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Taken from Mpls.St.Paul Magazine (Apr 24, 2019)

Q&A: The New Power Generation's Morris Hayes

The longest serving music director for Prince reflects on the Purple One's enigmatic life, and how his legacy lives on.

by Peter Diamond

New Power Generation. Photograph by Jan Van Hecke
New Power Generation. Photograph by Jan Van Hecke

It was December 1982 when Morris Hayes saw Prince performing along with The Time in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, as part of Prince's 1999 tour. While standing in the middle of the arena, the now 56-year-old musician declared that one day he'd perform with both, speaking his dream into the universe.

And so he did: 10 years later, after subbing in for The Time's Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis during a brief Asia tour, Hayes ran into Prince at his Glam Slam club in Minneapolis, where Hayes actually put together the house band. Prince asked him if he needed a job, and Hayes agreed to play keyboard for the New Power Generation, ushering in a new era. The rest is history. He would go on to work as the music director for Prince for 12 years, the longest running bandmate Prince ever had. At a time when Prince let go of playing every instrument on his records and gave more trust to his band, there might be no other musician he trusted more.

If that doesn't sound like a movie waiting to happen, it will be. In addition to a film about his life story currently in development, Hayes also has kept busy with his World Symphony for Peace project, traversing the globe to bring people together through music, continuing to spread the message of Prince. He's worked with Elton John, George Clinton, Janelle Monáe, Mary J. Blige, Stevie Wonder, Whitney Houston-and that's just scratching the surface. To this day, he still keeps the ticket from that fateful concert in his wallet.

When you think about Prince, what are the first memories that come to mind?

The first thing that comes to mind is just him laughing. I think that's part of the secret to my longevity-is the fact that he loved to laugh, and I'm a wannabe comedian. Man, I'm just a bad comedian, but I was good enough to keep him laughing all the time with my foolishness. He really liked to laugh, and that was one of the things I loved about him. Those were the times I loved the most, when we were just being silly. And of course we did some great music and some great shows, made some great history, and there's a lot to love about that, but it's those kind of moments that I miss about him.

How else was Prince like privately that may have differed from how he was perceived publicly?

That was a big thing with him, he did love to laugh. And it was a different persona. I think one of the biggest things for me that I came to realize-I had this theory called the five Princes. It's what I learned over years of being around him-like how to manage myself, really. He had five different personalities that I noticed.

Prince number one was the "Purple Rain" Prince that I saw when I saw the movie-that's the only Prince that I knew, the one that the movie described. Number two was when I met him again in the band-oof, this guy is harsh, man he's a hardass. He's tough, man. Number three was the one I'm talking about now, who was laughing and joking, and playing pranks on you, and all of that sort of thing. Number four was a sad Prince, a hurt Prince. If he was having a bad day, you were probably going to have a bad day. And number five was just the Prince who would give you the shirt off of his back. He would do anything for anybody, and tried to help a lot of people.

Those were the five. What I would try to do is, when I would come in, the first thing I'd do is just let him talk, and then I'd figure out who showed up that day. That really helped me. What I learned was to be quiet, see who'd show up, and then proceed with my day.

What's the first Prince song that you remember hearing?

It was 1979, I Wanna Be Your Lover. It was crazy because me and my mom were watching America's Bandstand, and my church-mom was like "Woo-ee, look at this rascal!" [laughs] It's funny because when I met him, I remember him saying something about somebody being a demon. And I said "Be careful Prince, my mom thought you was a demon!" [laughs] You just never know how people will look at you, you know? So that was when I first saw Prince and I thought, "Wow, that's a different kind of cat right here." But he was dope, you know?

My brother was a DJ, and we used to have house parties back in the day in the 70s at the old house we used to live in. He had Prince records, and I would listen to the records he played in the late 70s and early 80s. I remember Dirty Mind blew my top, because the song Head had a synthesizer solo that moved me. I had to play keyboards like that. It was crazy.

What was Prince like when you joined the band in the 90s?

He was Prince every day, all day. He was a star 24/7, period. You never caught him in blue jeans, watching TV, and drinking a Coke. He was Prince all the time. It didn't turn off. They turned him on, and they broke the switch.

There was no separation from the person and the persona.

There was no façade. That was who he was, all the time. He'd be cool at times, but he never looked anything less than Prince. He hated blue jeans, and when we were wore Dungarees and blue jeans he was like, "Dude, we're rockstars, don't be wearing that stuff!" [laughs] That's how he was! I liked the Clark Kent approach. I can be Superman and play a show, but I want to be Clark Kent when I'm done at Walgreens. He was Superman all the time.

When NPG formed, you guys had to learn all of the Revolution's songs. What was that like?

You basically had to be a human jukebox to remember all of that music, because there was tons and tons of music that Prince had to have ready at any given point. For me, I know I had at least 120-150 songs on my playlist that I had to go through at any point. I maxed out my equipment, it only would go up to 128. I told him, "Prince, we have to delete stuff, it's full." I had to have those conversations with him, which he hated. He hated limitations. But I said, "That's all my equipment can handle bro, I can't put anymore names in."

Then he'd be pissed off, and then have to go back to my station and take things off. He hated to do it, because "Why can't you just expand the memory on this thing?" [laughs] I didn't make it, I just play it! These are just all the slots they have available!

What was the last time you saw Prince?

It was one of those things where I'm glad-I almost didn't go. He called me and told me he was going to be in Anaheim doing a show with 3RDEYEGIRL. I had something else going on, but he had asked me a few times earlier about something and I didn't go, and I felt like if I didn't go this time it'd look like I had some kind of beef or something. It's the best thing I think I ever did, because that would be the last time I saw him alive. He did a great show with 3RDEYEGIRL, and I went backstage. I told him, "Hey man, that was a great show. Thanks for inviting me out man, it was really cool." And there's all kinds of celebrities there, and everybody's pawing and wanting to get to him. I didn't want to be all in the way, so I just left.

What was Prince like at practice and recording in the studio?

One thing about Prince when it came to rehearsal and studio work: He was always very serious about it. He could have fun, but he was always very serious. If you're goofing off and squirreling around, that will probably translate to the stage, so he was very serious about everyone executing their parts perfectly. Rehearsals were tough in a lot of cases. He made sure that if we were gonna play, that we played the absolute best we can. Therefore he was a sergeant, and he expected me to be when he wasn't around. From any band era, I think they can agree.

I feel like around Diamonds and Pearls, Prince began to depart from how he worked previously, in that he was starting to receive more input from the band and he let go of more creative control on his records.

Yeah, I would agree with that. He told me one time the reason why he likes to change bands is because he likes the new creative energy that people bring to the situation. The other day I was puzzled as to how I managed to stand so many incarnations of the NPG and be there for that long, because he did like to change people just like he changed clothes sometimes. He kept different folks around, and so I'm grateful that for whatever reason he decided to keep me around for as long as he did.

The creation of NPG almost signaled a movement more than just being a band. I mean, he named his new label NPG Records.

That is true.

How do you see Prince's legacy being lived out today?

Prince was always about giving and giving back. I know with my World Symphony for Peace project, that's what I want to reflect. Prince wanted us to go out and do our music, and keep progressing on our own, and I think a big part of what made me really appreciative of Prince was his ability to do so much good for humanity. For me, at this point in my career, I've made my music history with a legend.

As far as I'm concerned I'm just like anybody who played with Elvis or Michael, and I find myself in the same position. I worked with a legend for a long time, and I've secured my place in music history, but that's just that. What do you do now? It's about helping people, and it's about paying forward what you've learned. World Symphony for Peace is about uniting musicians and people around the world around a common cause, which is music and peace and love. That's what Prince was about, and that's what we want to be about.

What do you hear about Minneapolis in other parts of the world, particularly with your World Symphony for Peace project?

I mean, Minneapolis now is a special place in the world. It's just like Graceland, it's just like Memphis, it's like all other places where great artists came from. He put the city on the map, and I think as long as there's a planet Earth, Minneapolis will be remembered for Prince. Purple will be remembered for Prince, anyway you see it. It's like a bat signal to the world that reminds you: You can't look at purple and not think of Prince. He's done an incredible thing for the city, for the state, for the world, and I'm personally proud to be part of a legacy like that, and to have worked with somebody who's such a staple in the music business and history.

Moving forward, I think there's a lot of inspiration to be taken from what he did, and I think his music will stand the test of time as well. We have an incredible body of work, and so much music that people haven't heard that'll be out-hopefully. It's the gift that'll keep on giving, and the people who work with him and the people who were inspired by him need to walk in the footsteps he did with music. He did a great thing and helped a lot of people. I can't count how many people have come up to me playing out with Prince that said, "His music saved my life. I was gonna commit suicide, I was gonna do this, and his music got me through this situation..." I can't count how many people have said that to me, which is remarkable. They don't even know him, they just know his music. And yet they were inspired by him. He could save their lives, and he wouldn't know anything about it.

If your work saves one life, then you would have amounted to something. And that's just the people who were able to tell me.

His music has really taken on a life of its own after his death.


What's the importance of exposing newer generations to Prince?

It keeps him alive. I asked Prince one day, I said, "Prince, what do you think is the thing you do the best, man? Because you do so many things well." And he just put his hands on his head and looked at me, "You know what Morris? At the end of the day, I'm a poet. I like lyrics. I hate bad lyrics, man." It don't matter what era, what sound, or whatever. If you stripped his words out of his music and you just read it, it's always something good. His lyrics were always great, because he was always soulful about it.

When people can read these words and understand what it means to be a poet-somebody who can look at life and translate what he sees, and put his heart out with things that happened to him-people can relate to these things. And that's a timeless thing. You know, ain't nothing new under the sun, man. People deal with the same problems, love and break-ups, and hate, and all kinds of stuff. Those are things that are still going to be important in the future. If people can learn from history, they can learn from music.

Then what are your favorite Prince lyrics?

I love Ballad of Dorothy Parker, I love The Question of U. I love so many things. Adore. There's so many songs that are so great. Planet Earth is one of my favorite songs, just because of what he's saying. I love Dreamer. He told me he was watching Dick Gregory and he just came up with the lyrics. He says, "A race to what, and where we goin' / We in the same boat, but I'm the only one rowin'." That was powerful to me. Everybody's talking about race, and it's like it don't matter, man. It's like, "Cut me, cut U / Both the blood is red." That's what he said in a song called Race. "Race / In the space I mark human / Race / Face the music / We all bones when we dead." And that's the point. That's the point.


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