"I Never Saw Him Make a Mistake": Prince's Drum Programmer Remembers

Fafu, Prince's tour drum programmer from the mid-'90s, remembers the man who taught him to always do it right.

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Complex Original

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In the 1990s, Fafu moved to Minneapolis, where his dad was living, to pursue music, chasing the funk scene that you see in Purple Rain. There, he met and befriended Michael Bland, who was Prince's drummer at the time. In 1995, when Prince needed new drum programming for his live show, Bland recommended his friend, kicking off a working relationship that spanned two years and plane rides across the globe, touring with the New Power Generation. This is what Fafu remembers.

The first time I actually met him? He’s a peculiar guy—you don’t really meet him, you know? It’s not like you shake his hand. Minneapolis’ music scene is a small community and I’d been hanging around with his drummer for probably a year before I got out to Paisley Park; by then, I’d heard a million stories. Everybody’s crossed his path at least once. There are rules, almost. Sound guys and guitar techs—those were the two positions were you'd get fired immediately. If you looked him in the eye and tried to shake his hand, you were gone that day. If you made it past two weeks, then you’d probably get to stick around. He was a rock star, coming off that '80s run. In the mid-'90s, he’d isolated himself.

The drummer, Michael Bland, told me there were three new songs he wanted to play and I had to get whatever drum programming they were using in the studio, sample it, and put it into the system. But Prince also wanted it to sound like the band was performing remixes, wanted it hyped up, so I added my own flavor. Prince liked what I did and said, “Have that guy come back and remix everything.” So I added my own sound to all 50 or so tracks they were doing live at the time.

The first time we talked was at the sound stage at Paisley Park. He wanted to go over everything, give me comments and notes.

He’s so confident on stage, but it’s basically the opposite when you talk to him. He mumbles, he’d stutter a little bit, he’d look down. But when it came to doing the work, he always knew what he wanted. He was so confident in his abilities—even beyond music. He had a tennis court on his property but he never played tennis. Then somebody would say, “Oh, I want to play you.” So Prince would send for his tennis gloves, was completely insane on the court and would beat whoever he was playing. I never saw Prince make a mistake—in anything.

Imagine being in his band. He could play every instrument better than the band.

Imagine being in his band. He could play every instrument better than the band. Except maybe the drums, but only because he didn’t practice them enough. Still, he was a pretty good drummer.

On drum programming, he taught me to do it right, to do it perfectly and never cut corners. He was very strict about the timing. In this era, the mid-'90s, people used drum loops—breakbeats—all the time, and they can be tough to program. I heard a story that he was in the studio working on a song and he said, “I’ll do it live.” He triggered the break every time for the whole song, and it was perfect.

We’d go on these arena tours, and every night he’d want to go to a small club and jam. The arena tours are totally rehearsed, like Broadway performances, with cues and lighting and all. Then we’d go into the Paradiso in Amsterdam and he would rip, sometimes for three or four hours, playing blues and funk, a ton of Sly and the Family Stone, Graham Central Station. We were in Ireland and Bono sat in after a show and sang “The Cross.” Chaka Khan sat in once. Whoever was around, wherever he went, it was an awesome party of talented people.

He was a great band leader. I’d put him up there with Miles Davis in terms of getting a group of musicians together and whipping them into shape. That he could play all the instruments, and because, for the most part, he played every instrument on his records, meant he knew every part. He was hard on people, too. He’d embarrass you to the point where you wouldn’t mess up. James Brown used to fine musicians when they messed up on stage. Prince wouldn’t do that, but he’d ride you. I don’t want to paint an ugly picture, but he was tough. You wanted to please daddy.

There was a rotating cast of sound men. He didn’t like it when the sound guy would tweak the mix while the band was performing; Prince could hear the mix change. The tour manager would try to bring in big-name engineers to mix his shows. I remember they brought in a guy who had just gotten off tour with Celine Dion, or someone like that, this guy who looked a bit like Darius Rucker, at the time when Hootie and the Blowfish were big. We’re doing a show at Paisley Park and halfway through, Prince says—over the PA—“Hootie, turn up my guitar.” Then, three quarters through, Prince says, “Hootie, you’re fired.”

I feel like I was protected because I was Michael Bland’s boy—and also because I did my job right. When there was no sound guy, the crew was in charge of the mix. The drum tech would make sure the drums were loud enough, the keyboard tech had to make sure the keys were loud enough—everyone was fighting for space in the mix, just pushing the faders up. But he clued in that I knew what I was doing to some extent and would let me run the mix if there was no official sound man. One time, we were doing a Paisley Park show on the sound stage and I’m sitting there, behind the console, bobbing my head. At that time, I was really into funk—James Brown, Sly Stone, Punk—and so was Prince and the band. He was also super into hip-hop: Public Enemy, Snoop Dogg, Biggie. So I’m bobbing my head and the band was still jamming but Prince wasn’t on stage. Then I look over and Prince was standing right next to me, bobbing his head in unison—that was a moment.

The band at the time, the New Power Generation, were so good, we would do shows and I remember Bruce Springsteen or John Cougar Mellencamp, someone like that, came through and said, “Can I use your band on a record?” And Prince said, “Can I sleep with your woman?” That’s the kind of shit that he would say.

He would rent out movie theaters in the suburbs outside Minneapolis and invite the band and others to watch movies at midnight. He never invited me, but sometimes I’d get wind of it, and one time I went to see Casino with them on the night before Thanksgiving in 1995. He left halfway through. Walked out of Casino. He was a funny dude.

I remember one time it was just me and him working on the beats on the sound stage, and I used this squeak sound I'd made. I was in love with Public Enemy, and so I reversed this metallic squeak sound and slowed it way down. (I think he used it on Exodus). I played that sound and he got that face, that scrunched up woo face, and he picked up his bass and started ripping along with this thing that I’d programmed.

I was definitely nervous around him, very new to the music industry and had heard so many stories about him, I wouldn’t try to initiate conversation. It’s funny, later on I was working with Bad Boy and people would ask me, “Why do you stop talking when Puff walks in the room,” and that’s just because Prince was my training. Puffy’s cool—he’ll talk to anybody. But Prince, it was Jedi mind tricks. Working with him was like boot camp. I wasn’t intimidated by anybody after that.

When I heard, I was in a restaurant with my daughter—she’s home from school today—and I got a call from a friend of mine. It was loud in the diner and he said, “You hear that blah-blah-blah died?” I asked, “Who died?” He said, “Prince!” I told my daughter that we had to leave. We walked home and on the way it hit me, and I started crying.

So many of the musicians I knew from that time in my life were of the highest caliber. He was beyond that. He’s the most talented person I’ve ever met.

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