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Classic Tracks: Prince’s “Kiss”

Charged with turning a half-written Prince demo into a full-fledged track, David Z went to sleep one night and woke up to find Prince had radically reworked—and reduced—the song, resulting in a massive hit.

prince kissBy 1986, when Prince recorded this month’s Classic Track, “Kiss,” he was among the most popular and critically lauded artists in America. He hadn’t confused and outraged the press and public with the infamous name change yet, and his career arc had been, first, a slow, steady rise, and then, following the film and album Purple Rain, a rocket shot to the top. The Minneapolis-based singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist/producer was a true crossover artist, blending rock and R&B in bold, inventive ways and attracting both black and white audiences in nearly equal numbers; no easy feat. Though he was influenced by everyone from Marvin Gaye to Stevie Wonder to Jimi Hendrix to The Beatles, his style was utterly original and distinctive — even before he became massively popular through hits such as “Little Red Corvette” and “1999” (in 1983), his music was starting to influence other musicians; he was certainly among the most imitated artists of the ’80s. Then and now, Prince was unpredictable and eclectic, with soft gospel touches on one song, followed by another dominated by the hardest dance grooves imaginable. His first Number One hit, the moody “When Doves Cry” (from Purple Rain in 1984), couldn’t have been more different from his follow-up Number One (also from Purple Rain), the rockin’ “Let’s Go Crazy.” Then there was the psychedelic pop of “Raspberry Beret” in 1985. He’s always confounded expectations by juxtaposing acoustic tracks with electronic tracks and mixing styles in unusual ways; everything was (and is) fair game for him. He’s never been successfully pigeonholed as anything, except perhaps eccentric.

“Kiss” was part of the stylistically diverse, art-rock album Parade, which also served as the soundtrack to Prince’s second film Under a Cherry Moon. And, while the album as a whole sprawls in a multitude of directions, “Kiss” is firmly rooted in the funk milieu that Prince used as a foundation to launch himself out of the anonymity of the back streets of North Minneapolis in the mid- to late ’70s. And speaking of foundations, “Kiss” managed to achieve radio hit status and dance club immortality without benefit of a bass part! More on that in a minute.

In 1986, Prince was working at Sunset Sound in Los Angeles. Engineer David Z, a staffer at Prince’s Paisley Park Studios in Minneapolis, remembers getting a call from Prince, asking him to come out for a weekend of work. “I packed three days’ worth of clothes and went,” recalls Z. “When I got there, I went in and saw Prince in Studio C, and he told me I would be working in Studio B to produce a new group he had signed [to his Paisley Park label] called Maserati. Then he says, ‘You’ll probably be here about a month.’ So I went out and bought more clothes.”

“Kiss” was originally intended for Maserati and came into the studio in the form of one verse and a chorus, on a cassette tape, written, sung and played on an acoustic guitar by Prince, who assured Z that the rest of the song would be forthcoming. It wasn’t an auspicious start. “The song sounded like a folk song that Stephen Stills might have done,” Z recalls. “I didn’t quite know what to do with it and neither did the group.”

Z began in his usual manner by creating a beat on a Linn 9000 drum machine. “The groove began to get complex, especially the hi-hat pattern,” he says. “I ran the hat through a delay unit, set about 150 milliseconds, printed that to tape and printed the original hat to another track and then alternated between ‘source’ and ‘blend’ on the delay unit, recording those passes. It created a pretty cool rhythm that was constantly changing in tone and complexity but was still steady. Then I played some guitar chords and gated them through a Kepex unit and used that to trigger various combinations of the hi-hat tracks. That gave us the basic rhythm groove for the song.”

Session bassist Mark Brown laid down a bass part, and one of the members of Maserati recorded a piano part that Z says he copped from an old Bo Diddley song called “Hey, Man.” The group’s singer put down a lead vocal track an octave lower than Prince’s original tenor, and some background vocal parts were invented, based on some ideas Z says he remembered from Brenda Lee’s “Sweet Nothings.” “This is what we had at the end of the first couple of days,” Z says with a sigh. “We were trying to build a song out of nothing, piece by piece. It was just a collection of ideas built around the idea of a song that wasn’t finished yet. We didn’t know where it was going. We were getting a little frustrated, we were exhausted, so we all went home for the night.”

That, however, would prove to be enough. At least for Prince. When Z returned to the studio the next day, he found Prince waiting for him. Sometime that morning, The Artist had apparently come into the studio, asked an assistant to put the track up and then recorded his own vocal and electric guitar part. Z was stunned.

“I asked him what was going on. He said to me, ‘This is too good for you guys. I’m taking it back.’” From that moment on, “Kiss” became a Prince record. Z remained with him in the studio as Prince took what sparse elements there already were on the track and made it even more minimalist. “He said, ‘We don’t need this,’ and pulled the bass off,” Z says. The low end was filled up instead by using a classic Prince trick: running the kick drum through an AMS 16 reverb unit’s reverse tube program. “It fills up the bottom so much you really don’t miss the bass part, especially if you only use it on the first downbeat,” says Z. The hi-hat track was similarly dispatched, leaving only nine tracks of instruments and vocals on the record, which certainly made it easier to mix. Z recalls, only half jokingly, that the mix, which was done on an API console, took about five minutes.

Prince’s vocals had been recorded using a Sennheiser 441 microphone. According to Z, Prince’s preference for that particular mic stems from a conversation he had with singer Stevie Nicks, who had suggested it to him. “There’s a roll-off on that microphone that actually ends up boosting the high end, spiking it around 3 kHz,” Z explains. “It also has good directionality; Prince liked to sing in the control room, so he would set it up on a stand right by the console. When he wanted to sing, he would just put on headphones. He also liked doing his own punches, too.”

The track was left as ambiently dry as it was elementally sparse. In the mix, Z says the starkness of the track actually made him a little uneasy. “I reached over and snuck in a little bit of the piano back in,” he says. A small amount of tape delay was also put on the guitar track. “Otherwise, the mix was just a matter of Prince pulling back and turning off faders. It’s more than the bass that you’re not hearing on that track.”

Z says he recalls being alternately fascinated and excited by this turn of events. Maserati was to be his first full production for Prince’s company. (Z had recorded parts of records for Prince in the past, as well as having recorded his original demos in Minneapolis and being the engineer at the live benefit recording that ultimately became Purple Rain.) In the course of an evening, while he had been sleeping, he was now Prince’s co-producer for at least one track. In addition, the deletion of the bass was stirring. It added an element of danger, a frisson to the record-making process.

In fact, it did produce some drama before it was released. Z says the feedback that came to him from Prince’s record label, Warners, was palpably negative. “The A&R guy said it sounded like a demo,” Z remembers. “No bass, no reverb. I was devastated. But Prince had been selling big numbers, and he had a kind of power that few artists at that time did, probably more than any artist ever will again. He told Warners that that’s the single they were getting, that that’s the one they were putting out. He basically forced Warners to put it out.” Lucky Warners. The record went to Number One in the spring of 1986, and solidified Prince’s stature as The Artist To Be Reckoned With.

The beauty of “Kiss” is not just in what’s not heard, but what’s simply implied. “The power of that track is its ability to pull people in,” observes David Z. “The listener has to provide a lot of what’s missing. You have to use imagination to listen to that record. It really makes the listener part of the process.”

Prince had experimented with pulling the bass on other songs, such as “When Doves Cry” from the Purple Rain album. As Z suggests, removing the bass and leaving the lyrics naked with percussion and a few other instruments transforms the song into what he likens to Beat poetry. It also provides a new perspective on the role of bass in contemporary music, by not allowing its presence to be taken for granted.

But most telling of all the aesthetic confrontations that “Kiss” provoked was how it functioned as a point of contention between an artist and a corporate entity. “You could really see the resistance of the corporate power of a major record label to something that was so different from what they were expecting,” says Z. “That record was up against the paranoia of radio and the power of corporate record labels. That time, the record and the artist won. These days, neither one would have had a chance in hell.”