I was near Minneapolis, MN on Saturday, April 29, so I decided on a whim to visit Prince’s Paisley Park studio complex-turned-museum. I was not originally planning to go inside as I had a long drive back to Chicago ahead and didn’t want to delay it. I would have been content to just drive by, take a photo or two and then turn around and go on my not-so-merry way.
As I drove up to the address, 7801 Audubon Rd, Chanhassen, MN, it became clear that driving close enough to the gated complex without going in was not going to be an option. Paisley Park is nestled at the corner of a high-speed intersection and parking along the street to take pictures would have placed several lives in danger, including mine.
I noticed some cars pulling into the Paisley Park entrance, so I followed. I was met by a guard who politely asked for my appointment time. I didn’t have one. He explained how I could easily get one by visiting officialpaisleypark.com.
So I did.
There are two options for guided tours, the General Admission one ($38.50 + fees), which was “sold out” for all the scheduled times for that day, and the VIP option ($100.00-plus), which obviously gave you more access to the facility, and for which there was a convenient opening beginning in five minutes.
Now, those of you who know me really well know that I don’t come upon choices like this easily and it’s really tough for me to pull out my wallet for a good steak, much less a $100 ticket to be shown the contents of a museum. But even I recognized that this was no ordinary museum and it’s not often you get this close to something of this magnificence and not take advantage of it. For a music man and Prince fan like myself, that would have been like taking a 9-year-old kid to the front door of Willie Wonka’s Chocolate Factory and then deciding the price wasn’t right. You just don’t do things like that.
So in I went as a “VIP.”
And let’s just say, it was like hitting a “Glam Slam”!
The second you walk in you almost feel Prince’s presence. The surreal feeling of entering the place where Prince – a musical genius by most standards – once dreamed and created, and where he ultimately took his last breath, can’t be described in words. The quiet buzz from the people waiting in line with me suggested that everyone there had this same feeling – it was what we came for – and Paisley Park immediately delivered.
After taking care of the initial procedures like paying the entrance fee, placing our smart phones in specially locked pouches – for Prince’s privacy (I’ll get to more on that later) – and being issued a thumb drive ($10) for storing a picture to be taken inside, I joined my small VIP tour group of 13 people and Natasha, our very knowledgeable tour guide, and in we went.
The first thing I notice in the long hallway leading to the foyer was a framed letter from former President Obama and his wife Michelle offering condolences to the family and friends of Prince after his passing. The letter was signed in purple ink – a colour that, as one might have predicted, is prominently featured throughout the house.
I was then immediately met with plaques of gold and platinum records lining the opposite wall of this hallway. These were awards Prince received during his lifetime – mostly during the early years – for albums like Purple Rain, 1999 and others. It struck me that I was looking at the platinum certification for the first million copies that Purple Rain sold, which he received in 1984 – it has since been certified 13 times over.
We then entered the foyer, which interestingly was the only place along this guided tour that had natural lighting as there were few windows in other parts of the building. I immediately thought about how private a man Prince was and how well-suited this structure was for protecting that.
In this case, the natural lighting was by virtue of a set of pyramid-like skylights, whose design was meant to create a feeling of openness and a connection to nature for anyone standing in that space. As Natasha explained it, Prince wanted people who stood there to feel like they could accomplish anything they set their minds to and that the possibilities were limitless.
Natasha then pointed out a visible cage in the upper level of the foyer with two white doves in it. She said that these doves were symbols of life to Prince and that the estate decided to keep them there after his untimely passing last year. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one in the room who immediately thought of “When Doves Cry” upon seeing and hearing this.
The floor where we stood in this foyer prominently featured Prince’s “love” symbol – the one combining the astrological symbols for male and female – to which Prince famously changed his name in 1993 during a lengthy dispute with his record label, Warner Bros. The love symbol was flanked by two very nice purple couches and some other accessories. Natasha told us that this was where Prince conducted the bulk of his famous Oprah Winfrey interview in 1996. We were told not to sit on these couches or any other furniture placed throughout the house…not that any of us were planning to, but you never know.
Just in front of us was a locked kitchen (where Prince often ate and watched TV, which was on by the way). We were told we could go to the glass doors and look in but not to go inside.
The kitchen was a reminder that Prince alternately used Paisley Park as his residence – something Natasha confirmed – as well as his business. And, as Natasha pointed out – much of it was situated as Prince had left it, with only minor alterations done for the museum effect, like the addition of several purple velvet ropes to guard access to certain things, a redone mural here and there, various placards that told stories about albums, and glass coverings over the various awards and album certifications Prince received throughout his career.
All of this initial stuff was great but none of it prepared me for the chills I felt when Natasha pointed out Prince’s urn on the wall just above the entry to the kitchen. The family had placed his remains there (in a protected locked box as one can only imagine). The box was white and opaque, so it was not clear whether the urn inside was a small replica of Paisley Park as I later read on the internet. And I didn’t think to ask Natasha.
Behind us were open closets and rooms dedicated to several of Prince’s albums. There were closets for Dirty Mind and Controversy, and full rooms for Diamonds and Pearls and Lovesexy, among others. These rooms were created while Prince was alive as he had envisioned them, with full-wall murals of images from the era and artifacts like actual wardrobe costumes he wore during concerts – yes, the man really was small in physical stature folks – actual instruments he played, or related newspaper articles and reviews. Each room also featured music from the album in question, with concert or video footage also on display. Natasha told us to relish in the music – even sing along – if we so desired, as this tour was also a celebration of Prince’s creations. No one in our small group of 13 had a problem with that mandate.
We were then led to a video production room where Prince often created and reviewed behind-the-scenes footage from his shows. The focus of these videos was not Prince himself, but the musicians that played with him. Prince – apparently a perfectionist – would use this to critique performances and illustrate to his players where things went well or not so well, so that they could improve upon them.
Next was Studio B, which was at the end of another hallway adorned with more gold and platinum records. This studio was where much of Prince’s creations (post-1987) took place. It was where he recorded “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker” – the first song he made there – for the album Sign O’ The Times. Natasha pointed out that the recording in this studio was still done in analog versus digitally and that we could even see the reel-to-reel tape machine behind the glass window of the control room. I understood completely…things like that you just don’t throw away.
Paisley Park itself was constructed between 1986 and 1987, so the first full albums to be recorded here were 1988’s The Black Album and Lovesexy, the former of which wasn’t released to the public until six years later (while Prince and Warner Bros feuded).
Also notable in Studio B was a ping-pong table, which Prince often played with guests during recording sessions. Natasha invited us to play ping-pong if we so desired, which was a surprising turn in a day in which we were told not to sit on or touch much of the stuff inside.
I walked over to the table and picked up a racket and the purple ping-pong ball under it and motioned for others to join me in a game, but no one did – perhaps they were still too afraid to touch anything based on the earlier admonitions. I, however, was content to bask in the knowledge that I was playing with the same racket and purple ball that Prince likely did in his lifetime.
Studio B was also the place where we would have our pictures taken (and stored on the small thumb drives we had purchased at the entrance). An “x” marked the spot where we stood next to a large column with a mural bearing an image of an afro-donning Prince from his later years. Behind us was a purple piano that had been modified (strings removed) into a programmable electric version that Prince used for various recordings.
Next to the mural of Prince, but not visible in our pictures, were the murals of two of the women who formed Prince’s last protégé band, 3RDEYEGIRL. They were his last backing band from 2014 until his death last year.
Studio A, where other albums (like Diamonds and Pearls) were created, was more modern, complete with multiple sound booths where each musician would be recorded and tracked. In one of these booths was a drum set, in another various guitars and microphones. A third was where live horns would be recorded. The vast control room where the producer – Prince – would oversee all activities was behind a glass wall. A huge microphone overhung the control boards, which Prince would use to both communicate with the other musicians and record his own vocals.
Natasha posed a trivia question to the group by asking why Prince would choose to record his vocals in the control room instead of in one of the sound-proof booths. After some hesitancy, one woman guessed “better acoustics?” Natasha responded no. Then I guessed that maybe he was going for a more natural sound on his voice for some recordings. Natasha commended me for the intuition, but again said “no.”
The answer, she said, was simply that Prince wanted to produce his vocals without having to get up and go from the sound booths to the control boards. He could do it all right there.
Made sense to me.
Before we left Studio A, Natasha played for us a snippet from a jazz album Prince was working on just prior to his death. The track was an instrumental and neither it nor the album and its other tracks had been yet named. As she played it, we all moved to the center of the room to get the full sonic experience, and it was good.
We then proceeded down several other hallways, which led to various rooms commemorating the movies Prince made. One of the hallways, dubbed “History Hall,” captured images from each of his glory years from 1978-1996. They were either album covers or still shots from shows he performed or videos he recorded during the time. Natasha pointed out that one photo in particular, from the “Parade – Under the Cherry Moon” era, was particularly special to Prince and that he would high-five it while traveling down the hall if he was in a good mood.
The movie rooms were next. First was “Purple Rain,” which got the biggest treatment, with purple lighting effects all around. Artifacts from the movie were there, and a large wall video screen showed performances from the movie. This was also the wall that formerly housed a basketball hoop, the same one used in the iconic David Chappelle skit parodying Prince in a game of basketball in 2004.
The “Purple Rain” room led to the “Under The Cherry Moon” room, which, true to the movie’s theme and Prince’s vision, was in all black and white. Everything, from the floor to the ceiling, all the walls, furniture, and wardrobe pieces – were a brilliant black and white display. As one might imagine, paisley was heavily featured here as well.
“Under The Cherry Moon” shared space with the “Graffiti Bridge” part of the room, the movie of which was the official follow-up to “Purple Rain.” While still impressive, Graffiti Bridge was appropriately given a more modest treatment than its predecessor.
Another hallway included the “Influence Wall” with a full mural of the various artists Prince considered to be his influences placed on the left of him as he looks out with arms outstretched, while all the artists Prince himself influenced are depicted on his right. Included as his influences are people like Sly Stone, Earth Wind & Fire, Chaka Khan and Rufus, Stevie Wonder, Joni Mitchell, Carlos Santana, Jimi Hendricks and, of course, James Brown.
Included as Prince protégés were acts like The Time (which included famed producers Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis), The Family (who recorded the original “Nothing Compares 2 U”), The Revolution (who was with Prince during his most commercially successful years), Vanity 6 and The Deele (the mid-to-late-’80s funk group who consisted of Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds and Antonio “L.A.” Reid).
The mural’s concept was a “pay it forward” message, in which Prince is depicted paying his success – which he attributed to those who came before him – forward to those who came afterwards.
Natasha then took us to a relaxing room containing a $100K Schimmel Pegasus grand piano. As I recall, this room was also the only other place – at least that we could see – besides the entry foyer – where natural light existed, this by virtue of a glass door leading outside.
I marveled over this gorgeous instrument before us, which was a single fiberglass casting done in dark purple. Even if Natasha had removed the purple velvet rope separating us from it and said feel free to play “Chopsticks,” I doubt any one of us would have dared to touch it out of fear of damaging the thing – this instrument was that awesome.
This room served as the entry to what was the most climactic part of the house: the four-story-high, 12,500-square-foot soundstage where movies (“Graffiti Bridge”) and many music videos were recorded. This monstrosity of a room was where Prince recorded a live performance of his “Piano & a Microphone” tour, the last tour of his lifetime. As I stood at the small stage where the piano and microphone were located – and where Prince sat as the cameras rolled in January 2016, I shuttered at the thought that here sat an icon who only four months later was no longer with us.
Natasha then took us from the soundstage to the “NPG Party Lounge” (named for one of his bands, the New Power Generation). Here he would often host celebrities and Paisley Park employees by performing very late-night performances, sometimes impromptu ones in which he would create new songs right there on the spot. I couldn’t help but notice the two turntables and mixing board on a stage nearby and wondered whether it was Prince or someone else who spun the records in this room.
Being that this was a guest lounge, we were allowed to sit on the plush couches in this room, which we did, while Natasha told us stories about the celebrities that showed up here and how Prince referred to his fans and coworkers as “fams” (short for family) because he hated the word “fanatic.”
Natasha pointed out an adjoining chef’s kitchen in which some of Prince’s favorite meals, like macaroni and cheese, were created especially for him. She noted that the chef remained on staff for special occasions.
As we approached the end of the tour, all I kept thinking was will I be able to remember half of this stuff to document in the blog later. Since our phones were literally locked up, I couldn’t write any of this as I went along and I certainly couldn’t snap pictures (the ones included here are mostly from the internet).
The tour’s security policies – along with the dearth of natural lighting throughout the premises – were stark reminders that Prince was indeed a very private and highly protective (of his own intellectual property) person. To this day, it’s a virtual see-saw gaining access to his videos online as they appear and are later removed due to copyright infringements. Only recently did his estate allow his catalog to appear on Spotify and other streaming services.
Indeed, Prince’s wish for privacy are seemingly being honored by the people running the show here, who allowed glimpses into his creative life, but not much more than that.
The final part of the tour was a room containing mementos and dedications to the late Prince, something that was also on large display outside the facility. There were purple cards, posters, letters, flowers, love symbols made of wood, images of Prince, all the things you can imagine that would adorn a wall of this type.
This is the room where Natasha would depart from us and from which we would make our exit through a gift shop on our way out. Natasha asked if we had any final questions before we broke up.
I had one, but I had to muster up some nerve to ask it, since it was a glaring omission from all the facts that Natasha had so capably covered before.
“Where was Prince found?”
Natasha replied, “on property.”
She followed that they don’t like to talk about the specifics surrounding his passing and instead prefer to focus on the positives about Prince’s life and the celebration thereof.
I nodded in agreement and thanked her before I and the others exited through the gift shop, where we marveled at high-priced books, t-shirts and an $80 “NPG” tambourine that I almost bought.
Until I saw the price-tag and remembered who I was.
But the $100 I spent to get inside?
I would highly recommend it to any diehard Prince fan, especially if you’re in the area.
For me, it was more than a visit to a museum, it was a fitting personal commemoration of the first anniversary of the passing of a true musical genius whose iconic status was merely confirmed by my visit to Paisley Park.
Postscript: To see djrobblog’s special ranking of Prince’s 57 Greatest Hits, click here.
To see the first anniversary special ranking of high profile Prince tributes, click here.