By Sam Bleazard
‘In May 1992, Alan Leeds, one of the very last members of Prince’s inner circle with a truly independent voice, resigned his post as president of Paisley Park Records. This concluded an association with Prince that began nearly a decade earlier [in 1982] on the 1999 tour. For many years Leeds was a trusted friend and confidant, but he and Prince had drifted apart in the early 1990s. As he prepared to leave, Leeds felt a deep sense of disillusionment about an artist whose career had just recently seemed so promising. “I don’t think he took his gift seriously,” said Leeds, looking back at Prince’s work from this period.’
Extract from ‘Possessed: The Rise and Fall of Prince by Alex Hahn
Following parts 1 & 2 of the Prince in the 90s series on Cocoa Diaries – part 3 asks whether the time is right for a re-assessment of Prince’s work post-Diamonds & Pearls, prior to his new millennium ‘comeback’. At the time a long-running public feud with his record company deflected the public away from the many recordings and album projects that were being produced behind the scenes. Part 3 takes a fresh look at the music behind Prince’s ‘friction years’….
In October 1992 Prince and the New Power Generation released the Symbol album, a project the musician clearly believed passionately in. This early 90s rock opera, originally conceived as a concept album (complete with Middle Eastern symbolism) was packed with a melange of styles. The only problem was that as the follow-up to the success of Diamonds & Pearls a year earlier, it sold poorly – by megastar standards anyway. Unfortunate timing for an album that was released around the time Prince’s lawyers were negotiating a supposed $100m deal with Warner Bros (the major label who’d promoted all of his work since 1978).
In hindsight it’s easy to see how the public viewed this album with indifference – the rapping sounded out of touch and trend-chasing even then, the choice of singles – as band members have acknowledged in recent interviews – was poor. Did Prince really need to scream “My Name is Prince, and I am funky” to convince us? Most who were aware of him already knew it, and when you have to name things, they die! For a more in-depth look into what it was like to be part of his inner circle during that period, check out Rolling Stone magazine’s excellent Prince in the nineties: An Oral History.
Listening to it over twenty years on the Symbol album is a messy and unsatisfying affair, with a handful of great tracks struggling to be heard. The highlights are the opening half of the jazz infused Love 2 the 9s, radio friendly ballad The Morning Papers, cool horn driven brag Sexy M.F., subtle reggae lament Blue Light, the acoustic gospel overdubs of 7 and the semi-autobiographical funk rumble – The Sacrifice of Victor (which closed the CD). The rest now just feels like huff, puff and wasted effort. A real shame as the New Power Generation, as they were then, were one of the best and most talented bands around – live and in the studio.
Prince’s live concerts in 1993 sign-posted warnings of what was to come, ‘retiring’ himself and the Prince name during a speech in 1993 at Wembley stadium, and by 1995 he was asking his die-hard fans in a ¾ full Wembley arena next door to join him in chanting “Prince is dead! Prince is dead!”. Not everyone was digging that vibe, as many had come to hear Prince and all of the great songs he’d written previously. I attended a fantastic concert in Edinburgh’s Meadowbank stadium in 1993, which is still one of my favourite performances from Prince and his New Power Generation. Although minus the vocal powerhouse that was Rosie Gaines, the band was a more stripped back line up faithfully playing great tracks from his back catalogue such as ‘The Beautiful Ones’ and ‘The Cross’, alongside new party jams which closed the set as night fell on a late summer’s evening.
Rather curiously, and unbeknownst to many, Prince’s next project (hinted at in the encore of those big stadium shows) was a CD called Gold Nigga. Another band record which is out of print now, it featured the much lambasted Tony Mosley on lead rap duties, however it’s not entirely without merit as a record which sounds very much of its time – tracks like 2gether and Call The Law are the purple take on 90s RnB with live instrumentation (and a pointer to the direction he would increasingly go throughout the decade, including on his triple CD Emancipation). The male locker room humour that would surface in a slightly more sinister and surreal way on the 1995 album Exodus begin to appear here. Black M.F. In The House is an angry rant about racism, while one major highlight is the funky Johnny which opens with a skit in a comedy club followed by an argument between a dating couple – the girl chides her man that ‘she came to see Prince anyway’. Other brief highlights include Deuce and A Quarter and the all too brief instrumental jam called Oilcan.
April 27, 1993 – Warner Bros vice presidents are informed that Prince is ‘retiring’, that he would be delivering no more ‘new’ music to the label and was going to pursue “alternative media projects, including live theatre, interactive media, nightclubs and motion pictures.”
June 7, Prince’s 35th birthday – it’s announced that Prince is legally changing his name to an unpronounceable symbol (the mix of male/female signs fused with the Arabian horn motif through the centre that adorned his 1993 Symbol album on Warner Bros.). What followed was bitter and continual mockery in the worldwide news media, which was to last for several years and do seismic damage to his reputation and ability to sell music to a mass mainstream audience. The fall out also spawned a bitter feud and eventual fall out with Warners, leading to his contract finally being severed in 1996. His reaction? To release a triple CD set – which the company had previously denied him the ability to do twice at his creative peak in 1986 & 1987 – with Emancipation (an amazing achievement by anyone’s standards, even if it’s not his best work). The eventual compromise for news channels and media outlets was to refer to him as ‘The Artist formerly known as Prince’, but the damage was done – and it was further fuelled by several TV appearances in which he appeared either with the word Slave pencilled on his face, or even more bizarrely (as he did on Channel 4s the White Room and BBCs Top of the Pops in 1995) performing with a sheet or a thin scarf covering his face. He appeared at times distant, haughty, conceited and out of touch, worse still was the perception of this successful multi-millionaire’s so-called slavery given the complex history of African Americans. In hindsight a lot of Prince’s battles with the music industry make sense in retrospect, but it’s tough to feel complete sympathy with all of the points he was making at this time, especially given the variable strength of his output. In truth it was often pretty weak, no longer defining a decade, here was one of the world’s greatest living entertainers struggling even to entertain.
Warners were clearly confused and upset but consoled themselves with a first Prince greatest hits compilation, Prince the Hits and the B-sides – released in September 1993, it contained a sprinkling of new songs, such as Peach and Pink Cashmere, alongside long sought after gems and rarities like Power Fantastic on a third disc for collectors.
True to his word, that summer Prince was already starting to spread his creative wings (some would say too thinly) across various underground and less mainstream projects. He owned at least two nightclubs during the decade, Glam Slam Miami and Glam Slam Minneapolis. At the latter Prince worked on a live theatre production with future Baywatch star (and dancer cum rapper) Carmen Electra on Glam Slam Ulysses – as it turned out a dance interpretation of Homer’s ancient Greek literary classic The Odyssey. Prince poured himself into the piece writing music for it, but didn’t appear in the production itself, which having proved to be something of a misunderstood embarrassment closed after just two weeks, with the eventual US nightclub tour also cancelled.
His next project, and probably one of his most underrated deserves with the fullness of time to be re-appraised, re-packaged and made more widely available to the music buying public. The Undertaker is at first glance Prince at home in Paisley Park rocking out in rehearsals a la Eric Clapton’s Cream with powerhouse duo Michael Bland on drums and local Minneapolis hero Sonny Thompson on bass. However, it’s a quirky and slightly eerie black and white film with an odd sub-plot about a lonely love interest, actress Vanessa Marcil, who appears to come dangerously close to overdosing on drugs – she eventually gains access to Prince and the band rehearsing (which stops the meltdown happening). Trippy and fairly dark at times, the music – in particular, Prince’s guitar work – is excellent in places. Stripped right back to its bare bones, when Prince was often at his minimalist best, you can clearly hear how imaginative and skilled his rhythm and lead guitar skills really were. No surprise then that these extended blues and rock jams were due to be given away as a free CD with the magazine Guitar World. Prince being Prince eventually got his way on this idea fifteen years later when his Planet Earth album was given away free with a UK newspaper – and not surprisingly this yet again irked all of the major labels and distributors he was associated with at the time. The Undertaker was actually given limited release on VHS video by Warner Bros, who also released officially shot footage of one of Prince’s aftershows for the first time. The badly edited Sacrifice of Victor which came out at a similar time, with very little promotional activity, captured approximately 45mins of a performance in the early hours of the morning in a packed Bagleys Warehouse in London Kings Cross. It’s worth seeing again, just for Prince’s blistering electric guitar work, although fans who were there describe it as a mixed experience at best on the night itself due to over-crowding and poor security arrangements.
Prince at Bagley’s Warehouse in London’s Kings Cross in 1993 (edited footage would appear on the Warner Bros Sacrifice of Victor Video).
Aside from the BBC Radio 1 gig-ette – as documented in part 2 of this piece – one of the best live documents of the period is a quirky 50min plus concert, which was filmed and recorded in Paisley Park in February 1994 (sometimes referred to as The Beautiful Experience – although confusingly that’s also the title given to the maxi-single of remixes of The Most Beautiful Girl In The World). Between the autumn / winter of 1993 and the spring of 1994 a stylistic and attitudinal change had clearly taken place in Prince’s world. The sensitive singer-songwriter and Purple Rain guitar hero (with all of its 1980s cultural iconography) were banished, with mid 90s proto-rap and hip-hop driven hard funk brought in. To add to the oddness and shock value, Prince’s look during this period was distinctly more effeminate, which was no doubt a deliberate move – see the video for eventual runaway hit (and first UK number 1) The Most Beautiful Girl in The World as an example. Heavy eye-liner, a short cropped hairstyle, lots of make-up and a mixture of pyjamas and floaty robes often marked public appearances in 1994.
New Power Generation band circa mid 1990s
The performance in February of that year, to an invited audience of fans, fellow musical peers and industry insiders was to put down a marker for the newly christened (or reborn) artist. It kicks off with the bouncy rock-funk of Interactive – an early commentary on the virtual world (and a track that was first made available by Prince on CD-ROM – anyone remember them?). Possibly more significant was an early performance of a song called Days of Wild, probably Prince’s best funk track of that decade (and one of his best full stop). If ever he had wanted to make music faithful to heroes such as Sly & The Family Stone, but put his own stamp on it, this was it. Chock full of expletives and bad-ass rapping, the bitterness and vitriol still seem to work and are very much Prince’s best take on rap music as a style. He was determined to make his point about hip-hop culture but here he nails it, fusing his own style onto it (and this was after several previous attempts, the most notorious when he tried in a humorous but snipey way on the aborted Black Album from 1987 – which co-incidentally was eventually released by Warner Bros as a contract filler that same year, 1994).
“Tennis shoes and caps now that’s phat, up until the day another wanna laugh behind your back, u say we all look the same – well God bless America the home of the brave.” The lyrics are challenging throughout – “hooker, b*tch and ho’, I don’t think so, I only knew one but never told her though…a woman every day should be thanked, not disrespected, not raped or spanked”, and if anything this became the anthem of one of Prince’s most daring and rebellious periods. Easy to be a rebel when you’re just breaking into the industry as a teenager, but not so easy as a thirty something when there’s a whole industry revolving around you. Fans of this period will remember being told to ‘wave the Wild sign high y’all’ and also to ‘hold on to your wig!’ during very free form jams and concerts. Nobody knew what that last sentiment meant (at least I didn’t), but against the thumping bass and sparse Hammond organ it certainly felt like the Artist at his most raw. That 1994 concert, which is loose and relaxed, also includes covers such as Graham Central Station’s I Believe in You and Salt N Pepa’s None of Your Business, alongside newly written raps like Now. You get bursts of blues, Ray Charles but also bass driven jams over heavy samples – just listen to the NPG stretch out on Peak the Technique. Raspberry Beret and Little Red Corvette suddenly seem like they’re a million miles away in some far off universe, and to Prince they probably were.
(Above) The Artist formerly known as Prince with the mid 90s configuration of the New Power Generation (from left to right): Michael Bland; Tommy Barbarella (front row); Morris Hayes; Sonny T; The Artist, and; Mayte Garcia.
An extended 10min+ ‘live’ version of Days of Wild eventually surfaced on his set of bootlegs and rarities, The Crystal Ball…and while it’s impressive, it contains lots of heavy studio overdubs to make it sound definitive (but they actually serve to make it feel slightly less raw than the Paisley Park unveiling). In later years, following his conversion to the Jehovah’s Witness faith, and enduring friendship with Family Stone bass player Larry Graham, Prince would play the track continually without expletives and different lyrics, but it was never quite the same.
However for all he enjoyed the experimentation within Paisley Park he was still very frustrated and angry with his paymasters and many who sat outside the walls of his studio nirvana. In fact it would be over two years until he was able to ‘free the music’ and end his 18 year relationship with Warner Bros – eventually describing it as a marriage of sorts that he’d come to terms with. During much of the next two years however he conducted a bitter battle in the media agitating for the release of an album called The Gold Experience, but also pursuing the release of a Bee Gees style ballad, The Most Beautiful Girl in The World on an independent label called Bellmark. That Warners eventually sanctioned both releases is surprising in hindsight, but it was more than likely damage limitation – the former was relatively well received by critics as one of his most focused efforts in several years (with a number of tracks from the early ’94 showcase appearing) and the Beautiful Girl single became one of his biggest ever hits worldwide, going to number one in several countries.
Get Wild CD single cover artwork – from the NPG records release The Exodus Has Begun (featuring cryptic message “Free the Gold Experience”). Right Mayte & The Artist on Top of the Pops, 1995.
However there was yet weirder to come in 1995, where all of the oddity, the pressure and eccentricity of Prince’s claustrophobia were to be expressed. He toured under the banner of ‘The Ultimate Live Experience’ but played mainly unreleased songs (from the Gold Experience album) that only his most hard-core fans could know and appreciate. TV appearances would often see him appear with his face obscured with a scarf and being referred to as Tora Tora, with wife Mayte and other bemused band-members having to speak for him in interviews. Was this the final meltdown?
In the background, amid the Gold feud there was yet another album project in the mix – which if anything sounded like a collaboration between Prince and bass player Sonny T. The Exodus Has Begun was released in 1995 in Europe – no doubt further annoying his record label – and made very little mark on the charts, but there were three singles released from it here and in the U.S. It’s probably closest in sound to some of George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic work, displaying a bizarre and sometimes angry or misogynistic sense of humour. More than half of the 21 tracks are segues and comedic interludes, however the album features party jam, Get Wild and stunning Curtis Mayfield infused soul stirrer Count the Days, which opens with the line: “Here’s a church, here’s a steeple, here’s a mother-f**ker that I gotta blow away…”. Beyond the shock of the opening line, it’s one of his best songs from the decade and definitely worth checking out. For hardcore funk heads it also features two out and out P-Funk sermons in Return of the Bump Squad and the title track The Exodus Has Begun. Essentially a ‘long live the New Power Generation’ record it’s worth a listen if you can still get a copy, and also don’t mind 3 minute skits such as the Mashed Potato Girl interlude featuring Prince corpsing an Italian accent and joking that his girl ordered the entire left hand side of a menu. It’s all played for laughs, it just depends on your sense of humour.
Contractual albums for Warners were released in amazingly quick succession from the mid-90s onwards (to speed up the end of a failing commercial relationship) – Come, Chaos & Disorder and The Vault…Old Friends 4 Sale to name but three, with a number of great tracks completely over-looked as a result. Dark from Come is one of Prince’s best ballads, Chaos has now been re-discovered by fans, while The Vault offers only a tantalising glimpse into what Universal Music must now be trawling through inside the museum that is Paisley Park. When the lights go down – from that collection – is a sultry brooding number that sounds like the kind of thing Prince recorded for himself, but is no less satisfying as a result. He even found time to get involved in the release of an album called 1-800-New-Funk which featured various collaborators such as George Clinton, Gospel group The Steeles, Margie Cox and Nona Gaye, whom he recorded a single called Love Sign (and promoted on various US TV shows at the time). To add to complications in his personal life, it seems almost certain that Prince was having a relationship with the daughter of Marvin Gaye at the time which would have cut across romantic relations with his young wife, the dancer Mayte Garcia.
Prince with collaborator and girlfriend Nona Gaye – their joint single Love Sign was promoted on US Television and appeared on the compilation CD 1-800-New Funk
If one thing defines the decade for the artist it was the sense that he was paradoxically over-exposed in terms of output, but under-appreciated as a recording artist in equal measure. It was a bad place to be, with increasingly no-one to tell him no and quality control going out of the window. Prince however saw a light which would banish the extended period of darkness he found himself in, a 3 hour triple album called Emancipation.
What marks Emancipation out from a stylistic point of view is a rejection of the thrusting male braggadocio that Prince had been employing with the band of brothers that was the later incarnation of the NPG. He ditched the phallic gun style microphone, the expletives and the hip-hop stylings after this point. In fact beyond 1998, under the influence of spiritual mentor Larry Graham swear words were banished and they never came back into either his recording or his live concerts.
Part F.U. note to Warners, part romantic love opus for new wife Mayte Garcia and once again a bewildering melting pot of musical styles – it reached high, but it was ultimately over-stretching, with just a bit too much for the public at large to digest (and frankly they’d heard enough at this point). Again revisiting this collection 20 years on, it’s breath-taking in its scope and definitely worth a listen. Although it lacks the cutting edge and bite of his 80s work (too often wandering into generic RnB radio-lite territory) but also of some of the NPGs more left-leaning funk, there are a number of highlights. On disc 1 (each is an hour long) the reflective and bitter White Mansion – “one day I’ll have a big white mansion at the top of the road, I’ll wear the latest fashion and I’ll be happy don’t u know…”; In This Bed I Scream, a pen letter to 80s collaborators and girlfriends Lisa Coleman, Wendy & Susannah Melvoin; and the bouncy live promo We Gets Up. Disc 2 contains possibly some of the most romantic and personal collection of songs Prince ever committed to tape – Let’s Have A Baby; Saviour; Friend, Lover, Sister, Mother/Wife (the latter was played during his wedding to Mayte). While Disc 3 features a song called Slave “everybody keeps trying to break my heart, everybody except for me” and New World, where The Artist worries about genetically modified children and a future where we ‘can’t tell him from her…how we gonna take it?’. The collection features various cover versions too, Joan Osborne’s One of Us, Bonnie Raitt’s I Can’t Make You Love Me, the Delfonics La, La, La, Means I Love You and the Stylistics Betcha By Golly Wow (not for the first time, the latter was a very odd choice of single to promote the album).
Was it too much maybe even for someone as prolific as Prince to deliver and promote? It’s more than likely that it was, but it was also affected by tragedy in his personal life. He and his young wife were to lose their only child – who suffered from a rare condition called Pfeiffer Syndrome – just days after he was born, and only a few days before promotion began for the album’s release. The tragedy of losing his baby son only seemed to make Prince want to work harder on selling the collection, burying his feelings in a promotional push for an album that was one of his most personal statements. It was a doomed enterprise however and must have done irreparable damage in his personal life at the time. It’s also notable that for the last 20 years of his career he never played any of the songs from this album again, barring The Love We Make with female rock trio 3rd Eye Girl.
His true feelings did emerge briefly in two later songs, the heart-breaking Comeback from The Truth and in the troubled hidden track Wasted Kisses which was bizarrely buried at the end of the throwaway party album New Power Soul released in 1998. To the backbeat of a heart rate monitor, he sings pitifully asking the question repeatedly ‘Why did I waste my kisses on you?’…if you know the history it’s not an easy listen. And on Comeback from The Truth he laments, ‘if you ever lose someone dear to you, never say the words they’ve gone, and they’ll come back’.
The latter is one of his most emotional vocals, and although short it appears on one of Prince’s best album projects of the 1990s, 1997s The Truth, his attempt at an acoustic album (he would later do something similar with piano and voice on the One Nite Alone album). Of course Prince being Prince it’s not entirely acoustic and he breaks the rules on occasion, and while there are a couple of very surreal experiments such as Animal Kingdom (complete with distorted vocals and dolphin clicks) and Man In a Uniform, for the most part it’s a gem. Alongside The Undertaker it’s tragically undervalued and deserves to be viewed alongside some of his best and most innovative work. The Truth when it came out, was strangely included in a 5 CD box set of bootlegs, remixes and the Kamasutra ballet called Crystal Ball. It featured interesting Prince & The Revolution out-takes like the 11minute Crystal Ball suite and Make Your Mama Happy, but also contained some pointless remixes and one or two throwaway jams such as Da Bang, Love Sign (Remix) and Hide the Bone (the latter being a better live song than a studio track). As a project the much hyped and myth-making Crystal Ball was pretty slapdash in the end, (distributed via the internet) it had the look of something rushed both in the presentation and packaging, but also in the way it was sequenced and edited musically. While it was interesting to read in the sleeve notes that D’Angelo enjoyed the song Movie Star as his favourite bootleg, or to hear Prince and Morris Day goofing around on drums and bass for 15mins on Cloreen Bacon Skin, it was far from satisfying overall, with many fans reflecting this collection to be a major missed opportunity to showcase the many great songs in Prince’s vault – which it was.
Another one of Prince’s most personal statements came at the start of the next decade – a heartfelt examination of his new found religious beliefs on 2001s The Rainbow Children. Musically it’s one of his best and it was no surprise to see it form the basis of one of his best live tours for years. However, it’s certainly controversial in many ways (and not necessarily in the ways which Prince himself imagined). It features a narrowing of his world view to something that’s infinitely much more conservative, with male and female roles more fixed and traditional, and also contains some highly questionable pontification about modern world history and race (that bordered on blatant anti-Semitism at times). To hear those views expressed by someone who’d previously held themselves up as a free-thinking innovator, and who’d helped a whole generation question their own identities, was hard.
So over-exposed, fragmented, offensive, imaginative, other-worldly, indigestible, Prince’s output was all of these things in the 1990s – the lost ‘friction years’ as he would describe them to Spike Lee in an interview. However many of the crazy experiments came to define him, and his attitude and approach would help cement his legacy on future projects – the triumph of his half-time Superbowl performance (drenched in a downpour performing Purple Rain, Bob Dylan and the Foo Fighters), the critically acclaimed 21 nights concert and aftershow series at London’s O2 and IndigO2, not to mention re-energised live performances with rock trio 3rd Eye Girl. His Hit N Run albums also saw his recording output revived shortly before his untimely death.
So while the highlights were considerably lesser than during the 1980s heyday, there’s more than enough to revisit from this period, and once there is time to fully digest a remarkable career, more may yet emerge from Prince’s fabled vault to reveal further hidden depths.
It was certainly a period in which Prince made a number of rash decisions, took risks and pushed previously trusted members of his inner circle away, threatening to damage the considerable legacy he’d carefully honed up to that point. In the end, he did emerge with credit, and it proved that here was a true rebel, a button pusher who was prepared to risk everything in the name of his own artistic statements. Self-indulgent, narcissistic and often misguided, yes, but for those who were there listening closely to the experiments, the fall outs and the live concerts – it was in true Prince Fashion like nothing else around at the time.