Prince: A Decade of Following His Muse
Drummer Michael Bland remembers the moment when the floodgates opened for Prince, a conversation that would, in part, set his muse running wild — leading to a decade of innovation and oddness best exemplified by a group of albums, now streamable on TIDAL with the rest of the Purple One’s catalogue.
“Prince had this conversation with Mo Ostin, the head of Warner Brothers Records, on the phone, after Prince had mentioned the Gold Experience in an interview,” Bland recalls. Bland was a member Prince’s New Power Generation and a long-time collaborator. He has also played with Soul Asylum for more than 15 years.
“Prince told [Mo] that he hadn’t even begun work on it, and that it was just a concept, and my understanding is that Mo’s response was, ‘Well, whatever, it’s ours, anyway.’ Prince got off the phone and was floored,” Bland says. “He said, ‘This guy just told me that whatever ideas I have in my head are not mine. They belong to Warner Brothers.’ And I think that everything really changed for him after that. His sense of being an artist was being toyed with from his point of view.”
By 1996, Prince had extricated himself from his contract with Warner Brothers, a contract that had led him to write “SLAVE” across his face, to change his name to an unpronounceable symbol, and to complain loudly and regularly about the fact that he felt like he wasn’t in control of his own destiny and, more importantly to an exacting artist like Prince, his recordings. Now, however, he was out on his own.
Over the following ten years, Prince would release several albums – including Emancipation, Crystal Ball, Rave Un2 The Joy Fantastic, the live albums One Nite Alone…Live and One Nite Alone… Live – The Aftershow: It Ain’t Over, plus Musicology and 3121 – that would indulge his muse in innumerable ways via forays into rock, pop, hip-hop, funk and more.
The first, eventual result was Emancipation, a diverse, sprawling album that was his first artistic statement after years on Warner Brothers.
“As he became discontented with his artistic situation, he changed as a person,” Bland recalls of Prince’s mental state post Warner blowup. “He took out an ad in Billboard that announced the release date of the Gold Experience as ‘never.’ But, if anything, [the anger] drove him. He worked harder, as though he had something to prove, even if that was only to himself. We recorded a lot of material, with no release date in mind. Anger is just another emotion for you to make what you want to happen in your life, and I feel like Prince used that to drive himself.”
Prince biographer Alan Light recalls Prince’s frenzy after cutting ties with Warner. “What’s funny about this era is that the first thing you start thinking about is the business stuff, because it really is inseparable from the story of this period,” he says.
“It shouldn’t matter, it shouldn’t be important to the story, but it does help you to understand each album – both from a business standpoint and artistically – as a one-off,” Light adds. “Everything he did from 1996’s Emancipation until 3121, in 2006, was part of a one album licensing deal. That’s why it feels so disparate, I think. But there’s also some truly amazing music made during that period, which shouldn’t be overlooked.”
“He was always experimenting, and always trying to find something else, and I think that’s especially true of this period,” says Chuck Zwicky, who worked as an engineer at Prince’s Paisley Park studios in Minnesota. “Like David Bowie, Prince wasn’t doing anything to impress people, or to make hits, as much as to reinvent who he was and to strive to rise in a new direction, following this new ray of sun he’d just discovered, and grow something out of the dirt that surrounds him.”
While Emancipation confounded fans at the time, there are gems throughout, most notably the covers, the Stylistics’ “Betcha By Golly Wow,” “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” originally by Bonnie Raitt, “La La La Means I Love U” by the Delfonics and “One Of Us,” which had been made famous by Joan Osbourne just recently, and the lead-off track, which would become an in-concert favorite, “Jam of the Year.”
“’Holy River’ should not be forgotten,” insists Light. “It’s a major piece.”
But Bland, whose drumming appears on the album, says the expansive nature of the release was more mercenary than we might have realized at the time.
“We were sitting in Prince’s office and he was listening to HIStory, by Michael Jackson,” recalls Bland. “And he read that Michael Jackson had gotten double the credit for sales, because HIStory had been a two-disc set. So when he moved a million units, it showed up on Soundscan as two million units. Prince couldn’t believe it! So that had more than a little to do with why Emancipation ended up being so much material.” It ballooned to a three-volume collection of music.
Crystal Ball, 1998
While on a grueling touring schedule, Prince continued to record at a feverish pace. By 1998, he had Crystal Ball completed. Another three-disc set, it had begun life during the sessions for 1987’s Sign O’ The Times – although it bore no resemblance to the version from that era. It marked the launch of Prince’s own label, NPG — one of the first times an artist had sold an album exclusively via an 800-number and, significantly, via the then fledgling Internet, an unheard of move at that time by an artist of Prince’s stature.
Again, Bland says Prince had other motivations behind the release beyond just the artistry of it all.
“Prince was sick and tired of bootleggers making money off his work,” Bland says, remembering the then exploding market for illicit recordings. “When we were on tour, there were always guys coming up to us, trying to sell us Prince bootlegs, not knowing who we were. I’d buy them, and show them to Prince.”
Bland recalls that when he showed his finds to Prince, the artist was not only angry that the music had leaked, but that the titles were all wrong and the quality was poor.
“With Crystal Ball [and its unorthodox release], he decided to essentially put a stop to that by beating the bootleggers at their own game,” Bland says.
Rave Un2 The Joy Fantastic, 1999
Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic, released in 1999, marked a decidedly chart-oriented turn by the typically mercurial artist. Prince originally started working on — and abandoned — the album in 1988, a work made up of basic tracks begun during the Lovesexy and Graffiti Bridge sessions. But in the late ‘90s, Prince called on red-hot artists like Gwen Stefani, Eve and Sheryl Crow to help him put a more current spin on the recordings.
Carlos Santana and Rob Thomas’ 1999 hit “Smooth” had spent 12 weeks at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, and Prince wanted to capture that same magic.
“I played on ‘Baby Knows,’ which was a duet with Sheryl Crow,” Bland recalls.
“To me, this is the most cynical record in the catalog,” Alan Light opines. “Everything about it feels as though he said to himself: ‘We’re going to sign with Clive Davis and Arista. We’re going to try to do what Santana did with his record. I’m going to bring in these guests. I’m going to write hits.’ But the missing piece was I don’t think he had a sense of what was a big pop song at that moment.”
Still, Light, who spent time with Prince around this time in his career, says there was more at work here, big questions that we may never be able to fully answer.
“I think that so much of the story of his entire career is this tension between some very big questions,” says Alan Light. “Is he a huge pop star or is he the world’s biggest cult artist? Is he somebody who goes out and fills stadiums, or is he somebody who has a million people who are along for the ride and it can go wherever he wants? And, you know, he could turn up or down those dials. And because of that tension between those two sides, you’re never sure if he’s over-performing or under-performing. Unfortunately, too much of the time he wanted both of those things, and there are the moments when he could deliver on both of those things. But this wasn’t one of them.”
Michael Bland agrees, but says that success and failure were never things he saw Prince wrestle with.
“Prince was like David Bowie, in that he thought, ‘I’ll give my audience a little bit of what they want, but I’m mostly going to do what I want,’” he says. “He certainly wasn’t afraid to lose fans if it meant going where he needed to go. In fact, quite the opposite: If the fans he’d gained didn’t get where he was going, he was happy to leave them behind.”
Zwicky agrees, describing working in Paisley Park during this era: “I totally wanted to facilitate the experience of this guy, who was living in his own head, hearing this full range of sounds, so he can get it down as quickly as possible,” he says. “So every instrument was available to him at all times, so when he had an idea, no time was wasted. But what was great was that he never second-guessed himself. He never cared what other people thought or if it might not strike their fancy. He held himself to the standard of just being himself.”
“And P.S., just to also put this in here, in this period, he’s also having his religious transformation,” Light adds. “It shows up explicitly on 2001’s Rainbow Children and some of the other side projects. Here is when Larry Graham [of Sly & the Family Stone] moves into the Paisley Park compound and becomes this spiritual mentor to Prince [as a fellow Jehovah’s Witness].”
Bland agrees that, while the business end of things may have suffered as a result of Prince not having a consistent management or public relations team, let alone label staff, around him, having Graham and his musical compatriots at his side was invigorating for Prince.
“He had most of the Family Stone hanging around there,” Bland recalls. “For any musician, that’s incredible, because most musicians recognize that Sly and the Family Stone are everything. And those sessions were some of the most inspired I’ve ever worked on.”
One Nite Alone…Live, 2002
One Nite Alone… Live – The Aftershow: It Ain’t Over, 2002
2002 saw Prince releasing a shimmering pair of live albums. Light recalls the furor of Prince’s creativity at that time: “Those were the days of two and a half hour sound checks, two hour-plus shows, and after show performances that would take however long after the event.”
The result was One Nite Alone…Live, which includes epic takes on songs like “Sometimes it Snows in April” and “Adore,” with Prince alone at the piano. And One Nite Alone… Live – The Aftershow: It Ain’t Over, with highlights like an extended “Joy in Repetition,” featuring a fresh line-up of his New Power Generation, and amazing takes on “Alphabet Street,” “Dorothy Parker,” and “Girls & Boys.”
The live albums were distributed by Prince’s own label, and were most commonly heard in bootleg form until they came to TIDAL.
“He’d have the band playing seven or eight hours a day,” Light says. “Then they might think they were done for the day, and he’d want to shoot a video, or go down some tiny, local studio, to lay something down. He never, ever, ever turned off.”
Reggie Griffith, Prince’s then front-of-house sound engineer, marveled at the Purple One’s dedication.
“He was extremely hardworking. I think he slept two hours a day!” he says. “He gave everyone around him that same work ethic. Once you started to work, you worked ’til you were done. Sound checks were rehearsals. Everything that wasn’t the show was a rehearsal. You want to know how to get good? Rehearse! His dedication to his craft was astonishing.”
“He was doing a run through Ohio and a couple of other Midwest cities — Pittsburgh and stuff — and he hurt his hip,” Light tells TIDAL. “He would walk with a cane, unless he was on stage. He fascinated me, because he was definitely in pain. But I don’t think he was taking anything for the pain. And when he hit the stage, he’d be on fire. You know, he once said, ‘I won’t let anything take away my focus.’ I think that’s how he lived every moment.”
Two years later, Prince released Musicology, a return to form for the legend, who now had his finger firmly on the zeitgeist. It went Top 5 around the world, and spawned hits like the title track, “Call My Name” and “Cinnamon Girl.”
“Musicology was an active decision to say, ‘OK, these are the switches I need to hit to go be a creative force in the world,’” Light says; he believes that Prince could, almost at will, churn out hits should he really want to. And, finally, he had decided to let loose.
Griffith agrees, but puts it down to hard work. He recalls how Prince would text the crew at 2 p.m. and summon them down to Paisley Park, where they would work until 10 p.m. Prince would then play a show at his studio for a few hours, sometimes with a special guest, like James Brown’s legendary saxophonist Maceo Parker, who would then record with the man himself until 8 a.m. At 2 p.m., the cycle started anew. “It was relentless, Griffith says. “I remember thinking, ‘Fuck. This is making me good!’”
The labels he was working with to distribute the NPG releases, however, each worried that Prince was going to flood the market — which didn’t really bother him in the slightest.
“As a player, you were only limited in working with Prince by your own internal limitations,” Bland says. “If you were fighting your own battle, it might not work for you. But he got me young, and I didn’t know any better, so I learned at the feet of a master, so to speak.”
In the aftermath of the release of Musicology, Prince seemed to be everywhere. And with great songs and a crack band behind him, he was reeling in the fans. They flocked to buy the record, which was Prince’s biggest hit in years, and see him in concert on a tour that dwarfed previous mini-runs.
Prince had also gotten a handle on the business side of things, buckling down on interviews and taking an active part in the music industry game.
“By the time Musicology came out, I was launching my magazine Tracks,” Light recalls. “I remember setting up an interview with him and doing a cover shoot that was so easy to set up that it baffled me. The last time I’d interviewed him, for Vibe, it had taken me what seemed like years to set up, and I had to fly to Monte Carlo, finally, to get it done, and this took me one phone call!
“They gave away Musicology with tickets to the tour, which was called the Musicology tour – something he’d always resisted in the past, branding a tour to an album – and there was the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction, and the Grammy performance,” Light continues, marveling at how effortless it all seemed for an artist who had been through so many ups and downs since becoming part of the cultural firmament with Purple Rain. It had been a long time since the days when Prince would even consider playing the Grammys, let alone a mainstream spectacle like the Super Bowl.
“That all lead up to 3121 and the Super Bowl performance in 2006,” says Light.
Widely considered Prince’s best late-period album, 3121 reminded fans just how great Prince was. The title track, “Te Amo Corazon,” “Beautiful, Loved and Blessed,” “Black Sweat” and “Fury” saw Prince returning to the radio and the dance floors. And his Super Bowl performance that same year is still considered the greatest of its kind, a masterclass in showmanship of the sort only Prince could deliver.
Clad in a stunning powder blue suit in what can only be described as an epic downpour, Prince played a breathtaking 20-minute set of both hits and covers that the New York Times called “one of the most thrilling halftime shows ever; certainly the most unpredictable, and perhaps the best.” Even 10 years later, Pitchfork argued that is was “the greatest Super Bowl Halftime Show there ever was, and ever will be.”
“Anything that gives people today a sense of what he was capable of on a stage, of what he was capable of live, with those bands and those musicians, that’s the significant thing,” Light says of the performance. “I can never watch that enough.”
As for the albums, while they were considered a return to form at the time, Light feels they hold up to the best of Prince’s canon.
“On Musicology and 3121, first of all, you feel him working on the songwriting again,” Light says. “You feel very explicit self-editing going on, but there’s also this additional layer of effort going on in those records. And there’s also this re-embrace of old-school R&B thing, and then the stripped down sound. He was saying, ‘I want to celebrate musicianship and traditional, quality songwriting.’ For any fan at the time it was amazing. But today, those are albums worth everyone’s time and attention, because they are that good.”
“I remember when 3121 came out, I was on a Grammys committee to listen to releases and nominations,” Zwicky recalls. “I really loved that record. And what I remember most of all was thinking, ‘This is really good!’ Because it was great to hear him sounding like he was really onto something and into doing what he was doing.”
“If you can see the finish line before you start the race, that’s a true artist,” Bland says of the period, and Prince’s ability to capture our attention, even now, with these records. “His greatest gift was his inspiration and his creativity, because it’s not that he was a great guitar player, for instance, it’s what he was able to say with it.”
Ultimately, the period from 1996-2006, from Emancipation to 3121, was one of artistic ups and downs, of triumphs and failures. It may have taken Prince a decade to find his footing, but once he did, he was nothing short of the best in the business.
“You know, Bruce Lee said, ‘Water takes the shape of whatever vessel you put it into,’” Bland recalls today. “You have to leave your own identity and ideas and boundaries behind when you work with an artist like Prince, and just follow them onto whatever path they’re taking you. It was good that I was young and unformed. Sometimes I’d freeze, worried I wouldn’t be able to do what he was asking me to do. He’d say, ‘Get to the city and we’ll find the street. But you have to begin the process, and some of that is failing.’ And from that I learned that, in wanting to be the best, it’s natural not to want to fail, but that you don’t learn from the successes, you learn from the failures.”
Jeff Slate is a New York City-based songwriter and journalist. His writing can be found in the Wall Street Journal, Esquire and Rolling Stone, among others. He tweets at @jeffslate.
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