Music writer Alan Light says Prince's greatest gift was freedom
Artist was aware of the responsibility that came with his musical talent
"Let's be glad for what we had," says Light
Editor’s Note: Alan Light is the author of Let’s Go Crazy: Prince and the Making of Purple Rain. He is a former writer at Rolling Stone magazine and former Editor-in-Chief of Vibe and Spin magazines. The views expressed here are his own.
The first time I met Prince he brought me onstage. He was leading his band through a sound check prior to a show in San Francisco, and he parked me in the wings while he strapped on a guitar and blazed through a few songs before ambling over to me.
“You see how hard it is,” he said over the roar of the New Power Generation,”when you can play anything you want, anything you hear?”
For Prince Rogers Nelson, the music was hard. Not to play – he was the most proficient instrumentalist (and songwriter and producer and performer) of his generation. I have never been around a person who had music flowing from them, through them, so constantly.
But he was aware of the responsibility that his music carried, its power and importance.
As a teenage prodigy, Prince turned down offers of production and publishing deals, and even waved away his first chance at a recording contract, because he insisted on holding on to full creative control of his albums.
What kind of Midwestern punk does that – dismisses a shot at the big time, refusing to take the guidance of veteran star-makers because he knows better?
“When I was 16, I was completely broke and needed to get a job,” he once said on Arsenio Hall’s talk show.
“So I got the Yellow Pages out, and I couldn’t find one thing that I wanted to do. So I decided I was going to push as hard as I could to be a musician, and win at it.”
Purple Rain is born
At 19, he signed with Warner Bros. Records and immediately rejected their idea that Maurice White of Earth, Wind and Fire produce his debut album. He chose instead to produce himself, even though he had never produced a record before.
This independence, vision, and ambition would define the rest of Prince’s career.
In 1983, he went to his managers and told them he wanted to make a feature film. If they couldn’t get him a deal, he said, he would find other managers who could.
No one around him understood his fixation – who would give a black kid with just a couple of hits under his belt and no acting experience the lead in a studio movie?
The plan they ultimately settled on – a first-time director, a cast mostly made up of his own band and associates, filming in the winter in Minneapolis – sounded like certain disaster.
The result, of course, was the 1984 film “Purple Rain.” It made back its cost in its opening weekend, won an Oscar, and catapulted Prince to international super-stardom. Just as he always believed that it would.
In the mid-1990s, Prince turned his focus to the conventional structure of the music business, challenging the notion that a record company should own his master recordings and control when and how his music was released.
He became a punch line for changing his name to an unpronounceable symbol and writing the word “slave” on his face. But within a decade, the issues he was raising would lie at the very center of debates about the future of the music industry.
You can point to plenty of stars, across numerous genres, who borrowed liberally from Prince’s purely individual, category-defying sound: Lenny Kravitz, OutKast, Alicia Keys, Beck, Daft Punk.
But his bravery, his risk-taking, his fearless style, his uncompromising stance – those are the values that have influenced every musician who has followed in his wake.
Prince’s commitment to constant evolution, to aiming ever higher and not worrying about what an audience expects, set an example that any musician who calls him or herself an artist has to follow.
And not just musicians.
“Prince has all these kids now,” Chris Rock once told me, pointing to himself, Spike Lee, and Ice Cube. “You get older and your influence goes in different ways, it doesn’t have to just be in music.”
In 1982, on the brink of crossing over into pop stardom, Prince recorded a gorgeous ballad called “Free” for his 1999 album.
Like so many of the deeper cuts on his almost 40 studio albums, maybe you don’t know it. Maybe you’ll discover it now, as we finally get the chance to catch up with his massive, monumental catalogue.
Before a searing guitar solo, he sings, “Be glad that you are free/There’s many a man who’s not/Be glad for what you have, baby, what you got.”
Let’s be glad for what we had. And remember that even more than music, freedom was Prince’s greatest goal, and greatest gift.