Prince's '1999' Sees Another Life — This Time With 35 New Songs

Nov 26, 2019
Originally published on November 25, 2019 11:27 am

It's been 37 years since Prince released 1999, but this week, the Prince estate will reissue a remastered version of the iconic album — this time with 35 previously unreleased tracks. During his lifetime, Prince was notoriously protective of his music, both released and unreleased. Notably, he had a long-term public battle with Warner Brothers over rights to his masters and sued Facebook users for posting links to unauthorized music. To learn about the estate's decision to release the record after his death, NPR's Michel Martin spoke with Michael Howe, the archivist for the Prince vault.


Interview Highlights

On the role of "Prince's archivist:"

The overarching thrust of the job is to organize and preserve Prince's audiovisual legacy — his vault — and the extension of that is to be the A&R guy for everything that comes out of the vault. So I'm responsible, to some degree, for contextualizing and preserving Prince's life work. It's a pretty daunting proposition, as you might imagine.

On the rationale for releasing these songs right now:

I think the idea is to shine a light on the entirety of Prince's creative legacy. There were at least a couple of times during his life where he mentioned that he thought the contents of his vault, or some portion thereof, would be released at some point after he was gone. So using that guiding principle, we use our best judgment to present the things that we think are appropriate for specific creative eras of his life.

On the fan response to releasing the songs:

I haven't gotten any direct pushback. I know that the Prince fan community has very strong opinions and it's very, very large. I'm sure there are some people who think, philosophically, that a lot of these things should probably stay in the vault. But I think the overwhelming majority of fans and musicians and people — who are interested in the history and artistry of a guy who was on the Mt. Rushmore of music — really should and deserve to be heard.

On the rumor that Prince has enough unreleased songs for an album every year until the 22nd century:

I would say that's probably true, yeah. It's an enormous amount of work that he left behind that he didn't release, not all of which, obviously, will end up emerging. But there's a tremendous amount of stuff that correlates with particular creative periods in his life. The way we decided to proceed on this one, as we do with everything, the guiding principle is to approach these things with the completeness and respect and integrity that Prince himself would demand and that his body of work deserves.

1999 Remastered is out Nov. 29 via The Prince Estate and Warner Bros.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This decade is nearing an end. And this week, a familiar voice will be reminding you how to celebrate.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "1999")

PRINCE: (Singing) Say 2,000, zero, zero, party over. Oops, out of time. So tonight I'm going to party like it's 1999.

MARTIN: Yup, it's him. It's been 37 years since Prince released "1999." But this week, the Prince estate will reissue a remastered version of the iconic album, this time with 35 previously unreleased tracks. We wanted to talk about the decision to release this record, so we've called Michael Howe. He's the archivist for the Prince vault, and he's with us from Nashville, Tenn. Michael Howe, welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

MICHAEL HOWE: It's great to be here. Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Could you just tell us the basics for people who are unfamiliar with the role? What is an archivist? What is your role?

HOWE: Sure. Well, the overarching thrust of the job is to organize and preserve Prince's audio-visual legacy, his vault. And the, you know, extension of that is to be the - kind of the A&R guy for everything that comes out of the vault. So I'm responsible to some degree for contextualizing and presenting Prince's life's work. It's a pretty daunting proposition as you might imagine.

MARTIN: So I think that - I think most people who followed Prince know that he was notoriously protective of his music, both the released and the unreleased.

HOWE: Yes.

MARTIN: He had this long-term public battle with Warner Brothers over the rights to his masters. And, you know, he sued Facebook users for linking to unauthorized music. So I think the question for some people is, if he wanted these songs to be released, he wouldn't he have done it himself? I'm just wondering, like, what's the rationale for the estate releasing these songs now?

HOWE: I think the idea is to shine a light on the entirety of Prince's creative legacy. And there were a couple - at least a couple of times during his life where he mentioned that he thought the contents of the vault or some portion thereof would be released at some point after he was gone. So to that, you know, using that sort of guiding principle, we use our best judgment to present the things that we think are the most appropriate for specific creative eras of his life. In this case, it's obviously the era of "1999."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LITTLE RED CORVETTE")

PRINCE: (Singing) Oh, yeah. Little red Corvette. Baby, you're much to fast. Yes, you are. Little red Corvette. You need to find a love that's going to last.

MARTIN: So I'm going to just assert that greedily, a lot of our fans would love to hear these songs and are super excited about it. But I'm wondering if anybody doesn't feel that way. Have you gotten any pushback on this?

HOWE: I haven't gotten any direct pushback. I know that, you know, the Prince fan community has very strong opinions. And there are - you know, it's very, very large. And I'm sure there are some people who, you know, who think philosophically that a lot of these things should probably stay in the vault. But I think the overwhelming majority of fans and musicians and people who are interested in the, you know, in the history and artistry of, you know, a guy who is on the Mount Rushmore of music really should and deserves to be heard.

MARTIN: So let me play a bit of a song called "Teacher, Teacher." This is one of the previously unreleased tracks. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TEACHER, TEACHER")

PRINCE: (Singing) Teacher, teacher, I'm really not loving you. But you're the teacher. I try to do what you want me to. I know you're getting lonely because you got no one to love.

MARTIN: OK, I'm just going to sit here and let it wash over me (laughter). How did you decide what to release? Or maybe you can tell me what has gone into the process of selecting these. I read - and is this - you can confirm that this is...

HOWE: Sure.

MARTIN: ...That Prince had enough unreleased songs for an album every year until the 22nd century. Is that true?

HOWE: I would say that's probably true, yeah. You know, it's an enormous amount of work, you know, that he left behind that he didn't release, not all of which, obviously, will end up emerging, I would imagine. But there's, you know, a tremendous amount of stuff that correlates with, you know, particular creative periods in his life. And the way we decided to proceed on this one, as we do with everything, is - you know, kind of the guiding principle is to approach these things with the completeness and respect and integrity that Prince himself would demand and that his body of work deserves.

MARTIN: Well, thanks for letting us pull you away from that task just for a little bit to talk about it.

HOWE: Oh, it's such a pleasure.

MARTIN: That was Michael Howe. He's the archivist for the Prince vault, and he joined us to talk about the planned release this week of a remastered "1999" album plus 35 unreleased Prince tracks. We're going to go out with one of those tracks called "Rearrange." Michael Howe, thank you so much for joining us.

HOWE: Thank you, Michel.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "REARRANGE")

PRINCE: (Singing) Rearrange your mind. Man, you've got to be drunk if you think we'd stoop so low and play that old-time funk. Rearrange your mind... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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