Secretive, sexual and silly: Prince

September 20, 2012

Tony Sarabia and Richard Steele

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Tony Sarabia:

I should have also added the word "enigma" to the title of this post, but it would have messed up my alliteration. However, that noun certainly sums up Prince Rogers Nelson and I believe it’s something he’s cultivated to great success. But the mystery of Prince the man seems to be of no concern to those who’ve gobbled up his music over the last 33 years.

He was making music well before that initial record; writing his first song called Funk Machine at his father’s piano when he was seven years old. Music is in his DNA; his dad a jazz musician, mom a jazz singer.

When I consider Prince’s music  I’m reminded of the great Nigerian artist Fela Anikulapo Kuti who took Nigerian/Ghanaian highlife music, American jazz, West African chants and rhythms and the funk of James Brown and created something new: afrobeat.

Prince had his own recipe for a music that sounded fresh to many ears in 1979/80: the rock funk of Sly & the Family Stone -- a bit of the godfather of soul, the vocal styling of Philip Bailey of Earth, Wind & Fire, a good dose of Jimi Hendrix and new wave. Of course he threw in more than a pinch of sexual themes that at times had people wondering-like his song Controversy- whether he was straight or gay.

I guess he answered that question in 1997 when during an interview with Chris Rock he gave his reason why he turned down an offer to appear in Michael Jackson’s video for "BAD", “The first line in that song is your butt is mine. Now I said to Michae,l 'Who's gonna sing that to whom? Cause you sure ain't singing it to me and I sure ain't singing it to you so right there we got a problem.'"

 The thing about Prince is that he can easily glide from one genre of music to another or effortlessly blur those lines and it hardly ever comes off as pretentious or overwrought. He once played a two hour blues show as a tribute blues guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughn, who had recently perished in a helicopter crash. Prince is an artist who seems to be able to deliver something for just about everyone. Given his prolific output and vast creativity, maybe this quote from Prince doesn’t seem so silly: “Can you imagine what I would do if I could do all I can?”

Here are a few of my favorite Prince tunes:

"Gotta a Broken Heart Again", Dirty Mind

This third studio release went gold and was praised by critics. Here you get a bit of Todd Rundgren, Rufus and Shuggie Otis.

"Let’s Work", Controversy

This was my introduction to Prince. I had first purchased the 12” of the tune Controversy and was immediately smitten by the mix of new wave and Zapp and a funkier Human League. This record was the soundtrack to many a party in 1981.

"Automatic", 1999

This was the crossover breakout for Prince; with its rock guitar and pop hooks. Automatic though was not a pop song. Clocking in at nine minutes plus with its nod to Kraftwerk it was a test of stamina for us club kids whenever it was played at neo.

Richard Steele:

Prince Rogers Nelson is one of the most important exports that Minneapolis has ever laid claim to. Prince, as he became known, developed into a prolific songwriter, an incredible instrumentalist/vocalist and one of the most dazzling performers anyone has ever seen. He’s known for successfully melding R&B, pop, funk and rock into some of the hottest music of our times. He’s often stated that one of his musical heroes was the Godfather of Soul, James Brown.

Prince is also known for an epic battle with his record label back in the day. A major milestone in his career was the album Purple Rain, which contained music from the movie of the same name in which he starred. It sold over 10 million copies. He continues to write music all the time, but according to statements in his interviews, he’s got a vault with hundreds of songs he’s written that might not be seen or recorded for many years. One of the things that makes Prince so fascinating is his unpredictability. The question always seems to be “What’s next”?               

One live recording by Prince I love is called “Pop Life.” It’s from a DVD that was recorded during a performance at The Aladdin in Las Vegas in 2002. This project was never released as an album. One of the great things about Prince’s capacity for ignoring musical boundaries is that you’re likely to be surprised at any moment. On this recording, Prince calls out his sax players, who proceed to play jazz-influenced solos. The end result is another crowd-pleasing performance from Prince.     

When Prince contacted Mavis Staples and expressed a desire to work with her, she was astonished. She pointed out that the kind of overt sexual lyrics he was known for at that time weren’t her thing. Mavis then found he had no intention of doing those kinds of songs with her. They agreed to work together, and Prince produced an album called The Voice. These songs tell some compelling stories, and this title track is a great example.        

Prince prides himself on being able to write great songs for other artists. In 1986, his bass player Mark Brown was moonlighting with another group in Minneapolis. Brown was in the studio recording when Prince found out about it. Instead of firing Brown, which was something he was known for doing, he gave the group, called Mazarati, a song he had written called “Kiss.” Later, when he heard them rehearsing it, he reclaimed it. He recorded it with plans to release it as a single, but the record company asked him not to do it. They said it sounded like a demo tape. He ignored them and put it out anyway. It became a smash. 

By 1984 Chaka Khan’s career had hit a speed bump. Prior to the release of this song written by Prince, Chaka had not had a number one hit in many years. Prince had released it on a 1979 album, but not as a single. When Chaka decided to record “Feel for You,” she had help from rapper Melle Mel furiously repeating her name at the front of the song, and Stevie Wonder playing a very soulful harmonica throughout the recording. It turned out to be one of the biggest songs of her career and helped return her to her position as one of the reigning divas of R&B.

Jon Bream of the Minneapolis Star Tribune -- whom Prince purposely attacked with a water gun during the Purple Rain tour -- shares his favorite Prince tunes as well:

"Purple Rain" – because it still gives me goose bumps, especially when I hear it live.

"When Doves Cry" – maybe his most personal song. And who ever thought a song sans bass guitar could make it to No.1?

"Girls & Boys" – because it always makes me wanna dance. Also his first song with saxophone, I believe.

"Nothing Compares 2 U" by Sinead O’Connor – he didn’t write it for her. He wrote it for a 1985 spinoff project called the Family (recently reunited as fDeluxe and I heard them sing this song a few weeks ago in Minneapolis). This song is but one example of Prince’s prowess as a romantic balladeer.