When Prince Wasn’t Prince

The artist formerly known as The Artist Formerly Known as Prince left this world far, far too soon.

It’s hard to believe, but it’s true: eclectic musical icon Prince died at age 57 on Thursday, a week after being hospitalized and released for what was reported as a bad flu. Prince’s untimely death follows a string of unexpected losses in the entertainment world this year, including David Bowie and Alan Rickman.

In addition to being one of the most skilled musicians to work in this century (he truly could play just about every instrument there is), Prince was a visionary in all aspects of his life, a man who played by his own rules. He will be remembered for his music, his unconventional and sometimes over-the-top style, his soft-spoken confidence, and his generosity as a live performer; for much of his career, he has made unannounced appearances at small music venues following an arena show in the same city. 

He will also always be remembered for one of the strangest and most inspired reactions to a contract dispute with his label: changing his name.

In 1993, Prince — born Prince Rogers Nelson on June 7, 1958 — changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol, a blending of the Unicodes for male and female gender, intersected with a horn and dubbed “The Love Symbol.” The year before, he had extended his contract with Warner Bros. Records for a hefty sum (money he needed) but felt hemmed in by the label’s schedule for album output and angry about how much ownership Warner Bros maintained of his musical library. 

Initially, he protested the the business relationship by writing the word “Slave” on his face during a public appearance. But on June 7, 1993, he “retired” Prince as we knew him (for a time,) and became known in the media as The Artist Formerly Known As Prince, or more briefly, The Artist. There has been some suggestion that Prince encouraged that moniker, but in a 1999 CNN interview he claimed the nom de plume was entirely constructed by the media, which didn’t have a clue how to pronounce his new name. 

Prince’s explanation for the name change has varied somewhat over the years. His initial announcement took dead aim at Warner Bros. and blamed the label for forcing him to abandon his identity.

 “The first step I have taken toward the ultimate goal of emancipation from the chains that bind me to Warner Bros. was to change my name from Prince to the Love Symbol,” he reportedly said. “Prince is the name that my mother gave me at birth. Warner Bros. took the name, trademarked it, and used it as the main marketing tool to promote all of the music that I wrote … I became merely a pawn used to produce more money for Warner Bros … The only acceptable replacement for my name, and my identity, was the Love Symbol, a symbol with no pronunciation, that is a representation of me and what my music is about.”

In later years, as in the CNN interview, he gave more roundabout explanations about wanting to start fresh. But he spoke about the decision with some candor in feature-length interview published in the the August 1994 issue of Vibe, conducted in segments over more than a year. The famously prolific songwriter stated that he created a separate identity simply so that he would be able to record and distribute more music than Warner Bros. Records was interested in putting out. By changing his name, anything he recorded independently or with another label wouldn’t technically be a violation of his Warner Bros. contract, which he’d satisfy with by allowing the label to mine his extensive vault of unpublished songs for five more albums.

“Shouldn’t it be up to the artist how the music comes out?” he asked in the Vibe interview. “We’ve got it all wrong, discouraging our artists. In America, we’re not as free as we think.” 

At the time, he had vowed never to play his previous hits live ever again: No more ‘Purple Rain,’ ‘When Doves Cry,’ ‘Little Red Corvette,’ or ‘1999,’ which was only a few years away. Asked by the Vibe reporter if this bothered him, Prince said, “I would be sad if I didn’t know that I had such great shit to come with.”

And great shit did come, most notably with 1996’s 3-disc ‘Emancipation,’ but Prince’s emancipation from Warner Bros., like his name change, was not permanent. Prince went back to Prince when his contract with the label expired in 2000. Strangely enough, he re-signed with the label he once accused of enslaving him 14 year later in a deal that gave him complete creative control over his catalog. In the announcement. Warner Bros. and Prince said they would re-issue the iconic album Purple Rain, which didn’t materialize before Prince’s death.