While watching YouTube videos of his friend Dr Cornel West, Prince heard the famed American academic and activist say, “I love my brother Prince, but he’s no Curtis Mayfield.”
The gauntlet had been thrown, and Prince took charge, writing the song Born 2 Die and later recording it in March 2010. Although President Barack Obama was in power, the issues affecting the Black community remained the same. Years before pop culture and the mainstream media would centre social justice, Prince crafted Welcome 2 America, a profoundly prescient statement about what he saw about the state of the nation at the dawn of the new millennium. Recorded in just a week, the record was ultimately shelved, with the artist choosing not to release it.
However, soon after completing the album, Prince embarked on a world tour bearing its name, capping it with the historic 21 Nite Stand show at The Forum in Inglewood, California on April 28, 2011 – which is available as a live concert video in the deluxe edition. Backed by the New Power Generation (NPG), Prince performed classics like Purple Rain and Kiss as well as covers of Janet Jackson’s What Have You Done for Me Lately and India.Arie’s Brown Skin.
“It’s extremely satisfying to know that people are going to hear Prince’s words because they are so important, and need to be heard over and over again,” says bassist Tal Wilkenfeld, who played on Welcome 2 America. “Prince wanted to help people and you can hear it in the music.”
In conjunction with the new, posthumous release of Welcome 2 America (Sony Legacy), we look at the man behind the myth through the stories of NPG keyboardist Renato Neto and bassist Ida Nielsen, who played The Forum show, along with sound engineer Jason Agel and Wilkenfeld, who worked on Welcome 2 America.
Ida Nielsen is a Danish bass player, composer and vocalist who is a member of several bands including Zap Mama and Michael Learns to Rock. She was bassist for the New Power Generation and funk rock trio 3rdeyegirl.
“I got a call one day in 2010 from Prince’s manager – Prince had seen my MySpace page and wanted to jam. I couldn’t believe it. It was my biggest dream come true! I went out to Minnesota that August. Everything was super-secretive and I had no idea what was going to happen. I met Prince in the studio and went to shake his hand. He said, ‘We don’t shake hands here. We hug.’ I hugged him a little too long, but he was really sweet about it.
“I was really nervous. He asked if he could see my bass. Then he asked, ‘Can I hear it?’ so I started to play. He had a keyboard hooked up and we played for about ten minutes. Then he started to play something else with a weird baseline because I think he wanted to see if I could catch it. We played for about ten minutes then Prince said, ‘We’re going on tour. Are you available?’ Oh my god!
“I met Prince in the studio and went to shake his hand. He said, ‘We don’t shake hands here. We hug’”
“The next day we had a proper jam on a soundstage, and I had a little bit of a meltdown. I thought he would totally regret asking me to tour but he didn’t. Two months later we went on tour, and we toured the world for two years. Then Prince formed 3rdeyegirl in 2012, and I was there from the beginning. I was just thrown into it. We were a really small band, and we hung out a lot playing ping-pong or recording in the studio. I learned so much from working so closely with him for so many years. It was the greatest gift but everything went so fast and so much happened that I didn’t really have time to digest it. We played Madison Square Garden and the White House for President Obama.
“Prince was a genius. He always had a full plan for where things were going and none of us could see it until we actually did it. I never had the feeling he wanted to be somewhere else. He was 100 per cent in the moment and I think that’s what kept the band on their toes. Prince would change the set list every night but we never played what was on the list. We would be in the middle of the show and he would start something else. We would play for two and a half hours and he wouldn’t be quite finished so we’d play another two hours. Not everybody has that intensity and presence, that sucks you right in. You could just feel the love from the music, and I think everyone who went to a live show with him felt it too. It was magic.”
Jason Agel is a Grammy-nominated producer, mixer, and engineer who has worked on albums for Beyoncé, Brandy, and Björk. He worked as sound engineer and mixer on Welcome 2 America.
“I received a mysterious call in 2010 telling me about a job with someone in Minnesota. Then I was told that Prince would be calling me, but he never did. Instead I got a call telling me to fly out to Minneapolis for an interview the next day. I would spend the day and they would let me know if I got the job – but that’s not how it went. I flew out in August, walked into the studio, and Prince came in. He was this larger than life figure, but he was very kind. He handed me a two-inch tape, told me the person before me had not been successful, and he hoped I was. I worked all night. At 3am, Prince came in, told me he liked it, and said that he would see me in the morning.
“I was there for a month. There was never any discussion of an album; I just worked from project to project. Sometimes there would be a rush, like we had to get things done so they could get it into distribution the next day, but after a while, I was like, ‘Alright, sure.’ Prince’s recording studio was in his home, so he lived there. Everything was state of the art, but it also seemed a little lonely. The plans for his music were in his head, so we didn’t see how he made art but we got to see him as a person.
“Prince was very kind. He would bring me bowls of fruit and tea while we worked; I’ve worked with a lot of other celebrities, and few of them would ever think of that”
“Prince treated everyone equally. He took me to a football game but he also had me get sandwiches. One time he asked me to pick someone up – it was Misty Copeland. I didn’t realise who she was at that time, but we joked about how crazy it was that we were all working with Prince. He was this mythic figure we knew from childhood. I remember I was told someone would pick me up from my hotel and Prince pulled up in the car. He was wearing this mirrored outfit and blasting funk music. We drove around Minneapolis and he told me what he loved about the city.
“Prince was very kind. He would bring me bowls of fruit and tea while we worked; I’ve worked with a lot of other celebrities, and few of them would ever think of that. But at the same time he was very exacting, he knew precisely what he wanted. But he had a very personal relationship to his work. He didn’t make it just to release it. This has been in the vault for ten years, and the messages on it are even more relevant today. He told me that he wanted to say something important with this album. Everything he did had a purpose, especially his art.”
Hailing from Brazil, pianist, keyboardist and producer Renato Neto has worked with Sheila E, Gil Gilberto, Rod Stewart, and Diana Reeves. He was keyboardist for the New Power Generation.
“In 2001, Sheila E introduced me to Prince while I was living in Los Angeles working on The Wayne Brady Show. I wasn’t even playing at that time; I was working for movies. Prince invited me to Minneapolis to do a recording session, then he invited me to stay another week, then another week – I was there for ten years.
“Prince was very open-minded. I come from a different background: I’m from Brazil and play a lot of jazz, but the connection was easy because he understands music. There was no discussion about anything. Everything we did, he loved it and everything he did, I loved it too. There was never any ‘it should be this’ We had the same knowledge of instruments; we spoke the same language.
“He was a very brave guy – playing guitar, singing, and dancing in high shoes – because it was very scary to have all that electric equipment in the rain”
“Prince was so creative all the time, introducing new music and new things. He was always ahead of his time. Welcome 2 America sounds like it was written six months ago. He worked so hard. His life was just music 24-7. I’ve never worked that hard with another artist in my life; I’m from Brazil, I like to go to the beach, to relax, to have time for my family – but Prince just loved music so much. It was driving him and I appreciate that. We had great moments on stage, there was so much energy and the people in the audience could feel it. You would see them crying, laughing, there was so much to enjoy.
“One of my favourite memories was of the Superbowl XLI Halftime Show in 2007. There was a lot of tension because it was raining and we didn’t know if it was going to happen, but you just keep going. You can’t stop working in the middle of the thing. Prince got on stage, and all the effort he put into it, all that energy! He was a very brave guy – playing guitar, singing, and dancing in high shoes – because it was very scary to have all that electric equipment in the rain. He was giving it his all and we were giving it our all for the people in the audience and they could feel it. People went home with a life experience. That was a great reward for us.”
Australian singer, songwriter, bassist, and guitarist Tal Wilkenfeld has performed with Mick Jagger, Herbie Hancock, and Jeff Beck. She played bass on Welcome 2 America.
“In 2008, Prince called me after seeing me on TV with Jeff Beck and his first question wasn’t, ‘How are you?” it was, “Do you like the drum rolls of Jeff?’ I said, ‘Of course I do!’ He told me that he had been watching videos of me on YouTube on repeat, which was a huge compliment. We became friends and started spending a lot of time together. One time, there was a limo waiting in the driveway, and I asked, ‘Where are we going?’ and Prince said, ‘We’re not really going anywhere. We’re just driving around listening to music.’
“A few months later, Prince called me and said, ‘I want to make a trio with you and I trust you to find the drummer.’ That’s a high honour, so I called up four drummers to jam, submitted two of them and Prince chose Chris Coleman. He flew us both out to Minneapolis in December 2009. We came back in March and April of 2010, and we recorded Welcome 2 America then. I have never experienced an artist working so quickly – a lot want to practice over and over again or do a million takes in the studio and then chop it up.
“One time, there was a limo waiting in the driveway, and I asked, ‘Where are we going?’ and Prince said, ‘We’re not really going anywhere. We’re just driving around listening to music’”
“We walked into the studio and there was no rehearsal. We recorded it on the first take then moved onto the next song. A second take was rare. And Prince wasn’t singing along – he would just say one word to cue us so we had to use our imagination of what the song was going to be. He could have already had the whole song in his head because he was working simultaneously with the background singers in a different room in the building. That’s probably why the songs have such an open and slightly unpredictable feel to them because that’s exactly what it was. You were sitting on the edge of your seat and I think he loved surprising people and seeing their reactions; it fed his creativity. Prince wanted to surround himself with people who could keep up with him because not everyone can go with the flow like that.
“The last time I saw Prince in 2010, he said, ‘I’m really grateful that you helped pull this music out of me. It’s been inside me for so long and I’ve been trying to get it out.’ I hadn’t been able to go on tour with him and see the full project through, and I’ve been living with that sorrow for over a decade. To have it come out now is extremely healing and gives me some closure on his passing and my time working with him because people are finally going to hear these words – and they need to be heard over and over again.”
Welcome 2 America releases July 30 in digital, vinyl, CD, and Deluxe editions. The Story of Welcome 2 America is currently streaming on all major podcast platforms.