Roots drummer and Tonight Show musical director Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson tells us why Prince is “hip-hop”
by Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson
Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson is a drummer, a tweeter, a political provocateur, a music encyclopedia, a founding member of hip-hop royalty the Roots, the bandleader of The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, and a Prince fanatic. Take a journey through his mind as he argues thirty-three reasons why Prince is “hip-hop.”
October 1991 marked the year of a new Prince. I could tell that something was on his mind (perhaps money?). It was his thirteenth professional year, and something had to give. Clearly he was irked by longtime fans already giving his 1978–’88 tenure a past-tense reference (known as “the genius period,” similar to pre–Woman in Red Stevie’s 1971–’76 era, but Prince fared a lil better). Although a commercial success, his 1989 Batman soundtrack felt unthawed. (And let’s face it: anything with that Batlogo was getting copped back in the late ’80s, so it was a no-brainer. You could turn in just about anything and it would sell as long as that golden logo was attached to your product.) His next album was a heartbreaking failure of a sequel to the very breakthrough that probably is responsible for this tribute issue you now hold in your hands. Graffiti Bridge, released in 1990, did the exact opposite of what Purple Rain was to do for his career (and it’s noted that all of the soundtrack highlights were indeed written or recorded…during the—ahem—“genius period.”) However, on Prince and the New Power Generation’s Diamonds and Pearls, his first “proper” album since 1988’s puzzling Lovesexy and his first project not to reach the top ten since 1981’s Controversy, Prince seemed to embrace “rap” (not hip-hop, but “rap”) almost with the believability of Republican politicians that visit the inner-city slums to kiss babies and shake hands. The puzzling thing about it all is that Prince was more “hip-hop” than he ever was once he gave in to “rap” music.
Dare I say he was a hip-hop pioneer? Yes. That Prince. Without even trying, he did things that those in the hip-hop generation wouldn’t even think to do some years later in their careers. So in celebration of Prince reaching Jesus status (thirty-three years in the game), I’d like to argue thirty-three reasons why sucker MCs should call him sire.
33. “2 Live, 2 Live is what we are.”
In 1988, Prince poses stark naked on his tenth album cover, Lovesexy.
32 & 31. “So either join the crew or get beat down.”
With Hammer as America’s newly discovered go-to guy, Prince reverses his Sir Nose D’VoidoRAP position of the past (more on that later) and full-on puts his career survival ahead of his personal creativity. Backtracking a hard stance, of course, would be the norm come 1997 with the all-integrity no-sell-out hip-hop. Of course, with the formation of the NPG and its kickoff album, 1991’s Diamonds and Pearls, with samples and rap breaks over a band soundtrack (I’ll just sneak in #31 here) and the occasional “nigga” sprinkled for effect (let’s not forget the mic gun either), Prince was actually onto something that was years ahead of my own entry in the game.
30. “I got it from my pops, where there’s a man in the house and all the bullshit stops.”
Genius starts with the act of defiance, achieving something when you are told that you can’t achieve. Prince’s father told him flat out, “Don’t touch my piano.” So, naturally, Prince takes that to mean, “Please help yourself, then help me some twenty years later by taking care of me with the fruits of your labor.” I don’t know if the Joseph/Tito thing went down, but I do know that he taught himself to play the theme to Batman (See? The man is a visionary!) and soon he got more intricate—that is, until he got kicked out the house and shuffled around to various relatives until running away at the age of twelve.
29. “Check it, fifteen of us in a three-bedroom apartment.
Roaches everywhere, cousins and aunts was there.
Four in a bed, two at the foot, two at the head.”
The Anderson family basement. P’s BFF André Anderson (aka Cymone) asks his mom, Bernadette, to take in “Skipper” as her seventh child. She does so, and also puts up with all the noise, knowing it’s better to be inconvenienced than those two to be running out in the streets.
28. “Shakespeare couldn’t tell a story that well.”
Prince’s bio stretched the truth quite a bit. Shaved his age a little bit to grab teen market. Embellished his ability. (Don’t get me wrong, he can play anything he wants to, but if you list over twenty instruments, and fifteen of those instruments are keyboard related, then, yeah, it’s impressive to someone who don’t know any better; but in my head, you play three instruments: drums, bass, and guitar. Okay, I’ll be fair and say four—and keyboards. Not: (1) Organ—no organ on his first seven records! (2) Rhodes (3) Clavinet (4) Synth. (5) Piano… Come on, now.) Now, the previously mentioned coulda been record-label politics. But in early interviews (especially with Right On! teen mag), Prince too was having some fun making up his bio on the spot to get some hood cred. My favorite being how he was so poor, he’d steal Bubble Yum and stand in front of a McDonald’s just to pretend he was eating a meal.
27, 26, & 25. “The shoes (the shoes?)… It’s gotta be the shoes!”
Unusual footwear is the most definitive rebel statement one can make in hip-hop. Some take the strings out, some rock mismatched, and with a better budget, some can rock just about anything. But it takes a true man to rock heels with confidence. Hip-hop can posture all it wants, but to get yo chick stolen from a dude looking like him is a hurt piece. (Let’s not forget #26, feathering his hair in ’79 and ’88–’90, and #25, his Black-hippy period of ’85–’87, having heavy influence on West Coast rappers and the Native Tongues, respectively.)
24. “Who put this thing together, huh?
Me! Me, that’s who!!
Who I trust? Who I trust? Me!”
Prince Rogers Nelson aka Jamie Starr aka Alexander Nevermind aka Joey Cocoa aka Camille aka Victor aka the Kid aka Christopher Tracey aka TAFKAP aka “Taffy” aka Tora Tora aka Violet the Organgrinder aka Gemini aka Ecnirp aka NPG2000 aka the Artist aka Paisley Park aka Skipper aka His Royal Badness aka Azifwekare aka the Wise One aka…Prince? (Wonder what his Wu-Tang name would be?)
23. “This is a gang, and I’m in it!”
Rule number one in any musical success is the idea of community. He who walks alone, starves alone (except novelty one-hit wonders). Check the books: Motown (Diana, Marvin, Tempts, Smokey, Stevie), British invasion (Stones, Beatles, Kinks, Who, Cream); Native Tongues (De La, Tribe, Jungle, Latifah, Black Sheep, Monie); Young Money (Wayne, Drake, Nick). Or if you in a class by yourself, you can pull the tricky dim sum method. (Jay-Z is a master of this: Bad Boy, Roots, Good Music, Young Money, State Property, and whoever is buzzed about, he is on it!) So Prince wisely saw that he needed too much posse to not only nuance his perceived weirdness, but to pretty much build an empire: the Time was his Black side, Vanity/Ap 6 was his female side, Sheila was his Latin-jazz virtuoso side, the Family was his ’80s pop side, Madhouse was his jazz side, and NPG was…well.
22. “So sit and analyze the lyrical spray, ’cause all it really is is wordplay.”
Funny how a song like “Sister” has you questioning what he really means when he is clearly spelling it out. But “Little Red Corvette,” “Tambourine,” “The Stick,” and “Sugar Walls,” with all its hidden entendres, were obvious as hell to my authority figures.
21 & 20. “Backseat of my Jeep, let’s swing an episode.”
What self-respecting pimp would pass up a shot inside the ride? (A ride he loves so much, he declares to trash all his worldly possessions for the love of his life, only to renege on “the ride,” which in itself is #20.) But what I find the most interesting is, like a lot of pre-1997 hip-hop, why is Prince, a full-on adult (he himself said sixteen is half a man—so being that he was twenty-two when “Dirty Mind” came out…), still living with his parents?
19. “I was gettin’ some, get gettin’ some…”
Capn’ Save-a-Bride fails Pimping 101 by marrying his one-night stand (or one-day stand, wedding day, at that) by “Head”’s last verse. Wonder if Lisa Coleman got her one-take Hov on with “You’re such a hunk” without breaking character?
18. “I got a letter from the government the other day, I opened and read it…”
Prince’s war paranoia (“Partyup,” “Free,” “Ronnie Talk to Russia,” even “After Hi-School” for the Time) was an occasional head-scratcher. But not as hardly head-scratching as his other steeze.
17. “Illuminati got my mind, soul, and my body.”
The end times had Money ’noid. Word is bond, son. His peerless musicianship (more later) distracted me from the fact that his pop breakthrough, “1999,” was some conspiracy theory jib-jab about how after 2000, people are just gonna roam the earth bombing ish, and how nobody was gonna be safe anymore. Psssh, just shut up and play yer guitar, ya crazy person, you. “Mommy, why does everybody have a—KABLAMO!!!!!!” Ha! That’s just crazy talk, young man.
16. “Now there’s this thing called the drum machine, you don’t need good rhythm to sound real mean.”
Prince’s greatest gift to hip-hop (and most post–civil rights R&B) was his peerless and boundless ability to program and mix drum machines. He used his guitar effects to get new sounds out of them. He often substituted sounds for others (high-pitched tambourine was hi-hat, snare rim shot were congas, lowered cowbells were tom-toms). Not to mention, the actual programming was done so precise you too thought it was done by a human (not even gonna speak on spending three months in 1982 tryna master “777-9311” to find out it was a machine). But while we’re on the subject of giving the drummer some, let’s not sleep on #15.
15. “Stuffs and thangs to make the people git outcha seat.”
In my opinion, Parade, with its orchestral patches, jazz structure, and sloppy post–“Mother’s Son” (google that Curtis classic) funk drumming, birthed Dilla’s neo-soul movement. Which left me kinda weirded-out when his “neo-soul” offering (The Rainbow Children) sounded like a copy of the artists who were copying him ten years before. And since we’re on jazz…
14. “The jazz, the what, the jazz to move that ass.”
Seen as jazz albums, I could understand the need for him to get all shy about promoting Madhouse 8 and 16 in case real jazz musicians wanted to come at his neck for faking it (for the record, I love these records!). However, seen in a hip-hop context, Madhouse was some progressive funk and the closest thing to a breakbeat-mentality fusion approach that any jazz dude ever attempted in some organic manner. (Yes, Herb/Laswell included.) There were breaks and loops galore for the taking. No complaints here.
13. “Get you bling like the Neptunes sound.”
Although the post-’98 minimalist Swiss/’Tunes entry of hip-hop at first appeared to be complete lazy, half-baked opposite of the hard work laid down by the “fill up all the spacisms” of the Bomb Squad/Dust Brothers sound collage that came before it, in reality, the birth of keyboard beats can be traced to a lil ditty called “When Doves Cry,” a song so controversial for its omittance of the bass that when it first came out, cats just knew that a coalition fronted by Clarke/Johnson/Graham/Brunson would form a lynch mob out of anger.
12. “Ghostwriter, and for the right price, I can even make yo shit tighter.”
I never completely got the “market this guy as genius, but then shroud him in mystery when it’s so clearly him.” He even went as far as to call his own id (Jamie Starr) a thief on “DMSR.” It’s like, “Come on, dude, we so know it’s you writing this stuff.” Not to mention, he singlehandedly invented ghetto shorthand with all of his trademark shortcut spellings. Man, my teachers were relieved when I dropped that habit, I tell ya.
11. “Introducing the world’s most controversial dangerous label.”
Vanity labels are nothing in today’s hip-hop environment. But back in the ’80s, it was a rarity. Borderline nonexistent. There was no Lionel’s Hello Records or Rick’s Punk Funk Label or Michael’s Menagerie. Of course, vanity labels are nothing but production companies with elaborate artwork. It’s just a shame P wasn’t able to establish his Paisley Park brand back in ’81 when his Starr-making purple wand was nothing but net.
10. “I got somethin’ to say, ‘Fuck tha police!’”
He taunted them in “DMSR.” He fingers them in the Time’s “The Walk.” He even, uh, fingers himself while getting caught by them in New York. But make no mistake, no hip-hop pioneer got love for jake.
9. “I used to sell mixtapes, but now I’m an MC.”
Prince is hands down thee most bootlegged artist in the modern rock era, with over three hundred unreleased songs, rehearsals, and concerts being traded like rare baseball cards. The most famous of these taboo recordings was a lil side project that was part “party music” to be used for a pal’s birthday party (the pal being Sheila E.) and part response to purists who accused him of forgetting where he came from (which is weird, ’cause I don’t think ghetto streets when I think of the Twin Cities). But anyhoo, before its five-years-too-late official release in ’94 (contractual obligations), the myth of The Black Album spawned an insatiable appetite for Prince fans to obtain even more unavailable material as it came down the pike. He, of course, despises the thought of millions he coulda made, but all it did was reaffirm and solidify his genius. (And since we’re on the subject, let’s segue into #8.)
8. “Tryin to rap up, but you can’t get down.
You don’t even know your English, your verb, or nouns.
You’re just a sucker MC, you sad-face clown.”
Of course, hating on other MCs is a natural thing in hip-hop. It’s just head-scratching that his disdain for rap prompted a response that was rapped, which also marked the first time he flirts with making bad rap songs. Which was a shame considering (as said before), he was more “hip-hop” not even knowing he was hip-hop.
“Dead On It” is his only misstep of the legendary underground classic The Black Album.
7. “And fuck Tommy Boy, ’cause them niggas just suck.”
As long as Prince was living and fulfilling his potential, there seemed to be no beef with Warner Bros. He demanded no outside producers, and they let him. He demanded a production development deal, and they let him. He demanded to make a movie, and they let him. He went far left and they let him. He made a bummer of a second film, and they let him. He made whatever music he wanted to, and they let him. He posed nude on his album cover, and they let him. He took a single to another label, and they let him. And when he couldn’t take it no more, his last words on his last album for them were “Fuck You!”
6. “We invented the remix.”
The whole idea of reinventing yourself and your song really starts with him. I was cool with “Little Red Corvette,” but if you’d told me, “I just heard that on the radio, and it’s Prince’s funkiest jam,” I woulda looked at you like you were crazy. But sure enough, Prince turned his rockiest song into a eight-minute funk workout as if we never heard the original. Before him, “remixes” were just edits, cuts, and pasting. With him, you now have the chance to make your jam appeal to a broader (and sometimes Blacker) demographic.
5. “Banned in the USA.”
First Lady hopeful starts a movement to protect young America from the filthy vile minds from the likes of…Prince? PMRC insists on Parental Advisory stickers for records thanks to sex fiends and their magazines.
4. “When I see you, guaranteed to be an ICU.”
No true hip-hop pioneer is universally loved. But they are respected. P being no exception. He (allegedly) done stole Rick James’s honey (Vanity in ’79 backstage at the AMAs), he done stole Rick’s potential money (the 1980 Fire It Up tour has a crazy legend that the opening act from Minniap would clear the house before the headline came on), his dreams (Rick too had Hollywood movies in his eye as a breakthrough for a bigger audience), his ideas (Vanity 6 vs. the Mary Jane Girls), even his background singers (longtime Prince associate Jill Jones first met him as background singer for Fire It Up tour act Teena Marie), and, according to Rick, everything else. Rick was relentless in publicly airing out why he couldn’t stand that “yella midget.” Who do you think let the cat out the bag about Charlie Murphy getting his arse waxed in b-ball? That was unforgivable in Rick’s eyes.
3. “You was a Reebok vandal, now you wear Chanel sandals.
I made you, why would I play you?”
I mean, it’s redundant to even state, but the exotic laced-up beauty there on your arm (or your screensaver?), Prince singlehandedly invented that. Real talk.
2. “I just wanna tape you. All night. Yeah!”
Misunderstood, under-six-foot artist from the Midwest with dreams of making it big who doesn’t look the part of the music he performs. His fellow peers are rivals that will spare no expense in trying to embarrass him. Gets a pretty girl, but loses a pretty girl to a rival. Lives at home with parents; got beef with parents. Someone gets shot. The world is closing in. Music saves him. Has to battle in club to save rep. End result is an Oscar. The world is even in more love with him. I’m talking about 8 Mile, what were you thinking about?
1. “I’m every MC. It’s all in me.”
Accused others of bitin’, runs ball, always had a brand-new dance up his sleeve, borrowed from James Brown, had a “Blackman is God” moment personifying himself as Jesus, made album skits, made nine-minute songs sometimes, made fun of hipsters (“We don’t like new wave”), but adapted the hipster mantra of “Thou must hate TV,” used gunplay, “Nigger” in song title, used songs for bait for supermodels, hopped label to label, sampled himself, sampled others, had sex on wax, took someone’s virginity, sang of his virginity getting…uh…taken at sixteen, sang about NYC, sang about critics, sang of future technology, blamed women for his problems, had good vs. evil conflicts, looked for the ladder first, got booed and pelted with chicken bones, sang of paranoia, had cab troubles, addressed the president, writing his name in graffiti on the wall, chased ’em, replaced ’em, and leave without a traced ’em. And most importantly, came to this Earth with more a title than name.
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