In 2006, Monte Lipman was the president of Universal Republic Records before the label he co-founded with his brother Avery after its acquisition by Universal Music Group six years prior. It was then he got a call from a representative for Prince, the music legend who died Thursday (April 21).
The record they would release that year was 3121, which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 dated April 8, 2006. It was Prince’s first No. 1 album since 1989’s Batman soundtrack and the final chart-topping set in his lifetime. It has sold 531,000 copies in the U.S., according to Nielsen Music.
Speaking to Billboard on the sad news of Prince’s passing, Lipman recalled first meeting the icon at his Paisley Park home, arranging effortless parties in Los Angeles and getting more than a few head-scratches from the philosophically mercurial genius.
When did you begin to work with Prince?
We released the album 3121 in 2006 — from what I understood at the time, it was his first No. 1 album in two decades. It was something we were very proud of it and went on to sell about 2 million albums around the world. For me, and my company which was little at the time because we were operating as Universal Republic, it was a turning point in my career. As a professional, as an executive because the thing about Prince, what I really dug about him — the whole experience and the process, from having the conversations in the spirit of working together and ultimately shaking hands and releasing the record — was probably two-and-a-half, three years.
Prince would typically say things that were either completely mad, or just short of genius. You’d walk away from the conversation scratching your head, wondering “OK, which is it? Was that the best idea I’ve ever heard, or has my man gone out of his mind?”
As a simple example, we would sit down and he would say “OK, how are you going to sell 100 million albums?” And, like any normal executive in modern-day music, you’d say, essentially, “Well, that’s impossible.” He’d say, “It’s not impossible.” That was the spirit of the conversation. You’d find yourself arguing and trying to defend why it can’t. Over a period of time, though, you’d start thinking about why it can. It just opens up the creative forces. You’d find yourself starting to think differently and your approach.
For a large part, I don’t think I’d have the kind of success I have today without that experience.
I’ve heard from a couple executives who said they were approached by him. Was that the case between you two?
Yeah! Exactly. I got cold-called one day from someone I’ve never heard from before, saying, “Would you mind getting on the phone with Prince?” And I said, “Well how do I know this isn’t a joke?” Sure enough, you hear that deep voice and you know immediately it’s authentic, it’s real. He was fairly guarded in the early days and very short with his words, but also very specific and somewhat detailed in terms of what he was looking to do and accomplish. The courting period took longer than the process of releasing the music.
In my personal experience, it was really about having healthy debates. I’m sure some of it was just — I wouldn’t call it entertainment value — but for him it was a form stimulation, mental stimulation. Having those conversations with music executives, provoking us, antagonizing us, suggesting we think differently.
I can do hours on the stories, the evenings we spent — putting together events and parties.
The irony of all this is that [executive vice president, Universal Music Group] Michele Anthony, who I didn’t know very well at the time, was very very close with Prince. Her relationship with Prince and my own was what brought us together. We were talking about our personal experiences, the parallels and the similarities — through that, Michele and I became very close friends.
When he called you, it was about 2003, 2004?
There was one other time prior to that, I went to Paisley Park with a couple people. During that cycle we only met with him the one time. He went off and signed a deal with Columbia and that’s when they put the record out with the concerts and the CDs and the tickets. I was a bit surprised, because I’d already had that meeting with him, at midnight.
Typically the meetings would start any time between 12 and 2 a.m. You’d find yourself walking out of his house and 7, 8 o’clock in the morning.
Can you tell me about these parties in L.A.?
They were always at his house, and what was so cool about it — there was never a guest list but, miraculously, 500 people would show up without even an hour’s notice. And I’m talking about A-listers — the biggest stars in Hollywood, the biggest stars in music, the most powerful executives. The process was so simple, in terms of essentially you’d just flip the switch and when you got the word, you’d go.
For a lot of people, I suppose, going to a Prince party was somewhat of a right of passage. My man was so mysterious and to be able to get behind the curtain and see the magic… those parties were great. He was always a wonderful host, there was always a lot of food and drink. He would play for hours, he would bring guests on stage.
Sounds like he wanted to throw a show for himself as much as he wanted to throw a party.
He liked to have fun! That was the thing about Prince. The music… I don’t use this word often, but he was a genius, without question. With that genius title, you tend to operate differently in terms of what we consider normal. The thing about Prince — what you’d realize once you got to know him, how normal he really was.
He started getting noticed at a very young age — and was always very focused on the work. Once you drill down into that kind of perfectionism… it may look strange from the outside, but it makes perfect sense when you’re standing in it.
It’s funny, you mention the work. I talk about working with Prince being a catalyst and a turning point in my life… forcing you talk differently, think different. But I forgot to mention, he also made us dress differently. [Laughs]
One of the caveats, when he shook my hand… he says ‘If you’re gonna represent Prince, you gotta look the part. I want you to get suited up, I want a tie, I want a handkerchief, I want shined shoes. I want you to look the part.’
That’s the thing… down to every detail, he created his own language. The fact that he operated without a name, was just brilliant. What he did through art was force people to think and look differently.
The symbol was a pretty brilliant business strategy too, you gotta give him that.
Spending time with him, I don’t think the spirit of it started with marketing, I think it came from that creative force. He’s always been very vocal about anti-piracy and certain laws. Never a fan of people covering his music without permission. He would say ‘Why wouldn’t someone first call me and ask if it’s cool? I wrote that song.’
That’s where you would scratch your head and say, ‘Maybe he’s got a good point with that one.’
The past decade or so, you’ve seen this slow erosion of genre. If you’re a punk kid, there’s no shame in listening to pop music. You look at him in the ’80s, the Replacements wanted to see Prince play as much as anyone. He’s one of the original pan-genre superstars.
The biggest success is when you rise above any one genre of music and you become iconic. Essentially your name references the kind of music you make. Prince reached that category.
You couldn’t suggest he was just an urban artist, a pop artist. So much of what he made was based in rock music. Everybody could touch Prince. Every format, every genre could touch Prince.
When I would talk to him and we’d talk about pop music, he’d say, ‘Why doesn’t pop radio play Mozart? Miles Davis?’ You find yourself having an awkward conversation because you find yourself trying to defend “the way it’s supposed to be” but he would always provoke you and say well why is that? If they understand the importance of Mozart or Miles Davis and present it in a fashion, you can definitely play it on pop radio! And again, I’d walk away scratching my head thinking, ‘Well I gotta think about that.’
He just looked at the world differently, and that’s what made him such a brilliant artist and a brilliant human being.