IMAGINE A FIELD THE SIZE OF AMERICA. The field is filled with people. They represent all the people who care about American popular culture, people who feel American popular culture speaks to them and helps shape and define their lives. In the middle of the field is a stage the size of Nebraska. Many people are on the stage dancing and singing and rhyming and acting and saying, “Look at me!” These people represent stars in American popular culture. Then, someone comes strolling through the field toward the stage holding a large, open umbrella, even though it’s not raining. As this person walks onto the stage, the audience wonders, “Why is he holding an umbrella? It’s not raining.” A moment later, it begins to rain. The rain represents the feelings of the people in the audience—their dreams, fears, anxieties, and longings. It adds up to the ethos of the generation. The rain is the Zeitgeist. And the person who had the umbrella open before the rain is an icon. That person knew what the generation was feeling before they really knew, before they were able to fully articulate their feelings. When the icon takes their place on the stage they don’t say, “Look at me!” They say, “When you look at me, you’ll also be looking at you.”
Stars entertain us. Icons do something much more. They embody us. They tell us something about who we are and who we want to be. They are both a mirror and a shaping force. Zeitgeist is German for the spirit of the times, the general cultural, intellectual, and political climate within a nation, or a specific group, in a particular period. You could call it the collective consciousness of a given people at a certain time. Icons can see and feel the Zeitgeist of their generation more clearly than the rest of us. They have the antennae, the sensitivity, and the intellect to become a thermometer of their era, and they have the talent to reflect the Zeitgeist through their art. For generation X, one of those icons was Prince.
There are truths about the soul of a generation that icons can see, as if they’re mystics, because they have vision and because they’re immersed in the culture. They are in the clubs and the bars and on the streets and they have their antennae up and they’re picking up signals about what’s going on in the world faster and more clearly than everyone around them. This not a skill that can be taught. It’s extraordinarily difficult to make statements that will resonate deeply with several million people in your generation, but that’s what icons do. They are not only mirrors, showing the generation who they are: they are connectors, bringing together a giant tribe, and sometimes they are sculptors, inspiring the generation to become something. Prince rose in the 1980s to become the mirror, connector, and sculptor of a generation, and he knew it. In 1998, I interviewed him for a cover story for Icon magazine and asked, “Do you realize you’ve changed a generation with your music?” Prince became defensive. His body stiffened. The thought of it was too much. “I don’t think about that,” he snapped. “Why would I? There’s no gain in that. Being in control of someone’s thoughts? You’ll second-guess your writing.” He didn’t see the value in being conscious of his influence, but he didn’t deny that it was true.
Of course, it takes more than antennae to become an icon. Prince developed every skill that would make him become a rock star. He learned how to write timeless songs in a range of genres with masterful construction. (Questlove, the drummer for the Roots who has worked with Prince, says Prince’s best albums were built with the dramatic structure of Shakespearean plays: rising action, comic relief, climax, and denouement.) He could sing in a unique, spellbinding way. He could play music in an unforgettable way; he was not just a guitar virtuoso but the master of many other instruments including drums, percussion, bass, keyboards, and synthesizer. He could dance in his own compelling style. He could perform with a rare intensity, and demonstrated a stage generalship that outshone all of his contemporaries except, perhaps, Michael Jackson. He had presence and was spine-tinglingly sexy if you were inclined to be attracted to him and, even if you weren’t, he still seemed devastatingly cool. He conveyed a sense of mystery, and had an ineffability about him that left you unable to fully sum him up or feel as though you really knew him, keeping you intrigued. All this was powered by a superhuman work ethic. He knew the importance of sweat equity as a kid. In Possessed: The Rise and Fall of Prince by Alex Hahn, a cousin reports that Prince as a young teenager told him, “I’m going to practice my behind off like James Brown’s band, and I’m going to have everything so tight that you’re not going to be able to say anything about it.”1 He would grow up to be constantly working. His ex-wife Mayte once told London’s Daily Mail, “Being with him was like being at the centre of a twenty-four-hour creative machine. If we weren’t on stage, we were rehearsing. If we weren’t rehearsing, we were in the studio.” That’s why Prince, for a long time, put out an album per year while most artists were releasing one every two years, and Michael Jackson once every four years, like a president. These are albums he wrote, produced, and played most or all of the instruments on. He was legendary for working day and night, an inexhaustible music monster. As he says in “All the Critics Love U In New York”: “Body don’t wanna quit. Gotta get another hit.”
Several people told me Prince often worked sessions that lasted twenty-four or even thirty-six hours. Chuck Zwicky, one of his engineers, told me, “I’ve always admired the diligence and discipline that Prince has and his work ethic. He just kept going and kept working until he had it. I’ve had more than one forty hour day with him. Pretty intense. He’s extremely hard working and, much to the chagrin of women, he’d rather spend his time working on his music than hanging out in a club.” Zwicky said that Prince’s time in the studio was almost always spent efficiently, moving at a rapid pace compared to his music-business peers. “He never spent an inordinate amount of time on one song,” Zwicky said. “I’ve worked with artists who will agonize over a single song for many, many days. I’ve never seen Prince do that. He’s got a very, very clear idea in his head about what the song needs to do, what it needs to sound like and he could get through it very quickly. So, typically, a session started with three written songs and ended with three completely mixed songs. He never second guesses himself and he never scratches his head. He never says, I wonder if this is good or not?”
Alan Leeds, who was from 1983 to 1992 Prince’s tour manager and vice president of Paisley Park Records, said, “This is a guy who has studio diarrhea. Like you go to an office every day from nine to five, well, he goes to the studio every day. What am I gonna do today? Well, I wrote these lyrics last night in bed so I’ll make up a song. Then, he’ll sit with that song and say does it fit with what I’ve been doing? If it doesn’t, then it gets thrown in the vault. But he’s constantly, constantly creating songs. So, for every song on Purple Rain, there’s probably thirty or forty or fifty that didn’t make the cut because they just didn’t fit.” Zwicky once told the Minneapolis Star Tribune, “He was so prolific, by the time he released an album, he may have had literally ten albums sitting around.”2
Prince studied all sorts of music. Eric Leeds, Alan’s brother, who played saxophone in his band on tour and during the recording of Parade, Sign “O” The Times, The Black Album, and LoveSexy, said, “Prince was quite a historian of music and could listen to something and suck up the essence of it.” Associates recalled him doing a dead-on impression of Elvis, quoting obscure Bootsy Collins songs, and listening to Culture Club. Susan Rogers, who was Prince’s recording engineer and maintenance tech for five years spanning from Purple Rain to Sign “O” The Times and is now an associate professor in the department of music production and engineering at the Berklee College of Music, said, “He was a big fan of Culture Club, but you got the sense he wasn’t playing it for enjoyment’s sake, he played it over and over as a student of the game. A scholar.” A former girlfriend said he also loved Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Erykah Badu, Stevie Wonder, Joni Mitchell, and Mozart. “He thinks he could’ve been him in a past life. He draws a lot of parallels between himself and Mozart.” She told me that, at one point, Amadeus was Prince’s favorite movie.
In early interviews, when asked about influences, Prince pointed to Carlos Santana, Joni Mitchell, and James Brown, who he said he danced with onstage as a child. But, surely, he was also influenced by Sly Stone, Curtis Mayfield, Miles Davis, George Clinton, Rick James, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jackie Wilson, Jerry Lee Lewis, the Beatles, Earth Wind & Fire, David Bowie, Mick Jagger, Elvis, and Jimi Hendrix. Zwicky named others as well. “When he sits down at the drums he hears Dave Garibaldi (Tower of Power). When he plays his guitar parts, he’s thinking about James Brown’s guitarists (Jimmy Nolen and Catfish Collins); those guys had the definitive funk chord approach to the guitar. When he plays the bass, he’s thinking like Larry Graham (Sly and the Family Stone). When he’s at the keyboards, he’s either thinking like a horn section or like Gary Numan. And singing wise, I mean, there’s a ton of influences. The most beautiful thing with Prince’s vocals is when he does his background vocals. You listen to any one of those tracks on its own and it’s a totally different personality singing. Together it conveys sense of the group singing. These days, if the lead singer sings the background parts it doesn’t really sound as big because everybody’s inflecting and speaking in the exact same way. With Prince you literally felt like you were, for lack of a better analogy, in a church and there’s six people around you. Some can sing better than others and they all have obvious personalities to them. But when you put it all together, those six voices sound bigger than twenty tracks of one voice. So, like, he’s got this band in his head of all these unique individual musicians. But the sum of it is Prince music. It doesn’t sound like obviously influenced.”
Part of why Prince was so knowledgeable at such a young age is because he was able to soak in sonic information at an extraordinary rate. “One of his chief strengths was his ability to observe, assimilate and then reinterpret,” said Dez Dickerson, who played guitar with Prince from 1979 to 1983. “So, with every engineer he worked with, he was observing and assimilating recording techniques. He was also observing and assimilating songwriting techniques and stuff that was freely happening inside the band. And all of that influenced him and he became a shape-shifter—he became great at assimilating these techniques and reinterpreting them in a way people didn’t recognize. And that became the genius of Prince.” He also bolstered his musical education in the mid-eighties, after Purple Rain was released, by inviting the people close to him to introduce him to sounds they loved. In Possessed, Alex Hahn writes, “that led to Wendy and Lisa playing him the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin while Eric and Alan Leeds played him Miles Davis, Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus.”3
Far from being bogged down by influences, Prince created his own genre, which mixed soul, funk, rock and pop and allowed him to be daringly innovative. Questlove said, “Prince is probably the only artist who got to live the dream of constant innovation. He pushed the boundaries with rhythm and structure and chords that no artist has ever done. He knew the balance between innovation and America’s digestive system. He’s the only artist who was able to, basically, feed babies the most elaborate of foods that you would never give a child and know exactly how to break down the portions so they could digest it. I mean, ‘When Doves Cry’ is probably the most radical song of the first five years of the 1980s because there’s no bass. You don’t strip down pop music. It’s supposed to be full orchestration. I heard the version of ‘Doves Cry’ with a bassline. It wouldn’t have grabbed me. Without bass it had a desperate, cold feeling to it. It made you concentrate on his voice. The narration of the song is dealing with, ‘Why am I the way I am?’ and it’s important that you let the words paint the scenario and with the bass line you could get lost. It was distracting. With the bassline, the song was cool. Without it, it was astounding.”
Prince also removed the bassline from “Kiss.” He put backwards drums on “Starfish and Coffee.” He omitted the hi-hat cymbal in “It.” He used a method called vary speed, which is basically him singing or playing with the tape sped up or slowed down, to get the high-pitched guitar solo on “Erotic City” and the female-sounding voice for his alter ego Camille, which he used on “Shockadelica,” “If I Was Your Girlfriend,” “Feel U Up,” “Strange Relationship,” and others. Those songs were part of the scrapped 1986 album called Camille.
Questlove also told me Prince had a unique ability to program the LinnDrum machine in a way that makes it sound and feel as though a human is playing drums. “He’s always adding fills and rolls that are way beyond the four-bar monotonous programming stuff of 1980s music. He’s smart enough to program little things that only drummers notice. He’d purposely speed things up during the chorus and slow it down during the verse just to make you think a real drummer’s playing. He was able to take the LinnDrum machine and humanize it. He established the drum machine as the bass and not the drummer and created a sound with drums that you’d never heard before. To my ears, Prince is, bar none, the best drum programmer of all time. I’ll put Prince up against my favorite hiphop drum programmers. He is the master.” Questlove also pointed out that Prince often mixed programming and human percussion on the same song, for example, on “Lady Cab Driver” he gave us a live snare and a programmed kick and hi-hat. On “Automatic” there’s live cymbals and a programmed kick and snare.
Prince wrote great, timeless pop songs because he understood what was sonically essential. “There are so many popular records that don’t contain great songs,” said Susan Rogers. “If you strip them down no one is going to sit down and learn the chord changes. But Prince was a strong enough songwriter that you could strip his songs down to just the skeleton and you’d have something pretty valid there. You’d have good lyric writing, in some cases great, and you’d have strong melodies. And on top of that he was able to add harmonic progressions that were innovative and smart. Underneath that he was able to add a rhythmic foundation that was great. He taught me that you should be able to strip out everything except the bass and drums and maybe one rhythm instrument and it should sound like a record. He was so smart, he truly understood how each piece needs to function. It’s rare for music makers to really understand that.” Rogers said Prince also understood how to use all of the major ways to make songs connect with listeners. “I’m a psychologist,” she said. “I know that there are three avenues through which listeners can bond with a piece of music. There’s our motor system—music can make us move. There’s our emotional system—even something without drums in it can move us. Just chord changes alone can move us emotionally. And there is our cognitive system—lyrics can make us think. If you’re a genius at any one of those you don’t need to be that good at anything else. So, in other words, James Brown makes you move, even if you don’t understand English. Those who are geniuses with melody and can write a great chord change will make us feel. Those who are geniuses at lyrics, whether it’s Bob Dylan or Bob Marley, will make us think. Prince understood those three avenues. He knew that he had three ways to connect with people and, unlike most of the artists I’ve ever worked with, he aimed to be a master at all three. Very few artists are that strong.”
Of course, Prince’s innovative sound was difficult for some people to understand. Zwicky said, “A friend of mine, who was dating him back in the era of 1999 and Purple Rain, said people would just walk right up to him and confront him about his music saying, ‘What kind of music is that you’re doing? It’s not rock, it’s not funk. What is this?’ Well, he was doing what he liked to hear.”
Prince also developed into a bandleader who knew just how to push the musicians who worked with him past their capabilities, and bring things out of people that they didn’t know they could do. Eric Leeds said, “This is the kinda guy who had the ability to walk in a room and instantaneously present a musical vision. He could get us together and all of a sudden realize something that was on a rarified level. I really enjoyed going in the recording studio with him. It wasn’t about whether or not the song we were working on was something I would want to go home and listen to. That’s not why I was there. I was there because he was very good at being able to reach inside you and bring things out of you that wouldn’t naturally be what I’d end up doing myself.” Prince accomplished that by motivating people in particular ways. Eric said, “One time, in a recording session, he told me I want you to play a solo on this song but I want you to approach it as if you just picked up the saxophone for the first day in your life. And being a huge fan of Miles Davis I related it to the same thing Miles used to tell Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter and Tony Williams. He said, I don’t pay you to play for me what you know. I pay you to play for me what you don’t know. And I would try to look at it in the same way. And those are the experiences that I treasure. But most of the time it wasn’t about what he would say but about creating that vibe. He did it in a very personal way. I worked with George Clinton on several recordings. George would create the same kind of environment but George, not being a player, was like an alchemist. He would get everybody in a room and set up a vibe and get something out of you like that. Prince was an instrumentalist, so he was more hands on, but they would both set a vibe.”
It takes more than a wide array of talents to become a generational icon; part of why Prince became one is that his oeuvre dealt with what is perhaps one of the ultimate questions: Can we have both reverence for God and fulfill the rawest of carnal desires? Can the spiritual imperative and the lustful urge co-exist in one soul? Prince had much to say on the issues of the irrepressible sexual impulse and our innate spiritual needs, as well as apathy in the face of the apocalypse. His messages fit generation X. He was talented, yes, but, crucially, he lived a life that uniquely prepared him to understand the gen X experience and wrote songs that spoke to the things we cared about—our desires, our fears, our longings, our anxieties—and that is why he became a generational icon.
Why Prince Became an Icon
I Would Die 4 U
Why Prince Became an Icon
Celebrated journalist, TV personality, and award-winning author Touré investigates one of the most enigmatic and fascinating figures in contemporary American culture:
Drawing on new research and enlivened by Touré’s unique pop-cultural fluency, I Would Die 4 U relies on surprising and in-depth interviews with Prince’s band members, former girlfriends, musicologists, and even Bible scholars to deconstruct the artist’s life and work.
Prince’s baby boomer status allowed him to play a wise older brother to the latchkey kids of generation X. Defying traditional categories of race, gender, and sexuality, he nonetheless presents a very traditional conception of religion and God in his music. He was an MTV megastar and a religious evangelist, using images of sex and profanity to invite us into a musical conversation about the healing power of God. By demystifying the man and his music, I Would Die 4 U shows us how Prince defined a generation.
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