Crown of Creation: Prince Summons the Funk on Musicology
Thompson, Art, Guitar Player
This is some year for Prince. With his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (which will long be remembered for the jaw-dropping solo he played on "While My Guitar Gently Weeps"), his blistering performance with Beyonce at the Grammy Awards (the show's producers hopefully sent him some flowers in appreciation), and the release of Musicology (widely hailed as his best work in a decade), Prince has reclaimed the funk-rock throne.
And who's going to argue?
Musicology [NPG] delivers on all fronts with its savvy blend of greasy funk, soaring anthems, sweet ballads, and--who says funk and politics don't mix?--pointed assessments of George Bush ("Dear Mr. Man") and the war on terrorism ("Cinnamon Girl"). It's also loaded with hip guitar. Not that Prince will readily speak about his guitar playing or his gear. During our interview, he was more eager to talk about music education for kids, the record industry, and the flap over decency on the airwaves ("'Darling Nikki' was suggestive," he says, "but it wasn't nasty"), and the concept behind the new album.
"Musicology is all about music the way it used to be," says Prince, as we sit in his dressing room at the Mellon Arena in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. "And it's about getting the music to the people. That's why everyone who comes to the show gets a copy of the record. The CD is included in the ticket price, and we're giving out approximately 50,000 copies each week in order to keep increasing the exposure to the new album. Right now, we're only playing a few songs from Musicology in the show, but that will change as people become more familiar with it."
Although the massive giveaway seemed like an expensive way to promote an album, Prince disagreed. "It costs nothing to make the CDs," he says. "And the benefit of having your artistic freedom is that there won't be anyone forcing you to do a remix or anything else you don't want to do. I don't believe in remixing songs that are in the key of life. When the record people get in there and say, 'Why don't you do it like this?' Well, that's their prerogative if they own the contract. But bands break-up over contracts--just talk to the Eagles about that. I've asked record execs why they aren't under contract with each other, and all I get is, 'That's a very funny idea, Prince.' See, the fight for me has always been about freedom and ownership. It's simply preposterous to me that someone is going to own your work in perpetuity."
Prince is probably the most successful independent artist in the music biz, and his desire to be in control of every aspect of his music seems to demand that he also work on his records alone--a habit that seems puzzling considering the pool of talent in his band.
"On some songs, I just like the way I play drums and keys better than anyone I know," he explains. "My drummer, John Blackwell, can certainly do things I can't do, but, if I bring him into the studio, there are things he'll do differently than how I envisioned them. You know, I can't even play 'When Doves Cry' the way I originally envisioned it. It's like a painting--it is what it is. You know how [legendary director] Billy Wilder got such a seamless quality to his films? It was because he wrote and directed everything himself. It's the same for me."
One of the attractions of seeing Prince live is that he plays tons of guitar. At the Pittsburgh show, I witnessed what an absolute shred monster he can be when he kicks on a Boss DS-2 Overdrive through his Mesa/Boogie Heartbreaker amp. But Prince is also a masterful rhythm guitarist with a unique funk style. "I'm always trying to work in the bass notes when I'm playing funk rhythms," Prince says. "It's the same way that Freddie Stone [guitarist, Sly and the Family Stone] would always play the same parts as [bassist] Larry Graham, but just a tad higher. Kids don't learn to play the right way anymore. When the Jackson Five came up, they had to go through Smokey Robinson and the Funk Brothers, and that's how they got it down. …