PAPER * JUNE 1999
The Artist sits erect in a tight, striped jumpsuit that zips to his neck, a calf-length coat and gray boots (high heels, natch). Straight hair tousled, eyes luminous, he looks just like Prince of 1989, sexy and lean. But 10 years later, there's a slightly distant cast and quiet stillness to him -- if I lean forward, he might turn out to be a hologram. A notoriously difficult interview yet always the gracious host, he makes me a cup of tea. Despite the fact that the Artist has been through some very dramatic changes during the past few years, in the presence of such chilled-out clarity it feels like two Geminis just shooting the shit. Of course, one of us has an unpronounceable glyph for a name and is an international star who changed the face of music.
This is the year of Prince. When he wrote the hit song "1999" more than 15 years ago, he wasn't thinking about the date itself but the growing sense of living in an apocalyptic culture. Now that we're in the thick of millennial madness, the song's refrain is running through the heads of another generation of music buyers and makers. How does the Artist relate to the pop culture he helped form? Well, for one thing, he is not about to disappear from it -- even if it made him change his name. "My father gave me the name Prince," says the 41-year-old Artist of his famous moniker and the need to abandon it in order to reappear. He says that when people started using his birth name to refer to a media-made persona, it lost its personal resonance. The Artist pulled away from that alter ego -- the Prince he used to be -- to save himself. "I'm telling you, the pimples go away, all the stress in your system leaves," he says. "They weren't talking to me anymore."
The Artist is getting ready for his first major-label release since leaving Warner Bros. in 1996. It was his boyhood label, signing him when he was only 19, and his growing pains were publicly scrutinized. After a tumultuous relationship with the company, Prince legally changed his name to a symbol in 1992 to get out of his contract. He is, however, currently at work on Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic (scheduled for a fall release, with distribution by an as-yet-undetermined major label), his first album of new material to be affiliated with a major since 1996's Chaos & Disorder. Rave is the first album that the Artist did not produce, and it features several big-name collaborators. From the man who wrote "slave" on his face in 1993 while disentangling himself from big-business hell, this is news.
1999 the New Masters was released in February on the Artist's label, New Power Generation. The seven remixes of the classic jam (which was also re-released by Warner Bros. late last year) were not well received by jaded critics. Prince biographer Jon Bream wrote of the release, "[The Artist] is now as far out of touch as he was once ahead of the game." Rolling Stone, which had plastered Prince on its cover five times, now mocked the Artist's idea of re-recording his entire catalog. But if you turn to the official Paisley Park Web site (www.love4oneanother.com), the countless Artist/Prince fanzines or the Artist bootleg market, it's clear that lots of people care.
"I wanted to buy my masters back from Warner Bros.," the Artist says of his quest for control. "They said no way. So I'm going to re-record them. All of them." Then he smiles sweetly. "Now you will have two catalogs with pretty much exactly the same music -- except mine will be better -- and you can either give your money to WB, the big company, or to NPG. You choose."
On New Power Soul, the last in a three-album series on NPG (where the Artist shares space with label mates Chaka Khan and bassist Larry Graham), the Artist is up to some old Prince tricks. On the bridge of the title track, he almost speaks the lyrics "Gemini rising on the 7th Day making mad sex, O.K.?" Even as secret codes crisscross the album, the musical agenda is crystal clear: "Layin' phat claims 2 the New Power Booty / Keepin' the crowd movin' is my 1 and only duty." For one thing, each line of "New Power Soul" mentions the title of another track on the CD. For another, the Artist, who was raised a Seventh-Day Adventist, continues to find ways to make God, uh, funky. Kicking something out on the broadest bandwidth possible -- in this case party music -- yet saving some space in which to disappear seems to indicate what the Artist means when he says he has big plans.
When he talks about making music now as compared to in the 80's, the Artist refers to today's "bigger" sound. Pressed on whether that means digital versus analog or another studio technique, he remarks that people in general play less well now than before the advent of sampling. The artist himself is a virtuoso who can play any instrument and often does so on his recordings, but that's not quite the point he is trying to make. What he expounds is the new freedom that goes with the new technology.
But now the days of big-label milk and honey are over (the Artist may be a vegan, but he believes in paradise metaphors), and, millions of dollars later, the man formerly known as Prince explains that the whole trip was a shiny gold trap. "Apollonia" -- the goddess with the long hair and light skin who starred opposite him in Purple Rain -- "and I slept under a hotel table waiting for the reviews of Purple Rain [the album]. We were so excited we couldn't sleep," he recalls. "When we saw them, they were all good," which is something of an understatement. In 1982, 1999 sold 3 million copies and put Prince on the pop culture map. But Purple Rain made him a monster. The album has sold 13 million copies; the film grossed $80 million and won him an Oscar for Best Soundtrack. The bassless drum-machine groove of "When Doves Cry" sent a shiver of fear and amazement through high-end, overstuffed multitrack studios. "We looked around and I knew we were lost," he continues. "There was no place to go but down. You can never satisfy the need after that." Well, Sign o' the Times, "Erotic City" and some of his other great late-80's work is not exactly "down," but Prince never regained the same critical and popular impact. He believes that fallout is built into the system.
Now he can see through walls. "The record business is like The Matrix," he says. "All the levels keep dissolving until you can't see what's behind anything. I'm not against the record industry. Their system is perfect. It benefits the people who it was designed to benefit: the owners." One of the hassles with Warner Bros. in the early 90's was that it believed that the mass of material the former Prince wanted to release would further undercut sales, which were falling. He now puts out all the music he wants -- on his own label. At NPG, orders for albums are taken at 1-800-NEW-FUNK or over the Web. The Artist proudly tells me that his fan base purchased 250,000 copies of Crystal Ball, a $50 box set of Prince archives, with no help from a video, ads or retail presence.
He's been crusading for years against the tyranny of the majors. I mention the Wu-Tang paradigm of recording with different majors while maintaining a free-radical status. The Artist brings it back to a basic property law: "Own your own masters or your masters will own you" is his declaration of independence. But despite this aggressively anti-corporate stance, he's sitting across the table telling me he's going to work with a major again. "I had to get out of the recording industry," the Artist explains, "and once I did, that changed my perspective on everything": lyrics, sound, even a clear complexion. "It's like climbing a mountain: The higher you get, the more you can see. I had to get out of the system to see it." He explains this new openness in terms of fearlessness. It's a philosophical stance that reconciles all potential paradoxes. For instance, the Artist can use the Internet to maximize his freedom of expression and sue nine Web sites and a music publisher for infringing on his property rights. He's willing to deal with the devil again on the label tip, but only under very specific circumstances, mainly that he runs his own game.
"Lenny Kravitz and I sit around and talk about making music together. D'Angelo too. But under the current circumstances, people are not free to just get together," he says, moving into a kind of tech talk that the Artist seems to enjoy as much as a good guitar solo. "They're making software for other people's families. It's not a song -- it's software." But he quickly jumps to the big Web in the sky: "I follow what God tells me to do. It said, 'Change your name,' and I changed my name to a symbol ready for Internet use before I knew anything about the Internet." He is not the first black American to rename himself in order to live free, but he may be the first to have copyrighted it.
Sometimes when the Artist quotes Jesus, it's hard to tell whether he's referring to Him or himself. But when he says, "I am what I am," that particular biblical reference seems to be one he's trying to adopt personally. It would be a mistake to call the Artist's identification with Jesus a case of inflated ego. He talks about God and love and, yes, Jesus mostly with regard to speaking truthfully and letting go of "chaos" -- be it the industry, race madness or even overcompensation. Larry Graham -- former bassist for Sly and the Family Stone, current NPG artist and close friend and personal Zen master of the Artist -- helps him see through the webs of deception. And it is partially Graham who influences the Artist to speak a language of revelation and surrender. The self-producing one-man studio sits here and talks about...giving up. It's not surrendering he's referring to, but an all-pervasive spiritual sense of letting go. "Jesus surrendered unto love," the Artist says, "and He did what love told Him to do." The Artist concludes with the difficulties of reconciling fallen-world business with the one love of artistic collaboration: "In a perfect world, there is already an artists' community. It already exists, but it's virtual."
A lot is virtual in the Artist's world, where fading backdrops of past lives fold neatly into psychic origami boxes. He shows no signs of regret, depression, maladjustment or freakishness from cutting off his past life. In fact, he is rooted in a self-awareness and humor that are absolutely charming. His life seems to be distinctly separated into B.M. and A.M. -- before meeting his wife, Mayte, and after Mayte. For instance, when discussing the machinations of record companies, the Artist interrupts the flow to ask if he can interject a personal anecdote about his marriage. (As if I'm going to say no.) The word in the media had been that after a total bliss package of a marriage, they were getting divorced.
What the Artist goes on to say is that wanting a monopoly on his lady had become the marital version of owning someone else's masters. From what he says, and from what others say, theirs has been an intensely romantic relationship, a kind of you-and-me-against-the-world vibe. But both felt it was starting to get weird. "We were drawing energy from strange people around us. Strange words and numbers, bad contracts. We had to step away from that," he explains. For a person who still uses "4" in place of "for" in song lyrics, the relationship between numbers and contracts -- both personal and financial -- weaves complicated, interrelated secret messages. He traces the origin of the marriage contract to Pontius Pilate organizing the consensus to crucify Jesus, but the short version of the story is that it was screwing up the Artist's world. He describes a relationship that some might categorize as vaguely co-dependent -- for a while he couldn't even give an interview without Mayte present. "I could not have sat in a room alone with someone like you" (meaning young, female and not totally butt), he tells me. Relying on someone so deeply, not to mention feeling possessive, jealous and the other emotions that go with having someone be "yours," was dangerous and, more to his point, deluded.
"At first you might think that your mate is the God," the Artist reflects, "but you'd better hope that God is speaking through your mate." They are not divorced. Quite the contrary. They are happily joined, having transcended the mental and emotional bondage of marriage. When not floating among the astral planes, the couple like to spend time in Spain, in their lovely new house near Gibraltar, which will soon be featured in another form of virtual reality, Vanity Fair. (The Artist is still a rich guy, like some of the best social radicals.) "We pretend it didn't even happen," he says of the marriage. "Like a lot of things in life I don't like, I pretend it isn't there and it goes away. We decided to go back to the Garden."
Does all this mean they've transcended the physical boundaries of the marriage bond too? The other question, post-"divorce," is monogamy. Considering his reputation as an international lover, one wonders, is the Artist good to the yoni? "They always exaggerate," he says quite demurely, alluding to the baker's dozen of high-profile women he's been teamed with in the press throughout his career. I tell him I saw Warren Beatty on Charlie Rose scoffing at the idea of monogamy in a modern marriage as basically some medieval throwback. Beatty indicated that it's just not part of the animal. (After getting that close to Halle Berry onscreen, I could see why -- no disrespect, Annette.) The Artist calls upon higher powers for his answer: "Let's say I'm monogamous with God," providing better counsel for Clinton than his lawyers did. In New York for a week, the Artist says he wants to check out some music, the Roots in particular (he's down with their drummer, ?uestlove). From what I heard later, his sampling of the local talent was not limited to music. But once rumor kicks in on the Unpronounceable One, it is an endless spin cycle.
The Artist says that when he was in fifth grade, he was being bused to school in a rich, white Minneapolis suburb. He says that he used to hide his socks so he wouldn't have to get on the school bus. "My mother said, 'You're going to get to that school and find some socks.' She couldn't have them calling me a nigger with no socks on." I ask him how much he thinks race plays into what's gone down with the label, with his life.
"That is a given in America," he says. "It's a space-time loop. The same thing happens again and again, just in different forms." But he goes on to say that the "slave" tag he had scrawled across his face after the worst of his Warner Bros. career (and his emotional nadir) had nothing to do with race. "With that mark on my face, the whole meeting was different, which was the purpose." Race, he points out, is not the only determining factor in market bondage; some of it is one's own greed. His "slave" phase, it turns out, had everything to do with freedom. "They said to me, 'You can't record such and such,' and they said, 'You can't leave.' How are they going to tell me I can't leave?" he asks. "Do you know how maddening that is? It is an experience of alienation from God."
Two summers ago, a drum 'n' bass remix of "When Doves Cry" circulated on hot, somewhat underground dance floors. What does the Artist think of that kind of freedom of expression? "Not wise," he says. "I appreciate that they like the music, but it's not too wise for me as a businessman." And it's not very wise for the person who made the mix, because this kid will sue. Nine Web sites and a Swedish music publisher are under the gun for using audio, images and trademarks owned by the Artist, and for proliferating unauthorized biographies, CD-ROMs and discographies. "I'm one of the most bootlegged artists in the world," he says, and there is no reason to doubt him, judging by the number of spin-off Web sites alone. Friends have bootleg studio sessions from 1978 that are certainly more precious to them than legal releases. Rows of unauthorized Artist fanzines sit in Tower Records. The recent scandal in which rapper Nas' tracks hit the Web before their official release revives the question of whether this kind of pirating affects sales or just whets consumer appetites. Either way, the Artist is not having it. "I'm putting it out anyway," he says of the back catalog and obscure stuff. "Crystal Ball -- I made that for the fans."
For the Artist, there's still an internal battle between wanting full control and wanting to be part of a world that moves more freely. What that breaks down to most practically in terms of music is sample culture. Puffy reminds us never to underestimate the power of a sentimental loop, and the Artist is trying to get online with that. "B.I.G. wanted to use 'Kiss,'" he recalls. "I sat down with Puffy and asked if they owned their own masters. He said no and I said, 'Then I can't do it.'" News from Paisley Park is that this year will see the release of a seven-CD collection of samples from his vintage songs that DJs and recording artists will be able to use without paying a clearance fee. "I never wanted my music sampled," he says, delighted with his own shift. "Now you can have all the samples you want." In the tradition of records that serve up beats as sampled by the Beastie Boys, A Tribe Called Quest and others, the Artist joins a growing number of musicians who are cannibalizing their original grooves for the sake of beat culture. "This is a one-time buy of a lifetime," the Paisley Park ad reads. In other words: (1) No royalties have to be paid, but NPG Records gets paid directly; (2) the Artist proliferates Prince's influence on the future culture of electronic music; (3) these recordings, like the remastering of his back catalog, continue to undervalue the Warner Bros. archive; and (4) it further deters bootleggers.
Even though the Artist is not exactly interested in just giving it away, he sides with the rebels in the music technology war. "Chuck D, his idea of free music is proper," he says, referring to recent industry concerns about MP3 compression and free Internet distribution of audio, including the Web-only pre-release of Public Enemy's new album. "He's wily, though, another one of the consciousness shifters." The Artist sees himself building a community, a family really. "People should be hanging out -- it's all a dance. There's money in it, there's love, it's a dance. You tell me: How am I gonna write a contract with Chaka Khan? How can I say, 'I own you?' We are the parents of that album. I said to her, 'Do whatever you want and call me; I want to play on it.'"
A few years ago, the Artist and Mayte had a child who died soon after birth. After this tragic experience, the Artist speaks of his passions like a parent. Adoption and gestures of kinship are all over his new work. He also mentions children with regard to the couple's wish to start an orphanage in their Spanish home. His desire to return to the Garden to prosper and multiply was thwarted by state officials, who would not allow the plan to go through. In response, the Artist expresses his only truly harsh sentiments of the interview (even the record-company banter is within some Zen zone). "There are some really demonic people in the world who have an agenda for the planet. Everybody's online until somebody pulls the plug. Look at it this way," he says, offering a conspiracy theory with an optimistic slant, "everyone will be online and one group will be sending out the best music ever." And, we're left to surmise, its initials will be NPG. "We need to take advantage of portals of communication. We can still see one another, socialize, truck to the cousin's place. It's fun traveling, knowing that, worldwide, people get it. I've heard a thing called Inferno in '99 is going to usurp Windows as an operating system." He raises his eyebrows at the portentous name. The apocalypse is back online. And where will the Artist be to ring in the millennium? "I told the last reporter that I would be at a bar mitzvah." Since he does not want to lie to a sister, he just says, "In the light."