Silly Rappers Talking Silly (Part 3 of 3)
by Miles Marshall Lewis
True Confessions followed T. C. Ellis’s introduction to the paisley universe on Graffiti Bridge, the abysmal sequel to Purple Rain released in 1990. He dropped an uplifting verse that closed out the soundtrack on “New Power Generation (Pt. II),” a rhyme about absolution after addiction (“Cocaine was the thing that I took on/And nowhere was the place that I was going”) and, ultimately, salvation (“The flesh is weak and the spirit is strong… I did it in the name of Jesus Christ”). A closing ad lib finishing touch belongs to Robin Power, a music video vixen (Ice Cube’s “It Was a Good Day,” etc.) headed for her own career as a rapper with Paisley Park Records; she’d played Morris Day’s girlfriend in the film. Beyond this Jet Beauty of the Week’s brief scene in Graffiti Bridge performing the Prince-produced “Number One,” Power as a protégé would never be heard from again. (But there’s always Playboy’s Erotic Weekend Getaways.)
“New Power Generation (Pt. II)” begat True Confessions, a curious case of an album from both a hiphop standpoint and in the pantheon of Prince-related releases. Funk godfather George Clinton lent assistance: coaching T. C. Ellis’s lyrical flow and lending vocals on “Pussycat” and “Bustin’,” producing the latter. Clinton’s son Tracey “Trey Lewd” Lewis did some ghostwriting. Prince wrote and produced the first single, “Miss Thang,” with a video concept stolen from Bobby Brown’s “Every Little Step.” Prince bassist Levi Seacer Jr.—who had no stronger a handle on hiphop than Prince—produced most of True Confessions. The record contained two nonsensical Prince covers, nonsensical because the originals had nothing to do with rap: “Girl o’ My Dreams” and “Bambi (Rap).” Recorded in the summer of 1989, the album saw release two years later, a stylistic eternity in hiphop at the time. In a climate of high-water mark hiphop like De La Soul Is Dead, N.W.A’s Efil4zaggin and A Tribe Called Quest’s The Low End Theory (or really, any hiphop climate at all), True Confessions bombed. After 10 years of hounding Prince for a rap album, T. C. Ellis had a record completely ignored by critics that sold next to nothing, reviled to this day on Prince internet forums.
“It definitely was nothing like what I could do or what I was even capable of,” Ellis says now. “I wanted to respect what Prince was doing. He had some ideas and shit. He got all the gold records, let’s see what happens. But I loved Whodini, Kurtis Blow. I had already been rapping back then but I had no outlet, I had no way to get it out. I came in on the back end of what I was really part of. I always told Prince: man, if we woulda did this shit when I first was telling you, you could be controlling the whole rap industry!
“I think Prince’s rap timing was just off as far as being relevant when it came down to hiphop. He really missed the window. Instead of leading the pack, he got on the caboose rather than the front end. And that was unfortunate. I think Prince just didn’t understand that process. He didn’t embrace it until it was too late, when he finally opened up and tried to learn it.” Asking Ellis about Paisley Park Records’ second, final rap album, 1993’s Carmen Electra, he’s characteristically honest. “I never played her whole album,” he says, “I can’t even remember. I liked Carmen—her energy, what she was doin’. But by the time she and I came out, we was corny.”
If we woulda did this shit when I first was telling you, you could be controlling the whole rap industry! – T. C. Ellis
Prince never needed rap to remain relevant with Black radio or Black audiences. He just seemed not to realize this. By the time his boutique record label released True Confessions, Lenny Kravitz and Terence Trent D’Arby were each two albums deep into careers as African-American singer-songwriter rock stars who never bothered to dip into hiphop at all. While neither Kravitz nor D’Arby is often considered in the same creative stratosphere as Prince, both seemed to realize that shoehorning rap into their music would ring false. As the bigger pop star, Prince was pit against the likes of Madonna, U2 and Bruce Springsteen in the public imagination and by Warner Bros. Records’ bottom line. Commercial juggernauts Michael Jackson and Janet Jackson were hosting real rappers on their songs, in a genre blend pioneered by Prince’s old rival Rick James (his 1988 single “Loosey’s Rap” featured Roxanne Shanté) and singer Jody Watley (1989’s “Friends” with Rakim, produced by Prince’s old bassist and childhood bestie, André Cymone). And the Jacksons used MCs already popular on rap radio: Heavy D, Wreckx-N-Effect, Chuck D. Prince retaliated with the New Power Generation.
“We were his first Black band, and our thing was to help him get his Black audience back, because he had lost that,” singer Rosie Gaines once told Prince biographer Alex Hahn. Billboard didn’t support Gaines’s assertion. Every album since Prince always rose to the top 10 of the Black albums chart. But this was the narrative Prince faced in the Bell Biv DeVoe era of R&B merging with the hiphop aesthetic. In a virtual photo negative of the racial makeup of the Revolution, Prince introduced the New Power Generation on his 13th studio album, Diamonds and Pearls. Besides keyboardist Matt Fink, the token Revolution holdover, they were all African American.
T. C. Ellis producer Levi Seacer Jr. had been playing bass for Prince since the Sign o’ the Times tour. He now became the NPG’s rhythm guitarist. On bass: Sonny Thompson, a veteran of the Minneapolis band scene who Prince once revered as a teenager. In the eighties, NPG singer-keyboardist Rosie Gaines released an underwhelming R&B album, Caring, on Epic Records. The drummer was a fresh-faced 19-year-old, Michael Bland. Rap groups of the time were rarely complete without backup dancers. Prince added his own, a trio previously known in Minneapolis as the Game Boyz: Kirk Johnson, Damon Dickson and Tony Mosley. “New Power Generation” was the final single from Graffiti Bridge, and its maxi-single contained two bonus songs showcasing rappers: T. C. Ellis on “T. C.’s Rap” and the introduction of the NPG’s resident rapper Tony Mosley on “Brothers With a Purpose.”
Prior to Tony M. dominating much of Diamonds and Pearls—with bland rhymes that did no favors for Prince trying to serve the younger, rap-loving portion of his audience—T. C. Ellis had been invited to join the NPG. “I told him no,” Ellis says. “I’m kinda independent, I got my own ideas. I just wasn’t feeling it. Plus, I think there was some synergy there with Tony. ’Cause the dancers with Tony were all together, so it was just a natural fit. I thought that was a pretty good idea for Prince. He was trying to update his music at the time a little bit and incorporate a little hiphop. He didn’t really get no respect for that. He still did it, and for me it was okay.”
Had Prince applied his innovative Linn LM-1 drum programming skills to the Roland TR-808 (rap’s beat machine of choice then) or gone outside of his hometown to fill the rapper slot in the New Power Generation, Diamonds and Pearls could have been a completely different landmark for him. Instead he brandished a gun-shaped microphone on The Arsenio Hall Show and on tour, fronting his dancers like the leader of a rap posse. They all dressed like Prince (sans high heels), with slicked down, permed haircuts and colorful designer outfits straight from his tailor. On the lead single “Gett Off,” Tony M. aped the Chuck D baritone rhyme flow that irritated Prince two years back. The entire enterprise split fans down the middle.
Most hardened supporters took the hardline: Prince—a mercurial musical genius—could roll down any road he wanted and audiences should go along for the ride; Diamonds and Pearls outsold every previous Prince album released since Around the World in a Day and was most likely a harbinger of records to come, as he returned to giving a damn about his pop crown; Prince was making a resounding statement that Black listeners mattered, and amen to that. Realists hated the rapper and had a feeling Diamonds and Pearls would not age well. (It hasn’t, though Prince continued to perform the number one hit “Cream” into the end of his life. Practically a rewrite of T. Rex’s “Bang a Gong (Get It On),” “Cream” has no rap.) The next year’s album,, would be Tony M.’s last (besides a trio of commercially disastrous NPG solo albums to follow). Finally comfortable enough with rap to steal the mic from Sheila E., Cat, T. C. Ellis and Tony M., Prince started rhyming himself: “My Name Is Prince,” “Pope,” “Days of Wild,” “Face Down”… on and on.
Exhibit A that Prince never needed to worry about his relevance in the Black community? Hiphop loved him. No one heard Big Daddy Kane’s remix for “Batdance” until YouTube, but the same year as Diamonds and Pearls, Kane built “The Lover in You” from Prince’s “Pop Life.” The biggest pop song of MC Hammer’s career isn’t his Rick James swipe, “U Can’t Touch This”—it’s “Pray,” with its liberal sample of “When Doves Cry.” Public Enemy used his guitar solo from “Let’s Go Crazy” on “Brothers Gonna Work It Out.” (Eazy-E used its organ intro, on “Eazy-Duz-It.”) Dozens more MCs have mined Prince songs, from the 1980s to right now: MC Lyte, 2Pac, Digital Underground, Kanye West, Nicki Minaj, The-Dream, etc. When Prince began sampling James Brown and Sly and the Family Stone, hiphop started sampling him. With his legal permission. (Check out our playlist of our favorite songs that sampled Prince below)
With an army of protégé acts, singers covering his older songs and recording his new ones, and an extremely hiphop-like annual album release schedule, Prince became a genre unto himself since the early ’80s. His embrace of rap encourages a view of the early ’90s as Prince vs. hiphop, a battle of genres that he ultimately lost. Prince sinking two million dollars into the rap project of Carmen Electra forced Warner Bros. to shutter Paisley Park Records. Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg made the multiplatinum-selling MC a normative expectation throughout the decade. Then Prince changed his name. Rechristened as the unpronounceable in 1993, the second phase of his career had begun. Re: commercial competitiveness, he’d essentially given up, directing his energy into a battle against Warner Bros. for the master recordings of his music. Hiphop won. But when Prince came out the other side, beginning the new millennium by reclaiming his given name in 2000, his allegiance to Blackness was no longer remotely in question.
“Hiphop is its own force now. It took a minute,” Prince told me in August 2015. We sat in his Black Cadillac XLR roadster, parked in front of Paisley Park Studios listening to the unreleased HitnRun Phase Two on his car stereo. The album would be his last. “Baby and Lil Wayne ain’t supposed to be fighting. That’s supposed to be where cooler minds sit down and say, ‘Check this out fellas: for all of us, stop. ’Cause we said so. Everybody’s gonna calm down.’ Rap ain’t gonna be a ghost town. Nobody’s gonna shoot nobody.” He had just signed an exclusive deal with the streaming service Tidal, owned by Jay-Z, and wanted to get the word out about the details.
“To stay afloat, [record companies] need the Kanye Wests and the Kendricks and people like that who can make product and get people excited about stuff,” he said, turning down the volume on a new killer ballad, “When She Comes.” “And they’re going to dictate what the deal is gonna look like. That’s what’s fun about the times now.” Jay-Z came up: “When we win on this, none of us’ll gloat. He’s not the gloating type anyway. He’s slick with his. He says to brush the dirt off your shoulder.” Sean Combs came up: “I brought [Warner Bros.] ‘I Hate U’ and I thought it was one of the greatest records I had ever done in years. And they said, ‘Yeah man, this is dope. Now we gonna have Puffy do the remix.’ Like, I was in shock. ‘OK, I’m out.’ That wasn’t the reason; that was just another compound to the thing.”
At 57, Prince conversed with a nuanced lucidity about Lil Wayne, Kendrick Lamar, Jay-Z, Kanye West and Diddy. That would not have seemed possible in the days of T. C. Ellis and Tony M. But his relationship to hiphop culture had evolved far from his dis on “Dead on It.” Prince stopped being shocking somewhere along the line, and made his peace with rap outshocking him. The most scandalous move of Prince’s years might have been releasing a promotional single called “Pussy Control” in 1995. (He cleaned up the title later that year on his 17th studio album, The Gold Experience, as “P Control.”) Also consider: the orgasmic moaning of Jill Jones in the background of 1999’s “Lady Cab Driver” was, of course, faux. Prince and Jones were not in the backseat of a taxi, or even at Sunset Sound studios, having sex. In contrast, the Notorious B.I.G. classic Ready to Die places fellatio at the end of a track called “Respect.” Unsurprisingly, the Biggie blowjob (according to producer Sean Combs) is real. Prince recorded “Head” way back on Dirty Mind, but rappers in the nineties were saying and doing things that made his eighties shenanigans look tame. He turned 40 in 1998, and before Jay-Z, you’d be hard pressed to find even real rappers rhyming on the microphone at that age. So Prince laid the mic down.
Or rather, he finally passed the microphone to MCs who knew what they were doing. He let Digital Underground’s Shock G remix 1994’s “Love Sign.” Both Chuck D and Eve spat lyrics on the 1999 album, Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic. He played guitar and keyboards on Common’s “Star *69 (PS With Love),” from the clearly Prince-influenced 2002 album Electric Circus. Doug E. Fresh performed live with him as a rhyming hype man on numerous occasions. Q-Tip made a delicious appearance on “Chocolate Box,” from a 2009 triple album. Warring with Warner Bros. in the 1990s, maybe he felt much less beholden to them, but Prince eased up on trying to resurrect the commercial relevance of his early career. As one of the most electrifying performers of his generation, he relied on his live shows and a core fan base as fanatically loyal as those of Parliament-Funkadelic or the Grateful Dead. With such iconic status, Prince would always be relevant. As that reality sank in for him, he left hiphop to the kids with whom it had always belonged.
Prince never got to play Afropunk. The annual Brooklyn arts festival kicked off in 2005 as an offshoot of director James Spooner’s Afro-Punk, a spare documentary about punk rock fans of color. Every summer the festival is flamboyant proof of an alternative subculture within Black America, a counternarrative to the monolithic concept of what being Black looks like and sounds like. Afropunk is why Prince never needed hiphop on Diamonds and Pearls or any other album. As one of the greatest electric guitarists in history, he could have moshed right into a pit of African American arms waiting to hold him aloft as a patron saint of Black rock. But he didn’t want to be (only) a proto-Afropunk icon. He wanted to reach his people, all of them, and meet them where they were. Still, he would have loved Afropunk. Had he lived longer, he certainly would have headlined eventually.
Prince did play Baltimore’s Rally 4 Peace. Returning to the city for the first time in 14 years, he’d organized a 2015 benefit concert in memory of Freddie Gray, an African American victim of police brutality. He’d just released “Baltimore,” a social protest song against gun violence. Doug E. Fresh performed, the concert’s first hour was streamed on Jay-Z’s Tidal, and R&B guest singer Miguel crooned a cover of the Staple Singers’ “When Will We Be Paid”—an ode to Black financial reparations Prince already recorded in 2000 and had been performing live for over a decade.
The Journal of African American Studies took an academic deep dive into Prince in 2017 through a special issue of dedicated essays. Syracuse University musicologist James Gordon Williams noted that “Prince did not have an ambivalent relationship with race, but an ambivalent relationship with being defined by race… [He] viewed the Black experience as a source of inspiration… Prince’s ultimate creative muse was the Black community and the Black experience itself.” We’ll never know how deeply offended Prince might have been over post-Purple Rain criticism that he’d abandoned his Black audience on records like Around the World in a Day and Parade. Self-consciously embracing hiphop and forming a (nearly) all-Black band certainly look like blatant correctives in retrospect. But even as he eventually left behind multiple iterations of that New Power Generation to develop the all-female, all-white power trio 3rdeyegirl as a backing band in 2014, his dedication to the Black aesthetic stayed crystal clear. His fight against Warner Bros. Records over master recordings ultimately crystallized into an argument about the music industry’s exploitation of African-American artists. (Prince won his masters back in 2014.) He funded #YesWeCode, a tech initiative set up to prepare kids of color for jobs in Silicon Valley. He sent funds to the family of Trayvon Martin, the Black teen whose death sparked the Black Lives Matter movement. There were donations to the Harlem Children’s Zone, to late educator Marva Collins’s Westside Preparatory School, to Green for All (creating environmental jobs in disadvantaged communities), and other secret philanthropy that came to light after his death.
From his teenage years, Prince sported such a full Afro that classmates called him Gazoo, after The Flintstones’ big-helmeted alien. It’s the same ’fro he wears on the cover of his first album, For You. The Black Is Beautiful movement made the all-natural style fraught with meaning in the late 1960s and throughout the seventies, the same kind of Black pride cultural-nationalist statement dreadlocks later became in the 1990s. (“A magnum ’fro is better when you got a poof on it,” he raps in “Dead on It.”) Coming as full circle as the hairstyle’s shape, the Prince illustration on his final album, HitnRun Phase Two, flaunts the same style. Prince—after 33 years of relaxing his hair—showed up on The View in 2012 with that selfsame Afro, and wore it until he passed away from an accidental Fentanyl overdose four years later. Given his heavy late-career social activism, how poetic that the man gave off Black power symbolism until the very end. A beautiful night indeed.
END OF PART 3 AND VOLUME 1.
Listen to this playlist which includes many of the tracks in this essay as well as several of our favorite songs with Prince samples:
Miles Marshall Lewis has written for The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Ebony, Essence and many other publications. His work has appeared in Black Cool: One Thousand Streams of Blackness, Hip-Hop: A Cultural Odyssey, The Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers, and elsewhere. He’s also the author of There’s a Riot Goin’ On and Scars of the Soul Are Why Kids Wear Bandages When They Don’t Have Bruises. Follow MML on Twitter and Instagram. Check out some of his work for soulhead.