Music is My Life: Episode 003a
Prince Charles Alexander on Bringing the Funk
Prince Charles Alexander began banging on Tupperware with chopsticks at the age of two, which would eventually lead him to performing for audiences of 30,000 screaming fans. In the third episode of this podcast from Berklee Online, Prince Charles shares how he came to fame that he walked away from and how Nile Rodgers helped him reinvent himself. He would later go on to become one of the top recording engineers for Bad Boy Records, and go on to teach Vocal Production, Critical Listening 1, and Music Production Analysis for Berklee Online, but you’ll have to wait for PT II for his take on that! Here is the transcript of the interview:
Prince Charles Alexander: When I was two years old, three years old, I was banging on Tupperware with chopsticks. And my father bought a melodica for me, and I eventually became a woodwind player. So I’m playing on this melodica. I didn’t know what I was doing, didn’t know chords. I was like, what is this thing? And I had the one not that looks like a keyboard, but it looks like little white pegs on one side and little black pegs on the other side.
Yeah, the Hohner. Yeah. I actually had the green one, the old—
Exactly. So Tupperware drums, the melodica, and I think I eventually got the keyboard melodica, were instruments that were kind of floating around me when I was a kid. And my father wasn’t home much because he was in the Navy, so these would just be trinkets that he would bring home. And I’m just banging around at home on these things. And I remember being a little kid. Oh, and then I took a look inside a coffee percolator thingamajiggy, there’s this metal frame. There’s a metal frame that I think you put the coffee in. And then there’s a peg that goes down, and it sits. Somehow, I took that and inverted it and that was my crash cymbal.
So those were pre-introduction to music musings that I had. I was Catholic, so I didn’t grow up in a Baptist church or anything like that, when people praise and worship every week. So for me, even that whole idea of the black church, I was looking at that from the outside, also. And I was glad to hear that Chaka Khan was brought up Catholic, too. So I was like, OK, we got some funk, too.
Well, yeah. And also the melodica is such an odd instrument to start with because you weren’t necessarily hearing music that had a melodica in it.
Right. Right. So totally displaced. But you do gravitate towards melodic concepts. And I wish I had realized when I was a kid how valuable chords were and I had learned that then. So my trajectory really led me to the concepts of melody first and understanding improvisation secondarily. And then I got the chords. It’s really funny because most people want to understand chords in order to learn how to improvise. I came the other way. I improvised first and then I started to do chord deconstruction.
So talk to me a little bit about Boston Latin and how you discovered your instrument.
So Boston Latin had a music program. Roland G. Young was the first of the music directors, like band director, and he was replaced by Jerry Boyson. And I mention the names because somebody needs to mention those high school teachers back in the day.
Are they still with us?
Well, I don’t think so. And one of the guys that was in the band with me, Paul Pitts, is the current director at Boston Latin, so I have a relationship with him. He graduated in ‘74 and I graduated in ‘75. And so I’d been walking around the corridors, and there’s this sign. Boston Latin’s like, anything’s possible. We could go to Harvard, all this cool stuff is going on. And I had this idea that I wanted to be an everyman—no, not everyman, a Renaissance man, that I wanted to do lots of things with my time and with my life. And Edison was an inventor and a mathematician and a politician and all these cool things, so I saw myself in that light and figured that music would have to be a part of that. So I saw a sign that said, “Rent an instrument and play in the band.” I was like, OK, I’ll augment my learning with this idea of adding music and a musical instrument.
So I went. And the choice was either the trumpet or the clarinet. I didn’t really know anything about what the choices should be. Had I known then, I probably would’ve gone with the piano or the guitar. But they didn’t have piano and guitar because it was all band stuff. So here we are with the trumpet and clarinet. I go home and I ask my mom, “What should I get? The trumpet or the clarinet?” She freaked out as soon as she heard the word trumpet. She was like, “That loud thing in my house? No.” So I said, “OK, I guess it’s going to be the clarinet. It’s going to be $5 a month,” or whatever. So she gave me the money.
And the first time that I picked the clarinet up, I put it together and Roland Young, Dr. Young said, “Put your thumb here and your first finger here, blow into it.” And I did. And the note came out. He said, “That is the note—where am I? That is the note E. And it’s right there on the paper.” And I was like, oh, that makes sense. So literally from day one, I was hearing it, so I was developing an aural sense, and I was looking at it, so I was developing my literate sense of what music was.
So from there, I went from E to D to C and then F and then put the whole scale together. And then I realized that there was this fourth transposition thing going on on the clarinet. Well, I didn’t realize it was fourth, but you know. So I was learning this duality of thought, which was good. And then eventually, I went from B flat clarinet to E flat clarinet to the alto clarinet, which is an E flat, to the bass clarinet, which is in B flat, which was kind of cool. And I’m going, wow, this is a funky instrument, this B flat clarinet. The bass clarinet in B flat, this is a really funky instrument.
This was 11 years old, 12 years old, 12 going into 13, and I had progressed through the whole arsenal of clarinets. And I’m thinking to myself, I wonder what the saxophone sounds like? And then I found out that the saxophone you didn’t have to do the lower octave, upper octave transposition, that everything was in one key. And so like A and A and E and E were the same fingerings in the upper octave and the lower. I said, oh, that’s got to be easy because the clarinet is killing me. Thinking through the transposition of the fourths.
So I started desiring to get a saxophone. And the desire to getting a saxophone played itself out with me taking a yardstick. And a yardstick has a hole at the top and a hole at the bottom. And I stuck a pencil in the top and something else in the bottom so that the pencil was going that way and the other pencil was coming toward my mouth. And I used to look at myself in the mirror with the yardstick, going, this is my saxophone. And that projection of this is what I want in my life is something that would be a recurring theme in my life. Even if I didn’t have it, I would project it and project into it.
So eventually, my mom went and got me a saxophone because my dad—by this time, they had broken up—I think they broke up when I was seven years old—so they broke up and my dad said, “Yeah, I’ll get you a saxophone.” And he was full of it. So my mom felt so sorry for me that we went to Emilio over at Rayburn music, and I got my first saxophone. And it was like a Yamaha student model. And that was the beginning of me connecting with the saxophone. As I was connecting with the saxophone—this was about 13 years old—and for me, we’re at 1971—
So who were you listening to?
Isaac Hayes puts out Shaft, the Shaft album, in 1972. Now, it didn’t dawn on me that all of this music that I was liking, the Bar-Kays and some of the funkier stuff like Timmy Thomas, who was recently sampled by Drake in his song “Why Can’t We Live Together.” I didn’t realize that all of these people were coming out of Memphis because I didn’t love Motown. I loved this sound, which I grew up to find out was Stax Records. And Isaac Hayes was one of the main writers for Stax Records. So by 1972, Shaft comes out. Man, it dominates.
And I’m playing the baritone clarinet, the bass clarinet and hitting those low notes. I’m like, this is really cool. And so then, I took my clarinet and I learned all the records from the Shaft album, note for note, on the clarinet. So I played the string parts. Then I’d play it again and learn the horn parts. Play it again, I’d learn the bass part. Play it again, I’d learned the guitar part, on the clarinet. So that’s how I learned about minor pentatonics, actually, because everything’s a minor pentatonic when you’re in the world of funk. I don’t think I knew what a minor pentatonic was, but I really did start to understand these intervals that were coming around and around and around in all these compositions.
So then I learned “Ain’t No Sunshine.” That was probably the first record that I learned when I got my alto saxophone. And at the same time, concurrently, Grover Washington had just put out a record. And I learned that record note for note, also.
What record was that?
That was the one with “Mr. Magic” on. And I forget the name of the album, but “Mr. Magic” was the big record on it. And there was some really, really awesome string arrangements. Later, I realized that that was the Philly sound and the Philly arrangements, and it’s incredible stuff. So I still couldn’t get to James Brown and Motown. James Brown to me was something that I listened to, but to me, it was entertainment, and I was listening to things that I thought were more musical.
And to me, Isaac Hayes was a composer, musician, kind of had his hands on everything. And the composition and the arrangements that were going on with Grover Washington, I knew, were phenomenal, and those were probably the two most influential artists for me at that period in my life when I was about 13 years old. And I went to Boston Garden with my mom. We saw Isaac Hayes. And I was just blown away with the bell-bottoms and the choreography and Isaac with his bald head and the chain and everything. And I’m like, “Mom, that’s what I want to do with my life.”
What’d she say?
She said, “OK, as long as you’re safe.” And then later on, we probably had conversations about musicians are drug addicts and alcoholics. And I said, “But Mom, that’s not going to be me. I’m going to do this the right way.” Which we all say that. And my mother was extremely supportive. I can’t even believe now, as a parent looking back, it’s really incredible to believe how supportive my mom was.
Yeah. How old are your kids?
I’ve got two that are five years old. I’ve got one that’s 27. And I’ve got one that’s 37.
And are any of them musicians?
My son who’s 27 can play classical piano, but no, he’s not a musician.
But there was no, “Dad, I want to do this” moment, where you say . . .
No. My kids are all mathematicians. My oldest daughter is a Boston Public School math teacher, and my son is a PhD candidate in applied math, which actually relates to music.
And he’s the one who plays music?
Yeah, he’s the one who plays music. So math and music to me are related. So that my children are mathematical people doesn’t really surprise me a lot.
So it’s at this point you go to the garden. You see Isaac Hayes. Who else was on the bill? Do you remember?
It was just Isaac. He filled it by himself. This was an amazing—and a bigger soundtrack, winning awards and all that, I was like, yeah, that works for me. So I joined a local band. Well, there were a few bands that I joined because I was like, OK, if I’m going to do this, it probably starts at the local level. This is the thought process. And so I put out a kind of call with my friends. “Does anybody got any bands around?”
And one of my friends did hook me up with another person that had a band, and I played in that band. And you find out how flaky people are. And then you go to another band and you find out how flaky people are again. Then eventually, I joined an organization called the Energetics, which was managed by a man named Roscoe Gorham. And Roscoe Gorham had a place that was down underneath the Northampton elevated train, which was right down Mass Ave, and I think you take a left on Tremont. And then eventually, he moved it down to Dudley.
And at this time, when I was telling my mom I want to go to Northampton Station to join the Energetics, she was like, “Oh no, you’re not going to Northampton,” because it was a hole in the wall, a dive bar.
And you’re just toting around your sax?
Yeah. I’m 15 years old, toting around my saxophone, lessons at Boston Latin. Did some things at New England Conservatory. Ran Blake was one of my early piano teachers. I didn’t know what Ran was talking about. He was talking about Cycle of Fourths and major/minor diminished, augmented chords, and I was like, uh yeah? Because piano wasn’t my instrument. I was a saxophone player. And I was struggling to put harmony together and try to understand these concepts and say, OK, now I’ve got to learn another instrument? And for some people, that’s awesome, like Prince, “I want to learn the piano. I want to learn the guitar.” For me, it was like, Oh geez, another instrument? Because I was at Boston Latin and thinking, well, maybe I’ll become a politician, maybe something else.
So it wasn’t a total eureka moment? Or you’re still the Renaissance man?
I’m still the Renaissance man. And this music thing is working, and it’s easy, and maybe I’ll become a rock star. But at the same time, I’ll be a rock star politician. I don’t know . . . it will all fit somehow.
Now, these guys in the Energetics, they’re older guys?
We’re all the same age. There’s five singers, and they would put a band together. We have a rhythm section, drums, bass, piano, guitar, and two horns, a sax, and I played alto, and another friend of mine played tenor. And so we all meshed. We were a seven-piece band—six-piece band, five singers. And it was basically like the Jacksons or the Temptations type of thing. And it was local, and we were hits. We were awesome. And they put a record out. Of course, the band didn’t record on it. But I started learning the dynamics of the music industry and the record industry by being involved with that organization.
And Roscoe passed a few years ago, and all the people that he helped in the Boston area at that time came back when he was really ill, a few months before he passed away. And it was really great to see us all because Maurice Starr, who eventually created the New Kids on the Block and New Edition, was part of that clique of people that was helped by Roscoe. The Jonzun Crew, Michael Johnson, was part of that clique.
I didn’t know they were local.
Yeah. Well, they’re actually from Florida, but they did all of their initial stuff here in Boston.
That’s “Space Cowboy.”
Yep, exactly. And Michael Johnson is the brother of Larry Johnson. Larry Johnson is Maurice Starr. Maurice Starr’s real name is Larry Johnson. So they’re actually brothers. So when I first met them, it was just a bunch of crazy kids from Florida. I went to their home, and they have got all of these instruments all over the place. I’m like, who are these human beings? There was clarinets laying on the floor and tubas and trumpets, and Maurice could play all of those instruments. Violins, organ right in the middle of the home. Maurice could play them all. Michael could play them all.
And they were big inspirations for me as I transitioned out of the Energetics. I probably transitioned out of the Energetics at about the time I graduated high school and went to college. And my first year in college, I left the Energetics and I’m working with some local bands again.
Where are you going to college?
I went to Brandeis University. And I’m trying to make sense out of, well, who are the musicians? Because if I’m not going to be with the Energetics, then who am I going to play with? Because there were other bands that had left vocal groups and tried to do their own things. So I’m looking and I’m looking and I’m looking. And my grades suffered in my first semester. And I called my mom up and said, “Look, I’m going to finish. I’m going to do good. I’m not going to be that guy that flunks out of college for his musical dream.”
So I pulled back. After my first semester, I pulled back my local activity in my second semester. And then in the summer, I kind of went and hung out with the band that was playing at Roscoe’s Lounge every week. Now, this same dive bar that my mother was afraid of when I was a kid, now I am like this jewel that’s forming his musical identity in this place every weekend, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday from 8 PM to 2 AM.
Learning. And so we’re learning. We’re doing covers. We’re learning everything. We’re learning Commodores material. We’re learning Kool & the Gang. We’re learning Earth, Wind, and Fire. We’re learning Elton John. We’re stripping these records literally note for note and learning every part. So I have to help the bass player. I’ve got to help the horn players. I’m learning my part. And I’m really doing song deconstruction every week, every song that comes at us, no matter what it is.
And that’s hard in those days because you had to actually get the records or get access to that.
We had to get the record, play it over and over again, hope it didn’t skip after about the sixth time that you played it. Make sure you were playing it in the right key and at the right speed and all that kind of stuff. In theory, everybody should have been running at 33 and one-third or 45 or 78, but sometimes the transport will be a little bit off.
So what kind of crowds? We’re talking, what, like ‘77?
We’re talking about people that drink a lot and talk and who are not really . . . they’re trying to get their mack on and get girlfriends and boyfriends and drinking and smoking and partying and yelling and whooping and hollering and “Oh, by the way, there’s a band playing.”
OK. So it’s not like, “Ooh, this is where we go to dance?” Or does it become that?
No, they went to dance after the band would get off the stage so the DJ could play the hot joints. And that’s when I learned that’s powerful stuff for me, and seeing the local audience is really reacting to records and not so much reacting to bands. And so that’s just a big sea change from the ‘40s and ‘50s, when you look at Glenn Miller and them, and everybody came to hear Glenn Miller. So here we are, holding the crowd down, and “Oh, aren’t those kids really, really cute? They play instruments, 15 years old, 16, 17 years old.” And then we’d get off and take our break. The DJ would put his stuff on. The dance floor would be packed. Packed. And then we’d come back on, and there’d be like two people. So optimistically, they were watching us. They want to see us play—optimistically. But realistically, it’s like, “Oh, we’ll tolerate these kids that are kind of, aw, aren’t they cute, until we can hear the real record.”
So I’m sorting all this. I’m checking it out. I’m getting an understanding of what’s really communicating with the people and what’s struggling to communicate, as were the bands because the Commodores was a horn band. I was a horn player in a horn band. Me and another guy were playing a horn. We had a trumpet player with us, a saxophone player, and a rhythm section. And the Commodores evolved from being a horn band to a band fronted by Lionel Richie. Kool & the Gang evolved from a horn band to a band fronted by JT Taylor. Ohio Players evolved from being a horn band to a band that was now funded by Sugarfoot. It’s like everybody was moving away from horns. We’re like, what’s going on?
What had happened? The synthesizer had happened. The synthesizer came along in 1972 with Talking Book, Stevie Wonder’s record. And he explored the synthesizer in a way that said, “Hey, no horns on my record. This was all done by synthesizer.” So everybody’s kind of like, oh, so we can eliminate—there’s 10 pieces in our band. We can actually lose the horn section and, boom, drop it down to seven.
And as a sax player, what are you thinking?
Oh my god. You mean that I literally have to—OK, so now it’s serious. I have to become Grover Washington, or I’ve got to become Isaac Hayes and make sure I write songs. So these are still the two choices, but more and more, it looks like, OK, if you’re going to become Grover, you better play your butt off and make sure that you get a record that everybody wants to sing, or be Isaac and be a little bit of a spectacle, bald head, gold-chained spectacle, and maybe that’ll work, too. So either we’re still here, but these choices are happening. I’m a horn player, so let’s look at this thing realistically. And then a couple of friends of mine had became A&R men. I’m like, man, this synthesizer’s no joke. It’s really, really taking jobs away. And then I’m seeing other bands with just guitar, drums, bass, and keyboards, no horns, and a singer. I’m like, something’s going on.
So all this is happening while I’m in college. And I think it was my junior year, maybe one of those summers, where I was introduced to Maurice. And Maurice was hanging out with Roscoe. He was getting an investment from Roscoe. Roscoe was actually putting money into Maurice to try to get him a deal because he recognized that Maurice was a phenomenal talent. And so here I am. I’m this bright guy. I’m going to Brandeis. I play music. I’m like, OK, if Maurice is getting some of that money, I should be able to figure out how to get some of that money, too. So I don’t know what happened, but Maurice, who could do his show on guitar then turn around and do his show on piano. And he was singing like Michael Jackson, Diana Ross, Al Green, and Otis Redding. He was a phenomenal talent.
So one day, he calls me up—because I was running around doing all kinds of crazy stuff, too, on my saxophone, and the word was getting out that I was this guy that was playing saxophone on the Chitlin’ Circuit, see, because we’re here at Berklee. You had Branford and Wynton here. They are like two years younger than me. So they were blowing it up on the “I am a phenomenal musician” circuit, but I didn’t go to Berklee. I’m at Brandeis. So I’m actually maximizing my brand on a circuit that was appreciating commercial and pop music, not necessarily the phenomenal jazz musicianship. And to them, I sounded like a jazz musician because I was going
[SINGING JAZZ RHYTHMS]
And they thought, “Oh, wow, he’s really, really good.” Now, it’s got nothing to do with what Branford and Wynton were doing.
So now were you actually touring the Chitlin’ Circuit?
So it was Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, Philadelphia. Yeah. So some of the same places that the blues guys were going, all these little hole-in-the-wall joints. So I was touring those, and I was touring those with Maurice.
So I met Maurice. And Maurice came to me one day and said, “I want you to join my band.” I said, “Cool.” He said, “But I want you to be a keyboard player.” I was like, “I don’t play keyboards like that.” He said, “No problem.”
He took my left hand and put my left hand on the keyboard and said, “Do this.” He put my right hand on the keyboard and said, “Do this.” And I was like, “Oh, it’s not that hard.” Maurice turned me out. And then later on, I became one of the drummers in his band. I became one of the keyboard players in his band. I became one of the guitar players in his band. Well, I struggled with the guitar. I struggled with the guitar until I moved to New York, but that’s another story.
So were you at that time, known as Prince Charles Alexander?
No, I was known as Charles Alexander. And I was in some of those bands. So I was with Maurice, but I was also probing other bands and seeing what I could do as a horn player. So I experimented with names like Sweet Charles and Charming Charles and Brandy Alexander and all kinds of stuff like that because at some point, I think I had already started to synthesize that I was getting ready to graduate college, and if I was going to be a musician, then I needed to exploit a brand, and Charles Alexander sounded boring to me. I mean, a lot of people say, I love that name, Charles Alexander. Well, to me, the person that has it doesn’t sound exciting to me at all. I want a name that will pop and be interesting.
So around my senior year of high school, now I’m with Maurice and I’m playing in his band and Maurice puts out a record called “‘Bout Time I Funk U.”
[SINGING] “Bout time I funk u, babe. I like your hips.”
It sounded just like Parliament-Funkadelic, like every nuance, the synthesizer, the bass synth, the percussion, all of that kind of weird stuff going on.
What is that thing?
It’s called a cuica. It’s an instrument that has a little tit inside it, and you take a wet cloth and you pull the tit and go—
[SINGING INHALE AND EXHALE RHYTHMS]
Oh, that’s cool. I was wondering about it because you used some of that in your, like—
Yeah, yeah, yeah, exactly, because Cameo used it. OK, I’m trying to be, in my mind’s eye, projecting forward 5,10, whatever years Grover or Isaac Hayes and Parliament-Funkadelic is tearing the charts up. So I’m like, OK, so you’ve got to pay attention to Parliament-Funkadelic.
Did you get to see them, too, when they performed?
Oh yeah, of course. We have a place here in Boston called the Sugar Shack. Parliament-Funkadelic, Kool & The Gang, LTD, the Commodores, Brass Construction, everybody under the sun was there, the Temptations, the Four Tops, everybody under the sun came. And literally, I was sitting this close to all those artists when I was a kid. That place was amazing.
So Maurice puts out this record called “Bout Time I Funk U.” My head exploded. I actually knew a human being that I was this close to that made a record that sounded like a world-class recording. I was freaking out. I sat there with one of my college friends named Chuckie Snow in his home and listened to that record at least 500 times over the first day I got it. And I was in Maurice’s band.
So wait, you played on that record?
I did not play on the record. He put the record out and I’m like, what the heck just happened? When did Maurice do this? And it was so literate, so well-researched, so clear what funk is and funk’s relationship to blues and soul. My head exploded.
And is he singing on that one?
He was singing, playing, everything. His brother played the drums. It was phenomenal. So I missed recording when I was 17 years old. And a lot of people are doing that when they’re 17. So when I’m getting out of college, I’m 20 years old. I better make sure that I’m on this because I felt like I was already late. And a lot of kids at Berklee feel like they’re late, too. I can empathize with that concept.
So I go to Maurice and I say, “Maurice, I want to make a record.” He said, “Cool.” I ask, “What does it take?” He said, “Well, we’ve got to get a studio.” And he was kind of hedging and kind of pushing me off and I was like, what’s this? OK, what does he mean? So I came to find out that I needed to rent a studio for a day and we needed to go in and make some songs. So I found out that that was going to cost about $2,500.
I didn’t feel like asking my mom for that, and I was like, this is kind of crazy. That’s a lot of money, especially for me back in those days. So I came up with a scheme. My head was steaming with trying to figure this out. So here we go. I found out that Maurice was going to produce a couple of songs for a local DJ. And they were going to go in and spend $2,500. So I came up with this plan. I said, “Maurice, get twice the amount of time. So if he’s going to give you two days, get four days. Do two songs on him. Do two songs on me. I’ll pay you $2,500. You will take the $2,500 from the other guy and pay it up front, and then when we finish the deal, I’ll come with the other $2,500 in the back end.” Maurice said to me, “All right, cool.” In my mind, I’m like, oh snap, he fell for that. I had $100 to my name. I had no idea where I was going to get $2,500 from. Zero idea. We went in. We made the records. Maurice played guitar and synthesizer. I actually purchased an instrument called the Lyricon, which was a wind synthesizer.
Yeah, I was going to get to that, if you purchased that or—
I literally purchased it two weeks before I went into the studio, I bought it. Why did I buy it? I bought it because it was made in Massachusetts by a company called Computone. I went to see Rahsaan Roland Kirk play at Paul’s Mall. It was part of the Jazz Workshop.
Paul’s Mall was around here, right?
Yeah, it was on Boylston Street, like 755 or 740 Boylston, somewhere around there. And I went to see Rahsaan Roland Kirk play. Rahsaan was blind and he was playing two horns simultaneously. And I went through a period where I played tenor and alto simultaneously, also. And he had a nose flute, two horns, and he was playing all this stuff and blind and singing and all this. And he had two Lyricons at his feet. He didn’t play them that night, but I knew what they were. I was like, that’s that wind synthesizer thing.
And I felt like Rahsaan—I had this cathartic moment because, back then, I probably was smoking a little something I shouldn’t have been smoking. And I have this cathartic moment that Rahsaan, if he was my age, he would be exploring the potential of this wind synthesizer. But Rahsaan was on the verge of leaving the planet. He was going to die soon. And I was like, but he’s telling me, a young woodwind person, this is our future. Are you paying attention? And I was like, I get it.
So I don’t know how much it cost—$700, $1,100, $1,200, I don’t know what it cost. But I went out and purchased something called the Lyricon II, which had two oscillators and like, a saw wave, sine wave, square wave. And I had no idea what any of that stuff meant. No clue. I’m just moving buttons around. And I’m blowing into it. And as soon as I blew into it, there was no sound coming around my face acoustically. The sound came out of an amp. “Whoa!” I’m going, “Foop!” and the sound is coming out of this amplifier. So that means I could turn the amp up or down or EQ it. So I’m fiddling around with these knobs. And later on in my life, I realized that that was the beginning of my entry into audio engineering. So I’m fiddling around with these knobs and I start having a relationship with that, and then—
So do you play this instrument on the first recording you did with Maurice?
Oh yeah. Yeah. Yeah, literally that’s the first solo I took. I know the solo verbatim now. I still play it.
Had you written the song already by this time, or did you go into the studio?
No, I went in and started reading a lot of books and looking for things to write about. The way that I write music is to be inspired by reading great books and looking for things in the great books that I can talk about.
And you just show up there that day with the books.
Showed up there that day. And literally, Maurice said, “OK, this is what we got. Boom, boom, boom.” And we went,
[SINGING] Tell me why in the street, tell me why, people are playing. The ladies are laying.
And this whole thing came. Because Maurice is a genius. So I was in the hands of one of the most prolific songwriter/arranger/producers that our world has known. And I didn’t even realize it then, but yeah, we turned that thing into a song in one day and then did a second song called “Fresh Game.” “Fresh Game” was like,
[SINGING] I’ve got a fresh game. All the ladies know my name. Let me play a magic song with my funky Lyricon.
And then I would play. And it was this call and response with these little lyrics and then me playing the Lyricon. And “In the Streets,” the first record, became a hit, a local hit. And then I would play. And it was this call and response with these little lyrics and then me playing the Lyricon. And “In the Streets,” the first record, became a hit, a local hit.
What year is this?
This is 1979. So ‘79, I put this record out and it’s a local success. So Maurice granted me this local success. But before it came out, yeah, I didn’t have any money so I went to Roscoe and asked Roscoe for money. He said he wasn’t going to back it because he didn’t know who I was. He didn’t know what kind of an artist I was going to be because I hadn’t done what Maurice did. Maurice established the fact that he was an artist. He was running around. He was a lead singer in front of a band.
So Roscoe wasn’t going to back me. He gave me the name of a few people. So I heard no, no, no, no, then boom. I ran into a guy that he introduced me to called Tony Rose. Tony Rose had been an A&R man in New York. He was back in Boston because he’s from Boston, and he was looking to invest in something. He had seen a lot of singers and musicians and stuff, and there was something about me that he thought was interesting and unique—this Black guy that played the Lyricon. What the heck is a Lyricon? OK, that’s new. It’s interesting. It’s different.
And if you think about it, what I was trying to do was similar to what Bootsy was doing with the bass. I was trying to marry who I am with this instrument so that whenever you thought of the instrument, you thought of me. I don’t think I succeeded because I think when people hear the Lyricon, they think of Tom Scott, who was a jazz musician who had a lot of success on it.
Do they still make them?
No. Computone went out of business.
How many do you have?
I had three that I lost in storage one year.
So you don’t have any?
I have EWIs now. And the EWI is where that technology went. The EWI and the WX7, 5, and 11 is where that technology went. So the original technology was either sold or stolen. But I think it was sold to Yamaha.
Do you look for them on eBay ever?
No, I’m not really interested in it, even though it was a great instrument. It was a great instrument because the keys moved. The EWI, the keys don’t move. It’s touch sensitive. But the Lyricon literally was contact sensitive, so you actually had to push a key down and make contact, which meant that it could break. So even though mine were in pristine condition, yeah, I lost them when my fortunes kind of sunk a little too low, one of those years in my life.
So Tony invested in me. He gave Maurice the $2,500 to get the record out. The record came out. It was a success. And then Tony was my manager for the next 10 years. We had local success. From here, we went to New York. From New York, we went to England. So Prince Charles was then augmented with this and the City Beat Band by Tony Rose. I came up with the name Prince Charles because here I am. I go to Boston Latin. I get this education that’s kind of like a princely education. I’m in Brandeis, reading books like The Prince and the Discourses. There’s this guy in England named Prince Charles, who, if I get lucky, my music will be gravitated toward because the people in England will try to make fun of him. I’m thinking all this stuff at 20 years old. That’s exactly what happened.
And you ended up playing for him at one point, right?
Exactly. Trust the Prince’s Trust thing.
Yeah, with Duran Duran, right?
Yeah, with Duran Duran and Robert Palmer. So that’s exactly what happened. My records came from local to New York and then we got a deal that went to Europe. My music out to Europe? Oh, it was on. Next thing I knew, Virgin Records—because I was doing all this independently. Well, Tony and I were doing it independently. So then the music got to New York. And we had some cassette-only deal with a label called Reachout International Records. Cassette only. It was the same label that the Bad Brains were on and some other cool groups.
Oh, yeah. Yeah, ROIR.
Yeah, right. Right.
I remember their logo.
But they didn’t have the vinyl rights. So we sold the vinyl rights to a company called Greyhound in England. And Greyhound was selling my music. Reachout International was selling my music in England. And then Virgin heard about this underground thing, and then Virgin gave me a deal where they bought up all the rights to all the material, and they wanted to get the cassette rights, the vinyl rights, and then they gave me a budget for a third album. So I had the two albums by myself, and then they gave me a budget for the third album.
So at what point—you guys toured with like Duran Duran, too, right?Yeah. So ‘79 is when I put the first album out. Then I moved to New York in ‘81. Around ‘81, ‘82 is when I put the second album out. And the second album, half of it feels like Boston. Half of it feels like New York, which means that half of it was done with an acoustic band and half of it was done with drum machines because the first drum machines entered the planet in 1980. And I’m listening to music on the radio, going, what the heck is that? That doesn’t sound like a drummer. And so then I found out it was drum machines. So which one do you buy? Do you buy the LM-1? Do you buy the TR-808? Do you buy the Oberheim DMX? Which one of these things is making that sound? So that was a whole new experiment. So eventually, I did buy one and I started triggering it with my Lyricon, but that’s another story.
And your first albums are amongst the first to feature rap, too.
Yeah. Well, in 1979, “Rapper’s Delight” came out. So there was already an underground movement happening in New York with rap music. Nothing had broken through yet. And I wasn’t a great singer, so I was going to try to exploit the concept of being able to talk on a record to help my brand at least have a voice, because I realized that the Grover Washington scenario wasn’t going to work too much longer. It looked like everything was starting to gravitate towards vocalisms. And now, in retrospect, I was a little bit prescient because that didn’t happen for five more years. 1984 is when, OK, no more of this instrumental stuff.
So ‘79, I put my music out and I don’t know where I got this idea. My friend Chuckie Snow that I talked about brought me to New York and we saw some rap, but I’m like, “But why did you show this to me? I don’t understand.” And he said, “Because it’s going to be big and you’ve got to be connected to it. And so when I made my record, I’m up there in there trying to sing, and I sounded like crap. So I said, well, maybe let me explore this rap thing. Maybe that will work better. So the record “Tight Jeans,”
[RAPPING] Prince Charles on the case from 9 til 2. I’m looking for a girl looks just like you. Skin-tight jeans fitting just right. Let’s party, girl, till the early light. I’ll rap to you. I’ll rap to your friend and take you both home when the party end. Those jeans you’re wearing are out of sight, but you can’t sit down because they’re fitting too tight. Jeans.
That is awesome. You still know it so well.
It was the silliest thing.
How many times did you have to go over that in your head? Like over the years . . .
There’s actually four verses. That’s the only one I remember. I don’t have no idea what else I was talking about.
When was the last time you listened to any of these records?
Well, I did a reunion thing a few months ago, I think in February, and I had to learn them again. And the hardest songs were the rap songs. Because I’m like, I wrote all these words? Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me. So when we did the performance, I had everything written out on the stage with big font so I could see the words. It was hilarious.
But people loved it. And I was playing the EWI, doing all the bass things.
So now, at this time, it’s ‘79, ‘80. Are you rubbing shoulders with the other pioneers of hip-hop?
Yeah, I met Bambara in New York. And I came as a celebrity. There’s a picture of me and Bambara with me in my full drag. And Bambara is in there with his T-shirt and jeans on. And then after he met me, I’m looking at this video, and he’s got like glasses and capes, and that was my shtick. And I’m looking at it like, you dirty dog. How dare you? You came to Boston because Tom Silverman was here. Arthur Baker was here. And they were a connection to Bambara’s stuff, and that’s how I met Bam.
And I’m looking at the video, and I’m like, OK. They ripped us off. But I’m like, I can’t tell this. Nobody’s going to believe me, because you had to have been in Boston in the ‘70s to know that that’s what Prince Charles did. I was on stage, half-naked, with glitter on my body, with strippers on the stage. It was like, OK, if there’s nothing else that you do, go see Prince Charles because it’s a freak show.
Now, is your mom coming to these shows?
So talk a little bit about her open mind. She was so open-minded in saying, “Oh, you want to do this? Sure.” And throughout the struggling time and—
As long as I could present my case to my mom, who was an investigator for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission—she was like a real pioneer. And then she eventually went from there to the OFCCP, which is the Office of Federal Contract Compliance. So my mom is basically a fed. And as long as I could present a viable plan for each step that I was pursuing of how I was going to generate revenue, she was going to back me. She was in my corner. Of course, nothing ever panned out the way I thought it would. But the fact that I had a local hit was a good thing. The fact that I got a deal in New York was a good thing. The fact that I got a deal in Europe was a good thing. The fact that I started to do European tours, it was like, boom, this is all great things. I wasn’t making a lot of money.
You were playing arenas, too, right?
Oh, no. I was making enough money to pay the rent for about three to six months when I got off the tour.
And then it was like, OK, you better sell another record. You better get another tour or whatever. So you were really dependent upon the success of your records, them blowing up. And I wasn’t blowing up.
Right. Who were some of the other acts you were touring with? I know the Duran Duran one . . .
Yeah. And are these acts taking you under their wings at all?
No, no. They don’t even see you. You come on at 8:00. They come on at 10:00. You come on at 8:00. Then the next act comes on at 9:00ish, 9:10ish. And then the marquee act comes on about 10:00ish. 8:00, 9:00, and 10:30, let’s say. So the marquee act, they don’t even come to the stadium until before they have to go on. The secondary act doesn’t come. So I hung out with Robert Palmer. I talked to Nile Rodgers. Actually, I spoke more to Nile than I did to Duran Duran. I spoke more to Nile—
He was playing with them at the time?
He was producing them.
Oh, that’s right.
Yeah. I got to play “The Real Book” with Nile. So that was kind of fun. Nile was a real player. But yeah, I wasn’t making a lot of money. A lot of compromises had to be made so I could even be in that situation. “Please, please, please let me tour with you. I’ll do anything.” “You’ll do anything? OK.”
So you mentioned some of the darker times or realizing it wasn’t working or other times, but was it ever as extravagant as the lyrics of “Skintight Tina” would lead you to believe?
No. I was projecting. I was doing that same thing I was doing with the ruler in the mirror. I was projecting into what my—which, actually, I’m glad that it didn’t turn out because Rick James had the real thing, and he’s not here anymore. And I’m sure Michael and Prince had a taste of the real thing, and all three of them are not here anymore. And my life was sobered because I didn’t get that taste of the real thing, and that might be the best thing that could have happened to me.
You said when you were first playing the Lyricon, you had this first taste of being an engineer of some sort. But when did you formulate that plan?
I was on stage at Madison Square Garden, 30,000 people screaming my name. “Prince Charles, we love you.” It’s better than sex. It’s really like drugs. And I’m looking at all the young White children in the audience. Like nobody in the audience was Black. And I’m playing funk. I’m like, what the heck is going on? And they’re like kids loving the—
[SINGING FUNK RHYTHMS]
—the Duran Duran sound because I was warming up Duran Duran. And they’re yelling and screaming at me because I’m the warm-up act, kind of like Prince did the Rolling Stones. And I’m this warm-up act and they’re yelling and screaming my name, but I’m looking in their faces, going, this is not real. Literally, they’ll be yelling and screaming for somebody else next week and somebody else the week after that and so forth and so on.
And I’m only making X amount of dollars, and I’m driving a ‘72 Skylark back to my apartment on 160th Street. Because I’m in Manhattan at Madison Square Garden, and it’s 30,000 people yelling my name, but I’m going to get in my Skylark and go home, right? So I’m thinking, how absurd is this? And I’m a Brandeis graduate on stage in a leotard—not even leotards, wearing spandex, with my shirt off, and I’m going, what the heck? How do you get out of this? How do you make sense out of this moving forward? How do you pay your rent?
What’s one song that you wish the world would rediscover?
“Nature Boy” by Nat King Cole.
No, one of yours. One of yours.
Oh, one of mine?
Honestly, it’s a song called “Rise.”
[SINGING] Everybody, can you hear me singing? This is the time to take control. Everybody, can hear me screaming? Now is the time. Just grab ahold. Here’s what you’ve got to do. Rise. Everybody rise.
[WHISPERING] Against Donald Trump. Rise.
Because that’s what the song was. It was about revolution. Revolution is on its way. Here’s what you’ve got to do. Rise. And it was the first song where I found my voice as a singer, because in the streets, I was singing like a Curtis Mayfield falsetto.
People are playing. And I found out very quickly on tour that that voice wasn’t going to cut it in front of a band. So when I came back in to finish up the album, I found this voice of projection.
[SINGING BOLDLY] Here’s what you’ve got to do. Rise! Everybody rise!
That kind of thing. And that ability to project was, for me, like, oh, that’s what I can do with my voice. So that was a special song for me. And then the fact that we haven’t completed our revolution in America means that it’s always relevant. It’s been relevant for the last 40 years.
I wish it wasn’t.
I know. So that would be the song of mine that I wish people would discover.