Five Years Later: Members of the Prince Community Reflect
by Miles Marshall Lewis
Five years flies by fast. Prince’s passing on April 21, 2016 immediately left his extended family of purple music lovers in shock, deeply saddened, even feeling adrift. In the half decade since, we’ve all been brought together as a community by nerdy obsessions that matter most of all to our niche collective. I’m talking Prince Estate re-releases (Purple Rain, Sign o’ the Times and 1999 deluxe editions), gossip (the Apollonia vs. Sheila E “Lemon Cake” debacle), mainstream media attention (60 Minutes, the in-progress Netflix documentary), Paisley Park Celebration events, the Revolution and NPG reunion concerts, and fresh music from his infamous vault of unreleased material (Welcome 2 America, Originals, Piano & a Microphone 1983). It’s an embarrassment of riches with the bittersweetness that comes along with the reality that our hero is, ultimately, gone too soon.
In the spirit of honoring our love for the eternal Prince Rogers Nelson, soulhead presents reflections from a few fams, scholars and cultural critics, memorializing him in a way our community would appreciate the most.
soulhead: What’s the greatest lesson you’ve learned from Prince’s legacy?
TROY GUA (pop conceptualist, creator of Le Petit Prince art project)
Prince had the world scratching their heads at many a turn along his journey. He skipped out on “We Are the World” and Live Aid. He changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol. And he became, at times, the target of negative and judgmental attention at different points throughout his career. But none of these questionings of his intent or artistic direction ever buckled Prince’s resolution to do it his way. If anything, the criticism he faced propelled him ever further along his relentless path to stay true to his vision. He followed no one but himself, and I can relate.
Being self-taught and something of a late bloomer, I’ve always felt like a bit of an outsider, even in my own arts community. It’s funny, actually, because it’s Prince and the Le Petit Prince project that brought me the most adverse reaction from the public, but also the most love and joy. When the project was new and I began devoting more time to it, I sensed a negative judgment coming from my local peers. “Why is he playing with that Prince doll all the time?” I imagined them saying. I never stopped making the work, though.
In fact, the work evolved and began garnering an audience—a life and fanbase—of its own, far outside the confines of provincial judgment, bringing joy and comfort to Prince fans around the world while introducing them to the rest of my work. It’s a truly amazing gift. It is in Prince’s powerful spirit of never giving up, of always being true to his vision and path, that I continue to create at my own will, despite trends or opinions. I say I’m not a follower, but I do follow Prince’s lead.
KANISA WILLIAMS (creator-host of the Muse 2 the Pharaoh podcast)
The greatest lesson that I’ve learned from Prince’s life work is to be present. We spend a lot of time thinking about the past or planning for the future, but something about his work forces you to pay attention to what he’s saying or doing at that moment. His presence—whether you were listening to a song or watching a video or watching him perform on stage—was arresting. You couldn’t do anything but witness him being. It makes you think about how often you give something your full attention in the world of distractions we live in now.
DE ANGELA L. DUFF (academic, curator of the annual Prince Symposium)
That’s simple: “Everything U Think Is True!” As a 9-year-old, the cover of Dirty Mind spoke volumes to me. Not about sexuality, but about pure, unadulterated freedom. My young brain knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that for this guy, there were absolutely no limits and no rules. As I grew older and learned more about Prince’s relentless work ethic, I realized that with vision and hard work, you can make anything happen. As a 50-year-old now, I am still reaching for Prince’s “bar above the bar” (as Levi Seacer, Jr. phrased it last year during the official Sign o’ the Times New Year’s Eve concert YouTube screening). Prince has always represented to me the epitome of excellence. His understanding of the power of innate freedom is something I’m still striving for.
TONYA GIDDENS (creator of the Purple Paisley Brunch)
The greatest lesson I’ve learned from Dr. Nelson (you gotta put some respeck on his name!) is the fact that he lived his life unapologetically, was a trailblazer, and created a lane that others wanted to follow (i.e., own your masters, etc.). He pushed the envelope in so many ways. How many people can say they were behind the ratings stickers on albums? He was such a visionary and true example of the word “genius.”
MICHAEL A. GONZALES (cultural critic)
I used to say that Prince fans were better lovers, and there’s some truth to that. I also think Prince fans are better writers, painters, recording artists and any other creative endeavor, because those who are real fans understand Prince believed in freedom. The freedom to be a freak, be it sexually or creatively; the freedom to be a weirdo; the freedom to stay in the studio for days on end; the freedom to be the best by not doing what everyone else is doing.
PRIANA APLIN (superstar Prince fam)
His frequent references to God showed his devout identity in faith and spirituality. He was always searching for answers in his life and being through his music. So he left me with faith and spirituality to reflect on and appreciate from the beauty of his perspective and bridging the similarities. Life is full of smiles and cries and life and death. The legacy he left behind is still creating future soul songs, and if we left the world today, he’d still outlive us. This is who Prince is: a story that never dies.
soulhead: If the Prince Estate/Paisley Park solicited advice, what major things would you advise?
I’d love for them to consult (and partner with) the extensive fam community, to mine some of the incredible creative talent that exists within it and tap into marketing and merchandising ideas that will speak to us more profoundly. I’d also love for them to work on getting early-career performance video (actually, any video footage from the early days) online and available to the masses. In order to continue his legacy, folks need to not only hear his music, but see him in action: to witness his performative genius throughout the years despite footage quality. Having said that, his 2016 Paisley Park Piano & a Microphone shows must be released, asap.
I’d love to see more educational pursuits by the Prince enterprises that promote his legacy, not just to explain what he’s done, but to continue to build on the legacy he started. Maybe there could be an educational branch of Paisley Park, not so much for fans, but for students coming up in the industry. They could bring in legacy engineers for very technical decomposition of Prince’s music; host songwriting workshops for students who matriculate at conservatories or collegiate musical programs; put together fashion intensives for students attending fashion schools; or even host debate competitions with topics based on social issues that were important to Prince.
DE ANGELA L. DUFF
I would tell them to model after NeilYoungArchives.com and have a subscription model for Prince’s live concert footage, rehearsals and after shows. I would also suggest the ability to book a mixing booth at Paisley Park, where you could solo the stems of every track on all of Prince’s albums. I would travel to Minneapolis often for that privilege. I would also suggest they have thematic celebrations or events based on specific albums, as I do with my symposia.
They are sitting on a gold mine of content. There needs to be a closer study of the incredible assets they have for every era, so Prince scholarship can deepen and new fans can be introduced to the breadth of who Prince was as an artist, musician, engineer, marketing genius, businessman and innovator. I’m also thrilled to hear they want to return to having Paisley Park be a fully functioning recording and production studio, and that they’re finally selling Prince’s music at Paisley Park.
Hire someone who has an extensive knowledge of his music! I understand they want to capitalize on his most profitable eras, but there was so much more music that people relate to. It’s such a disservice not to acknowledge those parts of his career, because he put out some good albums in the later years, and you can hear the musical evolution. I’d also like to see them bring back the 2017 exhibition “My Name Is Prince”, to tour the U.S. and include some of the acts and associates from different eras to tour and give history on some of the artifacts presented in the exhibition.
MICHAEL A. GONZALES
I would like deluxe reissues of the Paisley Park albums, the entire catalogue. Why do we live in a world where Jill Jones, The Family, Madhouse, Mavis Staples and Mazarati are out of print? These albums should be remastered and include extensive liner notes. Most of the creators are alive and kicking, and have rarely had their stories told. As a music journalist who contributed to both Wax Poetics Prince special issues, where I profiled Jesse Johnson and Jill Jones, both had amazing stories about their experiences in and out of the studio with Prince, stories that would make amazing liner notes. I would like for these albums to also contain bonus tracks.
I would say to the Prince Estate: give the real fans access to show footage/audio by way of a download service. Then release the bestsellers of said download service in a compilation for physical release.
To Paisley Park: have a section at Paisley for vault listening/viewing during Ultimate tours, à la the Paley Center for Media.
soulhead: Which were your favorite previously unreleased tracks from the posthumous releases?
“We Can Fuck.” This is the grimiest, chicken greasiest, slinkiest funk we’ve gotten since “Erotic City,” which is funny, because it was originally recorded a couple months before “Erotic City.” I love dirty Prince and I love hungry, pre-Purple Rain fame Prince, and this is the perfect example of both. It’s also the first example of him introducing outside influences and new instrumentation via David Coleman. Also, I love hearing early versions of songs we have become familiar with in entirely different contexts. [Also] “Vagina”: again, dirty Prince. But also, I loved it when he experimented with ideas and addressed taboo subjects, and this is a fab example of that. It’s punky and weird, and I love it.
“We Can Fuck.” The Purple Rain era of Prince is not one of my favorites, so I wasn’t particularly excited about that deluxe edition coming out. Listening through and getting to that song was a delight because of the look into how his songs evolved over time, and also because of just how raw it is. More than him being “profane,” it’s my favorite when he really lets loose in the back half the song and starts just melodically screaming.
DE ANGELA L. DUFF
“Make-Up.” I always adored the songs Prince had Susan [Moonsie] sing for Vanity/Apollonia 6. “Make-Up” was always my favorite track from both albums. Even though Niko Bolas didn’t mix Prince’s version on Originals faithfully to Vanity 6’s version, I love what he did with it. The audio quality of “Make-Up” on Originals is the most pristine of all the released, “unreleased” tracks on post-2016 projects, so far, IMHO. You can feel it in your chest. [And] “Purple Music.” There are certain circulating songs where I always wanted to listen to them with the best audio quality possible. “Purple Music” was at the top of that list, because the song is so darn addictive. “In a Large Room With No Light” was another. I know the estate is trying to release versions of songs that aren’t circulating, but I want to hear what’s already circulating at the highest quality. Hopefully they’ll eventually release the December 1987 version of “The Line” with Boni Boyer, and not the version with all of the vocal and horn overdubs, so it can be heard in the way that it deserves too.
“You’re My Love” and “Make-Up.” Vocally on “You’re My Love,” you’ve never heard that tonality from Prince before; it’s different from what he’s been known to do. There’s also an urgency in his vocals, especially during the bridge. I would say it’s one of my favorite songs by him. “Make-Up” is just a fun song, even though it’s close to the Vanity 6 version.
“All My Dreams.” It’s the trippy laugh at the beginning (from [Frank Zappa’s] “Our Bizarre Relationship”). It’s the jazz left turn it takes. It’s the poem. It’s the ’40s radio vocal effect with a hazy fume. It’s a psychedelicerotichromantic song that always made me happy when I first heard it. So to hear all the instrumentation in its remastered quality was the rebirth of an aural mirage for me. And I love how Wendy & Lisa are prominent in this song. It is probably one of the best-kept sweet dreams from the vault.
MILES MARSHALL LEWIS
For the record, my personal faves of all the newly released material are probably “Vagina” and “Blanche” (in large part because I’d never heard them before as bootlegs). And Prince’s life lesson about weighing the creative spark above and beyond commercial considerations stuck with me the most.
But in the years since 2016, what I appreciate most is the dozen times I saw him perform from 1986 to 2013; meeting him at Life nightclub in the late ’90s; sitting in his two-seater in front of Paisley Park as he played HitnRun Phase Two over his Cadillac speakers.
Given the state of modern music, I don’t know that my teenage sons will ever have a pop star who means as much to them as Prince meant to all of us purple boys and girls. But I’m glad diehards the world over continue to treasure our respective memories of the man and his music. Prince’s sunset turned out to be the Dawn—five years later, we’re still adjusting our vision.
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.