A Portrait Of The Artist His Purple Reign Continues

Tonya Pendleton




CHANHASSEN, Minn. — There are actually doves here. Two fly around a cage just above the kitchen, and there are two more in a room off the reception area. It’s what you would expect to see at Paisley Park, the recording home of the Artist Formerly Known as Prince.

Relaxed and smiling in a red velour shirt, unbuttoned to display his chest hair, and matching velour pants, the Artist fiddles with a red walking stick as he talks. Around his neck, he wears a gold pendant in the shape of the symbol that is now his name.

Once a mysterious figure who gave few interviews, he has been much more open in recent years to the kind of promotion that’s the norm for most recording artists. (He still has employees, visitors and media sign a four-page confidentiality agreement, prohibiting them from writing or discussing anything outside the purview of the interview.)

Now that he is talking, a new side to the once-elusive genius emerges. He’s friendly, warm, very funny and, most of all, satisfyingly normal - as normal as anyone can be whose talents have compelled him to record more than 700 songs.

Just down the street from a shopping center, Paisley Park sits in the middle of a grove of trees. A visitor entering the surprisingly unguarded and unlocked door marked “Stage” can wander into a room set up for performing. On a small stage, there are symbol-shaped guitars neatly set in stands and lacy cloths hanging over microphones, all underneath a larger-than-life symbol set into the wall.

Once re-directed to the immaculate reception area, with large windows that look out onto the trees, the wait begins. The Artist is promoting his new album, “Newpower Soul,” on his own NPG Records.

Seated in Paisley Park’s dimly lit conference room, a single candle burning at the head of the table, the Artist, born Prince Rogers Nelson, says he doesn’t mind doing interviews now.

“A lot of people have misperceptions about what we do here,” he says. “It’s always fun to enlighten people about the truth of the matter.” Outsiders often think only the Artist records there, but the studio is open to other musicians. Paisley’s soundstage also hosts film and television projects.

Former Sly Stone bassist and Graham Central Station founder Larry Graham is here at the interview, ostensibly for moral support, contributing when asked and making points when he feels it’s necessary.

Released from his Warner Bros. contract after almost 20 years - he had become so disgruntled fighting with the label over his artistic vision that he performed on television with the word “slave” written on his face - the Artist signed with EMI Records in 1996, releasing the triple-CD set “Emancipation.” In 1997, EMI folded, giving him the opportunity to release records on his own label. He’s now free to record what he wants, when he wants, and with whom he wants.

Aside from his own record, “Newpower Soul,” released Tuesday, NPG Records will release Graham’s “GCS2000” and Chaka Khan’s “Come to My House” later this year.

While critics says he’s not selling records like he used to ("Emancipation” in 1995 was his last platinum release), the Artist says his NPG label lets him retain more of the profits. Like rapper Master P., whose No Limit label is completely independent, the Artist is doing for self.

“Record sales don’t matter to me at all because now I get the lion’s share of the profits. If a record sold 60,000, it would be a failure to you, but Larry Graham is getting $7 a copy. He’s selling his CDs to the retailer. He owns it.” When the math is done, its hard to ignore the Artist’s point.

But he gets annoyed by reports that the label is not a financial success. He holds up what he considers an unflattering “USA Today” story that says “Crystal Ball,” initially sold only through the Internet and mail order, had trouble getting to customers and sold poorly.

"We sent them a nice little letter,” he says, adding that major chains Blockbuster and Best Buy sold the record, though other retailers refused it since it didn’t have the backing of a major label. (According to SoundScan, “Crystal Ball” sold 87,000 copies.)

Maturity in both his personal and professional lives has given the Artist more financial and emotional stability than ever before. In 1996, he married Mayte Garcia Nelson, a 24-year old Puerto Rican dancer who first met the Artist when she was 16.

"Being married hasn’t changed me. It’s just broadened me. I didn’t lose anything - I gained something,” he says.

The Artist turned 40 in June, sharing that distinction with fellow musical icon Madonna. Michael Jackson will celebrate that birthday later this year. Often compared to the two, the Artist has surpassed both in output. Since his debut with “For You,” in 1978, he’s released 28 albums, including four multi-record releases.

“Prince’s genius is a whole ’nother thing,” says Sheena Lester, editor-in-chief of the new black music magazine XXL, which profiles both new artists and pays tribute to ones that have achieved legend status. “He’s certainly taken old traditions and sort of redefined them over the years. He’s everything from James Brown and Jackie Wilson and Wilson Pickett.”He’s the premier musician of this generation, without a doubt.”

In the ’60s and ’70s, artists like Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder released many albums, but since then no solo pop artist has come close to the Artist.

“I think that nobody can match the consistency and depth of his output,” says Alan Light, former editor-in-chief of Vibe and now the magazine’s editor-at-large. Light interviewed the Artist over the course of a year and a half for a Vibe cover story two years ago.

"Other artists take three and four years to make a record - he went for a 20-year run, releasing records every year and touring behind them. He’s made more music of a higher caliber than anybody else did. In any aspect - as a writer, as a player, as a producer, as a singer - he’s as good as anybody in any of those things combined.

“Forget who’s the biggest superstar. Who is there from this generation that you can put next to that creative output? I dont think there’s anybody close.”

The Artist’s career has encompassed success in music and in film - 1984’s “Purple Rain” earned 10 times what it cost to produce, eventually making over $70 million. The film transformed the Artist into an international star and earned him an Oscar for best song score.

That Oscar has a central place in a display cabinet in the Paisley Park reception area, where it’s surrounded by American Music Awards and other honors. On the walls throughout the first floor are plaques from Prince’s 15 platinum albums and 12 gold singles.

A large candle burns at the front desk, and all is serene, despite a storm brewing outside. The light purple carpet has a beige astrological theme that runs throughout, interrupted only by a large marble tile area in front of the kitchen embossed with a large black Artist glyph.

Comfortable chairs and couches surround the tile, and if you look up at the wall across from the kitchen, painted doves climb to the atrium. Mayte is cooking in the kitchen, dressed in a long flowing brown and pastel blue dress. She wears little jewelry, save a large butterfly clip in her hair and her five-carat wedding ring.

Her two Yorkshire terriers, Mia and Mary, follow at her heels, their collars tinkling musically.

Paisley Park does seem much like Prince’s home. He spends most of his time here, and it seems to hold everything dear to him. Band members Rhonda Smith, Mike Scott and Kirk Johnson, who’s with his daughter, are walking around. Hans Martin-Buff, the Artist’s main engineer for the last two years, is around too, playing the new CD for the assembled media.

Martin-Buff says he’s had about six hours sleep in four days, a typical schedule working with the Artist, who’s known for round-the-clock recording and has little use for sleep.

“He’s the best musician I ever expect to work with,” Martin-Buff says. Despite the sleep deprivation, Martin-Buff says he’s constantly amazed by the Artist. “He doesn’t stick to the manual limitations of an instrument. He just works until he hears what he wants to do. What takes other people five hours, he can do in 15 minutes.”

In the two years they’ve worked together, Martin-Buff says they’ve worked on eight full-length CDs, including the multiple sets “Emancipation” and “Crystal Ball.” He says the Artist will often work from 2 or so in the afternoon until 5 or 6 in the morning the next day.

These days, the Artist doesn’t seem interested in rehashing breakthrough albums like 1980’s “Dirty Mind” or masterpieces like 1982’s “1999” or 1987’s “Sign of the Times.” It would be like asking Michael Jordan the specifics of a game he played in 1987.

That was a lifetime ago to a man who’s recorded so many records he could release albums well into the next millenium without even going back in the studio. But he says he doesn’t consider himself a living legend.

“That’s a trap,” he says, noting that he feels he’s still evolving. He says Graham stopped him from swearing recently (and reportedly, it’s a $5 fine for staffers should they forget and say a curse word around him). “That’s a part of my character I didn’t like. I don’t think of myself as a role model or living legend or . . . anything like that. I think our purpose here is to embellish other’s lives.”

There’s no question that he has. D’Angelo, Jodeci’s Devante Swing, Lenny Kravitz, TLC and Boyz II Men producer Dallas Austin all count the Artist as a direct influence on their work. Musicians as diverse as Sinead O’Connor, TLC, Mariah Carey, Ginuwine, Herbie Hancock, Stephanie Mills, and Chaka Khan have covered his songs, and he’s produced the Bangles, Patti LaBelle, Madonna, Sheena Easton and others.

But Graham, and the innovative, thumping bass he played as part of Sly and the Family Stone and his own group, deeply influenced the Artist.

“When I was 16, I saw the back of [Graham Central Station’s] album `Release Yourself, ’ which read, `Produced by God,’ “ says the Artist. “It was intriguing to me because I was without a father figure at the time. Now all kinds of stuff that was in that album is popular. Today, people are more interested in sprituality than ever before.”

Graham, who played with the Artist on his recent multi-city tour of medium-sized venues, says he hooked up with the Artist in Tennessee when both acts were playing there last year. Graham was on the Sinbad “old school” tour at the time. “He got my number, and called me from the stage with a cell phone during sound check and invited me down to an afterparty. I went and they were throwing down some heavy funk.”

The Artist takes up the story, remembering the night well. “He gets right in a pocket and just locks . . .”

“Everything that had never been said to each other over the years was being said through a barrage of the choicest notes that we could find,” continues Graham. “Something sparked musically, something expressing love and appreciation. It was a whole musical connection and experience that went down that went beyond anything we could have said.”

It is clear that the two men are close. The Artist says that despite Graham being older, it’s Graham that keeps his energy going, and the 52-year-old certainly looks fit and healthy. Graham, a Jehovah’s Witness for many years, has become somewhat of a spiritual mentor as well, influencing the Artist to change the words of his song “The Cross,” in accordance with Witness beliefs.

Chaka Khan is another idol now recording with the Artist. He says he met her by calling her and pretending to be Sly Stone. “I’d been a fan and a fanatic, too, because I used to run home and see everything she was on,” he says. “I tricked her into coming down to the studio. I imitiated Sly Stone and she was looking for him, then she met me.” He smiles, much like a mischievous kid who’s completed a successful prank. “I was so in awe of her I couldn’t speak, so she listened to me play for a little while, then she left.”

Khan’s new project on NPG Records has allowed her the artistic freedom she long craved. The Artist says he could hear her pain on many records where her voice was overproduced. “The sound of her voice, the timbre of it . . . you can feel the pain she’s going through. At NPG Records, recording is free of all that pain and dogma.”

One thing that is still painful for the Artist is the fact that he doesn’t own his master recordings. While most people don’t even understand the importance of masters, the Artist has been campaigning for some time to gain control of them. Owning them would mean that he, not the label he used to record for, could determine the way the songs are used in the future. As it stands now, record labels can release, remix and do whatever they want with the masters, without permission from whoever orginally recorded the songs.

“If I want to take ’Little Red Corvette’ to Chevrolet, I’ve got to ask somebody,” the Artist says. “Why not own all of it? Why not own your own destiny?” Few artists have outright ownership of their masters - David Bowie and Bruce Springsteen are exceptions. The Artist feels he belongs in that category because he’s recorded more top-selling albums than both of them. “How popular do I have to get, my sistah?” he asks. He rears back in his chair, laughing uproariously. He estimates the worth of his masters - all of the music that has been released on Warner Bros., including “Purple Rain,” and “Sign of the Times” - to be $90 million.

“What would I do with the money? I’d give it away,” he says, mentioning the humanitarian efforts of Oprah Winfrey and Muhammad Ali. “I don’t need it.”

He’s less annoyed with those who still mangle his name. After four years, most people have accepted it, and have stopped calling him Prince, at least to his face.

“Anybody that said anything negative about it didn’t understand it or wanted to think I was a fruitcake,” he says, laughing again. “I saw an old white lady in the airport and she said, `There goes the Artist,’ so it must have really gotten out there. Brothers just say the title of your song - `Hey, Purple Rain.’ That’s who you are to them.”

Mayte enters the conference room. She’s says nothing, but in the manner of wives everywhere, its clear that she’d like to wrap things up. The Artist gestures to his guest and then to her, in their own little playful code letting her know he needs a little more time. They seem very much in love.

“I would like to hope I’ve positively impacted people’s lives,” the Artist says before he heads to eat. “I try to get closer and closer to the truth, back to my original state which was probably pure light. You can take the worst things and it was all to get here. Everything is as it should be. I’m very happy, and I get happier every day.”