Does Prince’s Secret Vault of Unreleased Music Really Exist, and if so, What's in It?

"Hunting for Prince's Vault," a new BBC radio documentary premiering March 21, uncovers the elusive artist's supernatural work habits and what producer Mobeen Azhar believes is an unreleased collaboration with Madonna.

James Yeh

James Yeh

When it comes to Prince, it's not easy to separate the music from the man, nor the man from the myth. The Man in Purple is a Cracked.com reader's dream and a fact-checker's nightmare, generating more questions than answers: Did he change his name to an unpronounceable symbol as part of his desire to slip out of a limiting contract? Were all those side projects by collaborators and protégés like Vanity 6, the Time, and the Family simply fronts to release more music than it was thought the market could bear? Does he prefer bathing his lovers to bedding them? Does he require double hip replacement surgery that his religion forbids him from having? Is that why he carries a cane? Did he, standing at 5'2", really once dunk a basketball over Charlie Murphy's head during a heated game of pick-up, and then upon landing say, "Game: Blouses," as portrayed in the famous sketch on Chappelle's Show? Also, is his middle name Rogers or Roger? (The Encyclopedia Brittanica and IMBD say the former; as of this writing, Wikipedia and the algorithmically-produced search-engine listing in my Chrome browser claim the latter.) Is he playing tonight in your hometown?

While some of those mysteries may forever remain unsolved, veteran journalist and Prince super-fan-turned-scholar Mobeen Azhar's new BBC radio documentary, Hunting for Prince's Vault, sheds light on one, more musically focused question: Does Prince have a massive horde of hours upon hours of unreleased albums, outtakes, and demos?

Azhar has worked at the BBC for ten years, and while his work primarily focuses on Pakistan, terrorism, drug trafficking, and gay rights, he has long been a Prince fanatic. He's seen him live 53 times and, in 2013, when Azhar found himself in the same elevator as 3rdEyeGirl, he says he got so excited that he almost threw up on them. (He must have made an impression: At the next show one of the members invited him onstage, where he walked over to Prince and whispered, "I love you," to which Prince nodded politely.)

Hunting for Prince's Vault is a well-researched—and, it must be assumed, well-financed—documentary that captures fascinating interviews with a host of the elusive artist's former collaborators. Some notables include Dr. Fink, who played keyboards on Sign ☮ the Times and Purple Rain; Sonny T, his childhood friend and bass player for 19 years; Cat, a dancer and rapper he played with in the late 80s; recording engineers Susan Rogers and Hans Martin Buff; and Alan Leeds, president of Paisley Park records and Prince's ex-manager. Although Azhar never manages to squeeze all the way inside the closed gates—Prince himself abstainedfrom the proceedings, operating through his PR company and legal team—this hour-long documentary takes listeners further inside the musician's notorious—and litigiously guarded—vault than ever before, and provides us with a valuable document of music history on the artist formerly known as this symbol, formerly known as the Artist Formerly Known as Prince.

I Skyped with Azhar from London earlier this week to learn what he discovered about Prince and his (surely purple) vault in Paisley Park, Minneapolis.

Clip from 'Prince Documentary: Hunting for the Secret Vault' (2015)

VICE: Why did you decide to make this documentary?
Mobeen Azhar: I didn't want to make a standard Prince documentary. For me, as a fan, there has been so much said and written about Prince. A lot of it is quite formulaic. What I mean by that is it normally starts off with, "Hey, Prince grew up in Minneapolis, which is really white and suburban and he was this black kid and that's how he got this really quirky sound. It was like he took the funk and the soul from his black heritage and mixed it with the rock of the white community that was around him. And then he made Purple Rain, and guess what? He's still making music." That's kind of the standard format for a Prince doc, so what I wanted to do was distinctly different to that. It was looking at the myth of the vault.

I think the Prince persona generally attracts a lot of speculation. It's something that he plays with. He's ethereal in how he presents himself. Over the years I've heard some odd rumors like, "Prince doesn't apparently need sleep." Like he's actually a vampire. Another rumor that has a lot of currency amongst crazy Prince fans is that he hasn't cried since he was a child. One that has more currency perhaps is this idea that Prince has a vault. Prince has spoken about the vault as a place where he keeps these unreleased songs. So the whole point of the documentary was to investigate whether or not the vault exists, and what is in the vault. And when we say "whether or not," we know it exists because Prince has spoken about that. But we wanted to know how much of that was urban legend or Prince toying with an idea and how much of it is actually true. Is there a physical vault? If so, where is it? What does he actually keep in it? Is it the masters to the albums that are out, or is there other stuff? We all know that he's got b-sides and extended versions, but what else is in there?

Was getting everyone to talk to you difficult?
I have to say, getting a hold of Prince was hugely difficult. It's probably worth me telling you that I've been in touch with Prince's PR company for ages, and they weren't very helpful. The requests would go around in a circle. Once, every couple of months, I would call up and say, "We're doing this documentary. I want to know about Prince's availability. Is there any way we can interview 3rdEyeGirl, the current band, or Prince? Maybe I'd get a response back in two weeks saying, "We've put this request forward."

When things really started moving and I went into full-time production, the first interview I got was with Matt Fink, the keyboard player for the Revolution. He plays that famous riff on "1999." A few days later, the PR company emails me one line—this is after six months of me being in touch—and the one line is, "Hey, Mobeen, who have you got signed up to do this documentary?" And I'm thinking, OK, do I tell them? Because at this point I've spoken to, I think, six or seven people and the only two who have really signed up are Cat and Matt Fink. So I think I don't want to mention Cat. I'll just test the water and say I'm speaking to Matt Fink and a host of other Prince associates and protégés. Within 24 hours, Matt Fink emailed me and says, "Hey, Prince's lawyers have been in touch. I can't do the interview. Take care. Bye."

Mobeen Azhar with Prince drummer Michael Bland in 2015. Photo courtesy Azhar

So I give Matt Fink a call and he's really blunt and says I really actually want to do the interview. I really enjoyed speaking with you about my time with Prince, but Prince's lawyer got in touch and said that they're not really happy with me talking about this. So my journalistic take was, "Great, let me speak to the lawyer and sort this out because I want you to be comfortable." So I then contact the lawyer. I called them like three times, leave three voicemails over the course of five days, send a couple of emails. Eventually the lawyer picks up the phone after five days and says something like, "Prince is aware of the documentary and he feels the only person qualified to speak about his music and to speak about the vault is Prince himself." So I say, "OK, that's wonderful. I'd like nothing more than to interview Prince. So why don't we set up some time where we can interview the current band? I'll come and meet Prince in Minneapolis." And the response was like, "No, that's not in the cards and you need to go back to the PR company." I explained to this woman that I'd been in touch with the PR company for a number of months now and they hadn't been able to advance my request one bit. I ask, "Is there someone more effective than the PR company?" And at that point she says, "No, and we'd like for you not to do this documentary."

Now I'm sure Prince understands, and I'm sure his lawyer understands, that's not really the way journalism works. You can't say, "We don't want you to do a story" and stop the story. Following that, I tried to keep them in the loop with what we were doing, but the shutters came down. And effectively after that, I got a few more emails from the PR company saying, "Tell me who else is on the cast list." Obviously, at that point, I didn't. It was very clear that it was because they wanted to get in touch with them and give them cease and desist orders. Thankfully Matt Fink said, "Look, I think this is silly and the lawyer has contacted me again and said, 'We can't actually stop you. So do what you want to do. But just be careful.'"

I flew to the States having spoken to six or seven Prince associates or band members, and I came back with 12 interviews, so much stuff we couldn't even use it all in the documentary. It's kind of being pushed now as a 60-minute TV doc, which we might end up making later in the year. I interviewed Rhonda Smith, who was Prince's bass player from 1996 to 2009. I didn't use that interview in the end because she didn't really want to speak about the vault, but there were some really interesting bits that came out of that. My point is we ended up with a whole bunch of stuff.

She asked, 'Why are you working on a holiday?' And Prince just laughed and said, 'This might be work for Hans. It's not work for me.'

Is there anything, just a taste, that you'd be able to share?
Yeah—OK, I want to know how to put this diplomatically—let me put it like this: One big theme which comes across no matter whom you speak to, in terms of people who have dealt with Prince—everyone respects him hugely, but if I had to sum up their experience in one word, that word would be control. And he has constructed this world in which, thankfully for him at least, he is in control of everything. He is one of the freest artists, you could say, in the world. He has a record contract only when he wants one. And unlike everyone else who is trying to make it in the music business, he will have record contracts that have special terms on them, distribution deals, where he can decide what he delivers, he can decide what's on the record—he has his own studio for god's sake—it's not like he's hiring studio time or the record company's paying for anything.

Something else that's snappier and isn't mentioned in the documentary is, without mentioning any names, I know on good authority that one thing that's in the vault and unlikely to ever come out is a collaboration with Madonna that Prince has toyed with releasing and was going to release it at one point but he hasn't. So that's quite a big deal, and also there's a collaboration with—do you know who Meshell Ndegeocello is?

He spent a night recording with her in New York. So Prince, Rhonda Smith, his bass player, and Meshell worked on some stuff together and that's all in the vault, just sitting there.

Pretty much if Prince is awake, he's either on a stage, or he's doing a soundcheck, or he's recording. His engineer, Susan Rogers, told me that during the four-year period from '83 to '87 he would deal with business calls for maybe an hour and after that he would record. It was really common for them to work on a song from scratch and by the end of a session have it completely mixed and finished. He would quite often come in having written lyrics, lay down the bass track, lay down the drum track, lay down the synth lines. Lay down the vocals, and by the time he leaves the studio, it's finished.

Both she and Hans Martin Buff, who was there in the 90s all the way up to 2000, had very similar experiences in the sense that they were on call all the time. Hans Martin Buff said to me he never really knew he had a day off until the day was over. He carried around a pager. So imagine, he's there from '96 to 2000 and in that period they get Christmas off, but apart from that he has a pager and that pager can go off at any time. When the pager goes off it means Prince is ready to record. He has to run to the studio and get everything set up. And that could be at 3:00 in the morning—quite often it is. If the pager doesn't go off, he just goes into the studio at noon and Prince is usually there by 1:00 and they work until the next morning anyway. But for weekends and the days that other people would classify as holidays, he has this pager. Hans Martin Buff told me that they had a guest in, and she said to Prince, on I think it was Thanksgiving or a particular holiday, "Why are you working on a holiday?" And Prince just laughed and said, "This might be work for Hans. It's not work for me."

Michael Bland, Prince's drummer said, 'If I was laying in bed at 3:00 in the morning, watching Dick Van Dyke with my wife, and Prince wanted to record, I recorded.'

Alan Leeds, who's Prince's manager, said that he's not a religious man but he really felt that Prince was a funnel and it was as if someone was pouring music into that funnel. That's a theme that runs through everything as well, even now. Many of the people who are closest to him told me that he plans on recording a song a day for the rest of his life.

If you're on call at all times, that doesn't leave a lot of time for yourself. Where are the boundaries when you work for Prince?
Everyone who spoke about him went out of their way—even when we weren't on tape, even when we were just talking—to say to me it was a great time in their life working for Prince. They felt they were making music history. But they also all said that it burnt them out and you don't have a life outside of it. You're kind of on call. It's like—I think we used the clip—but Prince's drummer [Michael Bland] says, "If I was laying in bed at 3:00 in the morning, watching Dick Van Dyke with my wife, and Prince wanted to record, I went, I recorded." You can't say you're tired. It would be the pinnacle of any musician's career, so you go with it.

This isn't in the documentary, but Michael Bland told me about the recording of "Money Don't Matter 2 Night" and "Willing and Able," both of which are on Diamonds and Pearls, and those songs were both recorded after a concert. They were in Japan at the time. Michael Bland told me he had the stomach flu. He went through this whole concert thinking he was going to throw up and then after the concert Prince says, "Yeah, I've had a few ideas. I want to go into the studio." And from scratch they record those two songs for the next album. And Michael Bland says he can't listen to those two songs without feeling nauseous because it reminds him of how he was feeling. To me, the drumming on them is really ornate and beautiful. But it was just an insight into this idea that you can't really have stomach flu because Prince wants to record.

Another thing everyone said is that Prince isn't into technical perfection, he's more concerned with getting the idea on tape. Susan Rogers told me a story about the recording of "If I Was Your Girlfriend." When she was setting up the studio, she said she was just exhausted and for whatever reason didn't check the mic and it had gain on it. So when Prince's vocal came out and she went to do the mix—he's just come out, he's recorded "If I Was Your Girlfriend," one of the best fucking songs in the universe—she goes in to do the mix and she's sitting there thinking, What the fuck have I just done? The vocal's all distorted. And she thinks, He's gonna kill me. He's gonna sack me. And she does the mix the best she can. She tries to repair any damage and he comes back and listens to the mix and obviously he can tell the vocal is slightly distorted and he says, "Do you know what? It was the way it was meant to be." That's the version you hear on Sign of the Times.

Do you feel that, in the course of your research and the documentary, you too have become part of this history? People might be trying to get a hold of you now, to ask about Prince.
[Laughs] Maybe I'm a footnote or something.

The documentary, at the end of the day, is about the vault. But I have a million stories. Most people would tell me—and this correlated with people who worked with him through all the different phases of his career—that he tends to sleep for about four hours. That's the way he's programmed. So quite often, he'd be at the console. He'd be mixing something that he'd started that afternoon and it'd be the early hours of the morning when he'd finish that. He'd go home and by 12 noon, four hours later, he'd be back in the studio and the whole thing would start again.

They should put him on that infographic about the work and sleep habits of famous geniuses throughout history.
Maybe one way to summarize it is Susan Rogers told me that the average human brain, if we take a guess, would be on input 70 percent of the time, meaning we're taking in information, and maybe we're on output 30 percent of the time, we're creating something or we're doing work. She said, with Prince, he's on output 90 percent of the time. He's constantly on output. He's constantly creating.

It sounds superhuman.
To have the amount of material he has locked away, it's not normal. To be on output that much of the time is not normal.

It's well documented how much Prince doesn't like bootlegs, but I was surprised to learn from the documentary that he doesn't even like covers of his work. Do you know of any that he actually likes?
I know for pretty much a fact that he really didn't like Ginuwine's version of "When Doves Cry," and he really didn't like Dru Hill being all over "The Beautiful Ones" with Mariah Carey. In terms of stuff that he does like I know that he likes "I Feel for You," by Chaka Khan. He's cool with that because they performed it together and he likes that stuff. This is mainly from the people who I spoke to. It's not that he's got a problem with cover songs [generally], because he himself has covered other people's songs. It's this kind of idea that he doesn't want to be out of that creative process. If someone does something interesting with a song of his that he likes and rings true with him, he's cool with it. But when that doesn't happen, then he feels that something has been stolen.

So the fact that he used an image from a Chappelle's Show sketch as the cover to his own single must really mean something.
It does absolutely. I think that there's a mutual respect.

In regard to bootlegs, I'd say that Alan Leeds was really the person who explained the bootleg culture to me, in terms of Prince's perspective. Prince was fairly blasé about giving away material to his girlfriends, leaving tapes with friends, and so bootlegs started to make their way onto the black market. In the 80s I think it added to Prince's mystique because as a kid, in the 90s, I would go to Camden market looking for Prince bootlegs. It added to this notion that, yeah, we've all heard Diamonds and Pearls and "My Name Is Prince" and Purple Rain, but did you know that there's this record that just leaked? Now, in the mid 90s, the internet becomes a reality and all of a sudden it's not about mystique anymore, because anyone can search for a Prince bootleg and download pretty much any leak that's ever been there. And I think that's the point where Prince turned his back on it and decided he didn't want anything to leak anymore.

Prince isn't necessarily thinking in terms of years or decades—he's thinking in terms of centuries.

Another thing that Alan Leeds said to me is that as time went on, it became really apparent that Prince was more upset about the sale of bootlegs than he was about fans hearing the music. The fact that someone else, like a businessperson wearing a gray suit somewhere was setting up these bootleg labels and getting his records pressed and making money out of it. So that's when the bootleg culture stopped. But Prince has continued, to this day, to release music in really unconventional ways.

I don't know if you came across this, but three days ago Prince played concerts in Louisville. So he's playing those concerts and what does he do? Everyone who has bought a ticket, they get an email with two songs attached and it says here's a thank-you from Prince—two new songs. Songs you can't buy anywhere. So, effectively, a few days before that, these songs were sitting in the vault. And he just sends them out to people. He sends one to a community station in New York and one is played on a Christian-rock radio station in Louisville. It's almost as if he enjoys—and a lot of his associates told me this as well—he enjoys the idea of buried treasure. He enjoys the fact that no fan can just go on Amazon and buy all his albums. If you really want the complete works of Prince you have to dig and dig and dig and all the fans I've ever met will always say, "You know what? If you keep looking there's always more Prince music out there."

Do you suppose the vault will ever be opened and released to the public?
I came away, having spoken to all the people I spoke to, thinking that it will. I'll sum it up like this: Sonny T, his bass player and one of his childhood friends, said to me, Prince isn't necessarily thinking in terms of years or decades—he's thinking in terms of centuries. Because it's not like Michael Jackson who has a few tracks here, a few tracks there, and then they get Justin Timberlake to finish off a few songs and add a few vocals here and there. Prince has hours and hours and hours of unreleased material. You could go in there and you could compile album upon album upon album. I think the issue isn't when will it open, but instead, will we be around long enough to actually hear everything?

Listen to Mobeen Azhar's documentary "Hunting for Prince's Vault" on BBC Radio 4 at 10:30 GMT on Saturday, March 21, 2015. A longer version can be heard on BBC World Service from 20:05 GMT, or afterwards on the BBC World Service website.

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