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Prince at the Turn of the Millennium: Three New Archival Releases Add to the Mystery of His Late Career

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Prince had this conversation with Mo Ostin, the head of Warner Brothers Records, on the phone,” Michael Bland, who was a member of Prince’s New Power Generation, and who has played with Soul Asylum for more than 15 years, recalls of his time working with the legend in the 1990s. “They were talking about some business, and Mo brought up the album that was due. Prince told him that he hadn’t even begun work on it, and that it was just a concept. My understanding is that Mo’s response was, ‘Well, whatever, it’s ours anyway.’ Prince got off the phone and was floored. He said, ‘This guy just told me that whatever ideas I have in my head are not mine. They belong to Warner Brothers.’ And I think that everything really changed for him after that. His sense of being an artist was being toyed with, from his point of view.”

The phone call led to a long, rancorous battle with Warner Brothers, but by the end of the 20th century, Prince had extricated himself from his contract with the label, one that had led him to write “SLAVE” across his face, change his name to an unpronounceable symbol, and to complain loudly and regularly about the fact that he felt he wasn’t in control of his own destiny and, more importantly to an exacting artist like Prince, his recordings.

prince symbol

“As he became discontented with his artistic situation, he changed as a person,” Bland says. “He took out an ad in Billboard that announced the release date of the Gold Experience as ‘never.’ But if anything, it drove him. He worked harder, as though he had something to prove, even if that was only to himself. We recorded a lot of material, with no release date in mind.

“Anger is just another emotion for you to make what you want to happen in your life, and I feel like Prince used that to drive himself.”

Indeed, the following decade would be a remarkably prolific one for Prince.

Last month, the Prince Estate and Legacy Recordings announced the next batch of physical titles that will be part of their ongoing and definitive Prince catalog project. Prince’s Ultimate Rave, out April 26, is due next.

The 3-disc bundle of Prince’s pivotal, new millennium pop party dance music brings together 1999’s Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic, its 2001 remix Rave In2 the Joy Fantastic, and a DVD containing the full-length performance version of Prince In Concert: Rave Un2 the Year 2000, Prince’s ambitious 1999 New Year’s Eve party, originally broadcast as an on-demand pay-per-view as the 21st century dawned.

Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic, Prince’s only album for NPG/Arista (and his last released under the unpronounceable “Love Symbol” moniker), showcases Prince’s mastery of pop and R&B, and features a variety of tracks, plus a sometimes strange and often wonderful range of guest artists, including Chuck D, Eve, Gwen Stefani, Ani DiFranco, and Sheryl Crow, whose smash hit “Every Day is a Winding Road” Prince covers on the album.

Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic, released in 1999, marked a decidedly chart-oriented turn by the typically mercurial artist. Prince originally started working on — and abandoned — the album in 1988, a work made up of basic tracks begun during the Lovesexy and Graffiti Bridge sessions. But in the late ‘90s, Prince called on red-hot artists like Gwen Stefani, Eve and Sheryl Crow to help him put a more current spin on the recordings.

Carlos Santana and Rob Thomas’ 1999 hit “Smooth” had spent 12 weeks at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, and Prince wanted to capture that same magic.

“I played on ‘Baby Knows,’ which was a duet with Sheryl Crow,” Bland recalls.

“To me, this is the most cynical record in the catalog,” Prince biographer Alan Light opines. “Everything about it feels as though he said to himself, ‘We’re going to sign with Clive Davis and Arista. We’re going to try to do what Santana did with his record. I’m going to bring in these guests. I’m going to write hits.’ But the missing piece was I don’t think he had a sense of what was a big pop song at that moment.”

Still, Light, who spent time with Prince around this time in his career, says there was more at work, big questions that we may never be able to fully answer.

“I think that so much of the story of his entire career is this tension between some very big questions,” says Alan Light. “Is he a huge pop star or is he the world’s biggest cult artist? Is he somebody who goes out and fills stadiums, or is he somebody who has a million people who are along for the ride and it can go wherever he wants? And, you know, he could turn up or down those dials. And because of that tension between those two sides, you’re never sure if he’s over-performing or under-performing. Unfortunately, too much of the time he wanted both of those things, and there are the moments when he could deliver on both of those things. But this wasn’t one of them.”

Michael Bland agrees, but says that success and failure were never things he saw Prince wrestle with.

“Prince was like David Bowie, in that he thought, ‘I’ll give my audience a little bit of what they want, but I’m mostly going to do what I want,’” he says. “He certainly wasn’t afraid to lose fans if it meant going where he needed to go. In fact, quite the opposite: If the fans he’d gained didn’t get where he was going, he was happy to leave them behind.”

One of Prince’s many sometime engineers, Chuck Zwicky, agrees.

“I totally wanted to facilitate the experience of this guy, who was living in his own head, hearing this full range of sounds, so he can get it down as quickly as possible,” he says. “So every instrument was available to him at all times, so when he had an idea, no time was wasted. But what was great was that he never second-guessed himself. He never scratched his head. No. He’d come up with something, and maybe alter one or two parts of it, but usually he did it as he heard it and he played it that way, unencumbered by technical concerns, or concerns about what anybody else thought about it. Because he knew when he was doing something that was awesome, and he never cared what other people thought, or if it might not strike their fancy. He held himself to the standard of just being himself.”

Prince promoted the release of Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic with a pay-per-view special, now available as Prince In Concert: Rave Un2 the Year 2000. Broadcast on New Year’s Eve 1999, the special featured guest artists including Morris Day & the Time, Maceo Parker, Larry Graham, George Clinton, and Lenny Kravitz.

The DVD of the concert features 27 tracks in all, from across Prince’s career, including hits like “Let’s Go Crazy,” “Purple Rain,” “U Got The Look,” “Raspberry Beret,” “Gett Off,” and “Kiss” and deeper cuts like “She’s Always In My Hair,” “The Christ,” (originally “The Cross,” the epic track from Sign O’ The Times) and his own version of the song he gifted to Sinead O’Connor, “Nothing Compares 2 U.” Also included are songs from Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic, like “Baby Knows” and “The Greatest Romance Ever Sold.”

A broadcast edit of Prince In Concert: Rave Un2 The Year 2000 is slated to air on PBS in June.

In the aftermath of the release, Prince established a groundbreaking internet presence via his NPG Music Club, an online destination site where fans could access new music alongside tracks from the fabled Prince Vault, as well as other rarities.

One of the first full-length releases from NPG Music Club was Prince’s Rave In2 the Joy Fantastic, a remix and re-imagining of his ongoing “Rave” project.

“He was already experimenting with the early internet stuff and he’s putting out this for fans, directly,” says Light. “He was a broad-stroke visionary about this stuff, but so unwilling to trust anybody to execute it that it would often be a mess, so this album got a bit lost in all of that. But the notion of using the internet for the NPG music club and having subscribers was obviously way ahead of everyone else in the industry.

“Everything Prince did that seemed a bit crazy at the time turned out to be true and the right move in the end, which is really fascinating.”

He was also working at a furious pace.

“He’d have the band playing seven or eight hours a day,” Light adds. “Then they might think they were done for the day, and he’d want to shoot a video, or go down some tiny, local studio, to lay something down. He never, ever, ever turned off.”

Reggie Griffith, Prince’s then-front of house sound engineer, marveled at the Purple One’s dedication.

“He was extremely hardworking. I think he slept two hours a day!” he says. “He gave everyone around him that same work ethic. Once you started to work, you worked till you were done. Sound checks were rehearsals. Everything that wasn’t the show was a rehearsal. You want to know how to get good? Rehearse! His dedication to his craft was astonishing.”

“We were doing a run through Ohio and a couple of other Midwest cities – – Pittsburgh and stuff — and he hurt his hip,” Light recalls. “He would walk with a cane, unless he was on stage. He fascinated me, because he was definitely in pain. But I don’t think he was taking anything for the pain. And when he hit the stage, he’d be on fire. You know, he once said, ‘I won’t let anything take away my focus.’ I think that’s how he lived every moment.”

Bland says Prince had other motivations behind the release beyond just the artistry of it all.

“Prince was sick and tired of bootleggers making money off his work,” Bland says, remembering the then exploding market for illicit recordings, and Prince’s move to the internet to distribute his work. “When we were on tour, there were always guys coming up to us, trying to sell us Prince bootlegs, not knowing who we were. I’d buy them, and show them to Prince. They had all the titles wrong.”

“And P.S., just to also put this in here, because it’s important, during this period he’s having his religious transformation,” Light adds. “It shows up explicitly on Rainbow Children and some of the other side projects. Here is when Larry Graham moves into the Paisley Park compound and becomes this spiritual mentor to Prince. And he embraces the Jehovah’s Witness religion. It shows up in the music and shows up in the writing, and that’s fine. But what does it mean for his career choices, because by this time Prince was in complete control of his career. His circle had gotten smaller and smaller, and there was this perpetual turnover. He just would not hand over the keys to anyone who could help create some continuity.”

Bland agrees that, while the business end of things may have suffered, having Graham, the former bassist of Sly and the Family Stone, and his musical compatriots, around, was invigorating for Prince.

“He’d recycled some of my drum tracks, and we did some jamming, so was around, during that era, when Larry Graham was living at Paisley Park,” Bland recalls. “He had most of the Family Stone hanging around there, in fact. I remember hanging around, and hearing someone singing, and it Rose Stone. For any musician, that’s incredible, because most musicians, at least, recognize that Sly and the Family Stone and those people are everything. I still lived only about 15 minutes from Paisley Park, so sometimes I’d get a call — inspiration would strike — and I ended up on the records, or sometimes in the vault, but those sessions were some of the most inspired I’ve ever worked on.”

Still, Bland insists that Prince was an artist without peer.

“If you can see the finish line before you start the race, that’s a true artist,” Bland says of the period, and Prince’s ability to capture our attention, even now, with these records. “His greatest gift was his inspiration and his creativity, because it’s not that he was a great guitar player, for instance, it’s what he was able to say with it.”

Prince’s Ultimate Rave will be released during CELEBRATION 2019, the ultimate four-day Prince event, to be held April 25-28 at Paisley Park, Prince’s historic home and recording sanctuary outside Minneapolis.

The event, which is expected to become an annual pilgrimage for Prince’s many devotees, will welcome Prince fans from around the world to what is envisioned as a unique experience that will fuse live music, concert screenings, panel discussions and special presentations highlighting Prince’s tremendous talent and cultural impact.

This year, guitarist and original member of The Time, Jesse Johnson, Prince’s iconic group The Revolution, featuring Bobby Z, BrownMark, Lisa Coleman, Wendy Melvoin and Matt Fink, and Funk Soldiers, a fifteen-piece supergroup of New Power Generation and Paisley Park musical alumni, will be in attendance.

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