Catching class with the coolest professor around.
If you’re not a little old lady like I am, then you might not remember the days of lying on a shag carpet listening to vinyl or CDs. That’s what it feels like sitting in on Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson’s course on Prince at New York University with Universal Music executive Harry Weinger, which is the second class that the two are teaching together at the Clive Davis School Of Recorded Music. The first was a course on classic albums; I attended a lesson that was all about Michael Jackson, a particular highlight being a rare recorded studio session of MJ crying while singing “She’s Out Of My Life” because he’d just gone through a break up with Tatum O’Neal. This course feels like that lesson extended over seven weeks, where Prince’s journey to genius is highlighted and punctuated with relics from ?uest’s personal stash.
?uestlove didn’t start out as a Prince fan, and that made me feel better the moment I sat in on his class to learn about The Purple One. It’s not like I just learned about him on New Girl, but someone like Prince is intimidating. You can’t just say, “I’m a Prince fan” without backing it up. At least I can’t. People tend to do that though as a badge of honor, because Prince fanhood marks you as someone who listens to “good music.”
Wearing a t-shirt featuring Prince’s mug shot, a blazer and a white Lego heart pin, ?uestlove came equipped with two laptops—one for the projector and one for him, while Harry worked the soundboards. ?uest’s government name, “Ahmir Thompson,” is on the right hand corner of his laptop, which I found to be adorable because the de facto leader of The Roots and Late Night With Jimmy Fallon turned Tonight Show star could’ve typed “God” in that corner, but he’s humble. He’s so humble that he sits for three hours a week to talk about Prince to a bunch of NYU students. (You can tell that he loves it, though.)
Not that this class is built off shooting the shit. There are a handful of required readings, including “textbooks” like Toure’s Prince book I Would Die For You, the 33 1/3 book series novel on Sign Of The Times, Billboard Magazine’s Prince cover story from last year, and some out-of-print books like Dance Music Sex Romance, Behind The Mask, and My Time With Prince. This session was more of a warm-up class, however. Harry and ?uest sat before roughly twenty attendees in a studio at Clive Davis and started right at the beginning of Prince’s career. Pacing the course comes down to the art of storytelling, and properly taking the life of a legend through a step-by-step story. It’s much easier to ingest and digest the information that way, especially after taking ?uestlove’s own Prince fandom into account.
As I previously mentioned, he wasn’t a Prince fan to begin with. As a youngster, he found his way to The Artist because his dad told him not to listen to “that guy wearing a diaper.” That made him want to get involved with Prince’s music even more, and there was an earlier story though about his first real encounter with Prince’s music. “The way that Prince came crashing into my world was that my mother got the news of my grandfather passing away,” he recalls, detailing the moment his mother collapsed in her kitchen by the news. “Because they thought I was too young at the age of seven, they ushered me out of there.” It was no sight for a child. “My sister put the family headphones on me,” he says, “even though I was wondering ‘why is mom having a breakdown downstairs?’” The first song playing was a premiere announced by radio host Doug Henderson of a “new guy” named Prince. He plays “Soft And Wet.” And that was that.
As for Prince, there’s a lot to learn. He was kicked out of his house in his early teens in Minnesota, which ultimately made music his home. By 18, he was shopping his demo to labels, and ?uestlove passed around a copy of one of 25 original demos that Prince shopped. When asked how he had such a relic, he smirked and said, “I found this outside just now.” Prince was a one-man band, playing every instrument. At 20 years old, he demanded from his label that he’d have complete creative control, a first for any artist outside of Stevie Wonder, who had to earn that honor before receiving it. His label dissension was apparent, pulling his dealings with Warner into his music: “We Can Work It Out,” “For You,” and “Had You” are all musical letters to the label.
While the course discusses Prince’s history, it also covers a huge chunk of his inspirations. The two professors play a song from the inspirer—for example, Michael Jackson—and chase it with a Prince song to show the influence-slash-progression. “He didn’t want to be too black, too white. Too masculine too feminine,” ?uestlove says. The two discuss his venture into Rock territory, dressing in crazy spandex and makeup to get the attention of the world “by any means necessary.” ?uestlove reveals the anecdotes, Harry ad-libs with facts. The two even shock each other with random factoids, which is cool to witness. Since Prince pulls down most of his video content online, ?uestlove had to go into storage for his “goodies,” along with whatever falls out of the secret internet’s mouth. A story of My Time With Prince about Prince’s debut on Dick Clark at 19 is backed with video proof, where Prince instructs his band to act aloof during the interview. He answers Clark’s questions with one-word answers. “This is painful for me to watch,” ?uestlove says. “Geniuses often get there by accident,” he explains, noting that many artists are self-saboteurs in the face of success. “Despite his standoffish nature, this plays into his favor for the first ten years of his career. The mystery. And dare I say the last Pop artist that demonstrates that.” He substantiates this theory by using Madonna as an example of the Pop star to follow Prince. Madge did allow people into her world, “whereas Prince never explained it.”
To merely say Prince was innovative does no justice to what he’s actually done for music history, and if you’re not literally sitting down and learning about it, it’s easy to not understand it. “Prince really wrote the blueprint for Hip Hop,” ?uestlove says during the portion of the lesson involving the “swag” factor through Morris Day and the Time. “There are 20 examples of the blueprint we’re following now that he did first.” He also cites Kanye West’s current state of ranting about being marginalized as something Prince also went through. They end the class leading into Prince’s third record Dirty Mind, playing a song about Prince being raped by his sister to escape his homelessness in a paradoxically upbeat track that ends with intense anger. Then, he stops the track. “To be continued…” ?uestlove says.
?uestlove is a fan of music, obviously; he just happens to know more about music than you and the rest of the world probably ever will. For someone like myself who isn’t well-versed in Prince at all, I’ll be downloading a ton of his music this weekend. (Legally, of course.) I don’t expect it all to come at once, but if it comes up in the future I’ll probably feel much safer calling myself a Prince fan.
Kathy Iandoli’s favorite color was purple long before this course. She's on Twitter. - @kath3000