Reggie Griffith, Prince’s sometime front of house sound engineer, recalls vividly what it took to work with the icon, though he hardly complains about the herculean hours required.
“I loved it, because he was great,” he says. “He was extremely hardworking. I think he slept two hours a day! 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.”
In 2004, Prince released the excellent album Musicology, which has been re-released today, Feb. 8, on two-LP purple vinyl (click here), along with the (mostly) excellent late-period Prince albums 3121 and Planet Earth, under a new deal with Sony. It was a true artistic return to form, after more than a decade of battling for the ownership of his masters — of course writing “SLAVE” across his face, during the height of the battle with Warner Bros Records — and toying with releasing albums in a then-groundbreaking way: via the Internet.
“It boggled my mind, at the time,” says SiriusXM’s Alan Light, who knew Prince and wrote an excellent biography about his 80s heyday. “The notion of using the Internet for the NPG music club, and having subscribers, was way ahead of its time. Forget about his battle to own his masters, much less the other things that he was fighting for that people thought were crazy. But, of course, it all turned out to be true!”
Griffith recalls something more foreboding about the period.
“We were doing a run through Ohio and a couple of other Midwest cities — Pittsburgh and stuff — and he hurt his hip,” he says. “That’s when he hurt his hip, and that was the strangest time. He had to walk with a cane. And he would walk with a cane, unless he was on stage. It 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.”
Musicology went Top 5 around the world, and spawned hits like the title track, “Call My Name,” and “Cinnamon Girl.” Widely hailed, Light thinks that, by this time, with his finger by now firmly on the zeitgeist, it was nothing more than flipping a switch for the legend.
“Musicology was an active decision to say, ‘OK, these are the switches I need to hit to go be a creative force in the world,’” says Alan Light. “’I know what they are. I’ll show you what that is.’”
Griffith agrees, but puts it down to hard work, too.
“We would get a text and we would have to go to Paisley Park,” he recalls. “Let’s say that was at two in the afternoon. So we’d all show up and we’d go to work. And we would be there and we would work from, say, two to ten. Then he’d open up Paisley Park, and he’d do a show for about two or three hours, sometimes with a special guest. Then he’d take that special guest, after the show, and they’d go into Studio A and they’d work on songs till eight o’clock in the morning. And then we would get another text to come in, same thing, two o’clock, the next day, and we would do it again. And that might go on for something like twenty days straight. It was relentless. And we all got very good at what we were doing. I remember thinking, ‘Fuck. This is making me good!’”
“He was always recording,” Bland says, clearly in agreement. “The labels were always worried Prince would flood the market, and would be competing against himself. Meanwhile, he was creating at such a furious pace, that was the last thing he was worried about.
“As a player, you were only limited in working with Prince by your own internal limitations,” Bland continues. “If you were fighting your own battle, it might not work for you. But he got me young, and I didn’t know any better, so I learned at the feet of a master, so to speak.”
In the aftermath of the release of Musicology, Prince seemed to be everywhere. And with great songs, and a crack band behind him, fans flocked to buy the record, and see him in concert.
Prince had also gotten a handle on the business side of things.
“By the time Musicology came out, I was launching my magazine Tracks,” recalls Light. “I remember setting up an interview with him, and doing a cover shoot, that was so easy to set up that it baffled me. The last time I’d interviewed him, for Vibe, had taken me what seemed like years to set up, and I had to fly to Monte Carlo, finally, to get it done, and this took me one phone call!
“They gave away Musicology with tickets to the tour, which was called the Musicology tour — something he’d always resisted in the past, branding a tour to an album — and there was the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, and the Grammy performance,” Light continues, marveling at how effortless it all seemed, for an artist who had been through so many ups and downs since becoming part of the cultural firmament with Purple Rain, at that point twenty years ago.
“That all lead up to 3121, and the Super Bowl performance, in 2006,” says Light.
Widely considered Prince’s best album of the 00s, 3121 followed the promotional onslaught surrounding Musicology, and reminded fans just how great Prince was. The title track, “Te Amo Corazon,” “Beautiful, Loved and Blessed,” “Black Sweat” and “Fury,” returned Prince to the radio and the dance floors, and for anyone who missed the albums, his Super Bowl performance from the same year, as Light notes, is still considered the greatest of its kind, and a masterclass in showmanship of the sort only Prince could deliver.
“Anything that gives people today a sense of what he was capable of on a stage, of what he was capable of live, with those bands and those musicians, that’s the significant thing,” Light says of the performance. “I can never watch that enough.”
As for the albums, while they were considered a return to form at the time, Light feels they hold up to the best of Prince’s canon.
“On Musicology and 3121, first of all, you feel him working on the songwriting again,” Light says. “You feel very explicit self-editing going on, but there’s also this additional layer of effort going on in those records. And there’s also this re-embrace of old-school R&B thing, and then the stripped down sound. Remember, we were now post-Napster, and however many years into hip hop’s explosion, coming out of the Bad Boy and Death Row era and the pop takeover, by Britney Spears and *NSYNC. And here he was saying, “I want to celebrate musicianship and traditional, quality songwriting. For any fan, at the time, it was amazing. But today, those are albums worth everyone’s time and attention, because they are that good.”
“I remember when 3121 came out, I was on a Grammys committee to listen to releases and nominations,” recalls Chuck Zwicky, who worked at Paisley Park as an engineer early in his career. “I really loved that record. And what I remember most of all was thinking, ‘This is really good!’ Because it was great to hear him sounding like he was really onto something and into doing what he was doing.”
In 2007, Prince released Planet Earth, first as a covermount CD to the U.K. newspaper The Mail On Sunday, to coincide with his 21 night stand at London’s O2 Arena, then via his own NPG Records again, and a one-album deal with Columbia Records. It’s the final album in the late-period trilogy of records being reissued this month, and features Revolution stalwarts Wendy & Lisa and Sheila E., as well as former New Power Generation members like drummer Michael Bland.
“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.”
Still toying with new distribution models, Prince released “Guitar” via a deal with Verizon Wireless, and “Future Baby Momma” via an Internet download, a still unheard of proposition in 2007.
Planet Earth was well-received by the critics, and die-hard fans scooped it up, but with virtually no promotion from Prince himself, it sadly came and went.
“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 on 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.”
“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,’” Bland 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.”
“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.”
Ultimately, the period covered by Musicology, 3121 and Planet Earth, was one of artistic ups and downs, of triumphs and failures, for Prince. After fighting for his artistic freedom for over five years in the wake of the success of Purple Rain, it may have taken him a decade to find his footing, but once he did, he was nothing short of the best in the business.
Still, those who worked with him, and knew him, remember Prince as never being anything less than a truly great, untouchable and uncompromising artist, of which we’re only just now beginning to grasp the depth and magnitude.
“It was my first foray into the music business, when I started working with Prince,” New Power Generation drummer Michael Bland recalls today. “I was 19 and only just becoming a hot commodity in Minneapolis. So it was all brand new to me, but I gather that working with Prince was like working for James Brown. He was tough, he was exacting, and he worked with an intensity that was unbelievable.
“You know, Bruce Lee said, ‘Water takes the shape of whatever vessel you put it into,’” Bland. “You have to leave your own identity and ideas and boundaries behind when you work with an artist like Prince, and just follow them onto whatever path they’re taking you. It was good that I was young and unformed, but he also required an enormous amount of discipline. Sometimes I’d freeze, worried I wouldn’t be able to do what he was asking me to do. He’d say, ‘Get to the city and we’ll find the street. But you have to begin the process, and some of that is failing.’ And from that I learned that, in wanting to be the best, it’s natural not to want to fail, but that you don’t learn from the successes, you learn from the failures. That’s what I learned from Prince: Keep searching and digging and don’t be afraid to take chances.”
As for Alan Light, he remembers Prince as both an amazing artist, and a true music fan.
“It was never turned off, he was never not Prince,” he recalls. “But when you would sit down, he would want to talk about old Earth, Wind & Fire records, or whatever you were listening to, or what he was listening to, because he was a fan, always. Sure, even from fairly early on, dealing with him didn’t feel like you were dealing with a regular, average guy, but it didn’t feel like he was issuing pronouncements when he talked, as some artists do. So once you got through everything that it took to get in the room with him, it was always enjoyable being with him, because he was funny and shy, of course, But then he would get going on music, and you couldn’t stop him. And you can feel that in these albums here, for sure.”