EBONY (2004)

EBONY September 2004
Prince reclaims his throne

by Lynn Norment

PRINCE has reclaimed his throne. After years of self-imposed semi-exile from the constant glare of cameras, the artist formerly and currently known as Prince is enjoying a resurgence in popularity and attracting an enormous amount of media and fan attention. His Musicology CD has sold millions of copies, and he is a constant on radio and music video channels, He's also reclaimed his perch in higher echelons on Billboard's music charts, and his Musicology tour is selling out arenas around the country.

Yes, the Prince has returned, much to the delight of his fans and music lovers in general who long for real music and real concerts without the lip-syncing and salacious lyrics and antics, His resurgence, along with his model of successful insurrection and independence, undoubtedly stirs discomfort in music's corporate suites, where this versatile, multitalented and visionary artist is viewed as the wave of the future, and perhaps the beginning of the end of the way things are done in the music industry.

Since he burst onto the music scene 25 years ago, Prince has marveled the world as a creative dynamo who writes, sings, composes and plays all the instruments on most of his recordings. It was clear then as it is now that this creative genius loves music, and he loves making music. At times he's been called salacious and lascivious, and early in his career he created sensation with his suggestive lyrics and moves. He's also been described as eccentric, mercurial, mysterious, even bizarre.

That was then. "I call myself a musician and a child of God," the new Prince says in a calm, serene manner when asked how he'd describe himself. "Others call me what they want to call me."

He smiles warmly as he settles comfortably before an SSL 8000 G+ film-ready console in Studio A at his famed Paisley Park Studios outside Minneapolis. Dressed in a white Chinese silk shirt over a red t-shirt emblazoned with NPGMC and white pants with buttons lining the side seams, he projects an everyday casualness. Four years ago, he became a Jehovah's Witness and consequently a changed man.

As he talks about his music, renovations at Paisley Park and his spiritually enhanced life, Prince appears to be at peace with himself and the world. No longer is slave scrawled across his handsome face, as it was years ago during his pro-test against music industry royalty rules. And no longer is he distant and elusive, as he was in earlier years when he was probably trying to find himself. Today, Prince is at peace with himself and the world. He has evolved into a caring, informed, well-read, history-conscious and spiritually enriched artist and businessman who is determined to keep making music and directing his career as he sees fit.

During an hour visit that lasts almost three hours, he is animated and often leaps from his chair and dances around the studio to make his point. At times he leans in close and whispers as he shares a bit of knowledge from experience, He does not dwell on his controversial exit from the contract he had with Warner Brothers, the company front which he launched his career in 1978 and achieved fame and riches during the 1980s. He fulfilled his contract by releasing music on Warner Brothers under the name Prince; but during this same period in the 1990s the prolific music maker also released music under his New Power Generation label. He referred to himself as an unpronounceable glyph. Most just called hint The Artist.

Once he satisfied his legal obligations to Warner Brothers, he reclaimed his moniker Prince (his given name is Prince Rogers Nelson) and continued to release music through his NPG label and music club Web site. Occasionally he would do live performances, and in 1999 he teamed with Arista Records to release Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic. For the most part, Prince stayed below media radar though he was ever present to his ardent fans who staved in touch via his Web site.

And he was very industrious. For a one-time $25 fee, subscribers to his NPG Music Club (npgmusicclub.com) have access to music downloads and advance notice and discounts on concert tickets. He has sold millions of records through the club. At Paisley Park, he creates and records his music; he contracts out the pressing of the discs, then oversees distribution. Consequently he retains ownership--and the profits--of his music. It is a model for independence he encourages other artists to consider.

"When I went back to the name Prince and independently released Rainbow Children in 2001, that was the beginning of where I am now," he says. "But you have to do the work ... That's what independence is. It's my catalog, my dynasty. I'm selling hundreds of thousands of records. I'm the Record Company now." (And he makes $7 on a $10 CD, rather than pennies he received in traditional record contract.)

This is a subject about which the new Prince, as was the old Prince, is passionate. He is an advocate for artists' rights and feels that the powerful "corporations" should not own aim artist's music. He talks about the compulsory license law, "where anybody can take my song and sing it, against my will. I'm a writer. Stephen King is a writer. Can I take a page out of his book and call it Prince's Shining? Can I take a scene out of a movie and call it my own? They say the law, helps the writers. I don't need help; I don't need your money. Let us steward our own music.

"Sister Lynn, look at all this!" He jumps up and bounces in a 360-degree turn as he points to various pieces of equipment and musical instruments in the studio. "We don't own any of this. We can buy it, but we don't make it. We want to start making our own instruments."

Prince made waves in the music industry when he launched his Musicology tour in March without attaching an end date. He can perform under the banner of the Musicology tour over the next several years, and Billboard is required to attribute the sales to this one tour. Another point of contention is the fact that Prince's concert ticket price includes a Musicology CD, and those sales must be counted for Billboard's chart rankings. Record sales will increase as long as the tour continues. "We have sold more than 3 million CDs worldwide, and it will continue," he says. (In response to Prince's innovation, Billboard and SoundScan, which compiles the charts, quickly changed the method for counting album sales, but it does not affect Musicology.)

"We do this out of necessity;" Prince says. "We are not trying to one-up anybody else. We are not mad at anybody. God expects us to work for ourselves. We can't sit back and wait for reparations. We've been waiting for 400 years. Are the politicians going to repeal these laws? Are they going to put music back in the schools?"

Prince also is disturbed by what he calls "processed music, corporate produced music" that proliferates the airwaves. "Machines calm do about anything to music," he says. "Corporations are trying to turn music into media, into bits and numbers, into binary codes so it can be controlled like they control the media. Before long, we won't have real music," he says, picking up one of the several guitars nearby. "This is real music." He plays a melody. "I control it. It's not a machine ... That's why artists like Alicia Keys are so loved. People feel her, and she doesn't have to take her clothes off."

The days of taking his clothes off onstage are in the past for Prince. So are the raunchy lyrics and antics, and the parade of women through his life. There are songs he will no longer perform. Prince has changed, and his audiences have changed. ("You get the audience you deserve. When I played freaky music, I got freaky audiences. I finally straightened it out"). He always has expressed a spiritual side, and he says he's always felt that sexuality and spirituality were intertwined. Now he says that he practices monogamy, and he encourages others to do the same. In December 2001, Prince married Manuela Testolini, who formerly worked at Paisley Park.

On this visit to Paisley Park, Manny (as Prince refers to her) serves her husband, a long-time vegetarian, and their guest roasted pepper soup she made that morning. ("I've been roasting peppers all day," she says.) He agrees that the soup, heavy with garlic and other healing spices, is delicious. In the dining area of the studio, Manny shows their guest a sampling of the home products, including fragrant and beautifully packaged incense, they plan to market under the NPG Home brand. Later, when Prince gives a tour, he points out more of Manny's tasteful decorative art.

"We plan to have interns in here working and learning every aspect of the music business," he says during the tour of the 65,000-square-foot Paisley Park. In addition to the reception and atrium seating area, there are four recording studios (two new, two upgraded) that are technological marvels. They are outfitted with Bryston high-performance amplifiers and custom-made BMDI monitoring systems. By updating to the newest digital technology, combined with high-speed connectivity and efficient workflow, Prince says Paisley Park Studios is in a position to offer musicians an ideal environment in which to make music.

There is also a huge soundstage that has been used to make movies and music videos; in the past it has been the scene of memorable parties. (It now some times hosts community and religious meetings.) There are also several dance and rehearsal rooms, one in particular with granite walls and floor that houses an expansive drum set on which Prince demonstrates the "loudness" of the sound. In a room nearby is a grand piano, and again he sits (if only for a moment) and tickles the ivory keys melodically.

Prince bemoans the fact that super producers Jimmy (Jam) Harris and Terry Lewis have relocated their Flyte Time Studios to California, leaving Paisley Park as the sole major recording studio in the area.

The times are changing, the music industry continues to go through upheavals, and Prince is a changed man, though one who is still devoted to making good music. "I was always different," he says. "I continued to grow continued to evolve, thank God."

To young people and other artists in the music business, he advises revolution and independence. "Stay out of the music industry stay out of the system," he advises. "Be revolutionary. Some of these young kids say they want to follow me. Well, if you do, then get your spiritual life together if you want your relationships to go right, and it will happen."