Prince’s ‘1999’: How the Artist Leveled Up on His Breakthrough LP

Prince’s ‘1999’: How the Artist Leveled Up on His Breakthrough LP

When audio engineer Peggy McCreary was recording Prince for his 1999 album, she didn’t immediately recognize his genius. “I had no idea who he was when I first started working with him,” she recalls. She had met him around the time he made his third LP, Controversy, and unlike Prince, who was in his early twenties, she had a string of hit albums in her list of credits, including Van Halen’s debut and Elton John’s 21 at 23. She watched Prince jump from instrument to instrument, recording and mixing songs all by himself in a day, but it wasn’t until the record was done and she saw him on a stage that the full scope of his talent became clear to her.

“For a Christmas present, he sent for me to come out on the road to see him, all expenses paid,” she remembers. “It was New Year’s Eve in Dallas for the 1999 tour. That’s when I totally got it. I had never seen anybody give so much to an audience. I got weak in the knees. I was by the soundboard and the soundman got me a chair. Then I was literally up screaming with the crowd and dancing, and it was like, ‘Oh, my God. This guy’s incredible.’ That’s when I realized who I was working with.”

The 1999 album, which came out just before Halloween in 1982, was also when the world caught onto Prince. He’d scored a hit with “I Wanna Be Your Lover” in 1979, but his Dirty Mind and Controversy albums, with their explicitly sexual lyrics, failed to make waves in the mainstream. With 1999, his most explicit desire was to write hits. Despite being a double LP, 1999 became a Number Seven hit and went platinum within a few months on the strength of pop anthems like “1999,” “Little Red Corvette,” and “Delirious.”

Now a new box set is offering a 360-degree look at the period surrounding 1999 with two discs of previously unreleased outtakes and live recordings from the types of concerts that turned McCreary into a believer. All of the material was recorded between November 1981 and April 1983, the era that Prince Estate chief archivist Michael Howe determined was the time Prince was working on 1999. When juxtaposed with the original album, the rarities show how open-minded the artist was, as he fused his signature “Minneapolis sound” with rock, reggae, heavy-metal guitar shredding, and all flavors of pop. He was on a creative hot streak — also writing and recording albums for Vanity 6 and the Time in that same period — a run that set him up for megastardom on the following year’s Purple Rain.

“I think that he had grown and matured by that point,” says Dez Dickerson, guitarist for Prince’s band the Revolution, and the featured soloist on “Little Red Corvette.” Dickerson chronicled that story, and others about the artist, in his 2003 book, My Time With Prince. “He had come into the place of knowing his own musical language well enough that he could make an extremely commercial Prince record without it coming across as calculated, disingenuous, or manufactured.”

“His ability to jump from genre to genre with pretty convincing results didn’t surprise me, knowing who he was,” says Howe, who took over Prince’s vault shortly after the artist’s 2016 death. “But just being able to do that is astounding. I can’t think of any other artists who can go from quiet-storm R&B to salacious, mechanoid funk to full-throttle arena rock to Gary Numan-ish New Wave to Mahavishnu Orchestra-esque fusion to you name it without losing his audience and with complete authority. The guy was really a master.”

Prince rarely explained his motivations to his collaborators. When he worked solo with McCreary, she used to have to prod him to communicate with her. She doesn’t remember him ever referencing artists he admired — though she says you could hear Prince’s reverence for James Brown in his trademark squeal — but she does remember walking into the studio one day after 1999, whistling “Karma Chameleon” and Prince asking her to knock it off because, as he told her, “That’s the competition.” She also remembers rivalry between Prince and Michael Jackson. She adds that one difference between the two is that Prince did everything himself whereas Jackson needed Quincy Jones to produce him.

Dickerson says Prince’s influences are evident in his guitar playing on his early records. “You could hear how much he loved Carlos Santana’s playing and, on the rhythm side, James Brown stuff — stuff that was all about the pocket and the groove,” he says. “Those influences remained but you could hear how he embraced new things as he was exposed to different music. I was definitely pushing all things rock, but more so as punk started to emerge. He was the quintessential musical sponge, and that showed up as his playing changed and developed.”

The 1999 album shows Prince’s range. The title track was a synth-rock, end-of-the-world banger that featured Prince, Dickerson, and Jill Jones sharing lead vocals — “It’s interesting, in retrospect I sing the ‘Parties weren’t meant to last’ line,” Dickerson says, referring to how he quit the group after the 1999 tour — and it contained Prince’s mission statement for the record: “Don’t worry, I won’t hurt you. I only want to have some fun.” “Little Red Corvette” was an out-and-out rock ballad, his kingmaker on the charts. He explored New Wave rockabilly numbers (“Delirious”), gentle pop balladry (“Free”), and soul (“International Lover.”) He also stayed true to his dance and R&B fan base with “D.M.S.R.,” an acronym for his other mission statement: “Dance, music, sex, romance.”

Ironically, that song — which could have fit right in on Prince’s previous albums, Dirty Mind and Controversy — showed off his mainstream ambition. At various points, he calls out “all the white people,” Puerto Ricans, and black people. It was around 1999, that Dickerson saw Prince’s audiences becoming more diverse. “In the beginning, especially when we were doing the Fire It Up tour with Rick James, we were doing what was foundationally an R&B circuit,” he says. “Even though most of them were arena shows or at least larger-cap theaters, we were playing primarily to African-American audiences. But Prince’s game plan was that we were going to be this multiracial, multicultural rock band, and we weren’t going to be pigeonholed. One of the analytics that went into measuring our success in reaching that objective was the racial mix of the audiences.

“We joke about it now, but one of the management folks would come back to the dressing room and say, ‘Oh, the house is 30/70,’ or 60/40 or 50/50,” he continues. “Then there was a point where we hit the tipping point and the audiences were largely white and primarily white. You were definitely able to visually track that as time went on. The thing that’s surreal now is that the ‘House Ethnicity Count’ turned into the nightly normal. But for us collectively, we wanted to be a band that was popular. We didn’t want to be a popular black group or a biracial or multiracial group; we wanted to be the biggest band in the world and all that entails.”

Prince’s desire comes through not just on the songs that made up the 1999 track list, but also the castaways in the box set. Any of the bonus cuts could have made it onto the double album (or, in this case, a quadruple album) and his voice sounds vivacious and fresh as it variously squeals, crackles, and croons. And he must have known he was onto something then, too, since he periodically dipped into the vault and cannibalized bits of songs for new material. The bouncy proto-New Jack Swing tune “Bold Generation,” rescued here from a cassette tape, would later become “New Power Generation” on the Graffiti Bridge soundtrack. And “Extralovable” — a song he demoed in 1982 for Vanity — would become the much more wholesome “Xtralovable” on his final album, Hit’n’Run Phase Two; that song and another called “Lust U Always,” however, don’t appear on the 1999 box set, according to Howe, because of references to rape.

For all of Prince’s sex talk at the time, though, McCreary says he never came off as a creep. He was 23 when he began work on 1999 and the only time he lived up to his persona was when other men were around, such as a time when they invited a groupie to the studio just so they could make fun of her dancing. Mostly, McCreary remembers Prince as being quiet and shy. Her favorite moments were when he would just play piano, sometimes to write a song, sometimes just for the hell of it. Her favorite outtake is the previously unreleased, live-in-the-studio take of “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore?” — a track that Howe thinks could have been a contender on the main 1999 track list. For years, this version was just sitting in the vault, and it’s one she remembers as being more emotional than the take that came out on the “1999” B side.

“When I hear a version that really gets to me, and it sticks, I want to hear all the nuances of that version again,” she says. “If somebody doesn’t do it, it’s like, ‘Aww.'”

“With that take of ‘How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore,’ it was an early iteration that had the energy that early versions of things tend to have,” Dickerson says. “I find some of that stuff exciting.” But he also likes some of the ways Prince would change a song later. “Because he was such a prolific self-editor, there were things that ended up in the final, commercial version that was different in whatever way. You can hear that on the full-length version of ‘Delirious.’ I mean, ‘Do Yourself a Favor’ is probably the most interesting for me because that goes back to before my entrance onto the scene, when [Prince] played with [the early group] 94 East.”

Dickerson eventually split from Prince’s circle when he had a religious awakening and wanted distance from the artist’s over-sexualization; he also didn’t appreciate the way Prince seemed to embrace solo stardom and seemed to treat the band more as employees. They rehearsed too much, in his opinion. “I didn’t feel like we were dangerous anymore,” he says. He exited the Revolution in 1983, but still kept up with Prince both as an artist and personally. He was most excited to hear what Prince would do later with songs like “Pop Life” and “Sign o’ the Times.”

McCreary continued engineering for Prince into the mid-Eighties — she engineered songs on Purple Rain, Around the World in a Day, and Parade — but stopped working with him when he asked her to move from L.A. to Minneapolis. They lost touch. But she still treasures the time they spent together, and even though she still remembers how exhausting it was working for him at all hours of the day, she appreciates his genius and the success that came with it. One of Prince’s engineers who succeeded her, Susan Rogers, told McCreary that she was lucky because she got Prince when he was human.

“After 1999, he became huge,” McCreary says. “With Purple Rain, he became a mega-mogul. That’s when the bodyguards came, the purple limos, and the purple motorcycle would come down to the studio. When I first met him, he didn’t even have a car here. He totally changed. When we were working on Purple Rain, I started reading about geniuses so I could understand it all better.”