"You can see a transition over time between that instinct to have as much control as possible. And that ability to adapt. Just like he synthesized so many diff musical styles and genres into something that’s bigger than the sum of its parts. I think he learned over time how to engage in this web of technology that in a way that was healthy for him and the fans, more and more over time." — Jay Smooth
What does it mean to be on the receiving end of a Prince direct message?
This week on Function, Anil takes us through Prince’s complicated relationship with technology through his eyes and the eyes of super fans Jay Smooth (social commentator and radio host) and Andrea Swensson (Twin Cities writer/author and radio host).
From being summoned to Paisley Park to being part of early crowdfunding and subscriber based models pioneered by Prince, we learn what it felt like to build a relationship with an artist on a deeper level. As the relationship evolved, Prince worked hard to control his image and works that the press and fans got, often times butting heads with his fan family and record labels.
Big thanks to LinkedIn for supporting the second season of Function.
Anil Dash: Welcome to Function. I'm Anil Dash. I am going to take you back to early 1982 with a little first grade version of me. I'm in my house and what I hear coming out from under the door to my sister's room is this.
Anil Dash: I heard this sound from her record player, and yes, I'm old enough, we had record players back then. And I was like, what is that one? Well, unbeknownst to me, this is a sound that would change my life because what I was hearing was the coolest, funkiest shit I've ever heard in my life. It was the intro to Prince's song, Controversy.
Speaker 1: (singing).
Anil Dash: What I got in that little taste was a glimpse at an artist I would become obsessed with for the rest of my life. That was the first time I ever heard Prince. And just a couple of months later, his album, 1999, dropped.
Speaker 1: (singing).
Anil Dash: This was an album that was obviously about the future. It was in 1982 and he's talking about 1999. But what's more amazing is it wasn't just about the future, it sounded like it came from the future.
Speaker 1: (singing).
Anil Dash: It sounded like technology. It sounded like computers. It sounded like something beyond what humans could do. See, 1982 was a moment when everybody in the world was sort of thinking about what is technology going to do to our lives. A lot of us had just gotten personal computers at home, I was one of them, but also, Time magazine named the personal computer its Person of the Year. That doesn't even make any sense, but that's how much people were into computers at that moment. They introduced the compact disc. It didn't get popular until a couple of years later, but it was lasers in your home to put music in your ears. People were reckoning with the idea that we were going to have computers in our houses alongside us and that tech was going to change our lives. And the music at the time reflected that too. Like in hiphop, Afrika Bambaataa and Soul Sonic Force in Planet Rock.
Speaker 2: (singing).
Anil Dash: Whether it was Talking Heads.
Speaker 3: (singing).
Anil Dash: These groups that were playing rock music, but you could start to hear filtering in this influence of all this technology from around them, all these futuristic sounds, people using instruments in different ways that they hadn't combined together before. The one person who was taking in all of that, synthesizing all of that was Prince. And as only Prince can, he decided to take all of the influence around him and all the technology that was breaking through, whether it was what Rick James was doing or what Kraftwerk was doing, and put it all together into pushing that sound even further into the future. And it was at that moment in 1982 when the song 1999 blew my little first grade mind. You could tell right from the first notes, because it opens with Prince's distorted voice in a kind of complicated, syncopated drum machine that was creating a beat like nobody had ever heard before.
Speaker 1: (singing).
Anil Dash: To create those drum machine sounds, Prince was using something called the Linn Drum or the LM-1. This is a drum computer, that's what they called drum machines back then. It was a black box with wood paneled sides. This was the first drum machine that use a digital recording of the drum sounds instead of analog tape loops or something like that. And that little change changed the game for drum machines because what it meant was artists could manipulate the sounds of the drums in their songs. So when Prince got this Linn Drum drum machine, he took it a step further than anybody had imagined. Instead of just turning the knob up to 10, he turned it up to a thousand and turn these really simple drum sounds into something that sounded like the future. On this track, Prince is both a musician and a computer programmer. He took a drum machine, manipulated it past what any of its creators had imagined it could do and modified it to create a sound that was so influential, it didn't just shape his own work, it shaped the sound of everything on the radio.
Anil Dash: And 1999, it holds a special place for me personally, not just because this was Prince's big crossover hit or got him on MTV when Little Red Corvette was released, but also because I could understand that some innate level, this was Prince using technology, not just using guitars and keyboards and the other things we knew he was good at, but really this cutting edge of technology. And that was something that felt like it connected with those of us who were just discovering computers and tech at the same time.
Anil Dash: Now when I talk to people about Prince and technology, they often come back to me of like, well, isn't this the guy that pulled this stuff off of YouTube? Didn't he hate technology and hate the internet? And the truth of it was he was very savvy about technology and very protective of his work and believed very strongly in artists controlling their work and how it's distributed. So Prince's relationship with technology was very complicated. Because he understood tech so well, he was a ground breaker in countless ways. For example, he was one of the first musicians to release his music online for downloads or for streaming. Back in the early '90s, he changed his name to a symbol that you had to have a custom font in order to put on your computer. He crowdfunded an album online, a decade and a half before Kickstarter even existed.
Anil Dash: It's no surprise that he was winning a Webby award for an online store that he launched before iTunes had even existed. It even goes into culture. Prince is probably one of the people most used in memes online, but he was so fluent in it that he made songs about the memes that were about him. Part of the reason I wanted to have this conversation is the album, 1999, is going to be re-released as a deluxe edition later this month. There's going to be new songs and all that cool stuff you'd expect, but it's also a great time to reflect on the themes of the album that are about technology and especially about the role that technology played in Prince's career.
Anil Dash: Jay Smooth is an old friend of mine who I got the chance to go to a lot of Prince shows with over the years. He's also one of the most thoughtful and cogent public intellectuals talking about race and culture, and he's been the host of New York City's longest running hiphop radio program, the Underground Railroad. Andrea Swensson is a host and writer at Minnesota public radio's The Current where she helms the Local Show. It's a weekly show dedicated to exploring the Minnesota music scene and especially the twin cities. And she has been writing about Prince for years. Jay and Andrea joined me to nerd out about Prince's music, about his complicated relationship to technology and about his incredible legacy online.
Anil Dash: One of the first glimpses we got into Prince's deep thinking about technology was the album 1999 in particular, and it's interesting because it's both in the lyrics where we have something in the water does not compute as well as the sound of it, right. This is a very technologically enabled out in drum machines and synths and all that stuff. So it's the sort of moment in pop culture and I'm curious, Jay, when you see the sort of in that '80s context, home computers arriving, all those things, how much do you think an album like 1999 helped shape people's perception or was was Prince sort of knowing what was about to happen?
Jay Smooth: I definitely think that was part of the mix. That was a point in time when I was first getting introduced to, I think my grandfather gave me his Texas Instruments computer at that time and we were just getting the first glimpses of what kind of presence that would have in our lives. And I think, on a musical level, Prince was always known in my hiphop community for figuring out what to do with these drum machines before anyone else did in the '80s and I think, yeah, he was the model in a lot of ways for sort of having a curiosity for it and embracing it for sure. I was 10 years old at the time. So that was sort of a part of my environmental introduction to this sort of computerized vibe.
Anil Dash: And Andrea, now you have an essay in the upcoming deluxe edition of 1999, this rerelease that's coming out. Can you talk a little bit about what you discussed there?
Andrea Swensson: Yeah. So I got a chance to interview a lot of different people that worked with Prince in 1981 and 1982, so my essay is attempting to the best of my abilities to kind of position where Prince was in his career and in his thinking and in his creative process. And it's really, I mean, I kind of picture it as the floodgates are opening and he's suddenly creating a song a day and it's just flowing out of him and he's becoming very improvisational, experimental with the Linn Drum and creating all of these different sounds. And yeah, it was really fascinating to talk to people who were in his live band, people who were touring with him as his stage crew, people who were in the studio with him, the engineers that were working with him, and to try to capture this kind of worrying creative spirit that was emanating out of him in that era.
Anil Dash: So you both have incredible long histories in the fan community and of course, in knowing Prince's work and seeing him perform many times. But this conversation is not primarily going to be about like, oh, I saw this amazing guitar solo or I went to the club and he played this thing or this is what happened at Paisley Park. This is about a totally different aspect. The way I put it is Prince was kind of a nerd, he was kind of into technology and in a not casual way, from real early on. And I actually just wanted to start with, for each of you, sort of what was the first glimpse of that? And I'll start with Jay, when was the first time you were like, Prince is on some other stuff here. He's doing something different with tech.
Jay Smooth: I mean, yeah, there were little hints with something in the water does not compute and computer blue and so on. But I think the first time I really had a chance to engage with it was when he put out the Lovesexy CD as one single continuous track. That was my first experience of Prince having a real particular vision of how he wants to use technology and use it to seek a real particular relationship and engagement with his audience and sort of experience in that paradox of totally seeing division and getting it and respecting it while also being highly annoyed by it in practice. That complex [crosstalk 00:11:36]...
Anil Dash: Right. And so he is designing experience for his audience or his listeners and for context, for folks that don't know, first of all, Lovesexy was an album that came out in 1988 and also, this is hard for folks to imagine maybe as well, CDs were brand new then.
Jay Smooth: That was one of the first two or three CDs I ever bought.
Anil Dash: Yeah, it was like my friend, his mom's boyfriend had the CD player and we'd be like, five minutes a day, we can go and steal it and use it. But what we found was this album came out, and this is, right, pretty much at the tail end of sort of the run of Prince's most classic first 10 albums, and it was an event when he dropped an album, but the vinyl era, you put the needle on the record, you listen to songs. This was like you're going to listen to 48 straight minutes of this album in the sequence that I want and you couldn't skip a track or do anything else. And you think this is Prince saying like, I know how to use this tech and I'm going to flex on you a little bit.
Jay Smooth: I can't speculate to that extent, but my impression was he thought this is an album that should be experienced from front to back so I'm going to use the technology to force you in that direction, so that if you feel like you just want to listen to Anna Stesia, you're going to have to hold down the fast forward button for exactly the right amount of time to get to that song. I'm not going to make it easy for you.
Anil Dash: Right. Which was the last song in the album, one of the best songs on the album, but you're spending a good bit of time engaging with this device, and it's a little bit of him sort of saying like, this is me knowing what's possible.
Jay Smooth: Right. I think, hoping to use the technology to make you engaged with the stuff on his terms, I think is a recurring theme.
Anil Dash: And Andrea, sort of same question, I'm curious from you of when was the moment when you were like, he's this pop figure and everybody knows him as whatever, the sex symbol and the pop star and the musical genius, but there's this other weird internet side or tech side.
Andrea Swensson: I guess my experience is way more recent. It's when he retweeted me by only typing my first and last name in all caps with the link in between it to something I had written.
Anil Dash: And he had a distinct style of how he use social media, for sure. He didn't use it like anybody else did.
Andrea Swensson: Yeah. Yeah. If you wanted to retweet someone, he literally just took what they wrote and put it as his tweet, sometimes, with a citation, sometimes not. But I was just so fascinated with the way he was using Twitter as kind of like in the same way, like in the '90s, you would find out about a rave by someone posting a flyer and then you had to call a secret phone number and figure out where it was. He was doing that to advertise events at Paisley Park on Twitter. He would post something and then he would delete it, but the party would still be happening that night. And you just had to follow him every minute of the day to catch when he posted it. I think the biggest example of that was he had invited me and Bobby Z. out. It was the 30th anniversary of Purple Rain and we had done a story together on The Current, where I work.
Anil Dash: Bobby Z. was the drummer in The Revolution, so one of Prince's longtime collaborators.
Andrea Swensson: So Bobby Z. sent me an email at, I don't know, 6:00, saying, "Can you come to Paisley Park tonight? P wants to meet you." And I said, "Sure." And I just wrote on Twitter the summoning, no other context, and just went and was off the grid basically for the rest of the night. And I woke up in the morning to a text from one of my friends saying, "Did you go to Paisley Park last night?" And I was like, "How on earth would anyone besides me, Prince and Bobby Z. know that?" And she said, "Prince is tweeting about you." And he had taken my tweet and put it as his own tweet and just, again, in all caps, Andrea Swensson. And everyone was like, "What happened last night? What did Andrea do? Why is Prince tweeting about her?" And then of course, by noon, it was gone.
Anil Dash: So I'm going to take it back, because we're well in the social media era, but there's this sort of prehistory going, even all this far back as the '80s and the '90s. Prince had a tremendous reckoning in his career in the early '90s. He'd changed his name to a symbol, he starts to begin his sort of his battle with the record label and really about control of his art. But one of the things that was most striking to me is this is also the point when he engages with the fan community for the first time.
Anil Dash: My experience of this was there were, this is back in the day, so there were AOL chat rooms and fans would get together in the Paisley Park room around, I think around early '94, there starts to be sort of mysterious guests showing up in that chat room. And they would have these, the name [inaudible 00:15:55] your screen name, just like you have your handles on your social media today, but they were the names of songs that we knew had not come out yet, but that Prince had written, and they would show up and sort of have these mysterious hints. For me, the most striking moment was Prince played the American Music Awards 1995 and right before he went on, somebody dropped it in chat room the week before and I was like, this is the set list, this is what he's going to do, these are the songs. And we're like, he's never going to do, he's not going to go on Dick Clark's award show and say Prince is dead. This is [inaudible 00:16:25].
Speaker 4: On June 7, 1993, Prince departed from [inaudible 00:00:16:30]. His name changed legally [inaudible 00:16:33] symbol. Ladies and gentlemen, the artist formerly known as Prince.
Anil Dash: And it was no for no, exactly that. And it was sort of like what people do on AMA on Reddit and they hold up the little photo and it's like, this is really me. It was like, oh man, that was proof. This is really you. And so from there, you fast forward by year or two later, he's doing crowdfunding on his website. He's got, you can download songs, you can win album as soon as we get 100,000 orders, we're going to print. Now you ordered the album back in the day?
Jay Smooth: Yeah. Any chance we had to do those things, I availed myself of.
Anil Dash: And then this is like pre... Amazon hadn't even really taken off. I mean, this is very early on and you go to his website and it's kind of janky-looking, but Prince is like, if 100,000 people put their credit card in here, I'm going to make an album for you. Andrea, I'm curious about one of the things that people might not know is that so much of music retail is based in the twin cities. So whether it was, back in the day, Sam Goody in Musicland, but Best Buy, Target, whatever, they're all twin cities companies, right?
Andrea Swensson: Yes. And the internet was really getting going here with Bitstream. I actually had a chance to talk to Chuck Hermes, who was, at the time, in the early '90s, Prince's kind of main tech guy, and he was the one that actually sat Prince down at the computer for the first time and literally logged him on to AOL and they listened to the dial-up together and he watched Prince react to this new...
Andrea Swensson: ... pull up together and he watched Prince react to this new possibility. I had a chance to talk to him and a bunch of other people that worked at Paisley Park at, I think it was the first celebration the year after Prince passed away. He was saying, you know, from that moment on, Prince was looking at the internet not going, "How does this work? How do I use it? How do I interact with these people?" But, "What can we do with this?" I just thought that was so interesting.
Andrea Swensson: Every time he was presented with something new, he didn't really ever bother to learn how other people were using it. He had this very improvisational way of approaching all of these different tools of how can I use this in a way that's going to benefit me and what I'm trying to accomplish?
Anil Dash: It's almost raw materials for him?
Andrea Swensson: Yeah, yeah. And of course, and as you mentioned, there's this dovetailing of this really early internet culture developing in the Twin Cities and also this early music retail. So he did have access in the mid-nineties as he was thinking about branching out and becoming an independent artist. He could just walk over basically to Best Buy's headquarters and sit down with the CEO and say, "Hey, can we work out a deal?" He could do the same with Target, which is how he eventually released Lotus Flower in the late 2000s, but I do remember recalling that he met with Best Buy I think in that era to get a conversation going about how they could directly distribute his music through NPG Records.
Anil Dash: So it's pretty extraordinary, right? Because if you hear today of an artist that they do a Kickstarter or a Patreon or something and they make a record and then they get it, you know, probably these days you distribute it through Apple, not through Target or Best Buy, but that path it seems like existed almost 20 years prior. I want to push into one thing that you made a reference to there, Andrea, around Bitstream. Can you describe for folks what that was and why that was so groundbreaking?
Andrea Swensson: From what I understand, it was like a pre-internet forum gathering space for people online. I still know several people here who work in media who are still using their bitstream.net email addresses out of loyalty to Bitstream, and it's very much baked into Twin City's internet culture. Pretty much everyone that works either in an ad agency or a tech agency in Minneapolis was probably somehow involved with Bitstream in the nineties.
Anil Dash: And so this was the first bulletin board, and then later it became the first dial up internet service in the Twin Cities, which I think is why everybody still has those email addresses, and most of the folks who started it worked at Paisley Park.
Andrea Swensson: Right, yeah. Yeah, like Chuck.
Anil Dash: So you have a bunch of guys who are during the day working for Prince and they got the album credits of producer, engineer, whatever, recording artists, recording engineer there in their day jobs, and then at night they're building really the first internet connection systems for all of the Twin Cities. And then one of the things I think you come out of that with is, in rapid succession a lot of things happen. So there is a first, like I said, that sort of crowdfunding a record online, there is just the ability to download songs.
Anil Dash: I mean, again, it's hard for people to imagine, but this is years before Napster and you can just go and buy stuff and it probably didn't sound amazing, but you could sort of do it. Then by the time you get to the 2000s, there's a whole music club, a subscription that you could subscribe to. Again, today I can kind of imagine that if Taylor Swift said instead of paying Spotify, I want you to pay me $5 a month, and then you'd be like, "Okay, yeah, that's like my new Hulu or whatever." Now Jay, you were a member. What do you remember about joining? Why did you join? Why did you send your money on the internet to Prince?
Jay Smooth: You had to be there just to see what it was going to be, if nothing else. It became sort of a centralized hub for our discussion about Prince, which seemed to be to some extent Prince's vision. Like, "I can't stop people from talking about me on the internet, so let me have it all happen under my roof."
Anil Dash: Right.
Jay Smooth: But then I think what became most fruitful for me was they did a really good job at a time when scalping really had a deleterious effect on your experience as a fan, especially trying to go to those smaller shows. You would have to line up 12 plus hours in advance to wait on this line and scalpers would be doing this really nefarious practice where they would pay homeless people to wait on the line and get tickets and then give them to the scalpers, and then you'd have to pay them some inflated price and the tickets already weren't cheap. So they had a system going that for me worked really well. You know, I got to be able to see, some of my favorite Prince concerts I went to was from having it set up so that real fans on the site would really have first access to those tickets.
Anil Dash: And he would shout you out in the shows, of like, "My music club members are here." Like, "My subscribers are here."
Jay Smooth: Right. Yeah, I mean one of them, which you may have been at, The Lincoln Center show where if you were a member of the website you got a VIP ticket that let you go to the entire soundcheck before the concert, which was basically just two and a half extra hours of hanging out with Prince. He's just sitting there chatting with you, lecturing you about not cursing.
Anil Dash: Yeah, I've got to tell this story because I've got to set the stage. So it's The Lincoln Center, and I am not an opera dude, so this was not my scene, that's not where I usually go. And you know, I get up there and it's Avery Fisher Hall, right? So this is as pinky extended as it gets in Manhattan, and first of all, I go in and it's like three, four rows of people. It's small, right? That are sort of in, that are in the fan club, that are allowed to go in. You go in, and I remember this very, very distinctly, I'm walking down the aisle to the front and these two women behind me are sort of talking, and the one's like, "Girl, that's not Prince." Right?
Anil Dash: I was like, "What?" I turned around and look, and he sitting behind us, he's like in the middle of the row, like fifth, sixth row in this hall in Lincoln Center and we'd all walked right him because, well, he's a little dude, but two is you don't expect him to just be sitting there in the middle of everybody, and everybody's [inaudible 00:00:24:03], and of course because they had exclaimed surprisingly, everybody looks and is freaking out. He's sitting in the row and he's got a mic, and he's just like, "Welcome. Thanks everybody coming by." It was very, very chill, and then the band comes out and plays and he's still singing from there. He's sitting there, and then eventually he goes up on stage, but he was just like these are my people.
Jay Smooth: Yeah, it was. Yeah, I mean I joked about him lecturing us, which he did for a few minutes.
Anil Dash: Oh yeah.
Jay Smooth: But almost all of it was really casual and friendly, playing practical jokes on people who went to the bathroom, when they came back and he would heckle them from in the seats.
Anil Dash: Yeah, yeah, and I think so different than what people perceived, and part of it was, it was mediated by we had all done the thing of becoming the members. I think so the tech was the way of him filtering like are these people really down with me? This is a moment that basically was his commercial nadir. People thought he's lost the plot, he changed his name to a symbol, I don't know even know what this record's about. I mean, he opened the show by like, "I'm not playing Purple Rain tonight." Do you know what I mean? He's pretty much like, "Don't, like if that's what you came here for, that's not what we're going to do," and yet because of there being some level of trust.
Jay Smooth: Right. I mean, I think you could say it's an early model of what has become the crowdfunding model, where instead of maintaining a shallow relationship with hundreds of millions of people, you have a deep relationship with a smaller amount of supporters and fans and you have this ongoing relationship that's on a deeper level while they support and sustain you.
Anil Dash: So Andrea, I want to switch gears here a little bit because I think you got to see that same sort of access going when much later in Prince's career, about a decade later, he starts to do parties at Paisley Park pretty regularly. He'd done them before, but this was sort of a regular thing and it would go out on social media. Talk about what it was like to have that sort of like, I always saw it like the bat signal, like all of you who were there in the Twin Cities would see this flare go up on social media and then sort of run out. I'm thinking in particular of one night that you were at Paisley Park where you probably saw one of the greatest meetings of superstars possible.
Andrea Swensson: Yes. Well yeah, totally the bat signal. I mean, it kind of mirrored what he would do in the nineties turning on the purple light outside and if you drove past and you saw the purple light was on, it meant there was going to be a party that night. It was really a way to, I think, reward the people that were the most tuned into him. As you were talking about with building that loyal following online and being able to build up that trust and intimate connection, it was the same people that I was seeing out at Paisley Park pretty much every time I went there. I would say there were maybe two to three dozen people that would go to all of these events, and oftentimes there would only be 20 or 30 of us there even when he was performing, which was really wild.
Andrea Swensson: But yeah, the one you're referring to in particular, that was a real quick invite. I want to say it was live for less than an hour that he posted that was going to be going on, and I had actually gotten a personal invite, so I went out there at I think 11 and we're all just kind of hanging out. We were hanging out for long enough that I counted every single person. There were 33 of us, and we're all just waiting for something to happen and had this idea of what it might be. And then about 1:30 in the morning, we're in the NPG Music Club Room. This DJ's been going, we're all doing our weary best to keep dancing even though nothing seems to be transpiring. And all of a sudden, in walks Madonna and her entire tour crew, including all of her backup dancers, all of her stage crew, all of her staff, basically their entire tour bus emptied out into Paisley Park, which suddenly doubled the size of this gathering.
Andrea Swensson: They were playing Madonna songs and all of the dancers were doing the dances that they do with her on stage as she kind of stepped into this little roped off area and Prince came out and greeted her, and then he proceeded to perform a private concert for these 33 randos that showed up and all of Madonna's crew and Madonna until like 2:30 in the morning. It was so surreal to be in that small of a space with two extremely famous musicians and watch them interact with each other. At one point I realized that Madonna had, instead of sitting in her little roped off area, had actually gone up to the front of the stage and was sitting on stage at Prince's feet just gazing up at him adoringly as we all were, and watching him play this incredible guitar solo. She reacted the same way that any human being on earth reacted when they watched Prince play a guitar solo, which was just to sit there with her mouth open. It was just so incredible to see her humanized in that way and also to be part of this weird little after party.
Anil Dash: It's extraordinary to me because you know, aside from her crew, everybody else who was witness there had basically been like, "Oh, I just saw this thing on social media." Like it wasn't, it was a fairly open invite, right? It's just that you had to know how he used social media in order to be able to participate.
Andrea Swensson: Yep, and there was like a group text I would say of people that were really keyed into this. Something else that was really incredible about that group of people is I've gotten to know a lot of them really well, and Prince actually had code names for a lot of them, as he would if he was interacting with them in a chat room. Like my good friend Heidi is one of these people that would always be out at Paisley and always make sure that everyone knew what was going on, and we found out that he called her Big Red. She's this tall redheaded woman and he, even if he wasn't directly interacting with everyone each time that they came out, he knew who was there. He knew that this was a safe group of people he trusted to let into his space.
Andrea Swensson: I think that contributed to just how incredible these performances were too, because he was rehearsing, it was often very loose. It was often testing out maybe a new band member or a new set list or a new flow to something, and you could see that he felt really comfortable with this particular group of people.
Anil Dash: More with Andrea and Jay after the break.
Anil Dash: Welcome back to function. We're talking about Prince and his complicated relationship with technology, with my fellow Prince fans Andrea Swensson and Jay Smooth. So let me come back around, because I think even while he was alive, there was so many memes about Prince, and he's somewhat, it seems like he was almost intentionally trying to be a meme sometimes. The breakout moment for me I think is the Chappelle skit.
Charlie Murphy: We in the club, we getting our groove on, shaking it up, and Prince came in. That's when Purple Rain came out and Prince was the (beep). You know what I'm saying? Prince had on like a, it was like a Zorro type outfit. It had the ruffles that come down the front. He had the big perm fluffed out and all that.
Anil Dash: Charlie Murphy talking about playing basketball with Prince and getting beat.
**Speaker 5: ** All right, he beat you in basketball, and then what happened?
Charlie Murphy: After it was all over, he took us in the house and served us pancakes.
Anil Dash: And all these moments, you know, this is sort of early social media era, you're like, I can see what GIFs people are going to make of this. Do you think there was an intentionality to that, or do you think that's the sort of thing that prompted him to say, "Let me feed into this?"
Jay Smooth: Well, I wonder, because I feel like he really benefited from not letting people in on how funny he was for the first half or the first third of his career. If you weren't a fan who was going to the concerts or seeing him in certain spaces, you just had that sort of mysterious persona that he gave on TV and on the records. So I think over the years it was a shock to people.
Anil Dash: So he can play against type a little.
Jay Smooth: Prince is actually really funny.
Anil Dash: I think some of the examples just off the top of my head of like the Chappelle skit, sort of very famously Prince comes out and is like, "I'm going to make you pancakes", at the end. He had a song called Breakfast Can Wait, which I think he just organically wrote, but because the song is about breakfast, the cover art is Chappelle in costume as Prince serving pancakes.
Anil Dash: [Music 00:33:43].
Anil Dash: You know, not long after that he does a song This Could Be Us But You Keep Playing, and it's because he saw a meme of himself and Apollonia in the movie Purple Rain, and clearly he made it the cover art, but it feels to me like he saw that and was that, "I can make that a song."
Anil Dash: [Music 00:16:06].
Anil Dash: So that to me feels like such a different, it's just a different perspective than people see, and I think it's sort of unexpected that there's that interplay and that it's inspiring songs and it's inspiring certainly cover art. I think there's just so many surprising aspects to that. I think about towards the end of his life, you had his last couple of album covers were illustrations, a sort of cartoon style drawing that a fan named Martin had done. But these were things that had been created online first and then he sort of went out and acquired and brought in. I think that was true for a lot of the art and a lot of the creative around the sort of end of Prince's life was the opposite of where people think, right?
Anil Dash: The control freak who's dictating what every single pixel looks like and what every single thing looks like, but it was more of like, "I'm going to incorporate my fan's ideas into what I do." I'm curious, Jay, about whether you see there being an evolution from that very manicured somewhat distant eighties persona into later in his life. Did he open up, you feel like there's more of a connection there?
Jay Smooth: Yeah, I think, I mean, you can see a transition bit by bit over time. I think between that instinct to have as much control as possible and that ability to adapt. Just like he synthesizes so many different musical styles and genres into something that's bigger than the sum of its parts, I think he'd learned over time how to engage with this whole web of technology in a way that was healthy for him and for the fans more and more over time. I mean, I was one of the proud recipients of a cease and desist order back in 1998 at a time when, I mean, the perception and experience for us fans was definitely that wow, Prince is just trying to shut down all the fan sites.
Anil Dash: Yeah.
Jay Smooth: For me, the specific thing that I got, the-
Jay Smooth: And, for me, the specific thing that I got the email for was on my site, hiphopmusic.com, I had shared little 30 second snippets of, what was the album at that time? It had mad sex on it.
Anil Dash: Oh, Newpower Soul.
Jay Smooth: Newpower Soul album, right. So I had gotten a promo cassette at the radio station that said, "For promotional purposes only, 30 seconds snippets of songs."
Anil Dash: So you know it's a promotion?
Jay Smooth: To me, right, I'm doing what you're supposed to do with it. And I shared these snippets in real audio at that time on the site and I got this cease and desist order, which to me was, that's maybe by the letter of the law you're right, but the whole spirit and function of this is we're helping spread the word about what you're doing.
Anil Dash: Well, and it's so interesting. It's like there was this gap basically in intellectual property law. And I think YouTube was sort of the real catalyst to this about a decade later. Because you had everything uploaded to YouTube in the early days was illegal and yet everything there was promoting stuff, right? And so people were like, well, yeah, this might not be what copyright laws says, but we know we're promoting you. But in the 90s, late 90s in particular, Prince had a very online fan base. A lot of us had gotten online when he released like a CD-ROM in the early 90s and were like, okay, we're going to get a nice computer so we can do Prince stuff on it.
Anil Dash: And then by the time we all get connected and we get our AOL accounts, he is shutting a lot of stuff down. And there was a lot of, and that's date as a theme well into the 2000s, the control of like if you uploaded a YouTube video he would get that pulled down. If you, as you said, you made a fan site and you used his material. Andrea, I'm curious from yours perspective, like did you get a glimpse into that sort of, for lack of a better phrase, the control freak aspect of that? Like in terms of like, or what you saw with other fans in the community where they were sort of afraid to share things or limited in what they put out there?
Andrea Swensson: I mean there was always that fear I think of, especially before he was really actively preventing people from bringing their phones into shows. Like people would sneak pictures, or videos, or audio, or whatever and there was always the fear that you were going to be found out and kicked out or if you posted it that you're going to get on his bad side. But it's kind of a paradoxical thing about him. He was encouraging this like really open sharing of people's love for him and his work, but also wanting to have control over kind of the quality and the message, and the way that people were interacting with it.
Andrea Swensson: And I mean, I think about there's just so many paradoxes to him. He didn't want people to cover him, but he was constantly covering other people. I think he had this real push-pull relationship with that part of it. Something else I was thinking about as we're talking is that so much of his early career, especially in the recording studio was alone and he found kind of this confidence and found his voice by working alone in the studio. And I wonder if there was something about being online and kind of the solitary way that you're directly communicating if that allowed him to kind of open up what he wanted to say and express, and if that allowed him to experience these like deeper connections with people because maybe it was like a more introverted way of reaching out.
Anil Dash: One of the things that was with the great frustrations I think for fans for many years online was, it was hard to access his stuff. It's gotten much easier since he's passed, but that you couldn't just see the video, you couldn't just listen to the music, it was very, very constrained. And one aspect of that seems to be, obviously he wanted to have his own services so you would pay him and hopefully stream his music from him. How much do we think this is about, in his personal case the control versus work that he'd made, but also the sort of broader history of how artists, particularly black artists, get exploited where he's saying, I don't want YouTube to choose how my stuff goes out there and how it gets monetized.
Anil Dash: And in particular, one thing I want to sort of call out, that I didn't get at the time but really stuck with me was, he said he liked Tidal, the streaming service that in part is owned by Jay-Z. One, because it was a black owned, but two, because they let him pick which other albums got recommended next to Prince's albums. And he's like, if I want to, I can put Sly Stone there, and I can put Jimmy Hendricks there, and I can put Chaka Khan there. And in this current era we think about how much the YouTube algorithm recommends all kinds of horrible stuff and radicalizes people through the content. I'm curious, do you think there was an articulation of that? Like a coherent vision of that or was that just intuitive for Prince?
Jay Smooth: I mean, I can only speculate experiencing it from the outside, but although we may express a lot of frustration about times when the control instinct won out over the instinct to have a deep connection. But I think when I look at his relationship with bootleg material, and I'm biased as one of the providers of bootlegs back in the days, and it always seemed to me that although the official stance is no one should have these bootlegs, he seemed to have a more complex relationship with it where he would flirt with knowing that we know that he knows that we know that we have it. He would do the songs at concerts sometimes and there seemed to be a wink and a nod to, I have a certain amount of material that's going to have this mystery and scarcity and people who love me enough to access it are going to go and get it and that's going to give them this really special feeling, deeper relationship with me.
Jay Smooth: So I think it's always been a complex fluid thing that's frustrating at times when it veers toward the control side. But I think there's always been some complex thought that went into trying to give him that balance of control and having a real, deep, respectful relationship with fans where like he would say we're the family, not the fans.
Anil Dash: I want to shift gears a little bit to looking forward, because I think after Prince passed we found out a lot of things that were surprising. And to me of course some of the things that were most surprising were his sort of depth of view into technology and some of the ways he'd helped out there. One of the, this is like a minor example, but one of the things that jumped out to me was that he had funded people installing solar panels in Oakland, right? And he's talking about like, he wants to sort of enable green energy and obviously give communities of color more self-sustaining capabilities. And so it was a really interesting, I was like, that is not what I expected him to be cutting checks for. Like it's not out of character, but just not what the persona was.
Anil Dash: But then there was a lot that he did with Van Jones and others around enabling Yes We Code. And I remember very distinctly he'd sort of said, when their sons wear a hoodie, they say he's Mark Zuckerberg and when our kids wear a hoodie they say he's Trayvon. And that was a pretty stark and pretty dramatic, and as a motivation for enabling kids to have control over technology. Jay, I'm curious for you about, do you think that's something he would have carried forward? And in particular what drew him to tech?
Jay Smooth: Yeah, I mean I think we got to see more and more after him being perceived from afar as someone who didn't care much for worldly things and whatever, this sort of vague abstract way of speaking to the world. I think we got to see more and more and got to learn much more after he passed about how concretely connected he was to what's going on in the world and specifically what's going on in the world for black people and having a sense of connection and solidarity to that. And I have no doubt that probably a lot of it would have remained behind the scenes, like a lot of stuff that came out after he passed.
Jay Smooth: But I think, especially since we see from what we've been learning about how he was mentally transitioning into not wanting to play the guitar anymore and wanting to get this memoir done, I think he was shifting more and more into a space where he wanted to be an elder statesman who helped his people out. And I'm sure his vision of how to use tech would have been a part of that for sure.
Anil Dash: And Andrea, I'm curious about what's carried forward, because there's still, now there's events happening at Paisley Park as it's sort of a Memorial and a museum, but kids still go, they still bring kids into Paisley Park, right?
Andrea Swensson: Yeah. There's a program with Minneapolis Public Schools where they can go on tours for free and I think they even get to interact with one of the studios and maybe even some of the instruments like a drum kit. And it's just, the idea is that they need to keep the door open to, especially North Minneapolis and the schools where Prince attended or would have attended and to keep that bridge. One of the last conversations that he had with his childhood best friend Andre Cymone, was that he wanted to open a community center in North Minneapolis and name it after Andre's mother, Bernadette Anderson, who took him in when he was a teenager. And she was a huge role model in that community, and worked at the community center, and was a social worker, and I think he really wanted to pay tribute to her work and also I think he was kind of seeing himself transitioning into the role, as you say, of someone that can really shepherd the next generation in and continue access to music education.
Andrea Swensson: That's something that he spoke directly to me about. He was really passionate about. I think he was trying to figure out different ways that he could contribute. And I think when you think about the overlap of tech, it allowed him to engage with communities that weren't necessarily like geographically right where he was, but it was making these connections to people doing the work in their own cities. And I think he was able to make donations with a real sense of purpose of knowing that this person is very active where they live, maybe they can do something like how I want to do in Minneapolis.
Anil Dash: Well I think on that note and with that little bit of optimism about what his legacy will be going forward, thank you Andrea, thank you Jay for joining us in the conversation.
Jay Smooth: Thank you.
Andrea Swensson: Thank you for having me.
Anil Dash: If you're listen to music and you're a fan of music, you already know Prince was a musical genius. What a lot of people don't know is that secret side of him that was a brilliant technologist. He was somebody that understood tech as a business and as a force in culture. And one of the people that really most evokes that feeling that Prince had as an innovator is somebody like Steve Jobs. Because these were both guys that were year after year, day after day, trying to push the envelope forward, sometimes to the point where they were overly demanding with people, but they could see a future that they knew everybody would come along to and join if they could just reveal it to everyone.
Anil Dash: And Prince was constantly innovating in that way, not just in music, not just with his instruments, but also with technology. I can rattle off all these things about how he was crowdfunding records back in the day and he was building online music stores way before anybody else did, before Steve jobs did. But the animating force, the real principle behind everything Prince did was about giving creators control, giving artists control. He talked often about the history of black artists being exploited and he really deeply felt that technology was something that could empower people and keep them from being exploited.
Anil Dash: You know, more profoundly, I looked at how he challenged the industry around him and, these days I'm the CEO of a tech company and we make a lot of choices that other tech companies don't. We think about how we are building our business model. We think about who we try to hire at our company. We think about what do our fans and our community want to see from us and how can we be better listeners to them? We even think about who we do business with and who we don't do business with. And all of that is very influenced by the idea that one set of creators, one community of people who care about these things and understand technology deeply can transform an entire industry.
Anil Dash: Because what Prince did through his use of technology and certainly through his musical genius, was transform the record industry. The things that he said that sounded craziest when he changed his name to a symbol are now the norm. I think about a couple of years ago when Chance the Rapper got the Grammy. Here was a young man from the Midwest who owned his work, a black artist who had never signed over his master recordings to a record label. And what Prince said as his mantra about why he cared about fighting the record industry, was that if you don't own your masters, then your masters own you. And somebody like Chance showed the potential coming out the other side of a young artist who had had the luxury, honestly, of his entire career controlling and owning his work. And one of the reasons that was possible was technology.
Anil Dash: That sort of transformative power that Prince outlined in describing what young creators could see, and what young creators could do, and what young creators could be through technology and the internet was visionary and it still informs the way I look at what's possible with technology. It definitely informs what I expect from the artists that I listen to or that I support. I want them to fight just as hard for their freedom and their self expression. And it's easy when people say, well, wasn't this the guy that tried to pull his stuff off of YouTube to think maybe he didn't like technology, but in a lot of cases all it was was he was just so far ahead of his time that we still years later, years after his passing, are working to catch up to a vision of the future that Prince had about technology, which is just as futuristic as his vision for music.
Anil Dash: That's it for this episode of Function. Next week, we're going to go even deeper with stories that nobody's ever heard about Prince by two of the people who were actually there at Paisley Park in the studio with Prince helping him invent the future of his career and of the music industry. One is Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins. She was Prince's last manager and if you read his recent memoir, she's the person who signed on the dotted line to get that book done. She's going to talk about a whole perspective on his business dealings that I had never heard before. We're also going to get, Sam Jennings, who was Prince's webmaster and creative director for nearly a decade. This is the guy who helped build the sites that won Prince's Webby Award. That's all next week on Function. Thanks for listening and we hope you'll join us then.
Anil Dash: Function is produced by Bridget Armstrong. Our Glitch producer is Keisha (TK) Dutes. The shocker was the executive producer of audio for the Vox Media Podcast Network and our theme music was composed by Brandon McFarland. Thanks to the whole engineering team at Vox and a huge thanks to our team at Glitch. And you can follow me on Twitter @anildash, but you should also follow the show @podcastfunction, all one word. Please remember to subscribe to the show wherever you are listening to us right now and also check out glitch.com/function, we've got transcripts for every episode up there, apps, all kinds of stuff to check out about the show. We'll be back next week and we hope you join us then.