Michael Jackson Vs. Prince: An Oral History
“I heard you were looking for me,” said a deep voice on the other end of the phone. It was the fall of 1996, and Michael Jackson was holding court in a posh suite at the Four Seasons Hotel in New York. The King of Pop had instructed his handlers to contact his old peer and rival Prince for a planned collaboration. The prospect for such a headline-making union was indeed intriguing. For much of the ‘80s, Michael Joseph Jackson and Prince Rogers Nelson took turns ruling the musical landscape. MJ, the gifted Motown child prodigy who made good on his ambition to become the biggest pop star to ever walk the earth with the release of the record-breaking landmark Thriller. Prince, the at times outrageous, androgynous, one-man-band performer and producer who backed up his genius rep by pulling off one of the most unlikely coups in rock history after unleashing the multi-platinum 1984 Purple Rain soundtrack and Oscar-winning film. A rivalry was born.
But more than a decade later, both had found themselves in a battle to save their respective careers. MJ struggled mightily to fight unproven child molestation accusations as the tabloid brigade hounded him relentlessly. Prince declared war against his longtime label Warner Bros. and changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol as he headed deeper into obscurity. Indeed, a team-up between the two icons would be perceived as a brilliant masterstroke. “I think it would be just great,” MJ told Prince. Yet, the collaboration to end all collaborations would never happen. Both aging legends would achieve comebacks on their own terms. With the untimely June 25, 2009 death of Jackson, their connection grows even more profound. The fact that the public is still enamored with MJ and Prince speaks volumes for their cultural impact and influential contributions to music. But what did these two titans really think of one another? Was there a true rivalry or deep respect? VIBE presents the Oral History of a King and a Prince.—Keith Murphy
A KING AND A PRINCE (1970-1982)
AHMIR “QUESTLOVE” THOMPSON (Leader, producer and drummer for the Philadelphia hip-hop band The Roots): I have an actual theory on why we started connecting Michael and Prince together early on. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that both were born in the summer of 1958 in the Midwest and both basically represent different phases of the coming-of-age life of black youth. Michael captured the imagination of post-civil-rights America as a youth and he was their guiding light. And Prince captured the same post-civil rights America when they became teenagers and helped them mature into adulthood.
ALAN LEEDS (Former tour manager for Prince and James Brown; Co-editor of the book The James Brown Reader): I remember seeing Michael’s first big tour with the Jackson 5 in 1970. When I was out with James Brown we crossed paths in Dayton, Ohio. They were playing the O’Hare Arena in Dayton the night before we were scheduled to perform. Onstage he had a charismatic presence that very few people had. I remember we were staying at the same hotel. And before the gig, I happened to be in the hotel lobby when the J5 left to go to sound check. I saw them come through with their security; screaming kids were outside the hotel and I recall seeing Michael and he looked like a little pimp [laughs]. He had that confident walk and he was only 10 years old! He totally understood, “Hey, I’m the star. I’m the reason these kids are out here.”
CYNTHIA HORNER (Former editor of Right On! Magazine from 1976-2005; Currently writes and edits for Hip-Hop Weekly): I met Michael back in 1976 and he was one of the shyest people that I’ve ever dealt with. It was a little difficult to interview him because even though as a professional entertainer he realized he needed the press, he wasn’t somebody that knew how to relate to the media in terms of being open with information. He was just super shy unless he was around his family. But he picked up the fact I was shy as well, so he kind of embraced me and we became friends. He and Prince were quite similar because Prince was shy as well. If you were a journalist he would give you the same monosyllabic answers that Michael did. But Prince would also speak in riddles a lot of the time; he was very evasive. He would never answer any of my questions [laughs]. He wanted to keep his privacy protected at all cost.
BRUCE SWEDIEN (Michael Jackson’s studio engineer for Off The Wall, Thriller, Bad, and Dangerous): It was very obvious to both me and Quincy [Jones] how great Michael was. He was somebody really special… the ultimate talent. We did a bunch of demos after listening to Rod Temperton’s music for Off The Wall. And Michael, in his typical fashion, went home, stayed up all night, and memorized the lyrics and we recorded those demos without a piece of paper in front of him. You tell me one other singer that could do that.
CYNTHIA HORNER: The first time I encountered Prince was in 1978. He kept calling me over and over again and I really wasn’t returning his phone calls because I didn’t know who he was and I really didn’t care. But he called me so much that I just wanted to get rid of him, so I agreed to meet with him down the street from my office, which was in Hollywood near the recording studio he was at. He wanted me to go to the studio to see a jam session. But what I didn’t realize at the time was that the jam session consisted of just one person: Prince! He played all of these different instruments. Prince was trying to prove to me that he was worthy of coverage and that he was more talented than probably a majority of the people who was appearing in [Right On!]. At that moment, Prince let me know that he was a songwriter that could produce, sing, and play all these different instruments. This was an once-in-a-lifetime talent. Once I saw that, I agreed to interview him.
ALAN LEEDS: Michael wasn’t a musician in the classic sense. He approached his music differently from the way Prince did although Michael could write a great song as well. But Prince was arguably a musician first. I don’t think there’s any doubt that Prince saw Michael as a symbol of where he wanted to go in terms [of notoriety]. Michael was one of the few artists on the planet that Prince did respect in that sense. Once we realized that he was in the process of writing what was the original idea for the film Purple Rain as he was scribbling in notebooks during his 1982 tour for 1999, we knew he wanted more. The word was beginning to spread: “Hey, Prince really thinks he’s writing a movie.” I don’t think any of us took it that seriously because it didn’t make sense that somebody who at that point only had a few pop hits was going to be able to get the funding for a film. But it certainly revealed an ambition he had and to his credit Prince would go on to pull it off.
CYNTHIA HORNER: I would give Michael copies of the magazines and he would see certain people in the book and ask me lots of questions about the artists he was interested in. And that’s how he was introduced to Prince. After that, I started to let Michael listen to some of the Prince music I had and he was intrigued. At that point, I realized that there was somewhat of a rivalry developing. Michael had been in the business longer, so naturally he didn’t want to get replaced by the newcomer.