Friday, April 26, 2019

"Mamma-jammas and Sidewinders" - "Prince: The Last Interview" Review

Who is Prince the person? What are his values and beliefs? What are the reasons behind his artistic and business decisions? What is his conversation style?

Those are the questions I pondered as a new fan over 15 years ago, and I sought answers in the Prince books available. First, I read Purple Reign by Liz Jones during breaks at my summer retail job. Then, I progressed to Possessed: The Rise and Fall of Prince by Alex Hahn, Dance Music Sex Romance by Per Nilsen and many more.

Some of the books weren't comprehensive. Some drew questionable conclusions. Others could have been written better. But they provided a peek into the life of an enigmatic superstar and a springboard for my own research. Because of that, I can't discount them.

It is with that spirit that I approached and enjoyed Prince: The Last Interview and Other Conversations. Released in March 2019, it is a collection of interviews Prince did with journalists over the span of his nearly 40-year career. It's also part of a series featuring the likes of James Baldwin and Julia Child.

I picture another teenager coming across this book in a library, knowing nothing about Prince save that he sang "Purple Rain" and was a little eccentric. And I think they will find a trace of him here, both in poet and essayist Hanif Abdurraqib's intro, which beautifully emphasizes Prince's humanity, and in the subsequent interviews.

I don't mind that there are only 10 articles from publications including Minnesota Daily, Vegetarian Times and Q magazine. It's a more digestible length for new fans than some of the newer biographies, which they will likely be inspired to seek. They can complete this book in an afternoon. By comparison, I think back to reading Matthew Carcieri's Prince: A Life in Music, which outlined the icon's life through a playlist of 50 songs. Though not a definitive work, it succeeded as a snapshot of Prince's career.

While I was limited to the interpretations of others during my new fandom, today's new fans have a compilation of Prince's own words in black and white at their fingertips. The Last Interview starts off well with Prince's first-ever interview, which was published in his high school paper, the Central High Pioneer.

Readers might argue about the rest of the book. I don't mind that Prince's classic, extensive interviews with Rolling Stone (in 1985 and 1990, both titled "Prince Talks") are not included. It's nice to mix it up. I don't even mind that the book includes nearly 10-year gaps between some interviews. Most phases of Prince's career ("Purple Rain" superstardom, name change, Warner Bros. exodus, online forays and retreats, and Jehovah's Witness conversion, etc.) are referenced in some capacity. And the goal is to keep the book concise.

My main complaint is the absence of at least one interview by a black journalist. Prince's initial success came from a black fan base, and he was invested in black culture and issues despite reports to the contrary. And as readers of this book will notice, some deep cultural context is missing from some of the interviews included.

Granted, Prince did not do a ton of interviews. He often criticized reporters, famously calling them "mamma-jammas and sidewinders," and sharing that, as non-musicians, many of them were not qualified to judge his work. And there were certainly limitations the editors of The Last Interview faced in gaining permission to reprint interviews.

With that said, there are still a lot of interviews by black journalists that could have been sourced. Former Right On! reporter Cynthia Horner spoke to Prince at the start of his career. Ebony's longtime writer and editor Lynn Norment interviewed Prince multiple times throughout his career. When he finally decided to open up to the press briefly in the mid-1980s, she was granted a thorough one-on-one. Over 10 years later in 1997, she sat down with him to talk about his new family and professional independence.

Ebony magazine, July 1986

Including a transcript of Prince's legendary BET interview with Tavis Smiley in 1998 would have provided a more robust understanding of Prince's fallout with Warner Bros. and decision to write "slave" on his face.

Speaking of Ebony, writer Miles Marshall Lewis conducted one of the final interviews with Prince for the magazine. It was published online briefly on Dec. 22, 2015 before Prince requested it be taken down. "I guess he realized that he was too frank," Lewis said in an interview on Podcast Juice's Podcast on Prince. Editors of The Last Interview may or may not have been allowed to include the piece in the book, but you can find it here for now. It is one of the most honest and compelling interviews of Prince's career.

Despite my complaint, I found some gems in the book. I have limited research parameters for my own book on Prince (for sanity reasons), so I haven't read every single thing, nor am I aware of every single piece of trivia. I never knew the celebrity Prince was referencing in his song "Animal Kingdom," or that he was in solidarity with singer George Michael, who had a similar battle with Sony. Those are a couple things I learned from this collection.

It was also great to see little nods to things revealed in the wake of Prince's passing. For example, during one old interview, Prince briefly mentions Puerto Rico in reference to his name change. I now know he had a deep discussion with ex-wife Mayte Garcia about the decision in that country. When Prince mentions guiding his musical associates by saying, "You know what would be cool," I now know that was a phrase he regularly used to influence people. Both of those details are in Garcia's book, The Most Beautiful.

It was also really refreshing to sit down with this book and revisit and interpret Prince's words away from the noise on social media. Because there are so many perceptions of Prince in the world, it's easy for people to lose sight of what his words mean to them individually, personally.

So, at the very least, I have to say thank you to the editors of Prince: The Last Interview for the reminder.

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Friday, April 12, 2019

"Try to Clock 'Em" - Love Symbol by the Numbers

Prince had a thing for numbers. Most people know he utilized them as shorthand for words (2 in place of two, 4 in place of for, etc.), but he also integrated them into his lyrics. And he returned to certain numbers time and time again. For example, "7" is not only the title of one of his 1992 singles, but the number can be found in songs like "Nothing Compares to U," "I Love U in Me" and "My Name is Prince."

His 2006 album, 3121, adds up to seven; he famously played three Minneapolis gigs on July 7, 2007; he charged fees of $7.77 and $77; and so on. (He was also born on June 7.)

As a tribute to this obsession, I thought I'd recap one of my favorite Prince albums, 1992's Love Symbol, by pointing out just a handful of special numbers in the lyrics.

"In the beginning, God made the sea," Prince raps on the opening track, "My Name is Prince." Perhaps one of the most recognizable Biblical phrases, "In the beginning" is written in Genesis 1:1. However, according to the text, God didn't make the sea until the third day, outlined specifically in Genesis 1:10. In his next line, Prince raps, "On the seventh day, he made me." The Bible states that God made man on the sixth day and took a break the next day. Prince pokes fun at the change; "He was trying to rest, y'all" when He heard a guitar, Prince says of God with a wink.

Prince frequently altered scripture in his lyrics. It's fascinating to consider the myriad reasons for this practice. Did he do it to inject humor, as in the example above? Did he do it to adhere to a rhyme scheme? Did he do it to convey a new message that didn't fit within the confines of Christianity? Did he even do it consciously? These are the things I think about as a nerd.

Love Symbol listeners can also learn what it takes to love Prince. On the song "Love 2 the 9's," Prince orders rapper Tony M. to give a woman a 37- part "questionnaire." While there are only 18 questions in the song (yes, I counted), there's some helpful information for the ladies out there. Among other things, you must be prepared to stay awake for 14 hours, and lie down on a bed of thorns to be with Prince. What a cake walk.

Love Symbol on CD

One of my favorite tracks on the album is "Blue Light," which finds the singer looking for common ground with his less adventurous lover. "I'll be 117, you'll be still sayin', 'Baby, not tonight,'" Prince sings. The song is one of his multiple forays into reggae-lite; others include "Ripopgodazippa," "The Sun, The Moon And The Stars," a remix of "Pink Cashmere" and, arguably, the keyboard solo on "When U Were Mine," especially the version from One Nite Alone... Live! I think that, because I like Prince so much, I'm more open to his experiments (I know he disliked that word, sorry) with other genres. In my opinion, he always found a way to make it interesting.

I think Love Symbol has a lot of songs that shouldn't work, but do. For example, "The Continental" is an amalgamation of hip-hop, honey-dipped falsetto vocals, rock guitar licks and a jazzy B section, which I love. I can tolerate the "rap" by Carmen Electra, although Prince's lyrics point more toward his future wife, Mayte Garcia. He references a woman flipping .75, or three quarters on her stomach, which is a belly dancing trick for which Garcia was known.

When it comes to his lyrics, Prince is as bold as he is quirky. It wasn't until recently that I realized he described himself as a "50-50 girl" in the song "Arrogance." Of course, people always speculated about myriad aspects of his identity, and were aware that his symbol was a combination of the male and female signs, but I can't think of another black male recording artist who made a similar public statement during the 1990s. I think it was quite revolutionary given the limited way we discussed identity 30 years ago.

In his 1996 interview with Oprah Winfrey, Prince said he created "another person" inside as a coping mechanism during his childhood. "We haven’t determined which sex the person is yet,” he said.

"Arrogance" also includes one of my favorite Prince lyrics: "Pimp rag, Tootsie Pop and a cane." It's a description of Prince's look at the time.

The album's highest-charting single is "7." Take a guess where it landed on the Hot 100 (you're right). In the liner notes, Prince includes the words "Revelation The Book," written backwards, beside the song, giving listeners a heads up that his source material is the Bible's Book of Revelation, which is rife with references to the number.

While Prince's dedication to Christianity is apparent, he also incorporates references to reincarnation, specifically with his lyric about being present "12 souls from now." And Garcia, who co-stars in the video, has a perspective that leans more toward Indian spirituality. In her book, The Most Beautiful, she writes about Prince slaying seven versions of himself.

Prince circles back to Genesis on "And God Created Woman," a re-telling of God's creation of Eve from Adam's rib. "Bone of my bones ... flesh of my flesh," Prince sings, echoing Genesis 2:23. At the Prince from Minneapolis SymposiumDr. Patricia McKee broke down the ways in which Prince alters the Biblical account in his lyrics. I'm hoping to include more from her paper, "'Lie down beneath my shadow with great delight': Prince interpreting biblical text through song," in my book.

A multi-genre project like Love Symbol would not be complete without an operatic near-finish; "3 Chains O' Gold" is the penultimate track that shares its name with a film starring Garcia as an Egyptian Princess. Again, it's a song that shouldn't work, but I enjoy it, especially given its squealing guitar solo.

The concluding track, "The Sacrifice of Victor," is one of Prince's most personal to date. Reflecting on his childhood, he reveals everything from his struggle with epilepsy to his experience with the Civil Rights Movement. For example, Prince sings, "In 1967 in a bus marked public schools/Rode me and a group of unsuspecting political tools."

As recently as last year, it was assumed Prince was incorrect about the year, because widespread school desegregation efforts did not begin in Minneapolis until the 1970s. However, according to research by historian Kristen Zschomler, Prince may have participated in a “voluntary urban transfer program” with approximately 79 other African-American students.

Though less operatic than "3 Chains O' Gold," the gospel-influenced "Victor" closes the album with an uplifting message: "I know joy lives 'round the corner," Prince sings. "Amen."

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Friday, April 5, 2019

"Rock a Party Like Nobody Can" - Four Takeaways from the Prince Batdance Symposium

Last weekend, I had the honor of participating in the Prince Batdance Symposium--a celebration of the 30th anniversary of Prince's Batman soundtrack--at Spelman college. I moderated a panel of scholars presenting on Prince's image and style. It's hard to believe this was the fourth Prince conference I've attended in two years. It never gets stale, though.

Here are my top four takeaways from the event.

1) Prince's powerful, ongoing impact on his employees, friends and fans 

Day one of the symposium featured a live interview with Chuck Zwicky, Prince's engineer during the late 1980s. There were many gems in the conversation, including a funny story about the song "Shall We Dance," which ultimately went to Prince's bass player, Brown Mark.

I also enjoyed hearing Zwicky's opinion of Prince's song, "Xtraloveable." He remembered complimenting Prince on the early version, but was disappointed when Prince re-cut it into a "Vegas tune." Additionally, Zwicky offered interesting commentary on the way Prince recorded background vocals; he said Prince seemed to place more of an emphasis on creating "different personalities," rather than perfect harmonies.

Symposium creator De Angela Duff with Chuck Zwicky

I appreciated hearing Zwicky's candor regarding Paisley Park; he feels it should be a working studio rather than a museum.

But above all, I was most affected by Zwicky's recounting of a "lucid dream" he had about Prince prior to the symposium. In the last few weeks, I've heard two other people who knew Prince talk about him sending them messages through dreams.

Though people like Zwicky haven't worked for Prince for 30 years, they still seem very much connected to him. It really speaks to Prince's boundless influence across time and distance.

Additional info: See @darlingnisi's #Batdance30ATL Day 1 Twitter moment

2) The significance of centering Prince scholarship at a historically black college

My older sister attended some of the symposium on day two. As she was explaining how nice it felt to be at Spelman, I had a realization: I was completely comfortable during the entire weekend. I was not consciously aware of my blackness as I typically am in almost every other environment, because most of the scholars looked like me.

By hosting the event at a HBCU and including black scholars, it was virtually guaranteed that presenters would be comfortable and knowledgeable enough to incorporate Prince's blackness into their discussions. That is extremely significant for two reasons. One: Prince's blackness was important to him, and informed many of his artistic, charitable and political decisions. Two: Much of what has been published about Prince excludes this aspect of his humanity and art.

Captured from a presentation by Kamilah Cummings

Dereca Blackmon presents "Two Become One - Prince and the Integration of Self"

A standout moment for me was when Dereca Blackmon referenced the 1981 New York Times article, "Is Prince leading Music to a True Biracism?" I've cited this piece as evidence of the racism Prince faced entering the music industry. For example, the writer, Robert Palmer, states: "The fact that white rock fans and radio stations have tended to banish him to the black music ghetto says more about racism in contemporary pop music circles than it does about Prince's songs or his presentation."

I've noted that, while Palmer is being complimentary, he is doing so under the false impression that Prince is biracial, and implies that this identity has informed Prince's fusion of "black and white music," and thus his success. Of course that is all very problematic--and demonstrates why Prince lied about his heritage--but Blackmon took it a step further.

"This is an example of the white gaze because of the construct of black music being a ghetto ... instead of a fountain of influence for all types of music," she said.

Additional info: See @darlingnisi's #Batdance30ATL Day 2 Twitter moment; See Scott Woods' essay, "Reclaiming the Black Prince"; See Muse 2 the Pharaoh: Unpacking Race in the Legacy of Prince

3) The myriad opportunities for future study

One reason Prince conferences never get boring is because they always teach me something and reveal just how much more there is to study. That is because Prince, as my friend Joy Ellison put it, is "so vast."

Dr. Karen Turman's presentation on "Symbols and Silhouettes in Prince's Fashion" included so many fascinating details, from key designers and dress historians to translations of Japanese characters on his costumes. And I'm planning to read Monica Miller's writing on black dandyism!

Captured from a presentation by Dr. Karen Turman

Speaking of clothing, Christopher Daniel talked about two designers I'd never heard of: Louis and Vaughn. They created the 1999/Purple Rain-era ruffles look for Prince, but I'd only ever read about Marie Frances' work during that era. I can't wait to research them!

Captured from Christopher Daniel's presentation, "The Latest Fashion: Revisiting the Relationship Between Prince's Discography and Costuming From 'For You' to 'Batman'"

4) The joy of being around purple family

Since presenting at the Purple Reign Conference at the University of Salford in 2017, I've met and kept in touch with so many wonderful prince scholars and fans. It was great to reunite with them at the Batdance Symposium. It truly is a family, and being around them lifted my spirits after a rough week back home.

I feel that Robin Power Royal, who worked for Prince in the late '80s and early '90s, put it so eloquently:

"People that are Prince fans, once they come into contact with other Prince fans, it’s an automatic love," she said. "If you love Prince and I love Prince, then we should be able to love each other. And that’s a beautiful thing."

Symposium creator De Angela Duff (center) with the Image & Style panel

The Batman Soundtrack/Nude Tour Roundtable discussion panel

From left: Purple Reign Conference co-organizer Dr. Kirsty Fairclough, me and Dr. Karen Turman

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