New Again: Prince

Ellen von Unwerth

08/27/14

On the last day of September, following the longest music-free spell in his 36-year career, Prince will release his 33rd and 34th studio albums: Plectrumelectrum, with his band 3rdEyeGirl, and Art Official Age, a solo album. To celebrate, we've reprinted Prince's 1997 interview with director Spike Lee. At the time, Prince was going by "The Artist Formerly Known as Prince," and had just married his first wife, Mayte Garcia.


The Artist

By Spike Lee

Through the buzzing of the talk around him threated to drown out the music that made him a cultural landmark, the Artist Formerly Known as Prince is again writing and performing his trademark sexually potent pop. His newest album, Emancipation (NPG Records), marks an important turning point in a career peppered with (as he once sang) controversy. Most recently, his struggle to break free of his former record label, Warner Bros., led to speculation that he was withholding Grade A material until he had a more satisfactory deal elsewhere. Whether or not this was the case, the double-platinum-and-counting Emancipation is a three-disc dish of classic funk, pearly ballads, pastel-hued jams, and even a creamy cover of the Joan Osborne hit, "One of Us." It is a romantic, emotional record, and one that is also powered by the Artist's (as he is now called) faith in God and love for his wife, Mayte Garcia. Here he sits down in New York with writer and director Spike Lee, whose 1996 film Girl 6 featured on its soundtrack songs by the man record sellers now "file under Prince."


SPIKE LEE: It is February 7, in the year of our Lord 1997, St. Moritz Hotel, New York, and I am here with the Artist Formerly Known as Prince. To start, there's something that we need to get out of the way. I really feel awkward asking you this, but I just have to. Will you say anything about your child [who, it has been widely reported, died shortly after his birth last fall]?

PRINCE: I have written a song that says: If you ever lose someone dear to you, never say the words, "They're gone," and they'll come back.

LEE: That will be a highly anticipated song. Before we drove to The Chris Rock Show, where you were taping a segment, I asked you about the title of your multi-platinum new album Emancipation. I said, "Do you feel free?" and you gave a great response.

PRINCE: There is something that happens when you get emancipated. You approach life differently. You eat differently. You respect yourself more. You respect the gift you have been given. Everything has changed for me since I've changed my name. It's one thing to be called Prince but it's better to actually be one. I have such a reverence for life now. And I have stopped eating all animal products.

LEE: So, when you look back, do you see periods in your life when you did not like your Prince persona?

PRINCE: Towards the end I was a little ashamed of what Prince had become. I really felt like a product, and then I started turning in work that reflected that. I had no problem with people saying I was repeating myself. I knew where I was headed and just needed direction. Once I got direction, I looked up and L. Londell McMillan was there.

LEE: You mean your new lawyer?

PRINCE: Yes. He also has a reverence for life. He seems to be a righteous soul and is focused as to what he is on earth for. Those are some of the things we talked about—what we as black people are supposed to represent during this time period.

LEE: Six or seven years ago I had the audacity to write a letter about your choice of women used in music and music videos. Do you remember that?

PRINCE: Yes.

LEE: Let's talk about that. I think it was very rude on my part. I'll be forty on March 20th and in a lot of ways back then I was too righteous about that type of stuff. Tell the audience what was in that letter I wrote you.

PRINCE: I don't remember exactly. It's really vague to me.

LEE: I wrote, "Are there going to be any women of dark complexion in your music videos and your films? You had only white women in your stuff." Do you recall what you wrote back to me? You set me straight there!

PRINCE: I probably said one had to look at everything I have done, not just the most successful pieces. But I have to be honest, I know you as a different person now, too. We met under different circumstances back then, and I have grown and so have you.

LEE: Do you remember the first time we met?

PRINCE: Graffiti Bridge [the Artist's 1990 dramatic film]?

LEE: Yes, you invited me and my producer Monty Ross up to the shoot. Now I'd like to ask you, how has marriage changed you?

PRINCE: It is ever-evolving every day. It is not a subject I like discussing, but my wife's pregnancy made me an adult four times over. Kids will do that. Just dealing with every circumstance is an emotional roller coaster, but nevertheless I have grown so much as a soul. I can see the light at the end of the tunnel a lot better now.

LEE: Let's talk about the last couple of years at [your former label] Warner Bros. records. Would it be safe to say that the music you were putting out was just fulfilling a contract, or were you giving the best you had to offer at that time?

PRINCE: I was doing my best to fulfill my contract. You can hear that my soul has been in love with [my wife] Mayte for thousands of years. I believe that I was just trying to express it in a simple record. I wanted to say friend, lover, sister, mother, wife back then, but it wasn't the time. If you check the video for the song "Seven," you will see Mayte and I walking through the doors hand-in-hand and the dove exploding. That was when I spiritually checked out of the whole situation; but I did what I had to do.

LEE: Right now I have a copy of your Emancipation CD and my wife wanted to kill me because I had "Soul Sanctuary" on repeat. I played that song for two hours straight. It's four minutes long. Divide that into two hours. She was about to go upside my head. But tell me about that song. I love it!

PRINCE: Sandra St. Victor helped with that one. The melody is basically mine, but the lyrics were inspired by verses that Sandra wrote. I love the idea of an ex-lover leaving her reflection in the mirror after she's gone. You know, I just hope to see the day when all artists, no matter what color they are, own their masters [tapes].

LEE: Let me ask you this: Why don't African-American artists own their own masters? Is it because we don't have the right lawyers?

PRINCE: I think we can get the right lawyers, but I think we all need to change our mind-set and go in specifically after that [ownership of master recordings] and not just take the pink Cadillac. Then you will see change. It is befuddling how other people own their masters. I guess it's who you know and what deal you make.

LEE: It's about ownership, isn't it?

PRINCE: Ownership, that's what you give your kids. That's your legacy. Every one of those songs!

LEE: And what about your name?

PRINCE: You know, black people still call me Prince. Sometimes I ask them, "Why do you call me Prince?" And people say, "Because you are a prince to us." Usually when they say that, you know my heart goes out and I have to say, "I don't mind your calling me that." If there is a pronunciation to my name in the future, I hope it will be "Prince." That's my dream. But until that say, I'll just go by this. [holds up a necklace with his symbol on it] This is my "X."

LEE: You said that a lot of people were confused when you wrote "slave" on your face. People said they didn't know what to call you, but you got it all worked out now?

PRINCE: We got it all worked out! My worth went down a little bit during that period. [laughs] I'm sure there will be a few doors closed to me now because of my emancipation.

LEE: Yeah, well that's the mentality of a runaway slave. You're no longer a house-negro. The millennium is coming up. Everybody knows what song is going to be played on New Year's Eve 1999. [laughs] Can you talk about any of your plans? When will we see another album?

PRINCE: To be honest, I thought I had emptied the gun with this one [Emancipation] and I wouldn't have to record for a while, but some new things came up that are all acoustic.

LEE: Acoustic?

PRINCE: Yeah, just me and a guitar in the room. One song is called "The Truth" and one is called "Don't Play Me." There is a line about ebonics in it but I won't get into that. [both laugh]

LEE: No, let's get into that. What do you think about ebonics? I think it's a plot! And there's black people behind that plot.

PRINCE: Comedian Chris Rock said it best: There is language that will get you a job and there is language that won't. Make that choice as an American. This is where you live now.

LEE: Tell me honestly, and you can answer this any way you want: How did you like the way we used your songs in Girl 6? Talk about that process, because the way we did it I had already cut the film before adding your songs. You were also generous enough to give us three new songs. Tell me which songs worked for you in the movie and which ones didn't?

PRINCE:  Some worked stronger than others, but overall, musically, I didn't know what to expect. I was pleasantly surprised and I like the film for the style in which you did it. I'd never seen that done before. The scene at Coney Island, where you used "How Come U Don't Call Me Any More," is my favorite scene. In fact it forced me to put that song back into our set. I said I would never play it again because I used to think I couldn't do it better than I did with my band, the Revolution. But your film gave me newfound respect for the music.

LEE: When you came up with that song, "Sexy Mother Fucker," I said, "My man is losing his mind." But I liked it.

PRINCE: The chorus was a little "different" for you, huh? [Lee in background singing, "shakin' that ass, shakin' that ass"] I was talking to Chris Rock and he said the same thing, "Every time you put out an album, I think you've lost your mind!" The music I make a lot of the time is reflective of the life I am leading, and "Sexy MF" came during the period I had at the Glam Slam disco [in Minneapolis] and I was hanging out a lot. There was a dance troupe there, and the sexier the dancers, the bigger the revenues and the nosier the crowd. It's funny, but you have to remember that was during the time when the biggest club song was "Bitch Betta Have My Money." When you hear something constantly, you can get swayed by the current. I was swayed by hip-hop at the time.

LEE: Do you feel that you successfully incorporated rap into your music? Sometimes it felt like it was just stuck on.

PRINCE: I've gotten criticism for the rap I've chosen to put in my past work. But there again, it came during my friction years. If you notice, not a lot of stuff is incorporated into my sets now. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised when you hear the new remixes we are working on. On the rap tip though, it is an old style and I have always done it kind of differently—half sung, you know, like "Irresistible Bitch" and some of the other things I used to do.

LEE: Do you ever think that you have been cursed? That you can't stop the music in your head?

PRINCE: Sometimes it is a curse, but it's also a blessing. It is a gift that I am completely grateful for. That's why I keep [making music], because I don't want to be ungrateful for the gift.

LEE: I know you guys want to keep it all mysterious, but I know there is a creative process to how you write a song. It might not be the same thing all the time, though.

PRINCE: Yes, it is different all the time. The main way that something comes is fully completed. And the fun part then is just listening. When I'm writing, some days the pen just goes. I'm not in charge and I'm almost listening outside of it. That's when I realize that we all have to start looking at life as a gift. It's like listening to a color and believing that these colors have soul mates and once you get them all together the painting is complete.

LEE: What is Cat [a former dancer with the Artist] doing now?

PRINCE: Last time I spoke with her she walked up to Mayte and me and said to us, "I like you two dancing together, but she'll never be what I was with you." The very last time we spoke. [laughs]

LEE: And Apollonia?

PRINCE: To be honest, I haven't really spoken to anybody. Once I got married, the phone stopped ringing.

LEE: You said earlier that you have been in love with Mayte for one thousand years. Can you elaborate on that?

PRINCE: I am a firm believer in reincarnation for people who either have more work to do or have so much debt to pay back that they have to be here. I hope for me it is the former, and my work was finding Mayte and having a child, which we will continue to work on until there are several here.

LEE: Would you like to comment on how the media attempted to make a circus out of that particular episode?

PRINCE: What people have to realize is that if one has a firm belief in God and the spirit then one does not make statements that are negative and untrue. I would have been lying to myself and the spirit of the child. I have a very thick skin. I take everything that comes and let it bounce right off me because I know the time will come when nobody will be able to speak falsely. Mankind doesn't understand the whole process yet; that we have to ask for the ownership of our own masters, instead of taking the Cadillac, so to speak.

LEE: Quick music question: why did you decide to make "Betcha By Golly Wow!" the first single from Emancipation? Why did you want to do a cover?

PRINCE: I don't believe in singles. The singles market has changed. I am trying to get back to the old days of releasing albums at will, like Star Wars coming out again.

LEE: I want to ask you about how you pick bands. You've had several. Can you tell me about that whole process? Is it the same way a general manager would pick a team?

PRINCE: I have been blessed with having these people come to me. I don't want to seem cosmic or anything, but it really seems magical because in this band I was looking for a group of four vegetarians.

LEE: Was that actually a criterion, that they have to be totally vegetarian? Do you think that meat and stuff clogs up your brain?

PRINCE: Our people have the worst diet of anybody. I'm ready to put a farmer on my payroll. We've got to get back to growing our own food. You are what you eat!

LEE: For our audience, I want to present this question to you: How is it that Geffen, Spielberg, and Katzenberg got together? How was it that these three giants put aside their egos and came together for the whole? What would stop African-American artists like me, yourself, Michael Jordan, Bill Cosby...

PRINCE: My hat goes off to anybody who can sit down and put their heads together. I am ready for something like that because I am free and I am happy and I have time. There were a lot of things in the way before. I have nothing but time now, and I love getting older.

LEE: We've got to do a musical together.

PRINCE: We have to do several. Some will hit and some won't, but hey, we have the time.


THIS ARTICLE INTIALLY APPEARED IN THE MAY 1997 ISSUE OF INTERVIEW.


New Again runs every Wednesday. For more, click here.

 

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