Pop life: Prince to receive BET lifetime achievement award

Prince plays Orange Bowl
Prince performs at the Orange Bowl during his Purple Rain tour in Miami, Fla., April 7, 1985.
AP Photo/Phil Sandlin

One of Minnesota's most famous musical sons will be honored this weekend for his contributions to musical culture -- and it's not Bob Dylan.

Prince will receive a lifetime achievement award from the cable TV network BET as part of its annual awards show on Sunday night. It's a high honor for a man who's only 52 years old, and probably still has decades of music left to write.

For such a world-famous musician to continue living in Minnesota may seem unusual to some. We asked some prominent Prince watchers to talk about Prince's relationship with his hometown.

THE PERSONA

Marty Keller, owner of Media Savant Communications in Minneapolis, witnessed the beginning of Prince's ascent but probably never would have predicted it. Keller was writing for City Pages in the late 1970s, and went to see a teenage Prince play at the Capri Theater in North Minneapolis.

View a slideshow of Prince's career.

"I thought, 'Cool band, interesting costumes, there's some good songs here,' but the stage presence had not been worked out," he said. "It was totally flat."

Six months later, Prince had another big gig at the State Theater, which Keller also covered.

"And it was night and day," he said. "He had somehow transformed into Prince, with very little clothes on, and he was tearing it up.

"I think the Twin Cities were the perfect place to create an anomaly like Prince," he said.

Prince in Las Vegas
Prince performs at the unveiling of his 3121 live entertainment venue at the Rio Hotel & Casino November 8, 2006 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Keller said back in the early 1980s, when Prince started hitting the charts, the Twin Cities was one of the whitest radio markets in the country, and ironically, the last to play his songs.

Prince was the opposite of white. He had a multi-racial, mixed gender band that played music that invited everyone in, white and black, straight and gay. Prince himself grew up on a steady diet of Sly Stone, James Brown and Stevie Wonder, but was also exposed to a healthy dose of Midwestern rock and pop, because that was all the radio played.

For Keller, part of Prince's genius is how he melded the two.

"I don't think anyone's done it better," he said. "I would imagine 30 or 40 years down the road since then someone has, but not with the reach that he has, and original brushstroke."

There's always a strong temptation to compare Prince to Minnesota's other even more reclusive icon, Bob Dylan. But to Keller, a more interesting pairing -- one that maybe reflects the ying and yang of Minnesota culture -- is with another performer who had a meteoric rise in the 1980s: Garrison Keillor. Keller says Keillor represents the good country stock who settled the state.

"And here's the libido, the Minnesota libido manifested in Prince -- the bad boy who's not afraid to run around almost undressed on stage, and talk about sexuality and really push the social norms of Lake Wobegon if you will."

THE MUSICIAN

"He works harder than any musician I've ever worked with in my life," said Michael Bland, whose first regular job as a musician was drummer for Prince. He was a 19-year-old Augsburg College student playing with the legendary local R&B band, Dr. Mambo's Combo.

Prince plays Super Bowl XLI
Searchlights and fireworks illuminate Dolphin Stadium as Prince takes the stage in the halftime performance of the Super Bowl XLI football game in Miami on Sunday, Feb. 4, 2007.
AP Photo/Alex Brandon

Prince saw Bland at Bunkers one night, and basically hired him on the spot. That was in 1989 and Bland drummed for Prince's group, the New Power Generation, for the next seven years. What Bland admires most about Prince is how he always looks forward artistically, and how he remains committed to his craft.

"A lot of people these days, they really want to be famous. They don't really want to be great at what they do, they just want to be famous and/or rich," said Bland. "I think that has been the key to [Prince's] success, to stay true to the art itself."

But taking direction and trying to please someone who can play 25 instruments, and record and produce his own music, isn't a walk in the park. Prince is notorious for being a perfectionist, and playing for him means having to constantly meet his incredibly high expectations. Bland never found it to be relaxing.

"It's gonna cause you stress either way," he said. "Whether you're not up for the challenge or whether you are up for the challenge. You're gonna go through the same minefield and hope you don't step on anything."

Which makes you wonder where the joy was in working for Prince.

"I think George Clinton put it best, which is, 'funk is its own reward,'" said Bland. "Just to be playing with the best of the best."

THE ENDURING MINNESOTAN

Prince has always been extremely protective of his brand, and distrustful of anyone who might try to benefit from his music or image. But he opened up to Minneapolis writer Neal Karlen, who did a cover story on him for Rolling Stone in 1985.

In fact, Karlen got a career boost for being the guy who got Prince to break his silence. Karlen says he pretty quickly found Prince to be canny, smart, and bonded to his home in Minneapolis, which surprised Karlen.

"Because this seems like the last place he'd want to be, out of just pride," Karlen said. "This is the last place in the country that played his music.

AP Photo/Frank Micelotta
Prince, center, talks with some of the 20 children who will appeared in a music video at Los Angeles city Hall Saturday, May 27, 1991. Prince, sporting a new hairdo, formed a new band, the New Power Generation, with whom he toured later that year.
Frank Micelotta/AP Photo

"I love telling friends in New York or L.A., if you see astretch limo here it's either Prince, or the graduation class of Richfield High School on prom night."

Some years ago, Prince packed up his Paisley Park belongings and moved to Los Angeles. Prince sightings at stores, on the highway, and certainly at the club, ceased. But, for many, it was inevitable he would move back, and last year he did.

Now, people are spotting Prince regularly again. He's even popped into Karlen's favorite Minneapolis coffeehouse a couple times.

"It's so funny because right across from the coffee shop, Patrick Stewart walked in one day when he was performing at the Guthrie, and the entire neighborhood was talking about it for months," Karlen said. "And yet Prince, who will go down as probably one of the great musicians of the century ... it's sort of like ho-hum."

It's like an unwritten rule in Minnesota: Don't swarm on the celebrities, especially the ones who live here. Bland thinks Prince really appreciates that.

"Prince can go to the Byerly's in Chanhassan, buy a couple things off the shelf and go through the line and there's no hassle," Bland said. "There's no paparazzi, there's just people shopping and oh, there goes Prince. I think that he enjoys that, whereas in Los Angeles, he can't go anywhere."

But that doesn't mean there isn't a special place in the collective heart of Minnesotans for Prince. A psychoanalyst might theorize that Prince makes people here feel less homogeneous and more open minded. But Marty Keller doesn't take it that far.

Former music critic Marty Keller said Prince is just a homie who's done well.

"He definitely appealed to people of lots of different sexual persuasions, races of all colors, and that's to his credit," he said. "But I don't think of him like that. I just think of him as, this guy's a monster talent, and we have him here."

In nearly every aspect of his career, Prince has been a pioneer. He was the first to demonstrate how a musician could use the Internet to achieve independence, in Prince's case a very wealthy independence.

As for Prince's lifetime achievement award from BET, he's only 52. Given his renowned productivity, he's got years of music still to write, and he's probably stashed away what would be four careers' worth of songs for other musicians in the vault. Maybe that's what BET is really celebrating.

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.