.

100 Greatest Artists

27

Prince

Ahmir Thompson


Prince
Illustration by Sterling Hundley
27/100

Prince was forbidden in my closed, Christian household. He was somewhere between Richard Pryor — whom we absolutely couldn't listen to — and a stash of porn. In junior high, my parents would put $30 or $40 in an envelope, and that would buy a card that would cover a month of school lunches. It was November of 1982, and I took my $36 and purchased Prince's 1999, What Time Is It?, by the Time, and the Vanity 6 album. I starved that whole month.

"Little Red Corvette" from 1999 was one of the first regularly played songs by a black artist on MTV; Prince crossed boundaries like that all the time. In the first five songs on Sign 'O' the Times, he sprawls across James Brown, Joni Mitchell, Pink Floyd, the Beatles and Curtis Mayfield in five easy swoops and maintains his own identity. But it's Purple Rain that was a crowning achievement, not only in Prince's career but for black life — or how blacks were perceived — in the Eighties. It's the equivalent of Michael Jordan's 1997 championship games: He was absolutely just in the zone, every shot was going in. "When Doves Cry" is one of the most radical Number One songs of the past 25 years. Here's a song with no bass line in it, hardly any music. Yet it's still had such an influence; "When Doves Cry" is a precursor to the Neptunes' one-note funk grind, a masterpiece of song with just a drum machine and very little melody. Purple Rain was a great movie too. Anyone who saw Eminem's biopic, 8 Mile, if they're over 35, the first words out of their mouth are, "Oh, I liked that film the first time I saw it back in the Eighties. It was this Prince movie called Purple Rain."

Prince must be one of the most bootlegged artists of the rock era — on a weekly basis I listen to a bootleg called The Dream Factory, which would later be known as Sign 'O' the Times. His ability to create on the spot is mind-boggling. Like a hip-hop MC freestyling, he executes ideas off the top of his head in a very convincing manner. But there must be at least 20 ways to prove that hip-hop is damn-near patterned after Prince, including his genius, blatant use of sexuality and the use of controversy as a way to get attention. I don't think any artist before had used that level of sex to get in the door and be accepted by the mainstream. I wonder what his mind state was in 1981, standing onstage in kiddie briefs, leg warmers and high heels without a Number One hit. That was a risk. Also, Prince created the image of what we now know as the video ho — he was a pioneer of objectifying and empowering women at the same time. Jay-Z often talks about ghostwriting for other artists; Prince is notorious for ghostwriting. Not only that, but he invented different aliases for himself in a way that rappers have adopted — he was Jamie Starr, Joey Coco or Alexander Nevermind.

I met Prince in 1996, and I was prepared for the grasshopper voice, the one that he always uses at award shows, but he was totally normal. Just like you and me, except he's Prince. We played together a few times, and one of my hero moments of all time is after a concert in New York when me, him and D'Angelo got onstage and played for about a half-hour. His period of silence about a decade ago bothered me. It was really a shame that his fight for independence from the labels was a David and Goliath battle that he had to fight alone. But judging from what he's done lately, I'm happy to say that he hasn't lost a step in his 30 years of doing it. He seems as young and as in charge as ever. He definitely seizes the moment. In case a few people counted him out, he's got a few trump cards up his sleeve.

 
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