Prince’s untimely passing in April, sent the world reeling for a second time in three months, mourning the loss of a global music icon on a par with David Bowie. He’d affected many lives from afar and the outpouring of tributes online was testament to that. As a platform that spends its time commenting on other peoples’ music, we felt a bit inadequate to sufficiently eulogise Prince, in fear that our words didn’t match up to the greatness of his impact. So, spotting Prince’s birthday looming a couple months later, we opted for a more considered approach and teamed up with two people who have had a significant impact on our own work. As co-authors of the book Last Night A DJ Saved My Life and co-founders of DJHistory.com and the Low Life parties, Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton set the standard for documenting dance music culture in the new millennium, inspiring our young selves and many like us.
On what would be Prince’s 58th birthday, it’s an honour for both to contribute a fitting tribute in words (from Frank) and music (from Bill, with a 150 minute mix of “Prince, Prince family and the odd cover version”). Listen and read together for maximum appreciation of this man’s immense talent and legacy.
Frank Broughton pays tribute to Prince
Sometimes the news struggles over a death. With Bowie, and now with Prince, the grown-up voices weren’t sure at first how to frame things. What is it that made this person’s life so magnificent when weighed against other people’s passing? How is one dead pop star so much more meaningful than the rest? With Bowie, the mainstream eventually got the point – that this man invented self-expression as we live it today. Bowie was the genetic mutation that changed our species, forever widening the possibilities of identity. He was the Starman; he made being human more amazing for everyone who picked up his signal.
But what about Prince? As I heard people fail to explain him and, as a couple of friends with impeccable taste told me they never really cared for his music, I realised I couldn’t put it into words myself. His uniqueness needed nailing.
Like a high priest has god figured out for his congregation, Prince had music DOWN, so he could help the rest of us get a little closer to it. Like a monk locks himself into continual years of prayer and contemplation, Prince gave his life to music with self-flagellating devotion. Sure he mastered every instrument going, the studio and electronic production included, but that isn’t the point. This was only the necessary apprenticeship for his long climb up holy mountain, completing trial after trial until he could finally look the fierce god of music in the eye.
It was belatedly seeing Prince live that let me understand. In 2007, squeezed in the aftershow at Indigo on the first night of his 21 nights at the O2, with Imogen beside me and Honey inside her, we saw this shaman up close; close enough to see the heat hazing off him in the spotlight beam, pulling heaven and hell into his guitar, and we both crackled touching his electricity. Here, truly was something sacred.
Ultimately it’s a jazz notion, the feeling that someone has sold their soul for music and we’re hearing it flow through them from some unutterable source. We watch transfixed as a maestro turns noise into emotion and plays notes that never existed before and will never happen again.
I remember seeing Seb Rochford’s insane jazz combo Polar Bear and almost wetting myself at their control and uncontrol, their mastery of music’s great paradox, as they balanced music’s twin powers – chaos and order, surprise and expectation – on a knife-edge. Prince live was a whole night of electric shocks like that, one after another – rapid-fire musical twists and pulls and power and privileged peeks into the mystic. The musical wow moments were relentless, like he was firing them from a gun. A note, a bar, a phrase, each one knocking you backwards and making you grin like jelly. Each time making us smile at each other because we knew what we were sharing. And what made it so monstrous was that the musical deity he was channelling was ours: his god was the dance god, the funk god. The magic was pouring out of him and he was taking us closer than we’d ever been to the truth, the heart, the centre, of OUR music.
And that’s why he was Prince. He operated at a particular frequency. He sat majestically atop OUR musical spectrum. His peach and purple lifetime was dogged research into the essence of funk, a 57-year experiment to isolate that rare element, the strange ingredient that threads through all genres and draws a line between da funky and da rest. For the family that went from soulboy to raver, from reggae, soul and disco to jazz-funk to Balearic to house, it’s funk that defines what works for us. It’s the opposite of U2, Adele, Coldplay, all those musics that rely on off-the-shelf melancholy and overwrought vocals, or on epic chords and big beery familiarity: strong and effective. No, Prince was fragile and complicated, even when he rocked.
No wonder he was elusive and private. He was unknowable because he was your priest, your conduit to music’s majesty. No wonder he had such a complete belief in god and sex, he had been to the mountain and returned. He made music for US, for humanity, not for anything so crass as a slave-owning record label. Possibly not even for himself. He couldn’t help it; he couldn’t stop. Sleeping three hours a night and making music the rest (and, it seems, medicating his way through), it was music he lived for and music that killed him. Prince was put on earth with a calling: to help us unravel the secret.
It was uncanny, seeing this obsession, this drive to play, and the vast ocean of songs it created. Our religious experience at Indigo – two hours spent eight feet away from him – came after we’d heard his DJ play a couple of hours of nothing but phenomenal Prince productions and obscurities, all after a monster opening night at the O2 when he made a stadium gig feel intimate and played his chart hits for over two hours. “I can play hits like this alll night,” sniggered the cheeky one, loving the power he held over us. Sadly no stage will crackle like that again, but in his recordings he’s left us with plenty of clues and instructions. In his famed vault there’s enough Prince to make a century of albums.
Prince connected with music in a way that I yearn to. He captured in his music that unnamable thing the rest of us only catch glimpses of. He solved music’s mystery and he wanted to solve it for everyone. More than standing on the shoulder of giants, Prince absorbed them. He channelled Little Richard and Sister Rosetta, Jimi, Stevie, Miles, Dylan, Quincy, Flash, George and James, Chaka and Aretha, and a hundred more. He swallowed them all and became Prince. No-one will ever personify the music we loved in our lifetime quite like he did. Unique, amazing, unfathomable.
I can’t beat Chuck D’s eulogy: “It feels like the world is missing a note.”