I have never been to or DJed a party where ‘Kiss’ or ‘1999’ or sad-ass ‘When Doves Cry’ or even something as random as ‘U Got The Look’ wouldn’t set it off.
Prince Rogers Nelson was a tiny black man from Minnesota who frequently wore women’s clothing and could steal your girl with a few extremely subtle eye movements. He was also deeply invested in the careers of numerous women, mostly of color. He was political, generous, and invested in the future.
As the Prince tributes appear over the coming days and weeks, you will see many images of the late artist. There he is, donning a thong and trenchcoat on the cover of Dirty Mind. Somehow making his guitar ejaculate onto the crowd at the end of Purple Rain. Dressed like The Joker in the video for ‘Batdance’. Smiling courtside next to a clearly uncomfortable Ludacris. And inevitably, among the pictures, there will be Dave Chappelle dressed as Prince, dunking on an implied Eddie Murphy.
In 2004, Eddie Murphy’s brother Charlie was a regular cast member on Chappelle’s Show. Having run with his brother at the height of his fame in the ‘80s, he had a lot of wild stories. In a semi-regular segment called ‘Charlie’s True Hollywood Stories’, Murphy would recount a tale while Dave and friends reenacted it, Drunk History style. There were three episodes: two about Rick James, and one about Prince. The Rick James stories are hilarious and feature commentary from Rick himself, apparently a good a sport about his bad behavior. But he comes off as a recognizable archetype, the coke-addled rock star. You can recognize your one out-of-control friend in him the way you recognize your housecat in a tiger.
But Charlie Murphy’s Prince story is something else entirely. Eddie and his entourage run into Prince at a club, and Prince invites them back to his house. Shortly after they get there, their host decides he’s bored. What will entertain Prince? Basketball. He’s not kidding. Prince provides the Murphy squad with kit for a pick-up game. They suit up and head to the court where Prince’s team is waiting, still in full 1985 club regalia: velvet, silk and platform heels. But despite the sartorial disadvantage, the home team wins easily. And then Prince makes everyone pancakes.
It’s easy to imagine an entire generation whose concept of Prince is significantly informed by Murphy’s story. After all, The Purple One had a complicated relationship with the internet. While he was an avid fan of the latest music technology, and actually released a direct-to-fan album long before anything like Kickstarter existed, he pursued unauthorized used of his intellectual property with a vengeance. Precious little of his music is on YouTube, let alone concert footage, effectively hiding him away from a younger generation of listeners. Tidal is the only streaming service with his catalog (not surprising, given their artist-friendly reputation). His aggressive pursuit of his IP also meant he cleared very few samples, and thus limited his footprint in rap. Prince removed himself from the major platforms that modern fans use to stream music, but he was still celebrated by that audience yesterday, his name a byword for effortless cool even to kids who’ve never bought a Prince record.
I never had the Bowie phase like a lot of music nerds. When I found out he passed, I was surprised how much of his music I already knew. He had actually been something of a constant in my life, pivoting to keep up. When I was four, he was there blowing my mind in Labyrinth because boys aren’t supposed to wear dresses. When I was a shitty teenager, he was there collaborating with Trent Reznor. And so on.
Prince, on the other hand, didn’t make any more sense in his prime than he did in 2004. His sound and vision were so cohesive and so unique that they imply an entire genre. Prince released 39 albums, at least five of which were objectively perfect, and for anyone growing up in his glow, he was the baddest motherfucker on Earth. The charts should have been filled with fake Princes. But I was alive for enough of the ‘80s to remember things like Run-DMC and The Gap Band and communism, and with apologies to Morris Day, there was only one Prince. Realizing as much is like eating at an Indian restaurant for the first time, then being told it is the only place on Earth that served that cuisine. Prince’s prime was less a subset of the ‘80s than a funky alternate universe – one with ubiquitous basketball afterparties.