Morris Hayes on 'The Rainbow Children'

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Morris Hayes, Prince's longtime keyboardist/music director for the New Power Generation, explains how Prince found the low-voiced narrator and visual effects for his 2001 album "The Rainbow Children." (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 fifth of ten.

The Rainbow Children

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 digging into some releases. And right now we're talking about The Rainbow Children, which is a really interesting release, and I must admit one that I really have familiarized myself the most with quite recently. It's a concept album. It's a lot more acoustic drums-driven than anything I had heard in years from Prince. Do you have any sort of context for what was happening around that record, what made this a really different sounding record than the stuff he put out most recently before that?

I think the quickest answer is John Blackwell. I think that's at the point where we had acquired John Blackwell on drums, and I think Prince really liked his drumming style and wanted to exploit that. And I think he really wanted to have a record representative of this new sound and this new guy. And so I remember getting into a big fight about the record because just again about mixed type stuff.

The other thing on the record that was interesting - I had a Mac laptop computer at the time. I was in the back messing with samples and doing some stuff that I could do with this software I was working with, and I actually have the computer speak the dialogue. And when he figured out I could do that it blew his mind. He was like wait, you just type this out and you hit play and then the computer talks back? He went bananas. He was like this is great. We're going to go in the studio and he said, "Write this out." And we wrote out all of this dialogue, and then he got this low voice thing that he wanted to do all over it, and he just went crazy with it. It was just like that piece of tech.

And the other thing that was cool - he saw that when I opened up iTunes there's a mode where you can hit this button and then iTunes - all these psychedelic - the Visualizer thing happened. And he's like that's great. I want that on the back wall projected behind us, like we're doing all the Rainbow Children stuff and we had all these Apple projections on the back wall. We actually had to call Apple to get permission to use that stuff. So we filmed it. Because again, this is early tech, and we didn't have like you could just export the video file out of this. You set a camera up and you shot the screen, and then you put it in a projector and then projected it on the wall. And so I had to keep the Apple symbol from coming up that would pop up every now and then with the name of the song and the big apple in the middle of it or whatever. And then do that.

That record was really interesting because he was just trying out a lot of different things, and then of course with him being a Jehovah Witness at this point from Emancipation on through, a lot of that doctrine and a lot of that influence was still present, and he was writing more spiritually, kind of like feeling type of music.

You mentioned briefly John Blackwell, an incredible drummer and an incredible part of the New Power Generation's story. You were with the group long enough to see some members come and go. I appreciate that you mentioned that you think that maybe the acoustic drum influence on that record being so prominent was the addition of John Blackwell. What other members of NPG do you feel like really changed the trajectory of what was happening? I hear that record and it sounds like Prince got a new keyboard, but that new keyboard is John Blackwell. He's just using and using it. Who else had that impact?

I think definitely Rhonda Smith brought a different - even when she came, because Rhonda is from the Jaco Pastorius kind of vibe. She didn't really know Larry Graham's music when she came. She had to be educated to Larry's sound and the funk sound. She's from more of a jazzier background. So once again, Prince knew how to get her into that influence, so he worked on her to get her on the funk side, but he definitely welcomed the other side. She played the standup acoustic type of bass that she had. It was dope that she would play, and he utilized that a lot, like a lot in everything from that era - The Truth - like all the stuff that was done around that time, he would have Rhonda play that bass because he loved the fact that when she glissandoed it was like you could feel the - it didn't have the fretted kind of thing like a normal bass would, and the tonation of it was different. And I think she was a big influence too, in terms of how he approached songs and utilizing her skill sets and just letting her just do her thing. I think that record had that kind of a flow to it, and he was cool with letting them steer that kind of sound.

Chatting with Morris Hayes, fantastic keyboard player, longtime member of Prince's group, and we're talking about The Rainbow Children right now, and again talking about the influence of different musicians, and also the influence of Prince's faith in that record really comes through. There's a particular track - "Everywhere" - which is a relatively short track, and it has this incredibly dynamic bell-filled drum part. The rest of the song is gospel and joyous. To me it might be the most joyous moment in Prince's catalog. Was this a record that - was this time full of joy? Was this a powerful moment?

I think it was. I think he was really accepting his transition in how he approached music and how he approached his philosophy I think. And he was just open. I think it was just one of those things where he wasn't afraid to take chances and to try something different. He definitely was in a place where he was having fun and enjoying not only what he was saying, but what he was playing. I think it was cool. He had these singers called Millennia that was singing background on some of the stuff - Kip Blackshire, I believe, had just started working with us around that era. So it was just like he was allowing all of those elements to come in and just paint this picture, and it was really cool, man, and just some of the songs - it was just really an interesting time for me, just seeing how the record progressed and how everything just kind of like - because it was a departure. It was like a real different kind of flavor from what he was doing, and just like I say, with that whole acoustic - just like drums throughout - not a lot of machine - the only really computer stuff was all the dialogue stuff that we did that was in there with the voice and everything. So it was really interesting.

As a person who lived through it, I want to ask your opinion about this. The song "The Work Pt. 1," which was one of the bigger songs from there - as a student and as a fan I look at that song and think of it almost as a thesis that lasts for a couple more records after that, where you're hearing an embrace of kind of the textures of James Brown with writing that's a lot more evolved than that. Do you see any of that?

Absolutely. I think that song, [and] "Prettyman," like a lot of things that came later, is all based off of that James kind of feeling thing. It just had - the bass line in that song is just so funky, like [sings], and then the drumbeat itself, it was very reminiscent of James and that whole thing, and it was fun for me because the organ thing - I just kind of got to do my thing there, but the vocals and everything - it was reminiscent of that kind of sound in that era, and definitely things that came later still had that influence on it. Like I said, "Prettyman," which was Maceo, and just kind of like taking that whole horn kind of vibe and keeping that funky, and the way he kind of flowed over the top of it, I think it was definitely some influence that would last for a little bit from that kind of a style.

I'm chatting with Morris Hayes, longtime keyboard player with Prince, and we're digging into a bunch of different music from this era and tracking the evolution of a little bit of a return to some fundamental funk sounds. You're a self-identified gearhead who was super capable of triggering samples and getting the exact right sine wave for all these things. When it became a littler more chunk on the organ type stuff, did any part of you go oh, do I still have a place in the band because it wasn't as gear intensive?

Here's the thing. That's also around the time that I left, was around that 2002 up until the beginning of 2005. That was the era I went and did some things with Maceo and would kind of come in and out as needed for studio or whatever the case was in the middle of it. Actually we even opened up for Prince during that Musicology time. But my thing was always being able to understand, number one, that there's nobody - that there will come a time when you'll be gone. My thing is everything after the first year was gravy on the steak for me. I never thought I'd stay that long. And every time I'd make it to another incarnation I was going like - look around like okay I'm not dead. I'm still here. Okay. The thing to do for me was to read the handwriting on the wall, just kind of see if the attitude changes, if my parts became marginalized, like I don't really need this and now you can play bongos on this. Then I'd kind of know I don't really have any relevance in this situation.

But it was cool. My thing is I wasn't mad about it in terms of as I saw my role either diminish or improve. It just was like he always said to me, "I don't make friends with my musicians that deeply because--" And I said why is that. And he said, "When it comes time for me to do what I got to do, I just want to be able to implement what I need to do and to keep it moving."

Of course that turned out not to be the case because he ended up - the band was mostly like family in a lot of the cases. Especially toward the end I think he did a lot of stuff with his band that he didn't - he used to travel a lot by himself on his own jet and stuff, and toward the end everybody rode with him and it was like this big family kind of vibe. I think that appealed to him in the end, and what he really came to enjoy. It was just one of those things like I knew my place in the room. I knew that nobody stayed forever. And everything over what I thought I was going to be there was gravy. So I never looked at it from a negative point of view, and I told him. I said, "Prince, I'm going to always be like whenever my time comes to go, I'm going to say much obliged to you and keep it moving." And that's the way I always treated him, so everything was cool when I left.

And I got let go a few different times throughout my time, and each time I'd come back when he'd ask me back, I'd just make fun of him and say you missed me, give me some sugar. And he'd do the "get outta here," like it was just one of those kind of things. I always looked at it like it's business. I don't take it personal. He says when new band members come it changes the sound, and he likes that. That brings a different flavor to the situation and it just changes the music.

Hosted by Sean McPherson
Audio by Michael DeMark
Video by Steel Brooks and Cecilia Johnson
Web feature by Cecilia Johnson

Morris Hayes on Prince's 1995-2010 discography


The Gold Experience (1995)Crystal Ball (1996)Emancipation (1996)Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic (1999)The Rainbow Children (2001)Indigo Nights (2008)Musicology (2004)3121 (2006)Planet Earth (2007)20Ten (2010)


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