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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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DJ TIRA

After 20 Years In Music, DJ Tira Is Still Taking His Time

DJ Tira is running late. The early afternoon chill in Midtown Manhattan didn’t stop him from lingering outside for a few extra minutes. He opted for the train instead of a cab. There was no traffic; he just opted for an impromptu iPhone photo shoot in Times Square.

He stops to take a few more photos. This time, inside the building, with the view of the city behind him. He strikes a serious pose before his suave stance disrupted by a smile and a laugh. His eyes are wide and his smile is wider; there’s an excitement on his countenance that feels permanent.

It’s the end of 2019 and he’s a world away from South Africa, his home country, but New York is warming up to him; he performed in Brooklyn at his sold-out show, and stopped by Beats 1 Radio with Ebro Darden to play a mix showcasing some of South Africa's finest talent. He captioned a clip, “Time is Now South Africa! Asibangene!” which, in his native language, Zulu, means “let’s go in.”

 

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Its time to make dollars

A post shared by djtira (@djtira) on Nov 12, 2019 at 10:14am PST

The veteran DJ, record producer, and label owner is enjoying a 20-year anniversary in the music business, but feels he still has a long way to go. Despite his pioneer status, he finds himself at the threshold of a début, coming off the heels of his latest album release, Ikhenani. This is his first studio album in which he produced every track. After a long tenure in the industry, a collection of compilation projects, collaborative songs, features, and mixes, he finds himself in need of a reintroduction.

Born Mthokosizi Khathi in KwaHlabisa, KwaZulu-Natal, he moved to Durban in 1995 to study Human Resources. Instead, the move gave birth to another career entirely– music. Tira’s future was clear when he started djing at friends’ parties and campus events. He quickly became known on the local circuit, but his popularity was cemented in 1999 when he won the Smirnoff Club DJ competition. He’d win again the following year, and a prize trip to Ibiza secured his opportunity to go global early.

Together with DJ Sox he formed Durban’s Finest, the duo that would go on to change the face of Durban nightlife. Their performance formula was different; instead of simply playing at events, they would host them as well. Partygoers would fly in from Jo’burg, Cape Town and other cities and the duo’s high-end lifestyle would take off among young professionals in Durban and across South Africa.

Tira has found ways to maintain relevance through consistency and expansion. He forayed a DJ career into a full-scope entertainment career. He founded independent record label Afrotainment, where he’d introduce artists such as Big Nuz, DJ C'ndo, DJ Fisherman and Dladla Mshunqisi. He became a brand ambassador, aligning with brands like Distell, Rocka Headphones and Axe. He became a businessman, going on to own the Urban Zulu ‪Cigar Lounge‬ on the coveted Florida Road strip in Durban which he ended up selling to refocus on what got him going in the beginning: events. He became invested in promoting Durban as something of an entertainment hub for South Africa, and as a result, he has been a KwaZulu-Natal tourism ambassador, a symbol for his hometown.

He’s been a part of a slew of songs that mark the soundtrack of South African popular music’s booming success, like the 2018 “That’s For Me” with Vanessa Mdee featuring Distruction Boyz, “Pakisha” with Distruction Boyz and Dladla Mshunqisi, and the 2017 crossover tune “Midnight Starring” by DJ Maphorisa, featuring DJ Tira, Busiswa & Moonchild Sanelly.

His album’s single “Thank You Mr DJ” is doing well in South Africa, but now he’s vying for an American remix or feature. “I’m gonna try all genres, all styles,” he says.

“People do know me, but you just have to find that one special song that's gonna open all the doors,” he says. “I'm making my presence felt.”

The artist is already planning his next album, 21 Years of DJ Tira, in celebration of his storied career in the entertainment industry. But for him, tenure doesn’t translate to comfort; Tira is more interested in a challenge.

#21YearsOfDjTira Loading..... album and concerts

— Thank You Mr DJ (@DJTira) January 15, 2020

It took Tira two years to craft Ikhenani. At 43, Tira is less concerned with being left behind, and more invested in joining the wave as music across the country, and the world, evolves.

On Ikhenani, he bundles a bevy of genres that you would never expect to find in an album by one artist— there’s afrohouse, amapiano, hip-hop, maskandi, gospel, and gqom. Though Tira has been at the forefront of South Africa's house scene for some time. The album sounds predominantly gqom, but moreso, Tira’s interpretation of gqom— he expands it, adding more jazzed up vocals and subtle experimentation. “I try to move with the times, be aware of what’s happening in my community,” he told Apple Music in an album liner interview.

Gqom has already gone global, but DJ Tira was one of its prominent supporters of the sound from the townships of Durban, South Africa that swept the world.

Distruction Boyz are credited with helping push gqom to popularity. Tira even makes a cameo in the music video for their hit “Omunye,” showing his role in advocating for the collision and collaboration of the older generation with the new.

As an elder statesman in South Africa’s music scene, he’s already gained legendary status back home. Now, he’s aiming to become a member of the collective of artists bringing gqom and South African dance music into more American listeners.

Gqom itself means “bang” or “drum” – pronounced with a Zulu tongue click at the beginning and a hushed “om” end. The gqom sound is undeniable and inescapable. Its stripped-down rhythms fuse the traditional with the modern; Zulu chants atop high-octane, looming, broken beats and sinister synths. It’s repetitive and hallowed, not empty but full of the unknown in an entrancing way.

Before gqom, there was kwaito— the sound that sprung from Johannesburg, South Africa in the late 1980s. It’s a distinctive variant of house music, hip-hop, dancehall, and South African sounds. Kwaito is an Isicamtho term from SA’s Gauteng townships that originated from the Afrikaans word kwaai, which is slang for hot. The word from the language of the oppressors was reclaimed and redefined by black youth, and kwaito became instrumental in leading post-Apartheid township subculture into South Africa’s mainstream.

During apartheid, musicians faced significant censorship and blockades; black artists were denied access to stages and employment in the arts, while artists critical of apartheid were threatened and reprimanded by the government. South African artists were stunted.

There was a generation of South Africans who pulled from that place of disenfranchisement and plight pre and post-apartheid and created something new to claim. The South African teens of the early 2010’s who extracted a new artform from another period of plight to create gqom did more of the same. This is where the elder statesman forges a connection; that feeling. Genres would emerge that helped mold the musical history of South Africa post-apartheid. Kwaito was one of them. Gqom continued in that legacy.

During the genre’s rise, artists would give their latest tracks to taxi drivers as a means of promotion. It became the literal sound of the South African streets. But gqom wasn’t widely accepted at first; it was too raw.

“Originally gqom wasn't the sound that you [could] play on radio,” Tira says. “It’s a sound that originates [from] what you would call the projects— made by the youngsters. They’ve got messed up equipment, they’re staying at the back of the bedroom at their house, but they make the sound that is so strange, that is wretched, that is hard, that is dark, but with the vocals, it comes alive.

Its origins resembled the reaction to hip-hop before it blew. City clubs didn’t welcome the poor youth-driven musical movement. Producers refused to mix and master gqom beats and radio didn’t play it out of fear that it’d burn their speakers. Though known primarily as a kwaito artist, as gqom gained popularity, Tira welcomed, embraced, and amplified it.

“We need to commercialize this,” he thought. To do so, he says, international collaboration is key.

While on the search for gqom collaborators, Pharrell was introduced to Black Coffee, the most popular South African DJ and producer. The Durban DJ with a jazz background is known for making and mixing house music and modern dance beats with more classical inflections. He took his signature “Afropolitian” style mainstream, becoming one of the world’s most recognized international DJs.

But Black Coffee doesn’t make gqom, so he turned to Tira for his Midas touch. In a video of that studio session posted to Coffee’s Instagram, Coffee mentions Tira’s involvement with the collaboration. It was DJ Tira who orchestrated the could-be-crossover hit that has yet to be released.

 

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Conversations with King @Pharrell

A post shared by Black Coffee (@realblackcoffee) on Apr 10, 2019 at 1:01pm PDT

Tira lifts his phone and plays the cut of an infectious unreleased song with Pharrell rapping over a gqom beat.

“When Pharell was in South Africa for Global Citizen [festival], he heard this sound. Because this sound is exclusive in South Africa. He heard this sound like, ‘Aye, what’s this sound?!’ He was speaking to Black Coffee. This is not Black Coffee’s style. So Black Coffee’s like, ‘Okay, who am I gonna call? Who that I know represents the sound?’ So he calls me.

‘Gimme a beat. I’m with Pharrell and he’s going crazy. He wants to do something.’ I send him a beat. Then, same day, jump in the studio, Pharrell lays the vocals.

“The fact that an artist like Pharrell went crazy on gqom and actually recorded on gqom, that means there's something special about the sound. If Sho Madjozi is well-received like this, with the ‘John Cena’ song, that means there’s something there with the sound but it’s just a matter of how do we present it and how do we push it? How do we make it bigger and how do we get more of the US market coming to the shows, not just Africa?”

To Tira, connecting and growing his audience online is a pivotal step in that direction; embracing social media now more than ever. He boasts 1.4 million followers on Facebook and 1.4 million on Twitter. On Instagram, his following sits at 1.5 million, just behind DJ Black Coffee who tops him on with an extra million followers.

Tira handles all of his accounts and enjoys it. He uses Twitter and Instagram often — unlike many artists that reach a certain caliber — helming his accounts without a handler, using the platforms as a means to communicate directly with his fans and to help them. He gives away something that people on the continent across generations and genres and townships need.

“You know what I do on Twitter?” he laughs, his wide eyes fixated on his phone screen. “I buy airtime.”

In South Africa, most people don't have phone contracts and data can be expensive.

So, Tira usually buys 2000 rands worth of airtime, divides it up, and redistributes it to people in need. “I say, ‘at three o’ clock, I’m handing out airtime for free.’ I post the airtime sticker with the numbers. Whoever punches the numbers quickly on the phone to enter the airtime gets the airtime. I call it umalume airtime,” he laughs. Umalume is Zulu for ‘uncle’ and umalume airtime has become the hashtag of his makeshift contest, and the hashtag ends up trending almost every time. Brands would see this as an effective social media marketing campaign that organically grows a following while keeping them engaged. Fans may see it as philanthropy. Tira himself just sees it as one of the pleasant parts of social media: connecting.

“Twitter’s crazy. I'm not too dramatic... I’ve got a friend called AKA,” he laughs, referring to the South African rapper who stirred controversy on Twitter last September over a debate on South African xenophobia towards Nigerians.

His thoughts on the situation: “It worked for him.”

With the advent of social media, Tira has seen the roles of DJs change dramatically for South Africa in ways that resemble how the landscape has changed in America.

“I'm from the school of vinyls,” he says. When he learned how to DJ and when he won his first competition back in 1999, he worked with vinyls. But as things changed, he began working with Serato, laptops, and other more modern forms.

“It just became too much,” he says. Now, he sticks to two USBs. He prefers a Pioneer [CDJ] 2000 CD Player or 1000, just “nothing less than 850.” The bigger the number, the better, but Tira is a bit unconventional. “I hate the 2000— the biggest one with the mixer.”

“I think the most important thing is the right equipment,” he says. But adhering to the traditional skill-set required for using vinyl, he finds unnecessary.

“In South Africa, we no longer use vinyl,” he says. In recent years, South Africa experienced a vinyl revival, but as interest grew, factors like price became a deterrent for many collectors. There’s a lack of record pressing plants in Africa.

For DJs, it’s about access. “If you’ve got vinyl, that means you’re playing old music, classics,” Tira says. “New music is digital.”

The rise of the celebrity DJ and influencer DJs has sparked criticism for usurped opportunities and displacement of DJs by craft, and a larger conversation on the disruption and oversaturation of the market. Tira sees this happening in South Africa as well.

The industry has changed drastically since Tira first entered it. "It’s more about the likes. It’s not really about the music or the craft or the technique,” he says. “It’s more about how good you look in a flyer or how good you look when you’re up here. You need to represent. You need to come through and entertain. I think you get more props and you get more respect when you really [work].”

“There’s a lot of [people] that think, ‘press a button and be a DJ,’” he says.

As far as figures who come from different backgrounds and who bank more on a following and an image to jumpstart their DJ career and less on skills and talent, Tira says he hasn’t seen many DJs of that ilk grow to take the craft seriously. Tira acknowledges and amplifies the artists putting in the work.

“There's a female DJ that I know called DJ Zinhle, and she's from the school of vinyl as well.”

Zinhle rose to become one of the most prominent female DJs in South Africa and went on to counter the country’s male-dominated industry by launching FUSE DJing academy, empowering women and girls to pursue the craft. Her program birthed the careers of newer female DJ's like the popular Ms Cosmo.

But Tira notes how space in South Africa’s entertainment industry is still being given to those who don’t value DJing, and those who don’t fit the mold are gaining more access to insert themselves into it.

“What’s happening in South Africa is we're seeing a lot of beauty queens switching up to DJs because they've got a really dope following— when you want numbers and you want a person who’s gonna advertise for you, I guess people gotta do what they gotta do to get paid… It's their hustle and we shouldn't hate on them. We should just keep on doing our thing. It’s survival of the fittest.”

With new eyes and ears on African art and music, engaging US audiences has become a goal for acts across the continent. But much of the attention is aimed at Nigerian and Ghanian artists in particular.

“I think they've worked hard to make their presence felt in the US. They've managed to find the right sound— which is afrobeats —and it’s been well-received.”

South Africa, on the other hand, has been tasked with the double-duty of standing out and fitting in.

But Tira doesn’t feel pressure; he feels a responsibility. He tries to keep his ears to the streets and clubs of South Africa while trying to break into the US. He understands how his home market and audience demands are changing and how that differs from what the US audience is catching up to. It’s become something of a crossover balancing act.

“South Africa has got a lot of potential,” he says, "but it's been very hard to crack into the US market. There are people that are managing to find their foot here in the US— Black Coffee, Nasty Cl, and you see Sho Madjozi making her presence felt in the US,” he says on the popular gqom artist. “Funny enough, she’s coming in with a sound that is currently less appreciated at home because there’s a new genre— amapiano is actually dominating South Africa right now.”

Amapiano is a genre generated from Gauteng, South Africa around 2016. It blends elements of electronic dance music, low-tempo 90's South African house rhythms, jazz, kwaito basslines, and signature high pitched piano melodies. “But I’m a full-time member of gqom,” Tira affirms. “I still believe that gqom has a longer lifespan.”

But in order for gqom to retain and grow its appeal, he believes South African artists must continue reinventing it. “The bigger goal is to export our music and make it accepted here, which will open the world to us,” he says. “We are on our way. It’s just a matter of time.”

While he values new, international audiences, he never wants to neglect his home base. “I want to be remembered as a DJ from South Africa who managed to open doors for more South African artists to be heard in the US,” he says. “I represent South Africa.”

He rises from his seat and stares through the floor to ceiling window at a bustling Times Square.

“Moving to the US isn’t part of the plan right now,” he says grinning and gazing up. “I don’t wanna aim too high,” sunlight beams back at him, “not that I’m scared of heights.”

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Premiere: Bantu And Dr. Chaii Link With DaniLeigh For "Stretch"

Zimbabwean creative Bantu plays to win so it's no surprise he connected with frequent collaborator Dr. Chaii and the multitalented DaniLeigh for his new single, "Stretch."

In what he calls "a blend of afro and hip-hop," the track plays to everyone's strengths while giving fans another song to add to their turn-up playlist. "Stretch" is a follow up to a string of singles Bantu has released since 2019. His previous drops “DiCaprio” and “Gucci Cranberry” also feature Dr. Chaii.

There's a glowing joy in Bantu when he talks about the track and just how quickly it all came together. "This is a fun club song that we made and felt would be perfect for our friend, DaniLeigh to jump on. We sent it to her and she sent her verse back in less than 48 hours," he tells VIBE. "Soon as we heard it all together we knew we had one!  It's a perfect blend of afro and hip-hop. We had to make a video that matched the song so we set out to make a futuristic visual that had dancers, crazy lighting and cars. Came out even better than we expected.”

Bantu stepped on the scene in 2016 with "Holiday" and a year later, released his first EP Africa for the Summer. With an electric feel mashed into his unique style, Bantu was able to work with the likes of Jason Derulo and French Montana.

He's also featured alongside Nicki Minaj and Latinx super star Anuel AA for the track “Familia." Featured in the Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, the song has racked up over 74 million streams on Spotify.

Check out the video for "Stretch" below.

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Grafh Enlists Conway The Machine For "Pray" Music Video, From 'Oracle III' Mixtape

Grafh is one of the best New York City street rappers of his era, with his unorthodox flow and his ominous tales. So for his new song, he called on one of New York's new talents:Conway The Machine.

The video for "Pray" showcases Grafh and Conway in the ornate environment of a church, dropping the bars that make each of them so respected.

“With 'Pray,' I am back with what resonates with me as an artist: that gutter New York City rap. I wanted someone on this track that accentuates my ideology and Conway is that dude,” Grafh told VIBE. “ I respect Conway immensely and the Griselda movement. Him and I together on a track is church. Over here, bars still matter!”

"Pray" appears on Oracle III, the third installment of his fan favorite 2004 mixtape with DJ Green Lantern. The project includes appearances by Benny The Butcher, Conway The Machine, Bun B, Hopsin, Rittz and KXNG Crooked, with production from Pete Rock, DJ Green Lantern, Harry Fraud & DJ Shay. It's scheduled for a March 6, 2020 release.

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