Prince’s Vault of Unreleased Music: Sister Tyka Nelson Explains
Following Prince’s death in 2016, Tyka Nelson, the musician’s younger sister, has been tasked with helping preserve the Purple One’s legacy. She shares one-sixth of Prince’s estate, with thousands of unreleased songs reportedly stowed away in Prince’s vault. Fans have eagerly demanded a taste of what the artist never got the chance to release on his own. Tyka, along with others who Prince trusted with his most prized collection, has spent the last four years uncovering and preserving treasures that only an artist as transcending as Prince could create. For Tyka, it’s an opportunity to fulfill her brother’s wishes, which he shared with her three years before his passing. “I won’t get off this planet until he gets every single solitary thing he worked so hard for and preserved for all of the world.”
This week, the estate announced the upcoming release of Welcome 2 America, an album Prince recorded in 2010 but never released. It’s just one example of how much of his music the world has still never heard. Prince was notably skeptical of the music industry’s benevolence and, in a prescient move, fought to wrestle back ownership of all of his masters. Now, as his legacy lives on, the careful work of preserving these creations unfolds.
With four albums under her belt and a chart-topping single (“Marc Anthony’s Tune” reached Number 33 on the Billboard’s Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart in July 1988), Tyka is no stranger to overcoming hurdles and obstacles in the music industry. The 60-year-old singer and songwriter spoke with Rolling Stone about how Prince’s legacy has been preserved since his passing. She discussed what he saw in the music industry at large, and why he had the foresight to archive and document his entire collection.
It’s widely known that Prince taught himself to play instruments and that you guys grew up in a very musical family. At what moment did you realize Prince was becoming a star?
To me, for a long time, he wasn’t of the caliber of Michael Jackson and Madonna, but the world thought he was. Of course, I thought it was great, it was wonderful, but it was all surreal. Especially going to the Purple Rain movie premiere and seeing Eddie Murphy and all these stars sitting around and I’m still sitting there going, “Why did they show up? What are they doing here?” My brain really never caught up, and if I’m totally honest, I didn’t catch up until about four years before he passed. That’s when I realized my brother was actually a star. That man was cold-blooded.
Why do you think it took you a long time to realize he had become an icon?
I was working for him and I had to look at videos, I had to listen to every song, and every note and, when I saw this man in action over and over and over — I had no clue. I had no idea. Because I’m a songwriter, I never wanted his name to affect mine. I didn’t want to copy him in any way, shape, or form. I never wanted my name associated with him. I wanted to take my last name off. I didn’t want him to do anything for me because then I’ll never know if people liked my music. So I stopped listening to Prince’s music and missed a lot of years, and therefore I didn’t see what the world saw. But when he died and the entire world lit up in purple, there was no questioning it. Even still, I am amazed. After he passed, all these fans came and shared their stories about what Prince did in their lives, through his music. I was overwhelmingly amazed by it.
Prince was very protective of his independence, so much that he operated sometimes without a manager or a record label, what impact do you think that had on the music industry?
He liked controlling situations because he knew where the road was going to end up. “If I control the car right now, we won’t veer off the road. Why sit here and let all of these people in between tell me which way to go? I need to control it because I know which direction I want to go in.” With the masters and the impact on the music, now we’ve got Taylor Swift and Kanye West who also know if you don’t control it now, then what the heck are you going to have later? Prince knew what the future would hold. “If I don’t control this, what’s going to happen in 10 years?,” he’d say this often and I think many artists who challenge this industry today, learned from that same perspective.
He once said to the LA Times: “If I knew the things I know now before, I wouldn’t be in the music industry.” What do you feel he was referencing here? What was Prince’s biggest gripe with the music industry?
Lack of creative freedom. When Prince first went into music, that’s what he wanted to do. He had always wanted to be in control of his music because he knew what he had in his head and how he wanted that to translate. If you didn’t understand it, if you didn’t think it’s great — he didn’t want to have to convince people of his vision. Also, not being able to move on his own timeline. Prince was doing music at a rate that outpaced even the record industry or the record label. ”Why can’t we release an album every month? Why can’t we do it three times a year? Why must we do it once a year? You’re messing with my music. I’ve got music sitting on the shelf and y’all won’t release it. I’ve got albums that I’ve already recorded, just release it.” Timeline was definitely an issue.
I think the other issue was the music industry’s standards for the control of masters. He wanted to break out of that because, and I’m just using an example, “My album is selling for $12.99 and I’m getting a dollar each time. Yet, I’m the one that wrote it; my name’s on it; and I’m working my butt off to make it great, while you guys are sitting back, collecting a check off my back. Hmm. Doesn’t that sound like slavery?” And what we saw later was Emancipation, and the changing of his name, and the “slave” demonstration on his cheek.
How has Prince’s legacy been preserved and not preserved since his passing?
Fortunately, it’s one of those easy jobs with a legacy who’s already said, “This is what’s going to happen and this is what I’m doing about it.” He kind of pre-planned everything and I don’t know where it started or why he began to put all these tapes, and movies, and scripts, and music together and preserve it. After Paisley Park was purchased, I thought it was going to be a soundstage, but it ended up being kind of a rehearsal hall, soundstage, and party place. So then he started planning the museum for it. All of these things were already told to everybody, so they knew what to do. All we had to do is kind of pick it up, put it down, and release the vinyl or CD, or help get the picture a little better, or make the audio a little clearer. But Prince did the work for us, he preserved it himself. Prince was always preserving his own legacy.
Prince once told Michael Howe, a former record-label executive, “All these recordings in the vault at some point would see the light of day after I’m gone.” His archive is known to have “thousands and thousands” of unreleased recordings, should fans ever expect to hear more of them like ‘Piano & a Microphone’ in the near future?
Prince always wanted people to hear his music. How dare I not do what this man broke his back to do all his life? There would be no way that I let one note of his music not ever be heard. I would not allow that museum to never open and not let people see what he envisioned. That man put this mess in motion and I won’t get off this planet until he gets every single solitary thing he worked so hard for and preserved for all of the world to hear.
Unfinished work has been said to remain with the family, have you found any things in the vault to be super surprising or exciting to you on a personal level?
Definitely not surprised. Definitely amazed. I guess I’m just so happy that he put his life down like this. Cicely Tyson, I heard, wrote a 400-page book before she passed. And to me that’s exactly what Prince did through his music. This is his life. Prince had old reel-to-reel tapes documenting his life. There’s just so much wonderful stuff in there, and Michael’s been brilliant at going in there and grabbing it all. But you also find these pieces of music that are just the beginning of a song or a chorus and all of the sudden there’s no other half to the song and it’s like, “Oh man, you stopped singing.” So for me personally, as one of the heirs, I can’t speak for all of them, I don’t mind if people hear the small stuff — the little stuff where he’s just sitting there playing with the phone and how he put it together. That might teach some little boy that wants to learn how to put a song together. We never know. Anything and everything, get it out there. If I live 100, 200 years, I would definitely be there helping to oversee getting it out. But Prince’s music will outlive me for sure.
In a 2018 interview, Howe also mentioned that Prince was working right up until the time he passed away and that there are recordings in the vault that are about as close as you can get to the end of his life as possible. Did Prince ever have any plans to retire?
That is not a word in the Prince vocabulary. Not that he wouldn’t use it, but he would never describe himself that way. In his last concert, which was at Paisley Park, he told everybody to come out and announced he was going to stop playing the guitar because he wanted to get better at the piano. That to me is because Judas was kicking his butt on that piano and I think he thought if he didn’t hold his game on the piano — because he was too busy on his guitar — that he would lose it. He wanted to get better at the piano, he wasn’t thinking of stopping. Retirement for him — no way.
How do you think Prince wants to be remembered?
I believe he would want to be remembered as a consummate artist, but when you say artist, please also add designer: because he designed his shoes and his clothes, and he would draw things and then send it to people to recreate. He would want to be remembered obviously as a musician, but also a guitar player, a drummer… he could play the saxophone. He could play anything and everything, even the little recorders when growing up. He could play every instrument sitting on the stage, and he would take turns going to each one. I’d like him to be remembered as the person who could do that. Prince really never needed a band. The only reason he had a band was because he couldn’t play everything at once. People don’t get that out of him in regards to being a musician. He also was starting to write a book, so therefore he was an author. What wasn’t he? Prince was a philosopher, a philanthropist. He was a straight-up Black man from the middle of nowhere. We barely had a radio station. We were nobody and he was talking about one day he was going to be famous — and actually did it.