What Prince Taught Me About Music – by Scott Bradlee
To be honest, I’m not even certain that the music world can function without Prince. It might very well be time to pack it in; music, you’ve had a good run. Might as well just go into reruns now- there will never be another Prince.
I bought my first Prince album when I was in high school. I drove an old Isuzu pickup truck that was affectionally known as the “Red Rocket” among my friends, due to its abject failure to go any speed over 50 miles per hour. It didn’t have a built-in cassette deck, but I went to great lengths to install one so that I could continue to study great musicians during my 35 minute commute to high school. One of the first cassettes I bought for it was the “Purple Rain” soundtrack. Initially, I thought it was a little too ’80s-sounding for my tastes, but it grew on me very quickly. I remember getting yelled at for leaving it in my mom’s car once; she apparently drove my little sister to piano lessons to the soundtrack of “Darling Nikki” one day. Whoops.
(not the actual cassette I owned – I stole this pic from someone’s Etsy store. But my cassette looked identical.)
It wasn’t till I started digging more into Prince’s life and work that it hit me that this was no typical pop artist. He played every instrument on his albums! He took on the record labels! He changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol, just because he could! At the time, having mostly studied jazz and jazz only, I had kind of accepted the idea that great musicians could never achieve popular success. Prince proved that theory wrong.
He was incredibly popular, selling hundreds of millions of albums worldwide. True, he knew how to capture the public’s imagination and how to give the media something to talk about, but unlike a lot of pop stars, he could also back up his boasts. His guitar playing often rivaled Jimi Hendrix in its inventiveness, but with more technique and finesse. He was a master at keyboards, drums, and bass, and created his own signature production style like Stevie Wonder. Onstage, he brought all the excitement and charisma of James Brown and Little Richard in concerts that would last three hours or more. As an visionary, he reinvented both dance and rock music and questioned all the rules of the music industry. And, to top it all off, apparently he was also one hell of a basketball player.
(Prince showing up randomly at a jam session in Hollywood and stunning the audience with a guitar solo.)
Prince’s contrarian views about technology made him seem a bit out of touch to many in my generation. He was notorious for defending his copyright almost to the point of absurdity. What was truly absurd: his copyright crusades actually worked for him more often than they failed. In today’s industry view of artists as some combination of record label fodder and social media clickbait, Prince held his ground and refused to compromise his values. You might not agree with him (Full disclosure: last April Fools’, I kicked around the idea of releasing a video titled, “Postmodern Jukebox Covers Every Prince Song in 5 Minutes” -where the sound was muted, of course), but you can’t help but respect that kind of tenacity. Like all of the greats, he did things his way.
When I was growing up, I thought that being a great musician was all that it took to be an artist. Prince taught me that being a great musician was a starting point, not the finish line. To truly be an artist, you need to go beyond what’s been done before and use your talents to say something new. Being an artist is not a selfish act, either; it’s creating something for the entire world to enjoy. An artist gives people something to believe in. It’s a privilege, but also a responsibility.
The world may never again see an artist with Prince’s unique set of talents, but his influence will continue to be felt every time an artist wakes up and asks, “Why?”
“A Strong Spirit Transcends Rules.”
Prince, June 7, 1958- April 21, 2016
-By Scott Bradlee
Header artwork by Cesar Rodriguez.