I started reading Ben Greenmans writing in 2009 when his funk novel Please Step Back was published to critical acclaim. Based on the exploits of Sly Stone and other aural adventurers who supplied the soulful soundtrack of the seventies, the book was a welcome respite from most of the drab fictions clogging the shelves. In addition, Greenman has collaborated with Questlove (Mo Meta Blues) and Brian Wilson (I Am Brian Wilson) on their memoirs and is a regular contributor to the New Yorker, where he writes about pop culture.
However, when I heard that Greenman was planning on writing a book about Prince, I was admittedly nervous of how my musical hero would be portrayed. Well, the wait is over and Greenmans non-fiction delight Dig If You Will the Picture is a welcome addition to the canon of Prince books on the market. Delving deep into the purple ones music, style and philosophies, Greenman also explores his own fandom and obsessions in the months following the stars death.
soulheads founder Ron Worthy and I, both who enjoyed the book thoroughly, teamed-up to interview Greenman about the music, motivation and massive love that went making Dig If You Will the Picture as dope as one of Princes b-sides.
soulhead: With so many books written about Prince, what makes yours different?
Ben Greenman: Well, it’s maybe not for me to say I’m sure every author has a philosophy around his or her book, and why the approach to the subject is distinct but to me, it stretches across a number of genres, drawing on all of them, belonging to none of them. There are aspects of traditional biography (though it’s not primarily a biography), aspects of traditional criticism (though the criticism is powered at times by immoderation), and aspects of memoir. The last is probably what separates it from most books. I know how I saw Prince for most of my life, how I experienced him as a fan and an obsessive consumer of his music, and I wanted to recreate that.
soulhead: When working with Questlove on his book, what sort of weird Prince stuff would you discuss? And, what the hell does “Wally” sound like? I’ve always read that the song was destroyed.
Ben Greenman: Questlove and I are both huge Prince fans, but we probably talked more about Prince while working on his book than while working on mine. I didn’t want to rope him into it. He generously gave me an introduction. After that, I wanted to sort of operate independently. With that said, we discussed Prince with some regularity. We shared admiration for albums, or tried to figure out which shows we might have both seen. Mainly, we would try to find points of difference. I think I am softer on Emancipation than he is. He might like “Dinner with Delores” more than I do. He would tell me stories he heard from or about people in the Prince inner circle, only some of which I used (I went to lengths to protect Prince’s privacymy main goal wasn’t to unearth scandal or betray confidences). “Wally” is excellent. That’s all I can say. Beyond that, I have been sworn to secrecy.
soulhead: Although you never interviewed Prince, if you had, what would’ve been your first question and why?
Ben Greenman: I did interview him, in a sense. I ran an online chat with him back in the late nineties. He came to sit with me and he was highly normal. At that time, I spoke to him mostly about the Internet and his participation in it, both his successful forays and his failures. It’s archived online here. If I had been able to interview him later, into his late forties and fifties, I would have asked him a different set of questions about how to use songs to communicate specific thoughts and emotions. That’s the long answer. Short answer: my first question would have been “How are you?”
soulhead: I’ve always had a theory that Prince might’ve had something to do with some of the bootlegs that were on the market. Talk a little about that bootleg culture and Prince…what are your favorites?
Ben Greenman: For many years, I loved the after shows: the Camden Palace show from the summer of 1988, I think, is one of my favorites. I had that on a cassette, and the other side was a bunch of outtakes that was sold as Chocolate Box: songs like “Girl o’ My Dreams” and “We Can Funk” and “Data Bank” and “Joy in Repetition.” The Internet has changed all of this substantially, of course, because all those small strange sets, from birthday shows to Royal Jewels, have been supplanted time and again by mega-sets of mp3s. I think it’s gone in the wrong direction, in many ways, because those earlier boots had the sense (even if this wasn’t in fact the case) of being streamlined and curated.
soulhead: Many Prince fans kind of drifted away from Prince’s new music beginning in the late ’90s/early 2000s. What do you think they missed in terms of recordings?
Ben Greenman: Oh, I think they missed a tremendous amount. I remember that drift. My friends who were fans of equal measure jumped off the train, one by one. Some of them came back for the little commercial comeback around Musicology. But I have great fondness for The Rainbow Children, in 2001, even though it’s hard to follow as a piece of theology and sometimes objectionable in its lyrics (from intolerance, not from lasciviousness). Almost every album after that has a song or two that belongs in at least the lower end of the canon, and not just “Black Sweat.” There’s a little song called “Act of God” from 20Ten that I pretty much ignored the first time through. I heard it but I didn’t really let it settle in. This time, it stuck, and I think it’s really a fine, fine song. I like lots of the LotusFlow3r set, especially the MPLSound disc. Planet Earth has some Revolutionary notes because Wendy and Lisa are on it. Above all, they missed Art Official Age, which I hope they didn’t miss. It is for me his last true albumit was followed by the two scattershot Hit N Run compilationsand I think it’s a thematically unified, brilliantly conceived, wonderfully sung record.
soulhead: When Prince died his worst nightmare came true when the Internet was flooded with his music. Talk a little bit about Prince’s love/hate relationship with the Internet.
Ben Greenman: More hate than love, I’d say. Like I said, I met him when a magazine I was working for gave him an award for releasing songs online. He was an early adopter. And yet, he never figured it out. He launched site after site after site, never really succeeding. He ran a subscription service, which makes sense for such a hyper-prolific artist, but that didn’t work either. And then he began to get angry when fans posted videos with his music, even if the music was in the video only incidentally (most famously, a baby dancing while a song of his played in the background). Prince felt that technology was a bit vampiric, and he was right. It sucked the experience of listening to music dry in some ways. It also leveled the playing field, and let small indie artists reach fans in the same way as superstars. I think that deep down this must have bothered Prince. He wanted people to earn it. He wanted the superstar to have a built-in advantage.
soulhead: As an artist Prince was very protective of his music and legacy. What do you hope Warner Brothers does with the recordings that are held in the ever mysterious vault?
Ben Greenman: This is a tough, tough question. I don’t know the answer. I think there are arguments on both sides. I think those songs should probably be released in some way, but with the most care possible, and in a way that not only makes the music accessible but gives fans a true experience. Maybe they should come out in some limited edition form, whether vinyl or beautiful box sets like those Miles Davis archive sets, and then much later be released digitally. Whatever it is, it shouldn’t just be a data dump.
soulhead: You discussed how Prince impacted your life growing up a bit in the book, can you speak a bit about how you gravitated towards Prince relative to some of his contemporaries like Michael Jackson, Rick James and others at the time?
Ben Greenman: I was equally into Michael Jackson, but I found him to be a space alien. It was clear even then that his oddness separated him from the rest of humanity. Prince, to me, wasn’t strange. He was a performer. He affected personae. But he seemed like a normal, funny, sometimes shy, immensely talented, immensely driven person. There were other earlier artists who were as important to me: Sly Stone was, and George Clinton, and pieces of Curtis Mayfield, and pieces of Marvin Gaye, and Aretha Franklin, and Stevie Wonder. But the rest of Prince’s contemporary artists were a half-step down. Which isn’t to say anything critical about Rick James. There’s no denying Street Songs. But the body of work wasn’t as consistent or as expansive.
soulhead: When Prince was growing in popularity in the mid-late 80s, there were a large number of copycat artists who were “biting” Prince’s style. Why do you think that eventually stopped?
Ben Greenman: I think that trends in general shifted, and technologies, and fashions, and other things (hip-hop, for one) took over as a cultural dominant. The same way that New Romantics faded, the Minneapolis soundnot just the music, but the whole set of things around italso faded over time. A band like Ready for the World made perfect sense in 1985, but by 1989 or 1990 they would have been looking at New Jack Swing as their point of comparison.
soulhead: There have been a lot of conspiracy theories behind Prince’s death since he passed. Do you think we will ever get the full truth behind what happened?
Ben Greenman: I think the truth may be simpler than people want to believe, and thus sadder.
soulhead: A lot of die-hard fans are staying away from the celebrations and festivals that are taking place at Paisley Park and other places because they felt Prince wouldn’t approve. In fact, one of his records “Old Friends For Sale” in some ways allude to these types of situations. How do you feel Prince would react to all of the post mortem events?
Ben Greenman: I don’t know how he’d react, but I have a bad reaction to them. Not to the fans who are participating in them people should show their love for his music in whatever way makes sense to them but to the idea of them as commercial enterprises. But this is nothing new. The commercialization of a beloved artist in death happened with Elvis. It happened with John Lennon. It happened with Kurt Cobain. It will continue to happen.
soulhead: There was a marked difference in the music of Parade and Sign o The Times and the music that came after it (e.g. Lovesexy). Many theorize that some life changing event must have happened sometime in 87/88. Do you have any thoughts on that?
Ben Greenman: People of course point to the Black Album, which was all ready to go and then abruptly withdrawn at the end of 1987. When Prince returned, it was with a more expansive psychedelic sound and a more overtly spiritual (or spiritual/sensual) bent. There are of course many theories: that Prince felt that his music was evil, that he had a drug experience, that he had to reorient himself because of the size of his audience, that his disillusionment with record companies was growing. Definitely, he was starting to explore duality in a more programmatic way during that periodhe had done it with gender and sex through 1986 and 1987 with the whole set of Camille songsbut Lovesexy and Batman expanded into issues of spirituality and even fundamental ontology. Fame is filled with pressures. Pressures create fissures.
soulhead: Although Prince had a large number of female proteges, most were unsuccessful. Besides, Vanity/Apollonia 6, Sheila E. and the critically acclaimed Jill Jones solo album, why do you think he had such a string of musical failures despite his talent and production prowess?
Ben Greenman: The simplest answer is that much of the material was subpar. From a fan’s perspective, it seemed like some of the songs were just handed to women who he wanted around for other reasons. It didn’t help that some of those women were weak vocalists or imports from other art forms (dancers, actresses, etc.). The most interesting are the almost-fits, like the Mavis Staples records, which have moments of real promise but ultimately fall short. I have great fondness for those records, despite their imperfections, because they illuminate what was distinctive about Prince’s compositional sense, and why it didn’t quite harmonize with Mavis Staples’ talent.
soulhead: Prince has had a on and off relationship with rap/hip-hop. In fact, the Black Album‘s “Dead On It” was pretty much a diss record. However, he had rap interludes prominently in “It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night,” “Alphabet St.,” and several others not to mention the dreadful full length album by T.C. Ellis Finally, prior to his death, he had Kendrick Lamar at his studio and was supposedly working on music together. Can you discuss his relationship with hip hop a bit?
Ben Greenman: He never seemed to get it, partly because he saw it through a limited lens. As you say, early on he just dismissed hip-hop performers as musically untalented, and his desire to be a musician’s musician separated him. During that period, he turned more back to jazz, and to virtuosity. Also, his successes with rapping (which isn’t to say with hip-hop) were mostly with female performers. Maybe what he perceived as the hyper-masculinity of hip-hop (again, he wasn’t completely right about this) also made the whole genre seem one-dimensional to him. Also, because the songs carried so much story, guest rappers tended to be overinflated hype men. That happened to T.C. Ellis. It happened to Tony Mosley. It even happened to the great Chuck D, later on, when he appeared on Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic. And yet, there are songs like “Pope” that aren’t hip-hop proper but share much of the aesthetic and that also manage a light touch. Maybe that’s it: Prince initially saw hip-hop through the flattening prism of threat, and it took him a while to relax.
soulhead: What do you feel is Prince’s most important album? Why?
Ben Greenman: Jeez Louise, this is an impossible question. If you put me under oath, I’d say 1999, because it was the breakthrough and breakout piece de resistance that displayed everything that Prince could do, that lined it all up and left us with our jaws on the floor, hit single, hit single, stylistic departure, sex song, experimental song, play his ass off, sing your pants off, plus an amazing album cover. But there’s a case to be made for Sign o’ The Times, because of the sustained quality of the material. There’s a case to be made for Emancipation, not because the songs are as good (they’re not), but because it occupies a very important psychological moment in his life. And I think there’s a case to be made for Art Official Age. When I first heard it, I couldn’t believe it. It was as if aspects of Prince that had been dormant or diluted for decades were back in full force, and that they were amplified by a better understanding of human frailty, the rigors of the road, and so on. I thought it was the beginning of a new flowering for him. As it turned out, I was wrong, but I still think it’s an amazingly powerful piece of work.
Buy Dig If You Will The Picture by Ben Greenman:
Michael A. Gonzales has been writing about music since the 1980s. A few of his subjects include Barry White (Vibe), DAngelo (Wax Poetics) and Lauryn Hill (The Source). In addition to soulhead, he contributes to Complex, Pitchfork Review, XXL, Baltimore City Paper, Philadelphia Weekly and The Weeklings. His essay on the DeBarge family appears in Best African-American Essays 2009. Gonzales blogs at Blackadelicpop.blogspot.com. Check out some of his work for soulhead.