In a rare interview for the June 2014 issue of ESSENCE, Prince pulled back the purple curtain on his legacy, gave his take on mentoring and shared why creating and performing music made him feel alive. Welcome to the party.
It’s a warm March afternoon in southern California, and word has just hit the street that Prince is doing an impromptu “secret show” at the Hollywood Palladium. Tickets are $100 cash, on a first come, first served basis, in a venue so intimate you can practically touch the hem of his purple garment.
Fans have already started lining up on Sunset Boulevard, a full four hours before the show is even due to start at 8 P.M. That is, if the show really starts at 8 or 10 or even midnight.
See, that’s the thing about Prince. He’s far from a flake; he’s very meticulous about his business. But at the same time, he has his own set of rules and his own sense of time. He could come onstage at 8 P.M., or he might wait until 2 A.M. Right now world-renowned photographer Randee St. Nicholas, photo and fashion editors, and I, a reporter turned screenwriter, are waiting backstage for Prince to begin his ESSENCE cover shoot. It’s all been prearranged, of course, but when it comes to the elusive Prince Rogers Nelson, nothing is set in stone until it actually happens.
St. Nicholas, who has been shooting still photos and music videos for Prince since 1991, knows the drill well. It’s no different from being in his band: You just have to be prepared to move at any time. Ready, set, go! “He’s all about the moment,” St. Nicholas says, setting up her Hasselblad camera on a tripod in a dressing room with fading wallpaper. “If he feels like shooting, he will. If he doesn’t, he won’t.”
It’s the same when it comes to Prince’s live show. The Mighty Mite from Minneapolis might turn up in London to rock Her Majesty’s kingdom two nights in a row; the next night he might feature one of his power female acts, Liv Warfield or 3rd Eye Girl, play a couple of jams and bounce—or not perform at all. If the buzz today is to be trusted, Prince wants to play. Several tweets and a few radio stations give out the word, and people clamor for the chance to see something that’s about as uncommon as a rose blooming in a snowstorm: true, uncut, analog musicianship.
Prince, you see, is the rarest of all creatures—someone who hasn’t aged a day. Mind you, there are the slightest wrinkles around the eyes. But he’s the same size, about the same weight and has the same voice as he did 30 years ago when multiplatinum album Purple Rain turned pop music upside down. At a time when other artists need hair replacements, Prince, who’s turning 56 this month, sports an Afro bigger than the one he had on the cover of his 1978 debut album, For You. And at a time when other artists need Auto-Tune to fix their voices and monitors to remember their lyrics, Prince is spirited, ready and in game shape.
With his new trio, 3rd Eye Girl, as his backing band, he’s done scorching hit-and-run sets that would do The Kid—his petulant Purple Rain character—proud. For example, following last year’s appearance on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, he played an absolutely mind-blowing version of his 1979 song “Bambi” on a vintage 1961 Epiphone Crestwood guitar belonging to The Roots’ musician “Captain” Kirk Douglas. Then Prince threw it in the air after his performance and broke it—but that might have been his point. The guitar would never sound the same after what Prince had just done to it. He slammed it when it was done, to paraphrase Rakim, and made sure it was broke.
Michael Jackson, rest in peace, is no longer with us. Madonna, appearing at this year’s Grammys as part of a marriage ceremony celebration including heterosexual and same-sex couples, doesn’t move like Madonna anymore. The last of the 1980’s giants, Prince, is still onstage, still vibrant, still doing things his way, still a wonder, still an enigma.
The music industry that he rallied against (famously writing the word “Slave” on his face and temporarily calling himself The Artist in a bid to nullify his multi-album Warner Bros. contract in the mid-1990’s) has imploded. The Internet and iTunes killed the CD, which in turn cut record label profits. Tower Records and Virgin Records Megastores, once ubiquitous, have folded. Streaming services like Pandora and Beats Music are all the rage, and SiriusXM’s satellite radio is pushing out older radio models. More kids get their music from YouTube than any other source. Singles, rather than albums, power the marketplace, and only artists with deep catalogs and the ability to tour have continued to survive.
Increasingly, product placement in commercials and movies and licensing deals are the only consistent ways for artists to make money (unless they happen to be the Rolling Stones, U2, Jay Z, Beyoncé, Justin Timberlake or the handful of performers who can fill arenas). Which leaves Prince—one of the last artists who truly thrives in a live setting; who has the hits, the stamina and the spark; who, three years after his 21-night stand at the Forum in Los Angeles, put on the last concert anyone still talks about. Prince is finally able to release records any way he wants. He can negotiate any deal he wants.
“Prince owns Prince,” explains Antonio “L.A.” Reid, chairman and CEO of Epic Records. Once the home of Michael Jackson, Epic, in a nontraditional deal, will release just one song by Prince.
“Prince and I are friends. Our deal is a handshake. And that’s how we work. My thing is putting out music fast. He asked, ‘What’s fast?’ and I said, ‘Hand it to me. And then go out to your car and turn on the radio.’ That’s what fast is to me.”
Reid continues: “The great music industry is one that’s nimble and quick. And the antiquated music industry is one that’s like an ocean liner—just slow. The public is moving at a different pace than that, and I think the way both Prince and I work is being affected by youth culture. Kids who multitask. Kids who have short attention spans.”
Kids who, thanks to Twitter, Instagram and scant radio announcements, show up at the Hollywood Palladium, along with a few old heads, for a chance to see genius up close and personal.
Prince’s guitar arrives before he does. It’s a multicolored thing with a woman’s face on it. It’s now 8:35 P.M. Brothers wearing leather jackets and silk scarves arrive. Upstairs in rehearsal, there’s the sound of trumpets, saxophones and trombones. Then female voices joined in mellifluous four-part harmony.
Christopher Tropea, the guitar tech, holds the instrument aloft, weighing it in his hands. “Prince keeps this with him at all times,” he says. “I usually get it a half hour before showtime.”
And just like that, without a word of announcement, Prince appears in the Palladium’s dressing room, where the ESSENCE photo shoot is set to happen before the show. His Afro is perfect, and he’s wearing a maroon turtleneck jumpsuit, a gold chain and gold-tipped boots and walking with a diamond-studded scepter. His two bodyguards, a pair of NFL-offensive-lineman-size brothers, never stand farther than five feet away from him, their heads on a swivel on the alert for anyone trying to take a picture or crowd him in any way.
Prince walks up and greets St. Nicholas with a smile. After picking a Roberto Cavalli coat off the rack, he gets in front of the camera and stares right at the lens. Then off to the left. His poses are natural, nonchalant. He’s been doing this for years. He takes his hands out of his pockets. Another photo is taken. He switches jackets. Now there’s a black-and-white one. And a leather one. He puts on mirrored sunglasses and, for a moment, strikes a pose that immediately evokes his Purple Rain look.
Moments later Prince is looking at the digital shots that are available on a 27-inch computer monitor. With a magnifying glass he examines every detail. Romeo, his main bodyguard, stands behind Prince to make sure no one else stands next to him. He speaks quietly to St. Nicholas and then starts posing again. He’s simultaneously in front of the camera and behind it, always in control, ever the perfectionist.
“You reach a plane of creativity where every song that has ever existed or will ever exist is right there in front of you.”
The bass shakes the walls as a DJ on the other side of the stage plays old-school hip-hop and funk for the waiting crowd, with the distinct sound of human beatboxing coming from guest Doug E. Fresh. “Hello,” Prince says, extending his hand, looking at me for the first time. His handshake is firm and supple. “When’s the last time we saw each other?”
Quietly, the musicians begin to move down the hall toward the entrance. Donna Grantis, Hannah Ford and Ida Neilsen of 3rd Eye Girl—all leather, boots and glamour—pose for a few photos before making their way onto the stage. Then there’s the bald and fabulous singer Shelby J. and her vocal powerhouse sister, Liv Warfield. The energy is calm but twitchy, no different from a locker room before a big game. They’re excited, raring to go.
After the band has walked onstage, Prince lingers for a moment. It’s a few minutes past 10 P.M. The DJ has started playing Prince songs, a subtle announcement that the show is about to start. “Adore” comes on and the crowd cheers loudly. The song is 27 years old, older than some of the members of his band and some of the people in the room. But it sounds brand-new every single time you hear it.
“This song never gets tired,” I tell him. My mind is flooded with memories of the song—and I’m frankly bugged out that the man who made it is standing inches to my left.
“Yeah,” Prince says. “I wish I wrote it.”
“Whoever wrote it is a genius.”
Prince shrugs matter-of-factly. “Welp,” he says, smiling, as if to say, If the genius title fits, I’m not going to correct you. Without another word, he walks onstage. “Where we at? We’re in the Big City. Hollywood!” And for the next four hours, still wearing one of the coats from his photo shoot, he kicks the doors off the place.
With an 11-piece horn section and 3rd Eye Girl at the center, Prince pushes the band through a smorgasbord of his hits, from such favorites as “1999” and “Let’s Work” to “Take Me With U” and “Raspberry Beret” to lesser-known tracks like “Mutiny,” “Dark” and “Days of Wild.”
As a veteran of many a Prince show, I’ve observed that he has typically been at the center, with his signature stagemelting guitar solos—beautiful, soaring wonders of feedback melded with the DNA of Eddie Hazel, Buddy Guy, Carlos Santana and Jimi Hendrix, and infused with a flair for melody and presence only Prince can create. This was true for shows everywhere from his Paisley Park Studios and Las Vegas to the now legendary Inglewood Forum sets.
This time around, however, Prince seems to be more into his band, reimagining himself as James Brown—wearing the band like a cape, getting off on watching his saxophone player solo on “Purple Rain,” or reveling in the elaborate horn arrangements, or smiling proudly as singer Shelby J. belts out “Nothing Compares to U,” or harmonizing with his new protégée, Warfield, on his version of the Soul Children’s “The Sweeter He Is.” Or riffing with the band on Michael Jackson hits like “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” or Janet Jackson’s “What Have You Done for Me Lately?”
“Prince constantly goes, and is constantly thinking about the next thing,” says Warfield, who has been a New Power Generation member for five years. “His energy is infectious, and I want to make him proud and also preserve the live-music element. He’s shown me how to do that right, and if he’s watching me, I hope we’re doing something right.”
At the top of the third straight hour of playing, between inspired versions of “The Bird” and “Jungle Love,” hits immortalized by The Time, Prince blurts out: “Who wrote that? Who wrote that? Y’all ain’t ready for us!” They’re not. He hasn’t even played piano yet. And there’s still an hour to go.
He sits down solo, letting the band collapse and recover, and does spare versions of “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore,” “Sometimes It Snows in April” and “Diamonds and Pearls”—sounding like he recorded them the day before.
Finally the guitar comes out. By the time he does a slow-groove version of “Let’s Go Crazy,” erupting with soaring riffs, you realize he’s not laying back in the cut because he’s getting older or can’t keep up anymore; he’s laying back because he’s done it all. He can finally afford to look at what his musical children are doing and appreciate them—but let them know, whenever he wants, he’s still the king.
He smiles throughout the performance, from the opening moment until the final notes, even after a rousing version of “Funknroll” that closes the show at almost 3 A.M.
Backstage, he’s refreshed. “What did you think of the show?” he asks.
“It was incredible,” I say.
“Do you have energy? Come to the hotel. We should talk.”
It’s 4:45 A.M. in Beverly Hills, and Prince’s expansive hotel suite is packed, and there’s lots of laughter and activity. Dave Chappelle is sitting behind the piano, playing Thelonious Monk’s “‘Round Midnight” so well that people turn their heads. Lianne La Havas is there, laughing with a friend. Janelle Monáe is in another part of the room, chuckling. Marsha Ambrosius, having just arrived, sits down and introduces herself to one of the New Power Generation backup singers.
“A lot of things I don’t do anymore and some things I do more of.”
Everyone’s tired, but no one wants to show it. Most of the band is here. Everyone’s talking about the concert, music, life in general. Prince walks to the front of the room and everyone looks up.
“I have an announcement,” he says. The room goes silent. “Don’t do anything, or you’ll be on Dave’s next show.”
Everyone laughs. He comes and sits down next to me on the piano bench with Chappelle, who casually mentions that anyone who went to Washington, D.C.’s Duke Ellington School of the Arts can dabble in piano.
“Watch this,” Prince says, looking at La Havas, who is sitting a few feet away from the piano bench. “Watch what she does.” He lightly tickles the keys, playing part of a melody. La Havas turns her head and looks up. Prince laughs. “See,” he says, the two sharing an inside joke since it’s a song he’s written for her upcoming album. “I got you.”
Prince turns to me. “Would you like to go somewhere and talk?” We go into his other suite and close the door.
The most surprising thing about Prince is that, in private, he’s not shy at all. He’s actually engaging. Passionate. And mellow. Like hanging-out-in-a-barbershop or chilling-at-a-barbecue mellow. Past the bodyguards and the mystique, there’s still plenty of the real Prince Rogers Nelson left over.
So here we are in this little lonely room. And Prince starts talking about the writer and historian John Henrik Clarke, since he exclaims he’s into reading deep thinkers, “the kind of guys you don’t debate.” He’s invoking Clarke and African thought when trying to explain why he’s ageless. “Even the concept of what a birthday is, is different,” he says. “In ancient African societies, your birthday isn’t the day you came out, it’s the day your mother first thought of having a child.”
I’m scribbling like crazy, because Prince doesn’t like recorded interviews. I’m lucky. In the old days, he didn’t even allow you to take notes.
“We came to America and got colonized,” he explains. “They taught us time. In Africa, time didn’t exist. Or at least not this concept of it. See, the only reason people invented time was because of repetition, so that when you did the same things over and over again, you wouldn’t go crazy.”
Which leads to what keeps him timeless. It’s not just clean living or the fact that he’s been playing and composing nonstop for four decades. It’s also that he has learned to keep things spontaneous and fresh, a lesson he learned in the middle of the 1984 Purple Rain world tour.
“Ninety-nine shows and the seventy-fifth show almost broke me,” he says. “It wasn’t that the tour was grueling. That’s part of the game. It was that the show didn’t change. The same songs. Played the same way. Every single time.” Prince continues: “I had to [perform them that way] because the movie was out, the album was out and I thought that people wanted to hear the songs in the exact way they were recorded.”
The experience changed him. It changed the way he thought about music and himself. After that, it was about not repeating himself. Every album after Purple Rain was a reinvention. New bands and new members offered different challenges.
“A real musician is always in creative mode,” Prince says.
He picks up a butter knife and starts cutting the air with it. “That’s what I used The Revolution for,” he says, making a cutting motion. The implication being, they were sharp. Fearless. The baddest, best-rehearsed band in the land.
“But ask them to do what we did tonight? To improvise? There would be a problem. That’s what I love about this new arrangement. The energy. They’re in the moment.”
He pauses. “I’m not putting down The Revolution, even though people would love to see us together again. I owe a great debt to them. But I’m doing something else.”
His desire to keep things open and fast and sharp is what led to his beef with Warner Bros. Records. He had too much music to release and didn’t want to adhere to the pace, structure and ownership the music industry then required.
“What is a hit?” Prince asks me. “All the terms those gangsters came up with for songs: hits, bullets, smashes. It’s all violence. Everything they taught us is inverted.
“Every time I talk to the heads of large companies, they’re always at the beach. Middle of the afternoon. What are you doing? ‘Oh, I’m at the beach with my kids,’ ” Prince says with a casual California air in his voice. “So we’re working to send their kids to college. And to the beach. We’re not supposed to accept that.
“I’m happy. I know exactly what Pharrell is talking about.”
On the other side of the door, someone else is on piano. And the people in the room are harmonizing. Marsha Ambrosius. Janelle Monáe. New Power Generation backup singer Saeeda Wright. They’re singing Stevie Wonder’s “All I Do.” Prince smiles. “I wish I could call Stevie right now. We probably shouldn’t wake him up.”
I ask Prince about something that his bodyguard Romeo said before he came into the room, when he asked everyone not to curse. What about “Head”? What about “Sexy M.F.,” “Darling Nikki,” “Erotic City”? Long before rappers, Prince was one of the first artists to test the limits of profanity on records. “All you do is grow and change,” he explains. “A lot of things I don’t do [anymore],” he says, “and some things I do more of.” Some of that stems from him becoming a Jehovah’s Witness. Larry Graham, the legendary Sly and the Family Stone bass player, was not only a musical inspiration to Prince but a spiritual one as well, forcing him to question his use of profanity in his music and his personal life.
“Did you ever hear Muhammad Ali curse?” he says. “Would you curse in front of your kids? To your mother?
“Marsha, Lianne, Janelle, Donna, Hannah, Ida, Liv, Shelby—they’re all my sisters. We shouldn’t curse at them. We need to treat all of them, and all people, like royalty.”
Prince smiles again.
“Janelle. She has so much power. She could stop an entire generation from cursing. Could you imagine a whole generation not cursing?”
That’s what excites him. Youth. Like his band, which he likens to one of his favorite basketball teams, the Oklahoma City Thunder (OKC). He can push them in any direction, because, like OKC, they’re too young to not consider the fact that they can’t do something. “You can’t stop Kevin Durant,” Prince says. “He doesn’t know he’s not supposed to be great.”
Young people and the future are constantly on Prince’s mind. Which is why when Van Jones and ESSENCE reached out and asked him if he wanted to be part of #YesWeCode—a national initiative to help 100,000 low-opportunity youths learn to code computers—he was all for it. “When I met with the kids, I told them: If you want to be great, get a sidekick. Whoever’s your greatest rival, whoever you’re most afraid of, put them in your band. You’ll push each other. And then once your sidekick gets a sidekick, things will change.”
So here he is. Exactly where he wants to be. He owns his music. Does what he wants when he wants. The rooms he plays at the last minute might not be filled to capacity—they’re not for that. It’s about the electric feeling you get when you play in front of a crowd. Most times, the audience isn’t familiar with the new songs—they just want to hear “Purple Rain” or “Pop Life” or “Little Red Corvette” or “Kiss.” It was something he used to resent—but now he’s at peace with it.
“With no new releases, you have to rely on your catalog,” Prince says. “It really helped me appreciate what I’ve already done.”
Which comes back to the joke he made about not writing “Adore.” He didn’t write it. Well, he did, but that’s not what he meant. Songs come to him the way that breathing air comes to you or me. The source of his inspiration? How he does it? Even the most creative artist in the history of creative artists has a problem explaining it.
“I’ve tried to answer that question the whole time I’ve been on earth,” Prince says. He leans forward. Thinking about it. “Put it like this: When I’m onstage, I’m out of body. That’s what the rehearsals, the practicing, the playing is for. You work to a place where you’re all out of body. And that’s when something happens.
“You reach a plane of creativity and inspiration. A plane where every song that has ever existed and every song that will exist in the future is right there in front of you. And you just go with it for as long as it takes. Like tonight. You can tell me I was onstage for four hours, but it doesn’t feel like that to me. We were all out of body out there. Sometimes it isn’t until we’re in the car after a jam where I feel my leg tighten up. And then I’m not out of body anymore.”
The voices elevate on the other side of the door, the harmonies too good to deny. Now the singers are trading verses on Jill Scott’s “The Way.” They’re jamming. Prince smiles.
“I’m happy,” Prince says. “I know exactly what Pharrell is talking about.”
The whole room is buzzing with harmony. Now they’re singing The Isley Brothers’ “For the Love of You.”
“You want to go see what they’re doing?” Prince asks.
We do. They keep singing. There’s a knock on the door; waiters come in carrying a slew of trays. There are pancakes and berries and coffee and juice. Whatever anybody ordered.
“Excuse me, everybody. I did order the lamb chops,” Dave Chappelle says.
Cheo Hodari Coker is a co-executive producer of Showtime’s drama series Ray Donovan and a showrunner for Marvel’s Luke Cage. Coker won the 2013 NAACP Image Award for Best Writing in a Dramatic Series for his Southland episode “God’s Work.” He lives in Los Angeles with his family.