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Music

Prince once defined what ‘real music’ is all about and the problems it faces

There is honestly no other word to describe Prince other than ‘genius’. The term is all too often thrown around these days, especially among unassuming musicians and songwriters. But with Prince, the label just feels right; it feels like the only word anywhere near close enough to describe his effortless talent and dynamism.

Not only was Prince a songwriter of inconceivable talent, he was also a truly graceful dancer, could rip into a guitar solo just as hard as any of his contemporaries, and had a patient and wistful demeanour in interviews, where he could consult a knowledge of music that was seemingly obtained from beyond his own experience.

Prince was born to be a musician; his mother was Mattie Della, an acclaimed jazz singer, and his father was pianist and songwriter John Lewis Nelson, who went by the stage name Prince Rogers (Prince’s birth name was Prince Nelson Rogers). Prince wrote his first-ever song aged seven on his father’s piano and after a childhood spent swimming in the joys of music and learning its intricacies, he signed a recording contract with Warner Bros. Music at nineteen.

So if anyone is qualified to give their opinion on music, what it truly is spiritually, and how it ought to be considered socially, then that person is, without doubt, the Minneapolis-born star. In a piece of interview footage, Prince turns a sceptical eye towards the nature of the music machine, the business side of music that turns an artform into a commodity.

“Well, unfortunately, like I said, the music industry isn’t being run by musicians,” Prince argues. “It’s being run by accountants and lawyers, so I don’t know if they’d know real music if they heard it. What they’re looking for are acts that are going to make the most money for them. So you’ll see all kinds of gimmicks, so to speak.”

Evidently, Prince felt that the soul of music, the very reason we want to play or listen to music in the first place (namely that it lifts us out of our own experience into something far deeper), was being ripped away by the business capitalists of the industry. He questions whether those involved in music really understand what music is. Clearly, he thinks they do not. All they are interested in is making a quick turnaround in profit, using the ‘gimmicks’ of say, boy bands or pop groups, rather than distributing the true essence of music.

He goes on to say, “ultimately, real music is just about a microphone and a spotlight. If you can get over like that and bring the special effects within your body, then I think you’re going to have a lot longer career.”

And we find perfect instances of such ‘real music’ in Prince’s catalogue. Take for instance the posthumously released Piano & A Microphone 1983, the demo tapes that intimately capture Prince’s writing process. These tracks are not perfect, they aren’t polished to the nth degree. Instead, they are real music, and unfurl right there before us. “Could you turn the vocal down a little bit?” asks Prince on ’17 Days’. When we listen to this record we are right there with artist, inside the music.

Consider also, Prince’s second studio album, Prince, released in 1979, on which he wrote, recorded and produced every part of every track (bar one solitary vocal). While this record undoubtedly differs from Piano & A Microphone, seeing as it is so perfectly performed and rounded, it gives us scope for thought. Prince had made this record by the time he was 21 years old. But the ‘real music’ took place long before it was recorded. It goes to show the practice Prince put into his music as a child and young man. That’s where the real music takes place, playing to no one but yourself, finding new ways to express yourself.

As Prince says, it’s a microphone and a spotlight, even if that spotlight comes from the ceiling of your childhood bedroom.

Watch the interview footage below.