How do I summarize into so many words someone as eclectic as Prince?
As I type this, details are still being sorted out, surrounding the sudden passing of Prince Rogers Nelson, who at one point had reduced his name to that of a symbol. Conflicting reports about flu-like symptoms and unwarranted speculation aside, the only fact we have is that gone too soon is a pioneer of modern music.
His track “Batdance” for example, was more than a dance club fluff piece to promote 1989's Batman starring Michael Keaton. It was actually one of several iconic pieces of music from the Prince created soundtrack. To create Batdance, Prince would play one instrument for a seven minute set on a recording. Then put it down and record another track with another instrument, on and on, until finally mixing in his own vocal track. The entire composition is done entirely by ONE man. And many other tracks on the album are comprised of the sounds of Prince playing with Prince while recording with Prince. And unprecedented feat not repeated by mainstream music.
Prince was a self-taught musician of many instruments, but that should come as no surprise when you consider he was the son of jazz musician Mattie Della-Shaw and pianist John Lewis Nelson. A child of divorce, Prince would channel his emotion into music, and began producing his own songs as a child. Through much trial and tribulation, he was able to release his first, real hit in 1978.
While working hard at making his own dream a reality, he formed a band known as “The Time” which he then donated to his friend Morris Day, helping him get his career off the ground. Prince would also jump start the careers of Sheila E, Sinead O'Connor, and recently deceased singer Vanity, among many other performers. Prince unwittingly helped out mixed race and other minorities make waves in the music community, where they were otherwise ignored, as well as many female talents in an industry that at the time was more about looks than talent. Prince himself was African American, but seldom brought race into any interview, focusing on ability rather than color.
Aside from music, Prince was also known for his role in acting, most notably in his first film Purple Rain, about a troubled musician, his abusive family having influence on his destructive behavior, and band rivalry ripping up his personal relationships. The box office smash, put together by his record label Warner Brothers, would later become an even bigger hit on VHS, later spawning a success-less sequel titled Graffiti Bridge in 1990. Between the two films, Prince starred in and directed two more movies, Under the Cherry Moon in 1986, about a gigolo who falls in love, and Sign o' the times in 1987, a concert movie. Both were commercial failures initially, but Sign o' the times would later recoup many of it's losses in the VHS market, and globally in the DVD and Blu-Ray market, though a US DVD and Blu-Ray release has never come to be. Still, the Purple Rain stunt helped launch him towards composing the soundtrack to 1989's Batman, also put together through Warner Brothers.
But at the start of the 1990's, where Prince had some ups and downs, tensions arose between Prince and his record label. In 1993, he changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol, costing the label a mint in advertising, which required a new font be created from scratch to accompany the new name. He began spinning out new albums faster than ever, in an attempt to get out of his contract with Warner Brothers faster, however he would not see his freedom from the label until early in 2000. During those years, Prince's album sales would peak and dip several times. Nevertheless, the eccentric wonder of the music world found new ways to re-invent himself, finding a younger and younger audience.
In 1997, he became the first musician in history to release an entire album via the internet. Crystal Ball was available via download or telephone only, an unprecedented move. Though as forward-thinking as the move was, it would highlight a level of hypocrisy in the musician in later years.
Between 2007 and 2014, Prince routinely sued YouTube and many of his fans, for any and all use of his image and sound on the internet. Any form of sharing, whether good or bad, was treated as straight-up bootlegging. He fiercely ignored the Fair Use clause of the United States Copyright Act of 1976, and sought damages from his fans in the millions. His misuse and misquote of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 eventually led to a brouhaha of sorts with the band Radiohead. In 2008, Prince performed a cover of the song “Creep” at the 2008 Coachella Music Festival, only to days later have his lawyers remove all reference to the performance from social media. In protest, Radiohead spearheaded a legal campaign against Prince, demanding he cough up the rights to the performance, since he did not own the rights to the song and had only performed a cover. "It's our song, let people hear it” demanded the band. But for as strong as their retaliation efforts were, the only fruit this bore was a temporary showcase of Prince performing Cream as replayed on his now defunct website, LotusFlow3r.com. Though Prince eased up slightly on his crusade against the internet in the final year and a half of his life, most of Prince's output remains off of most social media websites, with YouTube promising a three strike ban promise on repeat offenders.
Despite the constant attacks however, Prince spent his last years with yet an even younger audience. The same Millennial listeners that would face YouTube content rejections from Prince's camp, ended up legally buying his later tracks on iTunes, attending his concerts and of course, taking selfies while in the audience of the handful of late-night talk show appearances he made to promote his last tours.
Prince was eclectic, internet-wise eccentric, but overall a talented musician. He was in the process of penning an autobiography at the time of his death, and no doubt out it, it was likely to be as colorful and inspiring as he was.
Koriander Bullard is an author, cartoonist and human rights advocate. Keep up with her on Facebook!