STORIES FROM THE PARK
PRN Alumni Foundation is comprised of the former employees of Prince, Paisley Park, Paisley Park Records, PRN Productions, NPG Records, Love4OneAnother, any and all of Prince’s companies spanning his impressive nearly 40 year career.
There have been, quite literally hundreds of us in Prince’s employ. The Foundation represents our collective voice.
We are musicians, engineers, managers, lighting directors, wardrobe designers, stylists, makeup artists, drivers, bodyguards, admin staff, valets, drivers (and more!)
This ‘Stories From The Park’ chronicle is a way for our colleagues of all tenures and job types to share a little bit of Prince’s magic with you through our individual voices.
We hope you enjoy getting to know us…we feel as if we’ve known you, Prince’s fans (fam) forever <3
With love and gratitude,
PRN Alumni Foundation
Spotlight: Jeff Munson
"PRINCE GAVE ME A CHANCE WHEN HE DIDN'T HAVE TO"
JEFF MUNSON REMINISCES ON HIS TIME AT PAISLEY PARK
Interviewed by writer: Tony Kiene
While coming of age in Rockford, Illinois, Jeff Munson remembers how he and his best friend Dave Friedlander were the only two “white boys” at school that were into the funk, particularly the likes of Parliament-Funkadelic, Con Funk Shun, Roger and Zapp, and Earth, Wind & Fire among others. Then, as the 1970s gave way to a new decade, they discovered Prince.
Aspiring musicians themselves, Jeff and Dave instantly knew that “this guy was going to be huge.” “Take a song like ‘Uptown’ or ‘Controversy’ or even “Let’s Work,” observes Jeff, “Add in the fact that Prince was doing everything himself; the composing, the production, the instruments, the vocals, all of it. Nobody was that bad ass. Ever!”
After graduating high school, Dave pursued an engineering degree at Boston’s renowned Berklee College of Music while Jeff entered college to study graphic design. Following his freshman year, Jeff was given an opportunity to start working in his chosen field, so he made the decision to drop out of school and work full-time. And when Dave returned from the east coast three years later with a degree in Music Production in hand, the two friends agreed to make the 335-mile trip north and relocate to Minneapolis. It was 1988 and they had no idea what lay in store for them.
GOIN' UPTOWN: THAT'S WHERE WE WANT TO BE
Jeff and Dave long suspected that someday they might live and work in Minneapolis. After all they thought, this was Prince’s stomping ground. Where else would you rather be if you were a music fan? They even joked with one another and amongst friends that they were relocating to Minnesota to work for Prince. Jeff adds, "Of course, we weren’t serious. I mean, what were the odds of that?"
It just so happened that the first résumé Dave sent out was to Paisley Park and before he knew it, he was Prince’s newest assistant recording engineer. In the meantime, Jeff was busy trying to build a clientele as a graphic artist when fate intervened and smiled on him as well.
“Late one night I get a call from Dave who was in a marathon session at Paisley Park," recalls Jeff, "And he asks me if I can bring him a gas station sandwich or something as he hadn’t eaten for hours.” Although he was a good 30 miles away at the apartment they shared in Brooklyn Park, Jeff didn’t balk at the request. “Are you kidding,” he thought to himself, “I actually get to walk into the lobby of Paisley Park. I win. It can’t any better than this.”
Around the studio, Dave began to spread the word that his friend Jeff was a graphic artist. At the time, Richard Henriksen, better known as “Hawkeye,” had little interest in continuing to produce the Paisley Park newsletter. So in rather short order, Jeff found himself interviewing with Paisley Park staff who inquired whether or not he was willing to fill that particular void as well as some additional tasks. He first met with John Dressel, who managed the recording facilities Paisley Park and then Harry Grossman, who was pretty much in charge of the entire building at the time.
Harry offered Jeff his own rent-free office, which would allow him to continue freelance work as long as projects for Prince and Paisley Park took priority. Not that Jeff would have ever said “no” to the offer, he just never imagined such a “sweet deal."
Among Jeff’s responsibilities at Paisley Park was to cover the telephones when necessary, which often resulted in him conversing with Prince, albeit very briefly. Nevertheless, the point was made to Jeff that should he come across Prince in the building not to talk to him. After several weeks of this, Jeff felt awkward not saying anything and one day when passing Prince delivered a spritely “Hello,” to which Prince replied, "Hi." "Mmm…," Jeff thought, "That wasn’t such a big deal."
Still, as he looks back, Jeff admits that in those first couple years Prince said very little to him. There were even occasions where Jeff would inquire at to exactly what Prince was looking for on an album cover or something else. “More often than not, he’d just flash a quizzical look and walk off," leaving Jeff to figure it out on his own.
Though for every moment Jeff might have felt a little bit insecure, there were others that reminded him of exactly where he was at and what a privilege that was. Perhaps Jeff’s favorite moment from those early days was, while on front desk duty, getting to see Prince take Vanity on a tour of Paisley Park, where she was visiting for the very first time. “Now that was cool."
SO, DO YOU WANT TO STAY AND HELP US MAKE A MOVIE?
By early 1990, Jeff was working quite a bit with then President of Paisley Park Enterprises, Gilbert Davison. One day, Gilbert asked Jeff to drive some art samples out to Prince, who was on a sound stage in New Hope where they were filming some of the interior club scenes for Graffiti Bridge.
Jeff walks in and shows Prince the samples he brought. As Prince flips through them, he quips “That’s cool. So is this. Keep all these,” and so on. Assuming that his duty is complete, Jeff readies to leave when Prince, in his famous monotone delivery says, “So, do you want to stay and help us make a movie.” “Uh, yeah,” answers Jeff. Prince then tells him to go see the folks in the art department and just like that, Jeff was on the set of Graffiti Bridge.
Among Jeff’s daily responsibilities on Graffiti Bridge was to "dress the set." Yet it didn't take long for before his role was increased. Prince was impressed by the unique handwriting on the track lists prepared for the film’s soundtrack, which frequently changed. And as he discovered that this was Jeff's handiwork, Prince assigned him a new mission; painting song lyrics on the white brick wall which would be showcased several times in the movie.
While a tremendous honor to Jeff, such a meticulous duty did come with some added stress. It was a tight shooting schedule and for each song, Jeff basically had one shot to get it right. If he made a mistake, the wall would have to be repainted and filming would be delayed for quite some time. Not to mention the fact that Prince was often observing the proceedings himself. "Imagine its 30 minutes before the scene is to be shot and here I am painting the lyrics to 'Elephants and Flowers,'" explains Jeff, "Then there’s Prince standing behind me just quietly waiting and watching. Talk about pressure." Fortunately, Jeff passed each test.
The hours only got longer during this time as Jeff was on set every day from 7:00 am to 7:00 pm before heading back to Paisley Park to tackle other projects until two or three the next morning. He didn’t mind though. In fact, it made him feel as if he’d really become part of the team; that Prince truly trusted him. And, it wouldn’t be long before Prince started asking Jeff for things directly as opposed to using an intermediary.
A NEW DEPARTMENT
Eventually, Prince established the first official art department at Paisley Park, which was staffed by Jeff and fellow artist Chuck Hermes. “By this time,” observes Jeff, “Prince was pretty hands on with everything that was going on design-wise. For him, having an in-house art department was like having a new toy.” And unlike the first couple years of his tenure, when this led to Jeff spending a lot of one-on-one time with Prince in either his office or Prince’s. To Jeff, this was great, but certainly not without its challenges.
Some of Jeff’s most unforgettable (and exasperating) memories revolve around some of Prince’s more rigid expectations. For example, when it was time to print his 1994 book of poetry and lyrics, Neo Manifesto, Prince wanted to see the finished product that instant. Jeff told Prince, “It takes a couple of days or so to print 10,000 books. The ink has to dry. Then they have to be trimmed and bound.” Still, in spite of his plea, Jeff realized that answer was never going to be good enough.
Another time, Jeff presented a poster design to Prince, who really dug it and said, "I want 100,000 of these by tomorrow." When Jeff relayed that such a request was simply impossible, Prince replied, "Okay, get me one by tomorrow." Logistically, a single poster was a tall enough order itself. Nonetheless, Jeff knew he had to figure out a way to get it done. So after finding someone with the exactly the right kind of printer, Jeff literally spent the entire night pulling it all together before jetting back to Paisley Park that morning.
Having now gone several hours without sleep or food, Jeff was simply relived to get there ahead of Prince. When Prince did arrive shortly thereafter, Jeff gave him his poster and Prince said, “See. That wasn’t so hard.” Jeff, unable to mutter much of a response, thought to himself, “If he only knew.”
Undoubtedly the most common phrase that Prince ever uttered to Jeff was, “Is it ready yet?” Most of the time Jeff wasn’t necessarily sure what Prince might be referring to as there were a multitude of “it’s” taking place at any given time. So, Prince would often revise his query to, “Is anything ready yet?”
Although such experiences could be mentally and physically taxing, Jeff still thinks of them all quite fondly. “Some of our exchanges were so funny,” laughs Jeff, “I wish I had transcripts.” Jeff also happened to be one of those individuals whose buttons Prince liked to push, in a comical way. And from time to time, Jeff pushed back. “I think he liked it when you stood up for yourself. Plus, he real enjoyed the friendly banter.”
One Sunday morning, Jeff and Prince met in Jeff’s office to discuss some design ideas for an album cover. Other than the receptionist and possibly an engineer sleeping somewhere, they would be the only the two souls in the building. As Prince walked in (dressed to the nines), Jeff, wearing jeans as usual thought he’d be clever and quipped, “I hope you didn’t get all dressed up for me.” Prince instantly shot back, “Who are you to judge.” When Jeff remarked that not everyone has a custom wardrobe department at their beck and call, Prince, in his signature Jamie Starr impression, snapped “Well maybe you should!” To which Jeff couldn’t help but laugh.
Now that Prince had a fully-fledged art department at his disposal, his new image and design ideas came fast and in bunches. In 1994, during what would become his last six months working for Prince, Jeff believes he probably did at least three year’s worth of work. “That was a critical time for Prince,” explains Jeff. ”There was the name change and the beginnings of the battle against Warner Bros. He was starting to position himself to where he could do everything he wanted in-house.”
This period was so prolific that Jeff was required to get his hands in just about everything that was going on, including: cd singles and album covers; book designs; the Interactive CD-ROM; a myriad of marketing and collateral materials; and art and logo work for long-play European video releases “The Sacrifice of Victor,” “The Undertaker,” and “The Beautiful Experience.” He even contributed to the design a couple of instruments, most notably Prince’s iconic one-eyed bass. Even though a lot of it was a blur, there are still many things that stand out in his mind.
For instance, Jeff had always been a huge fan of Prince’s side project Madhouse. a jazz fusion outfit that released its first album 8 on Paisley Park Records in 1987 and whose original line-up consisted of Levi Seacer, Jr., Eric Leeds, Matt Fink, and Dale Alexander. So, when Prince sought to revisit the idea for a third Madhouse record titled 24, naturally Jeff was tapped to design the cd cover and booklet.
For this rendition of Madhouse, the players included current NPG members Michael Bland and Sonny Thompson as well as Levi and Eric. While awaiting his design, Prince, Michael, Sonny, and Levi all gathered in Jeff’s office. “It was like a dream come true. Here I was hanging out with Madhouse,” Jeff ponders, “Prince was telling stories, at the same time he’s rummaging through my cd’s, essentially deejaying during the proceedings. Everyone was having a ball.”
At some point, Jeff gets around to showing Prince his idea for the album cover and asks, “Do you like this?” Prince, in turn asks Jeff “What do you think? When Jeff confirms that he indeed likes the work he’s done, Prince, with a straight face says, “We can’t listen to you Jeff, because you had antbacks and crackerjacks for breakfast!”
Still bemused to this day, Jeff reflects on how everyone instantly doubled over in laughter. “Antbacks? What is that,” he wondered. Ultimately Jeff figured that he came up with it because it rhymed. “That was Prince. Only he could get away with something like that.”
Sometimes Jeff finds it hard to believe that he actually is a member of the PRN family, noting it’s a “finite group now.” He cherishes the friendships and memories of all of his co-workers, yet there is one that always seemed to make him smile no matter the circumstances. That person is the legendary radio and concert promoter, Prince confidant, and Purple Rain co-star, Billy Sparks.
“He was almost always in good spirits,” says Jeff, “I’d sometimes be in my office around midnight and Billy would burst in and be like ‘Hey man. What’s going on? How are you doing?” Jeff also recalls Billy’s notorious “Cadillac conferences,” in the parking lot of Paisley Park. “These would sometimes serve as morale boosters. Billy would invite me or others to just chill out in his ride and talk about what’s on our mind or got us down at the moment.”
Once, after a long day where Prince raked Billy over the coals a bit (unusual according to Jeff as Prince really liked Billy), he calls Jeff into a “Cadillac Conference.” As they sat looking through the windshield back toward the building, commiserating about the tough day they’d both had, Billy turns to Jeff and says, "You know what though? It took one hell of a (expletive) to build this place."
This put everything into perspective for Jeff. “What could we possibly be upset about. We work at Paisley Park. Enough said.”
Today, when remembering Prince, Jeff still struggles to wrap his head around the fact that he is gone. “I never thought that day would come. To me he was on another level, seemingly superhuman. I believed he would outlive us all.” Yet regardless of the shock and the pain, all those wonderful memories shine through.
To say that Jeff – even from the time he was an adolescent – was in awe of Prince’s talent would be quite the understatement. But spending the time he did with Prince, Jeff learned that he was so much more. “After all,” Jeff affirms, “Prince gave me, a kid in his early twenties the chance to prove himself. He didn’t have to do that.” Moreover, in Jeff’s mind, the fact that Prince did the same for so many others speaks volumes about his capacity for beneficence. “I’m sure it wasn’t the easiest path. He could have hired anybody he wanted at any turn.”
“Prince felt he had a responsibility to share his accomplishments with others because he could,” reflects Jeff, “At the end of the day, he gave me far more than I could have ever give him. I owe him so much and I will always be grateful.”
For more from Jeff Munson, visit @jeff.munson on instagram
© Tony Kiene & PRN Alumni Foundation