Today is the 55th birthday of someone whose legacy on the approach of most popular music today is just as significant as it is largely unrecognized. Prince Rogers Nelson,famous son of Minneapolis who helped create the hybrid of new wave and funk which was named for his home city,can probably be best described as an artist (or THE artist) who all too easily recoils from the obvious. Most importantly to me anyway,his musical and personal influences are both very compelling and different as night and day. Musically he pulled together the influences of James Brown,Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix,Carlos Santana and Stevie Wonder into an instrumental approach that in terms of pop music is often associated with the most musicianly ends of jazz and progressive rock music. And of course his famous bands,spin-off acts and songwriting projects historically speak for themselves. But there are many sides to this man-some beautiful,some extraordinary,some extremely ugly and always extraordinarily challenging. As with his kindred spirit Miles Davis, with whom Prince collaborated in the late 1980’s, Prince’s difficult personality is indelibly linked to his creativity.
Born during the final couple of years of the baby boom, Prince was in many ways on a generational cusp. Not to mentioning being the embodiment of the Gemini’s astrological spirit seemingly from day one. Despite not officially being a part of it, Prince’s upbringing was very much like that of a stereotypical Generation X’er. His father and mother John and Maddie,a jazz piano player and a vocalist respectively,divorced when Prince was young. Apparently born with epilepsy and unknowingly with a form of Pfeiffer’s Syndrome resulting in his short stature, young Prince was essentially a latch key kid often rooming with his friend Andre’,learning music through school,forming his earliest bands in the twin city and making a name for himself while trying to escape who he described as an overly materialistic step father. The first song he claimed to have taught himself to play on the piano was the “Batman” theme song. From this early point in his life, Prince developed a framework that he would never truly be able to creatively depend on anyone but himself for anything.
By the mid 1970’s Prince an astute multi instrumentalist with a very individual sound on the guitar,bass,drums and keyboards. As with Stevie Wonder and Todd Rundgren (a fellow Gemini) before him, Prince’s 1978 debut album For You was more a creative than a commercial success. And than mostly in his own local community. It is when Prince discusses his own personal history with music that his well documented eccentricities come to the for. Ever the careerist he is one of the few artists whose life story changes slightly to blend into the social climate of the decade he’s telling it in. During the 1980’s, Prince spoke of living in a very “white world”,not even owning a record player and citing that he crew up mainly to rock n roll rather than soul or funk musicians. Even then there were hints of the truth however. By the turn of the millennium,after a confusing and bloated period in which Prince preferred to be known mainly as “the artist”, Prince was proudly citing himself attending James Brown shows when he came through town during his youth,as well as the influence of his father’s jazz band.
My own personal admiration of Prince is from the same source as my greatest frustration with him. I first began to admire his music in the mid 1990’s because it openly celebrated the beauty of sexual,social and even political freedom. Didn’t matter if he sometimes expressed it naively. It gave me a lot of hope. As with many people however, middle age appears to have had a rather negative impact on Prince’s psyche. Having lived on the very edge of the Hollywood lifestyle for much of his salad days of the 80’s, he has become next to a hermit in the last decade. He’s even gone as far as chastising chose who wish to pay tribute to his music online by legally (and aggressively) pursuing such admirers who post his music on websites such as YouTube. From what I can see, no musical artist operating in the popular idiom embodies both the most positive and negative sides of the Gemini astrological sign as Prince does. I own every album he’s ever made and listen,and re-listen to them constantly. Each time,I get something different from them-hear something I didn’t hear before. In terms of instrumental talent he’s easily up there with the best.
Of course the most one of the most significant aspects of Prince’s talents are how massively influential he is on the music of the millennium so far. In 1987 he recorded a song called “Dead On It”,which was a condemnation of rap/hip-hop artists that implied they were pulling a fast one on their admirers. It was from an album he pulled from release at that time called The Black Album. At the time Prince felt he had more musical talent than anyone in the hip-hop community. By the early 1990’s he was producing some interesting hip-hop/funk hybrids of his own on songs such as “Jughead” and “Sexy MF”. Again his fierce marketers instinct and James Brown-like embrace of what Richard Nixon once referred to as “black capitalism” might’ve had a lot to do with his embrace of the hip-hop musical ethic-since it was often more hugely commercially popular than funk and soul were from that time onward. On the other hand Prince probably realized,especially by the turn of the millennium that his approach of writing,producing and playing all the instruments and embrace of electronics,not to mention his use of often profane street language and sexually explicit content early on,was massively influential on what commercial hip-hop would become in the 90’s even up until his very day.
This probably leads to the darker side of Prince’s ouvre’, which again often goes hand and hand with his influence on hip-hop culture. From the beginning of his career Prince’s relationship with femininity has been extremely fickle. While embracing a lacy and androgynous personal during the early to mid 1980’s for himself, Prince was never particularly supportive of the female talents in his employ. For example,he named the Vanity 6 trio for the number of breasts of the members. And he originally planned to call them the Hookers. He told the media he and Appollonia were love interests when she was married at the time. He even sacrificed his Paisley Park record label when he neglected releases NPG band member Rosie Gaines debut album in 1992 in favor of a sub-par rap album by his than love interest Carmen Electra. Not to mention his embrace of the Jehovah’s Witness faith, which has a history of taking a very patriarchal approach to life that doesn’t always exactly embrace women. This all adds to the very talents that make him so renowned are in fact part of his own quirks and enigmatic nature as well.