"I was reluctant to let you come," says the man sitting in front of me, "until I heard that you're planning to do a story about ownership."
I have flown out from Los Angeles to the ice fields of Minneapolis ("Well, it's back to the tundra," says one of my fellow passengers as we touch down on a crisp 12-degree day) on 24 hours' notice. I am hoping I will get a chance to discuss the spontaneous touring strategy Prince has raised to an innovative art in the last few years, as well as what plans he may have for his storehouse of unreleased material (his last album was 2010's 20Ten). And I'm planning to talk with him about his being chosen as Billboard's 2013 Icon honoree at the Billboard Music Awards in May.
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But I begin wondering how much of that we'll get to when I get word from Prince's manager, Julia Ramadan, that I should spend what little time I have to prepare by watching "The Adjustment Bureau" (more on this later), reading the Twitter feed of an apparent (and mysterious) Prince bootlegger and watching an online video discussion between a Prince superfan and the blogger Dr. Funkenberry. And now I'm worried that the interview I've come here for may not happen at all.
One thing you learn quickly about Prince: He doesn't suffer fools or folks who don't know what they're talking about. For the next three hours, we ricochet back and forth on a variety of topics. Later, back at my hotel, I'll be re-creating our conversation from memory. This is how Prince interviews have unfolded for many years. He remains adamant about not allowing reporters to record their conversations with him. ("Some in the past have taken my voice and sold it," he says. "I can't remember the incident that triggered it and it's probably best that I don't.") And he still frowns at the idea of a reporter taking notes. ("That would be just like texting.")
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Later on, I will watch Prince audition a drummer. Right now, I'm involved in an audition of my own. "Let's talk a little," Prince says as I follow him into a second-floor conference room, "and see if we vibe first." Without missing a beat and keeping steady eye contact, he makes a few comments about media ownership and control, then shoots out a question. How would I get the word out about, and then monetize a lyric video for, one of his new songs, "Screw Driver," that I'd been shown a few minutes earlier? I tell him an online post will generate enough interest to get us to monetization-given the fan clamor for new Prince music, there's a community ready to pay a nominal price to get their hands on said track. Nothing revolutionary, but Prince pauses and thinks it over. I think I may have passed the audition.
It's a 40-minute drive from the airport to the Minneapolis suburb of Chanhassen, Minn. As the driver makes a left turn, two stark white buildings materialize seemingly out of nowhere. Other than a small gray sign at the foot of the driveway noting the address and where trucks should make deliveries, there is no signage or any other vehicles, let alone human activity. The cabbie, hesitant as to whether we've found the right place, keeps the meter running for the three minutes it takes for someone to come outside and let me in. But there's no denying the aura: This is Paisley Park.
Ramadan -- a tall, svelte recent USC graduate who met Prince during his run of 21 shows at the L.A. Forum and quickly ascended to management status -- welcomes me and ushers me down a hallway with a light-blue carpet accented with stars and crescent moons. Album plaques line the walls. We arrive at the doorway of a cavernous soundstage, with an oddly elongated piano just outside. On it is the Love Symbol, first introduced on the 1992 album that marked his Artist Formerly Known As period.
The Love Symbol is emblazoned all around Paisley Park. Once inside the soundstage, you can't miss it hanging on the wall facing the stage. And that's when I first see the man himself, onstage, guitar in hand, rehearsing with a female backing trio: Donna Grantis on guitar, Ida Nielsen on bass, Hannah Ford Welton on drums. The foursome is jamming tight and hard on "What If," from contemporary Christian singer/songwriter Nichole Nordeman's 2005 album "Brave." (It's about Jesus and non-believers-what if you're right and he's just another nice guy? But what if you're wrong and there's more than you ever dreamed of?) Motioning Ramadan and I to come forward as he continues to play, Prince directs us to come onstage. Lining the perimeter are assorted instruments, microphones, stereo equipment and-atop one mic stand-a cinnamon-colored wig.
Prince is rehearsing with this trio for performances that he cryptically says will begin in two days. (Two days after we speak, he announces six last-minute shows at Minneapolis' Dakota Jazz Club. Tickets for all six, ranging from $70 to $250, sell out in one morning.) The ever-slender Prince-a strikingly ever-youthful advertisement for the maxim "black don't crack"-is garbed in yellow pants and a long, oversized button-front white-and-yellow jersey emblazoned with "MPLS" on the front. His Afro is covered by an incongruous hat in the shape of a lion. His other eye-catching accessory: wedged silver shoes adorned with periodically flashing red lights. A full-fledged rock star, even in rehearsal.
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Prince alternates between guitar and keyboards, and the songs they play spark to life with every touch he adds. "What If" is followed by new arrangements of two Prince songs-the springy funk-rocker "Cause and Effect" from 2010 and the vintage "Around the World in a Day" B-side "She's Always in My Hair"-and all three songs provide a bird's-eye view of Prince's skills as an artist and multitasker. There's the singer/songwriter for whom music remains a deep-rooted passion-and above all, fun. There's the mesmerizing instrumentalist on guitar and keyboard, sounding just as improvisational, energetic and fresh as he did when he hit the scene in 1978. Then there's also the teacher/mentor who gets off on finding and molding new talent.
He suggests the drummer take a solo on the end of the last song and has the trio go back and practice the last four bars with that in mind. Despite the cavernous feeling of the room, a camaraderie and warmth permeate the premises as he and the ladies go through their paces. Signaling the end of the practice session ("We work for 15 minutes and then take a break," he says with a chuckle), he offers his hand to help me down the stairs and I'm spirited away to another office in the Paisley Park maze.
Here I meet a young man named Jason Franzen working on a computer, putting the finishing touches on a lyric video for the previously mentioned double-entendre rocker "Screw Driver." Then it's on to the second floor of the complex. As we're walking down the hall to a conference room where we can sit and talk, Prince throws me for a loop: "I hear you may be writing about the 'O' word," he says. It takes me a few minutes to understand what he's referring to. There was a time in Prince's career when "the 'O' word" might have had a more lascivious connotation. But the O word he's referring to now is "ownership."
It's been the key issue for him since the dissolution of his nearly 20-year relationship with Warner Bros. Records in 1996. That year he released a final album of new material for the label, Chaos and Disorder. The album's subsequent lack of commercial success underscored Prince’s dissatisfaction with Warner Bros., percolating since the 1992 release of the infamous Love Symbol album. In 1993, faulting Warner’s ineffective marketing as the reason for that project’s disappointing performance, he dropped the Prince moniker, began using Love Symbol as his stage name and wrote the word “slave” on his face. Seeking to emancipate himself from a label that he believed was now stifling his artistic freedom, Prince began issuing albums in quick succession (Come, The Black Album and The Gold Experience) to speed up the end of his contractual obligations.
And here’s where Prince’s request that I watch “The Adjustment Bureau” begins to make sense. The 2011 movie, starring Matt Damon and Emily Blunt, is about a man struggling to establish his own free will, pitted against a mysterious group of grey-suited men -- the Adjustment Bureau -- whose job is to make sure that people follow their predestined paths. Flashback to Prince’s storied fight against Warner Bros. “It was also about Madonna,” he says. “She was getting paid, but at the time we were selling more records and selling out concerts on multiple nights. It wasn’t about her. This was about business.”
Around the same time he was exiting Warner Bros., the musical visionary was setting his sights on the fledging Web. His marketing of the CD boxed set Crystal Ball as an exclusive to online consumers was ahead of its time. But since then, Prince and the Internet have engaged in a doves-cry-like love/hate relationship. The artist has launched several sites through the years, including 2009’s LotusFlow3R.com, only to shut them down and leave his fans hanging. A host of cease-and-desist orders have been handed down to fans and websites for using his image without permission. And you’ll be hard-pressed to find any classic videos or performance footage of Prince on YouTube or anywhere else on the Web. (“I have a team of female black lawyers who keep an eye on such transgressions,” Prince says. “And you know they’re sharp,” he adds with a laugh.) In recent years, he’s bundled releases like 2004’s Musicology, 2007’s Planet Earth and 2010’s 20Ten for free along with ticket purchases or in such newspapers as the Daily Mirror and the Mail.
As we talk, it’s clear that Prince thinks the music business is as artistically destructive as ever. He decries radio’s airplay stranglehold and sees playlists for both terrestrial and satellite radio subject to the demands of corporate boards. He laments there’s too much gaming of the system with the cost being fewer opportunities for minority ownership and the silencing of important voices in both business and the community. Ownership is control and power. “Those are the issues that a magazine like Billboard needs to be writing about,” he says. “Billboard needs to tell the truth, shake things up.”
Talk turns to his latest protégé, Andy Allo. “What does it take to get a record played these days?” he asks. He executive-produced Allo’s Superconductor (Allo Evolution), a funk and jazz romp through very Princely territory featuring Trombone Shorty and Maceo Parker and released in November. A guitarist/vocalist who joined Prince’s NPG band in 2001, she recently appeared on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” But so far there’s no appreciable radio attention around her project.
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His frustration with radio restrictions dovetails into his own music and the role of indie promoters, which can be a costly endeavor. “I’m selling out multiple nights, but how come I can’t get music on the radio? You have the indie promoters and you ask, ‘Who are you and where do you come from? What are your references? And can you guarantee your work [getting airplay]? No. But I have to make sure and guarantee mine, right?’” -- a possible allusion to the no-pay, no-play gambit that most associate with the indie arena.
We turn to compulsory licensing, long a pet peeve of his. The compulsory was actually codified in 1909, mostly governing piano rolls. By the 1930s, record labels were using the compulsory to pay a statutory rate on songs. While that rate has grown over the years, the fundamental dynamics of how the compulsory allows for the licensing of songs has not. Prince says he doesn’t understand why people want to cover someone else’s songs. In the moment, I don’t think to mention the 1996 Emancipation album features his covers of “Betcha by Golly Wow!” and “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” but I do point out that he sometimes plays covers during his performances.
“I do pay performance royalties on others’ songs I perform live, but I’m not recording these songs and putting them up for sale,” he says. “Why do we need to hear another cover of a song someone else did? Art is about building a new foundation, not just laying something on top of what’s already there.” At this point he references Maroon 5’s cover of his “Kiss,” letting it be known he wasn’t thrilled by it. The group released the cover as a bonus track on the deluxe version of its 2012 Overexposed album. However, the deluxe version on iTunes no longer includes the “Kiss” cover. A source close to the situation says that Maroon 5 removed the cover when it learned that Prince didn’t approve. (Maroon 5 representatives were unable to clarify this point at press time.)
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When I bring the discussion around to his being chosen as Billboard’s 2013 Icon honoree, attempting to get him to reflect on what’s been a remarkable career, he downplays the situation. “I thank Billboard for giving me this honor. It’s always nice to be recognized for what we’ve done here,” he says. “But I’m all about moving forward.”
Beyond finding and introducing new talent -- like Allo, or the backing trio he was rehearsing with when I arrived -- moving forward also means projects like the documentary he’s working on about bassist Larry Graham, who’s played with Sly & the Family Stone, Graham Central Station and Prince himself. Taking me into another room down the hall -- where a tabletop is temptingly laden with CDs of various songs -- he pops in the documentary and gives me a peak of the rough cut. The planned 83-minute film is full of performance footage from such ’70s shows at “Midnight Special,” vintage photos and commentary from Graham. Halfway completed, the project has hit an impasse, and ownership is again the issue: Some $500,000 is needed to clear Graham songs that Prince wants to integrate into the story. “Some of these songs have been sitting on the shelf for years and they’ve done nothing with them. Now this.”
Before heading back downstairs, I spy a large, nearly floor-to-ceiling white cage across the hall. At first it appears empty so I’m wondering just what kind of animal it had contained. Approaching closer, I can see white doves, at least four or five of them, chilling inside. Their coos echo ethereally through the building as I descend the stairs.
We return to the same soundstage, where a young man named Ronald Bruner Jr. who looks no more than 30 is waiting to audition as a drummer. He explains he hails from Compton, Calif., and grew up playing to recordings by everyone from John Coltrane to Led Zeppelin. Settled behind the same drum kit as Hannah Ford Welton was playing earlier, Bruner proceeds to give the kit a fierce workout on improvised jazz- and funk-vibed tracks led by a female keyboardist named Cassandra O’Neal and bassist Andrew Gouche with Prince sliding in signature guitar licks of his own after standing off to the side and taking in Bruner’s vibe. You can tell by Prince’s face that he’s pleased by the audition.
And then it’s back to the conference room, where we talk about the recent leak of unreleased Prince material. A mysterious person with the Twitter handle 3rdeyegirl (whose Twitter bio describes her as an “International Art Thief ”) was posting links -- since removed -- to new material. Was this a publicity stunt or Prince himself? He counters that it was indeed a bootlegger. But why then is 3rdeyegirl’s Twitter avatar pasted on the face of the drum kit on the soundstage I’ve seen him rehearsing on? Prince says it’s just the girls (his backing trio and Ramadan) poking fun at the situation. “As a band, they don’t even have a name. They’re not 3rdeye.”
So is a new album in the offing -- the hope of many fans, as evidenced by responses following a recent Spree.com chat between super fan and TV/radio announcer Seth Everett and Prince blogger Dr. Funkenberry? Prince dismisses that notion -- for now at least.
“That kind of album talk always comes up when something leaks,” he says. “But I don’t do albums anymore -- I don’t have a deal. I do songs.” Will he be releasing those songs online? “If my fans want this, they will tell me what to do and how much they want to pay.” The consensus of fans who participated in the chat-cast is that they’d be willing to spend money on his music if an equitable online solution could be determined. And indeed, a new site, 20PR1NC3.com, is being readied as we speak. The plan is for it to tease future projects -- music, videos -- for purchase.
Prince talks about playing new songs at his upcoming shows and relying less on his previous heavy ratio of hits. (Reviews of the first Dakota shows have the set lists running toward jams.) He also wants to reopen Paisley Park for concerts, as he’s done in years past. He wants fans to get up close and personal, tossing out the idea of inviting two to four partygoers at a time to sit onstage with him and his band and feel what he feels from the music. “2013 is just about introducing talented, young musicians and doing something different musically,” he says.
Speaking of young, from Ramadan to the auditioning drummer and his female backing trio, the 54-year-old Gemini is surrounding himself with and drawing inspiration from the next generation. “I don’t talk to old people,” he says. That’s because even as things are quickly changing, “they try to find ways to stay static. Young folks are the ones with the ideas and constantly moving forward.”
Three hours later, our chat is winding down. I ask Prince what he has planned for the evening. He considers taking the musicians into town so they can jump on a couple of jam sessions. If so, he says he’ll give me a shout to see if I want to tag along (unfortunately, that shout doesn’t happen). In the meantime, he takes me back downstairs through the kitchen where Ramadan is ready to take me to the hotel. He asks her to order me dinner to be delivered to my room. I must say Houlihan’s cooks a mean salmon steak.
In the meantime, as the underground garage door shuts on the Paisley Park complex, I come away with more questions than answers. Is there a new album in the works? Is Prince considering a return engagement on the Internet? Where does he house that storied vault of songs? There’s only one person in control who knows: Prince.
Thanking me for our chat as we leave the conference room, he can’t resist one last double-check: “You didn’t record this, right?”
This article originally appeared in the Jan. 26, 2013 issue of Billboard.