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Prince among mortals — what the artist means to the creative world (and me)


By Doug Zanger, Americas Editor

April 21, 2016 | 8 min read

Spring of 1987. Southern New Jersey, just outside of Philadelphia. I was a scrawny, 120-pounds-soaking-wet track athlete — and we were at one of the biggest meets of year, the Woodbury Relays. I led our 4x100 team — it was up to me to get us off to a good start. We were the outsiders, and I needed to get that extra edge to pump myself up for the final.

A “Sign ‘O The Times” cassette (remember, this was 1987) sat lovingly in my off-brand Walkman with slightly broken headphones. The song? “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man.” I could have cared less about the lyrics, I was more in to the music — the blazing riffs that amped me up. It was turned up — loud. One of my competitors was stretching out next to me and gave me a weird glance, because anyone within a 20 foot radius could hear the music. I passed over the headphones, turned it down a little and let him listen. He bobbed his head in approval.

I made my way to the starting line. On your mark. Set. Bang.

I’ve never run that fast in my life. A 10.5 split on a lead leg of a 4x100.

We were pipped at the line by a tenth of a second, but that heat still stands as one of the fastest ever run by my high school.

Prince gave me the push I needed.

What’s funny about it, is that song wasn’t really a hit, though it did eventually reach #10 in Billboard's "Hot 100" almost a full year from the album's March 1987 release. It wasn’t “Purple Rain” or “Raspberry Beret.” It was one of his songs that lived in the margins — which is where Prince seemed, at times, most comfortable.

When I was in radio, I had the chance to see Prince in Portland in 2002. At that show, Zach Dundas, then of Portland alt-weekly, Willamette Week, and now executive editor of Portland Monthly, pretty much summed up the artist's prevailing thinking at the time:

"In two hours of power, Prince denounced commercial radio, dredged some of Abe Lincoln's less savory racial views out of the archives, extolled the wonders of watching women masturbate, bashed MTV, urged his fans to stop celebrating Christmas, their birthdays and other holidays, and begged folks to join his fan club. Sometimes these messages came in somewhat confused jumbles. But all drew riotous cheers and slutty whoops, even the slightly distasteful proselytizing for a religion not widely known for harboring sexy motherfuckers."

A good number of the suburbanites (read: most of the audience) who made their way to the city were expecting a hefty diet of the hits. Somewhere in the middle of that two hours, he busted out some of the songs that were chart-toppers — in a weird kind of medley form with unique arrangement and tempos. And he barely sang — he pretty much pointed the mic to the crowd as to say “I know you motherfuckers wanted to hear ‘Little Red Corvette,’ so here you go — you go ahead and sing it. But I’ve got a ton of other stuff that needs to be heard.”

It wasn’t as though he was unappreciative of the love — but in the constant evolution and pushing of norms, this felt about right at that moment. Though some fans were disappointed (I heard grumbling about how he didn’t play enough hits), it was, to this day, easily one of the best shows I’ve ever seen. The band was tight. Macao Parker lit it up on sax that night.

In a way, I felt bad for those who wanted to just hear the gold and platinum-awarded songs. They didn’t realize that they were part of something truly special and flat-out genius. But to hell with them — if they couldn't recognize the sheer breadth of brilliance that was in front of them, it was their own damn problem — and a waste of a perfectly good show ticket.

Andrew Hampp, VP and brand strategist for MAC Presents, shared a similar story. He broke his ankle in 2011 (when he was living in Los Angeles at the time) — but there “was no way I was going to miss the show.” His reaction was similar to mine — it was at the top of the list of best shows ever. Ironically, later in his career and, ultimately, his life, Prince began to embrace the “hits” and that LA show was laden with some of his best-known work.

So went the evolution and constant morphing of Prince.

Initially a hitmaker with wide appeal to the perplexing artist who decided that a symbol was more in line with his ethos in the early 90s (the Love Symbol adorns the mighty Paisley Park, where Prince was found today).

A mainstream icon to a fierce defender of music rights (especially his own — try finding a Prince YouTube video — you likely won’t), experimenting all along and then, finally, coming back to embracing the world around him that very much appreciated the entirety of his work and being, but with a special place in their hearts for the mega-hits.

“He pushed every boundary there was — with sexuality, with race in music, genre boundaries,” said Hampp. “Before he became a Jehovah's Witness, he was very envelope-pushing, as far as breaking sexual taboos and all sorts of stuff in his music. His costumes are so iconic. The fact that he produced and starred in so many movies in such a short time frame is huge, at a time when no one was doing that in music. He broke every boundary.”

What was most telling, though, was how he became one of the great minds of music to ensure the art would be cared for.

“Most recently, he was known as a doting musical mentor to younger artists,” noted Hampp. “He took so much time to take artists under his wing — take them on the road to his numerous dates, produce their albums or just give them advice.”

Though he was highly protective of his work (Hampp, who worked previously at Billboard, cited a 2013 cover story about how Prince had “a team of female black lawyers who keep an eye on such transgressions” such as posting performance videos on the web), Prince embraced the digital world, releasing two albums (one an exclusive) on Jay-Z’s Tidal platform.

“At the end, he realized what the streaming landscape meant for his career,” said Hampp.

As far as his impact on creativity, Hampp points to another artist who, either directly or not, is influenced by Prince’s work.

“We're seeing Kanye (West) do something similar with his new album,” said Hampp. “Prince loved revisiting and expanding on his work. In fact, his two most recent albums, they're riddled with tons of references and riffs from his entire career, so I think he loved the idea that no work is ever truly finished, in a way, that you can always revisit it.”

The initial reaction to the news around the world is, obviously, shock. For my peer group, and the people I grew up with, it’s especially acute. I’m a native Minnesotan and lived about a quarter of a mile from Lake Minnetonka, famously memorialized in the film “Purple Rain.”

He was (and always will be) very much part of the fabric that is the state and, specifically, Minneapolis.

He invented the “Minneapolis Sound.” He made the First Avenue a mecca for music — a midwest version of Asbury Park, New Jersey’s Stone Pony, where Bruce Springsteen cut his teeth.

He called Minnesota home and never strayed from it.

We once drove by his house in Chanhassen, Minnesota (yes, it was painted purple) just to get a whiff of the Prince aura. It lasted a full 30-seconds before a security guard approached our car. All we could manage to blurt out was, “yeah, um, well we wanted to…er.” He smiled at the gaggle of teenagers in the car and said, “that’s cool, but I do need you to turn around and head back out.” For a half-minute, we were kissed with the purple breeze of brilliance.

Those I went to high school with in Haddonfield, New Jersey are numb and still trying to process the news. We loved The Cure, The Cult, Springsteen, Tears for Fears, Simple Minds, Howard Jones — all of the prototypical 80s fodder you would expect. But there was always a special place in our hearts for the be-purpled genius from Minnesota.

And for one glorious spring day, he gave me the tailwind I needed.


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