“You Are a Prince to Us” is an unprecedented 4,000+ word account, the most detailed to date, of the making behind ‘Girl 6’, the Prince soundtrack to the 1996 Spike Lee film of the same name. It predominantly features a rarely-seen 1997 interview of Prince (then known as his unpronounceable symbol, or informally as The Artist Formally Known as Prince) performed by Spike Lee. Last month, Lee read this essay himself and expressed appreciation of it. Here is the article in its reformed entirety.
Both Prince and Spike Lee are responsible for some of the most critically acclaimed releases in music and film in the past half century. The tale of how these two media giants came together to release one of their few critical failures has not been appropriately explored in 23 years…until now.
You are a budding superstar in your industry.
Yet, you are in the midst of a corporate feud with your employer. You’re literally weeks away from being free from them. They are taking credit away from your work, attempting to silence it. The former employees of yours take the methods you innovated, the field you popularized, and fill its void, and even those still working for you are looking out for themselves.
Your public identity is used as a punchline. Some of your clients are weary, or at the very least uninterested, in your latest phase — as are some of your employer’s competitors.
Your co-workers have grown restless, and it’s not long before a majority of them have abandoned you too. The peers you spent decades surrounded by, unsolicitedly competing with — and dominating — have now taken advantage of your absence.
As you’re completing your recent travels, your fianceé has become pregnant. On your way to your fort of solitude you are contacted by a familiar face, a frequent, very successful collaborator. It may be a familiar calling — ‘I need your help, let’s do this together…’ — and while you have every excuse or reason to say no, you don’t. What you tell yourself: It’s your time to get back into the game.
Dig if you will, that picture.
While it sounds like a plot to Mad Men-type mini series, This was exactly what happened to The Artist Formerly Known as Prince when Spike Lee contacted him to make the soundtrack for his film, Girl 6, starring Theresa Randle and Isaiah Washington, about a struggling actress becoming a phone sex operator to make end’s meet. Spike had collaborated with the Artist in 1992, then known as Prince, to direct his music video for “Money Don’t Matter 2 Night,” and Lee had already made a name for himself with the recent films School Daze (1988), Do the Right Thing(1989), Malcolm X (1992), and Crooklyn (1994). With names like Madonna, Quentin Tarantino, and Ron Silver making cameos in this film, the movie seemed as close to being an anticipated hit as any film could have been at the time.
Meanwhile, the stardom that came with being Prince was fading now that he had become The Artist. His long standing relationship with his label, Warner Bros. Records, going on nearly 20 years, had soured over ownership of masters, last minute-cancelled releases, and differing artistic differences — essentially, the record label had poured plenty of money and confidence behind the Artist, and they felt like he should return the favor with more Purple Rain-esque work and less like that of LoveSexy. The Artist believed he had given enough, financially and otherwise, to the company and if they wanted to control his artistry (which they knew they couldn’t) they might as well let him own his work while doing it.
So almost a half-decade into public sparring through press releases, unauthorized compilations and botched releases (for example, Prince swapped music approved by the label with previously unapproved versions on the EP The Beautiful Experience), The Artist’s war was almost won, in his eyes. Now he needed to let the world know he was back in business, and out on his own. But how? He was two album releases, among other contractual obligations, away from being able to independently sell his own work, and even then that would only work for new songs, and he would still be unable to use his name or publishing group for years. There’s no way, at this climactic point of battle, that he could create a soundtrack and release it as Prince.
“File under Prince”
The very first time Prince and Spike Lee made contact was around 1986, when the musician called the director after watching his feature She’s Gotta Have It.
Over a decade later in February 1997 — a year after Girl 6 — Spike Lee interviewed The Artist in New York for Interview Magazine. Throughout this rarely cited article, the film/soundtrack and how it came about is barely discussed at all; it instead consists mostly of stories from the relationship between the two artists and their own peers, thoughts on being the pinnacle of their industries while black, and the issues they faced at the time that they would go on to change.
Most of what is discussed is instead about the other events between Girl 6’s opening release and this interview: This includes the oft-gossiped loss of The Artist’s child, his releases of Chaos And Disorder, his ‘private’ album in June that completed many of his obligations to his contracts, and Emancipation, the 3-disc EMI-distributed independent set that served as his genesis as a free artist, and even the rise of DreamWorks Productions and Records, where George Michael released his multi-platinum 1996 album Older and 1997 films Amistad, Mouse Hunt, and The Peacemaker. (Notably enough, this release marked the end of Michael’s own years-long legal duel with his prior label which Prince witnessed and took note of.)
To start, Spike describes one of his first interactions with Prince around 1990 — when Graffiti Bridge, Prince’s latest film/soundtrack combo at the time, was being produced and released. In a letter, Spike allegedly criticized Prince’s visual work for its lack of representation of black or brown women.
Lee recalled, “I think it was very rude on my part. I’ll be forty on March 20th and in a lot of ways back then I was too righteous about that type of stuff…” (According to the reprinted transcription, when Lee asked for The Artist to “tell the audience what was in that letter I wrote you,” The Artist replied, in very Prince-esque fashion, “I don’t remember exactly. It’s really vague to me.” despite claiming to remember it moments prior.)
“I wrote, ‘Are there going to be any women of dark complexion in your music videos and your films? You had only white women in your stuff,’” Lee continued. The Artist replied, “I probably said one had to look at everything I have done, not just the most successful pieces. But I have to be honest, I know you as a different person now, too.”
This didn’t sound like the start of something that would lead to a lifelong friendship; but it did. Prince’s secretive but powerful persona meshed with the strong willed, principled visionary that Lee is, and he became a unique congregant of the Prince universe. So Prince invited Lee and Monty Ross to the Graffiti Bridge set, and as we know, the two, together with rising comedian Chris Rock, formed a friendship that would last at least through the 2000s. This is foreshadowed by this interview, where the Artist and Spike clearly bond over their shared independence and unique creative processes, both of which they vocally wanted more of in the Black community.”
It can be assumed, based on what they are recorded as saying in 1997, that Lee had already completed production of the film and asked for Prince to make the soundtrack around Winter 1995/1996, and since he was still on the Gold Tour, in an ongoing contractual battle, and it was mere weeks before Cannes, there would have to be extraordinary efforts made by both ends to record an entire set of new material.
Regarding the soundtrack, what is known is that The Artist compiled songs that were mostly previously released b-sides or recordings by Prince-associated acts and allowed it to be released by Warner Bros. Records as a soundtrack album named “Music From the Motion Picture Girl 6″ …featuring ‘Songs by Prince’.
Yes, Prince, the name he had publicly abandoned and let go of using, even in his personal life, just to avoid legal hoops over releasing music.
If anything, this shows The Artist had faith that this would sell well, and if anything it could go as credit towards completing his Warner Bros. contracts. So the Artist goes forward, telling the world that Prince was back — if only for a short resurrection.
“U made a great sacrifice”
Spike Lee’s and Prince’s unique, parallel universes and the effects of Girl 6
The cameos, the star power, the combination of the two most successful, independent African-American creators on Earth at the time behind it, even a premiere screening selection at Cannes Film Festival couldn’t save Girl 6 commercially. It appears a film focusing on a Black woman sex worker surviving misogyny, sexual harassment and abuse of power, successfully maneuvering the combination of perverted and advantageous men around her, was just ahead of its time — and it surely would be received more positively by today’s society.
Even though this was in the years following his previous blockbusters, maybe Spike’s unique storytelling angle and production management was still unusual to audiences, and the story synopsis and critic reviews for Girl 6 didn’t entice more people to give it a try like they had with Malcolm X or Do the Right Thing.
Fox Searchlight, the film’s distributor, has let the film fall out of print excluding a 2006 DVD release with limited behind-the-scenes features, and the album followed suit for the last two decades, until the availability of the soundtrack on streaming services arose around 2017.
After a year, Girl 6 raked in less than ⅓ of its budget from production and was panned by every review. Yet in the 1997 interview, The Artist still spoke of the project favorably — maybe out of politeness, but would Prince have minced his true feelings, even for a friend, for an entire lifetime?
The Artist told Lee “Some worked stronger than others, but overall, musically, I didn’t know what to expect. I was pleasantly surprised and I like the film for the style in which you did it…” He even admitted to the director “your film gave me newfound respect for the music.” I think even for someone with a rising profile in a completely different field than the Artist, Spike receiving such admiration from Prince — or his former self — was worth more than any box office number or critic review.
They agreed at the time to work on “many musicals” — and while The Artist did have many more musicals and films planned, none seemed to ever come to fruition. “Some will hit and some won’t, but hey, we have the time.”
Reviewing the sacrifices of Prince coming to fruition and the aftermath of Girl 6
At first glance, it would appear the Girl 6 soundtrack is a throwaway compilation of old Prince and Associates music that the Artist gave to Spike Lee as a favor amidst his waning popularity, since he was unable to record new music under the Prince name. Over the last two decades, a lack of discussion about it from Prince, Lee, and most media outlets allowed it to fade into obscurity, coupled with the ironic fact that many Prince fans didn’t care much for Girl 6 due to the fact that it was under the name he was publicly stating no longer represented him.
Maybe, in a way, that was for the best — in terms of both music and film, the 1990s had an oversaturation of cultural masterpieces in both the African-American and mainstream markets. For non-fans, Girl 6 the soundtrack was as easy to write off as the film was, especially when the Artist released the last official studio album of his first Warner Bros. era, Chaos And Disorder, about 8 weeks afterwards, while Girl 6 was still on the Billboard charts. Maybe the Artist was intentionally trying to oversaturate the market — Warner Bros.’ biggest issue with his desire for more input — to stick it to his former label and negate either release’s marketability. (They would still receive majority of the profits from either album, of course, because Girl 6 was credited to Prince, still disputed intellectual property of the label; and Chaos And Disorder was exclusively sold under the Warner Bros. Records label.)
However, we should know that Prince — and The Artist Formerly Known As — operated more artistically and honorably than to release “throwaway” anything. While he claimed through press releases that all of the music was recorded when he was Prince, at least one song — the title song — had to have been recorded after completion of the film, as it samples sounds from the film in it, but it is credited to the New Power Generation.
At this time, though, The Artist was far and away more of a public advocate for Black people than the earlier Prince that Lee criticized was. He was working with more black artists than ever, embracing rap and supporting hip hop artists. He dedicated his entire ‘SL4VE’ protests retroactively to inspiring other Black creators. The Artist asked them to dedicate themselves to their own institutions, such as Lee did with his 40 Acres and a Mule Productions company, beginning with when he produced Malcolm X almost solely from his personal funds and donations from fellow Black celebrities, including Prince. Both became part of the few who were able to maintain their institutions for decades, albeit not as strong as they once had been.
Girl 6 did not meet expectations for either creator, but it was what both of them needed. This was the first of several Black-centric stories told back to back by Lee, as he followed this up with some of his most critically acclaimed work — Get It On the Bus (1996), 4 Little Girls (1997), and He Got Game (1998). If Girl 6 did anything, it led as a starting point to Lee growing as a truly independent yet constantly improving artist.
For The Artist, it was the more appropriate end to the Prince he knew and we all loved — although he’s often portrayed as otherwise, Prince often revisited his own works, and he learned to appreciate doing so from this film, but knowing there’s a limit. Around the 1997 interview, mere month’s after his only child Boy Gregory passed in infancy, The Artist approached Larry Graham seeking advice about converting into a Jehovah’s Witness. He briefly describes how his beliefs were growing stronger and how these along with his “thousand-year” marriage to Mayte severed many relationships: he describes how the last time they spoke to ex-collaborator/girlfriend Cat Glover told him and his wife that “she’ll never be what I was with you,” and how “Once I got married, the phone stopped ringing.” While Girl 6 is the oft-ignored release of 1995–1997 alongside the others, it’s the real bookmark on the times he had with Vanity, Apollonia, The Family, and eventually, even Mayte. By 1999, the only associated acts left that were involved with songs on the soundtrack, including the new recordings, were Eric Leeds and Kirk Johnson. Despite going back for a moment to his old name, The Artist remained dedicated to his movement, even if those around him weren’t.
Lee wrote the soundtrack’s liner notes, notably thanking L. Londell McMillan, a lawyer-manager of the Artist who he would credit for his part in the Artist’s legal proceedings: “Once I got [spiritual] direction, I looked up and [McMillan] was there…he also has a reverence for life. He seems to be a righteous soul and is focused as to what he is on earth for. Those are some of the things we talked about-what we as black people are supposed to represent during this time period.” McMillan was The Artist’s lead warrior in this era, and arguably his most recognized black one, following years of protection in the industry from Alan Leeds and preceding friendships with artists and outsiders like Dr. Funkenberry as he strayed in and out of public life.
Back in the interview, Lee asks ‘Why don’t African-American artists own their own masters? Is it because we don’t have the right lawyers?” To which The Artist says, “I think we can get the right lawyers, butI think we all need to change our mind-set and go in specifically after that [ownership of master recordings] and not just take the pink Cadillac.”
Once it was confirmed that Prince’s child had passed and he had only recently been married to Mayte, not for as long as it appeared they had been, media outlets used it as fodder to subliminally align The Artist with other supposed wacked out Black superstars, a la Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston and James Brown. “I take everything that comes and let it bounce right off me because I know the time will come when nobody will be able to speak falsely,” he reflects. “Mankind doesn’t understand the whole process yet; that we have to ask for the ownership of our own masters, instead of taking the Cadillac, so to speak.” What The Artist went through to release this soundtrack, and persevere as a force of life, came with major sacrifices that reformed him greatly.
In the liner notes of the album, Spike wrote: “Many thanks 2 The Artist Formerly Known As Prince, U made a great sacrifice to make this happen. I love U and U will see the dawn.”
Revisiting the Music
While “Girl 6” was initially recorded and musically written by Tommy Barbarella, the released version has Prince all over it with lead vocals, lyrical writing, and samples of his own songs “Raspberry Beret” and “Housequake”, as Nona Gaye contributes co-lead vocals and Kirk Johnson programs the drums. If you didn’t know this, though, you would assume that this was just another axed or demo Prince song from the sound of it — making it a perfect part of the soundtrack. As the title track, Prince created an updated 1990s view on his other signature “6”s — Apollonia 6, Vanity 6 — which undoubtedly played a role in Lee tapping him for this project, if not naming the film in general. This song was sent out as a single immediately following the film release but as it didn’t do well in box offices, the single went largely unnoticed. It is an impressive song, still, and many Prince purists express that they sometimes want to direct new listeners to this album first, in some cases for the title song. “Girl 6” is in a similar vein as “Erotic City” and “Alphabet St.”, being a funk-heavy cut relying on sound effects and falsetto ad-libs.
“Don’t Talk 2 Strangers” precedes the title track and is actually a well-travelled Prince demo, which sounds as if you are entering the quietest parts of the universe. It’s a very soft ballad, a la “Power Fantastic” and “I Wish U Heaven”. Originally written for the soundtrack of I’ll Do Anything (1992) to be performed by Tracey Ullman, the musical comedy was so negatively reviewed by test audiences that the entire production was scrapped, along with the cast-recorded soundtrack and replaced with artist recorded music. Prince then added his previously unreleased demo here, and in 1998 Chaka Khan would release her own rendition of the song which in turn would be featured in the Maya Angelou directed film Down in the Delta.
The lead in track, “She Spoke 2 Me”, is notably upbeat and jazzy in nature, featuring many contributions from The New Power Generation members such as Levi Seacer on guitars, Rosie Gaines supposedly on keyboards, and five different hornists. The song seems to fit in well with the film’s theme, especially since it was recorded first in 1991. It would end up as one of Warner Bros.’ inclusions on their compilation The Vault…Old Friends 4 Sale.
In between these tracks are 10 late ‘80s/early ’90s pieces, beginning with the 1993 single “Pink Cashmere”, released as an original song for the Greatest Hits album The Hits/The B-Sides. The R&B-filling track describes the luxurious lifestyle, and leads into the 1995 released single “Count the Days”, recorded by the New Power Generation with Prince (credited as Tora Tora) providing many instrumentation and vocals.
“Count the Days” is a new, underappreciated take of classic Prince “Manic Monday”-type songs, but instead adapted to the times by including curse-heavy lyrics. The Prince & The Revolution hit “Girls and Boys” from Parade (1986) comes next. The first single from the short lived Susannah Melvoin-led band The Family’s self-titled album, “The Screams of Passion” (1985), follows that, and is an added melodramatic serenade, concluding the sweet sound of the opening portion.
Vanity 6’s biggest and only hit “”Nasty Girl”, from their 1983 album, is included next, foreshadowing the more gritty and sexual portion of the soundtrack, as it does in the film. “Erotic City”, the B-side to “Let’s Go Crazy” in 1984, continues in the same vein. “Hot Thing”, “Adore” and “The Cross” from 1987’s Sign O’ The Times pour on the funk and R&B, sexual and romantic swirl of the album, and are nearly a decade later they are still musically intoxicating. Before the two ending original songs, 1982 B-Side “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore” is called upon, as if almost prodigally due to its name. The Artist even commended Lee for his use of the song in one of his “favorite scenes”.
When it comes to Prince, I learned to realize the parts of his discography that aren’t hits, classics, or popular cuts are still songs of their own merit. If these songs were compiled and recorded by another artist, they might have been appreciated by fans more. Releasing anything filled of mostly “old” material, attached to a panned film, after several critically panned releases back-to-back while you publicly degrade your own brand would have that effect on anybody.
Yet, Girl 6 still entered The Billboard Top 200 and peaked at 15 on the Top R&B Albums Chart, even registering in the Netherlands. In the midst of what almost every Prince biographer or music journalist regards as his “down years”, Prince material showed it could still sell just by having his name — or the lack thereof it — attached to it.
Life after Girl 6 for the director and musician
Spike Lee recently received his first — and, by popular opinion, long overdue — Academy Award for dramatic directing, for BlackkKlansman (2018). He accepted his award donning a purple suit and a necklace with a large pendant of
. The film concludes with a restored demo of Prince singing the standard “Mary Don’t You Weep”, continuing the lineage of Prince and Spike’s collaborative relationship (now spanning 30 years) beyond the musician’s death. Prince was another musician — and collaborator of Lee’s — gone long before anyone anticipated.
Several prominent black figures and passersby of Prince’s world rushed to posit themselves as close Prince associates while they were publicly mourning him, some would say was done facetiously. Notably, Van Jones joined forces with Lonnell McMillan in a bid to try to claim the estate, and this put McMillan at odds with former client and business partner Jay-Z, who argued that he knew Prince’s true wishes due to their relationship through their streaming service Tidal.
McMillan would go on to be Prince’s manager of record at least up through 2004, when he brokered the Columbia one-album distribution deal for Prince’s Musicology. He now owns and operates Jones and The Source Magazines, and he has also represented Lee, Michael Jackson, Eminem, and Lil’ Kim — but he still credits himself as “the man who freed Prince”.
Since 2016, Spike has continued to mourn Prince’s legacy publicly. He has thrown an annual Prince celebration in Brooklyn on the superstar’s birthday over the last three years. Spike and his wife, Tonya, filmed a “Raspberry Beret”-inspired tribute Lee directed for an episode of his 2017 series She’s Gotta Have It, based on that film Prince loved so much he had to get in touch with Spike. At the 2018 celebration they filmed another scene for an upcoming episode of the series’ second season, coming out on May 24.
Despite the surge in Prince-related media following his passing, Girl 6 is still widely unavailable outside of biddings on DVDs online. Besides HBO airings in 2006, 40 Acres and a Mule and Fox Searchlight have shown no interest in reviving the film, making it a niche stash. Similarly, while the album is available on almost all music services now, it doesn’t garner much interest even among modest Prince groupies, but it has been occasionally discussed, especially due to its recent 23rd anniversary earlier in March.
After a legal battle, the Prince estate was awarded to heirs, sister Tyka and Prince’s 5 other half siblings. They agreed to hire Troy Carter, a former Spotify exec with no prior Prince ties, to manage the estate, over the objections of those like McMillan. They have since assigned Prince’s independent and unreleased recordings to Universal Records, so the rights to Girl 6 are, for the most part, now fair game for its former distributor Warner Bros., but it’s unlikely to be revisited.
In January, James Brandon, a entrepreneur from Barbados, sued the Prince estate over alleged copyright infringements committed against him by Prince or his associates — this is at least the third time he’s attempted to sue the singer and affiliates, apparently the second time posthumously. Brandon’s attempted to assert a valid claim against the title song of Girl 6, claiming it is ripped off his R&B band GOMAB’s “Phone Sex”, which he claims to have demoed for Spike Lee’s uncle Clarence in 1993. Since the latter appears out of print, and the other proceedings were dismissed, there has been no available comparison or evidentiary chain to examine in the matter.
It is worth noting, however, that both the music and lyrical composition of the song were credited by Tommy Barbarella, and the film was written by playwright Suzan-Lori Parks (the first of many published screenplays for her), yet neither are named as alleged infringers in this latest lawsuit or the 2007 press releases. In fact, 20th Century Fox, HBO, Starz, MGM, Anchor Bay, and The New Power Generation were all targeted in 2007, at least in Brandon’s initial filings in Barbados’ Supreme Court, claiming he was “doing business there at the time”.
Brandon’s LinkedIn profile lists him as currently residing in Dominican Republic and his company, BrandNu Entertainment, is still operating. (Just this month, a channel appearing to belong to a ‘J Brandon’ uploaded the “Phone Sex” song to Youtube. There is also a defunct channel used for press releases in 2007 that has since deleted multiple videos related to the matter. No copyright filings were submitted for “Phone Sex” until 2013. The Youtube Channel Prince’s Friend explores this further and explains why he finds Brandon’s story hard to believe.)
“You know, black people still call me Prince. Sometimes I ask them, ‘Why do you call me Prince?’” The Artist reflected about his name to Lee in 1997, “And people say, ‘Because you are a prince to us.’ Usually when they say that, you know my heart goes out and I have to say, ‘I don’t mind your calling me that.’
“If there is a pronunciation to my name in the future, I hope it will be ‘Prince.’ That’s my dream. But until that say, I’ll just go by this. [holds up a necklace with his symbol on it] This is my ‘X.’”
The Interview Magazine interview was reprinted in 2014 and can be found here.
Originally published at http://prismcollaborative.com on May 1, 2019.