Proudly presenting Sam Jennings as our next guest for a Housequake questionnaire. He lives in Los Angeles and is an artist and designer who worked as Prince’s webmaster and creative director from 1998 to 2007.
You might know his work for Love4OneAnother, NPGOnlineLTD and the NPG Music Club. For which he was awarded a Webby award in 2006. Besides website design, he has created album artwork for Musicology, 3121, ONA Live, Planet Earth, Xpectation, C-Note, etc. He also worked on the tour books of 2003 and 21 Nights. And on the Influence Wall in Paisley Park, you can find his work too. And recently, he Art Directed the Up All Nite with Prince Box Set released by Sony and the Prince Estate.
Hi Sam, it’s an honour to have you for this interview! Let me get right down to the first question. I am aware Housequake.com was a nuisance to Prince for having a bootleg discussion, photo & video forum many years. This is all water under the bridge, but I’m curious to know to what level Prince was concerned over this? A heated daily/weekly topic of discussion? Did you advise him in these matters? You were in the midst of all this, so you must have some stories to tell. Housequake
Happy to be answering questions! Thank you for inviting me.
I will say that Prince and I had disagreements regarding how best to deal with fan web sites at that time. I could understand his perspective on bootlegs and posting his music without permission, but I felt picking fights over images was overzealous and would just result in bad blood, which it did. But he was the boss and it was his call. I was willing to ASK sites to take an image down, but I was not willing to pursue any legal action. He had to hire other people for that. It was one of the few things we didn’t see eye-to-eye on. And I will add that this was toward the end of my time working for him, so it may have played a factor in us parting ways.
To answer your specific question, it did come up fairly often and he would definitely get heated about it. But I tried my best to navigate the issue with some diplomacy, for better or worse.
What was Prince’s view towards the NPGMC over time? I always got the feeling he was massively engaged at first and then his interested started to wane – or is that not an accurate perception? If it is, was that a recurring theme when it came to his online endeavours? Letsgocrazy199
To understand the NPGMC best, you have to put in the perspective of the times it came out of. This was the time of Napster and tremendous fear around the internet from the entertainment industry. But Prince saw opportunity and an unprecedented level of connection. It was indeed very exciting at first. But I could tell that it was a lot to expect it to stay the same after that first year. We all know Prince’s infamous work ethic. He never stayed on one project for long, always on to the next. And the industry’s feelings about the internet changed as well. They found their ways to control that channel and become the gatekeepers again. I wouldn’t say Prince lost interest in the NPGMC. He just felt the paradigm had changed once again, and it was time to move on. I am amazed he let me keep it going for 5 years! When we got that Webby Award in 2006, he felt it was the perfect coda to end on, to use a musical term.
Prince had a penchant for asking employees to do things outside their job description – what’s the most entertaining request he had for you? Velo Kristina
After Steve Parke had moved on from his time at Paisley Park, Prince gave me a shot at being his photographer. Only problem was I had zero experience with an SLR camera. It was thankfully a digital camera, but this was before you had cameras you could just point and shoot and get something decent. I wound up doing about 3 photoshoots with him, and they all came out pretty bad, truth-be-told. Thank goodness I had photoshop skills because I could kind of rescue a few of the images. But basically, they never got used and I still have them in my archive, never seen by anyone besides he and me.
Needless to say, Afshin Shahidi deservedly got the photography gig instead. But I truly appreciate that Prince gave me a shot. He even talked one time about me directing a music video for him. I wrote a treatment and everything. He was really good that way. If he liked working with you, he let you take your shot on something you maybe never even considered doing before.
A more comical extra job I had was Prince using me as a stand-in for when he wanted to shoot photos. He would get the camera and shoot band members or friends of his, but as we were setting up lighting, he needed a figure in there to test with. If I was with him, that was me. As a result, I have several photos of myself that Prince shot. Not many people can say that.
Was there ever a time where you felt strongly that a particular art direction was not the way to go? how did you broach the subject with Prince and how did that conversation go? Raine Baker
That is the universal challenge when a designer is working with any client. You have to be able to find that balance between what everyone thinks is best. Prince and I worked together really well, primarily because I could take a step back and say that, at the end of the day, it’s his name on the finished product. If that’s how he wants it, I will make it work as best I can. I could take my ego out of it and be in service to his vision. And conversely, because of our working relationship, there were often times where he let me do what I wanted with very little feedback.
The Xpectation (aka Xenophobia) album images are a good example of that. He said, “Make it look like Jazz.” And I just did what I wanted to, experimenting with images and words. I loved the end result, and he must have too because they got used with very little changes.
You were working with Prince in what became his most successful period, in commercial terms, in this century. Do you think this was caused as a consequence after the difficult years at the end of the XX century, so that Prince returned to the mainstream pushed by necessity? Was his approach in those years very commercially driven? Cateto
It was an amazing time to be around. I can’t say he ever laid out a plan with me and said, “This is how it’s going to happen.” But definitely his choices going into 2004 set up his success. The biggest difference with 2004 is that he was willing to work within the music industry again. It’s just a fact of the game that if you want to be “a big deal” in popular culture, you have to play the industry game on some level. He did the deal with Sony and then the tour with AEG – it was big-time. I don’t know if it was pushed by necessity, I think Prince could always tour and make money, but maybe it was sparked by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction. He clearly wanted 2004 to be huge.
I’m just happy I got to witness him as both an independent artist and as an industry player. I learned a lot and got to work on some very high-profile projects of his as a result.
What was the coolest thing you worked on with Prince but which never saw the light of day? Christopher Rae
Up until a few years ago it was the Influence Wall at Paisley Park and that central image of Prince. I loved it but it never got used for anything outside of Paisley, so few people got to see it. But now the image is out there, and the wall has been seen by thousands. However, that image originally was going to be the cover of the first version of the Lotusflow3r album, back in 2005. That project evolved in to 3121 in 2006, but I must have 3 or 4 versions of that album art that have never been released – photos, tracklists, everything completely different from what got released. I hope one day I can share it.
I always wondered why the plug was pulled on the NPGMC. It was obvious a project with a lot of hard work and love put into it. Did it had something to do with the numbers? How did you design the layout and the interiors? Did you have carte blanche on that or did he hand you a blueprint? David De Pauw
Prince loved the NPGMC. However, it’s really amazing the Club lasted as long as it did. He is known for not staying on one project very long, and clearly the Club went through many iterations. Lasting 5 years is really something I’m proud of and getting the Webby at the end really was the perfect coda, as I said earlier.
The idea at the time of the Club closing was that we were going to do something even better. Maybe a new retail store with an internet HQ inside, maybe a real on-demand video system. But then we got sidetracked by 3121 Vegas, the Super Bowl, 21 Nights in London, etc. I think in his mind we’d done it all, time to go in a different direction entirely.
The design of the NPG Music Club was also something that evolved a lot over time. The house concept was put together by me and Jeremy Gavin. We didn’t get a lot of direction on the interiors, just general concepts that I then had to go digging around to find and manipulate photos of rooms. It was a lot of cutting out rooms from Architecture magazines and then digitally moving walls and windows, adding pillows and extras.
Prince originally wanted to have it be a real 3D Virtual space, but the internet technology and speed wasn’t there yet. Eventually, I got a great Flash designer, Ash Warren, to add a lot of cool features and animations to keep it getting better. We began to transition to a more skeuomorphism vibe with a music studio equipment look and feel, and we were planning on going more and more in that direction.
How do you feel about the fact that the ambition of the Lotusflow3r website was really out there, but fell completely through the expectations and excitement we as ‘fams’ had? I gave my money in a blink of an eye but did not get anything in return. Michel Willems
I’ve gotten to know the guys who built the Lotusflow3r site, Scott Addison Clay and Anthony Malzone, and they are really great, talented guys. I know they just wanted to do a good job for Prince and the fans. I appreciate their ambition, but I feel the biggest issue that site had was the price. At that high a price, the expectations are going to be equally high and you have to deliver. I wasn’t around so I can’t say what happened, but my guess is that Prince had high expectations himself for the trio of albums and the site that he felt were not met. And he moved on. Simple as that.
Did Prince generally come up with a concept for the aesthetic and you fleshed it out, or did you pitch an idea and he gave notes for its continuation? or was the process more collaborative? Raine Baker
It was very collaborative! But each project was very different. Sometimes Prince would have very specific ideas that I had to articulate. Other times he would leave it to me to come up with something. And he didn’t hold back how he felt, which I appreciated. I hate passive-aggressive feedback. I’m from Chicago, I can take the direct approach. As a designer, I want to know if I’m getting the job done or not. But even with feedback sometimes he would have a lot of notes, other times it would just be a simple “Hated it!” or “Love it!” But we had a great back and forth that I appreciated a lot.
Everyone talks about Prince’s great sense of humour. I love hearing stories about how he did or said something funny. Any examples? Langloretta
I’ve told this story before, but it always stands out to me.
When Prince was living at the second 3121 house in Los Angeles, I would occasionally stay in his guest house and sometimes bring my family out with me. My daughter, Eva, was about 3 at the time and Prince got along very well with her.
One night we were all having dinner together at the long dining room table. Prince had finished and Eva was getting restless, so Prince said, “You guys finish eating, I’ll show Eva the hair salon” which was in the next room. They go off, I think Kim Berry may have been there at the time, and we continue to eat with the other folks at the table. Well, about a minute later Eva comes running out with this crazy wig on her head that is as long as she is, making her look like Cousin It from the Addams Family! She runs around the dinner table, giggling, as we all start laughing at this crazy thing running around us. Prince is just around the corner cracking himself up, clearly having told Eva what to do. It was such a funny moment and a cherished memory.
There are no song titles on the Planet Earth album artwork (not on the free newspaper edition, not on the commercial release of the cd). Is that because Prince did not want any, or because the track configuration was compiled at the very last minute (i.e. after the artwork had to be completed)? Edgar Kruize
Originally, we were going to have the lyrics on an enhanced portion of the CD. You would put it in your computer and be able to read along with the music. I put a lot of time into that but ultimately, he wasn’t thrilled with the end result, so we scrapped it. The follow-up idea was that we would have a separate lyric book available. And we did have one printed up. It just never got mass-produced. I don’t remember why we never put the tracklist on there. I believe he just wanted something very minimal and simple.
We had put so much time and energy into the 3121 album, Planet Earth felt pretty rushed by comparison. He was off in London and I don’t think Planet Earth was a big priority for him.
Hi Sam, During the NPGMC days, Prince asked the fans to send in pictures for a new video/song. The winner of the contest would win an appearance as a cameo in a Prince video. Apparently, I had won. Therefore, wondering to know what happened, and for which song/video this contest was intended? Toto
Sorry, Toto. I have no idea. It was probably just one of those ideas he got in his head in the moment and then just forgot about. If they ever let me go through the archives, I will find all the old NPGMC material and release it.
I always wanted to know how they stumbled upon the “Rebirth of the Flesh” rehearsal that was released on the NPGMC, and what other rare tracks have such rehearsals. I love rehearsals and that track is one of my absolute favorites. Bababooey
He did not share with me how he made his choices about the music, especially in those early days. I would just get a CD from Paisley Park with the music for the month, and I would turn it in to the digital files. There was a LOT of music that first year of the NPGMC. It’s impressive that he kept it going as long as he did in that format.
I would love it if the Estate would let me have an NPGMC hour on the Sirius Prince Channel to play the Ahdio shows and other tracks from the Club. Or an official podcast to go along with official re-releases of the NPGMC tracks. It’s all part of the Prince story. It goes so much deeper than what’s in the Top Ten.
I’m wondering if you ever discussed the pricing and signal from the NPGMC. When the NPGMC was announced, I was pretty young. And the amount of money was way too high for me. Fanshop became something that had to do with money. U didn’t need to sleep outside anymore for tickets or for a good spot… At the time I felt as if the real fanbase was divided all of a sudden … because of a money thing. So my question would be, did Prince & Sam ever talked about that separation in the fanbase? Now that I’m older, I really understand the power of NPGMC, but that was different back then. So no hard feelings at all (anymore). Stijn
No, we didn’t see it like that. We saw it as a way for the fans to directly support Prince as an artist, like Patreon nowadays. I understand not everyone could pay for the NPGMC, but you could say that about anything – a CD, a concert ticket, a t-shirt, a pay-per-view, etc.
The divide you speak of is not about Prince. It would be great if he gave everything away, but as an artist, he deserved to get paid for his art. While I empathize with not being able to afford things, I don’t see it as an intentional act of division.
Sam, was there any unreleased projects that you worked on that you wished that would have seen the light of day? Franklin Bo Rush
Sometimes it felt like many things I was working on would never see the light of day. It was always a 50/50 shot that what I was working on would go nowhere. There was one project I worked on that was going to be a multi-disc song compilation with each disk focusing on a particular theme like love, sex, God, money, etc. I had a different color scheme for each disc and cool way to put them all together. But we never wound up doing it. I think at the time the idea was that he would use it for shopping around licensing deals.
There was an album I worked on called “Hot Comb” which was going to be a new NPG album around 2007. I made a couple of different versions of the artwork for that, and Prince had to school me on how to use a hot comb while I was taking pictures of it! That was pretty funny. But again, never made it anything final.
Was there anything you heard that you were surprised was pulled from an album before its release? When that occurred, did it force any drastic revisions to your work? Raine Baker
The 3121 album changed a lot from 2005 to 2006. Originally it was going to be called Lotusflow3r and had a very different tracklist. I had an original design for it ready to go. But then it changed and evolved into 3121 and so did the art. There were many versions of the 3121 art that had to change as time went on.
Musically, “Streets of Panama” was on 3121 right up to the end before getting cut, which surprised me. It didn’t require a radical change, but we had already printed up promo material with that in the tracklist. I had to go back and pull it from the record label.
What was Prince’s views towards his fans during this period (and was he a regular visitor to the likes of HQ and the Org) to get a sense of their feelings towards him? And did he have any qualms about pushing his strong religious views – via his official online sites – onto them given that, for many, it was quite a strong turn-off? Letsgocrazy199
I can’t speak for Prince. I can only offer my perspective from what I saw or heard. I think that for any artist, the relationship with your fans is very tricky. On the one hand, they support you and give an artist a livelihood. But on the other hand, an artist has to serve their vision and do what’s best for them. If you care, somehow you have to find that balance of meeting your own needs and your audience’s needs. And I feel Prince cared. He was going to do what he wanted, but he needed an audience to do it.
Regarding his religious views, I feel like he was sharing them with his audience out of love and a genuine desire to lift everyone up. He felt his spiritual beliefs made his life better and he wanted that for you too. I don’t feel he was pushing anything on anyone. He made it clear that it’s always your choice. And I think if you are secure in who you are, you can listen to him and not be feel threatened. I certainly never did.
Which Prince album would you have liked to be actively involved in and which contains the best overall artwork in your opinion? John DeCarlo
That’s a really tough question. Overall, I just really appreciated that Prince had a holistic approach to his art. The music led the way, but he thought about the visual presentation – the colors, the looks, set design, photography. And every year it was something completely different. As a visual designer and visual artist, I loved that, and I wanted to be a part of it.
As for past albums that I was not a part of, I would love to have been there for Purple Rain because everyone that was a part of that got lifted to such great heights. But Jeff Katz got to do some amazing work on SOTT and Parade that I wish I could have been a part of.
Stylistically I loved everything with Lovesexy – the polka dots, the words on clothes, the logos. As a designer, I would have loved to work on everything around the Lovesexy era.
3121 album cover is one of my favourites. It almost radiates heat from the colours and matches the sound of the album perfectly! How much input did Prince have with the design of cover art or did you just knock this out the park and he approved? Willyrew
3121 is my favorite album cover too. I worked a long time on the artwork for 3121, and it went through a lot of revisions. But that cover is the one thing that stayed constant. It came together after Afshin Shahidi took the photo backstage at the NAACP Awards in 2005. Prince was wearing that cool 3121 jacket and Afshin just took a couple of shots to document his wardrobe. But I saw the photo and it hit me like a lightning bolt! THAT’S the cover! It’s got the album title and its Prince in perfect silhouette. We didn’t need the words “PRINCE” on the cover, we all knew who it was. All I had to do was bump up the color on the wall, which was very drab, and bump up the logo to make it stand out more.
Prince was on board! He loved it too. And every single thing about that album packaged changed EXCEPT that cover. I was so happy when it finally got released because I had made it to the finish line with the cover I loved intact. It was an awesome feeling to see it on display all over the world
How was/is your art impacted by Prince’s spiritual beliefs and practices? Aretha Williams
I did not grow up in a religious household, and I did not grow up with the Bible as a part of my life. But there was something very appealing about Prince singing “Love is God, God is Love.” That struck a chord. I could get into that. That sentiment had a huge impact on me as a young adult trying to figure my way through life.
As for my artwork, I would say Prince’s overall aesthetic that he brought to all his project had the biggest impact. He showed me what being an artist could be, the heights that were possible, the connection, the joy of creation. I saw it clearly in what he was about. And that was monumentally inspirational. I didn’t want to BE Prince. I wanted to be an artist and creator on his level – a lofty goal to be sure. We can’t all get there, but it’s a worthy goal to aspire to.
Do you remember what happened to the sampler set release? Jtudor
That was before I was really around much, but I remember listening to it. It was pretty spectacular. A big part of it was a protest against Warner Brothers. Remember that this was around the time of “1999: The New Master” and he had notions of making new masters for all his songs. But the new masters idea went away and the sampling set probably went with it.
I have a question about the Planet Earth artwork. The album title can hardly be found on the commercial cd, it is not on the free newspaper cd. Yet there are a gazillion 3121s in there. And some of which resemble the 3121 fragrant bottles. Why is that? Edgar Kruize
3121 was part of a larger concept at the time. Once we started doing 3121 Las Vegas, we really started to treat 3121 as a movement, and the logo was a universal graphic element for that concept. It was everywhere! We put that logo in as many places as we could. 3121 was where the party be!
In retrospect, what do you think were the high and low points of the NPGMC? If you had to do it again, what were the things you would change? Do you think that project got the recognition it deserved, from fans and from critics? Cateto
The high point was winning the Webby award. I know awards are not Prince’s thing. But I felt that winning the award was some real recognition from my industry. It was an acknowledgement outside of the Prince universe, which felt good. Getting to go up and accept the award felt like something I could be proud of, and I may never get to do again so I should enjoy it.
The low point was certainly closing it. I had to be talked into that one. I didn’t want it to end, but it was ultimately his call. He sold me on promises of something better to come, but then Vegas happened, and we were on to the next thing. It is not a coincidence that I also moved on to my next thing about a year and a half later.
Is there anything I would do differently? Definitely. It’s easy to point to things years later and say it should have happened differently, but it was all a learning process. We were inventing something that had never been done before, and I’m proud of all we accomplished.
Prince nights at Berlin (in Chicago) were where I heard many remixes and B-sides for the first time. How did it come about that you would DJ those; and what did Prince think about Prince night and your involvement in them (if he was aware of it)? Did he ever give you music or videos to play? Renee
I’m so glad you enjoyed the night! I did those parties because it’s something I always wanted to go to, but it didn’t exist. I had to go and make it happen myself! Prince loved that I was doing these parties and would often give me music and videos to play. He wanted me to expand it and play bigger venues, maybe even open up my own venue. But I felt we had the perfect equilibrium at Berlin, which is why it lasted for around 14 years.
There was one night he almost came to our parties at Berlin while the Musicology Tour was in Chicago at the same time. But sadly, due to a personal tragedy with one of the band members, the tour got postponed and they all left town before the night happened. Other than that, the timing never worked out for him to come.
Sam, rumor has it that the 3121 house had legendary parties. Since you were around during that time, I’m sure you got to rub elbows with some notable people. Who are the names that stick out and why? What kind of impression did they leave on you? Robert McCoy
The parties were pretty epic! In general, I left the celebrities alone. I don’t get star-struck and we were all there just to hang out and have a causal time. However, the ONE guy I had to talk to was Trent Reznor from Nine Inch Nails. Besides Prince, NIN is one of my favorite bands of all time.
I went up to him, shook his hand and said I was a big fan. I felt like a silly fanboy. But I figured I might never get another chance to talk to him. Trent had come with one of Prince’s agents and I told that guy how I felt so dumb talking to Trent. He told me that is how THEY feel talking to Prince.
Can you provide any details on the CDs intended for year 2, Madrid 2 Chicago, etc? Also, what went wrong with The Undertaker DVD and The Chocolate Invasion, and why was it cancelled rather than fixed or remanufactured? Rioub
I really don’t have any information on what was not released. I wasn’t a part of those discussions and I just rolled with it. Almost always it was because Prince had moved on to the next thing. When you are dealing with an artist who creates at such a high volume, he has a lot of ideas in the moment that doesn’t always manifest into reality. I was always willing to work on whatever he asked me to, regardless if it actually got released. I think he often just wanted to flesh out a concept in the moment for his own sake.
As a fan, I know the tendency is to want to hear and see everything. But from an artist perspective, you always want to put your best work forward. It might take some trial and error to make that final decision. But I trust that what Prince chose to NOT release is based on his own valid reasons and I respect that.