Only recently did it occur to me that Prince didn’t have a presence in my adolescence, I knew of him, not as a musician but someone that my aunts would mention with whispers and giggles. His voice was never on the hip-hop radio stations, Purple Rain never made it to my VCR, but I knew of the man that was the height of a hobbit who wore shoes with heels.
Chance The Rapper once related Michael Jackson to Jesus, that’s how I remember seeing him through my young pupils, an incarnation of purity that could moonwalk on water if he tried. The way he sang, the way he danced, the effect he had on people, it seemed otherworldly to me even as a child. Michael was everywhere, inescapable, yet Prince was also at a level of fame that you could consider a deity but more Bacchus than Jesus, more deviant than pure, in the shadows where the wild things roam.
It was Dave Chappelle that put Prince in front of me, the Charley Murphy basketball parody is hysterical, but what made it even more intriguing was how it seemed to be more fact than fiction. The floating dunk was a bit much but it left me wondering, could this flamboyant rock star who can actually ball in a blouse then cook pancakes for his beaten adversaries actually exist? Who is Prince? It’s a question that’s been asked long before I was born and likely will be asked long after I’m gone. He seemed more a myth than a man. I was intrigued, but it wasn’t until his recent comments about the internet made headlines did I really take the time to dig into his history. This was the gateway into the very strange and vibrant world of one of the music industry’s most fascinating enigmas.
By the time my umbilical cord was being cut, Prince had already released 13 studio albums. By the time I was interested enough in who this mythical musician was, all his music was practically removed from YouTube and almost nonexistent on other streaming platforms. It seemed outrageous that a star from the '80s would be so reluctant to enter a domain where the next generation could be reached. He didn’t see a future in the internet, he actually proclaimed in 2010 that the internet was over, throwing it in the same graveyard as MTV. In a time where smartphones and social media has the strongest hold on a generation, anyone proclaiming that the internet is over would be immediately dismissed and scrutinized for being as outdated as the beeper but Prince isn’t just anyone. His relationship with the internet is like his relationship with the media, fluctuating between amused and annoyed.
Dating back to 2007, he has tried to control his image on the internet from YouTube to fan sites. Legally, he threatened three of his biggest fan sites for breach of copyright. He demanded that photographs, lyrics, album covers, anything that could be considered infringing on the artist to be removed. YouTube, eBay, and Pirate Bay have all had to deal with Prince’s attempt at reclaiming the internet, he wants absolute control.
“What I meant was that the internet was over for anyone who wants to get paid, and I was right about that. Tell me a musician who’s got rich off digital sales."
He recently followed up with The Guardian about his death of the internet statement, his elaboration focused on money, claiming that no artist has gotten rich off digital sales. It’s an interesting comment, especially since he’s someone that acquired riches before a mp3 was in existence. Rich is a vague barometer when comparing the industry that birthed him and the current one that my generation is currently living through. In hip-hop alone, we have seen many artists benefit from the internet and blogs as promotional platforms. What he considers to be dying, we look upon as a utopia, the paradise that allows musicians an opportunity to be heard and potentially lead to dollar bills in empty pockets.
Funny that Prince, an artist that has compared record labels to slave masters, would denounce the platform that is allowing artists the most freedom to spread their wings. There are pros and cons to every system, the digital era is far from perfect, but despite the flaws, we can’t simply dismiss the positives. A simple right or wrong isn’t a factor when it comes to Prince though, he is the perfect balance between artistic genius and creatively crazy, there’s no predicting what he will do or sing. It’s this quality of outrageous allure that has stopped him from aging in music, much like his appearance in life.
Despite not being able to find any of his music, the more I dig into his past, the more I begin to understand why he still matters. He is the artist that has never stepped into conventional thinking, predictable would make him boring, he is the furthest thing from boring. In the last four decades, his purple aura of mystery and mystique has glowed with the radiance of a rising sun.
The basketball parody along with his internet presence only made me want to see if I could uncover more stories. This is my kind of celebrity, a lot of talent with a bit a madness, maybe more than a little bit. I started looking back at his life in the '80s. Prince once ceased talking to the media for three years, he didn’t entertain the public until 1985 when he broke his silence to Rolling Stone’s Neal Karlen. This is after the success of Purple Rain, he’s a full-blown celebrity, a genius musician that has been plastered onto the big screen. The reason he decided to speak was that of a number of rumors that surrounded him. That’s the thing about Prince, no matter how crazy the stories get, they never feel completely like a lie. You could print that he had an armed fortress filled with life-size murals of Marilyn Monroe and the public would believe it. Even though Prince was already notorious for being mischievous with journalists, this article was definitely more like a conversation between two acquaintances catching up than an interview with one of the biggest rock stars on the planet.
Rumors are cleared up but it doesn’t go without its peculiar moments. Like when Prince's father pulls out the customized lavender BMW that his son gifted him or when Karlen asks Prince if there's anything he doesn’t have, two bodacious blondes drive by at the exact moment, and Prince giggles like a school boy and admits that he doesn’t have them. From there he picks up a ping-pong ball and hurls it at their window, the girls probably assumed some college drunk was playing beer pong with their window, but once they discover who it is they become first-rate girls. As they lose their minds in what can only be considered Prince fashion, he smiles and drives away.
Neal’s experience with Prince is nothing like the journalist that he would cross in the future. Peter Willis had his hands full when interviewing Prince in 2010, the article begins with Peter describing a bizarre jam session where he was playing drums to The Beatles' “Come Together” until Prince decided he wasn’t impressed and fired the journalist from his position. He took it in stride, later citing how amazing the experience was. One of the most interesting facts about Prince is that recording devices and notes aren’t allowed during interviews. Everything must be done by memory, it’s something that he continues to stress. His encounters with journalists only get more bizarre, literally scenarios that would cause most to be hostile but it’s the overbearing charm that Prince exudes that makes it almost impossible to have any ill-will toward him.
Well, not everyone. Back in 2010, Carlos Boozer filed a lawsuit for alternations made to his mansion while Prince was a temporary tenant. The renovations include purple monogrammed carpet being installed in the master bedroom, the exterior of the house painted purple, and the front gate changed to the infamous Prince sign.
Even though I never saw the movie, it’s impossible to research Prince and not be intrigued by Purple Rain. So I found an article that depicted the oral history of his big screen debut. It’s littered with some of the earliest examples of how insane the world of Prince can get. He didn’t play about his hair, there’s a story about an incident in Georgetown where an adequate salon wasn’t available in the hotel so an agreement was made with a local salon, this is after Purple Rain destroyed the box office and he became more of a worldwide phenomenon. Since his fame had reached such a level that meant the salon had to be closed to the public, windows were completely blacked out and no customers were present. Even the employees had to vacate before he would enter.
The same was said for clubs, they would rent them and fill the building with models from agencies, an early example of how he was slowly separating himself from the public. Jellybean Johnson, the drummer in the band The Time, tells a story about how during a tour with Prince’s band Revolution, their body guard snatched The Time’s guitarist Jesse Johnson from the stage and Prince took his place. Backstage Jesse is chained as the group proceeds to pour syrup and other random foods all over him. The same happens to Time’s dancer and backing vocalist Jerome unexpectedly dragged from the stage and submerged in food. This incident leads to a three day, nonstop food fight that went on from the show to the hotel, to the bus, and even the airport.
I could spend an entire week writing about Prince and all that I uncovered during my research. From how he demolished Michael Jackson in ping-pong, how Kevin Smith shot a documentary with Prince that was never presented to the world, how he once fired Questlove from a DJ Gig and played Finding Nemo instead. Also, never forget how a song from Purple Rain is the reason why CDs have parental advisory stickers. MJ’s Dirty Diana has nothing on Prince’s Darling Nikki.
For those that want to know more about the man in the madness, Vulture has a pretty good piece about some of his most outrageous endeavors. It’s weird having this growing respect for a musician and only truly knowing a few songs and also knowing that it will be extremely difficult to discover more. Yet, he wouldn’t be Prince if he was the conventional artist. There’ll never be another, we live in a different age with a different idea of celebrity. So even when he’s bashing the internet and making it difficult for fans, it’s all a part of the Prince experience. One that we should treasure while it last.
Prince may just be right, he may just outlive the internet. He may just outlive us all.
By Yoh, aka The Writer Formally Known As Lavender Reign, aka @Yoh31.