When I first got Prince‘s 1999 album, it was 1982. I was 11, newly in charge of my own record-buying habits. And I couldn’t resist the cover, with its purple field of stars, Prince’s name, the numbers, and all the hidden-meaning illustrations (is that a football or a smile? How phallic was that “1,” anyway?). My parents didn’t agree. They were born-again Christians at that point, and Prince — with his overt sexuality and profanity — was a bridge too far. Plus, when you turned the album cover upside down, the 999 went to 666, the mark of the beast.
My mom found the record and threw it away. Winter came. I shoveled snow until I had enough money to buy it a second time. That one went into the garbage, too. There was a third record that just vanished without a trace, and a fourth that got broken over my father’s knee. That fourth infraction came accompanied by a month of punishment. A little while after that, I got smarter, meaning sneakier. I found a friend to make me cassettes of Prince’s albums. At home, I loosened the heads of my drums and hid the contraband in there. I listened when I was practicing, playing something totally different on the drums so that my parents wouldn’t know what I was actually hearing.
Prince was in my ears and he was in my head. Starting then, I patterned everything in my life after Prince. I had older half-brothers, but Prince — unknown to me then, but not unseen or unheard, thanks to magazines, TV, radio, and my secret stash — was a guide to me in every way. I studied his fashion, I studied his affect. I studied his taste in women — carefully. And he began to mentor me in musical matters, too. I wouldn’t have started listening to Joni Mitchell without him. And that led me to Jaco Pastorius, who led me to Wayne Shorter, who led me to Miles Davis. I had a simple rule: if Prince listened to it, I listened to it.
“I patterned everything in my life after Prince.”
In the wake of his death, as we all try to come unstunned, everyone is talking about his genius. That’s understandable. But most of the discussion is general. I like to think about the specifics. I like to think of the way he innovated even early on, the way he turned away from the traditional blueprint of funk and soul music.
Think about James Brown. Prince certainly did, as did every funk and soul artist of his generation. But Prince was brilliantly perverse in the way he absorbed James Brown. If James was about a tight crack snare and percussive horns as an extended rhythmic arm, Prince went the opposite direction — he made undeniable funk from a dud of a dead snare sound and the artificial horns of the Oberheim synthesizer.