As soon as Alicia Keys and her band arrive at the front gate of Prince’s house it is apparent to all that there is no paisley in Paisley Park. Prince’s compound looks, from the outside, like the athletic facility of a state University, a big boxy building with gates around it that gives no hint of what lies inside.
“You are going to get a tour from Billy, which is rare, I never seen a Billy tour,” says our driver. “He played the club owner in Purple Rain.”
Alicia Keys and her posse – the band, the three back up singers, her manager, her musical director and Wayne, AKA, “Freaky Little,” a tiny, shoulder popping, dancing dynamo who introduces her show, all crowd through the metal detector and are duly greeted by Billy, a huge burly man in a football jersey and shorts, who proceeds to show us around. And around. And around. Prince’s Funk Castle is well appointed, in the manner of, well, a prince, who can have whatever his heart desires. There is the giant, state of the art recording studio A. And slightly smaller state of the art recording Studio B. And the business offices. And the gym. And the indoor basketball court. And the gameroom. And the “play” room, which is lit by black lights, has stars painted on the ceiling, and several overstuffed leather couches, and where Prince no longer goes ever since he’s been “saved.” We walk past something that looks like a life size replica of the Batmobile but turns out to be a piano. Everyone is wide eyed, quiet. Then Alicia Keys cocks her head, listening to a strange cooing sound that drifts through the hallway. “This is what it sounds like…” she belts out. We walk past a cage full of white doves, cooing.
The hallways are painted to look like a sky with a few happy clouds; framed Gold and platinum records cover the wall space. Prince is like the biggest, baddest Dentist of all time—he’s got so many diploma’s on his castle walls it makes your head spin: Gold Records, Platinum records, awards of every variety, a kaleidoscope of plaques and honors, and a formal looking document from the governor of Minnesota, dated 1987, declaring September 11th to be the official Paisley Park day in the state..
Finally we are taken to giant performance space the size of a medium size gym. It can hold three thousand, Billy tells us. There is a weeklong soul festival taking place here. Last night Maceo Parker and Prince jammed till five in the morning. Tonight it’s Common and Alicia. Everyone watches the end of the Common Sound check, then ambles onto the stage and starts their own sound check. A keyboard is placed smack in the middle of the stage and finally, after listening to the band from the middle of the giant room (standing on the huge Prince insignia painted on the floor, like the logo of a basketball team at halfcourt) Alicia gets up onstage. The back up singers sound marvelous, but Alicia’s voice cuts through the cavernous room. She has her own frequency. She closes her eyes and lets that eerie hint of cold mercury into her voice, a dab of Steve Wonder, a tiny pinch of Billie Holiday. She closes her eyes, belts out half a tune, then does a running jump off the stage and skips to the center of the room to listen to the band, cornrows clacking and jumping, butt shaking, grooving to the sound of her music.
Spending a day with Alicia Keys is like watching one of those fast motion movies of a budding flower bloom. Yesterday she was in Chicago, performing on Opra. Today she is Chanhassan, Minnesota, an innocuous suburb of Minneapolis. Tonight, she plays, at Paisley Park, at the personal invitation of Prince, who is staging a kind of one week star studded celebration of soul music, in general, and himself, in particular (It’s more or less his birthday; he’s 43). Yesterday, the video for her single, Fallin, was number two on BET’s most requested videos. Today, it’s number one. Tomorrow, she flies to LA to tape the Tonight show.
My first glimpse of her comes as I walk into the hotel lobby, past a parked Budweiser truck whose radio is blaring Stevie Wonder’s “Living in the City.”
I enter the bland hotel lobby. Shining in the middle of it is a beautiful light skinned girl eating an yellow apple.
Alicia Keys from the ground up: red and white Jordan sneakers, tight black XOXO corduroys hugging her full hips, a red bikini-strap tank top with black cardigan sweater over it (one button done up), and a red knit skullcap over her Cornrowed and beaded hair, which click-clacks like rosary beads whenever she moves her head. With one hand she presses a cell phone to her ear, and with the other she brings a yellow apple to her mouth and, pearly white teeth bared, takes a bite.
“I love yellow apples,” she remarks in her sultry, streetwise voice, presumably for the benefit of whomever is on the other line.
The lobby of the Chanhassan Country Suites is briefly overrun by the Alicia Keys posse of about ten, a full band, three back up singers, and finally Wayne, AKA, “Freaky Little.” When he ambles by, Alicia calls out with concern, “your back all right?”
She’s got this casual den mother vibe about her, amused, relaxed, but giddy also, and why not? She’s twenty years old and the world is unspooling before her like a red carpet. We’ve got an hour before sound check, and walk over to a nearby Wendy’s for a pre-show bite. As we walk past the drive-through window she says, “I used to go this Wendy’s in Harlem all the time and we’d always order at the Drive through window, but without the car.”
She grew up in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen, between “Hell and Decency,” as she puts it. “Decency started around tenth or eleventh avenue,” she explains over some Chicken Nuggets with Honey Mustard sauce. “And Hell was eighth Avenue. Dark doorways, boarded up buildings, Ho’s, pimps, Hookers, drug fiends, every kind of neglected individual seemed to flock there, and I had to walk through it every day.”
She and her younger brother were raised by her mother – “Italian, Scottish, Irish, some other stuff” – and has never been very close with her father, who was black. “We weren’t estranged, but I didn’t have too much contact with him,” she says. “My mother was my mother and my father.”
Her musical career got it’s start when she was four years old and visited a friend’s house who had not one, but two piano’s. She became obsessed with the instrument, and would spend hours, “sitting there with my friend, pretending I was playing the piano.” She lobbied her mother and her friend and, at the age of five, one of the two piano’s – “an old, upright, player piano” – made its way into the Keys household. “We used it to separate the livingroom from my quote-unquote bedroom, where I slept.”
By eleven, “I was taking dancing, piano lessons, going to school. I virtually had a breakdown. I said to my mom, ‘I have to stop something!’ She said, you have to stick with the piano.”
She stuck with the piano. She enrolled in Manhattan’s Professional School for Music and Art (“not FAME, but like that,”), graduated early, and at the age of sixteen had two Columbia’s come into her life: Columbia Records, and Columbia University, where she was accepted for college.
She also moved out of her house, to her own place in Harlem. Her mother was not too pleased, “But at that age everyone has issues with their parents.”
She moved out on her own, up to Harlem, where she always hung out. “I just always gravitated there,” she says. When I ask if she moved to Harlem to live with someone, she blushes and says, “No.” It’s not that I don’t believe her, but the blush is a surprise.
She signed on for both Columbia’s and, in the end, left them both. Columbia University lasted four weeks.
“It was torture,” she says of her college days. “Trying to do homework in between everything. It was a strange period of my life. I was feeling confused and sad. I didn’t want to let my mother down. I was living in Harlem by myself and I’d wake up at seven in the morning to try and do homework, but this wasn’t high school, I couldn’t just skim the material to get the general idea. I was taking the train down from Harlem, every morning and I just got to be too much.”
Her relationship with Columbia records lasted nearly two years. “I got signed to Columbia in 1997, the whole Boo Da Ba Bang Bang!” she says, a little mini-scat that makes just about everybody in the Chanhassan Wendy’s pause over their burger. “We took pictures, hair, make-up, photo shoots, everything.”
With Jermain Dupree as her mentor she set about writing songs. But when Columbia’s management underwent a shake-up, the new executives wanted her to go in a direction other than what she had on mind. “They wanted something more safe, radio friendly, easy listening, simplistic, something where you don’t have to think too hard. Hit Hit Hit Hit Hit… Hit!
“I wanted a hit, but with my style. I wanted it to be piano driven. I wanted it to be whatever the fuck I felt like it being the moment of writing it. And I had already been at Columbia for a year and a half, writing and producing. I had started touching the styles and feelings I enjoyed. They let me go too long following my own direction. I wasn’t going to go back!”
She went forward, out of Columbia records and into J records, whose founder, Clive Davis, has been mentor to female singers ranging from Janis Joplin to Whitney Houston.
Her own direction is very Piano driven, soulful, Urban and also romantic, but also without misty eyed sentimentality.
We stroll back to her hotel room, stopping on the way to buy a giant Chocolate birthday cake for her manager, Jeff. Den mother that she is to hew crew, she has a bunch of chicken nuggets in a bag, a birthday cake in another other bag.
Up in her hotel room, her publicist delivers a giant cardboard box from Peggy Wilson, her stylist or, as she clarifies, “the stylist, she’s with Whitney right now. She does everybody.”
Out comes a pair of Rhinestone studded high heeled boots. “Crazy boots!” she says. “Big doofy Rhinestones. But it looks good with the outfit. I have a love hate relationship with these boots.” A black and white jacket spills out, something straight out of Michael Jackson’s Thriller. “Ooooh! ? That’s what I’m talkin about! I just wanna know, can I keep that jacket.”
She has such bright features when she lights up. I ask her about growing up mixed race and tell her that to me she looks Puerto Rican.
“Funny you should say that, I always get that walking down the street. I’m always getting the Puerto Rican thing. Guys saying all this stuff to me on the street in Spanish and I’m like, ‘Hey I don’t speak Spanish.’ But I never had a black or white issue with myself. I’m black and I’m white, I never had a big issue with it, maybe because growing up in NYC and spending so much time in Harlem, which I love. No one is entirely one things. Everyone is so mixed, so diverse.”
I ask about the video for “Fallin,” which features Alicia riding a yellow bus to a an upstate prison, where she visits her lover.
“That scenario is true to the life of a lot of people that I know. All of them women. I wanted to relay how deep love is. How much you are willing to go through. How much it takes to make it work.”
And was it at all autobiographical?
“Sure. There was an autobiographical element to that situation.”
She says she is seeing someone, a musician, but adds, “I would never go out with a heavy in this industry. I don’t feel I could properly trust them. This business is so twisted. Every whim is indulged. It’s like, every woman, every man, everything, is yours. I haven’t even seen the worst of what I’ve heard, but I’ve seen enough. I couldn’t be with someone who was exposed to that. It would feel icky. That’s the word. ICKY.”
For a moment there, as she sits with her box of stylist clothing goodies strewn around her on the hotel floor, her low, knowing voice taking on a preacher’s cadence, one could mistake the woman speaking for a show biz veteran, and not a twenty year old whose first record is coming out in three weeks and who, in a matter of hours, is going to play in front of the biggest live audience she has ever seen.
The band filters down one at a time, dressed in black, flashy, rhinestone headbands and clean shoes. One of the back-up singers is a now a dead ringer for Mary K. Blige. Suddenly a rumor sweeps through several two way pagers: Brittany Spears is dead. We run to the lobby TV, channel surf, pause for a while on MTV (“Naw, man, that’s ‘cribs,’” and settle on CNN. One story after another comes on. No news. Then another Two way pager attack, news from New York: It’s just a rumor.
“Damn,” says Wayne, AKA Freaky Little. “My energy level just went all the way down.”
Then Alicia appears, black pants, boots, black and white from top to bottom, including a black Fedora, which she favors, that features a white rattle snake wrapping around the crown, on which a sentence is scrawled. It begins: “Last night I slept with my roommates boyfriend…”
“I’m Dorothy,” she says, and clicks her heels.
The energy level is back up.
We’re ferried to back to Paisley Park. Up in the dressing room there is a quiet buzz until Show Time, when everyone stands up and holds hands in a circle for the pre-show prayer.
“Dear Lord, thank you for bringing us to the Prince compound. Bless the guitarist, the bass player, the drummer, everything in this room, thank you for everything we have, thank you for Alicia’s voice, for the back-up singers voices…” At the end there is a hearty “Amen!” and then everyone puts there hands in for a kind of cheer. I feel like I’m in the pre-game locker room of the Knicks.
Onstage, Freaky Little does his things, whips the crowd up with his booty-shaking Flavor Flave routine. And then Alicia takes the stage, sits are her piano, looking, in her Fedora, like the world’s most beautiful private eye, and begins to play Beethoven. Across the room, hanging high on the back wall, are versions of about twenty outfits prince has worn, dating back to Purple Rain in 1984. The band comes in with some funk. Stop and start, teasing the crowd, and then she starts to sing. Her songs are funky, casual, and tinged with an slightly evangelical fervor. It’s soul music, and the crowd gets into it, particular a inspired version of Prince’s “U Don’t’ Call me anymore.” Afterwards we are lead back up to the dressing room, past the cavernous load-in area. We pass Common and his crew on the way to the stage, handshakes and congrats are exchanged.
Back in the dressing room now, the mood is euphoric, giddy, and then the Purple One appears in the doorway, cane with gold handle in one hand, goatee pencil thin like a forties movie star, skin pale with pancake make-up. The room goes dead silent.
“Great show. Good sound. Where’s the drummer? He was great.” The drummer is somewhere else, and a unspoken note of sadness passes through everyone that he is not here to receive this compliment.
“Where you guys going next?”
“LA tomorrow, two shows,” says Alicia, who is the only person who seems relaxed.
“Well, you better get some rest. This jam is going ‘till five in the morning. Last night we had D’angelo and Maceo Parker, I got up there. We were going till five.”
Andre, the musical director, who is standing closest to him says, under his breath, “I just want you to know that you are the greatest. You records mean so much to me.”
Alicia gets up, walks past him: “I wanna talk to you in my office,” she says. And they disappear to some obscure stairway in the maze. The room is quiet for about five seconds after that.
“Oh Dawg!” Freaky Little says at last. “That was the man standing right there. Oooh, Dawg!”
We stay for Common, long enough to watch Eryka Badu appear on stage and to see Prince sit in on the keyboards. Then it’s back to the hotel. Alicia is up at seven in the morning.
I ask what Prince said to her in private.
“He said he’d have to get the curse jar so I could put a dollar on it, because I cursed on stage. I admit it, I cursed. I like to curse.”
This is all pretty amazing, I say.
“It’s the bomb,” she replied. “I get to experience so many different people. Every second I’m discovering things about myself, about life.” She slaps her thigh and laughs. “By Golly, I’m having a great damn time!”