Prince Biographer Alex Hahn: Nothing Still Compares to U
When pop icon Prince died on Apr. 21, 2016, he had already carved an indelible imprint on the cultural landscape. One of the best-selling musicians of all time, Minneapolis’s favorite son was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2004. Among the prestigious industry laurels he reaped were seven Grammy Awards and an Academy Award for Best Original Song for the film Purple Rain. An innovator who successfully integrated a wide variety of genres, including funk, rock, R-and-B and soul, Prince’s untimely, shocking demise from an overdose of opioids dealt a shattering blow to music fans all over the world. A year later, the reverberations of that loss are still being felt within the music community.
Fortunately, Prince’s legacy lives on. Helping chronicle his career and personal life is Boston-based lawyer Alex Hahn. When he’s not working on a case, Hahn writes books on Prince. His new — and latest — biography, The Rise of Prince: 1958-1988, considers the artist at his most seminal, influential and mainstream. Hahn recently shared his thoughts with me on a number of Prince topics, such as his extraordinary creative output, why he never strayed far from his roots, the mishandling of his estate in the wake of his death, and the time Hahn represented a Prince fanzine sued by the Purple One himself.
Iris Dorbian: Where were you when you first heard about Prince’s death?
Alex Hahn: I was just writing in a coffee shop. I was doing some legal work. I started getting text messages that Prince had died. All my friends know I’m a hardcore fan. Obviously, it was very shocking.
ID: You never interviewed him firsthand?
AH: No. I started this book after he died. I did write a previous book (Possessed: The Rise and Fall of Prince), but I didn’t interview him for that, either. It was a completely unauthorized biography.
ID: How did you first become so interested in him?
AH: Back in my teenage years, I became completely fascinated by his music and felt like he combined four things that were very unusual. One was being an innovator exploring new forms and adopting funk music in a really interesting way. Two, he was a very commercially successful entertainer. And three, he broke cultural barriers as an African-American artist crossing over to a white audience and also having a very racially diverse band with men and women. The fourth thing was that his level of musicianship was off the charts. He was a multi-instrumentalist and an amazing guitar player. In the aggregate it struck me there’s no other more interesting musician of our time.
ID: You defended a Prince fanzine when it was sued by Prince. Can you talk a little about that?
AH: That was before I wrote the first book. It was the late 1990s. There was a Prince fanzine called Uptown, which at the time was the center of fan discussion. This was the very early days of the Internet, so having a physical magazine was an important thing. This was a very well-written publication with a lot of interesting discussion. Around that time, Prince sued Uptown and at least 10 or 20 fan organizations or websites. There were probably a handful of them selling bootleg records. Uptown was not in the least selling them. They were discussing unreleased music. So these lawsuits were troubling and upsetting to the fan community because in a significant way, he was suing his most hardcore fans.
ID: Why do you think he did this?
AH: I think he was always someone who wanted as much control over his image and everything about him. That was part and parcel of his personality, for better or for worse. He was often a pioneer in protecting his rights from large, exploitative record companies. He was zealously protective of his intellectual property, but I think he went to the extreme. He failed to understand the distinction between profiting from unreleased music and simply discussing it.
ID: How did this latest Prince book come about? And why focus on his first 30 years?
AH: The earlier book had covered the totality of his life up until then. When Prince died, a lot of people suggested I re-release that book, which is officially out of print. It seemed to be a reasonable idea and I started kind of putting pen to paper to update it. I really discovered that it needed a lot of updating with respect to the early years. A co-author, Laura Tiebert, emerged. She lives in Minnesota right near [Prince’s home] Paisley Park. She got involved in the whole process. We started to uncover new information about his early years. So it became a massively expanded update of the first half of the earlier book.
ID: There’s a wealth of details in the book and I read that you conducted interviews with many primary sources. Did you encounter any resistance from some in Prince’s inner circle?
AH: Not really. We got some really good cooperation from people who had known him early on, were in his initial band and had grown up with him. However, not everyone wanted to talk, like his sister Tyka. We reached out to her and she didn’t get back to us. By and large, people were willing to talk.
ID: When you started writing about Prince, what were some things that surprised you about him?
AH: We learned about how challenging his childhood was. His dad left when he was seven, leaving him with his mom, who was working three jobs. His mom remarried and his stepfather was abusive. Then Prince moved out and stayed in the homes of various friends throughout his high school years. He bounced around a lot and I don’t think he felt at home anywhere.
ID: Why do you think he stayed in Minneapolis when so many other artists after achieving this kind of worldwide fame and stature often move to LA or New York?
AH: I think, even though he had a difficult childhood, he had a sense of wanting to connect with this community. Despite the difficulties he had, he felt very connected to [Minneapolis]. On some visceral level, which is maybe hard to understand, as a kid he was always looking for a sense of home. And then eventually he found it in Paisley Park. He wrote a song “Way Back Home,” which is on one of his last records. It’s one of the more revealing things he’s written; it’s about trying to find a place and sense of home.
ID: Care to share any thoughts about what’s going on with Prince’s estate, such as the extensive volume of unreleased recordings? I know they just successfully sued an engineer who worked with Prince from releasing a six-song EP.
AH: That action seems to be relatively cut and dried — quash the release of recordings not authorized by the estate. I doubt Prince would have approved it. Beyond that, I know there’s conflict between two branches of the family. But for you and I to understand the nuances of that, we would have to spend 80 hours looking at legal pleadings. But I think we can say it’s a confused and conflicted situation. Everyone is incurring attorney fees. The estate has been managed by multiple people at different times. I don’t think it’s going especially well.
ID: Wasn’t Paisley Park turned into a museum, kind of like Graceland?
AH: Yes: Graceland Holdings is running it. They were engaged by the estate to do this. I guess because they have experience in things like that. It’s been controversial. Graceland we associate with a stagnant presentation of Elvis Presley, whereas we would like Paisley Park to be dynamic and educational. It’s unclear whether that’s going to be satisfied. I think it’s getting better. We owe it a chance.