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Prince Remembered

Prince: The Story of 1999 bonus feature: Bobby Z, 'Prince went from a caterpillar to a butterfly in that one purple trench coat'

Bobby Z
Bobby ZMPR Photo | Nate Ryan
  Play Now [38:35]

by Andrea Swensson

December 20, 2019

While making Prince: The Story of 1999, I got to sit down with Prince's longtime drummer, Bobby Rivkin — better known as Bobby Z. Prince and Bobby first met back in the mid '70s when they were still teenagers, and Bobby would go on to become drummer for the Revolution.

You can listen to our complete conversation using the audio player above, and read a transcript below.

Interview Transcript

BOBBY Z: Hi. I'm Bobby Z. I started with Prince in the very beginning and became the drummer for The Revolution.

ANDREA SWENSSON: I would love to start with a little bit of chatting about pre-1999, setting the stage for where Prince was at at this point in his career, around Dirty Mind coming out, the Dirty Mind tour. I get the sense that it was just a really exciting moment as you think about playing in New York, and all of a sudden Mick Jagger is there, and there's all these signs that maybe something is brewing, that a crossover moment might be brewing for Prince. Can you start by sharing a few thoughts on that era of his career?

Well, I mean, if we look at the leap from the second album to Dirty Mind, it's a big leap, and I think that was probably the biggest leap of all, when he figured out who he wanted to be in more of a rebellious way.

The main thing is Dirty Mind was — as you said — was exciting from a standpoint of people started to — like popcorn, they started to pop up and go, "Wow, there's something going on here!"

But at the same time, the music business was quite separated as far as what was promoted. So there was kind of the white rock part of, in this case Warner Bros. Records, and then there was the "black department," as they called it then. And Dirty Mind was challenging for the R&B department at that time. First of all, the album cover itself — what he was wearing on the album cover itself — and the lyrical content; not all of it, of course. "Do It All Night" is probably the funkiest song — one of them — he ever wrote. But "Sister" and "Head" — these were going against traditional values that still had a very much a core of R&B; gospel was based out of that, [had] grown out of that. So there was kind of a strange reception, but of course, he knew that. He was shooting the arrow right into the heart of that.

What happened was the leap between the first and second album that I'm describing was his look to Europe, and especially London, with Siouxsie And The Banshees, and especially Adam And The Ants, and Steve Strange, and these people that were dressing completely wild. And he really got into that — Adam And The Ants, especially the early videos. Some of the earliest videos on MTV were Adam And The Ants, and they were really big in London. So that affected him greatly.

Do you remember the first time he played in the bikini briefs?

Yes. Well, it all kind of started — he '80s fashion was really kind of mixed up, because when I met Prince and André, they were both wearing, like, shorts over legwarmers. That was kind of this look. And then as we experimented, there's some really outrageous costumes on the first tour: I mean, a tank top and ties without shirts. André and Prince were much more into the fashion of — André wore plastic pants, and Prince — it was a zebra bikini brief, right? So it would be around the Midnight Special. So it wasn't what I consider the Frankenfurter version of the black with the stockings, if you think about it. Just pause and think about it! He was a master at taking bits of pop culture, right? So Rocky Horror Picture Show we saw a lot, just like everybody. It's kind of a strange phenomenon — Rocky Horror Picture Show — how it was allowed in this purist white culture to see this extremely homosexual movie with a strange plot and bizarre music, and somehow it was a cult phenomenon that people just went to. But it's one of those pigeonhole things.

So the black bikini was — really stepped out, of course, in Dirty Mind in what we know now. So, the whole look, the whole everything — my point being is we went to Europe; there, everything is different: the integration of people, the racial integration, the thought integration, the freedom. There was people with blue-spike Mohawks back then, and they were polite, and it was just a completely different mindset to what we think as punk rock that came out of CBGBs, and the violence and the mosh-pitting and all that stuff, you know?

So, I think Prince was very excited about the reception in London, Paris and Amsterdam, at the Paradiso those first three shows. He was kind of — had a real positive outlook on Dirty Mind, which, coming off the Ritz show you mentioned in New York, and Mick Jagger and David Bowie and Andy Warhol and Gene Simmons — and a day after Lennon was shot, too. It was very intense. It was just really intense.

But juxtaposition: all that comes crashing down now at the Rolling Stones show at the Coliseum. So all of this buildup, all of this positive goodwill, celebrity notice, people going, "Wow, this guy's really something special, this is what rock and roll is all about."On one hand, obviously, it wasn't ready for the mainstream, and Stones fans were groomed for a decade already, or two, to be Stones fans. They're kind of bred like that, and they go to these shows and they want the Stones. But these were marathons back then: We went on at two in the afternoon, and then it was George Thorogood, and then it was J. Geils, and then it was the Stones. So it's a big day for people. So it's festival; so you're in, you're crammed against the front of the Coliseum, and you're waiting for the Stones from 6 a.m. And Bill Graham comes out and goes, "OK, we're gonna start the show!" Then people are peaking or whatever they are, and it's time for the Stones. But instead, they get Prince, and whether it was the falsetto or it was the costuming that we were talking about, or whatever it was — it was a combination of all of the above, I think. It just didn't hit people right, and we all know the story.

So he ultimately now has this kind of — I mean, it was just the struggle to get a record deal, and the struggle for the first album was so monumental, and now here we are, three albums in, Controversy tour is about to start — relatively short period of time after the Stones. Six weeks or something.

Right, yeah.

So you have this six weeks where you just — for me, after all of that time, I'm just wondering, "Wow, where's he gonna be?"

But what we know now is like the beginning of the leapfrog — what I call the leapfrog — which was like when we went out on the Purple Rain tour, the last night of rehearsal before the Purple Rain tour, we put the finishing touches on Around The World In A Day. It was done! So during this period of time after the Stones, in my opinion, probably the most prolific time. So, what he did was he took the frustration, anger — I think he thought that since Mick Jagger and everybody — that it would just all kind of be there. And it's very interesting how "Controversy" as a song was a tongue-in-cheek: he knew that everybody was talking about him — is he black or white or straight or gay? I mean, he knew all this stuff, but he still at the same time, everybody wants approval and acceptance. So he was on the razor's edge. He was always on the razor's edge, and this is an example.

So, what he does is he figures it out after all this Rick James touring, and now all this Rolling Stones — because the Rolling Stones had a crossover with "Miss You" that went back into R&B or disco. And that, you know — I mean, disco was ending, and out of the end of disco, it was like everybody was doing it. It was like every record has a rap now. Everybody was doing it, right? Queen was doing it with "Another One Bites The Dust," the Stones were doing it with "Miss You," and these records were big, and they were crossing over, and it opened up an audience, and I think it was a portal that Prince was able to open up.

So what he did was he figured out, well, "I'll just give this white rock audience 'Little Red Corvette.' That's meat over there. And then what I'm gonna do over here is I'm gonna take whatever is left of this punk/funk/disco movement, whatever Earth, Wind and Fire did, whatever everybody did, and I'm gonna wrap it up into one little word. And that word is 'party'."

Because "party" [sings] and all that stuff, you know, the remnants of the disco era and all this stuff, and on "1999," he gives a little speech at the end where he goes "party," and he says, "That's right, party." And when he says, "That's right," that means, "Yep, I'm saying it, I'm taking it, and you're all coming with me."

So he built his rock audience, and then he dazzled people with his dancing on the video for "[Little Red] Corvette." And then [the in the video for] "1999," he showed this multi-racial band in a full-blown '80s pancake makeup, white-light setting that was festive and fun with still frames. And boom boom, left, right — I call him Mohamed Ali of rock and roll. Right there he had it. He had everybody pretty much praising him and going, "This record!"

And of course, the first song I heard was "Let's Pretend We're Married," which just completely knocked me out. The horn sound was completely refined. When people talk about the Minneapolis Sound, it's "Let's Pretend We're Married," because he took the synthesizer horns and he made them sound so crisp, clean, powerful, that that gave him what Count Basie had, what the great bands had: — powerful horn sections. Whatever — Glen Miller — whatever was happening, it was all about horns, and Prince did it on 1999.

He had a little bit of it in "Let's Work" earlier, but "Let's Pretend We're Married" — the crisp power of it — he really had whatever the next generation of synths was happening at that time, the Pearl Syncussion tom-toms on top of the LM1 drum machine, on top of real drums. Now it was kind of like drums were octopus stuff. Now it was — you know, it was part of the art form. It didn't have to be playable as a human until I had to play it as a human, live!

Good luck!

Yeah, exactly! "Darling Nikki" was that way.

Do you think it's fair to say, thinking about the span of — what was it? In two months? — that the Time's What Time Is It comes out, Vanity 6 comes out and then 1999 comes out. Do you think it's fair to say that the Minneapolis Sound was kind of cemented in that year?

In that basement studio at the purple house on Lake Reilly — so let's talk about it! So we had like six weeks. I didn't go there for like a week after the Rolling Stones thing, and then he calls me up. And I go out there and we put the Pearl Syncussion toms on "[Little Red] Corvette," the [sings drum part], and the bombs on "1999" that are so iconic. Then he plays me "Let's Pretend We're Married," and then he starts playing me this other stuff that's Morris's group, and it's just like "OK," and this is Vanity's group.

And so when I said it was the most prolific time — because it was just whatever energy came out of that Stones thing — and he didn't sleep, and that was the beginning of the spark, and the ignition that pretty much followed him for the rest of his career, and he just was on fire. And it was song after song — all the outtakes you hear on the box set. It's just endless amounts of recording, mixing, to the point where they had to decipher the boxes because he was moving so fast. He would erase tape, he would do tape. It was just so much action going on there that he created all these entities out of that, yeah.

Could you describe the Lake Reilly house for me?

Yeah. It started out when I was working for Owen [Husney] as the delivery driver for the ad company. When they were in Sausalito, [Calif.] making the first album, they said, "Find him a house." So he was living on Blaisdell [Avenue in Minneapolis] in an apartment, and there was like starting to be bulletin-board places, like apartment-referral services; there was nothing online, of course. So I found a house on France Avenue, and it was Edina, you know—

Right off 50th and France. It's crazy to think about.

Yeah, I thought — I lived in St. Louis Park. It was closer to me, because now I wasn't even going in the office anymore. I was just like, "Oh, just go get him." It was turning into complete time vampire stuff.

The house in Edina was a good and a bad idea, because the neighbors were older people that had lived in these homes for years, and then all of a sudden, there's kind of young, wild animals kind of, at volumes all hours of the night. The police were there a lot, so that didn't work.

So then I believe after Owen, Perry [Jones] and Tony [Winfrey] came. Perry and Tony were the road managers for Earth, Wind and Fire. This is before [Bob] Cavallo; Cavallo sent these guys, and they actually said they were our managers for a while. They didn't know that they weren't until Steve Fargnoli showed up later, and that was good, because I loved these guys, but three scotches on a 30-minute flight, and 95 miles an hour to the airport was a little bit harrowing.

So they found a house on Lake Minnetonka — the first one. And that was a rental, and that was the Dirty Mind house, where, very unorthodox recording; I believe it was 16-track, one-inch. And now he was starting to break the norms — if you look at these Beatles sessions and go back, I mean, the engineers wore lab coats, the engineers could touch the knobs and you couldn't touch the knobs. Everything about recording was prim and proper, and etiquette, and everybody had their lays. Well, I think Prince broke a million rules as far as unorthodox recording, and Dirty Mind was that, where the cables were just everywhere and the drums were just kind of mic'ed in a certain way that gave it the incredible sound, but most engineers would scoff at this.

So that house was a rental, and then they got him a house when Fargnoli bought a home on Lake Reilly [in Chanhassen, Minn.]. And it was an upstairs/downstairs, split level. It wasn't purple. It was just brown, and the front door came in. There was like a window to the side of the door; sometimes he'd peek out if he'd see you coming. And then you'd just kind of go upstairs to the kitchen, or to the left where the TV was and beanbag chairs and stuff like that, [where] we watched all these movies.

But then you go down, and then take a left, and it was kind of a control room, smaller than Studio A at Paisley, but Westlake audio speakers. And kind of a thin control room, but nice! Adjacent to that was kind of a small live room that he had a drum kit in, and that's where Mark Brown actually auditioned, in that little live room. And it really proved to be exactly what he needed, which was a good board, good speakers. Don Batts was still at the helm, and he was a super technician. He just knew everything. They had some grounding issues there — you know, some hums and stuff — but Don figured everything out, and they got levels right, and it was just magic.

You know, later on he painted [the house] purple, or even much later on, maybe when he wasn't even living there; his dad was there or something. And "purple" wasn't Purple Rain yet, but it's forever where we hung out and watched so many movies and spent so much time, again, dreaming; it started out in my Pinto, but we would continue dreaming, and it was really a fun, comfortable place for him. We shot a lot of pictures there — the 1999 posters, the famous bedroom shot, and the poster that was for sale. And out back, eventually, by the lake, we shot even some of the tour-book photos for Purple Rain with Nancy Bundt.

You mentioned purple, and I think about your theory with the shiny purple trench coat, and the song "Purple Music" emerged during this time. Is this the first time that purple was starting to be associated with Prince?

Yes. The purple trench coat, as we discussed on the liner notes, we were all in kind of these clothes from Tatters at that point. We were digging through barrels. That was the first kind of custom-made stage clothes.

You know, purple is a very unusual thing, because there was a famous band in Minneapolis, as you know since your book [ Got to Be Something Here: The Rise of the Minneapolis Sound], Purple Haze, which had a huge impact on all of those guys — Morris, André, my brother David at ASI Recording, Purple Haze was kind of "the S," you know? They were at the Flame, and we'd so see them. It was a show! And it was something definitely to strive to. And then there's, of course, Jimi Hendrix. And then there's America, with "Ventura Highway," where he says "purple rain," if you listen to that. So there's always clues and stuff around, if you want to look, that entered the psyche. But it was a natural fit. Minnesota, I mean, ironically, we're a purple state, politically; our football team is purple. There's a lot of — it's kind of like the chicken and the egg with Prince: Purple belonged to him and he claimed it, but it was always there. Certainly "Purple Music," you know, "you can take a bite of my purple rock" — it's all kind of led up to that moment — purple trench coats. It was just bound to be Purple Rain.

Right. Can you talk a little bit about — I love your theory about this shiny purple trench coat and this shift into show business after these years in punk rock. Can you just kind of summarize?

Yeah. You know, for so long we — like, in the early days, just the costume budgets weren't there. If you owe Warner Bros. Records money and you're trying to make another record and you're trying to build a band — but of course he had this vision. I believe he singlehandedly launched Victoria's Secret's ideology by singing and talking about putting women in lingerie and having them front it and do it in a Vanity 6 show, and obviously Apolonia 6. There's just something really Prince-like about all that, that it was like cool and accepted. And you can walk around in that, and that was his thing about there's no such thing as stage clothes and offstage clothes.

When I auditioned, my final audition was at William's Pub, and I was playing with I believe Barry Goldberg and the Highway 52 band. It was Kevin Odegaard, then it morphed into that band. And I did a drum solo on a song called "Mad Boy," and that sealed it. It was a good night. I sat down with André and Prince, and, again, I had to make sure that their table was ready, because if there was something wrong — I said, "If this isn't right, this guy's going to turn around and leave, like before you can even look at him." So I mean, I had this down. So I had people waiting. This was like back then — I mean, how you would treat him at the most famous, I knew how to treat him at the most unfamous, because he still would turn around and disappear!

So they got them in the front, and they were part of a great ovation, and we were hippies, right? So I was, like, wearing urban hippie-band clothes, like you would see like a Wilco wear, or any other — we don't even think twice about it, right? And he said, "Is that stage clothes?" And I never in my life growing up — it's like, first of all you can't afford anything, and you always think of the Beatles in suits and all their cool stuff. But that was the Beatles; they could do whatever they want. But I never thought that you make something out of nothing. And that's what he could do.

So all of a sudden we're going to do this, and "Gail, you're gonna do this," and it was like Fredericks of Hollywood was the only place that had stuff in that, what he was thinking for her, and his idea of what women should wear. And the zoot suits, and the movie Quadrophenia had a huge effect. So if you think about Quadrophenia — the mods and the rockers — there's some trench coats in there, and, again, there's pieces of the puzzle everywhere if you do the real deep dive.

So there was a place called Tatters on Lyndale [Avenue in Minneapolis], which was a used-clothing store; secondhand stuff was becoming hip, cool, all that stuff. And The Suburbs were into zoot suits and all this stuff, and he felt that I would gravitate to that direction. And with Matt [Fink], his personality and his visual features enable comedic stuff. He started out in a jail suit, but Rick James had a jail suit, so they immediately moved to a doctor, which he still is today.

You know, André and Prince were - and Dez — Dez had already been like sex-god rocker in a band called Revolver, and I just thought — I told Prince, I said, "That's our guy." But Dez had his own opinions too, and André had his own opinions too, but I thought that front line, those three guys, would complement Prince. I still think it's the greatest front line that's ever been in rock and roll, and I was really proud to be behind that, because they were just bad.

So we were in Tatters and we're digging around these used clothes, and we'd find these neckties that he would kind of tie, and dickies and leather stuff from long ago — '40s, '50s, whenever — and they would get new life in his vision. And he found these kind of greenish grayish trench coats, and he thought that the three up front are going to wear that. So it was kind of like there's the Beatles suits right there. It was kind of like the uniform is going to be this trench coat, and so that was Dirty Mind and Controversy. It was kind of a brownish one — different series of that coming from the same Tatters clothing store bins, and then he was putting studs on them. By now, he had women sewing, stuff being made for peanuts, but fashion in his world, he was creating all this unbelievable stuff.

And that all went for a couple years, and then we were going to shoot some photos for 1999, and the videos for "1999" and "[Little Red] Corvette," and he walks into rehearsal and they brought it to him kind of like this moment, where all of a sudden there it is — this shiny purple trench coat — and he puts it on, and it's like all of a sudden he's Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat. I mean, he just came alive, and I just went, "Wow, here we go! We're going for like showbiz now. This is going to be a whole different direction. It's not going to be punk. It'll be rebellious because he's always rebellious, but it's going to be glamorous."

And the glamor came in and never stopped, of course. He was one of the most glamorous characters that ever lived.

So we kind of breezed past what actually happened at the Rolling Stones show, and I would love to just take you back there for a moment if you have any specific memories of that kind of experience of realizing that the crowd was not all in favor of what was happening.

Well, when you start out watching TV and your favorite musicians and you imitate them and you're a little kid, and you get the drum set, you get the guitar, and you're trying to emulate your favorite rock stars, and you have bands and you go through all that, it never ever ever occurs to you…

I did some rough stuff when I was — I used to go to the Union and put my name up to substitute, because then that's how I got kind of versatile, because you'd play with a polka band one night if the drummer was sick, and a six-night-a-week club band [another] night. As long you ended the song, they thought you were great. And there was a couple rough, drunk [shows] over at Mr. Harry's, which is now BJ's [Liquor Lounge] on Broadway. It was kind of a rough joint, and there were drunks crashing into the stage and stuff, but no anger towards the musicians.

And so my point being is that you never ever really ever think that anyone will be angry — like booing at an athletic event, like booing your team or booing someone off the stage, which you see in movies and TV and have heard about throughout the ages. When you hear "boos," it kind of shakes you to the core. And Prince was a controversial character, and whatever he did or didn't do, you just felt that he didn't deserve to be booed. He worked so hard and the music was what I thought was great. But then you add objects — projectiles — on top of that, and it just — it really — it shook me to the point where I was literally shaking. And we couldn't really end the set. There was a huge stairway down, a red carpet back to the Stones village, and we walked down it, all excited. You see these pictures that we're all excited to play. It's a big moment. Band from Minneapolis, right? It's like growing up in St. Louis Park and south and north Minneapolis. It's a huge, huge, huge moment. And it ends in utter shambles and defeat.

And then it was just kind of a loss for words. I've never seen him more petrified and sad — all of us. [Prince] took off right away, and Mick [Jagger] felt really bad, and Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman came and got us and talked to me for a while, and it really kind of calmed us down. And I mean, if you're Charlie Watts, you just end up being a fan and you start going, "Oh, you're Charlie Watts!" — so that was good. It was like, "Don't worry about it. We were booed off." We reminisced about it, I think [it happed to the Rolling Stones] even here at Danceland off Lake Minnetonka in Excelsior, [Minn.], where they had a terrible start. And so they were telling us all their terrible start stories, and that's fine. You're the Rolling Stones. You just don't think that you can climb out of that.

So [the Coliseum crew] tear the whole thing down, and then there's a Rams game the next day at the Coliseum, and then they put the whole thing back up on Monday. Prince went back to Minneapolis, and it was a whole song and dance. It was supposed to be two shows in L.A. and then two in Detroit. I just already knew that there was no way he was going to continue, and the obligation to do the second show was tough. And obligations, as we know, for Prince were difficult when he's forced. And this time he was forced. I mean, Mick and Dez, they got him to come back, but that dressing room or whatever — that little tent — whatever that moment was before the second show, was like dead man walking. You knew that it wasn't going to be better.

What you didn't expect was the glee — that people had read about the first show, and now they were prepared to throw it right off the get-go. So now you're out there and you're exposed in a way that was just chilling. [Prince] was protected by God — his head ducked, and an empty Jack Daniels bottle just missed his head by about a quarter of an inch and crashed against the drum riser right in front of me. I remember looking at Lisa, and there was stuff crashing. And then I became like a goalie, and then the cymbals were protectors at that point, where you're kind of moving from one side just going, "Man, I hope I don't hit a" — your arms are busy —hopefully you don't deflect anything.

Dez was great. Somebody threw a shoe up there. He put it in his mouth and shook it like a mad dog, and they liked that — they went, "Yeahhhh!!!" — they wanted blood, and Dez didn't give them blood. He gave them rock and roll back. And that worked for a minute. But they hit Mark square on the bass head with an orange, knocked him out of tune. I think that was even the first show, like, right away. It was just vicious, and like I said, it doesn't matter how you ever prepare.

It's — obviously, we're still talking about this today. It's a pivotal moment. But in talking to Bill and Charlie Watts — Wyman and Watts — now, in retrospect we're talking about after all of this success and the movie and everything later, it was a pivotal moment, and I think of what Charlie Watts said. "Shake it off, kid, because we had it, too." And you think of the Beatles in Hamburg, how that must've been. Everybody's got a beginning. It's like people think, "Oh, somebody's so famous!" But it's different; now, you can go on TV and be instantly famous, but to earn it the way Prince did it, brick by brick, moment by moment, this is a key moment of growth, strength, knowledge, defeat, that you have to have in this story to relish the victory later.

Jumping head to more exciting times, on the 1999 tour, I have heard that Prince was not only playing his own sets, but would sometimes secretly be playing along with Vanity 6 and The Time. Is that true?

Well, of course there was the one time when Jimmy and Terry didn't make the gig. But The Time would play, they would back up Vanity 6, and depending on the night, he could always plug his guitar in. He would always be goofing around, and from time to time, he'd kind of come in and add a part. But if he did, I mean, the guitar playing was — you'd know the rhythm right away. The whole Frankenstein's monsters of The Time and Vanity 6 is that he created his own revue like a Motown revue did, so he created this revue, and to have all these people wear what you want and do what you want and play what you want was a testament to his ability to control a lot of people, as we know.

So he would hop up, and he was always goofing around with Jerome [Benton], and so he would tell Jerome to go do this or do something onstage so he could get a laugh out of it. It was all comedic. The Time was kind of comic relief for him. And whether they felt the same or not, I don't know. But we were all kind of creations in this play that went out every night, and so he would always be doing something. For the most part, he took our show pretty seriously. So I remember like 90 percent of the time, he would go watch them and say they kicked our ass, but it's the music he created. He was kind of getting himself psyched up to do that.

But if you watch the video on 1999 Deluxe, that gives you, vocally, and his stage presence and beginning to start to move and command the stage, you get a feel for how tight the band was and ultimately how amazing the show was. But what you really come away with was the vocals — that he could shriek and scream and hit these notes that were just mind boggling every night. Every night.

I was talking to Matt Fink about his memories of this era and just his whole experience, and he said that occasionally there'd be times when you guys would go back and review the video tapes, and maybe Prince would—

Occasionally?? [laughs]

I'm saying occasionally he would find that Prince had maybe done something he didn't mean to do — played a different note on the guitar or keyboard or something — but that he never heard him hit a wrong note vocally, that it was always just spot on.

That's right. And we're talking about, for me, pretty much '77, '78 on, because you'd get a rough take or a take, but it was never like the way we consider, "Oh, that was terrible, let me try it again." He had a mastery of his voice.

In the early days, he had two boomboxes, and they were recordable when they had first come out. So he would be sitting in the apartment and he would record stereo. And then he'd take another boombox and record into that one and overdub, and then record on that one. So it created a lot of hiss, but if you hear some of these early demos, I mean, the vocal stacking is impeccable.

So his ability to hear himself and hear the notes, no matter how loud or where you were in any small room or arena, he knew where he was at pitch-wise, and he knew where you were at rhythm-wise or keyboard-wise or guitar-wise. He just — the uncanny ability to hear the music and where he was in the music is a real incredible — there's probably only one person who's ever done it, and that's him. Just the ability to hear it all in his head.

Now, if you think back, like Beethoven and Mozart and stuff, they hear all this stuff in their heads, because had to write it out: "This is for the cello, this is for the bassoon." This was all in their head. They didn't have any [other] way to do that. In a way, he was doing that. It was just more modern with a tape machine. But he was hearing all the music in his head like Beethoven or some of these other classical musicians who had parts and choirs going on in their head. He was kind of reborn in all these characters throughout the ages in him, and that's what makes it hauntingly unique to this day when you think about it. It's just not like anything you've ever experienced as a musician.

Just thinking about, as we're looking back, now that this box set is coming out, what do you think is the legacy of 1999? It's a big general question, but what are your thoughts?

Well, certainly — the timing of it, with MTV, the guts of a double album — the bold initiative of that alone — I'm sure he, you know, Warner Bros. was like, "Blah, a double album?"

It's the beginning of more than you can handle. It's the beginning of, "I've got more than just me in me. Here's this and that and this." But also, melodically, he was starting to get incredibly gifted with like "International Lover" and the messaging of who he was, and being able to communicate with, like, "D.M.S.R." — Dance / Music / Sex / Romance — you know, it's just like one of those expressions that just rolls off the tongue, but it's just such a funky song.

And he was really relating to people in a way that he knew he could lead them, which we eventually know in "Purple Rain" — you know, "You say you want a leader / But you can't seem to make up your mind / I think you better close it / And let me guide you to the purple rain." He became a leader in 1999.

I already knew he was a leader, but the rest of the world! I mean, when he started, like I said, there's a growth: he went from a caterpillar to a butterfly in that one purple trench coat that we talk about, and he became the international superstar that was able to convince Warner Bros. Pictures and a bunch of people that he was a bankable star and a real personality.

The humor, I think, in 1999, too, was a lot of fun stuff, and the iconic look of the photos, the album cover — the hint — and again, the tidbit puzzle of The Revolution backwards, it's all there. It's all a setup for what's to come. It's an honor to be a part of that. That thing is just — it's a monster. It's a monster.

What's like for you now to see the music videos and think like, "Wow, I was on MTV"?

I mean, videos like "Uptown" and "1999" and "[Little Red] Corvette" — during that time we shot at the Armory [in Minneapolis]: "Let's Pretend We're Married," "[Little Red] Corvette," "1999" and "Automatic." And it was just an intense, three-day shoot to get as much as we could.

"Automatic" was just kind of this big tie-him-to-the-bed thing with Wendy and Lisa, and it was — again, he was pushing the norms and challenging, and he wanted people to come into his world and his kind of erotic freedom and funky liberation and all this stuff. When you see those videos now, I think they age well. I think that he meticulously worked so hard on stuff.

Back then, you just couldn't believe the hours and the effort that went into it, and rehearsal. I tell the story of rehearsal so grinding and so long, but when you got in front of 20, 30, 40, 80 thousand people, you're glad you had it. It's like a professional sports routine: Catching a fly-ball is routine, but catching 10 million of them will make sure that you catch that one. So the discipline — the musical discipline — was seen in those videos, and that's why I think they hold up. I think they do.

Thanks so much, Bobby.

You're welcome.

I think I literally could interview you for like a whole day.

Yeah. We could just keep going like Gone With The Wind. We'll have intermission!

The Revolution - official site

Prince - official site

Bobby Z
Bobby Z
MPR Photo | Nate Ryan