Think of all the other rock stars who wasted no time covering his songs. The president who took ample time talking him up to reporters. The late-night TV show that used all of its weekly time slot to honor him. The city that ignored time altogether and stayed up dancing until dawn three nights in a row.
So much love was shown for Prince over the past week and a half, dare we say even he would’ve been humbled.
However, may we also be so bold as to suggest that all these tributes still haven’t done him justice?
It’s likely that Prince’s impact on popular music and American culture won’t be fully understood for years to come. That’s in his nature: Leave ’em guessing.
His wild mix of bravado, libido, topicality, equality, spirituality and plain ol’ electricity was sometimes deceptive, often misunderstood and occasionally off-putting. And certainly it wasn’t always genius. So much of it was, though. His huge canon of music will be pored over and dissected in ways not unlike his fellow Minnesotan Bob Dylan’s output, and that of Bruce Springsteen.
“I never met Mozart, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker or Elvis, but I met Prince,” Bono bragged last weekend alongside an Instagram photo of the lyrics to Prince’s 1987 opus “The Cross.”
Musicians seemed to know best just how rare his talent was. They’ve been the most vocal about his lasting legacy.
At both the Coachella and New Orleans Jazz & Heritage festivals last weekend, artists ranging from Pearl Jam and LCD Soundsystem to Usher, Mavis Staples and Deep South bluesmen sang his praise and his songs last weekend. A skywriter even emblazoned the blue sky with Prince’s androgynous symbol over the fest in the city that birthed jazz.
“He meant a lot to musicians around the world, and he’ll be crazy missed by us,” soul-rocker Nathaniel Rateliff said as he had 25,000 or so fans raise a toast.
Artists who covered his songs at their concerts ranged from the Dixie Chicks to Pink Floyd’s David Gilmore to Mumford & Sons, who happened to be in St. Paul the night of his passing. The British folk-rockers’ version of “Nothing Compares 2 U” at Xcel Energy Center has gone viral, like so many other such tributes.
Maybe the most shared video clip of all is Springsteen’s version of “Purple Rain” at Barclays Center in New York. He opened his show with it. “I always left one of his shows humbled,” the Boss said of the Kid.
And these are mostly musicians who never worked with Prince. The musicians who did get to collaborate with him marvel the most about his musical genius.
“He had every facet of talent a musician wants: songwriting, production, singing and playing ability, not to mention business know-how,” said Monte Moir, keyboardist in the Time, whose heyday material was largely produced and co-written with Prince. “And as much as it was natural talent, he did his homework, too. He worked really hard at everything he did.”
While as a player he’s best known for his spine-rattling guitar work, the most cutting-edge part of his music early on was his prominent and innovative use of synthesizers. Both Moir and Prince’s Revolution-era keyboardist, Matt Fink (aka Dr. Fink), recounted how he used Oberheim keyboards and other relatively basic synthesizers to create cutting-edge sounds.
“He’d say, ‘If you have a free hand, use it,’ ” Moir said, a contrast to modern synthesizers that allow for orchestras at the push of a button.
Things didn’t stay basic for long, though: “He kept evolving and bringing in new equipment every year, trying to find the next cool sound,” said Fink. “Everything became state-of-the-art, which was part of his desire to keep evolving as an artist.”
Said Moir, “Sometime early on in our rehearsals he was showing me a part and said something to the effect that: ‘This is something a horn section would play, but since we don’t have horns this is what it will have to be.’ Those synth-type horns were one of the elements of the Minneapolis sound he created.”
The Minneapolis Sound wasn’t just a catchphrase, it was a discernible blend of electronic dance music and the new wave sounds of the era with traditional funk and R&B styles. Beyond those layers of synths, Prince’s self-made genre featured electronically processed and often sped-up drum parts, and clean, crisp guitars that gave way to hard-rocking solos.
“He focused on elements of the music that a lot of people in rock didn’t take the time to, really, like the synthesizers,” said Michael Bland, who drummed with Prince’s ’90s-era New Power Generation lineup.
Even after blueprinting the Minneapolis Sound, Bland said, Prince continued to boldly blend styles and incorporate new ideas.
“He just didn’t hear things like a normal person, and he kept trying to go after and explore whatever sound he had in his head,” the drummer said. “It was a real pressure cooker for those of us who played with him, because he was always testing our abilities.”
All of Prince’s musical compatriots seem to agree, however, that for all of his edginess as an arranger and bandleader, perhaps his greatest gift was the more natural gift of songwriting. Amid all the cool sounds he created were songs with insatiably catchy hooks, dramatic melodies and lyrics that constantly provoked, amused, inspired or moved the listener.
“He wasn’t just good, he was incredibly prolific,” Moir said. “We would be messing around, and he would go away for a minute and come back with an entire new song.”
Said Bland, “I had recording sessions with him where he would get 10 or 11 good song ideas in that one session. It was incredible.”
Fink said that Prince “knew he needed us other musicians around to inject some ideas and energy into the music, but he really did all of the lyrical and melodic content of those songs by himself. He was just born with this mind that music just poured out of, and he couldn’t shut it off.”
Fortunately, that valve still can’t be shut off. Prince is known to have a vault of shelved, sidelined or unfinished recordings that’s the rock ’n’ roll equivalent of Fort Knox. This is one recording artist whose posthumous “new” albums could truly be gold.
“I know there’s a lot of stuff we worked on just in the Revolution that never saw the light of day, so I can only imagine how much else there is,” Fink said.
One more reason Prince’s musical genius might not be properly appreciated for decades.