Michael Jackson and Prince are two of the most iconic performers of all time. Bonded by sheer brilliance, game-changing style, an affinity for James Brown and ample controversy, it is easy to regard the two musicians as separate sides of the same coin. Although both came from – and represented – polar opposite areas of the music industry, in their lifetimes, both made an unquestionable impact on popular culture ad infinitum. If one was to count the number of artists – in every sense of the word – that both Prince and M.J. inspired, it is endless.
The dichotomy between both artists cannot be ignored. Michael Jackson represented the full force of the music industry. A child star in The Jackson 5, he went on to have solo hits as an adolescent throughout the 1970s before his solo album Off the Wall catapulted him to stratospheric stardom in 1979, success arriving off the back of iconic singles such as ‘Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough’ and ‘Rock With You’. Although a prolific songwriter in his own right, due to his stature, Jackson had all the time, money and physical help he needed to realise his musical potential.
On the other hand, Prince worked his way up in the industry and put in a long, drawn-out innings before his arrival as an icon. In the early stages of his career, in the late 1970s, he was a pioneer of the esteemed ‘Minneapolis Sound’, a funk subgenre. Subsequently, he released acclaimed albums such as Dirty Mind (1980), Controversy (1991), and 1999 (1982) before hitting the genuine big-time with his sixth album and magnum opus, Purple Rain, in 1984.
While Jackson had been a superstar for the majority of his life, whose position was cemented by Off The Wall and its iconic successor Thriller, Prince’s success was the result of a concerted solo effort. Throughout the early stages of the 1980s, as Prince’s star began to rise, naturally, comparisons began to be drawn between him and Jackson.
Dynamic performers in their own ways, and of course, African-American, it is not hard to understand why there was a yin and yang element perceived in the duo’s relationship. Instead of the two converging and becoming a brilliant partnership as was mooted when production commenced for Jackson’s Bad in 1985, the relationship between the pair can only be described as, well, fraught.
In a well-documented tapestry involving voodoo, alleged attempted hit and runs, and a whole load of oneupmanship, unfortunately, Jackson and Prince didn’t see eye to eye. A shame for the listener as the possible duet of the two on the single ‘Bad’ would have been glorious. According to comedian Chris Rock, Prince’s reaction to being asked to play on the hit single was: “The first line in that song is, ‘your butt is mine’ so I was saying, ‘Who gonna sing that to whom? Because you sure ain’t singing it to me, and I sure ain’t singing it to you.’ So right there we got a problem.'”
Allegedly, the bad blood stemmed from the iconic James Brown performance in 1983, where both artists performed alongside their hero Mr. Dynamite. Still a minnow in comparison to M.J., at this point, Prince was close to reaching superstardom, and he had not long before released classic singles ‘1999’ and ‘Little Red Corvette’. It is a testament to the size of Jackson’s star that being asked to perform on stage by James Brown himself and scoring hits was still not enough for Prince to be considered in the same breath as him.
Nevertheless, the story goes that Jackson performed a brilliant duet with Brown, which included the Moonwalk and received a standing ovation. According to producer Quincy Jones, Jackson whispered to Brown to call Prince up on stage afterwards: “Call Prince up — I dare him to follow me.” Initially, Brown responded, “Who?”, which gives an indication of where Prince found himself at this point in his career.
Regardless, Prince’s performance was a disaster. He stripped down to his bare chest, performed a cringe-inducing Jimi Hendrix impression with his guitar, and fell into a prop lamppost that took him and itself into the crowd. It is said Brown was so dismayed that he picked Prince’s jacket up off the floor and personally handed it back to him. On recently disclosed recordings, Michael Jackson is heard saying: “He made a fool of himself. He was a joke…people were running and screaming. I was so embarrassed. It was all on video.”
What followed was years of bitterness between the two pop icons. In 2006, Jackson said: “Prince has always been a meanie. He’s just a big meanie. He’s always been not nice to me.” Over the course of their lives, the feud would take many bizarre yet humorous twists and turns.
The standout flashpoint came in 2009 when Prince‘s former sound engineer, David Z, remembered the pair coming to blows over a game of ping pong. Z cast his mind back to the time when Jackson, like Prince’s own pantomime villain, paid him a visit at an L.A. studio as he worked on the film score for the 1986 project Under the Cherry Moon. Before too long, the pair found themselves playing a highly competitive game of ping pong. Allegedly, Prince taunted Jackson with digs such as: “Come on, Michael, get into it.” Z remembers Prince asking Jackson: “You want me to slam it?”, which MJ did not.
Z recalled: “Michael drops his paddle and holds his hands up in front of his face so the ball won’t hit him. Michael walks out with his bodyguard, and Prince starts strutting around like a rooster. ‘Did you see that? He (Jackson) played like Helen Keller.'”
So there it is. One of the more bizarre points in the whole Prince/Jackson saga. Prince, getting one up on his arch-enemy, the famously meek man-child, who in turn lost this particular skirmish by allowing himself to be bullied by the Lord Farquaad of pop. After this humorously pathetic early incident, the rivalry would continue to dial-up in heat, which culminated in Prince playing a slap bass solo literally in Jackson’s face at a 2006 Las Vegas show, but that is a story for a different day.
Watch the infamous 1983 James Brown performance below.