October 1998


Representatives of the Artist arrange for a meeting -- a secret rendezvous -- between myself and the gifted one at The Hit Factory in New York City. . .

The Artist, a platinum jewel attached to his ear, arrives clad in black and carrying a transparent walking stick with blue sparkling stars. His is everything I could hope for, as gloriously ineffable as his name is unpronounceable.

Guitar World: You won't allow your interviews with the press to be tape recorded. Why? Presumably, you'd like to be able to guarantee more accurate representation of our conversation with a recorder.

0{+> : To me, a tape recorder is like having a contract. And I don't want to have a contract with you. I don't want this to be business. I want this to be a normal conversation about something that we're hopefully both passionate about: music. And when there is no tape recorder, our relationship is based on trust. So if you write lies, you're the one betraying that trust, and you'd be the one soaking up all that negative energy. But I trust you, so we don't need a tape recorder. And I can talk now, because I'm free. A lot of my music has to do with being free. I'm not chained anymore. And being married to Mayte has made me feel more comfortable with speaking in public.

GW: Earlier this year you released Crystal Ball, a mammoth five-CD set. It contains some incredible outtakes and a number of unreleased tracks, but still no live music. You're hailed as being one of our best live performers. You've been doing incredible shows for years. Why have you avoided releasing live material?

0{+> : I have everything on tape, man, including all the informal jams. I record everything I do, just like Jimi Hendrix did. And eventually a lot of it will be released. To me, Crystal Ball was a test case. I was testing the water to see if people would buy music over the internet, and whether they would be receptive to a five-CD set.

Since the album was a success, it leads me to believe that the whole interactive thing offers great possibilities. I mean, why not make a five-CD live album, with people on the internet choosing their favorite tracks? Why not poll the fans on our web site and let them compile it? All this will happen. Soon.

For example, I just performed and recorded a 45-minute jam with Larry Graham called "The War," which I edited down to 26 minutes. It's a fantastic track. In the past, my old record company would never allow me to release something like that. Now that I have my own label, I can think about releasing that kind of stuff.

GW: What were some of your most memorable jam sessions?

0{+> : God, there have been so many. I've actually recorded some indescribable music with Miles Davis -- long improvisations that I will release at some point. But again, I want to wait until the spirit moves me, you know. Bring those recordings to the public when it feels right. Like release it on his birthday or his death day, when Miles was released from the circle of life and death.

GW: In addition to bringing attention to bassist Larry Graham, you've also resurrected Chaka Khan's career. For years, she seemed to be lost, yet she's one of the best soul voices of all time.

0{+> : Chaka is another artist who was temporarily choked by restrictions, contracts and bad business deals. She's free now, free to release as many new songs as she likes. And man, what a voice. One of the pleasures of my life is being able to work with some of my musical heroes, asnd in doing so pay back some dues and have a great time. It was an honor to release Chaka's Come 2 My House and Larry's GCS2000 on my label.

I realize I'm part of a musical history and I revere the legacy of my predecessors, so, for instance, when playing live I'll do some of their bombs, like when we do a song like "Cream," we'll segue a snippet of Aretha Franklin's "Chain of Fools" into it. Or we played "Jailhouse Rock" as a tribute to Elvis.

GW: It's interesting to hear you cite Elvis Presley, a white artist, as an influence.

0{+> : I was brought up in a black and white world. I dig black and white; night and day, rich and poor, man and woman. I listen to all kinds of music and I want to be judged on the quality of my work, not on what I say, nor on what people claim I am, nor on the color of my skin.

But you have to have a certain empathy in order to understand a situation. Like when people made fun of my name change. It was mostly white people, because black people empathize with wanting to change a situation. My last name, Nelson, is really a slave name. A hundred years ago it meant "son of Nell," and it was white slave owners who gave it to their slaves, so why should I go by that name now? Why not do what Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X did?

GW: The last time you performed in Brussels, you played a cover version of Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Proud Mary," but you changed the lyrics around to: "I left a good job in the city, workin' for a man of a record company, a creep earning a living on a nigger's black butt." That was presumably aimed at Warner Bros. Records. Now, you no longer write "slave" on your face. You've renegotiated your contracts and started your own independent record company. Would you care to explain briefly what all that was about, as I'm sure it seemed very confusing to anybody outside of the music business.

0{+> : Okay. Suppose you're a young musician and you want to make a record because you have something to say musically. Well, the record company usually makes you sign away the rights to your songs. In other words, you become a slave to them in the sense that they own the rights to the master recordings of your music for all time, and you're merely an employee. So if you don't own your master, your master owns you. And what we've been trying to do with the NPG label, what it stands for, is trying to create more freedom, including financial freedom, so that artists control their own genesis and can reach a much brighter revelation.

GW: On Newpower Soul you seem less preoccupied with producing hit singles than you have in the past. Cynics would say you're unable to write them anymore.

0{+> : Well, that's what they said before "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World," too. And that's what they said after Purple Rain, and I had 10 hits after that. And Lovesexy was supposed to be a failure. But I've heard people say that record saved their lives, so I don't care what the media says. I know how I am and what really counts. I just want it more to be like the old days, you know: it's about the book, not the quote. In the old days, you used to buy an album, not a single. I want my records to work as a whole, not a collection of unconnected little bits.

GW: Have any lyrics of yours acquired new meaning to you with the passage of time?

0{+> : Yes, my current single, "The One." That went from a love song to a song about respect for the Creator -- God. The lyrics' meaning changed for me after reading the New World translation of the Bible [the Jehovah's Witness translation]. It has to be the New World translation because that's the original one; later translations have been tampered with in order to protect the guilty. There's a Garden-of-Eden feel to "The One." It's about following the highest ideal, and about living up to the goals of the apex, the Creator, "the One."

GW: You usually avoid talking about your direct influences, but since you've cited Miles, Chaka and Larry Graham, I'd like to ask you what impact James Brown had on you.

0{+> : James Brown was an inspiration. Was and is. We play JB riffs all the time. I saw James Brown live early in my life, and he inspired me because of the control he had over his band. . . and because of the beautiful dancing girls he had. I wanted both. [laughs]

GW: Did you ever fine your musicians when they played bum notes, like James Brown used to do?

0{+> : No, I don't have to.

GW: With digital editing, it is now possible to create a situation where you could jam with any artist from the past. Would you ever consider doing something like that?

0{+> : Certainly not. That's the most demonic thing imaginable. Everything is as it is, and it should be. If I was meant to jam with Duke Ellington, we would have lived in the same age. That whole virtual reality thing... it really is demonic. And I am not a demon. Also, what they did with that Beatles song ["Free As a Bird"], manipulating John Lennon's voice to have him singing from across the grave... that'll never happen to me. To prevent that kind of thing from happening is another reason why I want artistic control.

GW: Has it ever occurred that something happened while you were recording, a mistake or coincidence, perhaps, that changed the whole song around?

0{+> : I don't believe in coincidence. But one thing leads to another. Playing "Head" live led to "It's Gonna Be a Beautiful Night," in a way.

GW: One thing I find fabulous about your songs is that you pay such attention to details. Especially in the ballads, like the siren and the background noise in "Wasted Kisses," on your new album, or the sexy and funny court interlude in the extended version of "I Hate U" on The Gold Experience.

0{+> : I always spend a lot of time and energy thinking about and seeking out those little touches. Attention to detail makes the difference between a good song and a great song. And I meticulously try to put the right sound in the right place, even sounds that you would only notice if I left them out. Sometimes I hear a melody in my head, and it seems like the first color in a painting. And then you can build the rest of the song with other added sounds. You just have to try to be with that first color, like a baby yearns to come to its parents. That's why creating music is really like giving birth. Music is like the universe: The sounds are like the planets, the air and the light fitting together. When I write an arrangement, I always picture a blind person listening to the song. And I choose chords and sounds and percussion instruments which would help clarify the feel of the song to a blind person. For instance, a fat chord can conjure up a fat person, or a particular kind of color, or a particular kind of fabric or setting that I'm singing about. Also, some chords suggest a male, others a female, and some ambient sounds suggest togetherness while others suggest loneliness.

But with everything I do, I try to keep that blind person in mind. And I make my musicians pay attention to that, too. Like my bassist, Sonny T., can really play a girl's measurements on his instrument and make you see them. I love the idea of visual sounds.

GW: Have you ever composed a particular song because you never heard that kind of song on the radio?

0{+> : Yeah. Absolutely. That happens all the time, I guess. What you've just said is one of the prime reasons why I make music.

GW: Some people use your ballads and more sensual songs as a form of aural foreplay.

0{+> : So do I.

GW: I was going to ask: What kind of music do you play at home, at night, to get in the mood?

0{+> : The same.

GW: You mean you play your own music as foreplay?

0{+> : Yeah. I make music for all occasions. Including ambient music. I composed Kamasutra,which is on Crystal Ball.That's pretty ambient, and great for sex. Hence the title.

GW: You've always sung about sex. But then on Emancipation you sang: "You can't call nobody 'cause they'll tell you straight up, come and make love, when you really hate them." So all the time we envied you for great casual sex while you privately didn't like it?

0{+> : Well, obviously now I'm married, so I've found that the spiritual peace that genuine love and passion brings makes anything less than that irrelevant. When I still wrestled with demons, I had moods when I couldn't figure something out and so I ran to vice to sort myself out, like women or too much drink, or working in order to avoid dealing with the problem.

GW: Now that you're married, do you still spend as much time in the studio?

0{+> : Yeah, but my wife, Mayte, has me on "studio rehab." People call me a workaholic, but I've always considered that a compliment. John Coltrane played the saxophone 12 hours a day. That's not a maniac, that's a dedicated musician whose spirit drives his body to work so hard. I think that's something to aspire to. People say that I take myself too seriously. I consider that a compliment, too.


-- Serge Simonart