At the dawn of the Nineties, Prince appeared to be entering not merely a new decade but a period of rejuvenation. He had completed his third dramatic film (Graffiti Bridge), had hired new managers, was about to embark on a stripped-down hits tour of Asia and Europe that eschewed the ostentation of the Lovesexy shows, met the woman (Mayte Garcia) he would eventually marry, and was in the early stages of forming a post-Revolution band that would grow into one of his most versatile. “I feel good most of the time, and I like to express that by writing from joy,” he told Rolling Stone in 1990. “I still do write from anger sometimes, like in ‘Thieves in the Temple’ [the initial single from Graffiti Bridge]. But I don’t like to. It’s not a place to live.”
As the decade wore on, those thoughts would prove to be sadly short-lived. Few artists of Prince’s caliber would endure the creative and business highs and lows that Prince did, publicly, for most of the Nineties. He remained as creatively frenzied as ever, logging more and more time in his Paisley Park studio, and he was still among pop’s most galvanizing live performers. He would still exhibit his standard control-freak wackiness: Before an album playback for Warner Bros. staff in a label conference room in the mid Nineties, one of Prince’s security guards entered the room first, checking behind curtains and shooting everyone an intense, check-you-out stare before Prince was allowed to come in. Whether colleagues were baffled or amused, it was all part of the Prince experience.
But the promise of the Nineties would soon give way to music business feuds, management shuffles, personal tragedy (the loss of his and Mayte’s child in 1996) and dramatic moves – like changing his name to an unpronounceable symbol and writing “slave” on his face – that would confound musicians, co-workers and business associates alike. For every strong album came a disappointing one to match. By the end of the decade, he would no longer have the same band, managers or label he did at the decade’s start, and he would enter into a more scattershot period in both his music and career. Here, in the words of people who worked with him, is the story of Prince during the pivotal New Power Generation years, an era that would set his career on an entirely different course right up until his death.
Randy Phillips (co-manager, 1990-1): He had just left his previous managers. I don’t know if he fired him. He just stopped talking to them, which was very Prince. His attorney came to me and my partner Arnold Stiefel and we said, “How can you hire us? We haven’t met with Prince yet.” We flew to Paisley Park and we ended up sitting in a conference room waiting for him for eight hours. Then we get summoned to his apartment on the top level. You walk into this room that’s all white. It was like a Fellini movie. There’s a heart-shaped bed and in bed, in gold lamé, was Kim Basinger, reading a magazine. Prince is in the back of the room, sitting at a Plexiglas desk in a heart-shaped Plexiglas chair.
We go in there and say, “Let’s talk about the Nude Tour, the European stadium tour [summer 1990].” He looks at me and says, “You know what? You’re a manager. Then go manage.” And that was the end of the meeting. We got back in our car and went to the airport.
Michael Bland (NPG drummer 1990-1996): He had finished the Lovesexy tour and had resurfaced in town. I was playing in Dr. Mambo’s Combo, and Prince invited the band to come out to Paisley after we finished a set. We all got a cab and went out. Prince says, “Hi, how you doing?” I said, “Great.” He said, “How’d the set go tonight?” I said, “We did OK.” We go down [to the studio] and we start just kind of groovin’ and funkin’, and just kind of having a musical conversation. And at some point he leans over on the microphone and he says, “You lookin’ for a job?” He called me at my mom and dad’s house and made me an offer to join his band. I had started college already in Minnesota. I remember saying something to the effect of, “Well, is it possible I could get in one more semester through the fall?” And he just started laughing and said, “I think you’re going to be a little bit too busy for that.”
Phillips: Graffiti Bridge wasn’t well received. He thought it was as great as Purple Rain. But creatively it was awful. Arnold and I tried to take our name off the credits. In Prince’s mind, everything was a hit. So he didn’t understand that. That’s when he started fighting with the label.
Tommy Barbarella (keyboardist 1990-1996): I cut my teeth with cover bands and ended up hooking up with the Steele family. Prince came down to see us a new club. He would come with Kim Basinger, and they would sit up there and watch. He had done an [unreleased] record on Margie Cox, a great local singer, called Flash, and they were going to open for him on the Nude Tour in 1990. During rehearsals, the keyboard player decided he didn’t want to do it and I was the first call. I’m like, “Of course.” One day Prince came to the rehearsals. He’d written all these songs and asked Sonny [Thompson, bassist] and Michael [Bland] and I to stay after and help him with a song. We helped him finish a song he’d written on piano, and he wanted to see what it would sound like if we did this or that. He ended up recording the song and it ended up going on the record like that, and that song was “Diamonds and Pearls.” Five months later I got the call to join this band, and that started that new era, the New Power Generation.
Bland: I was surprised at how professional Paisley Park actually looked on the inside. I expected it to be this sort of crazy Disney World-like, bizarre, artistic expression from the depths of his brain. And really it was a functional, clean facility. He didn’t have to go to Los Angeles to shoot videos, because there was a 25,000-square-foot soundstage there. There was nothing gaudy or bizarre, like you expect. Except for the doves.
Barbarella: There was a cage with two doves in it. That was upstairs right by the wardrobe department. It overlooked the atrium. It was magical. The wardrobe department would just make us clothes around the clock. You get called in there and you get shown a bunch of designs. “Which one do you like?” “Well, I like this one, I like that one.” “OK, we’ll have those run by Prince and have it approved.” And they would make you a tailor-fitted outfit with matching shoes. It was wild. It was really an exciting time. People were saying he was really happy during that time.
Bland: My first recording session with Prince, we worked on this one song and he said, “Why don’t you take a break?” I went looking for a bathroom and ended up upstairs. It was on a Saturday so there wasn’t anybody there to advise me, and I was just walking aimlessly. I saw this stained glass door with a mailbox outside it, and I walked inside. It looked kind of like a hotel. It wasn’t super personal. I went all the way around the corner and found the bathroom, and while I’m standing there at the commode … it hits me. This is his personal space. What am I doing? I zip up and flush and wash my hands and get out of there as quick as I can. Because I’m like, “I just got this job and I’m fired for sure.”
Phillips: He had huge overhead. Paisley Park was $2.5 million a month. It didn’t make sense to have all those studios and that soundstage. It was never profitable. He’d meet a girl and take her back to Paisley and record a double album with her overnight. It would be ready the next day. Arnold had a conversation with him and said, “Stop doing A&R with your dick.” But money didn’t matter to Prince. He always thought he could make more. Money wasn’t a badge of success to him. The badge was liking something he did.
Bland: The rhythm section recorded together: me, Tommy, Sonny, Levi [Seacer Jr. guitar] and Kirk [Johnson, percussion]. When we cut “Cream,” that was the configuration, and Prince played piano sort of like Little Richard. He usually commandeered from the piano, and we had such a high level of proficiency as a recording group that we could cut four or five songs in a day. I would hesitate sometimes because I was afraid of making mistakes, but Prince would say, “Let’s just step off the edge of a cliff and see what happens here. Only through the mistakes, you’re going to find out where you’re trying to go.” If you did something really fantastic, sometimes you’d even get a little extra money in your check.
We slowly watched it come into shape: lyrically and the influence of modern black soul, sort of hip-hop. He was really trying to still be him and navigate through that whole early-Nineties phenomenon.
Phillips: He played me Diamonds and Pearls, and I thought it was one of his better post-Purple Rain records. But it didn’t fit at the time. I knew it was going to be hard to break that record. He didn’t take that well. He was the greatest live performer alive, right up there with Jagger. But as far as recording new material, he was in an odd creative space. It’s almost as if he lost his mojo for songwriting. That was the end for us until we worked together again on Musicology in 2004. We weren’t fired. He just stopped calling.
Michael B. Nelson (Hornheads trombonist, 1991-4): The impetus of him getting a horn section was they were rehearsing for the Diamonds and Pearls tour. There was a concept that Michael Bland would front an instrumental warm-up group. So when Prince said, “Put a bigger horn section together,” Michael called us. They were very simple funk tunes. So I arranged them for five horns, and we rehearsed with the band a couple times and they’d sent tapes to him in Paris. The next thing you know, we come out and walk into the soundstage, and the whole Diamonds and Pearls four-level set is set up, and it’s like, “Oh, my God.” I grew up in a small town in central Wisconsin, and I play trombone. It would have been a dream of mine to play with Prince.
Barbarella: There was so much music going around. We never knew what we were doing. You never knew if it was a Prince song or for someone else. I remember recording half an album in one day, finishing it the next day, and later realizing it was for Carmen Electra. Diamonds and Pearls was like that. We didn’t know what that was. And he probably didn’t either at that time; it was just flow. That’s what he wanted Paisley Park to be. He wanted this creative atmosphere where he would just actualize whatever he thought of. And he certainly did.
Nelson: We got called again, and we thought it was the same deal as the first two times where he’s just rehearsing with the band, but the third time we walked in and there was a big rack of pedals, a bunch of guitars and some feather boas over the microphone. I went, “Uh-oh!” He came in, and we just shook each other’s hand and said, “Hi.” And then he walks up to his guitar and picks it up and he doesn’t really turn to the band. He just puts his hand up and holds four fingers. The band immediately knew what to do and just kicked into one of these songs that didn’t have a title. We’re scrambling for our chart and we start playing along and he just pointed at everybody to solo.
That was November 1991, and we were on tour by April. Our first gig we played was the Tokyo Dome. We were still memorizing our music on the plane when we’re flying there. Everybody’s frantically trying to remember everything and going over it. He expected everything to just happen the moment he said it’s going to happen.
Bland: He was from a tradition in this business where you don’t come out with Crocs and a T-shirt. You don’t present yourself in a slovenly manner. Anytime you saw Prince, it looked like he was coming to go onstage or was leaving stage.
There was a guy who worked at Paisley who wore unusually short cut-off shorts. It was just these hairy white legs. I was passing that guy in the hallway and Prince was talking to somebody on the phone downstairs, and he ended the conversation by saying, “Yeah, and tell that dude the next time he comes to work with those Daisy Dukes on, he’s done.”
Barbarella: Talk about not letting your guard down. Always dressed to the nines, always the makeup just perfect all the time. You never heard him play or hit a wrong note. You never heard him practicing a lyric or running over it to make sure he had it right. Back in the early Nineties when he was doing choreography with the dancers in the band, you never saw him practice those dance steps. These dancers would be working it out all day long, and then he would walk in: “All right, show it to me.” And he would watch the routine and say, “All right, got it.” And then he’d walk away. We would get up on the stage, and he would nail it with everybody just perfectly. And it’s like, “Oh, my gosh.” He just never missed.
Nelson: At one point he poked his head in the studio and said, “You need some dinner?” I went to one of the backrooms with a basketball court, and there was this table with all these kind of velvety, funky chairs with different shapes. I didn’t know if I was walking into a family dinner and whether he was going to be there or not, because you couldn’t see past the chairs; they were high. I finally got close to the table, and there was this meal set there just for me at the head of the table. He had his private chef and this fabulous vegan meal. There was no meat at Paisley.
Bland: He was really into the Pretenders at some point. He talked about how much he liked Chrissie Hynde and the songwriting. He played me some of the first Sly Stone records I ever heard. That was an education I couldn’t have received anywhere else. We held meetings, and we would watch random videos people would send. Michael Jackson loved sending Prince old footage of Sly. Prince would just stop everything and bring everybody to his office. One time we watched the Jackson 5 Goin’ Back to Indiana special.
Nelson: Then we recorded that Symbol album , which was just loaded with horns. The first song we recorded with him was “Sexy MF.”
Barbarella: Levi always joking around with some phrase he thought was funny. He’d start doing some simple little riff, stop and say the phrase. “Sexy MF” was like that. It was recorded in about 20 minutes, half an hour. I hated my organ solo on it. I wanted to make it better and fix it. But Prince was like, “No, it’s fine, just leave it.” He wanted that spontaneity with that band.
If you compare it to the Revolution, it was just a very different kind of band. Different kind of musicians, and this band could actualize absolutely anything he envisioned. If it was in his head, we could make it happen. I think he loved that for a while. I’m very proud of how tight we were. In “Sexy MF,” everyone was sure there was a James Brown loop tucked in there. “Well, there’s loops in there, right?” “Nope.”
Les Garland (former head of programming at MTV, then at the Box video network): I was sitting in my office one day, and the assistant says Prince is on the phone: “Can you come up tomorrow?” So I fly from Florida to Minnesota. One of his guys picks me up at the airport and we go to Paisley Park. Prince was very animated and says, “Come with me.” We went downstairs into the studio. He puts me in a chair and moves it another inch and makes sure it’s positioned in the right way. He hits the button, and bam, this tune comes on, and it’s pretty loud. I’m grooving to the song and it ends, and he’s looking at me waiting [for me] to say something. You’re never sure what you’re supposed to say. I said, “Could you play it louder?” He fucking loved that. He looked at me and smiled and restarted it and cranked it. When it ended, his words were, “That one would melt a nail.” The song was “My Name Is Prince.”
Barbarella: I really like the Symbol album, because it was the most “band” record. He wanted a band sound. He would show us these songs and say, “Now go here, now go there.” I remember when we recorded “Love 2 the 9’s,” and I was like, “This feels like classic R&B but really original and unique.” And then of course when the record comes out there’s that track “My Name Is Prince.” That’s all him and that’s the first single, and we’re all like, “Nooo!” There were a lot of other better songs on there, and we all felt like the single kind of killed it.
Bland (on rumors that Prince installed microphones in the bathrooms at Paisley Park): I’ve heard as much. And if that was true, Prince had to have an ego made of steel. Every day wasn’t super pleasant, and we spoke freely amongst each other. A fellow musician who was in one of Prince’s bands afterwards said he’d heard Prince had saved a recording of us talking about him and held onto it because he thought it was so funny. He said he and Prince were sitting there listening to us just go off.
Nelson: He didn’t seem human. Sometimes he would just appear. You don’t even know he’s in the building, and the next thing he’s standing right next to you. You think, “Where the hell did he come from?”
You could pretty much count on him being in that building 20 hours a day. There was just a small window, from 10 to 2, when he’d go back home and maybe take a nap. One day we just assumed this was one of those afternoons, so we took a bathroom break. We’re walking through the atrium, and there’s a row of bushes in pots. The bathroom’s down the hallway and we’re walking along and the trumpet player, just as a joke, turns and pretends to pee on the plant. In that split second, Prince walks around the corner and goes, “Dave, stay away from my plants.” And just keeps going. We just looked at each other like, “How is that possible?” He would just appear at the craziest timing.
Barbarella: I remember playing in Rotterdam and just being amazed at how great the fans were everywhere in the Europe. They knew all of us, and they knew everything about us. There was this group of guys that would always be in the front row on those European tours, and they would have makeup on and their hair in these headbands to try to look like me.
Bland: We would get a chance to get to the hotel and shower. We’d take clothes with us from the wardrobe cases at the venue. We knew what we were going to wear later on [at a club after the official show]. We did get to use soap and water, and then we’d wait for the call. And then we’d go back out.
Nelson: On the road, you just had to kind of be on call. He had a studio booked in every city we went. Just docked out 24 hours a day. Had an engineer on call, ready to go. A day off came very rarely. I remember when we were in Sydney, we found out he was going to the opera with Mayte. I had met some people and it was my birthday, and so we went to a restaurant that was across the harbor from the opera house, so I could literally watch through the window till the opera was over. We didn’t have cell phones then. I said, “OK, hopefully I can have my whole dinner before I have to go back to the hotel.”
Bland: Sometimes we would rehearse up different things at soundcheck. We would be walking out to the stage and he’d say something like, “‘When You Were Mine’ instead of ‘Raspberry Beret’! Don’t mess up!”
Phillips: He would always push you and test you. I was on the road with him on the Nude Tour, and there was a situation where I walking back to the dressing room in Lausanne, Switzerland. His wardrobe person came running out of the dressing room crying: “Prince said I should be working at Walmart!” I walked in and said, “Prince, you can’t keep treating your people this way, or else the only person here will be me holding a flashlight on the stage.” He jumped of the couch and we started wrestling, and security had to pull me off. Sometimes it was like that, and other times he was brilliant and charming. We earned our commission.
Nelson: When we came in, to hear about the guys in the Revolution, how intense it was: “No, you guys got it easy.” And then the next group comes in, and the new guys got it easy, you know?
Barbarella: One of the things he would say before we went onstage was, “Recording tonight. No mistakes. Perfect show.” I’m sure he recorded every night, but there were nights where it was literally perfect. Not one mistake. And it happened a lot.
These days a band will have several keyboard players or most of it will be in the tracks. It’ll be running Pro Tools, and you just play along with that. Back then it was all live. I ended up doing way more than I ever thought I could do. I was nailing eight parts on a song, jumping all over the place, playing the keyboard, triggering this sample, and trying to hit some choreography. You figure out ways to do it. Once you do that, he’ll ask for a little more. And then you get to a point where you’re like, “Holy shit, I never thought I’d be able to do all this.” But you were doing it.
Nelson: It was difficult at times. There’s a trombone solo on the Symbol album. There’s a medley called “Arrogance” and “The Flow.” We’re listening back to it and he goes, “See Harry Connick beat that.”
On tour, that solo had to be played as is. It had a high B in it, which isn’t a terribly high note, but it’s a higher note on a brass instrument. Occasionally you’re gonna miss a note. When we did the three nights at Radio City, I was playing the solo, and right before I went for that high B, somebody threw a towel right by me, or something. It broke my concentration, and I cracked this high note. The next day, he came by and said, “You’re gonna play that solo right tonight?” We’d been out for months and I miss one note, and you’re gonna bust my balls about it? But in my defiance, rather than just saying, “Yes, sir,” I said, “I’ll do my best.” And he says, “Uh, you did your best last night.” And he walks away.
That night, it gets to the solo, and this was when he was using the gun mic – the mic with a pistol grip. I’m playing my solo and coming up to that note, and right before that note he comes up and puts the gun mic to my head. I was like, “Oh, my God.” And he kept doing it. And it was like a week of him doing this, and I’m freaking out. It wasn’t showbiz at that point. It was, “Don’t you ever do that again.”
The rest of the tour I decided I’m going to close my eyes, I’m going to pretend he’s not there. I never missed it again. It was really traumatic for me. I really saw it as being really nasty. He did like to push the band with fear. He just wanted it to be perfect all the time. And he wasn’t always cheerful about how he wanted that. It took me a long time to come to terms with that.
Barbarella: We would hear that during the Purple Rain period, it was such a family atmosphere with the band and the crew. More forgiving. I think it changed as it went. On the Nude Tour, I heard that the guitar player, who just so funky and so great, would stand up to Prince and they would get in arguments regularly and almost come to blows. After that, there weren’t people around him like that. I’m not so sure there were sounding boards. If you disagree with something, he’ll humiliate you to save his own face really. One on one was a very different story. But when he had his boys around him, he could gang up on you. So much insecurity, I think.
Phillips: I was in those meetings with Warner Bros. when they tried to explain how things worked and how they needed time to get records played on the radio. He was polite. He never cursed. But he wanted out of that contract. That’s probably the only contract he ever signed in his life. He thought contracts were slavery and that people should trust each other in business. He demanded that Warners give him back his masters, but they couldn’t do that – they couldn’t take an asset like that and give it back to the artist. But he resented that.
Garland: I called him Prince until he changed it [to a symbol, in 1993]. Like a lot of people when he did that, I was shocked. My take was: Big mistake. We were on the phone one day and I said, “How are people going to find your albums in record stores?” There was a long pause and he goes, “Hmmm … They’ll find them.” I said, “OK, but what are people going to call you? What do you want me to call you?” He said, “You can call me anything you want.” I asked him if he could just be “Roger Nelson.” He said no. But I looked at the symbol as so futuristic. He was so far out in front of everything in the world. It wasn’t practical, but it was brilliant.
Barbarella: It was very confusing for all of us. I remember him calling us up to his office, and we sat there and he was explaining the name change to the symbol. And the whole time he’s talking I’m like, “OK, yeah. Makes sense. I get it.” Then I walked out of there, and it was like, “Wait a minute – what the fuck was he talking about?” When we spoke to him, you pretty much just said, “Hey, man, how you doing?” Just like how you greet somebody whose name you can’t remember. The hardest part was that he wasn’t talking to the press at this time. He expected us to do that for him. So we had to try to explain that stuff. It was not very fun.
Nelson: Everybody asked us, “Well, what do you call him?” And the fact is, you never called him anything. He addressed you, you didn’t address him. So nothing changed for us.
Bland: He had a prescience for doing the things that made him look crazy, but he knew exactly how crazy it made him look. I was foolish to presume it was just some kind of stunt. And one day we were in rehearsal, and I looked at him and I said, “Prince?” And he turned around and looked at me like he wanted to kill me. He said, “That’s not my name anymore. When you call me that, it’s like calling me a swear word.” And I never called him Prince again, from that day.
Sheila E.: I just called him “honey” or “baby.” I didn’t have a problem with the symbol.
Phillips: He kind of went to war with the industry. I never quite understood why. Warner Bros. loved him. They jumped through hoops for him. He was one of their cherished artists.
Bland: That was a strange time for all of us. That was a lot of days of us coming to rehearse and him being furious after just talking to Warner Bros. on the phone. And instead of rehearsing, he spends two hours venting to us about what’s going on. He was so distraught. It just sent him into a tailspin. Day to day, we didn’t know what we were walking into coming into rehearsal.
Barbarella: You didn’t question anything. He shows up in whatever, you don’t think twice about anything he did. You came to expect absolutely anything. I remember thinking the “Slave” thing [when Prince wrote that word on his face to protest his Warners contract] was a one-off or just for one show or a TV show. I certainly didn’t think he was going to keep wearing it 24/7 for as long as he did.
John Sykes (president of VH1 at the time): You could tell he was frustrated. In the Eighties, everything was working great. He had great management and a great label. He could focus on making records. In the Nineties he fired everyone and began representing himself. He was so tortured by living within the confines of the record business. He would come to my office at VH1 and play me the videos himself. He was figuring out how to get his music out.
Phillips: He was frustrated about going through a distributor and not having direct contact with his audience. Or having to sit for eight weeks while the label put together a marketing plan. His ideal situation was to have his own label and not deal with a middleman.
Barbarella: The music got a little more violent and angry at times, like in the “Days of Wild” video [from Crystal Ball]. The band got lean, just the four of us, with a little more of a punk attitude. Chaos and Disorder was kind of the “fuck you” record to Warner Bros., when they told him he had to deliver.
Things got a little crazier. A little more loosey-goosey with scheduling or, like, touring or plans. He started shooting from the hip a lot more. When it first started, Paisley Park was still open to the public. There were bands recording there, like Fine Young Cannibals and Duran Duran. People stopped coming because Prince kept bumping people out. Some major artists would have studios booked, and he decided he wanted to record there instead that day, so he would kick them out. And it’s like, “Well, you can’t really run a business like that.” Eventually nobody wanted to come record there anymore, because you couldn’t count on stuff.
Bland: We really began to see things fraying and coming undone. He got unusually upset with us at a show. I want to say it was in Tokyo. The equipment takes however many weeks to ship by boat, so there always was a period of time between rehearsal and our first show on the other side where we really couldn’t do much. We couldn’t rehearse. Our equipment was gone. And some things went wrong, not catastrophic, but I think his nerves over everything that was going on, and just the timing, was bad. He went through a period of a couple of weeks where he didn’t address us personally. He just kind of went quiet. He had never really done that with us.
It was mid-March in 1996 that we kind of got our official word [that he had fired most of NPG]. When we were let go, a lot of people got let go. He had an in-house staff of 127 people at Paisley. That’s a lot of people smoking, running their friends around. He put up with that as long as he could, and then he was just like, “Everybody out.”
Barbarella: We didn’t see it coming, really, but it wasn’t totally unexpected. Everyone knows he’s going to change his mind and could take a left turn at any moment.
Phillips: In the time I was managing him, he could be very engaging and charming, but I never found him to be really happy. You had to drag conversation out of him. He didn’t drink. He didn’t smoke. No drugs. His thing was going out at three in the morning and playing all night and morning in a club – and after playing a three-hour set. He was always the most comfortable onstage.
Bland (currently with Soul Asylum): As much as I felt at the time that I’d been done a disservice, he really did me a favor. Because I needed to know who I was in the world without all that. I needed to get out into the world and see what my work really meant.
Barbarella: During those years maybe it wasn’t the greatest of his material, but it was maybe the best band. I got an education very few people get. He made me fearless. I walked into any gig after that and I had no problem. I knew my musical identity. Prince gave me that confidence: “You can do it.”
On the ’93 tour of Europe, we played Wembley, then we played a club, and then we had to get up the next morning with no sleep at all for the BBC. You had to be at the BBC at nine or 10 in the morning. A few years ago, someone got me an MP3 of the encore. It was just this ferocious funk that just kicked your ass for 20 minutes. I was just like, “Holy shit, this is amazing.” It was the epitome of live funk. And then it dawned on me, “Wait, I was in that band.” That was the top. It doesn’t get better than that.