There are no signs outside. Even under the glare of the hot summer sun, Paisley Park Studios, the fabled birthplace of some of pop music’s most revered songs, displays few signs of its treasure. Pulling into the sprawling white brick compound on the side of a highway, 30 minutes outside downtown Minneapolis, everything is surprisingly quiet.
Then he appears. Standing in a side doorway, dressed in all black from head-to-toe, a long metal medallion dangling around his neck.
“Welcome to Paisley Park…I am so very glad you came.”
Like Willy Wonka greeting a child who just won a golden ticket, the brother spins around, lets out a huge Chesire cat grin, and ushers me straight inside…
But — this man is not Prince. Instead, the gatekeeper is 25-year-old Joshua Welton, the keyboardist in Prince’s latest band, the husband of the band’s remarkable drummer, and, not only the co-producer of Prince’s latest album, Art Official Age, but if you believe in liner notes, the biggest musical collaborator the musical icon may have ever had.
“The first time he ever met me, he just ran over and gave me a huge hug,” Welton laughs, sitting at the console of Paisley Park’s main studio. “All he knew at the time was that I was [his drummer’s] husband, and I was like, ‘why is Prince squeezing me so hard like that?’ “
With their thick vault-like doors & soundproofed walls, massive mixing boards and racks and racks of audio equipment, recording studios all typically look the same. Personal touches are all that reveal who may be creating inside. Given the immaculate purple floor and ceiling design, the large purple candles glowing behind Josh as he speaks, and the eponymous glyph symbol emblazoned in the center of each of the giant speakers, in this space, there is no mistake.
“I still can’t believe I’m here…”
PRINCE: “People always ask me… ‘Why don’t I get the Revolution back together?”
For the first time in decades, Prince shared his spot on the “produced, arranged, composed & performed by…” credit line that has been a signature of his albums since his 1978 For You debut. Joshua A. M. Welton is even listed as the recorder and mixer of 2014’s Art Official Age, an album many describe as Prince’s best crafted and most urgent in years. It was released along with a rock hot band album called PLECTRUMELECTRUM, a fierce guitar funk workout that debuted Prince’s new all-female three-piece, 3RDEYEGIRL. Those two records, along with a barn-burning worldwide tour that had fans not only squealing to the rare live sounds of “She’s Always In My Hair,” “Housequake” and “Something In The Water (Does Not Compute),” but also to a loud new set of jams like “FUNKNROLL,” “PRETZELBODYLOGIC” and “FIXURLIFEUP,” re-invigorated all those Prince playlists that were in danger of coming up in too many ‘Classic’ Pandora search results on your phone.
But it was the opening song of Art Official Age that signaled perhaps something even stranger was going on in Minnesota. Up-tempo & atmospheric, with pretty girls whispering things in foreign languages, the track flipped itself in its last minute, hijacking the beat into a dark, head-knocking dub-step like end section. The Prince-ly strings and guitar licks were there, but the arrangement said something younger, fresher, now.
“Prince wants me to create as freely as I can,” Welton says quietly, his fingers dancing on the studio levers in front of him. “He still has final approval on everything. But a lot of times, after he adds his vocals and guitar or whatever, he won’t touch much else…”
Could it be that the master notorious for controlling every part of the mix and playing every instrument, the genius musician who, in a 30+ year career, has only been heard on a song he didn’t produce completely himself three, maybe four times (prince.org members — pls check my stats!) now has a creative partner?
And if so, how did this 25-year-old Chicago-based dancer and keyboardist kid, formerly of an R&B group called Fatty Koo, end up with the keys to one of music’s most sacred kingdoms?
PRINCE: “Can you imagine what would happen if young people were free to create whatever they wanted?”
“It kind of started with a challenge,” Welton remembers, sitting at the center of the mixing board, a 10-song iTunes playlist of the new Prince album, HITNRUN, cued up on the screen in front of him.
“I was working on some of my own stuff in this tiny studio room Prince has here when he walked in one night and just handed me a hard drive. He said he had given a copy of the same stems to these two other producers in the big studio and he wanted to see who could finish the song better.
“ ‘Let the best man, win!’ he said.
“It was crazy, man! I mean, I had no idea Prince even knew I could produce like that! And here I was, creating a folder on my personal computer that said ‘Prince Vocals.’ I was freaking out!” Josh’s large neck medallion starts swinging as he gets excited, his eyes widening. “But then I had to see it as a gift, and just try my best…”
The announcement of the winner didn’t come directly.
“Over the next few days, there were a lot of artists and musicians in and out of here, and I could hear them asking each other, ‘What’s Josh working on in the little studio?’ but I didn’t know if he had heard anything… So Prince actually has own personal kitchen at Paisley that’s kind of right behind where I was making the music, and a few days later he just came around and said, ‘Josh, I’ve been hearing the funk through the walls!’ And I guess that was it…”
WELTON: “Sometimes Prince comes in and plugs his guitar up right here by the soundboard…”
[phone rings] “Yes. Yes…. No, not yet. OK. Sure…. Yes, sir.”
Prince does appear as if like magic. Maybe it’s his slender frame, or the prototypical Prince outfit that he’s never caught not wearing, complete with a pair of 3-inch man pumps that have defined so many of his rock star style moments.
“I wanted to say hello,” he says making brief eye contact, grateful, it seems, for the successful orchestration of his entrance.
Part of the Prince mystique certainly comes from his speak-to-me-if-you-dare reputation, but if you treat Prince awkwardly, he will respond awkwardly. If you give him too many ooohs and aaahs and melt from the disbelief of being in his presence, then he will likely retreat from you behind a far-away stare and a few whispered, one-word answers. But if you talk to him normally — and that’s really hard to do considering all the times you’ve danced and cried and…done all types of things to his songs — a smart, funny, and super passionate music head will reveal itself. One who just happened to have written “Purple Rain” (and “Adore” and “Kiss” and “Joy In Repetition” and
PRINCE: “Kendrick Lamar just has something he has to say.”
“Can you imagine what would happen if young people were free to create whatever they wanted? Can you imagine what that would sound like?” Prince asks.
He tells Welton to play a song the young producer had just been working on. Raw & unfinished, without any vocals laid down yet, the pulsing, electro stutter-step beat instantly knocks through the studio. My screw face comes on. Josh smiles. Prince continues.
“I mean, you can’t hold something like that back! That’s the sound of someone not restricted by anything — not the matrix of a record deal or a contract or a system that’s not dedicated to the music… That’s a sound that has to come out!”
Prince has heard a lot of music. He has written a lot of music. His recording career began when he was 18 years old, already a gifted player of multiple instruments. He’s performed for thousands of shows, toured the world over and over, sold over 100 million records, and changed the game more than a few times before rappers could even boast about such a thing. But here he is, in 2015, as passionate about a new song that he’s hearing as ever.
A few years earlier, Prince simply told me “I am music.” It was not intended as a cocky declaration, but more an attempt to try and acknowledge what consumes him, how he thinks, an effort to describe how his mind is somehow wired to notes and chords differently than the rest of us.
“Like [my asst] is from Ethiopia, and when you go there, you hear so many wonderful new things,” Prince says talking about the tall, striking woman he had walked in with who now sits down next to her presumed boss, a pen and pad in hand. “Sometimes it takes me a few days to get it, if, like, I don’t understand what [the new musicians] are saying, but truth in music is undeniable…”
Prince is most comfortable talking about other people’s music. Speaking directly to Josh and his assistant, he drops his appreciation for Kanye West’s “Gold Digger” (“the way he made something new with that sample was perfect”), Jill Scott’s “A Long Walk” (“every song on that first album was the truth”) and Kendrick’s Lamar’s whole To Pimp A Butterfly album (“He just has something he has to say. It’s pure. And with Thundercat on the album? Come on. You’re not taking ‘Alright’ off my playlist!”)
“But we have to make sure that young people also get to understand the masters. It’s like when I played Sly Stone to Liane La Havas…she had not ever heard him yet. Then she listened and was totally inspired.
“Do you know who Rakim is?” Prince asks the room, dropping another history lesson. “You have to look him up. He was one of the greatest. Doug E. Fresh schooled me to him one day when he was telling me about hip-hop. When Rakim walked into a room, Doug E. said he was so good, everybody just went quiet.”
Does that happen to you?
“Yep” he answers with a frustrated smile. “Everybody always stops talking or doing anything when I walk in! They say it’s the artist who changes, but…I don’t know, I really think it’s everybody else…”
HITNRUN is Prince’s latest project. Co-produced, mixed and mastered by Welton, it’s Prince’s 38th studio album. And it brings with it a whole new musical vocabulary. Dubbed “super experimental” by the band, perhaps as fair warning to the faithful, the record’s 10 tracks introduce a new set of beats and rhythms and moods to the Prince canon more than any album since, say Around The World In A Day took a left turn from the guitar-drenched Purple Rain-rock that preceded it. Welton co-produced the album, but even more so than on Art Official Age, the young producer’s musical expressions are all over it. A strong, kinetic club-ready energy dominates the album, with pulsing bass lines and sampled sounds that fly in seemingly off beat from everywhere. It’s not a pretty or lyric-driven record, but more melodic in a hard, warehouse rave kind of way, with catchy keyboard licks that appear halfway through tracks like much-needed drinks of water.
Welton says he makes his beats with melody in mind first. And his music proves that. Listen to Art Official Age’s “Clouds,” “U Know,” or the dreamy ballad “Way Back Home” and you will hear memorable piano lines that make perfect marriages with Prince’s yearning, multi-layered balladry. On HITNRUN though, the melodies are more slaves to the rhythm, an orientation not unfamiliar to say, a good contemporary club remix. More than one of the songs on HITNRUN actually are remixes.
WELTON: “I better not mess up the chords to ‘1999’!”
Welton pays homage to much of the Prince catalog (the album opens with a mash up of the intro to For You) by literally grabbing riffs and samples from prior albums, chopping them up to create a new sound, and then spraying the pieces over a new, harder set of electronic beats. The flips of “Breakfast Can Wait” or “This Could Be Us” sound like they could be from a Diplo or Skrillex remix tribute album. And that’s a good thing. Prince has always gone in wildly directions musically, and for many of his legions of fans, that is the main reason they remain so enamored (and admittedly, sometimes confounded) by him. Rock, funk, pop, jazz, dance, even classical, could all be legitimate genre sub-titles of the Prince archive. But HITNRUN still somehow sounds like Prince. A clear musical connection has been made between Prince & Welton, teacher & prodigy, that is evident in the confidence with which Welton cues up every new banging track.
“I had been in Paisley Park for almost a year before he gave me that drive,” Welton continues. “I was just here to support my wife Hannah (3RDEYEGIRL drummer Hannah J. Welton). But the blessing was that it also gave me time to just be around him and watch how he works, like, see his genius up close and connect with his energy.”
One of the energies that has come roaring back in Prince’s music over the past few years is of the sexual kind. It’s in the pounding of Art Official Age’s “Breakdown” or the guitar wails at the end of PLECTRUMELECTRUM’s “ANOTHERLOVE.” It’s all over HITNRUN’s lead single, “HARDROCKLOVER.”
Ain’t no rapper trying to be a singer / I’ma make her moan…
Welton shyly professes to “only thinking about Hannah” during those charged-up sessions in the studio, and claims Prince “never lost his limp” on any of their new collaborations. But while many Prince love songs have certainly joined couples together in holy matrimony, it’s that more primal, guitar-drenched Prince jam that you play on that first night of your honeymoon that always sticks with you a little more. I mean, Prince ain’t really Prince without some sacred-meets-profane yelling and screaming, right?
“It really is amazing to see him work. When I have a beat ready that I think is funky, I‘ll send it to him, and then he’ll send it right back with vocals or a whole new arrangement for a crazy string section. Sometimes he’ll even come in and plug his guitar up right here by the soundboard and just lay something down while I’m staring at him! He’s just able to create so much. And he pushes me and the whole band to be better and better. I’ve never worked so hard in my life. I can’t tell you how many times I leave Paisley and don’t even know if it’s supposed to be day or night! But it’s all for the music…”
“This is our job,” Prince says. “Writers often use the word ‘prolific’ with me, but I don’t think that’s right. When you’re committed to something like we are, when you spend the amount of time on something that we do, then you’re bound to create a lot. This is what we do. And that’s why who you let into your space is so important. I watched an interview with Hannah on YouTube before I even wanted to watch her play. I can get any great drummer. But one with the right energy? That could fit in here with everybody?
“It’s hard to explain…” Prince trails off, looking down for the first time.
PRINCE: “Jay Z and I did a deal in 90 days…”
While Prince speaks passionately about how important the freedom to create should be for young people, and how empowered young folks must realize they are thanks to all the new technologies of their time, he is probably most outspoken about his progeny avoiding the pitfalls of the music business. As an artist, he’s consistently fought to maintain full creative control of his work. He’s been determined to release exactly the music that he wanted to — including when and how much — and railed publicly against the economic unfairness of a typical artist contract where a record label not only makes the lion share of an album’s profits, but also owns an artist’s master recordings (hence the word ‘slave’ he scrawled on his face during a mid-nineties battle he waged against Warner).
Prince has generally won most of those battles (his first recording contract with Warner Bros. was historic in that it gave the teenager full autonomy over the final product, and two years ago Prince reconciled with the label in a historic re-negotiation that gave him back his masters in a new more “fruitful” licensing deal) and it is admiringly understood that his name change to the unpronounceable “love symbol” in 1996 was driven, not by a creative urging, but by the contractual truth that he could only own & record what he wanted if he didn’t use his the name he signed with. But now his mission is to expose what he sees as the inequities in the soon-to-be-dominant digital music business.
“They’ve just set up another system that you have to go through to get your work out. They don’t give you any money to help you create the music or to promote anything. But they want you to send all your work to them, for free, and then just wait for a check. How is that fair?
“And then they ask you to perform for them for free!” he exclaims. “They’re going to take your show and sell it to advertisers, right? So they think artists are stupid.
“But when I had my assistant call [the networks] back to tell them what my price was for me and the band, then they knew better…” (“The day he made that call was the night we recorded HITNRUN’s ‘Million Dollar Show,’ ” Welton tells me later.)
HITNRUN will be released exclusively on Jay Z’s new Tidal music service. A streaming app to compete with giants like Pandora, Spotify, and the new Apple Music, Tidal launched with the fanfare that not only would it stream higher quality audio to its subscribers, but, because it had artists at the helm, would also pay a higher royalty rate to its artists. Tidal, notably, was launched with a cadre of 16 celebrity “artist shareholders” including Beyoncé, Kanye West, Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, Madonna & Jack White, who each were reportedly given 3% equity in Tidal for their public endorsement. Given the service’s current size (by most reports, Tidal so far has < 800,000 paid subscribers), this business move may limit the new album’s audience, but Prince see’s a greater upside.
“Jay Z and I did a deal in 90 days. He gets it. And there’s no matrix.…”
There is a lot of memorabilia throughout Paisley Park. The hallway that connects the studios to the large sound stage area is decorated by a timeline of floor-to-ceiling reproductions of Prince’s most iconic images & album covers on one side, display cases of his various Grammy, MTV and American Music Awards on the other. When the hallway opens to the lobby, revealing Prince’s real motorcycle from Purple Rain, it may as well serve as a ‘No Amateurs Allowed’ warning for artists that come through to record with the Purple One. But the framed black and white photograph that sits behind the mixing board of the main Studio B, likely holds more emotional significance to the boss. John L. Nelson, a composer and songwriter in his own right, died in 2001, but the influence on his son (Prince was in fact named after his father’s stage name) has always remained.
“When you get inspired, it just flows,” Welton says when asked how he can possibly keep his confidence up, a rookie creating in a room with a legend. “It’s like, when you truly know what you want, your fingers and the computer can’t move fast enough!” He still often pinches himself thinking about the reality of him and his wife’s journey with Prince over the past two years, but Welton tries to stay in the moment with it.
“Not only do I have to create all this music up to his incredible standard, and mix and master it all…but I’m also in the band now, so it’s like I have to learn his whole catalog to go on the road! And I better not mess up the chords to ‘1999’ or anything! That’s one of the greatest songs ever — and Prince and his fans hear everything!
“I’m just so blessed,” he exhales, “and there’s so much history here. I’m just thankful we will tell that next part of the story together…”
Prince has nothing left to prove after a 30-plus year career. He’s created music that will be played for generations to come and achieved the type of artistic and commercial success that is remarkable for an artist who, from day one, rebelled against the status quo. But now he’s found another inspiration, another fuel source that can lift and give shape to his relentless, uncontrollable urging to create. It’s safe to say there have been others: Andre Cymone, Wendy & Lisa, Larry Graham. But when Welton says, “Making music is as natural to me as breathing,” you can hear his boss somehow thinking and feeling the same. If that connection lasts, HITNRUN, will only be the beginning of what the pair will create.
“I just wanted to come say hello…” Prince says, nodding at Welton before getting up to leave. “But I don’t want to interrupt you hearing the rest of the music.” Welton returns the nod, and gets ready to click Play.
“You know people always ask me… ‘Why don’t I get the Revolution back together?’ ” Prince pauses, then turns and smiles. “But, I mean…for what?”
Smokey D. Fontaine is the founder of the a+ creative studio, a digital agency dedicated to creating world-class celebrity content.