In August of 1983, the Godfather of Soul, James Brown, staged a show in the Beverly Theatre in Hollywood.
Among those in session was Michael Jackson – the King of Pop. Jackson was riding a wave of his thriller album which became the world’s best selling album.
Brown would invite Jackson on stage whereupon he performed a tune and then got to exhibit his moonwalk to an ecstatic crowd.
Jackson will then inform Brown that Prince was in the audience and that he should be called up on stage. Prince was enjoying success with his breakthrough album 1999 which spawned top 20 hits.
But only a few years later Jackson – The Gloved One – and Prince – Purple One – will be known for their fierce rivalry rather than friendship and cordiality.
What then was the cause of their ‘frenemy’ status?
In 1986, both Prince and Jackson were at the top of their respective games, both having record-breaking albums in Thriller and Purple Rain. Both rarely granted interviews, keeping their audiences guessing.
There was a lot going for the pair. Both were born in 1958, just months apart. Both artists came out of tough midwest cities: Jackson was from Gary, Indiana, a steel town just south of Chicago; Prince was from North Minneapolis, Minnesota, also known for its gritty industrial character.
Both Prince and Jackson’s fathers were strict disciplinarians who worked long, arduous hours to support their families.
Jackson’s father Joseph Jackson was a crane operator who had high hopes of making it big with his rhythm and blues band ‘The Falcons’.
Prince’s father John Nelson also had similar dreams of making it as a musician being a talented jazz pianist who played gigs around Minneapolis with his band ‘Prince Rogers Trio’.
When it became clear to both fathers that they wouldn’t make it big as artists, they invested in their sons.
Jackson and Prince shared other similarities – they were both lonely, sensitive, sponge-like children. They also idolized James Brown, Sly Stone, and Stevie Wonder.
Both were private, deeply spiritual, and identified at some point as members of the Jehovah’s Witness faith. Both experienced significant commercial and critical declines in the United States in the wake of scandals, and both died “unexpectedly and tragically in the midst of artistic comebacks,” according to Pop Matters.
When it came to their competitiveness, both artists reckoned it was in their right to be atop the pop hierarchy. They monitored each other’s albums, tours, awards, and records, to match or surpass.
Years later, Roots leader Questlove remembers sitting with Jackson and Eddie Murphy on the set of a music video when the conversation turned to Prince.
“Eddie [was] like, ‘Yeah man… Prince is a bad motherfucker. I’m glad I’m working with you, but another dream I have is working with him too.’” And I don’t even think that Mike knew the camera was on him and he goes, ‘Yes, he’s a natural genius.’ And then four beats later, Michael says, ‘But I can beat him.”
Prince also told Rolling Stone: “I wish people would understand that I always thought I was bad. I wouldn’t have got into the business if I didn’t think I was bad.”
And “Bad,” Jackson’s song, was a source of friction between the two stars when producer Quincy Jones suggested that Prince and Jackson perform together on the song and feature in a video.
Those in the know say while Prince was initially willing to be on the song, he declined due to the opening line “Your butt is mine.”
In a 1997 interview with Chris Rock, Prince offered up his take on the whole affair: “You know that Wesley Snipes character? That would have been me…You run that video in your mind. The first line in that song is, ‘your butt is mine’ so I was saying, ‘Who gonna sing that to whom? Because you sure ain’t singing it to me, and I sure ain’t singing it to you.’ So right there we got a problem.”
It’s said after Prince performed on the James Brown stage, he exited the stage and leaned against a prop lamppost, unceremoniously falling into the crowd and bringing the lamppost with him.
Jackson laughed at his misfortune remarking “he made a fool of himself. He was a joke…People were running and screaming. I was so embarrassed. It was all on video.”
Quincy Jones in a GQ interview claimed Prince was so mortified by his performance at the James Brown concert that he waited in a limo outside the venue, with every intention of running Jackson over.
Even Quincy Jones’ invitation to Prince to feature in the benefit song “We Are the World,” which Jackson co-wrote and ultimately performed on, was rejected.
“I have proven myself since I was real little. It’s not fair. He feels like I’m his opponent…I hope he changes because boy, he’s gonna get hurt. He’s the type that might commit suicide or something…I don’t like to be compared to Prince,” Jackson said of Prince adding “One of the rudest people I have ever met,” who’d been “mean and nasty to my family.”
“There was a point during the show where Prince was playing bass and he came out into the audience with this giant bass—he knew where Michael was sitting—and he walked right up to Michael and started playing bass in Michael’s face. Like aggressive slap bass,” Black Eyed Peas leader will.i.am. recalls of Prince’s clap back.