“I heard you were looking for me,” said a deep voice on the other end of the phone. It was the fall of 1996, and Michael Jackson was holding court in a posh suite at the Four Seasons Hotel in New York. The King of Pop had instructed his handlers to contact his old peer and rival Prince for a planned collaboration. The prospect for such a headline-making union was indeed intriguing. For much of the ‘80s, Michael Joseph Jackson and Prince Rogers Nelson took turns ruling the musical landscape. MJ, the gifted Motown child prodigy who made good on his ambition to become the biggest pop star to ever walk the earth with the release of the record-breaking landmark Thriller. Prince, the at times outrageous, androgynous, one-man-band performer and producer who backed up his genius rep by pulling off one of the most unlikely coups in rock history after unleashing the multi-platinum 1984 Purple Rain soundtrack and Oscar winning film. A rivalry was born.
But more than a decade later, both had found themselves in a battle to save their respective careers. MJ struggled mightily to fight unproven child molestation accusations as the tabloid brigade hounded him relentlessly. Prince declared war against his longtime label Warner Bros. and changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol as he headed deeper into obscurity. Indeed, a team-up between the two icons would be perceived as a brilliant masterstroke. “I think it would be just great,” MJ told Prince. Yet, the collaboration to end all collaborations would never happen. Both aging legends would achieve comebacks on their own terms. With the untimely June 25, 2009 death of Jackson, their connection grows even more profound. The fact that the public is still enamored with MJ and Prince speaks volumes for their cultural impact and influential contributions to music. But what did these two titans really think of one another? Was there a true rivalry or deep respect? VIBE presents the Oral History of a King and a Prince.—Keith Murphy
A KING AND A PRINCE (1970-1982)
AHMIR “QUESTLOVE” THOMPSON (Leader, producer and drummer for the Philadelphia hip-hop band The Roots): I have an actual theory on why we started connecting Michael and Prince together early on. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that both were born in the summer of 1958 in the Midwest and both basically represent different phases of the coming-of-age life of black youth. Michael captured the imagination of post civil-rights America as a youth and he was their guiding light. And Prince captured the same post-civil rights America when they became teenagers and helped them mature into adulthood.
ALAN LEEDS (Former tour manager for Prince and James Brown; Co-editor of the book The James Brown Reader): I remember seeing Michael’s first big tour with the Jackson 5 in 1970. When I was out with James Brown we crossed paths in Dayton, Ohio. They were playing the O’Hare Arena in Dayton the night before we were scheduled to perform. Onstage he had a charismatic presence that very few people had. I remember we were staying at the same hotel. And before the gig, I happened to be in the hotel lobby when the J5 left to go to sound check. I saw them come through with their security; screaming kids were outside the hotel and I recall seeing Michael and he looked like a little pimp [laughs]. He had that confident walk and he was only 10 years old! He totally understood, “Hey, I’m the star. I’m the reason these kids are out here.”
CYNTHIA HORNER (Former editor of Right On! Magazine from 1976-2005; Currently writes and edits for Hip-Hop Weekly): I met Michael back in 1976 and he was one of the shyest people that I’ve ever dealt with. It was a little difficult to interview him because even though as a professional entertainer he realized he needed the press, he wasn’t somebody that knew how to relate to the media in terms of being open with information. He was just super shy unless he was around his family. But he picked up the fact I was shy as well, so he kind of embraced me and we became friends. He and Prince were quite similar because Prince was shy as well. If you were a journalist he would give you the same monosyllabic answers that Michael did. But Prince would also speak in riddles a lot of the time; he was very evasive. He would never answer any of my questions [laughs]. He wanted to keep his privacy protected at all cost.
BRUCE SWEDIEN (Michael Jackson’s studio engineer for Off The Wall, Thriller, Bad, and Dangerous): It was very obvious to both me and Quincy [Jones] how great Michael was. He was somebody really special… the ultimate talent. We did a bunch of demos after listening to Rod Temperton’s music for Off The Wall. And Michael, in his typical fashion, went home, stayed up all night, and memorized the lyrics and we recorded those demos without a piece of paper in front of him. You tell me one other singer that could do that.
CYNTHIA HORNER: The first time I encountered Prince was in 1978. He kept calling me over and over again and I really wasn’t returning his phone calls because I didn’t know who he was and I really didn’t care. But he called me so much that I just wanted to get rid of him, so I agreed to meet with him down the street from my office, which was in Hollywood near the recording studio he was at. He wanted me to go to the studio to see a jam session. But what I didn’t realize at the time was that the jam session consisted of just one person: Prince! He played all of these different instruments. Prince was trying to prove to me that he was worthy of coverage and that he was more talented than probably a majority of the people who was appearing in [Right On!]. At that moment, Prince let me know that he was a songwriter that could produce, sing, and play all these different instruments. This was an once-in-a-lifetime talent. Once I saw that, I agreed to interview him.
ALAN LEEDS: Michael wasn’t a musician in the classic sense. He approached his music differently from the way Prince did although Michael could write a great song as well. But Prince was arguably a musician first. I don’t think there’s any doubt that Prince saw Michael as a symbol of where he wanted to go in terms [of notoriety]. Michael was one of the few artists on the planet that Prince did respect in that sense. Once we realized that he was in the process of writing what was the original idea for the film Purple Rain as he was scribbling in notebooks during his 1982 tour for 1999, we knew he wanted more. The word was beginning to spread: “Hey, Prince really thinks he’s writing a movie.” I don’t think any of us took it that seriously because it didn’t make sense that somebody who at that point only had a few pop hits was going to be able to get the funding for a film. But it certainly revealed an ambition he had and to his credit Prince would go on to pull it off.
CYNTHIA HORNER: I would give Michael copies of the magazines and he would see certain people in the book and ask me lots of questions about the artists he was interested in. And that’s how he was introduced to Prince. After that, I started to let Michael listen to some of the Prince music I had and he was intrigued. At that point, I realized that there was somewhat of a rivalry developing. Michael had been in the business longer, so naturally he didn’t want to get replaced by the newcomer.
BRUCE SWEDIEN: Prince is wonderful…just an incredible talent. Both he and Michael had a cordial relationship. They even hung out a few times. It’s common knowledge that the song “Bad” was written to be a duet between Michael and Prince. But as you know it never came together. When Prince left the studio after we were working on “Bad” he decided to pull out of it. He left the control room and as he turned around to go he said to us all, “Don’t worry, this record will be a big hit even if I’m not on it.”
ALAN LEEDS: But the thing about Michael coming to Prince and wanting him to do “Bad,” that really pissed him off. Prince was like, “Oh, he wants to punk me out on record. Who does he think I am, crazy?” He couldn’t get outside himself enough to realize that it was the kind of thing that probably could have benefited both of them. Still, it would have forever been Michael’s video with Prince as just a guest. So that captured what the relationship couldn’t be. They were like Ali vs. Frazier. And the media couldn’t get enough of pitting these guys against each other.
CYNTHIA HORNER: I take credit for that [laughs]. Right On! was a fan magazine, so I could get away with some of the things that I did. Michael and Prince were not actually battling each other on a serious level. But because I knew that was something the public found fascinating and everybody always talked about it, I wanted to have both of them on the cover together to project that element of Prince vs. Michael.
TEDDY RILEY (Longtime Michael Jackson producer): We looked at Michael and Prince as Gods. I still remember getting the first call from Michael to work on the Dangerous album. I was trying to get Q-Tip to let me use his studio in Sound Works on 21st St. I had the whole floor booked out. In one room, I was working on Jane Child’s “Don’t Want To Fall In Love,” the other room was Keith Sweat’s “Make You Sweat” and the other one was Guy’s “Why You Wanna DOG Me Out.” And I went into the other room and created “Remember The Time.” I brought Michael back to our world—the young, black, New Jack Swing world. That was the moment that people said “Michael is R&B again.” He wasn’t just the King of Pop. He was the King of R&B. And Prince was the king of funk-rock.
QUESTLOVE: You recall that ill-fated duet Eddie Murphy did with Michael called “Whatzupwitu?” I have five hours of raw footage during filming for that video. Michael and Eddie had a green screen behind them, so somewhere in that second hour, the conversation turns to Prince. And Eddie is like, “Yeah man…Prince is a bad motherfucker. I’m glad I’m working with you, but another dream I have is working with him too.” And I don’t even think that Mike knew the camera was on him and he goes, “Yes, he’s a natural genius.” And then four beats later, Michael says, “But I can beat him [laughs].”
BATTLE FOR SUPREMACY (1983-1993)
ALAN LEEDS: Prince went to a James Brown gig [in 1983] with Bobby Z, his drummer at the time, Big Chick, who was his security guard, and I think Jill Jones, who was one of his protégés. By now, everybody knows what happened at that gig. I don’t think Prince realized that Michael was going to be there. James looked a little puzzled in that video when Michael whispered in his ear, “Hey, bring Prince up.” And of course Prince didn’t really know what to do either. He went to the guitar first but he fumbles with that because it was left-handed. He played a few licks, did some dancing and knocked over a prop by accident. Now I always wondered if Michael intentionally brought Prince up to put him in that position just to say, “Hey, you think you’re on my a**? Well follow this, mother****** [laughs].” Bobby Z called me and said, “Oh boy…he made an a** of himself tonight.” He said Prince didn’t say a word the whole way to the hotel.
TITO JACKSON (founding member and guitarist of the Jackson 5 and the Jacksons): Sure, my brothers and I listened to Prince…“1999,” “Little Red Corvette,” “When Doves Cry.” Thriller and Purple Rain were part of our times. That was a great era, wasn’t it? You had two great artists both doing incredible music at the same time. And then you had the fact that they both were exceptional live performers. Some people feel as though Prince is the greatest thing since sliced bread and some people feel like my brother is the greatest. To me, that’s what made that era so special.
ALAN LEEDS: Before we set out on the Purple Rain tour, it was a case of Prince wanting to see what Michael and the Jacksons were doing in terms of production, lighting, staging and everything with the Victory tour. We charted a jet with a couple of his bodyguards and Jerome Benton from the Time and Leroy Bennett, who was Prince’s lighting and production designer for his tours. We flew to Dallas to the old stadium where the Cowboys played. There was a feeling in our camp that while what they were doing was a very solid stadium production, there was nothing really cutting edge about the technology. The Varilites, which was a brand name for a type of computerized lighting, was the gold standard in the industry at that time. And we made sure we had all that shit. But the Jackson’s production didn’t. Prince had a lot of respect for Michael, but he was mildly impressed with the show.
QUESTLOVE: Michael attended many of the Purple Rain concerts. I have the four Purple Rain shows that were in Los Angeles in ’84. And now that I realize that Mike was in the audience, I often watch it to see if I can spot him [laughs]. But it makes you think. Why was Mike there four nights in a row? You have already created Thriller, you’ve done the Moonwalk, you’ve done the groundbreaking videos and you’ve sold a million a week. You are officially in the Guinness Book of World Records. For all intents and purposes, Purple Rain sold 15 million units, but it was hardly the 33 million that Thriller went on to sell. So why are you this curious to who is behind you? Then I realized that you can’t be that successful without being competitive. Michael knew Prince was a serious threat.
ALAN LEEDS: Quincy Jones organized a lunch that brought Michael and Prince together. At one point, they asked him to be a part of We All The World, but Prince respectfully declined and offered to give them a song [“4 The Tears In Your Eyes”]. All I remember Prince talking about afterwards is that he thought Michael was a little bit weird. And this is coming from a guy who wore high heels and pajamas to nightclubs [laughs].
QUESTLOVE: There’s the now-infamous story about a ping-pong match between Mike and Prince in 1986 while Prince was overdubbing Under The Cherry Moon and Mike was working on Captain Eo. And they were both vying for the attentions of Prince’s girl Sherilyn Fenn, who back then was the hot shit. It was a ping-pong game gone bonkers. He said that MJ played like Helen Keller. [Editors note: Prince’s drummer Bobby Z has gone on record about MJ’s and Prince’s good-natured showdowns in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “They'd shoot hoops at [Prince’s] Paisley Park,” Bobby Z said of the unlikely pair. “Prince had a deep-seeded competitive nature, so it’s easy to see where he would measure himself against Jackson’s success.”]
TRAVIS PAYNE (Choreographer and associate producer of This Is It): The huge success Prince was able to have at London’s O2 [with 2007’s 21 Nights concerts] was important when Michael was putting together This Is It. The desire for Michael’s contemporaries to still be seen by their audiences gave him further confirmation that his ideas were right. It wasn’t about just competing with Prince. It was about him competing with himself. He wanted to hold the Guinness Book of Worlds Record for the most shows. He wanted to show he was the greatest. And he was.
DJ SPINNA: I met Prince last year in February in L.A. through Rashida who is his personal DJ. It was quite surreal, but he couldn’t quite comprehend the concept of “vs.” Both Rashida and myself tried to explain to him that it wasn’t really a battle between MJ and himself. It’s more of a tribute to their music. But Prince had issues about being pitted against Michael like that. You could sense there was a real respect between the two. That was one of the things that made me change the theme of the MJ/Prince parties. And the other reason that made me change it was of course Michael’s passing. I felt like he left such a great legacy behind and it was unfair to label it MJ vs. Prince because Michael is not here anymore. Its’ a celebration of Michael’s and Prince’s music.
KENNY ORTEGA: You know how rumors followed Michael… like a bad shadow and it wasn’t something that he could escape. But the phones started ringing in our pockets the night we were finishing up rehearsals for the London shows. It was so vague that most of us had become so used to the crazy rumors that we wanted to believe the news of Michael’s death as just another story. A short time after, we discovered he died. And to this day it’s still difficult for me to explain what that felt like. I lost my balance. I couldn’t walk. I had to be helped to another room. I remember the place was spinning and feeling that the floor had fallen out. The only thing I could see as I walked around was this level of sorrow. It was a dark day.
TRAVIS PAYNE: I told Kenny after Michael died, “We’re not done. We can’t be finished.” Not only would Michael’s message get out there as he wanted it, people would get to see him creating the very show he was going to perform. He actually reached more fans than he would have with the concerts with [the This Is It] movie. So that made me very happy. But there’s not a day I don’t think about Michael.
CYNTHIA HORNER: One of the reasons why we still care about Michael and Prince is because we will never know everything we want to know about them. They both understood the power of mystique. They realized that was part of their power they had with their fans. And it’s always going to be that way because there will never be another like those two. When people talk about someone is the next Michael and Prince, I just laugh.
WILL.I.AM: You think the really big people are going to be ass*****. And those artists are really not even that big. Then you meet real big artists like Michael and Prince and you are like, “Damn, these guys don’t act like the ass**** I just met last week.” The reason why the assholes act like that is because they aren’t really that big. Michael and Prince are as big as you can get.
FALLS & COMEBACKS (1994-2010)
ALAN LEEDS: Michael wanted to be dangerous but no one ever took that side of him seriously. But Prince was always dangerous because he wasn’t afraid to push the envelope. But then Prince tried to upstage hip-hop by singing in a microphone shaped like a gun. He was trying to relate to the rap audience by having those wack rappers in his band.
CYNTHIA HORNER: Both Michael and Prince had their problems later in the ‘90s. I used to see and talk to Michael a lot, but he started to change. I didn’t have very much contact with him; my contact was with all of his relatives. Michael had all these people that surrounded him that kind of prevented his old friends and business peers from having any contact with him because they wanted to control what was going on with him. His own family didn’t really have a lot of contact with him. And Prince was dealing with his own issues. He woke up one day and realized that some of his business decisions with Warner Bros. had not worked out in his favor. He began to protest the music industry. Everyone remembers when he wrote the word slave across his face. He didn’t feel like he got his just due financially and artistically. Both Prince and Michael became very inaccessible.
MICHAEL BEARDEN (Keyboardist for Jackson’s 2001 30th Anniversary Show and music director for This Is It): The idea was to do a 30th anniversary show at Madison Square Garden to celebrate Michael’s years in the business. But once people found out that it was going to be a big deal everybody wanted to be there! Elizabeth Taylor, Liza Minnelli, and tons of people were coming out. Michael didn’t want to do much on his own. He had just dropped his album Invincible. It wasn’t that people was upset with Michael. They were upset that other artists were onstage with him. They wanted to see more of Michael. People were not to cool with seeing all those other acts and Whitney [Houston] looking crazy [laughs].
DJ SPINNA (DJ, producer, musicologist and co-founder of Soul Slam’s MJ vs. Prince parties): We started the MJ vs. Prince parties in 2002. The whole idea came about after the success of doing Stevie Wonder tribute parties, which we started in 1999. And we thought who were the other two iconic music figures in the pop world but also made a major impact on black culture? And that was definitely Michael and Prince. I remember we did the first party at a venue in Lower Manhattan called Peppers and the crowd was overwhelming. During the parties, I play music from both camps—Michael and Prince catalogues—as well as artists that they have influenced and worked with. So you have the whole Minneapolis vibe going on with Prince, Sheila E, The Time, Vanity 6, Alexander O’Neal and you have Michael with Jermaine Jackson, Janet Jackson, and the Jackson 5. But at the end of the night, it’s really a party that reminds people of the best times of their lives.
WILL.I.AM (Leader of the Black Eye Peas; Has performed live with Prince and produced several tracks for Michael Jackson): I had a show with the Black Eyed Peas in 2008 and then late that night I performed with Prince at the Palms Hotel. I called Michael just before the show and I was like, “Hey Mike, I’m in Vegas.” I told him about the performance at the Palms with Prince and asked him if he wanted to come. He was a bit apprehensive at first, but I told him, “Let me call Prince to see if everything is OK.” I sat down with Mike after I finished a song with Prince and he comes down off the stage playing his bass and comes right to our table… ripping the bass in half! It was the coolest experience I’ve ever had. I was with both of my heroes. While we were working on new material for his album, MJ asked me why people didn’t think of him in the same way they thought of Prince as a serious songwriter. It was a shock to hear that coming from such an iconic artist.
KENNY ORTEGA (This Is It director): It was less about competing with Prince and more about respect. Michael felt God was going to give ideas to the next deserving artist who he felt was Prince. That’s a true respect, true admiration for Prince. He mentioned several times how he loved the song “Purple Rain.”