Morris Hayes on 'Emancipation'

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Morris Hayes, longtime keyboardist and music director for the New Power Generation, couldn't believe Prince made a song out of his cussing streak. (MPR)
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Covering musical and personal ground, New Power Generation keyboardist/musical director Morris Hayes and Purple Current host Sean McPherson taped a marathon interview - more than two hours, all told - so we're sharing it album by album. Here's the third of ten.

Emancipation

You're with Purple Current. My name is Sean McPherson. I'm chatting with Morris Hayes, longtime keyboard player and musical director for Prince, and we're going record by record through some really interesting parts of Prince's career, particularly right now the album Emancipation, which - it's kind of an understatement to call it an album, considering that it's three discs and it's a monumental effort. I was wondering if you could share your impression of Emancipation in general, and also maybe a little bit of thoughts about why this is the first time we're really hearing Prince covering other artists' material in a studio setting.

It's funny because we had a big argument about that, like about the whole cover thing. Now granted, one of my favorite covers on that record was "One Of Us," and it's funny because we loved that song, and he told me about it - I think it's Joan Osborne. He said, "You know what, man, I really love this song. It's the song I would've wrote if I hadn't been afraid." He changed some lyrics around a little bit. I remember him just saying that he really just loved it, and he said, "I would've wrote it if - I was just too afraid to write it." And I was like wow. It was kind of bananas. I remember him kind of getting into this thing where we were talking about just basically the fact that sometimes Prince had a situation where he had a double standard because he didn't like people to cover his songs. So we got in this big argument one day, and he said - because I asked him about actually covering one of his songs for this artist named Bria that we ended up working with. He said, "Don't you like the song, Morris, like it is?" I said yeah, I love the song. He said, "Then why do you want to change it?" I said, "You know how hip-hoppers do. You take a track and you just kind of make it--" "But you just said you liked it." I said yeah, I like it. "Well leave it alone, then!" I was like yeah, covering songs. And then we got in this thing. I said, "Prince, we got four covers on this record. You never do covers but we're doing four on this record. How do you explain that?"

Did he have an answer?

No. Not one that you would appreciate on the radio. And so I was like man - because I'm losing, but I'm going to ask him anyway. I was like, well how does that work? I said, "I think I got it. You can do it better than they can do you, so it's okay. Is that the idea?" That didn't go over so good. It was crazy because all of a sudden he just decided to do these songs. I think prior to that the only cover he recorded was the one on The Black Album. I don't know. It was this one song, and I'm having a brain freeze. [sings I'm a lonely painter] It's a great song. I think that was the only one, but that was like four on one record, and it just blew my mind because he never did that before.

He had two songs that were sort of from the soulful era. He had a Stylistics cover. And then not a Bonnie Raitt tune, but a tune made famous by Bonnie Raitt.

"I Can't Make You Love Me."

All incredible covers, and again, exposing how big his ears were and how open he was to music. But yeah, a little bit of a head-scratcher for suddenly this late into his career this stuff coming out.

It was incredible, but one of the things that it is, is Prince would - he wore his heart on his sleeve, and those people that he covered, he really liked. I know that Bonnie Raitt was one of his favorites. Whenever we'd go to the Bay area she'd always be there. He loved her, man. And that version of the song that she did really moved him. I met the guy who actually wrote that song. He's an ASCAP artist and I'm in ASCAP, and I met and talked to him, and it was really cool because he was so appreciative, like man, Prince covered my song. He was like, dude, I'm over the moon. It's phenomenal. But Bonnie just killed it, and she just made it what it was that appealed to him, and I think for him to cover it and really do his own thing on it was really cool. I like that version too. But it's funny. He just got more into what moved him instead of worrying about what he could write. And I think even when we did the Super Bowl a lot of people were like it was kind of crazy, you did all these covers, you did the Foo Fighters. And he was really concerned about just doing all of his stuff. It was about the mood of the situation, and I think that record, he wanted to create this mood that happened on the album across the album. A lot of the songs just kind of connected that way because of just where he was in his life at that point.

I'm chatting with Morris Hayes, musical director for Prince as well as keyboard player for a long stretch of time, including during the making of Emancipation. And there are enough tracks on that album that I will often discover something that I hadn't really thought about before. In preparing for this I had never really dug into the track, "The Human Body." Prince is channeling a lot of house music in this, and it's something where house music has a lot of its roots in Detroit, but also a lot in Chicago, and we're very close to Chicago here in the Twin Cities. He sounded like a real student of house music in this instance because it's not like house music played by an R&B artist. It's house music where the drops and the dynamic changes are very appropriate to actually what a DJ would do.

Absolutely.

Can you tell me where you think he got that from?

The thing is, Prince had a very deep appreciation for Steve Hurley, who was a big house DJ in Chicago. Steve did one of the remixes for "Gett Off." And Prince really appreciated a lot of the house - the Detroit and Chicago house music. And he was really into it as far asnunderstanding how it works. And I think you're right. That record - I remember coming in the studio and hearing it. I was like oh, man. And it was dope because it had the bass and the drums just was like pounding, and I was like dude, you really got the vibe on this record, like this is crazy.

Prince would kind of go into these modesn-nI remember working on certain records, and he'd just listen to some things like Robert Johnson or something like this, and just get a vibe. And the next thing you know he's writing something like that. He'd be listening to Carlos Santana and then all of a sudden we'd do "When I Laid My Hands on You," like he's channeling Carlos on that. It's crazy. He could just do that, and he would just go into these spaces where he he wanted to do a house cut, and he - because it was very important for him to not hit at something. There's nothing more jacked up then when you try to play a style, and those that are in it - Wynton Marsalis is like, "Oh, that's cute. Yeah, they almost made it." He don't like that. Because one of the favorite things he liked to say is, "Morris, we can do them but they can't do us." He would say that. So it was important for us not to hit at it. We had to really - if we say we were going to play some jazz we had to be swinging like apes. It was like that kind of a thing. He wanted to make sure that he was true to the genre and understood the genre, and then put his own flavor on it. That was another big thing with him. He didn't want to carbon copy anybody. So he'd take that little vibe and then throw his Prince thing on it. And that's the reason why I like when he started in the '90s with the whole rap thing. He was like he's okay, but I'm musical. And he said, "You take a clip and sample and do this. I'm going to play some crazy tracks over it and I'm going to do my own style over it." And I think a lot of the hip-hop cats of the era respected Prince about that because he's coming from a different thing, but it's still cool.

Thinking about the record Emancipation, which again is this magnum opus, do you have any memories from recording in that era or touring some of that material that sort of stands out? That's one of those records that it can be hard to find your way into. It's so big. Is there any song that defines that era for you?

When we went to do a lot of the record promotion and stuff, we ended up playing a lot of things, and Emancipation itself, I think that was a big record for us in terms of that it really voiced what that whole thing was about. And for Prince, that whole project was about getting out from under the record labels and control in terms of what that crazy deal that he'd done. This was a way of saying, "We are free from all of this and we do what we want to." And we'd play that song, and I remember there was a point when we were doing some of the shows, it was reflective of the gentlemen who were in the Olympics in Berlin, where he just would have a black glove, and at the end of the song he'd just put his fist up in the air. We all did, just like that, just like saying, "We're not bowing and we're free musicians and we're doing our own thing." And I think Emancipation, when we played it, we made it super funky like live, and we put the stink on it. I think for him, that was saying something. He really wanted to make a statement with that record and with all of the other stuff. As far as the songs in it, like "The Love We Make" and some of those things, it's incredible writing in some of those spots. Really wonderful material.

Face Down is on Emancipation.

That song is funny because mainly when we did The Gold Experience — Prince was a pretty thick skin I think for the most part in terms of critics and stuff like that. He didn't have a whole lot of concern about it. He'd kind of watch it roll off his back.

But I remember going to his office one day and he was reading this review of The Gold Experience, because most of the ones we saw were great. And I recall walking in his office, and he's kind of walking around his desk. I come through the door and he's walking around his desk and he's got the newspaper in his hand, and he said, "Look at this, man," and he gives me the paper and I look at it, and they're just going in on us - it's lackluster, it's this, that and the other, and just really tearing us up. And it really bothered him. It got under his skin like I'd never seen him before, kind of where he was bothered by it. And I could see it, and I was like man, you know what - and I just said it.

I just went on a cussing tirade. I won't do it here, but I just went on a cussing tirade and said, "They can kiss my butt - matter of fact they can lay us all in caskets face-down and kiss our butts on the way out." And he's just laying on his desk laughing. He's just dying, because I just went on one, like man, don't even worry about it, they can kiss all our butts, man, collectively or singularly. And it was like he was dying. Two days later, we had a thing you could call and hit the intercom, and I hear, "Morris come to my office," and I go up to his office. He's got this song done, mixed, mastered, everything is done in two days, and it's all the cussing I did the day in his studio, like all the stuff I said was on that record, and he just called it "Face Down," and I was like you have got to be kidding, man. And it was like grooving, and I was like wow, this is so crazy. He can just do that like that. It's like I left; he goes in the studio that night; he does the music and writes the lyrics and then boom. I come in two days later, he's playing it for me in his office like check this out. And I'm sitting there with my mouth open like you could drive a truck through it.

Talk about making lemonade. You get a bad review and you get a good song out of it.

And get a good song. And that's the kind of thing he could do. He was amazing that way. Just prolific. And I've heard other stories from some of the band members before my time. Same type of situation. The way "Cream" even came around, how he just needed another song, and they were like yeah, we need something pop, kind of something like this. And then all of a sudden he goes in the studio [snaps fingers]. Like that quick, "Cream" comes out, and it was like, there you go. Just like in a day.

That's insane.

And it's just like okay, you want this? Boom boom boom, thank you, goodnight, here's your tape. And Warner Bros. is like, oh my God, that's it. Thank you, goodnight. And we know what happened. And he could do that in an instant. It's remarkable. I often times feel like I got to sit around a modern-day Mozart and just glean and learn from somebody that was operating at that frequency. It was really remarkable. I can't even count how many times things like that would happen, and you just got to shake your head and go, wow, that's crazy.

More from Morris Hayes


The Gold Experience (1995)Crystal Ball (1996)Emancipation (1996)Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic (1999)The Rainbow Children (2001)


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