Prince’s genius: shaped by technology, delivered by capitalism

Prince

As a music lover and the producer of a funk and soul podcast, Prince was one of my favourite artists. Not all his music was to my taste, but I did adore a significant amount of it, and so his untimely death has touched me like it has millions of other music lovers around the world.

So much has been written about Prince the artist and so many wonderful musical tributes have been made that I’m not going to discuss Prince’s music or the man as a cultural icon. Instead, I think it’s worth taking a moment to gratefully reflect upon the economic and technological age that enabled him to reach the heights that he did, and to contemplate his attitude towards it.

Without the globalisation of free market capitalism and the rapid technological progress it enabled, Prince’s music would never have reached a global audience and touched so many people’s souls; his signature electric guitar sound wouldn’t have been possible and his vast back catalogue wouldn’t be available to us at the touch of a button in perfect fidelity. This is generally true for all the music greats of the 20th century, of course, but is especially true for Prince who was as much a multi-instrumentalist as he was a song writer, singer, producer and performer.

Prince’s musical roots were in jazz-funk, but his genius was such fertile ground that he rapidly branched out and produced music that spanned rock, funk, punk, jazz, R n’ B and rap. The label genius is wholly appropriate for Prince. His transcendent ability as a musician, particularly as a guitarist, made him unique among the iconic black artists of the 20th century.

Such was the eclectic nature of his music that I’m not sure the public ever fully recognised him as the singular guitarist that he was. Eric Clapton, of all people, called him the greatest guitarist in the world. As a song writer and performer he was also up there with the likes of James Brown, Stevie Wonder, and Michael Jackson. Even as a singer he was no slouch. He had a terrific falsetto.

Like a true artist, Prince did what turned him on (to paraphrase legendary producer, Quincy Jones), but such was his talent and so prolific was he that throughout his career he made albums that appealed to music lovers across genres by effortlessly blurring musical divisions and those between black music and white music. Michael Jackson and the band Earth, Wind & Fire are perhaps the only other black acts who did this anywhere near as successfully as Prince did.

Another favourite artistic genius of mine is Michelangelo. He was immortalized in art history, not by producing art in the style that was already popular during his time, but by making his own artistic styles so popular that the world’s love for his work has lasted and strengthened over centuries. Prince’s place in music history is assured for the same reason. Prince didn’t ultimately aim at making music of the kind that was already popular in the late seventies, which he could easily have done, he aimed at making his music popular – whatever that evolved to be. And it’s hard to argue that he didn’t succeed. Officially, he sold over 100 million records worldwide.

Consider this: if Prince had been born just half a century earlier, then his music wouldn’t have reached the ears of billions of people because it wouldn’t have been recorded and distributed in mass quantities around the world. All that psychological and spiritual pleasure and inspiration, multiplied billions of times, just wouldn’t have happened. All the creativity inspired by his music wouldn’t have happened. Sadder still, it wouldn’t have been possible to re-experience it or to enable someone else to experience it for the first time when we wanted to at the touch of a button.

In fact Prince’s trademark sound, if you like, wouldn’t have been possible without the electrically amplified instruments and audio production and recording equipment of the early 20th century. Prince as a 19th century musician would have been a very different animal. How wonderfully fortunate that he was born decades after the electric guitar was invented and not sixty or so years before. Can you imagine Prince without that stirring electric guitar sound? That’s a tragedy. Whether it’s a funky lick or an epic guitar solo, Prince just isn’t Prince without that sound – or the electric bass or electronic keyboard.

Prince the musician was perfect. Prince the man, however, wasn’t. Like all people, he had flaws and he believed things that weren’t true. Even geniuses aren’t right about everything. Einstein, for example, believed that socialist planned economies were practical. Prince believed that his ideas in the form of his music were property and he acted as if they were. Boy did he.

Prince really didn’t want people copying and sharing his music. But it happened. A lot. Let’s face it, Prince’s music was copied and distributed countless times over the last three decades in the form of cassette tapes, compact discs and now MP3s. He apparently hated it, because he believed it violated what he thought were his property rights. But decades of ‘illegal’ copying and distribution of his albums, done by fans out of love for him and his music, surely only strengthened the world’s bond with him and his art.

From the accounts of the many musicians and celebrities that were friends with him or knew him, Prince was in general a rather dictatorial person. To put it another way he was only prepared to engage with people on his terms. Often those terms were demanding, eccentric or inconvenient for others, but almost everyone made the necessary allowances for his uncompromising nature because they adored him – or else they were prepared to pay any price for the opportunity to perform with him.

Unfortunately, Prince’s controlling nature spilled out across society. He wasn’t the only one by any means, but Prince the music star had a particularly strong authoritarian urge to control the world when it came to what people did with his music after they had purchased it. He simply didn’t recognise that once someone bought a copy of one of his albums it became their property. In effect, he believed we all were renting his music and thus that he retained the right to limit what we could do with it forevermore. This is why Prince is conspicuously absent on YouTube and every other official music place on the web. Dive below the surface and into the torrent world, however, and you’ll find his entire back catalogue as well as lots of other live bootleg recordings. This was, I imagine, much to Prince’s annoyance.

Maybe Prince’s ideal, even before the Internet, was for all his music to live in his huge vault and for the world to somehow be given access to it, but never to be given a copy of it. That way, he would stay in total control of the physical distribution of his music and yet he could still touch people’s hearts and minds with it. If this was Prince’s dream, then it was a prophetic one because this kind of distribution control is becoming a reality for today’s musicians.

If Prince could do it all again and choose any time to begin his career, I suspect he would choose now: the time when music streaming services are coming of age and becoming a viable alternative to downloading. If the only way people could access his music was through streaming services, then Prince would have the control over his work that he seemed to crave throughout his career. But here’s an interesting thought. With this control, would Prince have had the impact on the world that his 80’s self did without it? And if not, is that a trade-off he would have been willing to accept? Only those who were closest to him would know.

Prince’s urge to control people who purchased his music and came to his concerts and his irrational hatred of ticket re-sellers were, for me, the only unbecoming aspects of Prince the man – as far as a member of the public like me could ever know him. As a musician there was nothing to not like about him, and there was no thrill he couldn’t deliver.

Since his death I’ve become even more thankful that I saw him in concert. It was one of the 31 consecutive nights he did at the Indig02 in London back in 2007 and it was incredible. That was also the night I discovered the amazing Maceo Parker, who was part of Prince’s band on that tour. Maceo Parker was James Brown’s saxaphone player and that he often toured with Prince showed the regard in which he held him. Maceo Parker knew musical genius when he heard it.

After hearing Parker’s solo performance during the interlude, I fell in love with the sound of the alto sax and realised that he was a genius of a player. When you watch and listen to Maceo Parker perform it’s as if the instrument becomes part of him. It’s the same with Prince and his guitar. They become one. Like Michelangelo and his hammer and chisel did.

Last week I listened to Sheila E., prince’s former percussionist and close friend, talking about the physical toll that his performing career took on his body. Apparently he had hip problems, which were the result of many energetic stage performances over the years, for which he was taking prescription painkillers. Also, he had a habit of not sleeping for days on end, such was the creative energy that burned within.

Insight into his physical well-being was a sobering reminder to me that Prince’s art came at a significant cost to his physical self – perhaps even the ultimate one – but one that he was willing to accept to give the world the best Prince he could give. Like all truly great artistic geniuses, his art was his life and his life was his art. And the world hoped he would live forever, such was the joy he brought to it.

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