School Of Funk
Twenty thousand people are on their feet, cheering and singing along as Prince and his band rip through hit after hit at New York City’s Madison Square Garden for one of the purple one’s many sold-out Musicology tour dates. “No lip-syncing here,” Prince states. “This is real music played by real musicians.”
Performing on stage twenty years after releasing his classic semi-autobiographical film and soundtrack, Purple Rain, Prince doesn’t look like he’s aged a bit. In fact, it looks and sounds like he has more energy now then ever – and he seems to be enjoying it all a lot more this time around. And rightfully so, because Prince is having a very good year.
Before leaving for his worldwide Musicology tour, which started back in April, Prince came up with a brilliant idea that would change the way we look at CD distribution forever. He decided to give his new Musicology CD free to every person who attended his shows. The ensuing buzz immediately took the CD to the top of the charts and well past platinum status. Prince then opened this year’s Grammy Awards broadcast with a breathtaking performance. And 2004 saw Prince inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame.
Now, you may be wondering why one of the greatest performers and guitarists in the world is being featured in a drumming magazine. Well, he’s celebrating drumming. You may or may not know this, but Prince loves playing drums – and he’s very good at it. It’s just one of the many facets of music he’s studied – along with singing, songwriting, and dancing. Signed to a major record deal at the age of nineteen, Prince wrote, engineered, and performed every instrument on his first few recordings. “I had to audition on every instrument for the record company before they signed me,” he says, “because they didn’t believe it was all me.”
Through the many years of his recording career, Prince has always played most, if not all of the instruments on his album – and that includes drums. And if there was a guest drummer, Prince would be right there showing or directing what was to be played.
As in the past, on Musicology, Prince plays drums on several tracks. In fact, without a scorecard, it’s almost impossible to tell if it’s Prince or his regular drummer John Blackwell, playing. That’s pretty impressive, considering what a monstrous drummer Blackwell is.
MD sat down with the musical genius before the soundcheck for his recent performance in Hartford, Connecticut. Prince was relaxed, thoughtful, and happy to talk drums.
MD: When did you first start playing drums?
Prince: I started when I was thirteen years old. I would play on cardboard boxes. I’d use the flaps for dexterity and different sounds. I wouldn’t play drums in front of anyone until I felt I was good enough.
In school, everyone always wanted to play the drums. As soon as the drum chair was empty, someone would get behind the kit and play. Where I come from, if your beat was whack, you’d be made fun of. [laughs]
MD: Who were some of your drumming influences growing up?
Prince: I’ve never patterned myself after anyone. But my biggest influence was Morris Day [of The Time]. Morris is a good drummer – you should interview him. [See Sidebar.] Besides Morris, I’d watch local musicians. I never went to a concert until I was older. I saw James Brown and loved him as an entertainer. I saw the whole package.
MD: Did you ever take lessons?
MD: What would you practice? Would you play along to records?
Prince: No. I’d play while singing songs in my head, or I’d put on the radio and play along to anything that came on. I would go from one end of the dial to the other. I’d play all kinds of music. When you’re thirteen years old, you don’t know about any formats. That’s something society teaches you as you get older.
MD: What makes a drummer funky to you?
Prince: Their sense of timing and spirit – and when their ego doesn’t ruin their playing. I don’t like it when a drummer plays too much and he or she isn’t listening. Some guys can have a great foot but no hands – or great hands but no foot. Listen to the song “Funky Drummer.” The drummer plays the same thing over and over, and that groove just locks you in.
MD: What qualities do you look for in a drummer when you’re playing bass?
Prince: As a bassist, I listen closely to the hi-hat. I don’t necessarily follow the kick. I like to create the pulse of the foot with my bass.
MD: How about as a producer?
Prince: As a producer, song arrangement is very important. Some drummers can play anything, some can’t. Some can play different styles but not all well. It helps for the drummer to have a wide vocabulary in the studio.
MD: How important are the drum sounds when you’re writing a song?
Prince: Sometimes not at all. I always record the drums first’that’s real important. I like to record fast. Sometimes the mic’s aren’t perfectly placed or the tuning isn’t right. It’s just a feel thing. One of my strengths is, when I’m playing it all myself, I can make it sound like a total band when I’m done.