The man responsible for archiving Prince's fabled vault lifts the purple curtain for us.
‘Originals’ is a new 15-track Prince album featuring 14 previously unreleased recordings that showcase the vital role the pop icon played in the careers of a number of artists. Released by The Prince Estate, in partnership with Warner Bros. Records and TIDAL, the album includes multiple reference tracks for songs Prince wrote for the likes of The Bangles, Kenny Rogers, The Time, Sheila E., Apollonia 6, Jill Jones, and various others.
On the eve of the release of the new album, NME were invited to an exclusive listening event featuring a live Q&A with Michael Howe, the man tasked with archiving the purple one’s mythical vault and all of its contents – reportedly thousands and thousands of unreleased recordings, mostly on cassette. After listening to a portion of the new album, we sat down with Howe to find out more about Prince, the vault, and how ‘Originals’ came to be. Here’s what we learned.
1. ‘Manic Monday’ by The Bangles was originally written for Apollonia 6
According to Howe, Prince had originally intended on giving ‘Manic Monday’ to his fragmented girl group Apollonia 6, led by Patricia Kotero, who was renamed Apollonia by Prince when she starred in the movie Purple Rain. Howe revealed that Prince sent The Bangles two tracks to choose from before they eventually picked ‘Manic Monday’ as the one they wanted to release. Their version went on to peak at Number Two on the Billboard Hot 100. Who stopped them from reaching the top spot? That would be Prince, whose song ‘Kiss’ held the number one position for two weeks and was named Best Single Of The Year in 1986 by NME.
2. It’s unlikely that we will ever see a Prince hologram in a live setting
While many have questioned the ethics behind it, over the years we have seen several deceased artists resurrected in hologram form to perform on stage. We’ve seen 2Pac, Buddy Holly, and more recently Roy Orbison, digitally brought back to life to perform live (or so to speak).
So, what’s the likelihood we’ll one day see Prince back on stage? According to Howe, he doesn’t think it’ll ever happen. “I could be wrong but I don’t think it’ll ever happen,” he began. “Because from what I understand, Prince had expressed early on that he didn’t ever want to ever be depicted in digital form – and this was back at the end of the ‘90s. He foresaw what was going to happen.”
3. Prince knew that following his death his vault was going to be opened and the art within it shared with the world
As questions continue to be raised about whether or not The Prince Estate should have shared the contents of the vault with the rest of the world, Howe claims that Prince knew it was going to happen eventually. “It’s something I get asked about frequently and something I think about on a daily basis,” he said. “The best thing I can say is that there were at least two occasions before Prince passed away where he said something to the effect of, ‘I suspect that portions of the vault,’ or whatever this mythical depository is, ‘will emerge after I’m gone.’ Now that’s me paraphrasing, but there was at least one occasion that I can think of, and I think there was one other where he said something to that effect. So I think there was this notion that some of this stuff would emerge at some point, you know, after he had moved on from this world.”
4. The artwork for ‘Originals’ was shot by the same photographer who did the ‘Dirty Mind’ cover
Particular about every facet of his art, Prince didn’t just work with anybody, and this included photographers too. The artwork for ‘Originals’ was carefully selected by Troy Carter, on behalf of The Prince Estate. Wanting to use an image that was captured during the same timeframe the recordings on ‘Originals’ were laid down, Carter and Warner Bros. ended up choosing a pic by Al Beaulieu. A regular Prince collaborator, he’s someone who took a lot of photos of the pop icon, including the covers of albums ‘Controversy’ and ‘Dirty Mind’. “He had an extensive relationship with Prince and had a lot of connective tissue with Prince,” explained Howe.
5. Since Prince’s mythical vault has been infiltrated, “fewer than seven” artists have reached out to request posthumous vocals for use on their own projects
Last year, Drake featured some unreleased Michael Jackson vocals on the song ‘Don’t Matter To Me’, taken from his album ‘Scorpion’, which divided opinion amongst MJ fans. Some questioned the authenticity of the vocals while others claimed the use of the vocals were unethical. Jackson’s nephew Austin Brown later hit out at the rapper for using the vocals without direct permission.
Asking Howe if any artists had reached out to use some of Prince’s previously unreleased vocals, and whether or not the estate would even consider it, he explained he couldn’t really talk about it because “I’ve had to sign a tremendous amount of confidentiality agreements.” However, he did admit some artists had put in requests. “It has been fewer than seven. It’s somewhere between three and seven, I would say,” he revealed. “I think that circumstances would have to be extraordinary to contemplate something like that. Again, I’m not the unilateral arbiter of whether or not that happens, but it has been discussed.”
6. Some of the content on ‘Jungle Love’ was actually a dig at The Time, the group who released it
Another track featured on ‘Originals’ is ‘Jungle Love’. Written for the Morris Day-fronted group The Time, it’s a cult classic of sorts thanks in part to its appearance in the 2001 movie Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. Revealing that some of the content on ‘Jungle Love’ was, in fact, a dig at Day, Howe says there are also other unreleased records in existence that contain lyrics poking fun at the group’s guitarist, Jesse Johnson.
“I know the story,” said Howe, discussing the recording of ‘Jungle Love’ and the infamous line, “Somebody bring me a mirror.” “My understanding from people who were in the room at the time it occurred is that because of Morris’, shall we say, strain of vanity, or narcissism is probably a better word, Prince was wanting to lampoon a bit. I think he made [the mirror line] suggestion and Morris just kinda followed along as part of the complexion of the track when it was done. Prince kinda pokes fun at Jesse a little bit too in some other recordings that are, well, not super charitable I think, but there was certainly some rivalry there.”
Howe added that according to engineer Peggy McCreary, Prince was in a particularly “surly mood” on that day. “[Prince] came in shirtless and kinda antagonistic, and just generally more riled up than she had previously seen,” he explained. “Maybe it was – and this is strictly speculation on my part – maybe it was because there were other people in the room. Frequently it was only Peggy and Prince so because it was Jesse and Morris, Joe was there doing backing vocals, you know, it was kind of a full house. So maybe Prince was performing a little bit. It was also a day off from the tour so perhaps he had some energy to burn off in L.A. But I have heard about some of the stories in that session.”
7. ‘Baby I’m A Star’ was originally tracked in 1981
Featured on the diamond-certified Purple Rain soundtrack, ‘Baby I’m A Star’ might have been released in 1984 but was first tracked in 1981, according to Howe. The version featured in the movie was recorded during a live performance with The Revolution in 1983, which also served as the debut performance of the band’s guitarist Wendy Melvoin. It was later reworked by Prince, who added overdubs and other tweaks to the final version.
8. On the song ‘Holly Rock’ there are some uncredited vocals that no one can identify
Prior to selecting the songs that were going to feature on ‘Originals’, there were a lot of people in Prince’s camp who had no idea he even had a rough mix copy of ‘Holly Rock’. Written for Sheila E., the song appeared on the soundtrack for Krush Groove, the 1985 movie starring Run DMC based on the early days of Def Jam Records. In the true spirit of a reference track, when listening to Prince’s version you’ll hear he refers to himself as Sheila E. at one point as he simulates her rapping style.
Something else that came to light upon discovering the purple one’s ‘Holly Rock’ demo was the inclusion of some uncredited male vocals. “We tried everything to find out who it is,” Howe said during the Q&A portion of the playback. “Nobody has a clue who it is and there was no note of who it could be anywhere.”
9. Believe it or not, there was actually meant to be more material added to the expanded deluxe edition of ‘Purple Rain’
In 2017, a three-disc expanded deluxe edition of Purple Rain was released. Featuring the original album, a disc of previously unheard material, and a disc of 12-inch extended mixes, it was the first reissue produced under the deal Prince signed with Warner Bros in 2014 in order to regain ownership of his masters. But while fans were more than happy and incredibly grateful for what seemed to be a very generous offering of previously unreleased Prince music, it turns out there was in fact meant to be more.
“What emerged was not really the full complexion of what could have been with that,” Howe admitted. “First of all I should say that just getting something into the marketplace was a pretty Herculean effort and I’m glad that something emerged that people seemed to react favourably too. But it wasn’t quite as complete as I hoped it would be.”
10. Prince felt that Warner Bros. was a “great” record label for new artists to be on
The first time Howe was ever introduced to Prince was at a Paisley Park showcase a couple of years before his untimely death. “I wasn’t sure what to expect before meeting him,” Howe admitted. “But he was such a courteous individual. So welcoming.” Asking him if he’d mind sharing what it was he and Prince spoke about that first time, Howe revealed that while they didn’t speak for too long, Prince did proclaim that Warner Bros. was one of the best record labels to be on, and that it was a “great” place for new artists to develop.
Prince’s new album ‘Originals’ is out now exclusively on TIDAL and will be released on CD, download and via all other streaming services on June 21. 180 gram 2LP and deluxe CD + purple 2LP formats will follow on July 19.