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El-P on ‘Purple Rain’: ‘It Contains the DNA of Everything I Needed to Understand About Music’

The Run the Jewels rapper-producer discovered the Prince classic when he was nine years old, and it changed the course of his life

Run the Jewels rapper El-P reflects on the enormous impact that Prince's 'Purple Rain' had on his musical direction.

Sherry Rayn Barnett /Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

This piece is part of our ongoing coverage of Rolling Stone’s newly updated 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list. Prince’s Purple Rain topped El-P’s personal ballot and landed at number eight on the overall list. Here, the Run the Jewels rapper reflects on how the album changed him as both an artist and as a person. (Go here to read the complete list of 500 Greatest Albums voters and learn more about how the current ranking was assembled.)

Purple Rain contains the DNA of everything I needed to understand about music. It doesn’t contain rap, but it’s still an amalgamation of everything that set me off.

I was nine years old. I saw the trailer for the movie — I wasn’t allowed to see the movie. But in the trailer, it had that scene where he’s slinking across the stage, licking his fingers, touching his nipple, and combing his hair, and I was just like, “What the fuck is this shit?” I had no fucking idea what it was. And I couldn’t see the movie because it was too risqué, but I could convince my mom to buy me the album. That was the loophole. Despite “Darling Nikki,” the song where I was like, “I should probably figure out masturbation.” [Laughs] “I’m not sure exactly what’s happening here, but I want a part of this.”

Prince appealed to my idea, or the mystery of what it might be like to be an adult. Prince was the guy that made me want to grow up so I could understand what the fuck he was talking about.

It was Hendrix guitar over LinnDrum machines — it was soul, rock, and funk, but also it was other shit that hadn’t been combined before. There’s a reason why people across every genre fuck with Prince: There are ideas in the music that are not re-creatable, but lend themselves to some direction. You could take a fragment of what he was doing and build an entire sound on it. People could make their entire musical careers based on a couple of moments on that record.

When Prince is one of your big first musical impressions, the idea of rules seems silly. It’s not like, “What if I were risqué and I took different things that sounded different and put them together?” If Prince is your first hero, that’s not something you worry about

The crescendo of “Beautiful Ones” — “Do you want him or do you want me? Because I want you” — I remember as a kid, just chills going down my spine. Feeling what he was saying and understanding the power of what he was doing — without understanding how he got there. Because I didn’t have any personal experiences that would ever lead me to that moment. But it’s so powerful. I was just like, “Goddamn, not only is this unbelievable music, but that’s kind of my prototype of what I think a man is supposed to be.”

I could tell that there was somehow honor and passion in what he was saying. I could feel how powerful it was, but I didn’t comprehend why, I didn’t comprehend the scenario — and yet, here I am, a young boy, getting my heart sort of fucked. [Laughs] And being like, “Whoa, there’s a world of emotion opening up and I almost recognize it” — but how could I recognize it because I haven’t even had it yet?

That’s what he did for me. As a young kid, he threw me into zones of feeling that I hadn’t identified before that were being triggered by music. Before that point, everything felt pretty straightforward. I loved a lot of music, but none of it was mysterious to me. Prince was mysterious. And he still is.

As told to Jon Blistein

From Rolling Stone US