson, the Artist’s drummer and co-producer, sits behind a pile of electronic and acoustic drums.

“Okay, here we go,” Johnson announces. Four stick clicks, and the band begins jamming through a selection of titles from the Artist’s recently released triple CD, Emancipation. Listening to them is something like shifting through a transmission and feeling each gear sliding into place. Johnson’s beat, a rock-hard kick drum, drives this machine; they hit the changes perfectly, leaving the skid marks.

The doors open, and the Artist walks in. The band doesn’t acknowledge the entrance, but there’s a change in the air. He’s short, even in his high-heeled white boots, but there’s nothing fragile about him. He’s wiry rather than delicate, with a businesslike, confident charisma; you might say he acts like he owns the place.

On the far side of the room is what looks like a violet concert grand piano, with the word “beautiful” scripted in white on one side. It’s actually a Roland A-90 built into an artificial frame. The Artist plants himself here, rocking back on the heel of his left boot and tapping fast eighth-notes with the toe of his right foot as he comps furiously with the group. His licks are nimble, with quick cross-hand runs threading through jazzy voicings. After a minute, he spins away from the keys, strides toward the band, and straps on one of his custom-built guitars. Here, too, he plays with blazing intensity, wailing through bluesy lines that end with emphatic cadences and a defiant foot stomp.

Later, when Smith excuses herself to run an errand, the Artist picks up his Washburn bass and winds up killing on it too. But by then he’s made his point: This guy is, if anything, underrated as a player. If he were starting out today, unburdened of his reputation, freed from all the excess baggage and left with only his music, he would still blow us all away.

The problem is that he doesn’t have that option anymore. When he goes on the Today show, the first thing Bryant Gumbel tells his viewers is that the Artist was known to his high school friends as Skippy. One cringed with sympathy for the Ex-Prince, who seems fated to be called to the carpet again and again for the sins of eccentricity. Of course, it’s also true that he is the architect of his image. If he got burned by the press, the match was lit in his hands.

So it is with his two most recent trials, the name change and the long dispute with Warner Bros. On his 35th birthday, June 7 1993—only a month after announcing his decision to retire from recording—Prince declared that he was changing his name to a morphed male/female symbol. Warners wasn’t thrilled with this development, which in retrospect was a portent to the semi-public struggle to follow. The issue was control—specifically, ownership of his masters. Though he insisted in various interviews that he bore no grudges, the Artist had no problem adorning his final Warner releases with images of oppression that skirted the line of self-pity: The only mystery was why the Artist felt the need to publicly bash his label of eighteen years.

Whatever the reason, the end of his Warners contract last November began what the Artist considers to be his liberation. Thus, when Musician sat down with him behind the API console in Studio A, the Artist seemed almost elated at the prospect of actually talking about his music. He folded himself into a chair, swung his legs over the edge, gestured expressively, broke into frame-shaking explosions of laughter. The man was obviously having a good time, as was the interviewer, except for one problem: The Artist’s interrogator would not be allowed to use a tape recorder. (In what Paisley Park officials apparently considered a sign of the Boss’ good will, we were permitted to take notes.) While Musician wasn’t singled out—this restriction has applied to all print interviews for years—it was nonetheless an annoyance, especially given our obligation to turn an hour’s worth of hurried scrawl into accurate information. For this reason, we suggested that, in the interest of getting it right, he might reply to a series of follow-up questions via fax once we got back to New York and deciphered our notes. Delighted with the idea, he agreed.

What follows is a two-part encounter with the Artist. The first was real, there in Studio A. The second was virtual. From start to finish, the subject was music.

You’ve said that Emancipation was created in a freer climate than that under which you recorded for Warner Bros. Yet there doesn’t seem to my ears to be a significantly “freer” sound on the new album than in your earlier work.


Well, when you’re in the creative process, the first thing you naturally think about is the “bombs,” the great ones that you’ve done before. You want to fill in the slots on your album with the songs that will make everyone the happiest: fans, musicians, writers, and so on. I used to try to fill those gaps first whenever I was trying something new, or wait to challenge myself to do another great one.

This means that you think about singles: time constraints, for example, and the subject matter. [For that reason] my original draft of “Let’s Go Crazy” was much different from the version that wound up being released. As I wrote it, “Let’s Go Crazy” was about God and the de-elevation of sin. But the problem was that religion as a subject is taboo in pop music. People think that the records they release have got to be hip, but what I need to do is to tell the truth.

So one element of creativity missing for you in the Warner years was that freedom to say what you wanted to say in your lyrics.

Right. I had to take some other songs, like “A Thousand Hugs and Kisses” and “She Gave Her Angels,” off the Warner albums because they were all about the same subject. But now I can write a song that says, “If u ask God 2 love u longer, every breath u take will make u stronger, keepin’ u happy and proud 2 call His name: Jesus” [from “The Holy River,” on Emancipation], and not have to worry about what Billboard magazine will say. Plus I’m not splitting the earnings up with anyone else except the people who deserve to have them. The people here in my studio will reap the benefits of how Emancipation does, not people in some office somewhere who didn’t contribute anything the music.

Now, the record industry can be a wonderful system, if you want to go that route. After all, some people don’t want the hassle of getting on the phone and talking to retailers about their own records; they want someone to do it for them. I’m just not one of those people.

So lyrically you’ve got more freedom than before. What about the music itself?

If you’re working in a happier atmosphere, you’ll hear things differently and play them differently. “Courtin’ Time” [from Emancipation] is different from “Had U,” from Chaos & Disorder. That whole album is loud and raucous, but it’s also dark and unhappy. Same with The Black Album.

Your drummer, Kirk A. Johnson, co-produced much of Emancipation.

That stems from his being a drum programmer. He’s good at using the computer to put a rhythm track together. I don’t like setting that kind of stuff up, because a lot of times the song will leave me while I’m doing it. But when Kirk and I work together, we can keep each other excited. I can do all the programming myself. 1999 is nothing but me running all the computers myself, which is why that album isn’t as varied as this one. Technology used to play a big part in my music; it only plays a very little part now.

Why?

The problem was that regardless of what I heard in my head, I’d work with the sounds I had in front of me. Actually, I seldom wrote at any instruments. But I’m definitely into letting sounds dictate...not the way I write a song, but the way I develop my ideas. “In This Bed” [from Emancipation] is experimental; as we were working on it, I put a guitar on the ground and just let it start feeding back. After a while I hit this button and let the feedback pattern repeat. Does this mean that instruments have a soul or a life of their own? Will they end up writing the song?

It’s like how Mayte and I got married, I took her to see the neighborhood where I was raised as a baby. When we got there, everything was gone: The house where I grew up, all the buildings, everything had been torn down, except this one tree that I used to climb on when I was a kid. That’s all that was left. So I went over to this tree, put my hand on it, and let the memory of that time flow back into me. If that’s what energy is all about, if this tree could remind me of something, even if it looks raggedy and old, that’s the most beautiful thing. The sounds in my music are chosen with a lot of love too, and always with the idea of which color goes with which other color.

How do you know whether to do the bass part in a song on synth or bass guitar?

I’ll listen to the kick drum. The bass guitar won’t go as deep as the synth, and the kick drum tells me how deep I have to go. My original drum machine, the Linn, had only one type of kick. I think I had the first Linn. I did “Private Joy” [from Controversy] with a prototype of that Linn.

Do you use the Roland TR-808, the rapper’s choice, for bass drum sounds?

Sure. I used that on “Da, Da, Da” [from Emancipation]. But I need to remind you that I’m not a rapper. I’ll do rhythmic speaking. “Style” [from Emancipation] calls for words to be spoken, but you can’t [vocally] riff on it. It’s like James Brown: he’ll talk his whole song, but he’s not a rapper either. There’s music behind my groove; it’s not just loops and sample.

On “Courtin’ Time” you drew a lot of big-band phrasing for your vocal parts; the whole thing comes from swing jazz. So why did you stick with a backbeat rhythm track, instead of loosen it up into more of a swing feel?

I wanted it to be a dance record. [Saxophonist] Eric Leeds played me this record, Duke Ellington Live at Newport, with that long saxophone solo [by Paul Gonsalves, on “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue"]. He was telling me that one reason the solo went as long as it did was that this lady jumped up on a table and started dancing to the rhythm, so naturally nobody wanted to quit. That’s the vibe I’m trying to capture. I played “Courtin’ Time” with Eric once for twenty minutes, and he was wailin’ that whole time. That’s why even people who are into hip-hop still get “Courtin’ Time.”

Like “Courtin’ Time,” “The Holy River” stands out on Emancipation as a departure for you in terms of the rhythm.

Well, the melody came first on that one. Sometimes I’ll be walking around and I’ll hear the melody as if it were the first color in the painting. If you believe in the first color and trust it, you can build your song from there. Music is like the universe: Just look at how the planets, the air, and the light fit together. That’s one reason why Emancipation is so long—because of the sense of harmony that keeps it all together.

"Soul Sanctuary” is more of an orchestral experiment, with a mixture off what sounds like Mellotron string lines, harp, and marimba.

I’ll start a track like that piece by piece. I’ll have a color or a line in mind, and I’ll keep switching things around until I get what I’m hearing in my head. Then I’ll try to bring to Earth the color that wants to be with that first color. It’s like having a baby, knowing that this baby wants to be with you. You’re giving birth to the song.

Was that a real or a sampled harp on “Soul Sanctuary"?

That was a sampled harp. I wanted to be able to play it perfectly, and while I can play a few simple things on a real harp, the sample helped me get it the way I wanted it. Samples are good for music; you almost can’t compare “It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night,” the uptempo song from Sign o’ the Times, with “The Human Body” [from Emancipation] because of the difference that samples make.

Yet your songs don’t rely on samples in a structural sense. Unlike a lot of dance-oriented musicians, you use samples to adorn rather than to support a tune.

I am so glad you said that! I’ve heard a whole lot of musicians who have had a hit record and then come to Paisley Park to set up and jam with the New Power Generation. Now, I’m not a judge, but I know when I see someone jamming and when I see someone drownin’ [laughs]! I have to pull their plug and save some of their asses. Man, learn your instrument! Be a musician! You can’t call yourself a musician if you just take a sample and loop it. You can call yourself a thief, because all you’re doing is stealing somebody else’s groove. Just don’t call it music.

How can you tell when the song you’re working on has potential?

Well, see, I can’t say anything about that, because I hate criticizing music. If you judge something, maybe that means you get judged back someday. I wouldn’t tell you that some song you wrote isn’t any good. I wrote this song called “Make Your Mama Happy” that would probably frighten you. And this other song I wrote, “Sexual Suicide,” has this horn section that’s nothing but baritone saxes; it sounds like a truck coming at you. So who can say?

You don’t rate any of your songs as more noteworthy than others?

The thing is, everybody has an inner voice. Mayte and I are into this thing now of wondering whether we’re supposed to get up out of bed when we wake up. If you sleep past this point when you’re supposed to get up, then you’re groggy for the rest of the day. It’s the same thing with songs: Each song writes itself. It’s already perfect.

I remember when Miles Davis came to my house. As he was passing by my piano, he stopped and put his hands down on the keys and played these eight chords, one after the other. It was so beautiful; he sounded like Bill Evans or Lisa [Coleman], who also had this way of playing chords that were so perfect. I was wondering whether he was playing games with me, because he wasn’t supposed to be a keyboard player. And when he was finished, I couldn’t decide whether it was him or an angel putting his hands on the keys.

The point is that you recognized something in what Miles was doing, a kind of excellence that you might not hear in the work of other musicians.

For me, excellence comes from the fact that God loves me. But what is excellence? You’ve heard about these people who will bomb a building and kill all these people in God’s name. You could say that they did an excellent job at what they were trying to do, right? Now, when I look at my band, Dyson is a different kind of guitar player than Mike. She looks cool, she has that kind of punk attitude. But that’s her; that’s not Mike. Lisa was never an explosive keyboard player, but she was a master of color in her harmonies; I could sing off of what she had with straight soul. I don’t know if the people in the band I’m with now will go on to greatness on their own, but everything they do gives me something that I need right now.

You don’t differentiate between musicians either? You don’t point to this person as a better player than that person?

God gave us all gifts. If we accept that, we’ll all do the best that we can do. Miles took some soul-type players and put Keith Jarrett on top of that; it was magic. And Fishbone—are they good or not? The last time I saw Fishbone, the drummer played the whole gig facing the wall. But in that kind of craziness there was a certain kind of excellence too.

Still, you presumably audition musicians for your bands. That means you have to put them on some kind of scale to rate one as being better, or at least more appropriate to your needs, than another.

Well, “auditions” ... The idea of a judge is in there somewhere, and I don’t want to be a judge anymore. A lot of people criticized the last band that Jimi [Hendrix] had, but they were able to start and stop at his will; they were right for him at the time. I’ve even hired dancers whose only job was to be there and make me feel good. See, anybody can play with me. I can play with any musician and make them sound good, and they can bring something to me. This hit me when I married Mayte and accepted my name for what it is.

With that, the Artist suddenly stood and stretched. “My band will me if I don’t get in there with them,” he announced, bringing the interview to an end. Within a week or two I had translated and transcribed my notes, then called Paisley Park to arrange for the follow-up Q-and-A. The Artist picked up the phone—“You’re not taping this, are you?” were his first words – and asked me to send the questions his way via fax. Within a day he had them, and a couple of days later his replies were in my hands. Here, as written, is the final round:

What are the positive sides of music software? Could you cite examples were running a certain program yielded results that you could not have obtained otherwise?

The body of a human (when healthy) runs like a sequencer. It was obviously programmed a long time ago by an absolute genius. This was the notion behind the groove “Human Body” on Emancipation. Every track of the song is its own “cell,” so 2 speak, running in harmony with its “cellmates.” A living being of sorts is created every time computers are put 2 use this way. No other way yet discovered would be as rewarding.

You noted that one element of using music technology is that the instruments themselves might end up “writing the song.” While some artists seem to consider this a reason not to pursue sequencing and sampling, as if the products somehow shift control of the creative process away from the person, you take a more intriguing view, as if you have an almost organic partnership with the tool of your trade. How, then, do you get to know a new instrument?


Something very soul-like attracts me 2 some instruments moreso than others. It starts with the sound and then the shape. I dig instruments that appear as if the makers were in love with them.

Some of your most memorable songs have been structurally pretty simple; if you write a lead sheet of, say, “We Gets Up” [from Emancipation], what you see is pretty much rooted on the I chord, with minimal melody. What, then, distinguishes a song that doesn’t rely on unusual chord changes or an extended melody?

One-key songs designed 2 put the participant in a trace are best filled up with sound provoked by the spirit more than, say, a structural melody that’s best complemented by color. This 2 me is the root of funk: the choices one makes.

You’ve had a number of customized guitar designs over the years, including the “white guitar” from Purple Rain; to what extent does playability factor into your design for these instruments?

I have compromised playability 4 the look of an instrument in many instances. Keyboards, though, have 2 have “the touch.” Everything is sort of patterned after the 1st violet piano I received as a gift in 1986. Chords are important. Every note in a chord is a singer 2 me. This approach gives music its life. 2 look at music this way is a reason 4 living, as far as I’m concerned.

You’re set up at Paisley Park for analog as well as digital recording. What are the pluses and minuses of the two technologies?

Warmth. Digital is faster. Analog...well, the kick drum on analog sounds like a fat dude getting stomped in the back with a timbaland! It’s all personal preference.

What approach do you take in rehearsing a new band?

Again, let everybody play their strengths. Because Rhonda’s so smart, 4 example, I tend 2 lean toward bassier grooves moreso than with my other bands. She has a nuclear future sure!

What are your thoughts about the state of songwriting today?

I will always respect people like Duke Ellington – someone who has their own style and just watches music change around them. Carlos Santana has more fans now than when he played Woodstock!

You’re preparing to tour. Do you find that you compete with the high standards you’ve set for yourself in past tours? What insights about performing can you share with artists who are working with limited budgets in relatively funky venues?

My own competition is myself in the past. “At war with himself.” Y’all said it 1st. 2 the new artists: Be wild and all else follows.