Hip-hop artists love Prince. Like them, he blends drum machines, live jazz-funk musicians and samples of other songs.
I slept on Prince straight through the eighties and most of the nineties. I was more of a Michael Jackson guy. Prince was a little too grown up for me. I definitely wasn’t ready for his naked butt in the cassette liner notes. He won me over when I learned how to play some of his songs with bands. We did “Let’s Go Crazy” in my non-serious college hipster cover band. A few years later I played with a singer-songwriter named Kimberly West, and we had “Kiss” in the set list for a while as a straight-ahead cover. “Kiss” is one of the most pleasurable songs I’ve ever played on guitar. The solo and fills are as tightly structured as if Prince copied and pasted them together with a sampler. For all I know, that’s how he comes up with all of his guitar parts. The harmony is jagged and angular, based on tritones, and that tension balances out the smooth rhythms well. The wah-wah pedal part is as structured as the drum machine part. And he’s got synth marimba under there! Futuristic stuff.
My more recent connection with Prince is that my sister has been living in Minneapolis, where he was born and where he still lives and works. It’s a much hipper place than you would think given its midwestern surroundings. Along with Prince, the Minneapolis music scene has produced Bob Dylan and Garrison Keillor. I can’t quite figure out the pattern there, but all three of those guys are fearlessly idiosyncratic and committed to a personal sound.
“Prince”, by the way, is not a stage name. His given name is Prince Rogers Nelson. It’s an optimistic name, and Prince is a confident guy. I guess that’s why I resisted him as a self-doubting angst-ridden teenager. Now it’s why I like him.
Prince has mostly produced his music by sequencing drums and synths and layering live instruments on top. For most of his classic hits, he did beats on a Linn LM-1 drum machine. He did his synths and sampled instruments with a Fairlight CMI. See a demonstration of this instrument by Herbie Hancock and Quincy Jones.
Prince hasn’t done a whole lot of sampling, but when he does, he chooses like a hip-hop producer. He used George Clinton’s “Atomic Dog” on his song “Style.” George Clinton returned the compliment by sampling Prince’s “Sex” on his song “Hysterical.”
Finally, enjoy some Dave Chappelle.