The Artist never hews to the line

Though more open to change, he refuses to follow industry advice.

Tom Moon

NEW YORK - Early last year, just before he entered hibernation to begin work on the songs for his new Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic, the Artist Formerly Known as Prince embarked on what politicians like to call a listening tour.

The famously iconoclastic 41-year-old musician sought casual conversations with label execs and talent scouts, hoping to learn something useful about the industry he’d come to mistrust. Or even how he might change his approach to record-making.

“The thing I kept hearing,” he recalls with a wince of a smile, “was how so-and-so would [deliver] a killer remix, how important the remix was. And, ’Could you do something in this tempo because that’s what people want.’ “

 Far from inspiring him, the Artist says, the talks confirmed his worst fears about the state of the music industry - its utter lack of imagination, its craven emphasis on selling rather than creating.

“They all told me, ’Do what worked before.’ You know, ’Why can’t you just get with something like “Let’s Go Crazy"?’ I was like, ’I don’t have to. I already did that.’ It’s almost like they want it for them. The instant you go back like that, it stalls. The effort of going back kills the inspiration.”

 hough he rejected the advice, just asking was a huge step for this unusual writer, performer and producer, whose Rave (NPG/Arista) is out today. Once known for working solo, hatching entire albums the way some write songs, he set out to work with artists such as Sheryl Crow, Ani DiFranco, Eve, and No Doubt. Once secretive, he’s now waging a full-blown press campaign that began in September with an unveiling luncheon and continues with days crammed with interviews. (Some things remain the same, however, including his ban on reporters’ tape recorders, a precaution to prevent sampling.)

 Once so wary of major labels that he scrawled the word “slave” on his cheek to protest his relationship with Warner Bros. Records, the Artist has established an agreement with Arista that commits the label’s formidable promotion resources to landing Rave on the charts.

 "I’m more open to change now,” says the Artist, holed up in the opulent Helmsley Palace, a dictionary near one arm (for the word games he plays constantly) and his former wife Mayte on the other. Seven years exploring alternative ways to distribute his prodigious output - including direct Internet sales and a 1996 deal with EMI to broker his three-CD set Emancipation ("we got seriously paid on that,” he boasts in a conspiratorial whisper) - have taught him the virtue of flexibility. “I realize I can make my own decisions and actually win.”

Asked how Rave - a characteristically knotty effort full of salacious funk and intricate arrangements - will prevail in a marketplace ruled by generic music of nursery-rhyme complexity and artless sexual innuendo, he gets a defiant twinkle in his eyes.

“There’s nothing wrong with going for something that makes you dance. But that doesn’t mean dance music has to be simple. What I’m trying to do is music that makes her dance,” he says, nodding toward Mayte, “and still avoids the obvious.”

He knows that other artists, who have been far more successful than he of late, religiously study his records, copping every composition and production trick. “I won’t be able to escape Mariah Carey, not on the charts. But [musically] she won’t be able to escape me, either.”

The former Prince - who changed his name to a symbol in the late ’80s - betrays no false modesty. He’s gratified when he hears that his old recordings have influenced someone, be it Beck, whose new album ends with a Prince-like bedroom ballad, or Babyface. And he’s talked about re-recording his entire Warner output - albums such as Controversy 1999 and Sign o’ the Times - as a way to reclaim music lost in the corporate “matrix.”

But otherwise, he refuses to live in the past.

“Somebody just asked me about Purple Rain, like I watch it regularly,” he says of the movie whose soundtrack has sold more than 13 million copies, a record surpassed only by the soundtracks for The Bodyguard and Saturday Night Fever. “I was like, ’No, haven’t thought about it in a while.’ But when I see pictures of that time, I always have the same reaction: I look better now. I ate meat then. People think I had a nose job; nobody touched me, I’m just less puffy.”

As for “1999,” the apocalyptic stomp cable’s M2 channel played 24 hours straight to christen the year, the Artist says he’s somewhat troubled by “this fear-based running around about Y2K.” Yet he stands by the message of his 1982 hit: “waking up to the fact that we have control over our own destruction.”

The Artist did make one concession to his legend with Rave: He coaxed Prince out of retirement to produce it.

The reason: He’d written a bunch of songs that picked up the frenetic rock/funk thread of Sign o’ the Times and other landmarks from his earlier incarnation. “For a long time, I didn’t use the sounds or the instruments from those records because everybody was sounding like that. People would come to the studio asking my engineer to give them Prince’s sounds, just like everybody wants Timbaland’s drums now.” (Ever the entrepreneur, the Artist plans to sell beat-snatchers the sounds they crave in a seven-disc set of Paisley Park samples.)

For all his flamboyant indulgences, the Artist says playfully, Prince was “a really good editor, a good decision maker. He was always stubborn about getting the sounds.” When he dusted off the drum machines and got down to business “stuff started locking like the old stuff locked. It became effortless.”

Arista head Clive Davis, whose label has revived the career of Carlos Santana, says what struck him most about Rave was its balance: “It’s rare to find an artist who is both pushing frontiers and also making music for a large audience.” He adds that it’s no accident that the album was produced by Prince: “It was time for [the Artist] to do a radio-friendly album.”

Those who have worked with him express awe at his creativity, no matter what he’s calling himself. DiFranco,whose bootstraps approach to recording has inspired the former Prince and other renegades, was “blown away” by the way music seems to ooze out of him.

“Everything just flows,” says DiFranco, who sings with the Artist on Rave and on her new CD, To the Teeth. “There’s no inhibition. No matter what [instrument] he’s playing, it’s pure music.”

The Artist beams when he hears this, not because his ego needs gratification, but because he respects the source. DiFranco, he says, changed his outlook - “she helped me realize that I have control” - and taught him that ownership of one’s work brings artistic benefits, like the luxury of fussing over a project.

 He remembers the old days, when he’d be writing for four or five different acts, including the Time. “You’d... lose some of your own focus trying to get things done. There was pressure. . . . Now I see that you don’t have to make those compromises. And when you don’t, the possibilities are endless.”