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Questlove Remembers Prince: In This Life, You’re on Your Own

In a powerful essay, the Roots leader goes deep on the genius, loneliness and the secret hip-hop heart of his idol.

In a powerful essay, the Roots leader goes deep on the genius, loneliness and the secret hip-hop heart of his idol.

When I first got Prince’s 1999 album, it was 1982. I was 11, newly in charge of my own record-buying habits. And I couldn’t resist the cover, with its purple field of stars, Prince’s name, the numbers, and all the hidden-meaning illustrations (is that a football or a smile? How phallic was that “1,” anyway?). My parents didn’t agree. They were born-again Christians at that point, and Prince — with his overt sexuality and profanity — was a bridge too far. Plus, when you turned the album cover upside down, the 999 went to 666, the mark of the beast.

My mom found the record and threw it away. Winter came. I shovelled snow until I had enough money to buy it a second time. That one went into the garbage, too. There was a third record that just vanished without a trace, and a fourth that got broken over my father’s knee. That fourth infraction came accompanied by a month of punishment. A little while after that, I got smarter, meaning sneakier. I found a friend to make me cassettes of Prince’s albums. At home, I loosened the heads of my drums and hid the contraband in there. I listened when I was practicing, playing something totally different on the drums so that my parents wouldn’t know what I was actually hearing.

Prince was in my ears and he was in my head. Starting then, I patterned everything in my life after Prince. I had older half-brothers, but Prince — unknown to me then, but not unseen or unheard, thanks to magazines, TV, radio, and my secret stash — was a guide to me in every way. I studied his fashion, I studied his affect. I studied his taste in women — carefully. And he began to mentor me in musical matters, too. I wouldn’t have started listening to Joni Mitchell without him. And that led me to Jaco Pastorius, who led me to Wayne Shorter, who led me to Miles Davis. I had a simple rule: if Prince listened to it, I listened to it.

“I patterned everything in my life after Prince.”

In the wake of his death, as we all try to come unstunned, everyone is talking about his genius. That’s understandable. But most of the discussion is general. I like to think about the specifics. I like to think of the way he innovated even early on, the way he turned away from the traditional blueprint of funk and soul music.

Think about James Brown. Prince certainly did, as did every funk and soul artist of his generation. But Prince was brilliantly perverse in the way he absorbed James Brown. If James was about a tight crack snare and percussive horns as an extended rhythmic arm, Prince went the opposite direction — he made undeniable funk from a dud of a dead snare sound and the artificial horns of the Oberheim synthesizer.

James Brown’s magic streak ran between 1965 and 1975; anyone who was anybody in black music, for the next 30 years, borrowed from that period the most. Michael Jackson borrowed dance moves. Rappers borrowed samples. But Prince, perhaps James’s truest heir, looked to the period after that, when James was thought to be in decline.

In sound checks, Prince would make his band play “Body Heat,” a 1976 hit for Brown, and he would make them play it endlessly. They’d lock into the groove and stay there. It was like Prince was using the Revolution as a sampler, and he looped that groove so that he could play along with it — and, eventually, play around with it. And “It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night,” from Sign O’ The Times in 1987, is a brilliant reworking of Brown’s “Gravity,” from 1986. Who else was really listening to James Brown at that point, let alone listening sharply enough to put it through the replicator and remake it on the spot?

Prince’s relationship to hip-hop has been the subject of much scrutiny, and more than a little mockery. It’s commonplace to say that he couldn’t figure out rap music, and to point to the sometimes stilted appearances of rappers on his records in the early Nineties. But at heart, he was more hip-hop than anyone.

Think of 1999 again — or rather 1982. It was such a banner year for the use of drum machines, from Arthur Baker to Afrika Bambaataa. Prince’s programming work on 1999 was beyond anything I had ever heard, just as innovative as the best hip-hop producers in the years to come: the Bomb Squad, DJ Premier, Pete Rock, Dr. Dre, A Tribe Called Quest, J Dilla.

“At heart, he was more hip-hop than anyone.”

I have always felt that the true mark of a genius is to look beyond the hits on their records to what people uncharitably call “the filler.” 1999, like Thriller, was all killer, no filler, but it was on the second side where the album really took wing. A song like “Something in the Water (Does Not Compute)” told me that Prince was not a regular person, or a regular musician. He had removed the bass from the original demo (at the time forbidden in black music, an innovation that would pay off even more powerfully on “When Doves Cry”), added a dizzying snare/hi-hat combination and delivered his vocals in a kind of ice-cold, almost robotic manner. It wasn’t just one new idea — it was several, all together; you knew from that song and the album tracks around it (“Automatic,” “Lady Cab Driver”) that he was going to be the new breed leader.

Stand up, organise.

These are only some of the completely surprising, completely successful musical choices he made, and there are thousands more. But as I said, it was everything else, too. Prince was an outlaw. When he was giving interviews on the regular to Cynthia Horner in Right On! magazine, he was telling tall tales left and right. That was hip-hop. He built a crew, a posse, around his look and his sense of style. That was hip-hop. He had beef (with Rick James). He had his own vanity label (Paisley Park). He had parents up in arms over the content of his songs to the point where they had to invent the Parental Advisory warning. Hip-hop, hip-hop, hip-hop.

And then came Purple Rain, and the world changed. Before that, I kept my Prince obsession close to the vest. But the day after the video for “When Doves Cry” premiered, I was shocked to see that my secret was out. Everyone suddenly knew what I knew, which is that Prince was like nothing else, and that he was everything. Kids who liked music talked about the music. Kids who liked art talked about the visuals. And out on the basketball court, all they could talk about was the honey he was tonguing down. (This was still about a month and a half before the movie came out, so no one knew much about Apollonia yet. That would change.)

Later on, I got into the music business myself. I got to meet Prince several times. I roller-skated with him. I went to parties that he threw. But I always felt like a fan, never a peer. I remember once I was at Paisley Park. By this time, Prince was a Jehovah’s Witness, and he didn’t stand for cursing. I slipped up. It wasn’t anything too major. I think I said “shit.” Prince had a curse jar; every curse cost a dollar. “But you’re rich,” he said. “Put in $20.”

“Hey,” I said. “You taught me how to curse when I was little.” People laughed at the joke, but I thought I saw Prince wince a little bit, too, and I walked away wondering if I just confirmed to him that he was justified in taking a hard line. Maybe he actually felt bad that he had turned a generation of kids toward foul language and impure thoughts. I hope not. I was just trying to get out of paying a fine that was justified, for cursing that was probably justified, learned from music that will forever be justified.

Prince was singular in his music. He was his own genre. That same singularity extended to everything. He went the other way in life, too. As he got older, the way he managed his career showed off that contrary streak. It came to the forefront in the way he mastered his records, in the way he handled reissues, in the way he used (or didn’t use) the Internet and online streaming services. In the summer of 2014, his old band, the Revolution, reunited at First Avenue in Minneapolis. They were all set up for him to join in and play. He drove right past. Prince was a great drummer, and he was always marching to his own beat.

“Prince was singular in his music. He was his own genre.”

In moments of extreme sadness, pop-punk psychology may not be welcome, but it sometimes seemed like his need to do things his own way, and only his own way, overtook him. Control was job one to him, which allowed for amazing things in the studio and onstage, unprecedented leaps of inspiration and synthesis and an energy so prolific it seemed like it would never be shut off. But it also suggested that there was a level of mistrust when it came to letting the outside world in.

There is a fictionalised version of this in Purple Rain, where one of the main points of contention throughout the film is whether The Kid (played by Prince) will listen to a song on a cassette given to him by Wendy and Lisa. Eventually he does, and it evolves into “Purple Rain,” and The Kid plays onstage, both as a tribute to his father and a way of making peace with the group. It’s an emotional moment for every character. In real life, it didn’t really happen that way. Sometimes I think that the thing that Prince shared with other geniuses — Ray Charles, Bessie Smith, and James Brown — is that they were abandoned, at some level, by their mothers. Many artists in black music were abandoned by fathers, but an absent mother creates a faultline that runs much deeper.

I don’t know. There’s so much we all don’t know. This is what I do know: Much of my motivation for waking up at 5 a.m. to work — and sometimes going to bed at 5 a.m. after work — came from him. Whenever it seemed like too steep a climb, I reminded myself that Prince did it, so I had to also. It was the only way to achieve that level of greatness (which was, of course, impossible, but that’s aspirational thinking for ya). For the last twenty years, whenever I was up at five in the morning, I knew that Prince was up too, somewhere, in a sense sharing a workspace with me. For the last few days, 5 a.m. has felt different. It’s just a lonely hour now, a cold time before the sun comes up.