Shelby Johnson – better known to Prince fans as Shelby J – remembers being puzzled when she got the lyric sheet for Son Of A Slave Master, a blazingly outraged tune from Prince’s unreleased 2010 album Welcome 2 America. “All the verses had my name on them,” she says.
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“Can this be right? He wanted me to sing all the verses then he would come in on the chorus. He just liked the way my voice sounded there. As a supporting vocalist, you always think you’re just going to be supporting, but Prince was very generous with his light.”
She compares Welcome 2 America – which is finally getting released, 11 years late – to a Broadway production, full of complex arrangements and theatrical vocal parts. Because Prince wanted to cut the songs live, she and the other singers rehearsed for hours in her hotel room before joining him in the studio. “If our parts weren’t tight, I was gonna hear about it.”
After recording the songs, Prince handed them off to the New Power Generation’s keyboard player Morris Hayes. “He called me over to Paisley Park one day, and we sat in his car and listened to the whole record together,” says Hayes, who received a co-producers credit for his work. “He cut it raw – just bass, drums, him, and the girls doing some background vocals. He told me, ‘Morris, just overproduce it and I’ll take away whatever I don’t like.’ He really liked to micromanage and stand over your shoulder.
“He could be very, very impatient. It was nice not having the added pressure of him hurrying me up while I was moving through kick-drum sounds.” Prince responded enthusiastically to Hayes’ treatments, especially on a slab of ’70s funk called Born 2 Die.
The idea came to Prince while he was watching a YouTube clip of Cornel West. “Dr West said something like, ‘Prince is a bad brother, but Prince is no Curtis Mayfield,’” recalls Hayes. “Prince was like, ‘Oh, really?’” When Hayes came back with the finished song, his boss was over the moon. “Prince didn’t really throw out accolades. But when I played that song for him, he grabbed me by the shoulders and shook me and screamed, ‘This is great! You’re Duke Ellington!’”
These songs are among the most socially and politically engaged of his career, as though Prince were updating Sign O’ The Times. “He was telling his truth,” says Shelby Johnson. He would always say, ‘Shel, we gotta take care of each other.’ He was prophetic. I think he knew this album needed to wait. He knew we’d need it later. That blows my mind, but that’s just what geniuses do.”