The Prince and Michael Jackson Collaboration That Never Happened
It takes a fair amount of ego to make yourself the King of Pop or His Purple Majesty, so it should come as no surprise that Prince and Michael Jackson seem to have had a fairly healthy rivalry during the decades they shared the spotlight — one that may have prevented them from collaborating on Jacksons massive 1987 hit single "Bad."
You know that Wesley Snipes character [from the video]? That would have been me," Prince chuckled in a 1997 interview with Chris Rock. "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."
Snipes remembers things going down differently. "Me and Prince were auditioning together, and I blew Prince out of the water," he claimed in a 2017 interview with Conan O'Brien. "Michael had told Prince that he had the role, and then he met me and kicked Prince to the curb. Imagine that."
Whatever the particulars of the making of the video, a number of sources corroborate Prince's early involvement with "Bad." In fact, according to singer Susannah Melvoin, a member of Prince's band and his former fiancée, Jackson actually sent him the track — and Prince reworked it.
"Michael wanted Prince to sing it with him," recalled Melvoin. "[Prince] couldn't believe Michael had the nerve to call it 'I'm Bad.' He was like, 'There's nothing badass about him.' He could not let Michael get away with it. Not only was he not going to sing it with him, he went into the studio and re-recorded it to what he thought it should be and sent it back to Michael. Like 'No. And by the way, this is what it should be.' That was the end of that. But that's how Prince was."
According to producer Quincy Jones, who helmed Jackson's bestselling work, the idea of getting Prince in on "Bad" was his — right down to the video, which he conceived as pitting the two superstars against each other before they ultimately came together at the end. As Jones recalled it in an interview conducted for the Bad reissue, he brokered a meeting between the two at Jackson's estate — one that ultimately ended with Prince rejecting the idea and allegedly proposing a different song for them to work on together. Jackson declined, and that was that.
"Prince said 'You don’t need me to be on this,'" Jones claimed. "'It’ll be a hit without me.'"
Jones also believed the beef between Jackson and Prince dated back to 1983, when the two were both in attendance at a James Brown concert. Brown invited Jackson up on stage — and after Jackson treated the crowd to a few moments of singing and dancing, he asked Brown to bring up Prince. While fans of either act would argue they both acquitted themselves admirably, Jones later alleged that Prince felt like he'd been shown up — and accused him of making a half-hearted effort to run over Jackson after the show.
Prince and Jackson crossed paths again two years later, when Jackson — along with Jones and Lionel Richie — was spearheading the USA for Africa effort led by the No. 1 all-star song "We Are the World." Like pretty much every other big-name artist of the era, Prince was invited to be part of the sessions; unlike the rest, he declined. He ultimately contributed a track to the full-length album that backed up the single, but it was perceived as a slight — and according to Melvoin's sister Wendy, it basically was.
"He felt like the song was horrible," she later alleged. "And he didn’t want to be around ‘all those muthaf—kas.'"
For Prince's part, he later told Rock that in his opinion, there was no rivalry between himself and Jackson. But Jackson definitely noticed the signs of enmity, and in audio collected for his Moonwalker memoir, he bristled at the inevitable comparisons between them.
"I don’t like to be compared to Prince at all," said Jackson. "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. He was so rude, one of rudest people I have ever met. Prince is very competitive. He has been very mean and nasty to my family."
As time wore on, neither artist commanded the level of commercial attention or critical respect they'd enjoyed at their mid-'80s peak, but that competitive spirit seemed to continue. "My voice is getting higher," Prince sang in a line from his 2004 track "Life 'O' the Party. "And I ain't never had my nose done / That's the other guy." Two years later, when both artists were in Las Vegas, will.i.am — who was working with Prince and had befriended Jackson — invited Jackson to a Prince show. Allegedly unable to resist the opportunity to needle his longtime rival, Prince is said to have sought out Jackson in the crowd.
"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," said author Steve Knopper. "Like aggressive slap bass. The next morning, Will went over to Michael's house for breakfast, and they're talking about Prince and the show. And then Michael goes, 'Will, why do you think Prince was playing bass in my face?' Michael was outraged. And then started going on. 'Prince has always been a meanie. He's just a big meanie. He's always been not nice to me.'"
Sadly, that foiled "Bad" duet remained the closest Prince and Jackson ever came to collaborating, and the two would never have an opportunity to work out all that antagonistic chemistry in the studio. Jackson passed away suddenly on June 25, 2009, bringing his incredible career to a shocking end — and leaving Prince at a rare loss for words, even years later. "I don’t want to talk about it," he reportedly demurred in an unpublished 2014 Rolling Stone interview. "I’m too close to it."
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