The Prince Sound was part of the soundtrack of my early childhood. And although I never counted myself as a true fan, his genius was nevertheless transcendent and unique.
My late grandmother on my mother’s side, Ollie Hairston, wasn’t a Prince fan.
“I don’t like his eyes,” she said. “He looks like the devil.”
Even my dad once called him ‘little goat boy’, though he loved his work. Let me explain: the Wards are straitlaced black southerners—even I, the one secular heathen out, am a bit of a square—and it doesn’t take a high IQ to reason out that the pansexual areas into which Prince pushed his sartorial elegance didn’t agree with very many males of my father’s ilk. The lyrics “I’m not a woman, I’m not a man, I am something that you’ll never understand,” may explain a lot, or nothing at all. Prince didn’t seem to mind keeping people confused and guessing about all sorts of aspects of his life, from his faith, to what exact genre in which to place his music, to his name. (This can wreak havoc on those of us who are OCD about the tagging of our music files.)
But then there was Mom, who then as ever, dug her heels in against Dad and Grandma on the subject of her Princely fandom. The soundtrack from Purple Rain was part of her postpartum heavy-rotation setlist on the old Technics turntable almost thirty years ago, and the penultimate two cuts, “I Would Die 4 U” and “Baby I’m A Star” still get frequent requests today on my Magnepan/Emotiva system, when Mom feels like she needs a little mood boost.
Prince works on a big hifi. I mean really works, Werks, WUUURKS. Most modern pop of the last decade doesn’t make a case for the audiophile hobby. I couldn’t get most of my college acquaintances to even try on my Sennheiser HD600’s to demo stuff they actually freaking liked, as if all my gleaming equipment had cooties. And now I can’t blame them; play anything recorded in the naughts on a high-powered system and you’ve just paid thousands of dollars to just make it louder and harsher. And if you aren’t already into classical or jazz… See? As far as 99% of the music-listening public is concerned, there’s no point.
Unless you have a library of 80s pop/rock. The aural epiphanies that a worthy system can sift out of a well-produced piece of 80s pop can move one to – and I thank Henry Rollins in advance for coining this phrase – fuck on the floor and break shit. I forget whether it was Berry Gordy or Quincy Jones who expressed the wisdom that a hit record should sound hot no matter what it’s played on. That didn’t mean they wanted their albums to sound globally mediocre, but that the skeleton and musculature of the music should be accessible through the radio. There is of course, more to it than that, and in the years when Q.J. and M.J. were making music together—when the home hifi was still a middle class thing—there was much, much more.
“1999” sounds sexy enough through an iPhone (or in my case, a Walkman), but when played through the Maggies’ huge soundstage, it just belongs. Like Kubrick belongs on IMAX. Like live-action Batman belongs to Christopher Nolan. Prince had a way with melody and arrangement that not only grabbed your attention but rewarded scrutiny; admittedly not too much to ask from the other artists and producers I’ve mentioned so far, legends all. But nobody had a feel for generating an instant atmosphere of party quite like he did, almost as if the speakers themselves were filling the room with an all-enveloping fug of super-refined ecstasy, with a beat that twitched your hips without your knowing it, and keyboard work that seemed to tapdance and frolic fawn-like over the pleasure centers of the brain.
It was a sound that was instantly recognizable as uniquely Prince, and one which was so deeply interwoven into the soundtrack of my early childhood, that I grew to take it for granted. The preschool days in which I used to sing along to the music video of Morris Day’s “Fishnet” (yes, that really happened), as well as the countless laps ran around the elementary school gymnasium waiting in earnest for my instructor Mrs. Seay’s mixtape to light on The Bangles’ “Manic Monday”, encouraging me to run a little harder… All of that had been filed away and sealed off with all the other childhood feelings and perturbations, in the lower mezzanine of my subconscious; not completely gone, but not of any pressing relevance either, just hanging out somewhere south of the middle. I admired Prince’s multifaceted artistic prowess from a distance, but I was never moved to dye my wool in purple—never considered myself an out-and-out fan.
The morning after receiving the news of his passing – from my mother’s BFF, the biggest Prince fan (I know of, at least; so distraught that she went straight home and couldn’t work for the rest of the day. That's a fan.) – Mom sought to raise me out of bed early and too glycogen-starved to see straight, just so I would fire up the stereo so she could listen to her two favorite cuts from Purple Rain. I didn’t mind humoring her and honoring him, as long as I could get a double-shot espresso in me first. And in fact I thought I’d do us a favor by starting a track earlier on “When Doves Cry”.
Only seconds after that nuclear air-burst of a shredding guitar solo ebbed and the melody began, with the production sharpening into focus ahead of the first stanza, the weight of the loss finally hit me, and in a way the adult me would never have expected. The mind that created this sound was no longer with us, I thought. Shit…
Even if you’re not a fan, you’ve got to admit there was an otherworldly sublime genius afoot. I was not immune.
My favorite Prince video, and the first thing I thought of sharing, doesn’t even feature Prince, but does offer a common man’s insights on what it’s like to exist inside Paisley Park's reality distortion field. (Steve Jobs had nothing on Prince when it came to that, evidently.) Filmmaker Kevin Smith was commissioned by Prince to direct a serious and sincere documentary on his religious views—this, after Smith made the iconoclastic Dogma. Smith himself is a fan, and his anecdote is candid and critical without being malicious, cripplingly funny at times, and should be pleasure listening for casual Prince fans.
But diva apologists beware, if you’re the type of Prince fan who worshipped the man as a living god, this video might not be for you. Forewarned.
Prince Rogers Nelson (1958-2016)