Michael Jackson Vs. Prince: An Oral History

What did these two titans really think of one another?

“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.

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New Music: Jermaine Dupri, Ne-Yo, Johntá Austin & Bryan Michael Cox Spur 'Change' For The Black Community With Soul Music's Finest Voices

Knowing that this 2020 presidential election, between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, is the most important one of our lifetime is an understatement. We've endured such a tumultuous year, filled with tragic passings of notable celebrities, black lives publicly taken by authorities that took oaths to protect and serve, a pandemic with an ongoing quarantine status that continues to plague society and an economy that has tumbled to bury the empolyment market of everyday citizens. It's a lot to bare. Yet, like so many times before in the journey of black folks, music and its soothing nature of calming the storms we endure and the togetherness of song, our musical maestros are here to give us hope for better days ahead.

Super producers Jermaine Dupri, Ne-Yo, Johnta Austin and Bryan Michael Cox have spearheaded the sonic healings with a new single titled "Change" which is currently on Dupri's So So Def record label. Not only has this creative collective come together for the charitable organization, Social Change Fund (created by NBA stars Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul and Dwyane Wade), they have gathered an incredible crew of singers from across music genres to spread the message of change in our black communities. Artists like, PJ Morton, Common, Gary Clark Jr., Wanya Morris of Boys II Men, Smokie Norful, Eric Bellinger, the young voice of viral sensation Keedron Bryant, singer/actor Rotimi, and even Kirk Franklin lends his talents, among others.

“We created the song to call attention to these long-standing issues,” stated Dupri. “Members of the global community are now awakened to issues affecting BIPOC. The global pandemic forced us all to reevaluate everything from our health to police brutality and systemic racism. We are now witnessing a paradigm shift that creates an opportunity for real impactful change. ‘Change’ only resonates the need for topics that should have always been prioritized.”

While recently featured on a pro-Biden/Harris 'I Will Vote Concert,' the visuals for "Change" was introduced by Whoopi Goldberg to those watching the stream of the event. “This song is about inspiration, motivation and determination. The current and next generation need to know someone is rooting for them, someone believes in them. This song is that reminder,” says legendary songwriter Ne-Yo.

Jermaine Dupri would like to thank everyone who donated their time and talents to this project, including So So Def Recordings, Straight Up Entertainment Group, W&W Public Relations, Inc., Symphonic (who are flowing through 100% of all royalties to the Social Change Fund) and the artists who so graciously gave their gift of song to this project.

 

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(L-R) Flex Alexander and Shanice attend the Soul Train Weekend Kick-Off Party on November 5, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
(Photo by Earl Gibson/BET/Getty Images for BET

Interview: Flex and Shanice Talk 'Virtual House Party,' Staying Together And That Call From Aretha Franklin

Shanice and Flex Alexander are ‘90s Black pop culture in the form of husband and wife. Shanice was an R&B ingenue with a hypnotic smile and powerful voice beyond her years when her sophomore album Inner Child propelled her to pop status thanks to the 1991 hit “I Love Your Smile.” Flex was a background dancer for acts like Sal-N-Pepa, before becoming a comedic actor and a mainstay on our TV sets during the golden era of Black TV in the ‘90s through early ‘00s.

After years of pulling in approximately $25K per week (according to Alexander) and not knowing how to properly manage the income, the couple lost their home, liquidated their assets, and filed for bankruptcy in 2010. They chronicled part of their journey with their reality show Flex and Shanice on OWN from 2014 to 2016 and are now positioning themselves for their respective next career chapters.

A big part of Flex’s next chapter was announced in July, when Netflix revealed they were bringing a slate of UPN shows from the early ‘00s arriving to the app this Fall. The line up includes Girlfriends, on which Flex originated the role of Darnell Wilkes; and One on One, which features Alexander as a single dad to teenage Kyla Pratt (and also features Shanice singing the theme song). Following the eagerly met premieres of classics Moesha, Girlfriends, and The Parkers, One on One and Half & Half (Essence Atkins and Rachel True) premiered on Thursday on the video streaming platform.

The couple, who celebrated their 20th anniversary this year, talked to VIBE recently about adjusting during the COVID-19 pandemic, growth as a married couple, and that time Aretha Franklin asked her to play a role in the upcoming Respect biopic.

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VIBE: How have you all been doing with everything that's going on?

Shanice: We're hanging in there. (Flex) doesn't like it when I say, "We're hanging in there."

Flex: We are doing exceptionally well. We are alive, we are healthy. Just dealing with it like everybody else, taking it one day at a time because you can't really plan too far ahead.

Did you ever think that we would be going through something like this?

Shanice: No, never. Flex said he kind of...Didn't you say over the years you thought...No. You said you read a lot of books and stuff.

Flex: Yeah. I do a lot of reading and stuff from my college days. Just stuff that talk about this stuff that's going on I like to get into. Everybody thinks it's conspiracy or whatever, but I just didn't think it would be in my lifetime. It is an adjustment for everyone. Like she said, we try to find the positive in it. We sit at the table, we eat dinner at the table, we can sit down. I say, "Baby, do you want to watch a movie?" We sit there and just hang out. Before, we were just crossing [paths where] everybody's hustling and grinding, hustling.

With the senseless police killings, racism seems to be at an all-time high. What type of conversations are you guys now having with (teenage children) Elijah and Imani now that they're older and this could happen to them or any other young adult? What are you telling them?

Flex: This is something I know I've been talking to Elijah about not just since this. When he was younger, just explaining him as a young Black kid, being a Black teenager turning into a young Black man, just the crosshairs that's on their back. You talk to them about if you're pulled over what to do, what not to do. We don't like to let him ride. He has friends that have cars and I'm like, "No, four or five of you all in the car? No. That's an open invitation." It hurts us because their regular daily livelihood has just changed. They would just walk down the street to the store. Now, we're like, "No."

Shanice: He [Elijah] has one friend that we allow him to be around. One of them wanted to play basketball and wanted me to drop them off at the park and I said no. There was a noose in our area.

Flex: Less than a mile from our house.

Shanice: Less than a mile from our house, there was a noose at the park. I sat in the car and I just watched him play. Normally, I would just drop him off and come back and pick him up, but I don't feel safe anymore.

Flex: And we have to have the conversation with Imani as well because it's not just relegated to just men and boys, women, too. We get ahead of the conversation, but they are very keen. Listen, information is traveling fast. They got these phones, they see stuff as well. A lot of the time, they tell us stuff and we're like, "What?" We just try to instill in them the best that we can and just pray over them.

 

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Throwback photo of @flexaforeal and I ♥️ We look like kids Flex lol

A post shared by shanice (@shaniceonline) on Sep 21, 2020 at 7:22pm PDT

Shanice, nobody sounds like you. You were a young pop icon, not just as an R&B artist, but also in pop - and paved the way (for other young crossover singers). How does that feel today?

I just feel blessed to have longevity in this industry. I've had my ups and downs. You know how crazy this industry is and sometimes you get frustrated and it's like, "Why am I doing this? I want out. I don't want to do this anymore." But then, when I get online and I talk to the fans directly on Instagram and Facebook and Twitter, it keeps me going. I get emotional because I've had some great moments in the industry, but then I've had some very low moments and it gets frustrating sometimes. I love music. I love singing. It's in my blood. I've been singing since I was seven months. I do it because I love to sing and I love my fans. I have the best supporters out there.

You both are such a likable couple and people gravitate to you from all walks of life, from all nationalities. What is it about you two that they can identify with Flex and Shanice?

Flex: Just being us.

Shanice: I think we're just being ourselves.

Flex: We're just being ourselves. I'm on here deejaying on Instagram and she's here dropping it like it's hot. (Shanice laughs) That's what she does. We just try to be ourselves and we show a little bit of that doing the reality show and sharing what we went through because we wanted people to know what we went through and that you can come out of it. We just don't, I'm going to say a real old school word, we don't put on airs-

Shanice: Airs. (Laughs) That is real old school.

Flex: ... for anyone. We're in here every day. I want to throw it back to her real quick. I see the pain and stuff that she goes through the ups and downs and disappointments. Even through all this, you're still like, "Man, is it a place you want to reach?" She feels like, "I didn't get there." I said, "Listen, you've had more success than a lot of people and it may not have been here, but people love you." Whether they like to hear it or not, she's paved the way. There's no dig against anybody because a lot of them have said it. You paved the way for the Monicas, the Brandys. Beyonce even spoke to her and told her Solange sang your song (“I Love Your Smile”) at a talent show. I try to tell her just, "Hold on to that and just keep doing what you're doing," because you see where everything is going in the business, in the industry. And to have a good name and people that love you, I think, is a great thing. That brings longevity.

You guys have been staying creative. I see you’ve been doing virtual house parties. Who came up with that concept?

Flex: It came from me starting deejaying back in 2016. I was doing it once a week. Every Thursday I was doing, and she would be in the bed. When we got here, I started doing it again. It was right at the beginning of the pandemic. I just jumped on, and then she came over and then just started—

Shanice: I was like, I said, "Let me be your hype girl." (Laughs)

Flex: It worked. It's at a point now where if I get on it by myself, people are like, "Where's Shanice?"

Shanice: I like to drop it like it's hot. (Laughs) It’s fun.

Flex: It helps our mind because we didn't know what ...I'm talking about when it was like March when it was cold and rainy out there and all of this gloom and doom...we didn't know what was happening. The people that came in and people that were on our page, people said, "Yo, this helped me so much get through the night or helped me get through the week. Man, that meant more than anything." I didn't care if there were 10 people on there or 10 thousand. We just go on there. We shout everybody out.

 

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Thank you EVERYONE for rocking last night!!! We appreciate your undying support, to our day one #LockdownwithFlex family you already know!!! And my fellow New York brother @lilcease thanks for hanging last night we hope you enjoyed the trip down memory lane✊🏾✊🏾

A post shared by flexaforeal (@flexaforeal) on Jul 24, 2020 at 11:39am PDT

Flex, you’ve written and produced your own TV show, you’re a comedian....Are you working on any other current TV projects? Will we see you on a screen again soon?

Flex: Before I mention that, I'm excited about Netflix releasing One on One. It was through the Strong Black Lead who really pushed for us to be in more places and to have another life. This is crazy because two years ago, I wrote the reboot. I had it ready to go, and then that happened and I'm like, "Man, This is perfect."

Shanice: It's perfect timing.

Flex: This could lead right to it. I'm thankful for that. I just wanted to throw that out there. We have an animated series that we're working on now. We just got a showrunner attached and we're working on that. I have a drama that I've developed right before the COVID hit. We also worked with a Black-owned company called Ceek, where we do the Flex and Shanice Virtual House Party. They have great programs and they do live concerts. They've had Elton John, they've had Lady Gaga.

Shanice: Jennifer Lopez.

Flex: They have DL Hughley on there with Chris Spencer, [and] we're on there now. What they're trying to do is create this virtual experience [where] I come in, I deejay, [you] put your (VR headset) on and you're in the party. It’s great to partner with them and just continue to stay active and creative. It just keeps you going.

Shanice: And I've been doing live concerts in my living room.

Flex: Yeah. It's crazy because we've worked a lot.

Shanice: We've been doing so much in this living room. (Laughs) Like Flex said, we were working before the pandemic, we're working our butts off more now.

Tell us how you balance being in the entertainment business, being stars, having a family and being married. You're probably going to tell me love, but there has to be something else besides love that has kept you together. What do you think it is?

Flex: Honestly, praying is the first.

Shanice: Praying. Yes.

Flex: And communication. We can agree to be disagreeable.

Shanice: We've had our ups and downs. It's not like it's been all great, but we do love each other and we don't go to bed angry. We're mad at each other and we try to talk it out, and I just feel like you’ve got to try to make it exciting and you can't get too comfortable. People, after a while, they get bored in their relationship.

Flex: There are times that she ain't checking for me; she doesn't like me right now, so I'll come downstairs and she'll be up here. There's time's out like that. We go to different parts of the house and we figure it out.

Shanice: And we try to give each other a little space to breathe. We may come back to the situation and talk about it.

Flex: Every day you figure it out, you grow. I think I'm understanding who I am more now at 50 than I did at 30 or 35. I just love being here, being with my family, us having fun together, the kids. It's a beautiful thing, man. It's a beautiful thing.

Flex, what’s one thing that Shanice has taught you about being married? What have you learned from her?

Flex: Growth. I would say growth because if there's anybody that I've seen grow is her. If there's anybody I've seen with perseverance, it’s her. Her patience, her kindness, her. It has really taught me to listen more because as the man you're like, "I got it." She says, "Something ain't right," and I'm like, "I got it." Learning how to cut that off in my brain and go, "You know what? I need to listen. I need to listen to her. I need to hear her." I think that was probably one of my biggest hurdles is not that I didn't listen, but listen and go out, really listen and apply it. I've just seen so much from her in 20 years that I'm just like, "Wow, man. We've got 100 more to go." I just want to grow some more, and we’ve got more fun to have and love to have. We're done with the babies, though.

Shanice: Right. No more babies.

Flex: We're done with the babies.

Shanice: No more babies.

Flex: No more babies.

Shanice, what one thing Flex has taught you, or that you’ve learned by being married and connected to him for so long?

Shanice: I've learned that people over the years grow and they change, and sometimes you have to learn how to go with the change. I've learned to try to adjust to the change because we're not the same people we were 20 years ago.

Flex: Not in a bad way, though.

Shanice: Not in a bad way.

Shanice, you’re an international pop star. You started in pop and then crossed back to R&B, and can travel the world with just “I Love Your Smile.” That's big in itself, but can you share some of your greatest accomplishments? 

I think when I got nominated for a Grammy, that was like a big highlight for me because when I was a little kid I used to always look in the mirror and I used to practice my speech. I used to always dream about getting awards. I have several moments: the Grammys, (Aretha) Franklin, rest in peace—when she turned 50 the Queen of Soul reached out to me and flew me and my band and my dancers down to her house. I did a whole concert in her living room with a band and dancers and everything. That was so big for me.

Meeting Michael Jackson, singing on three of his records. I sang in the background for like three songs, and that was big for me. Just being able to travel all over the world. “I Love Your Smile” was No. 1 in..I believe it was 22 countries. I've traveled all over the world and I'm still traveling the world because of that song. “Saving Forever For You” was a big record for me as well with Diane Warren and David Foster. That went to No. 5. It didn't go No. 1, but it was almost number one. That was another big pop record for me. So you're right. I came out pop and then I crossed over to R&B.

I’ve got another Aretha story. I have to say this. I was having one of my moments when I was frustrated about the industry. I was home and I was crying and I said, "God, I don't want to do this anymore." I was feeling really low. I was like, "I'm done. I don't want to do this." And then, Flex came home and he was like, "Somebody reached out to me.” I think it was Aretha’s sister-in-law saw Flex and said Aretha wants to get in touch with Shanice. Here’s her cell number. So Flex comes home and says, "Miss Franklin wants to get in touch with you. This is her cell number." I'm like, "Me? Really?" I called her and we talked for like probably an hour. We talked for a long time, and she said, "I reached out to you because I want to tell you I know real talent when I hear it, and you got it." This is when I was feeling down. This was nothing but God telling me keep going.

So she said, "We had auditions. I'm doing a movie about my life, my life story." And she said, "Most likely Jennifer Hudson is going to play me, but I would love you to play my sister." I’m sitting on the phone like, "Yeah!" They'd been talking about this movie forever. Even when she was alive they were talking about the movie, and I said, "Anything you need. I would love to be a part [of it]." We talked several times over the years about the movie. Unfortunately, she passed. I think God wanted just to encourage me to keep going. I think that's why that happened. It was just to tell me to keep going. I just had to share that story.

Flex, what would you say to the younger Flex as he’s just starting out in the entertainment industry?

Take everything in more. Enjoy it. Don't fly through it so fast. Tell the people you love that you love them while you have them. I would have learned more about the business on the financial side to plan better. Those would probably be the things I would say, but I think overall, it would be to take it all in, sit back and take it in more. I think things happen so fast and it's like, I'm here, I'm there, I'm dancing, Salt-N-Pepa here, boom, traveling the world. And then, you think it's all going to keep going. You think it's all going to just last forever. And then, next thing you know, you look back and the time has passed and all you have is maybe a picture. I think that would be the thing I would tell myself.

Shanice, what would you tell up and coming talent that is trying to break into the entertainment business?

Shanice: I would tell them to definitely do it not for the money, do it for the love. The money and all that stuff will come. Believe in yourself. Back when I started, you had to get the approval of a huge record exec to put you out there. And now, because of the internet, you don't have to wait on somebody to tell you if you're good or not. You can put out your music on iTunes and get out there and create an audience online. I would say just don't give up on yourself, keep trying. It may not happen overnight. It might. There are people like Justin Bieber. He got on YouTube and he's one of the biggest stars in the world. Everybody's story is different, but you just have to keep trying and keep believing in yourself.

Flex: Yes.

Shanice: Just don't give up. You’ve got to keep going. Even when it seems like it's impossible, you just gotta keep going.

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2020 BET Hip Hop Awards: Watch Performances From City Girls, Big Sean, 2 Chainz And More

City Girls, Big Sean, Jhené Aiko, Brandy, 2 Chainz, and more made the 2020 BET Hip-Hop Awards a night to remember. Hosted by DC Young Fly, Karlous Miller and Chico Bean of 85 South, the socially-distanced event went down on Tuesday (Oct. 27).

Doubling as a sounding board for socially conscious commentary and voting engagement, the show featured several references to Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and other victims of police brutality. The night included a statement from vice presidential hopeful and Howard University alum, Kamala Harris, in celebration of HBCU’s.

Although there were more performances than awards given out during the ceremony, the show was full of surprises. Master P received the I Am Hip Hop Award presented to him by former No Limit artist, Snoop Dogg. Rapsody won her first award ever for Best Hip-Hop Lyricist, Pop Smoke was posthumously awarded the Best New Artist trophy, and Lil Baby accepted the Impact Track honor for, “The Bigger Picture.”

YBN Cordae paid homage to Juice Wrld, and Quavo performed a tribute medley to Pop Smoke. The award show also honored other late rappers, including Fred Da Godson.

Watch some of the performances and cyphers below.

City Girls Perform “Kitty Talk” & “Jobs” Big Sean, Jhené AIko and Ty Dolla Sign Perform “Body Language” Brandy, Erykah Badu, Teyana Taylor & H.E.R. Perform Ladies First Cypher Beenie Man, Bounty Killa, Skip Marley & More Participate In Reggae Cypher Tobe Nwigwe Performs “Try Jesus, Don’t Try Me” 2 Chainz & Lil Wayne Perform “Money Maker”
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