A year ago I would have never imagined that both David Bowie and Prince would have passed, but it’s happened. Bowie’s passing was a tremendous loss, but Prince’s untimely death recently hits home on more personal levels.
For my generation, Prince was the artist who proved that black people could make rock n roll. His genius arrived at a time when radio had perfected its practice of building musical walls based on skin color. That sounds really odd today in our world of cross racial mashups, but Prince was a big part in making the homogeneity we take for granted today possible.
Black people and rock is not new of course. Jimmy Hendrix and Sly Stone did it decades before and if you get technical about it, Little Richard and Chuck Berry were right there in the beginning. Over time radio and record execs built format barriers that separated audiences based on conventions that aligned with race.
The difference was that Prince was never afraid to step outside those conventions of what was expected. As a true innovator, he made new styles look easy while maintaining a veil of mystery about himself. It was years before we actually learned his full name: Prince Rodgers Nelson.
Be it dance, funk, rock, gospel or soul he could do it all and all by himself if necessary. He could play nearly any instrument and match the likes of Little Richard on piano or Jimmy Hendrix on guitar while dancing like James Brown. He even adopted Brown’s strict work ethic and strove for perfection in all that he touched.
In addition to Brown’s strong work ethic, Prince adopted his business sense and demanded more freedom from his record label and got it. He controlled every aspect of his art, even down to what music videos could be on YouTube. His stance against big E-tailer digital music distribution and streaming prompted discussion about the future of the music business and how artists can survive it.
There seemed to be no limit to his musical abilities. Not only was Prince in the same category as legendary music pioneers like Brian Eno or Phillip Glass, he was able to bring that level of experimentation down to the masses (something many musical genius have failed to do). First in R&B with his first four albums (much too raunchy for radio, yet fully embraced by the hood) and eventually to mainstream pop starting with 1999. Even before 1999 Prince was mixing timely new wave with his funk and rock.
Prince melded new wave, punk, rock, jazz and funk seamlessly in variable master pieces that came after 1999. Most notable was Purple Rain, a commercial and artistic high point that set the template for all kinds of acts to follow for decades to come. It seemed that each new generation would discover his genius and try to emulate some part of it in an attempt to capture his unique hybrid of funk, rock and charisma. Still to this day I have never heard anyone write a song as funky as “Kiss” that had no bass line!
When Prince was not releasing an album a year, he was writing songs for others. Sometimes his collaborators were surprising choices: Kate Bush, Stevie Nicks or the Bangles. Often times though his songs ignited a spark that revamped the careers of artists like Shena Easton (“Sugar Walls”), Sinead O’Connor (“Nothing Compares 2 U”) and Chaka Kahn (“I Feel for You”).
When he wasn’t writing songs for others, he was creating new personas in the form of proteges, often beautiful women, but sometimes whole bands with variations of his purple majesty’s style. Some of my favorites include The Family, Jill Jones, Shelia E., The Time and of course Vanity and Appolinia 6 (see prince Family Tree graphic).
Music was only part of it. Prince reveled in new ways to put on a show. Often times his high energy concerts would approach 3 hours. For those lucky enough to have seen him live with his always tight band of the moment, he always made sure the audience got what they came for. Prince backed up the stage drama with the tightest most demanding show schedule in the business.
His pushing the envelope of race barriers on MTV was just a stepping stone to his greatest media accomplishment: Purple Rain. That film, perhaps one of the best bad films ever, made him a household name everywhere. The film gave a hint to the multi-cultural, multi-genre environment that fostered his creativity.
By that point he could do no wrong, but shocked fans and his record company by following Purple Rain with a wildly experimental album that managed to land two singles on the Top 40 while the album itself Around the World in a Day was #1 on the Billboard albums chart. From that point on, Prince would experiment with new styles so quickly that his clones could not keep up, all the while sharing ideals with other musicians that he did not want to release.
Much of what made his music so interesting was the juxtaposition of subject matter. Sex of course was always the dangling carrot of pop, but Prince infused spiritual issues and personal torment to the mix, to suggest that he was never too far from his church roots. Although I could never reconcile his being a Jehovah Witness with some of his lyrics, his music suggested he had personal demons.Some of those demons might have made working with him difficult. I only hope that his relationship with Wendy and Lisa was mended. They were part of what I think of his greatest band The Revolution.
Even now the style exemplified by The Revolution influences the pop and R&B of everyone from Justin Timberlake to Van Hunt. Prince had a golden era of pop productivity spanned the release of 1999 (1983) to Sign o the Times (1987). That purple reign of pop and creative dominance expands further depending on who you ask, but I personally stopped being consistently dazzled sometime after Chrystal Ball (1998).
Even in those lean years where an album a year met with little fanfare, Prince would give occasional glimpses of brilliance. Towards the end, his career was reinvigorated with the Hit and Run series and a new protegee act, but I l still longed for the days of The Revolution. Music will miss Prince, but he leaves us with a vast catalog and for some of us a lifetime of memories.