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“There are a tonne of books about Prince out there and the publisher originally wanted me to write a biography. I didn’t see the value in this.” — Mobeen Azhar

Mobeen Azhar. — Tim Widden
Mobeen Azhar. — Tim Widden

Mobeen Azhar is a journalist and filmmaker based in the UK. His documentary Generation Jihad was nominated for the BAFTA and he is the winner of the 2011 pan-BBC ideas competition Pitch to Win, as well as a Foreign Press Association nominee for Inside Gay Pakistan and a One World Media Award nominee for The Trouble with Pakistan’s White Stripe. His BBC documentary Hunting for Prince’s Vault was critically lauded and led to his new book about the musical superstar, Prince: Stories from the Purple Underground. Following are excerpts from his interview with Books&Authors.

How did this book come about?

In 2015 I travelled to Minneapolis, Prince’s hometown, to make Hunting for Prince’s Vault for the BBC. The documentary was about Prince’s unreleased recordings and making it meant I got to meet a whole bunch of Prince’s alumni, from band-mates to sound engineers and dancers and everything in between. It was really well-received and many of Prince’s closest associates contacted me after it was out. I was approached by a publisher to write a book. I began writing last year and Prince: Stories from the Purple Underground has just been published.

What was the reason for choosing to present other people’s stories about Prince, as opposed to your opinions or critiques about the man and/or his music?

There are a tonne of books about Prince out there and the publisher originally wanted me to write a biography. I didn’t see the value in this. I’ve read every Prince book that exists and as great as some of them are, they repeat the same formula: ‘Talented black kid from a white town makes music. He hits the big time with ‘Purple Rain’ and guess what? He’s still making music!’ I really wanted to go beyond that and tell the stories of particular albums, recordings and studio sessions. I was really grateful to have complete creative control with the book and to be able to tell Prince’s story in the words of those who were instrumental in his creative process. I think this way the book paints a much more vivid picture of who Prince was and how he worked.

Were there any stories that didn’t make the cut? What was your process for which to keep and which to discard?

There were a tonne of stories that I haven’t included this time around and I keep getting contacted by Prince’s associates who have great stories of their own. The book chronicles Prince’s working life. It starts with him as a teenager and documents every release, tour movie and industry battle. In some cases multiple contributors had similar memories about a given recording or tour so I cross-referenced details and included just one telling of the story. Putting the book together was like constructing a beautiful jigsaw puzzle; it’s often said that Prince lived his life as though it were a movie and effectively, I was threading together scenes from the movie of his life.

What was the strangest experience you had researching the documentary and the book?

I was in Minneapolis and Prince’s bass player, Sonny T., invited me to watch him play a club show after I’d interviewed him. He was just a lovely, open person and whilst I was talking to him backstage he put in a call to Prince to ask if he would come to the club that night. I felt like a child. Part of me wanted to grab the phone and say “Hey, this is Mobeen! You know I love you, yeh?” but I kept my cool.

Many of the interviews for the book were conducted after Prince’s passing and that meant so many of the contributors were in a state of mourning. The interviews often felt like a mutual counselling session. Prince’s band-mates would pour their hearts out and there was a search for healing and closure. I felt really privileged to be a sounding board. Prince’s passing was so unexpected it forced all of us to rethink our personal histories with him.

Prince was pretty private. Everyone who worked with him has been fairly reticent about him, too. How did you go about getting them to talk?

I feel I won over a lot of good will when Hunting for Prince’s Vault came out. I don’t really want to give away specifics, but I know that Prince had heard the documentary and he had heard me being interviewed on The Current which was an MPLS radio station to which he often offered exclusive recordings. Without a doubt there was a level of fear amongst some of Prince’s associates about speaking about his life and even his music, but I think the vault documentary eased a lot of that tension. I also think that after his passing, many people wanted to put out some kind of final statement and open up about their own experience.

Those closest to him have clearly also have been the most difficult to find — which, I assume, is why we don’t hear from Wendy [Melvoin] and Lisa [Coleman], Sheila E. [Escovedo] or Mayte [Garcia] in the book. I can’t even imagine how you’d go about trying to reach them, but I assume you must have!

I did reach out to Wendy, Lisa and Sheila and I still hold out hope of interviewing them one day. I met Sheila in London in 2014 and she was completely charming. In all honesty, I didn’t feel it was appropriate to reach out to Mayte after Prince’s passing because as well as being Prince’s protégé, she was also once his wife. I would love to interview her one day, but I really wanted to keep the book focused on music and I’m not sure if that would have been possible given the intimate nature of their relationship. There’s a story that Larry Graham (bassist from Sly and Family Stone and also Prince’s best friend) tells in the book about the persona of Prince and I tailored that for publication. It’s just about respect and distinguishing what is valuable in sharing about Prince and what should perhaps remain private.

Where do you even start with someone as complex, as prolific as Prince? The book is pretty chronological, but when you started research for the documentary, did you have a process in mind as to how you’d go about curating your information?

With both projects, chronology helped to provide a backbone. There are, however, many fascinating diversions to follow. For example, Stories from the Purple Underground explains how Prince’s instrumental projects such as The Flesh and Madhouse came about. These projects are an important part of the Prince canon but they often seem detached from the pop star icon we all know. He is so complex and prolific, I think there will always be more to discover. That’s just the kind of artist he is. Prince is an idea. He’s a universe. Making new discoveries will always be fun.

What do you think it was about Prince that generated such immense love and respect from all sorts of people all over the world?

A lot is said about the persona of Prince. The androgynous, super-pimp alien being that captured our imaginations, but ultimately it was always about the music. Anyone with an ear gets drawn into those tunes. How can you not? Susan Rogers, Prince’s sound engineer, now lectures at Berklee College of Music. She believes it’s rare for a musician to be respected by audiences, peers and critics, but in her words “Prince wore the triple crown.” That’s truly remarkable. We can go on and on about eyeliner and frilly shirts and name changes, but who is there that can play bass, drums, keys, guitar, and produce and write their own material and sing like an angel? And to do that for a lifetime? It’s insane. It’s beautiful. It’s Prince.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, October 16th, 2016