Prince Charles freaked the funk

Now that the other Charles is finally King, the only Prince Charles you need to care about is Prince Charles Alexander, he of ’80s Boston electro-funkers the City Beat Band. America’s Prince Charles was an early electronic convert, adopting the Lyricon woodwind synth and a battery of drum machines across his productions. He went on to engineer and produce hip hop and RnB groups including Jodeci, Usher and Mary J Blige, ending up as a recording studio academic and historian. His book Hip Hop Production: Inside The Beats is an insider’s view of the techniques and technology hip hop has adopted over the years. From wannabe pimp, via bare-chested funk star, to Puff Daddy’s studio wizard, to a full-on professorship, Charles Alexander has lived several lives to the full.

interviewed by Bill Brewster, 11.5.20

Your book is a very different take on hip hop.
Everyone thinks hip hop is just this organic thing, you know. You hang out in the streets for a while and then you start rapping and that’s all you need to know. But at the same time, as an audio engineer and a producer of hip hop, I knew a whole lot of technological concepts that make rap records sound the way they do. I was really writing about the technology. It’s not just a history book. It’s also a how-to book: how to use sampling in your composition.

There have been so many different phases in hip hop. I mean, all the early records were backed by bands. There were no electronics.
Exactly. I had to go from the live bands to drum machines, to sequencers, to samplers, to the ADAT home recording, to the digital audio workstation, to Auto-Tune to Melodyne. I go through all of that like it was an effortless choreography, trying to explain each one of these things and the motivations behind them.

So you explain how each piece of kit evolved
Yes. Oftentimes the new pieces of gear were inspired by work that hip hop producers were doing in their compositions. They didn’t know the underlying math, but they were pushing the creativity into places where the manufacturers would respond to. I’ll give you an example. The whole idea of chopping a sample up by either the transient or by the bar beat position was not something that was in the original MPC. It was added because that’s what Pete Rock was doing. He was getting a sample and chopping it up into eighth notes or sixteenth notes. So then the guys that made the MPC said, ‘Oh, well, we can actually add that feature.’ They added it, boom.

Producers will always push technology
It’s what hip hop has been doing for decades. Everyone writes about hip hop as fashion, sociology, culture. But I don’t know that I’ve seen a book that writes about hip hop as technology.

I guess one of the reasons is that hip hop was originally focused on the DJs, but it’s become all about the MC.
Exactly. So I tried to pen the book for all those people who buy Ableton and Fruity Loops and Logic, I tried to create the book that said, ‘This is why you just bought that DAW, and this is what you can do with it.’

Your career is almost a living example of all that: the transition from live instruments to electronic production.
I was there at the transition from funk to hip hop. I actually saw music turn into hip hop.

Stone Killers stands out as one of the last great funk albums, because of exactly that.
Stone Killers is a bridge album. The first half of it is a live band and the second half of it is drum machines. If you look at that album, the first four songs, it’s all a live band, and final four songs … I forget if there’s eight or nine songs on that album. But half of it was done in Boston and half of it was done in New York. That recording began the journey of me going down the drum machine route and the synthesiser route, and then eventually the samplers.

The early ’80s saw so many innovations.
Everything was moving so fast. That evolution of moving from songs that had guitars and pianos and bass and drums to songs like ‘It’s Like That’ by Run-DMC that just had a drum machine and a bassline with maybe an orchestra hit. If you’re a musician who’s been learning minor chords and major chords and dominant chords all your life so that you can put out music, and all of a sudden you listen to a song that’s just going [beat noises] for three and a half minutes, it’s like, what the heck is going on? So the first thing I needed to do was explore the instruments, explore the tools I was hearing in the new music. Had I not picked up a Lyricon, I might not have known how to even make the transition.

For anyone unfamiliar with a Lyricon, it’s a kind of woodwind synthesiser. How did you discover it?
I was a jazz musician and it wasn’t like now when jazz musicians look like they’re afraid of anything new. In the ’70s, if you were a jazz musician, you were curious about everything. I saw Rahsaan Roland Kirk at Paul’s Mall in Boston. And Rahsaan plays a tenor on one hand, an alto on another hand, he’s playing two saxophone simultaneously, sometimes three. He’s got a whistle in his nose, tambourine on his feet. And in front of Rahsaan, when I saw him, this was probably maybe six months to a year before I put out my first album. In front of Rahsaan, there were two Lyricon 1s and I’m looking at them like, ‘Oh, snap, I want to hear him play that. What the heck is that?’I thought it was like a shiny clarinet. But then I saw these cables coming off of it. So I went and asked some people. ‘It’s a wind synthesiser.’

That’s all I needed to hear, because I had already gone through the clarinet. You know, B flat clarinet, alto, bass clarinet. Then I went through the saxophones, alto sax, soprano sax, tenor sax, bari sax. Then I went through the flutes, because one of the people I admired was Lenny Pickett from Tower of Power, who has now become the bandleader for the Saturday Night Live band for the last 25 years. So, the Lyricon was going to open a door for me. I just went out and bought one, a cheaper version called the Lyricon 2, which had two oscillators on it and you could move between sine tone, saw tone and square wave. I don’t even think it had a triangle wave. I didn’t even know what that stuff meant. It had an LFO on it. I didn’t know what an LFO was. The low frequency oscillator, you know?

Kind of.
I literally recorded ‘In the Streets’ on the first album, two weeks after I bought the Lyricon. There’s a song called ‘Move Your Feet (To the Beat)’ which is an instrumental version of ‘Rise’, and you hear all these crazy sounds, right? That’s just me in there just moving knobs, trying to see what the thing could do. This was 1979. The rest of that year I was recording and learning and really, really getting into what this tool could do.

I eventually got a controller and was controlling an OB-1 one synthesiser. And that’s about the time I started to make [second album] Stone Killers. When I was touring in England, that’s what I had behind me: the OB-1 on a big keyboard rack that you could actually see the panel of. And at the bottom, there was a Lyricon 2. So both of those Lyricons. I would have one going through distortion pedals, and one for bass sounds and one for guitar sounds. I could turn the distortion on or off. So I could do, like, parallel fifth type of things.

How was it playing live with them?
I would get so sweaty that I would touch the presets and the liquid from my hands would move over and put another preset on. And every once in a while I would get electric shocks going up and down my arm because literally, it was a conductive unit and I’m standing in the middle of this conductive circuit, and you could actually feel the electricity going up and down my arm every once in a while. I was like, ‘Oh man, I hope I don’t get electrocuted on stage one day.’

So, the Lyricon opens the door, but it wasn’t the end of the journey, because… drum machines. I made my first album, Gang War, in 1979. I finished Stone Killers in 1981. Between 1979 and 1981, the Linn LM-1 and the Roland TR-808 had come out. I’m starting to hear records like ‘Planet Rock’ by Arthur Baker, who’s also from Boston. He’s got more of a DJ sensibility, and the bottom of his records sounds different. The drums sound different. And so, that began a second journey of exploration for me. What drum machine am I listening to? I found out about the Linn LM-1, and Prince used it on ‘Doves Cry’. So, my curiosity was so piqued that I rented that stuff after I got to New York and I’m finishing the album, and I felt a little bit… I felt like I was doing something unkind to the City Beat Band.

Because you’re using drum machines to finish the album?
I left Boston. I went to New York to find out how can I grow the brand of Prince Charles and City Beat Band. While I’m there, I’m like, ‘Man, the sound of radio in New York just sounds totally different than Boston.’ I asked the guys in the studio, ‘What is this sound?’ And somebody showed me a drum machine. ‘You can rent it for blah, blah, blah.’ So I got my money together and I started working on some songs. ‘Jungle Stomp’, New York with drum machines. ‘Bush Beat’, in New York with drum machines. ‘Video Freak’, drum machines.

[Production and business partner] Tony Rose came up with the whole video freak thing because everybody was playing video games. I’m like, ‘That’s a dumb idea.’ He’s like, ‘No, trust me.’ It’s 1981. MTV started in 1980. So I’m looking at MTV, fiddling around with drum machines, being told by Tony that this video thing is the new phenomenon, identifying a huge gay audience in New York that was really into me, what I did with it was create a musical landscape. And all of that came into that song, ‘Video Freak (Defend It)’.

There was another version of it released earlier in Boston I believe, under a different artist name. Trigger Finger And The Space Cadets.
Oh my god. Bill, you are taking me back, man. Wow.

There were some colourful interviews when you guys came to the UK. Were you and Tony Rose really leaders of rival Boston street gangs?
The truth is, I was in a gang and Tony was in a gang, but we didn’t know each other. So he put in the rival thing just to…

…Spice it up.
Yeah. I didn’t really know him until we started collaborating on music. I lived about six or seven blocks from the Combat Zone, which is a real place in Boston that I wrote the third album about. The tricks would come into our little apartment complex area, park their cars, and have the prostitutes blow them, screw them or whatever. And for fun, the guys in my gang would go and rob them. I vividly remember crouching down with a machete in my hand, getting ready to go and rob this guy. And one of the other guys in the gang says to me, ‘What the fuck are you doing, man? You just got into this great school and you’re out here getting ready to fuck your life up. Man, what are you doing?’ And I put the machete down and walked away and left it. Left that part of the lifestyle.

But there was another part that I couldn’t get away from, that I really loved, and that was the whole pimp and prostitute thing. Because once again … okay… trying to say that I was in the life is a weird thing to say if you didn’t understand the context, right?

Where I grew up, all of this stuff was normal: to rob people, to be in a gang, to pimp, to have prostitutes. All of this was normal stuff, even though my mom, single parent, was striving to be middle class. But I’m out in the streets trying to gang bang. I was probably about 16 years old when I had that revelation with the machete and put it down. But I was still interested in pimping. And by this time, I was getting known as a musician also. And so I’m kind of like, ‘Okay, I’ll use my music thing to become the pimp musician.’

I started hanging out with a bunch of pimps and they would take me around to their different houses and their different women, and the women had babies from tricks and all this kind of stuff. And the guy would have four different cars and minks and cocaine and heroin all over the place, and it was just this incredible lifestyle. His name was Jerry, and he was … I called him my uncle. He wasn’t my uncle. He was just a pimp that had become enamoured of me and was trying to school me into the life.

But he realised I wasn’t really cut out for it, so he was trying to do a Scared Straight thing on me. He turned to me and he said, ‘Every day of my life that I wake up, I’m looking at 20 years to life if I get caught.’ And I’m in college by then. So after hanging around them and really, really thinking about this life is not what it’s cracked up to be. It looks interesting because of where I come from, but it’s a death sentence if you really play it out.

So once I went through what I’ll call pimp school, I came out the other end and was like, ‘Okay, I have gifts, and I need to exploit those gifts in order to really do what I was put on earth to do.’ So, what you got from the music was part me, but then some of the darker parts were songs that were written about people around me, if that makes sense.

Yeah. I always felt Prince Charles was a character rather than a person.
Yeah. It wasn’t all me, because if it had been me, I probably wouldn’t have been alive for those interviews. I had those two moments where I was able to pull myself back, but I had friends who didn’t have the opportunities that I had. They had to continue and go and rob that guy, you know? They had to continue pimping until they got busted, and then drugs and jail and all that. And there was something in me was like, ‘Music can help me to not be a destroyed human being.’

Was this all happening in Roxbury?
Roxbury was the ghetto, the hood. Roxbury is where New Edition comes from. I lived in Dorchester, which was the secondary version of a hood. Roxbury was the absolute hardest, Dorchester was a little less hard than that, and Mattapan was a little less than that. Mattapan is where all the light-skinned girls with the long hair are. And Roxbury was where all the dark skin girls that could probably beat you up were. And where I lived was the south end. Roxbury is adjacent to downtown Boston, and the heart of downtown Boston is where the Sugar Shack was, where all the musicians came and where all the pimps hung out. By the age of 13 I was in the Sugar Shack all the time. I was coming home hanging out with the gang, and my life was being coloured by the Ohio players, Kool & The Gang on the music side, and by a bunch of knuckleheads running around, running from the police on the home front, and going to a school that John F. Kennedy went to, Boston Latin School.

A lot of different inputs! How did you get into making records?
In college, it dawned on me that I couldn’t keep running back and forth to play in Boston on the weekends and do college kind of part-time. I had to really dedicate myself to college if I wanted to finish it. My sophomore year I had to take off from playing in order to get my grades up. Then third year, I started going, ‘Okay, my grades are back up. I wonder if there’s anything I can do during the summer.’ So during one of those summers, I met Maurice Starr.

He’s a Boston legend isn’t he: one half of electro-futurists Jonzon Crew, and the creative force behind New Edition and the New Kids on the Block.
Maurice Starr is a frigging musical genius. He can sing incredibly, play guitar, bass, drums, trombone, flugelhorn, and trumpet. So when I met him, he and his brothers were like the Jackson 5, but everybody played instruments. He was like a bull, brash, talking shit type of personality. And I was taught that to be a pimp and a gangster you’re supposed to shut your mouth. Gangsters move in silence. And now I meet this guy who is a musician entertainer, and he talks so much shit it’s crazy. But he was getting investors, and he put out a record. So I’m looking at him like, ‘Okay, so that’s how entertainers do this.’ You got to have a little bit of balls about you. You can’t run and hide behind the dark corners. You’ve actually got to be out front and talking smack.’

So, Maurice put out a record called ‘Bout Time I Funk U’. And when I heard it, I was like, ‘Oh my God, this song is just like Parliament-Funkadelic. So I don’t have to go and meet George Clinton in order to do this funk thing. I can just hang out with Maurice. So I joined Maurice’s band. I wanted to put out a record, and I knew this radio DJ wanted Maurice to do two songs on him. So I said ‘Do two songs on him, do two songs on me, have him pay the studio upfront, I’ll pay the back half of the studio.’ My song was ‘In the Streets’ and the other one was called ‘Fresh Game’. I didn’t have any money to pay the studio at the back end, so I go to this local investor in music Roscoe Gorham. Because back then, we didn’t have DJs. If you had a club, you had bands, right?

But Roscoe didn’t want to invest. Because he probably didn’t like the record. He probably didn’t understand the record. But he put me on to this guy named Tony Rose, who had just left Atlantic Records. Well, Tony heard my stuff and he just loved it. So then we went into a deal and we split everything 50/50 across the board, kind of like a L.A. Reid and Babyface deal, 50/50 down. It felt a little bit weird to me: ‘Why am I giving him half of my music when I’m doing all the music?’ But even though I didn’t feel comfortable doing it, the results were great. Tony was able to make moves with my music that probably no other human being on the planet could have made. Over the course of the next couple of decades and after meeting Puffy and people like that, I realise how intertwined the creativity and the business aspects of music are.

The band seemed to have much more success in Europe than it did in the US.
That’s true, yeah, very little traction in the US. We tried, but we were trying at the same time that hip hop was exploding. My first record came out in ‘79, a couple of months before ‘Rapper’s Delight’. Then you had Run DMC blowing up and Whodini and The Real Roxanne, and all of this kind of new sample-based music aesthetic. By 1985 with ‘Walk This Way’ hip hop was no longer an underground phenomenon. It was now the major selling point of black music in America. So from ’79 to ’85, there was a lot of shifting ground going on in the music industry. And I was not part of that hip hop shift in America. In 1986, Cameo’s album Word Up came out, that’s the last funk album. That’s the last funk album a major label invested in.

The idea that somebody could actually play new music [on instruments] was starting to wear thin. Piano solos and sax solos went away. I mean, I grew up when Lionel Richie was playing alto sax in The Commodores, and then he stopped playing alto sax and started singing. When I grew up, Kool & The Gang had a bunch of horns. They didn’t have JT Taylor singing. When I grew up, Tower of Power was about horns. Lenny Williams wasn’t singing on ‘Squib Cakes’. Everything was instrumental. 1984 was the last instrumental hit. Axel Foley, the theme from Beverly Hills Cop. I teach this stuff now and I’ve been doing a lot of historical analysis of what the hell happened to me. And 1984 was the last big instrumental hit. Everything has been vocal-centric since then. And rap has definitely pushed the envelope of the vocal-centric composition.

How did you get over to the UK?
How we got to England was… we’re in New York with Stone Killers and Tony’s running around New York, and he meets Neil Cooper from Reachout International Records.

That was the cassette-only company.
Yeah. He inks a deal with Neil for the cassette rights, and the vinyl rights were still available. And Greyhound Records in England picked it up, picked up ‘In the Streets’. And as ‘In the Streets’ is getting some traction in England, there starts to be a bidding war on some small level for Stone Killers. Virgin eventually won the bidding war and bought the vinyl rights to Stone Killers and gave me a budget to do a third album.

’83 is when I got the deal with Virgin, and they tried to move me into America by going through John Luongo, who was a DJ who started a label, Pavillion. He was a good well-known DJ and Arthur Baker was a well-known DJ also. Tom Silverman is from Boston too. You know, Tommy Boy Records. All of these guys were in Boston and we were all hanging out together.

England took to me right away because of the name, to kind of make fun of Bonnie Prince Charles in England. You know? And it worked for me as a marketing tool. Having this black guy in leather and chains being paraded as the new coming of Prince Charles. And the funny thing is, when I was in Boston 20 years old, that was exactly why I chose the name Prince Charles. I thought that maybe somebody in England would pick up the records and do something goofy with it, like make me famous.

Well, it did a pretty decent job then. So how did your career go into working with R&B and hip hop bands?
Oh, man. I would go and tour in Europe, make some money, come home, and then after about three or four months, my money was depleted and I’d have to figure out what to do until my next tour. I’m in New York and everybody’s a star, so I took a couple of part-time jobs just to bring a couple of hundred dollars in, and then it dawned on me, what the fuck am I doing sitting here telemarketing? There must be a way for me to make fucking $10 an hour doing music.

So, instead of me trying to get my money up so I can go into the studio, imagine if I was an engineer and I’m sitting there working with other producers, learning engineering. I’m getting the best of both worlds. I won’t be behind the curve. I won’t be late on drum machines. I won’t be late on synthesisers. I won’t be late on samplers. I don’t think the sampler had even come out yet, but I won’t be late on the emerging technology. I’ll be up to speed with everything.

So, I committed to a place called the Center for Media Arts, and I went to Tony and said, ‘I think I’m going to have to leave the stage. I really, really want to learn this.’ And Tony looked at me like, ‘No, no, you’re Prince Charles.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, yeah, but I ain’t got no fucking money, man.’

So, I went through this eight month program, and I interned at a couple of studios I had produced at, and everybody was like, ‘Aren’t you the guy that had that shiny gold suit?’ I got a job at Sound Ideas studio in 1986. I worked with different people. I eventually ran into a guy named Kashif and another guy named Paul Laurence who were some pretty big R&B producers, and I was the assistant engineer on their gigs, and eventually, I became their engineer.

Was it hard to leave the stage behind?
While I was on tour, I was saying to myself, I’m just too bright for this running around the world, begging people to love me as a recording artist. Because that’s kind of how it feels when you’re on stage: ‘Hey, love me!’ So, I made a pact to myself that that was going to be my last tour and I was going to become a studio rat.

How did you get involved with Bad Boy?
After Paul and Kalif I left Sound Ideas, and I was in the world of freelance audio engineering. I bumped into this guy named Dr. Seuss: Chad Elliott. He was a junior partner with the Swing mob, DeVante Swing and Jodeci. I started working with Jodeci in 1990 on Diary of a Mad Band, and their A&R person was Puffy at Uptown Records. And when Jodeci went to Rochester around ’93, ’94, and they took the whole group with them, including Timbaland and Missy Elliott, and they left me in New York, Puffy approaches me and says, ‘Do you want to work with me?’ And that was the beginning of 10, 11 years of working with Notorious B.I.G., Craig Mack, 112, Black Rob, Mary J. Blige, Faith Evans, Total, G. Dep, the whole Bad Boy roster.

You didn’t miss being an artist?
Some of my motivation for my move from the stage into the studio rat thing was I didn’t feel respected as an artist. The conversations with my record company were conversations with Tony Rose. They weren’t being had with me. I felt that I’m too intelligent to not have that kind of audience with the record label. And once I started doing the audio engineering thing, I started making a hundred times the money I was making with Prince Charles and the City Beat Band.

And I didn’t have to be pigeonholed into just being a funk artist. I could work on a hip hop act. I could work on a pop act. I could work on work on R&B, on some French hip hop. I could do so many different things. I could do so many different things from the engineering and producer’s chair that I wasn’t able to do from the artist producer chair. And like I say, this was a pivotal time in music. In 1983, ’84, ’85, a musician didn’t become a rapper. No, you’re either a musician or a rapper. Even though I tried to rap. You know that I rapped on ‘Tight Jeans’ and ‘Don’t Fake the Funk’. But it was just rapping as exploration, like George Duke explores funk or Herbie Hancock explores turntablism. I was just exploring. I didn’t live and breathe for hip hop. That was never the thing. Even when I was associated with Puffy.

I hate to burst people’s bubbles that think, ‘Well, you’re an artist and you do or die for art.’ I’m like, fuck that shit, I do and die to keep food on the table for Prince Charles. There are a lot of great musicians that in their later life didn’t have medical insurance and couldn’t take care of themselves. I will not be embarrassed because I’ve taken care of myself by stepping off of the stage. The stage was an illusion. Reality was, this fucking bill is not being paid. You know? You’re getting ready to be homeless. I just couldn’t go through that, so I had to figure out a way to balance my art and my creativity and my technology, which started with the Lyricon and my sense of business acumen. And that seemed to make more sense to me being behind the scenes as a producer and an engineer.

© Bill Brewster & Frank Broughton