By Michaelangelo Matos
On South 10th Avenue and Marquette Street South in downtown Minneapolis stands the old Schmitt Music building, and on its back is a giant black-on-white sheet-music mural — specifically, the busy notation of a section from Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit. Around the time of his 1978 debut album, For You, Prince posed in front of the mural for photographer Robert Whitman, his expression matter-of-fact, his perfectly rounded Afro a sunrise over the musical horizon. Even over a 40-year career framed better than most by iconic images, it’s difficult to think of a more purely apt Prince photograph: a young man teeming with music.
Prince Rogers Nelson was, along with Michael Jackson and Madonna, one of the top-tier pop stars of the video age, and his combination of critical and popular success, big hits and relentless creativity, made him, without question, the 1980s’ premier musical auteur. Reviewing 1986’s Parade for Rolling Stone, Davitt Sigerson began, "Who but Prince fills us today with the kind of anticipation we once reserved for new work by Bob Dylan, the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones?" The same year, Prince wrote a letter to Miles Davis that read, in part, "You gotta hang out with me and Sheila E. ’cause a lot of people have to find out who you are." The letter was signed "God." Nobody moved to dispute it.
Prince had been a prodigy from an early age. His father, pianist and composer John L. Nelson, played with a jazz combo called the Prince Rogers Trio (the father’s stage name provided the son’s legal one); his mother, Mattie, was a singer. His parents divorced before Prince was 10. He ping-ponged between them before moving in with Bernadette Anderson, the mother of his best friend André Cymone (né André Simon Anderson). Prince’s volcanic drive manifested early: He taught himself more than two dozen instruments before he finished high school, and took classes on the business of music to ready himself for the paperwork to come.
The scene around Prince in those early years was fertile: His high school classmates, bandmates, and rivals included future Time members Jimmy "Jam" Harris, Terry Lewis, Morris Day, and Garry "Jellybean" Johnson, as well as singers Alexander O’Neal and Cynthia Johnson (the voice of Lipps Inc.’s "Funkytown"), plus bassists Cymone and Sonny Thompson, both of whom later logged time in Prince’s band (André during the early ‘80s, Thompson in the early ‘90s). Notably, everyone in this scene was as turned on to white rock bands as black funk acts, due in part to their open tastes and in part to Minneapolis’s demographics. The 1980 census put the Twin Cities’ black population at just 2.8 percent; until the debut of B96 decades later in 2000, the area’s only urban-formatted radio station was the low-power KMOJ-FM, whose 5,000-watt signal could barely be heard outside its North Minneapolis neighborhood. "To an extent, the music we're making today is the result of white rock-and-roll radio and black music station static," Terry Lewis told Martin Keller in 1984. "None of our radio stations would come in as good as the mainstream stations. You could hear the beat and the rest was noise."
Prince was the acknowledged genius of the group, and his band Champagne caught the attention of British-born Chris Moon, who owned a local recording studio. Moon, in his mid-twenties, invited the teenager to co-write some songs on a 50-50 publishing split. "Moon ... chose Prince for reasons that turned out richly ironic," wrote local journalist Steve Perry in 1986. "Quite simply, he liked Prince because he played his guitar well and didn’t seem to have much of an ego." The high schooler began taking more and more charge in the sessions, learning to use the recording console as well as gaining valuable experience and ease in overdubbing his instrumental parts. One of his collaborations with Moon, "Soft and Wet," was key to his emerging style. "I told him, ‘I think we’ve got your marketing strategy worked out and a song to go with it,’" Moon told Perry. "‘We’ll have thousands of thirteen and fourteen year old girls going crazy over you.’ He smiled for once. He liked the idea."
By 1977, at age 19, Prince had signed a contract with Warner Bros. Records that allowed him to produce his own recordings. Even for the major label with the greatest reputation for letting its artists be themselves, this was an unprecedented move, but no one could argue with the kid’s chops. Prince crafted his debut in Northern California at the Sausalito Record Plant Studios, a place with mythic resonance for any kid who paid attention to the liner notes, which Prince assuredly did: Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life and Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours had been made there in part. Recording next door, members of Santana got excited at the prodigy whose sheer chops sent any reservations out the door. With them was Sheila Escovedo, one of the Santana bandmates' teenage daughter. In her memoir, The Beat of My Own Drum, she recounted taping Prince’s poster to the wall above her waterbed before even putting the needle down on the debut, 1978’s For You.
After spending half a year exhausting himself to make For You, Prince resolved to work faster, embrace spontaneity, and stop being a fussbudget. Prince, from 1979, was made in six weeks. 1980’s crucial Dirty Mind wasn’t even intended for release; Prince made some demos in his Minneapolis basement and his manager insisted it be issued as-is. "He'll go into the studio with a song in his mind, record it, overdub it, sing it, and mix it, all in one shot, start to finish," engineer David Leonard — husband of Prince’s regular early-‘80s engineer Peggy McCreary — told Musician.
Prince was writing and recording songs at a furious rate, and by 1981 he was siphoning them off onto albums by a series of protégé acts, beginning with the Time, whose debut came out that summer. Fronted by his old friend Morris Day, the band dressed in vintage-shop zoot suits and came off onstage, quite deliberately, as the id to Prince’s ego. "Prince is the Minneapolis sound," Jimmy Jam told Billboard in 1985. "People like us, Vanity, the Time — we’re all sort of like his children."
Most of those 1980s records sound amazing, thanks to Prince’s singular use of the available technology. "One of the things we learned from Prince is he would record everything looking at the sound meter and every track would always be in the red, meaning that it was being recorded too loud," Jam recently told RBMA Daily. "Prince’s theory was, if you put a little distortion on things, it sounded louder because your ear thinks when it hears distortion that something is loud." He was one of the first pop producers to fully embrace drum machines, in particular the Linn LM-1, which he’d put through any number of effects pedals to carve out unique sounds: Think of the hiss and scrape that give tracks like "Erotic City" or "Something in the Water (Does Not Compute)" their singular shape. By 1983, he began scoring regular pop hits thanks to a series of smashes from the 1999 album, issued a year earlier — in particular, "Little Red Corvette," his first-ever top 10. ("Finally ... the one radio has been waiting for!" said a trade ad — meaning rock and pop, not just R&B, radio.) And he did it while staying put in the Twin Cities, instilling a goodly amount of hometown pride among his protégés. "The only thing we intend on coming into Los Angeles for is to master the product — and pick up the check," Jimmy Jam told Billboard.
Prince’s live show captured as much attention as his recordings. He performed in the regalia he wore on the cover of Dirty Mind: black bikini briefs, leg warmers, and a trench coat with studs — the world’s comeliest flasher. His band was deliberately and provocatively mixed: black and white, male and female, straight and gay (keyboardist Lisa Coleman and eventual guitarist Wendy Melvoin were a couple), a utopian model to match lyrics that mixed disillusion with hope. Sex was paramount, but so was loneliness: As he put it in a song he gave to protégé group the Family, "I could put my arm around every girl I see / But they'd only remind me of U." Their version stayed on an underselling album, but when Sinéad O’Connor sang it like she’d seen a ghost in 1990, she took it to No. 1.
Prince’s biggest success by far came in 1984 with the multimedia juggernaut of Purple Rain, a box-office hit (the year’s 11th-highest-grossing film) as well as a record-sales behemoth. Purple Rain topped the LP chart for half a year; that August he would tie Michael Jackson’s record by landing atop five different Billboard charts: top pop and R&B album and, with "When Doves Cry," the No. 1 pop, R&B, and dance-club single. The Purple Rain tour was an out-of-box smash, most cities receiving multi-night stands: Seven shows in Washington, D.C., with a total of 130,000 seats, sold out in under 10 hours. (Prince also capped tickets at under $20, a sharp retort to the Jacksons’ record-breaking $30 charge for that summer’s Victory Tour.)
By this point, Prince was no longer giving interviews: As Carol Cooper put it in The Face, "This self-styled Wilhelm Reich of the sepia set not only has a lion in his pocket, but a tiger by the tail." But the fur flew for real in 1985. Prince skipped the recording session for USA for Africa’s "We Are the World" despite being at the same American Music Awards ceremony as everyone else who went, simply because he found the song corny. That night he went clubbing, and his bodyguards roughed up a photographer. The ensuing brouhaha cost his public perception dearly. He even sat for a Rolling Stone interview in the interest of damage control, but while Prince had many years of hits to come, he’d never quite capture pop’s crown again.
It was easy to figure he didn’t necessarily want it. "He's too smart for our audience, really, too dangerous," a journalist from London tabloid The Sun confessed to Nick Kent. On the European tour behind 1987’s Sign ‘O’ the Times— his masterpiece, a guided tour through pop history that only one person could have made — Prince’s choice for a band instrumental while he changed costume was Charlie Parker’s knotted bebop masterwork "Now’s the Time," as if to say: This is the weight I’m punching now. Whatever their respective pop geniuses, neither Michael nor Madonna was going toe-to-toe with that one. In 1987 he also opened Paisley Park Studios in suburban Chanhassen, Minnesota, which he rented out as a commercial facility for many years (R.E.M.’s Out of Time, among other albums, was partly made there) before more recently making it his own playpen.
Staying ahead of his audience wound up costing him much of that audience, at least in America, as the 1980s went on. While the Lovesexy tour of Europe in 1988 sold out sports stadiums (including four consecutive nights in Paris with little advance notice), it failed to incite as much interest in the U.S., where he played to half-full halls. Prince cared about the experience he provided, and proved it by making the CD version of Lovesexy all one continuous track, despite it being his weakest album of the decade. His film career sputtered to a halt in 1990, after Graffiti Bridge stiffed. The soundtrack didn’t — "Thieves in the Temple" went top-10 that fall — but it was a sign of a fallow period to come.
Prince’s 1990s are a mess in nearly every way that counts — full of unfocused concept albums and vault cast-offs whose many sharp moments are unlikely to be collected in one place for a long time to come, given to the number of labels that issued them. Prince had signed a new, highly publicized deal with Warner Bros. in 1992 that within two years he was trying to shred. He changed his name to the unpronounceable icon that titled his 14th album in 1992 — a baroque hybrid of male and female symbols, with an angelic trumpet thrown in, which he would copyright in 1997 as Love Symbol #2 — in an effort to undermine the Warner Bros. deal and his own public identity. Soon his concert tickets would dub him the Artist Formerly Known As Prince — "the Artist" for short. By mid-decade he was writing the word "SLAVE" across his cheek, and Howard Stern would crack that he was "the artist people formerly cared about."
Hip-hop’s ascent as the center of black pop put Prince at a distinct disadvantage. He’d made fun of rappers on record on 1987’s Black Album (initially planned as a surprise release, Prince pulled it last-minute; it received a one-time-only pressing in 1994), and on his early-1990s albums he employed some local MCs of limited ability. His rock songs, meanwhile, sounded increasingly polished, in sharp contrast with the rougher alt-rock moving units in the ‘90s — a great missed opportunity, since Prince’s misfits-united inclusivity ("White, black, Puerto Rican, everybody just a-freakin’," as he put it on Dirty Mind’s "Uptown") was the model for the Alternative Nation if anything was. As much a loss as it was that Prince never headlined Lollapalooza, it didn’t really matter, because in his way Prince was Lollapalooza.
When Prince was finally free of his Warner Bros. contract, he celebrated by releasing 1996’s Emancipation, a three-CD, three-hour monument with a higher percentage of goodies than usual. But despite a small publicity blitz — appearances on Oprah, more press interviews than usual, now with the proviso that reporters couldn’t record or take notes on the conversations — the album made little splash. He continued to issue a stream of titles through his website; Prince was one of the first pop-music figures to embrace the Internet, just as over a decade later he’d be one of the loudest to condemn it.
In 2004, he decided to concert his efforts into a real comeback. That February, Prince opened the Grammy Awards, shredding through "Let’s Go Crazy" and backing Beyoncé on "Crazy in Love." Two months later, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on the first ballot, and stole the show with an incandescent solo on fellow inductee George Harrison’s "While My Guitar Gently Weeps."
That month, Prince released Musicology, modest in scale and instantly accessible, its title track openly nostalgic: "Don’t U miss the feeling music gave U back in the day?" He put copies of it on the seats of his arena tour that spring and summer, the combo sales counting toward his album total and putting the album in Billboard’s top five. Three years later, he played the Super Bowl halftime show, a barnstorming 12-minute set involving several medleys, a marching band, and a rainstorm. All of it seemed scaled properly considering who was in the spotlight.
One reason Prince’s death hits so hard is that in recent years he seems to have been coming to terms with his own legacy. Last month, he announced that he was working on a memoir titled The Beautiful Ones with Paris Review web editor Dan Piepenbring, due out next fall. Since January, Prince had been on a hit-and-run-style solo tour dubbed Piano & A Microphone, the genius sitting with an iPad and a keyboard he occasionally ran through pedals, à la his old LinnDrum, while he played through hits and sundry favorites. At those shows — the last of which he played in Atlanta just a week before his death — he discussed the music openly and with real candor: Introducing "Raspberry Beret" at a preview show at Paisley Park, he gave former keyboardist Lisa Coleman credit for hipping him to Bill Evans, then demonstrated by playing her harpsichord line: "That's the whole song, right?" he said.
As soon as the news went out that a body had been found at Paisley Park, fans began to arrive at the studio; by 3 p.m., a couple hundred people were leaving purple flowers in the fence surrounding the facility, with others driving by and blasting Prince’s music in commemoration, activity that only swelled as the day progressed. "It’s everyone you can imagine: old, young, white, black, everything in between," my sister Brittany told me from the site. It could be a Prince song, even as the words to a far sadder one, "Sometimes It Snows in April," come to mind: "All good things they say never last / And love, it isn’t love, until it’s past."
Prince on MTV: