How Prince Broke Trent Reznor’s Heart
In October of 1989, Nine Inch Nails released the breakthrough debut Pretty Hate Machine. Tucked deep within its liner notes, Trent Reznor gave special thanks to Prince.
The message may have been surprising to some. After all, Nine Inch Nails’ dark, industrial sound was a far cry from the Purple One’s distinctive R&B, funk-rock blend. Despite these differences, Prince was a role model to Reznor.
When the young rocker was cutting his teeth in Cleveland, he followed the Purple One’s lead to secure studio time.
“I knew Prince, who is an idol of mine, worked at a studio to get free recording time,” Reznor explained in an interview with Noisey. “So I thought, ‘Let me try that out,’ and I started working at the studio. I taught myself engineering and was the guy who did whatever job no one else wanted to do, like cleaning piss off the toilet seat. But I did get access to an actual recording studio and I'd stay up as late as I could at night trying to learn engineering, and work on my own demos.”
That experience working in the studio led Reznor to develop his own identifiable sound. Initially, he’d hoped to start a band, but when he couldn’t find musicians with whom he felt comfortable collaborating, he decided to push forward with a DIY mentality.
"I had this romantic notion that, well, Prince did it himself, and I fully respected him for that. So I just started to do it,” Reznor admitted to Option magazine, alluding to Prince’s ability to write, produce, arrange and perform all of the music on his early work.
The result of this effort was Pretty Hate Machine, with Reznor opting to title his project Nine Inch Nails rather than releasing the LP under his own name. Though he didn’t quite handle as much heavy lifting as Prince - producers Flood, John Fryer, Keith LeBlanc and Adrian Sherwood were among the Pretty Hate Machine contributors - Reznor wrote and performed every part of the material.
Though it took a while to catch on, the album eventually sold more than 3 million copies thanks to hit songs such as “Sin,” “Head Like a Hole” and “Down In It.” The closing track of the LP was “Ringfinger,” which featured a sample of Prince’s song “Alphabet Street.”
The two musical minds would cross paths just a few years later. Nine Inch Nails were working on their sophomore LP, 1994’s The Downward Spiral, at the Record Plant, a popular recording studio in Los Angeles. As luck would have it, Prince was also prepping new material in a studio just down the hall.
Reznor was naturally excited to have one of his idols nearby. The rocker became even more enthused when Prince’s staff mentioned the Purple One was a fan of Nine Inch Nails’ 1992 EP Broken, and would be interested in having the industrial band remix one of his tracks.
“We got to know (Prince’s) engineers,” Reznor explained to Revolver. “And they said, "He knows you guys. He was listening to Broken and referencing, 'I want it to sound like that.'" I thought, 'This is fucking fantastic! My hero!'”
However, reverence soon turned to disappointment when Reznor was given strict stipulations.
“The rules were, you were never to say the word ‘Prince‘, you had to write down that symbol,” the NIN frontman detailed to Select magazine. “You were never to look at him, or talk to him unless he approached you first, shit like that.”
Prince’s extravagant personae also rubbed Reznor the wrong way. “He shows up in a limo, wearing a fluorescent pink jumpsuit, giant hat, a cane, huge heels and a lollipop,” the rocker recalled. “And he‘s wearing the worst women‘s perfume you‘ve ever smelt. So he‘s got two giant bodyguards with him and there was nobody there who was gonna fuck with him!”
For Reznor, the defining moment was when he encountered Prince in the studio’s hallway. "I was walking out, and he was walking in," the rocker remembered. "And it was he and I walking, and it seemed like slow motion. And as soon as we got to each other, I look at him and ... he passed, and that was it. My heart was broken."
Feeling burned by the encounter, Reznor turned down the remix opportunity.
The Downward Spiral would go on to become Nine Inch Nails’ magnum opus, selling more than 4 million copies in the U.S. and earning acclaim as one of the ‘90s defining albums.
Though Prince seemingly slighted Reznor, there's evidence that the Purple One continued listening to Nine Inch Nails’ music. The most obvious example comes in the form of Prince’s 1996 song “Had U.” The sparse lyrics and aggressive tone - most likely directed to Warner Bros., the record label with whom he was feuding - bore a striking resemblance to NIN’s Downward Spiral track “Eraser.’ The connection is even clearer on “Eraser (Polite),” an alternate mix of the song released on 1995’s Further Down the Spiral.
Years later, Reznor would criticize Prince during a Q&A with fans. When asked about a potential backlog of unheard Nine Inch Nails material, the rocker explained that he didn't hoard unreleased tracks the way the Purple One famously did. "Prince, if you have a hundred great songs or a thousand, how about picking a few and putting them on your record that you’ve put out," the NIN frontman declared, "because your last several have sucked."
Despite these comments - and any remaining bruised egos from their previous encounter - Reznor continued to respect Prince's music. During a 2011 interview with Rolling Stone, the NIN frontman called Prince “a huge influence” on his work, noting “what he's able to do on his own” as especially impressive.
The two also shared remarkably similar career milestones; both are Rock and Roll Hall of Famers, both have multiple Grammys Awards and both earned Oscars thanks to their respective forays into film.
To that end, production designer LeRoy Bennett, one of the few people to have worked with both stars, sees many similarities between the legendary musicians. “Trent Reznor... Prince and other artists I work with, understand how to dynamically take an audience on a musical trip,” Bennett explained to Forbes in 2017. “Trent, to me, is very much like Prince. There is a very common thread of who they are as an artist and how they think."