Can the estate of the late prolific and mercurial music giant live up to His Royal Badness’ towering legacy? Susan Rogers, Prince’s legendary ‘80s studio engineer, says yes, with a few surprises.
As a practicing Jehovah’s Witness, Prince Rogers Nelson—a man who boldly declared that not even the threat of nuclear war could stop the damn party—did not celebrate his birthday. It’s just one of the many paradoxes associated with the late Minneapolis-born music icon, who shockingly died on April 21, 2016. Throughout his genre-smashing, gender-blurring career, the Oscar and multiple-Grammy winning singer/composer/producer/musician/bandleader was notorious for living a straight edge lifestyle—a somewhat ridiculous curve pitch for a guitar-wielding rock (pop, R&B, funk) star that literally gave birth to the ‘Parental Advisory’ album sticker in the 1980’s. So when Prince succumbed to a drug overdose from pain medication after years of battling chronic hip pain, it was tragically surreal. Fans had no idea that the otherworldly talent, who sold over 100 million albums worldwide, was human after all.
And yet, The Artist’s uncompromising legacy endures. Following some public stumbles and cringeworthy legal battles, The Prince Estate is poised to finally deliver. There was universal praise for the April debut of the purple visionary’s unreleased version (and stellar video) of one of his most beloved songwriting triumphs, “Nothing Compares 2,” the mammoth tearjerker that transformed Sinead O’Connor into a household name. And The Prince Estate faithful gave high marks to the fan-sourced site Prince2me as well as his estate. which offers a dizzying, annotated breakdown of the singer’s rich musical catalog.
VIBE caught up with Berklee College of Music professor Susan Rogers, the famed studio engineer, who worked on some of Prince’s most acclaimed ‘80s productions including Purple Rain, Parade, and Sign o’ the Times. She lets fans know what they should expect from two recently announced albums of unreleased material. One set due out September 28th, and the other set for a 2019 release, which will debut on JAY-Z’s Tidal streaming service. Today, on what would have been Prince’s 60th birthday, there’s a lot of ground to cover, including what the man would be up to if he were alive today; the one time he wore jeans; how he differed from the King of Pop Michael Jackson; and why many consider him to be the ultimate musical visionary.
VIBE: June 7th marks Prince’s 60th birthday. What do you think he would be doing at this very moment if he were alive?
Susan Rogers: I think there are two ways to consider that answer. First, what would Prince be doing artistically? The other possibility is what he would be doing if hadn’t suffered so badly with his hip pain. It’s terrible to think that this person that we loved suffered so much. Let’s go ahead and assume he would have gotten the help that he needed in order to medically correct his condition so that he didn’t have to live with pain medication. I’d like to think if he were happy and healthy at the age of 60, he would be exploring his musicality a little bit deeper.
Right. Prince used to say funny things when we were rehearsing like being envious of the Revolution’s Matt Fink and his piano abilities or Lisa [Coleman’s] musical training. I believe he would have studied jazz piano more deeply. I remember one time we were all talking about what we would be if we weren’t in the music business and Prince said he would have been a music teacher. He liked working with young people; he liked the innocence. I could see him mentoring as he did with younger artists, advising them and helping them to have a life in the arts.
Spotify’s Troy Carter is now overseeing Prince’s estate, including previously unreleased material set for this coming fall. There are rumors that the music will be largely from his ‘80s run. Given that you were Prince’s studio engineer during those prime years, what, in your estimation, are the unreleased recordings from that period that fans should be on the look out for?
I have to say that I would have answered that question differently two years ago. What has happened in the interim is I have learned that so many bootleg cassettes were released; so many things sneaked through Prince’s organization back in the ‘80s that there are many songs in the vault that the hardcore fans have already heard. But what I would love to see get remixed, mastered, polished up and released in a good form? I loved songs like “Splash,” “Sexual Suicide,” “Witness For The Prosecution,” and “Train.” I loved the original Crystal Ball album…there were just so much music. Prince was always prolific. He was always on fire. He would do really nice musical pieces with lyrics that weren’t his main message. They would be like fun stuff that would come out of Prince like a sneeze. These are songs that Prince didn’t spend a lot of time recording. He didn’t seem to think they were a big deal. Two perfect examples are “Nothing Compares 2 U” and “Kiss.”
It’s funny that you mentioned “Nothing Compares 2 U.” When The Prince Estate dropped his unreleased version of what would later become Sinead O’Connor’s biggest hit, even the most dedicated of Prince fans were utterly surprised. Were you shocked that it finally saw the light of day?
Oh, I was delighted that it saw the light of day! I can’t say I was surprised because I knew it was coming; I was in the loop. But Prince’s version of “Nothing Compares 2 U” is just a gem. I’m just so glad that Michael Howe (legendary Warner Bros. music executive) and the folks who are working on restoring his material made that a priority. Prince, like most artists, didn’t have a completely accurate portrait of how his body of work was viewed by consumers. What a chef likes to eat is going to be different than what the diners like to consume. I don’t think Prince would have given away “Nothing Compares 2 U” if he’d known it was going to be one of his biggest selling songs of all time [laughs]. This is why as a Prince fan, I would argue in favor of releasing it all. I want the historical record to reveal just how great he was.
“I do remember before Purple Rain, around the summer ’83 when I joined him, he came to rehearsals one day in jeans and a jean jacket. And he was wearing athletic shoes!”
Since discovering the poor shape of some of the recorded material in Prince’s storied vault, the estate has made it its mission to refurbish those old analog tapes. What specifically are some of the things that Prince’s estate is doing to improve the quality of his celebrated output?
Folks like Troy Carter, Warner Bros. and Iron Mountain, which is an archival and restoration company, are making a conserted, thoughtful effort to release this material before the tapes are irretrievably degraded. Much to my delight, as soon as Michael Howe from Warner Bros. was put in charge, he reached out to me. He’s one of the finest record executives I’ve ever worked with. He was concerned with reaching out to and consulting with the people who were involved in the making of these recordings. But he was smarter than that.
Michael didn’t just reach out to me and people like David Z and Lisa & Wendy. He also reached out to the inner circle of Prince’s fan base. And he reached out to hardcore collectors and found someone in particular. I don’t know if I’m at liberty to name him, but he found someone who is a Prince expert as far as collecting Prince’s musical work. He isn’t a bootlegger…someone who profited off of the music. This is someone who collected Prince tapes for the love of the music. That person has been brought into the loop as a consultant on these projects, and it’s such a smart move.
Has The Prince Estate asked for your help in re-mastering any of the classic ‘80s albums set for future re-release?
I was asked during the early round of talks that included the Purple Rain deluxe reissue. They asked me if I would consider coming in to remix some stuff. I said yes, but with some trepidation. I have a full-time job as a professor. I haven’t worked in the studio since 2000. That work is better suited for people who are currently mixing today. Thankfully, I did not end up doing any mixing.
Some fans had serious issues with the way the mixing came off on the Purple Rain reissue. Were you happy with the re-release?
It’s so easy to complain, isn’t it [laughs]. The folks who are considering this work need to look at the practical hurdles that you have to face to get this music out. First of all, there’s the managerial and the organizational tasks. There’s the number of recordings that Prince left behind, including his video recordings and rehearsals. It’s all astronomical. Prince recorded all the time, every day of his life. So there’s a Mount Everest of work. There’s also the matter of who owns the right to release this music. If we do put it out, who gets the money? These tapes are 30-35 years old. That’s past the expiration date when it comes to analog tape. You have to not only please the Prince fans, but there are the Prince scholars and the music critics. There’s Prince’s inner circle and the musicians he played with. Then there’s the most important question: What would Prince have wanted? And we don’t know the answer to that.
Prince was far ahead of his male peers in the music business in terms of working with women in positions not traditionally open to them, decades before the #MeToo movement. Looking back, how surprising was it that he championed female studio engineers and musicians when it wasn’t the norm back then?
It was a delightful surprise. I was in my 20s when I started working with Prince. Wendy, Lisa, Sheila E, Jill Jones, and Susannah [Melvoin] (Wendy’s sister, frequent background vocalist and member of the Prince-produced group The Family) were around that age as well. Being older now, I can see it as extraordinary, but when you are young and you are trying to break down barriers as a woman, at the time it made perfect sense. When you encounter a person like Prince, who doesn’t put up any barriers, you see him working with women in non-traditional roles as normal. I was grateful then and even more grateful now just how smart he was. He knew that looking for people that normally wouldn’t get a shot was the right thing to do. Prince liked outliers a lot.
How manic was Prince in the studio?
He wasn’t so much manic because that implies being frantic. Prince was persistent, relentless and tireless. It’s one thing to do a 24-hour recording session. It happens in this business and people kind of wear it like a scout’s badge, but we did those routinely. We worked and recorded for a crazy number of hours. I don’t mean that I was sitting around the studio thinking or playing the tape back endlessly. I mean we were doing productive work in order to get a song done in one day. We would sleep just a few hours and then it would be the same thing again and again. That was the normal routine back in those days, whether we were at Sunset Sound in Los Angeles or we were at home in Minneapolis. It was very common that I’d leave rehearsal at 6 am, go home, shower and change and sleep for two hours. And then get up and go back at it again and again. We were just happy that we had the opportunity to do this for a living.
So now that we know that Prince never slept, did you ever catch him wearing blue jeans like us mere mortals?
[Laughs] Really, Prince awoke from the bed looking like Prince. He would have his hair done. The clothes that he wore onstage, Steven Fargnoli, Prince’s manager back then, once referred to them as costumes. And Prince just cut him off very quickly and said, “These aren’t costumes, they’re clothes.” But I do remember before Purple Rain, around the summer ’83 when I joined him, he came to rehearsals one day in jeans and a jean jacket. And he was wearing athletic shoes!
Okay, we need pictures…
[Laughs] You have to remember that Prince was very athletic. And he would sometimes play softball and basketball. He could really play ‘ball besides the fact that he was 5’3. He was very competitive.
How should we remember Prince?
In the history of important Americans, his name needs to be on the list. Because Prince was an important cultural export and he advanced music. He achieved the height of fame that Michael Jackson achieved, but Prince did it in the typical American way. Which is pull yourself up by your bootstraps and do it all on your own. Michael, who was a great artist, was also the product of the Motown system. Prince was a self-made man.
Prince was also an important musical figure because he contributed to the advancement of American music. Miles Davis called him his generation’s Duke Ellington. He was an important cultural figure by the way he dressed and the way he looked. Prince was one of the figures that made it possible for androgyny to be accepted; for men to wear makeup and for women to be empowered. I want the young generation to see what a genius he was musically. Prince deserves to never be forgotten.