Prince, In His Own Words: ‘I Am Music’

Today, the Prince estate and Sony Legacy are kicking off a massive reissue project featuring records from Prince’s NPG Records era. The initial batch of releases includes 2004’s Musicology, 2006’s 3121, and 2007’s Planet Earth — all on vinyl for the first time. And of course, they’re on purple wax.

This era marked what many critics called a comeback for the Purple One, nearly a decade after gaining freedom from Warner Bros. and indulging in his desire to put out whatever music he wanted, whenever he wanted, however he wanted. While Prince balked at the notion of ever “going away,” the media was clearly paying attention again thanks to a partnership with Columbia to distribute Musicology widely, a Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame induction, and an ahead-of-its-time plan to bundle the album with concert tickets.

Even though Prince’s musical output and touring hadn’t waned, this period marked an increase in media access to the iconic performer. He gave many more interviews in 2004 than he had in years, especially on television.

At this point in time, the internet had disrupted culture, but it hadn’t yet become the definitive home for all culture. Youtube was years away, Myspace (Myspace!!!) had just launched, and Carson Daly’s seat was still warm on Total Request Live. There was a good chance that if someone watched or read an interview with Prince that it was the only one they watched or read.

As Prince once said, “Let’s be frank. Can we be frank? If we can’t be nothing else, we might as well be frank.” Frankly, most of those interviews weren’t great, or at least they didn’t individually give us much insight into Prince’s mind at this pivotal moment in his career. Many journalists in a situation like that are looking for a couple of quotes to generate an eye-catching headline. You’d end up with a juicy morsel here or there thanks to this approach.

Across all these interviews, you could find a meaningful distillation of Prince’s thoughts. But again, no fan regardless of fervor had immediate access to all of the content — or even most of it — at the time. That’s different now. So what we’ve done is comb through roughly 50 interviews with Prince from magazines, newspapers, and TV segments and compiled the aforementioned tidbits into cohesive, in-depth statements that show us a humble, engaged student of music who valued expression and connection above all else.

This is Prince, in his own words.

On Freedom

I am music. [1]

No one can come and claim ownership of my work. I am the creator of it, and it lives within me. It’s the way it should have been a long time ago. The whole paradigm has got to shift. But I’m free now. [2]

I think many corporations are immoral. What was happening to me happens to artists all the time, you feel me? What I was doing wasn’t about arrogance; it was about someone trying to put me in a paper cage, and tell me, a grown man, what I couldn’t do. [3]

My life got real serious there for a second – getting out of the record industry. You have to realize that I was told I couldn’t leave. Excuse me? What did you say? [4]

“Prince is crazy” — I knew what people were saying. When I became a symbol, all the writers were cracking funnies, but I was the one laughing. I knew I’d be here today, feeling each new album is my first. [5]

As time clicks on and we watch events unravel…people understand. Anita Baker came up to me recently. She said, “Prince, at first we didn’t know what was happening. We said, He needs to kick up his medication. Then it happened to all of us.” [6]

When you show you can be successful as an independent artist, the umbilical cord is broken. [Record contracts are] a parent-child relationship. An advance is an allowance. Any business situation is restrictive. [7]

I always had the rights to my music, I just had to click my heels three times. (laughs) If anything, i learned that contracts are for people who don’t trust each other. People who sign them get the relationship they deserve. Lawyers are kept in business because of contracts. The relationship I have with Sony is based on trust. They do not restrict us from doing anything. That was all we ever wanted — FREEDOM. [8]

You [release an album] because it’s right to do at that time. You don’t do it because you can sell a million. But I wouldn’t have stayed independent if I’d been a failure, I’d have been running back and saying, “Sign me back up, put me back on the plantation, boss.” I’ve been projected as this petulant person that knows nothing about business and now I’ve run back to Daddy. But it’s not like that at all. [9]

Going through 10 years of struggle makes my meetings now with the executives a breeze. They know straight in they’re not owning anything. That’s not even a question … what’s more interesting is when the executives come to me for advice. [I say,] “You get the artist you deserve. Start from scratch. You like music, right? Me too. Remember when there were these hippies running the business? [Get back to that.] You’re gonna have more fun. You’re gonna make a lot more money.” [4]

Prince - Musicology for sale

Musicology (2004)

“People are calling this my comeback,” Prince bemusedly told Entertainment Weekly after Musicology peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard charts, his highest peak since 1991’s Diamonds and Pearls. “Comeback? I never went anywhere!” While he’s not lying, the Musicology era marked a notable change in Prince’s style: he was back to writing user-friendly pop and throwback soul (Musicology, Call My Name, Cinnamon Girl), graciously accepting his position as elder statesmen of the culture (sharing the stage with Beyoncé during the opening of that year’s Grammy Awards and accepting induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame a month later), and — once again — innovating the way his music was distributed, bundling copies of the album with every ticket to that year’s bestselling tour.

On Learning, Humility, And Experiencing Music

Music is a precious gift from the Creator. It’s best when it nourishes us in some way. [8]

I never take it for granted. I’m completely outside of it, I’m sitting, watching my consciousness. I do the work because, you know – I might get misty-eyed now – but I do the work because I get to watch. I get to marvel at it, too. [10]

One day, [Stevie Wonder] wanted to show me what it’s like for him to experience the world, to actually feel a piece of music, so he held my hand. … Now at first, it’s like “Whoa, I’m holding hands with a man!” Now, those thoughts and feelings are mine, and we all have to work those things out for ourselves. But then I started thinking what it means for Stevie to be able to hold someone’s hand — anyone’s hand, even a man’s. He’s telling me he respects me. And by extension, he’s teaching me that I have to have that same respect for everybody in life. [11]

I don’t even know what day it is, really. But man, I get to cue Maceo Parker in? I get to say, “Maceo, blow your horn”? Are you kidding? I better enjoy this, right? Do me a favor. Just imagine being up onstage, tonight, in front of all these people, and you get to say, “Maceo, blow your horn.” [10]

I was offstage, listening to Michael Phillips take his solo [during an instrumental break in the show]. I was thinking, “Wow, listen to those people responding, and all he’s doing is playing a saxophone.” They can feel that what he’s doing is real. So many shows now, they have pyrotechnics, pre-taped vocals and musical parts, and it’s so dead. But here’s one man breathing into an instrument, and the whole room feels alive. It made me want to rise up to that level when I came back onstage. [12]

I wanted to let the music do the talking. We’ve also been playing in clubs on some nights, and we carry that with us into the arenas. It’s all one show to us. Clubs are where you really learn about crowd control. You’re playing on small stages, so you have to be listening to and watching one another, and the crowd is right in front of you. You can’t push anything too long. You concentrate on what works, and you hit it. [12]

It can look pretty wild onstage, but everyone knows exactly where they’re supposed to be. That was a lesson I had to learn from when I was starting out. When we first went out behind 1999, the Time, who were opening for us, beat us up every night. They would laugh about it; it was a joke to them. Our show wasn’t together. I had to stop the tour and get things tightened up. Now me and the band have a certain relationship with each other, and every night we make the audience part of that. [12]

[Real live music will] give you shivers, that’ll change your life. There’s nothing else like that. [3]

Musicology the CD is more or less a companion to the concert. Live interaction with the audience is what it’s really all about. Letting the music come first, before the business (i.e. “ology”). Record executives used to be real music lovers. Now they are business school graduates who believe in globalization. Being an independent artist, I can speak on any issue that moves me without worry of censorship in any way. The sound you hear in “Musicology” is the sound of that freedom. [13]

I didn’t [bundle Musicology with concert tickets] to usurp power from Billboard or SoundScan. But the real power is in community, in actually connecting with people. [2]

Prince - 3121 for sale

3121 (2006)

After Musicology, Prince was ready to show off, and pulled off a similar coup with 3121 — this time, reaching the top of the Billboard 200 for the first time since 1989. And for good reason: It’s full of flights of pop fancy, from Latin-tinged acoustics (Te Amo Corazon), incendiary guitar epics (Fury), gentle soul ballads (Beautiful, Loved and Blessed) and throwback dance cuts (Black Sweat, a modern, spiritual follow-up to 1986’s chart-topping Kiss).

On His Alleged Comeback

I dismiss terms like “comeback” and “accessibility of music.” I never went anywhere. I was still making music. The media just stopped focusing on me. [3]

I would ask people who want to call this a comeback where they think I’m coming back from. … They want to see me as having failed. Leno — this is the fourth time I’ve played it. Every year they ask me to play the Grammys. I just said yes this year. [7]

You just keep doing stuff, and it gets stacked up and drives you crazy. And you don’t know what to do about it. Studies show that things like regret, not being able to forgive other people, that’s what causes cancer. It piles up, and you get irritable. [6]

The vibe is not really different. I’ve been touring for a while. I took a break to make the Musicology project. It hasn’t really stopped. Take away the Grammys and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, put them aside, and I’d still be here in this building, talking to you. I would still be releasing the album. I’d still be out here. I ain’t going nowhere. [6]

Prince - Planet Earth for sale

Planet Earth (2007)

Planet Earth kicked off a more “old-school” phase of Prince’s late-career “comeback.” In 2006, weeks after winning a lifetime achievement Webby Award for his landmarks in Internet distribution, he shut down the NPG Music Club and began to retreat from the Web. Nonetheless, he made sure people knew where to find him, as indicated by his iconic performance at the Super Bowl XLI halftime show that same year, and the unique British release of Planet Earth, as a free item with copies of the newspaper The Mail On Sunday. Stateside, it came out in record stores like his last two albums, and became another Top 5 record. The six-string jam Guitar, the contemplative title track, the jazzy Chelsea Rodgers and the upbeat closing track Resolution (featuring Wendy and Lisa, appearing on a Prince album for the first time since The Revolution was his backing band) are all highlights.

On Being Hemmed In By Definitions And The System

[Asking for autographs is] just a part of the system that people have inherited. It’s another part of the illusion. I would much rather talk to someone for two or three minutes than sign an autograph for them, but people don’t understand that. But this thing of personality, moving for people to see that, is just another distraction, just another illusion. It’s just another way of preventing people from seeing the truth. The epiphany is where you see God, where you live at the level humanity is. You don’t let money, fame, the illusion rule you. That’s when you see God; you don’t let money rule you. [9]

Really, I’m normal. A little highly-strung, maybe. But normal. But so much has been written about me and people never know what’s right and what’s wrong. I’d rather let them stay confused. [9]

I’ve never fit into a certain genre, and you can’t pin my work down. I don’t think about the future. I have to make the music I have to make now, and I have to go where the spirit takes me. Everything is about right now, and because I approach things like that, I enjoy every day so much more. [3]

I call myself a musician and a child of God. Others call me what they want to call me. [14]

I almost think we were taught race. It wasn’t something we were born with. We all look different. We’re all varied in our complexions and our sizes, and that’s good. But when we’re put in boxes, I’ve always railed against that. [15]

Someone outside of me can’t define me. [16]

I never really needed approval for what it is that I do. I love that I’m appreciated and I love the respect that I get. But accolades and awards — you know it’s all still big business. [17]

There’s no more envelope to push. I pushed it off the table. It’s on the floor. Let’s move forward now. [5]

Once you’ve done anything, to do it again ain’t no big deal, you feel me? I was on the cover of Rolling Stone with Vanity, I was on the cover of Rolling Stone when I didn’t even do an interview, when I wouldn’t talk to them. Once you’ve done something like that it’s like, okay, what’s the next thing? [10]

[When HBO asked me for an exclusivity agreement] I said, “Excuse me? Oh no. End of discussion. You want to talk about something else? I know you flew a long way, we might as well talk philosophy or something.” They said, “Well, that’s just our policy.” I said, “Well, you keep your policy. You want some pizza? Cause you ain’t going to get no concert.” [10]

References

  1. BET
  2. The New York Times
  3. Boston Globe
  4. Rocky Mountain News
  5. Newsweek
  6. Billboard
  7. Grand Rapids Press
  8. SOMA
  9. Telegraph
  10. Washington Post
  11. Entertainment Weekly
  12. Rolling Stone
  13. San Francisco Examiner
  14. Ebony
  15. The Biz
  16. Las Vegas Review
  17. The Today Show

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