Up All Nite with Prince, Episode One: The Atrium


'Up All Nite with Prince' podcast art.
'Up All Nite with Prince' podcast art. (Prince Estate/Sony Music Entertainment)
Up All Nite With Prince: Episode One
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Up All Nite With Prince is a new documentary from The Current! Host Andrea Swensson will explore Prince's prolific and reflective period of 2001 and 2002, the era when he launched his trailblazing NPG Music Club, released The Rainbow Children, One Nite Alone..., and put out a collection of live recordings from the One Nite Alone Tour.

This two-episode special was produced in partnership with the Prince Estate and Legacy Recordings, and coincides with the forthcoming reissue of Prince's early 2000s material, out today.

The series is also available as a podcast on multiple platforms (Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Play, Stitcher. Episode Two of Up All Nite with Prince will debut on The Current next Wednesday, June 3 at 9 p.m.


Audio: "The Work, Pt. 1" from The Rainbow Children

VO: This is Up All Nite with Prince, a two-part audio documentary about Prince's prolific and experimental period of 2001 and 2002, brought to you by The Current in collaboration with the Prince Estate, Paisley Park, and Sony Music Entertainment.

Renato Neto: He was provoking the audience and his fans to be open minded, to listen to different music — more open, more improvisation, more jazz in some way, you know?

Najee: You know, a lot of times when people ask me about the Rainbow Children album, I always equate it to Miles Davis's Bitches Brew. It was really a departure from what Prince normally did.

Scottie Baldwin: He was just brewing onstage. He was concocting his composition. ... The composition was free. He was free.

VO: The early 2000s were an exhilarating time to be a Prince fan. Prince began the new millennium by announcing that The Artist Formerly Known as Prince was finally free of all major-label obligations and would once again be known by his birth name. To celebrate, he made a dramatic shift away from touring behind his hits toward creating music that felt more jazz-oriented, exploratory, and free — and thanks to his groundbreaking NPG Music Club, he was able to share his new work with his fans online the moment he created it.

This was an era when Prince was flying under the radar of mainstream consciousness — a decision, let's be honest, that couldn't have been too difficult to make, given how cruelly the media had treated him when he changed his name to a symbol the decade prior. Instead of catering to a pop culture landscape that failed to understand him, he chose instead to speak directly to his longtime supporters — and it gave him the room he needed to spread out, think deeply about his work, and find a more authentic creative path.

Audio: "Ure Gonna C Me" from One Nite Alone...

If you weren't a member of the NPG Music Club, you might not even know about some of the work Prince released during this period--including his studio albums The Rainbow Children and One Nite Alone..., and live recordings captured on his 2002 One Nite Alone... Tour. For the uninitiated, this is a great time to dig into these expansive releases--all of which are being reissued by The Prince Estate and Sony on May 29, 2020.

I'm Andrea Swensson. I'm an author, radio host, and music journalist in Minneapolis, and this era of Prince's career has always intrigued me. I have vivid memories of Prince announcing his first Celebration events at Paisley Park in this period, which drew fans to the Twin Cities from around the world. And my curiosity about what Prince was up to out in Chanhassen would jumpstart two decades of writing about and researching his work.

Fade back up and out: "Ure Gonna C Me" from One Nite Alone...

When it came time to call up folks about the One Nite Alone... period, I knew I had to get a hold of Sam Jennings, the web designer who helped Prince launch his NPG Music Club, and one of Prince's only employees in this era.

Audio: "Family Name" from The Rainbow Children (beginning computer voice message with "welcome...")

Sam Jennings: Pretty much the whole time that I was involved, which was about nine years, it was like a skeleton crew. There was never like the heyday of the Warner Bros. days, when it was 30 people and he had three assistants and all that. That stuff was all long gone. So musically, he hadn't really done much after Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic. He was just sort of doing shows here and there, releasing songs here and there, kind of putting things up online a little bit, but nothing that really had a strong push behind it.

VO: When Prince made the announcement that he would once again be known as Prince, he held a press conference and said, quote, "My main concern right now is to take time to study things of a spiritual nature. So I'm going to go away for a while, and do that." When he emerged on the other end of that period of reflection in early 2001, he had an outpouring of new material and a new idea for how to get it to his fans — or his "fams," as he liked to call them.

Sam Jennings: The NPG Music Club was an online music business that went from 2001 to 2006 that Prince started, and I started it with him. It went through many different phases, but it started out as a sort of direct music service. So Prince could release new music every month and give it to subscribers, and so sometimes it would be three or four songs a month, and there would be like an audio show, which nowadays we call a podcast, and we would deliver all these to people directly to their computer, and it was something that really excited him because it was a direct connection to the fans. His whole career was about getting rid of middlemen. And we kinda take it for granted now, but at the time in the early 2000s...this is like pre-iTunes. People were still living in the shadow of Napster. The record labels were all very scared of the Internet. And this was the first actually artist-owned business that took advantage of the Internet as a distribution tool for music. And for him it was just really liberating and he really enjoyed that freedom.

VO: Freedom was a major theme throughout Prince's career, and especially in this era. He was finally free of any obligations to the major label recording industry, free from the glare of the mainstream spotlight, and free to explore and push his music in dramatic new directions. Invigorated by his recent collaborations with the jazz drummer John Blackwell, Prince set out to find more new bandmates who could help him develop his sound.

Audio: "The Other Side of the Pillow" from One Nite Alone... Live! - at 2:00, Prince says "Najee!"

Najee: So I get this call — I get this call and there's this guy on the phone and he says, "Najee, the Artist would like to speak to you but he's gonna have to call you back in a few minutes." I said okay. I didn't expect a return phone call, to be honest with you. [2:19]

VO: This is saxophonist and flautist Jerome Rasheed, better known as Najee.

Najee: [continued from above] So about maybe 5-10 minutes later, you know, the same guy gets on the phone and says, "I have the Artist on the line." Prince gets on the phone; he says, "Yo, man, what's up?" I said, "I don't know, what's up?" He says, "When you and I getting together? When are you and I gonna play?" I'm like, "I would love to play with you." He says, "What are you doing right now?" I said, "Well, I'm at home in LA." He says, "Why don't you come out to Minneapolis?" I said, "When do you want me to come?" He said, "Why don't you come out right now?" I said, "Man, I can't come out right now." He says, "Well, when can you come out?" I said, "Well, maybe by next week or so." He said, "Alright, I'll have somebody call you." Click, and he hangs up the phone. and then maybe about an hour later I get a call from a travel agent and he flies my brother and I both out first-class to Minneapolis and we get there, and for the first few nights we were just hanging out at Paisley Park. He's taking us to clubs, that kind of thing; just hanging with him and getting to know him a little bit. And then finally he says, "I want to record with you." I said, "Man, I would love to do that."

And we were doing jam sessions every night, from like 2:00 in the morning to like 4:00. And then he invites me to come record with him at Paisley Park, and so I go in the studio. I'm not really sure what I was...what to expect in terms of what he was going to do. And that project ended up being The Rainbow Children.

Audio: "Rainbow Children."

VO: As Najee remembers, this was no ordinary recording session. Prince seemed to be searching for something very specific, and he worked to draw it out of Najee.

Najee: He directed me. He was engineering the session. We didn't have an engineer, and he was behind the board, and I was in the booth in the big room that he had. Studio A, I think it was called. I think he was kind of going for like a '70s kind of vibe — you know — almost like back in the late '60s, '70s, like the Marvin Gaye type thing. So it ended up being a very fascinating record, because then he would ask me to improvise things, and then he would tape parts that he wanted from my improvisation and create other parts. It was just really fascinating to watch the way he worked.

VO: Being at Paisley Park alone with Prince was an intimate experience. It gave Najee a rare glimpse into Prince's daily life.

Najee: You know, there weren't a lot of people there, other than working staff. Prince kept a very controlled environment, and I recall when we were doing that record date, some children just randomly ran in the studio to come see him. There was probably like three of them just ran in, and I think they were children of the staff that he had there. And he stopped the session and he said, "Najee, give a few minutes, man. These kids just came in." I said okay. He stopped the session and he just spent time with the...he was very patient with them, you know, you could tell they were used to interrupting him, you know? And so that was it. I sat there for probably 20 minutes while he sat out there. He talked with them, played with them, and it was just really nice...you know, really nice.

VO: In early 2001, Prince brought in several musicians to help him complete The Rainbow Children. In addition to Najee and the drummer John Blackwell, the album features the singing group Milenia, Kip Blackshire, Morris Hayes, the Hornheadz, and the legendary funk bassist Larry Graham, who had become a close friend and spiritual mentor to Prince in this era.

Within weeks of the album being completed, Prince decided he would premiere it at his June 2001 Celebration, a now-annual event that coincided with his birthday and brought fans from around the world to Chanhassen. Here's Sam Jennings again.

Sam Jennings: I know, because we had the Music Club at the time, he really felt that he had a very active audience that he could tap into, like he had his hardcore fans kinda gathered together and organized in a way that he hadn't done before. So his idea was, let's invite the Music Club to the celebration and let's let them listen to it before anybody else. And so he knew this was his hardcore audience. These were the fans that were gonna appreciate it the most. He wanted there to be discussions. He wanted there to be talks. He wanted us to spark some kind of dialogue just about God, about religion, about not specifically Jehovah's Witness stuff, but those concepts and ideas. And I think that was an extension of perhaps the Bible study he was doing. He just wanted to broaden it out and include a bunch of other people. I remember being at Paisley Park and taking part in a lot of these group discussions, and every once in a while, he would kinda pop in, and he leaned over to me one time and said, "This is what I always wanted Paisley Park to be: a place where people were sharing these heady ideas and debating things and having these really heavy discussions."

VO: One of the people who remembers getting into a deep conversation with Prince at Celebration was the rapper Common, who was invited to Paisley Park to perform that year along with Alicia Keys and Erykah Badu.

Common: Performing at Paisley Park for his birthday was my first experience of really getting to be around Prince, and, you know, that's something that I value as one of my greatest life moments.

Walking into Paisley Park, I was, like, first of all thinking about Purple Rain the movie. But then going to the grounds, I was like man, this is a true empire, like this is like...he built something that's like just not only amazing but just felt like, it felt, like, empowering when I walked into Paisley Park. And he had a green screen, where you could obviously shoot films, you could shoot videos, you could...commercials...and then, you know, it was his, it was like you saw all these costumes or outfits that he had wore from different years and they were like pegged by the year and they were like hanging up in the same area where we were performing. And you realized just the history of this performer, this artist, and that what you were walking into was truly something that was monumental and legendary: a place that would always be held as one of the greatest sources of music, Paisley Park. And also I got to see, at one point I walked, we walked into a room. It was myself, Erykah Badu and Prince was there and Larry Graham and there was one other individual and we were in the room all talking. And he had this little bucket on the side. It was the cuss bucket. If you cursed, you would have to put money in. But I made sure I didn't do anything, curse...I didn't do anything that was gonna get me kicked out of Paisley Park. I was like this is, this is Prince. I just wanna absorb this moment. So during that time we had a great conversation...everything from God, music, to just fun stuff. We talked and sat for at least...I remember it being at least about an hour and a half, maybe longer, just talking and getting to know each other. And then at one point I walked out and saw the doves, that he had doves around, so, you know...obviously you think of "When Doves Cry" you like, it was like walking into a place where you read the fairytale, you read the story and then you get to see all the things you read about, like even from the standpoint of...you know, he had a basketball court in there and along with the performance that I was able to do at Paisley Park, which was The Time - myself, Erykah Badu, and Alicia Keys, before she really even had come out, just to show you how Prince is up on stuff. She hadn't even released her project, but he was somehow aware of her, and I wasn't aware who she was, but she was like, she was just this young girl with braids and like...and Prince was really, you know, was giving her love and respect. If Prince put his stamp on it you knew it had to be something; she was something.

And I remember performing and being like, wow, this is amazing; I'm performing for Prince at Paisley Park on his birthday. His mother and his father were there. That was amazing, like they were sitting in the audience. The Time...you know, it just was a special moment. It's probably, you know, for me one of the greatest moments I've had in my career.

Andrea Swensson: Wow, that's so special that his parents were there, because they both passed away within that next year.

Common: Yeah. when I went back to Paisley Park, and we walked into the studio, his father was there playing piano so that was a moment I'll always be like...you know, wow, I just got to hear Prince's father just playing piano, just playing for the love of it, just right there.

Audio: "One Nite Alone..."

VO: Prince was deeply influenced by his father's piano playing. It's something that he would reflect on years later at his Piano and a Microphone Gala at Paisley Park in January 2016, as well as in the early draft pages of the memoir that he started writing before he passed away. Around the time that Prince was wrapping up The Rainbow Children at Paisley Park, Prince also recorded a stunning, mostly solo piano album One Nite Alone... Rather than play the songs in one of Paisley Park's studios, Prince chose to record this collection of songs in Paisley Park's Atrium. By the time One Nite Alone... was released, Prince's father had passed away. In the liner notes, he dedicated it to John L., short for his dad's name, John L. Nelson.

Audio: "One Nite Alone..." (cont.)

VO: Okay, so. I am in a really, really special place right now. I am at Paisley Park. I'm in the Atrium of Paisley Park, which is this big, open, brightly colored, beautiful room with these four glass pyramids at the ceiling. And there's light pouring in, it's an afternoon, and this building is empty. I don't know that I even need to emphasize this, but I'm sitting here in just an extraordinary moment. The world is on pause because of COVID-19. There's shutdowns across the country, and throughout the world, and Paisley Park is currently closed to the public. There's only a couple of people here, doing a little maintenance work, taking care of the building, and there's something really, really poignant about sitting here in this quiet Atrium on this quiet day, almost completely alone, at Paisley Park, because, you know, I've been thinking a lot about the early 2000s, and what was going on in Prince's life, and as Sam Jennings, one of his employees, told me, this was a really pared-down time to be a staff member at Paisley Park. There weren't a lot of people here. Prince spent a lot of time alone in the building, creating, maybe just hanging out or creating with one or two friends, or musicians, and this is what it would have been like. And it's really something, honestly, to sit here in this moment and think about that.

So the Atrium is a beautiful space. If you have ever gone on a tour of Paisley Park, or if you came here back in the day...if you came to shows, you might not have seen it, because we are in a different wing of the building from the soundstage, but if you came here for any other reason, maybe one of the earlier Celebrations, you would have seen this space. it's kind of the main lobby of the building. There's a small kitchen off the Atrium where Prince could grab a snack or a coffee or tea as he was working in the studios, it's really close to both studios A and B, they're just down the hall, and it's just off the main entryway where people checked in and told them that they were here to see Prince. And then when you look up on the second floor...there's the doves! They're in a cage. There's currently three doves living at Paisley Park, and we're going to see if I can go up there and talk to them a little bit and hear some of their secrets.

Audio: "Pearls B4 the Swine"

VO: So this is Divinity. And Divinity is having a snack, and giving me a little side-eye. Which is fine. I don't take it personally.

This was a space, where, as many people have remarked who worked with Prince, he would like to come here and sit and think. And in the early 2000s it was such a deeply reflective period for Prince. He was reading so much, he was learning so much, he was reconsidering his entire faith, and you know there's that picture of Prince sitting right here in the Atrium being filmed by Kevin Smith and his documentary film crew and talking to his fans about The Rainbow Children, and about the lyrics, and his thoughts on religion and spirituality and philosophy, and that's what Prince had always imagined this place could be, and that's what it became in this era. It was a place where Prince could really connect with people in a real way, in an intimate way, and to welcome them into his world in a way he hadn't done before. And it's really a privilege to be sitting here.

Audio: "A Case of U"

VO: That's Prince's cover of Joni Mitchell's "A Case of You," a song he would perform live throughout his career, and was recorded in the Atrium for One Nite Alone... When I played it for the doves, Divinity perked up and inched close to the edge of the cage.

In the nearly two decades since The Rainbow Children and One Nite Alone... were released, their legacies remains strong within the fan community, and scholars of this era continue surfacing new ideas about what Prince was expressing to the world. Since this was such an important time of connection between Prince and his fans, I wanted to call up a couple of the purple fams who have been passionate advocates for and students of his One Nite Alone... era.

Erica Thompson: I am Erica Thompson. I am a full-time reporter for The Columbus Dispatch, which is the daily newspaper in Columbus, Ohio. I am also working on a Prince book; I have been for about ten years now, about his spiritual journey. So it's been really cool to interview people who worked with him and then also try to do some analysis of the spiritual themes in his music, album by album.

Andrea Swensson: Wow. Ten years.

Erica Thompson: Yes; quite a while. But, you know, Prince is so vast and there's so many things to study even within the bubble of spirituality that it's understandable that it takes some time.

Andrea Swensson: Because you're such an expert in this, I'm wondering if you could just describe for me where was Prince at in his spiritual evolution in the early 2000s.

Erica Thompson: So he was raised a Seventh Day Adventist, but he also spent some time in the Methodist church, so he grew up with those core Christian beliefs. And at the beginning of his career, though, he had this message that I like to call like a sex-based spirituality, meaning that he was able to find liberation through sexual freedom, and you can see that in songs like "Uptown" or "Party Up" and then even "Sexuality." But then by the time you hit Purple Rain, you start to see some tension between the sexuality and the spirituality. [3:34] And then by the time you get to The Black Album and Lovesexy, he has this spiritual epiphany, and I believe that the Lovesexy album has its strongest exaltation of Jesus Christ up to that point, so you have that really strong Christian message. And then the cool thing about Prince is that he just changes again. So throughout the '90s, you can see him studying other spiritual systems, especially Eastern spirituality through Hinduism and Buddhism, so you hear him talking about reincarnation and the third eye, and the way I look at it is, it's not a rejection of Christianity, it's kind of an expansion because he's just making room for all of these different beliefs. [5:29] However, by the time that you reach the Rainbow Children era, the early 2000s, he's coming off of some personal tragedy that we all know about: the ending of his marriage, the loss of his son, and so there was something about the structure within the Jehovah's Witness space that really appealed to him at that point and was able to help him through that difficult time.

Audio: "Everywhere" from The Rainbow Children

Erica Thompson: ...there's so much joy in the music. Like, Prince really seems to be happy and content for the moment. And you can hear it in songs like "Everywhere": "Without God it wasn't there/ Now I feel it everywhere." You can hear it in songs like "The Work, pt. 1" and "The Everlasting Now." So I think we can still get something out of the music even if we don't share his beliefs just because of how much energy there is in it.

VO: Darling Nisi is a self-described Prince hobbyist and creator of the Prince podcast Muse 2 the Pharaoh. Yes, that's a Rainbow Children reference. She's also one of my favorite people to follow on Twitter.

Audio: "Muse 2 the Pharaoh"

Darling Nisi: Something Prince said when talking about this time was to surrender your expectations. He's always been really known to do things that were unexpected, and at this point in his career, he seemed to be even more interested in asking questions about why and what is the truth and kinda facilitating those conversations.

And also it resonates a lot, because he doesn't often talk about race in the direct way he does in this album and both of these albums. Usually, it's a metaphor again, or he'll write a song for a different artist, and here, he's talking about some things pretty directly. And I've always felt like Prince was kind of someone who became part of the vanguard to talk about the black experience for people who weren't part of our community. And he does that in a very direct way in this album. That's really cool to see.

Andrea: Is there a specific song to you that really speaks to where Prince was at in this moment and kinda captures this era?

Darling Nisi: I think "Family Name" does.

Audio: "The Family Name"

Darling Nisi: when people talk about The Rainbow Children, they often speak of, "Oh, we're all here together and we're all the same," but he kinda breaks down what that phrase means during that song and talking about the Akashic records again...not a Jehovah's Witness doctrine. That's a new age thing. But what does it mean to be African-American, and there is black and white, but there's also people of color, and there's also tribes, and he kind of defends the idea of being a person of color to be important. On the website that he had around this time, he talks about diverse unity and unique diversity; that it's not a bad thing to talk about differences; it's that each of us brings something unique to the table in our experiences to make things more colorful, to make life more colorful. And he talks about that a lot in that song.

Audio: "The Family Name" continued

Andrea Swensson: In your opinion, what do these albums tell us about where Prince was at in his creative evolution?

Darling Nisi: So we're coming off of Rave, so this is kinda the first album that we get under his home name, and we know he's studying Jehovah's Witness faith, but more than that, he's again asking those questions, like what does this mean, what is the truth? He seemed to be aware that people really wanted him to be who they remembered him as.

Audio: "The Everlasting Now" from The Rainbow Children

So he seemed to be [saying], this is who I am now. I need you guys to catch up with me.

Audio: "Xenophobia" (from One Nite Alone.... Live!)

Darling Nisi: (continued from above) It's not just Jehovah's Witness and the Akashic records...that's a new age thing. Or even American history. A lot of things that we study or are presented to us, we have a narrative that is not necessarily right, so he's kinda taking us on a journey as he's learning, and it's not just him, you know, at Paisley Park or in a small place in Minnesota thinking about these things. He wants to share that with everyone so that we can all grow with him.

VO: Up next on Up All Nite With Prince... we're going to dive into all the incredible recordings from Prince's One Nite Alone... Tour, and hear from musicians like Renato Neto who jammed with Prince for hours every night, often playing until the early hours of the next morning at legendary aftershows.

Audio: "Take Me With You" from One Nite Alone... Live!

Renato Neto He [was] always very provocative, you know, and saying we're not gonna play "Purple Rain," you know, but then always would play. It was like a game, you know? It was fun, you know?

VO: Up All Nite with Prince is produced by The Current and supported by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment's Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund. This program was produced in collaboration with the Prince Estate and Sony Music Entertainment and with their support. This story was hosted and produced by me, Andrea Swensson, produced and edited by Anna Weggel, and mixed by Corey Schreppel, with production support from Brett Baldwin, Lynn Elliot, Cecilia Johnson, David Safar, and Derrick Stevens. Thanks to Trevor Guy, Michael Howe, and Zack Hochkeppel. To learn more about The Current, visit thecurrent.org. If you haven't subscribed yet, search for Up All Nite with Prince on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. Also, to learn more about Prince, visit Prince.com.

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