In 1991, Prince was at a crossroads.
His commercial power had waned. A sequel to Purple Rain, Graffiti Bridge, had bombed at the box office. Hip-hop, a genre he’d disparaged as “tone deaf”, had dethroned R&B as the sound of urban America.
“He was the greatest live performer alive but, as far as recording new material, he was in an odd creative space,” his former manager Randy Phillips later told Rolling Stone. “It’s almost as if he lost his mojo for songwriting.”
But with a new band came a fresh burst of inspiration. Working with the NPG, Prince embraced contemporary sounds, fusing rap with dance-funk, and writing some of his best songs since Sign O’ The Times.
“I got grooves and grooves up on the shelf,” he boasted on Daddy Pop. And the public agreed: Diamonds and Pearls, released in October 1991, boasted six singles, including Gett Off, Cream and Money Don’t Matter 2 Night, and remains his biggest-selling album in the UK.
Now, Prince’s estate is re-issuing the record with three hours of never-before-heard material from the recording sessions.
To find out how it all came together, here’s a history of Diamonds and Pearls featuring new and archive interviews from the people who were there.
The contact sheet for the cover shoot of Diamonds and Pearls
Prince [USA Today, 1991]: “Making hits is the easiest thing I could do. But it’s like taking a ribbon for a race someone else won. I can’t do that. I can’t repeat myself.”
Levi Seacer, Jr [guitarist, NPG]: “He can write a hit at the drop of a dime. A lot of the songs on Diamonds And Pearls, we cut from the start in 20 or 30 minutes. He’s very prolific.”
Chris Poole [Prince’s European publicist]: “By 1991, he really had lost contact with the black audience, black teenagers. Music had changed. Rap had happened.”
Michael Bland [drummer, NPG]: “He was in a valley. He was literally trying to figure his way out of the ’80s into the ’90s.”
Michael Koppelman [Prince’s recording engineer, 1989-92]: “I think he fought with feeling irrelevant at times. He asked me once, ‘If someone’s a genius, are they always a genius?'”
Duane Tudahl [Senior researcher, Prince Archives]: “Graffiti Bridge did not do well. I don’t know if he felt like he needed a hit – but Prince always wanted to show the world what he could do.”
Michael Koppelman: “When we started Diamonds and Pearls, the band changed Prince in a good way. They lightened him up and he laughed a lot.”
Tommy Barbarella [keyboards, NPG]: “It felt like a new beginning.”
The New Power Generation (L-R): Sonny Thompson, Kirk Johnson, Rosie Gaines, Michael B, Damon Dickson, Tony M, Levi Seacer Jr, Tommy Barbarella
The phrase New Power Generation was first mentioned on 1988’s Lovesexy album. By 1990, it was the name of Prince’s official band.
Tony M [rapper, NPG]: “The majority of us were from Minneapolis. I’d been in the Purple Rain film as a dancer. He grew up with Sonny T.”
Prince [Guitar World, 1994]: “I thought Sonny was God. A lot of what I do on guitar, I learned from him. I’d go over to his house and we’d play records and he’d show me things on guitar.”
Randee St Nicholas [photographer/director]: “Michael, the drummer, was just 19 when Prince found him – but he was a genius.”
Michael Bland: “I was at college when Prince called my mom and dad’s house and said, ‘I’d like you to join my band.’ I was like, ‘Do you think I’ll have time to continue my studies in the fall?’ And he just cracked up.”
Tommy Barbarella: “I was playing with The Steeles, the gospel group, and Prince would come down to hear us with Kim Basinger. They’d sit up in the balcony and freak me out. Everyone was like, ‘Prince has his eye on you’, and eventually I got a call to ask if I’d be part of [Prince protégé] Margaret Cox’s band. On maybe the second or third day of rehearsals, Prince came in and asked if Sonny, Michael and myself would stay after rehearsal to help him with a couple of songs in the studio. And I was like, ‘Sure’. I schlepped my gear into Studio B and we proceeded to record Diamonds and Pearls. That was my first time playing with him.”
Stacia Lang [Prince’s designer]: “There was a lot of pressure on these musicians but they knew how to have a good time. There was so much laughter in the halls that, when I think back on it, it makes me very happy.”
Duane Tudahl: “One of the band members said they felt like they kept the darkness out. They kept him from being sad.”
Californian singer-songwriter Rosie Gaines took an unprecedented role on Diamonds and Pearls, duetting with Prince on several songs, including the title track.
Prince [Details magazine, 1991]: “Rosie is like a tornado. There’s never enough hours in the day for her voice. There’s never enough tape for her voice.”
Stacia Lang: “She had a very, very strong personality. And I think he liked that about her because she would disagree with him.”
Tony M: “Rosie could riff on anything. When she opened her mouth, you could see the look of amazement on Prince’s face. It took a lot for him to do that.”
Rosie Gaines [Scottish Daily Record, 1997]: “It was exhilarating. Vocally, Prince could pull things out of me like no-one else.”
Prince [liner notes for The Hits, 1993]: “Diamonds and Pearls [was] written as a duet with Rosie Gaines. Prince vowed never 2 perform it with anyone else.”