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What was in Prince's record collection?

What tunes made Prince smile? Prince performs onstage with 3RDEYEGIRL during their "HITnRUN" tour at Sony Centre For The Performing Arts on May 19, 2015 in Toronto, Canada.
What tunes made Prince smile? Prince performs onstage with 3RDEYEGIRL during their "HITnRUN" tour at Sony Centre For The Performing Arts on May 19, 2015 in Toronto, Canada.Cindy Ord/Getty Images for NPG Records 2015

by Michaelangelo Matos

April 24, 2018

Prince never let the press get too close. But few of the telling details that reporters have found to pad out their profiles have been so tantalizing as the occasional glimpses we've been given of Prince's record collection.

Take the April 1990 issue of Spin — the magazine's fifth-anniversary issue. To celebrate, it ran a massive 24-hour overview of the rock and roll world — dispatches from nearly 80 correspondents around the U.S. that chronicled the goings-on of December 15, 1989, between 6:30 a.m. and 3 a.m. One of the early entries was written by Steve Perry, the longtime editor of City Pages, who filed at 10 a.m. from Chanhassen, where he had a look around Studio A at Paisley Park, where Prince had recently finished a 16-hour recording session. "Funky, colorful scarves fill the room: every inch of bare wall space billows with them. By the couch are a stack of CDs that Prince listens to during his infrequent breaks: Tone Loc, Soul II Soul, INXS, De La Soul, Sly's Stand and Miles' Columbia Years"."

This was revelatory information at the time. One of the keys to Prince's mystique throughout the '80s was the idea — promulgated in his rare interviews — that he seldom listened to anybody's music but his own. Such pure bravado — Prince's stuff was so good that Prince didn't need to listen to anything else — was pretty easy to puncture, since his music, clothes, and stage act all nodded vigorously to all sorts of pop, rock, and R&B forebears, but it was one Prince had a lot of fun taunting people with over the years.

In one of his first interviews, to Cynthia Horner of Right On! magazine in January 1979, Prince declined to name a favorite musician: "I haven't had a lot of time to develop a favorite artist. I try not to listen to too many people. It's distracting." That same month, he told the Twin Cities Reader, "I never really listened to music, either, and I still don't very much. There's never nothin' I can get into. If I listen to a record, I head something that I'd like to do differently, and I become too critical of it." In an interview with Musician, Prince even extended this to his entire band: "They're really rebellious. They cut themselves off from the world, as I did. The band's attitude is, they don't listen to a lot of music and stuff like that."

Picking out "Batman Theme" by ear at age seven, Prince approached music as a tradesman rather than a consumer — it was something he did, not just something he listened to — not to mention that, as he told Rolling Stone in 1981, "I didn't really have a record player when I was growing up, and I never got a chance to check out Hendrix and the rest of them because they were dead by the time I was really getting serious." He also acutely understood how small Minneapolis was. "We basically got all the new music and dances three months late, so I just decided that I was gonna do my own thing. Otherwise, when we did split Minneapolis, we were gonna be way behind and dated."

All this pretense seems to have meant was that the young Prince listened like a cop on a wiretap — or maybe like the rock critics he found so generally useless. When ex-Minneapolitan Andy Schwartz of the New York Rocker asked about the records he played, Prince said, "I just get what Warner Bros. sends me, but I don't listen to very much." When Schwartz followed up by asking if any recent records were "particularly exciting or special," Prince dug the knife in: "I wish there was, but I guess if there were we wouldn't be in the slump we are in the music business." (That slump, which nearly crippled the record industry, lasted from 1979 to 1983.) He was even less polite to Musician magazine's Pablo Guzman, who asked Prince if he saw Devo or the Clash as competition. "Maybe," Prince responded, "but those guys can't sing."

Prince kept this sort of thing up for years, until finally, two decades later, Prince finally let the facade crumble in front of a reporter from Mojo:

When I'm working, I'm working. I don't have time to ... You know what? It's such a drag to have musicians claim they never listen to the competition. They're liars, man. I mean, I know bands who in the press badmouth artists they revere in rehearsal. I don't wanna be like that. I crave great musicianship, and I don't care who provides it. I've got no problems saying I dig D'Angelo. Or some of the things that Bjork does . . . the Cocteau Twins . . . Musicians — we're family. I hope young musicians learn from me — my mistakes too — the way I learned.

Prince's touchstones quickly became apparent as he began tangling, however reluctantly or high-handedly, with the press. In his Rolling Stone interview from 1985, Prince called Joni Mitchell's The Hissing of Summer Lawns, from 1975, "The last album I loved all the way through." He also put on Stevie Wonder's Journey Through the Secret World of Plants and Miles Davis's brand new You're Under Arrest. When Rolling Stone's Neal Karlen asked how Prince felt about his new Around the World in a Day being labeled "psychedelic," he responded, "I don't mind that, because that was the only period in recent history that delivered songs and colors. Led Zeppelin, for example, would make you feel differently on each song."

Five years later, Karlen flew to London to interview Prince for another Rolling Stone cover. There, the reporter heard a brand new song, "Schoolyard" (still unreleased), which made reference to Tower of Power's "Squib Cakes," a song Prince also sampled on "Release It" (from that year's Graffiti Bridge) and "Sleep Around" (from 1996's Emancipation). The song's story, about a sixteen-year-old boy seducing a fourteen-year-old girl to Tower of Power's Back to Oakland (1974), were based, Prince told Karlen, on "the first time I got any." He also mentioned his fondness for hip-hop, particularly MC Hammer, as well as Madonna, Michael Jackson, Patti LaBelle, and Bette Midler. (He also spoke of his admiration for Bruce Springsteen, while admitting not being "real into [his] music.")

The late sixties and early seventies figure most heavily into Prince's musical cosmos. The tales of his bicycling to the record store for new James Brown 45s are a firm part of the legend; he was particularly enamored of Brown's "Licking Stick — Licking Stick" (1968). Sly and the Family Stone and its founding bassist's spin-off band, Graham Central Station, were equally vital. "When I was 16, I saw the back of [Graham Central Station's] album Release Yourself, which read, 'Produced by God,' " he told the Philadelphia Daily News in 1998. "It was intriguing to me because I was without a father figure at the time. Now all kinds of stuff that was in that album is popular. Today, people are more interested in spirituality than ever before." As for George Clinton, Kevin Cole of KEXP in Seattle and a DJ who played several of Prince's private parties during the 80s, has said many times that Prince would point to a handful of P-Funk LPs as well as his own and say, "Here — play these."

Prince's favorite guitarist was Carlos Santana; he knew Sheila E.'s work on Santana's albums and told her so when they met. His taste in seventies FM radio rock — Grand Funk Railroad, Chicago (whose "25 or 6 to 4" was "the acid test for aspiring guitarists in Prince's high school," as Guitar World put it in 1994), Carole King — came from KQRS, then one of the leading "progressive" FM stations (so called because it would play LP tracks rather than just singles.) He told Minnesota Monthly, "Yeah, it was about six months late for things to get here. But you know the old KQ[RS] after midnight, that was the bomb station. I'd stay up all night listening to it. That's where I discovered Carlos Santana, Maria Muldaur, and Joni Mitchell. Was I influenced by that? Sure I was. Back then I always tried to play like Carlos, or Boz Scaggs."

In his early teens, he told Guitar World, "I was listening to a lot of Hendrix and Grand Funk Railroad. I had a band I was playing guitar in then. Chick Corea and them were around and I was just starting to get into them. A whole bunch of wild stuff." He was such as fan of Rufus featuring Chaka Khan that, he told the Philadelphia Daily News, "I used to run home and see everything she was on." Once, he added, "I tricked her into coming down to the studio. I imitated Sly Stone and she was looking for him, then she met me. I was so in awe of her I couldn't speak, so she listened to me play for a little while, then she left."

Prince never claimed to be a Beatlemaniac; he said he was completely unfamiliar with "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" prior to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame performance in 2004. But he had written "When You Were Mine" on tour in Birmingham after listening to John Lennon, and would later cite Double Fantasy as a model for his own artistic evolution, saying in 1997, "John Lennon would have never written the beautiful music he wrote at the end of his life if he hadn't gone through what he did with Yoko and himself."

You never could completely tell with Prince. A 1994 interview with Q yielded a surprising mention of British shoegazers the Sundays (at the tail end of a rant about music cateogries: "Anyway, what type of music do the Sundays play? Is it pop, indie, rock? Who cares?"). He once recommended Tingri, by new age guitarist Jonn Serrie, as "great for meditation." (Here's the title track.) He admitted — to Spike Lee, no less — that the 1992 single "Sexy MF" had been inspired in part by AMG's "B*tch Betta Have My Money." ("When you hear something constantly, you can get swayed by the current. I was swayed by hip-hop at the time.") And he was already a vocal Foo Fighters fan years before covering "Best of You": "[eye] dig their volume!" he said in 1997. "[Eye] am open 2 any + collaboration . . . but who would own the master?"

Though his father had played jazz, Prince's immersion in that music came later — he credited The Revolution's Lisa Coleman with turning him on to Bill Evans and saxophonist Eric Leeds with playing him Duke Ellington's Live at Newport. What struck Prince was the long solo by Ellington's saxophonist, Paul Gonsalves, on "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue": "[Leeds] was telling me that one reason the solo went as long as it did was that this lady jumped up on a table and started dancing to the rhythm, so naturally nobody wanted to quit," Prince told Musician.

Jazz became a staple of Prince's listening (and playing) as he got older. Reporting in 1998 on the Artist, as he was then referred to, the essayist Toure found himself digging through a box of vinyl in an overlooked corner of Paisley Park: "Flipping through it feels like peeking into a section of his head — Al Jarreau, Sam Cooke, the Horace Silver Quintet, Nancy Wilson, the Watts 103rd Street Band, Eddie Kendricks, Dave Brubeck, The Band, Jimi's Isle of Wight, and lots of Nat King Cole."

Maybe the best summation can be found in a manifesto-like statement Prince made to the San Francisco Examiner in 2004: "Real music lovers appreciate innovation. Real music lovers have heard everything, so you have to surprise them. Real music lovers need constant stimulation."

Prince record collection
Ben Bowman of St Paul, Minnesota, with his daughter Olive, look through a collection of Prince albums at the Electric Fetus during record day on the one-year anniversary of Prince's death in Minneapolis, MN, April 22, 2017. Prince bought records at The Electric Fetus shortly before he died.