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Prince vs. Michael Jackson: The Rivalry That Became The Holy Grail Of Pop

Ralph Bristout

 // Jun 29, 2016

Kamylle Edwards // REVOLT

"Your butt is mine," coos Michael Jackson by way of a quivering timbre on "Bad." As one of the records that helped build the colossal pop snowball that was 1987's Bad, the title track's opening line marked a pivotal moment in history.

"When 'Bad' was conceived, I wanted to do a duet with Prince," revealed Quincy Jones, executive producer for Bad, in an outtake interview featured on the 2001 special edition re-release of the revered album. "It would've been great."

No Quincy, more than “great,” the moment would have been legendary. For the first time ever, the world would have stood witness to a duet between the King of Pop and His Royal Badness. In one corner, we have Michael Jackson, the pop field’s most dazzling entertainer. In the other corner, Prince, the genre’s most provocative one-man-band performer. Together, these two produced a combination of 30 Top 10 ten hits in the mid-1980s, thanks to the pop masterstrokes of Thriller and Purple Rain. The former spent 37 non-consecutive weeks at No. 1 (between 1982 and 1984), while the latter crushed the same chart for 24 weeks (between August 1984 and January 1985). Suffice it to say, a collaboration between the two certainly had the potential to foster a musical eclipse. But as much of a moment as it would have been just off of sheer magnitude, an MJ and Prince collab around this time would have been pivotal for quelling the worst-kept industry secret of a rivalry.

"It would have been great, it really would have, just for drama," continued Jones in his recorded audio bite. "And have the video with him coming to kick Michael's ass, 'Your butt is mine.' That’s really what it was written for, to do that."

Michael Jackson - Bad
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For much of the '80s, the rivalry between Michael Jackson and Prince generated the kind of increased attention that drives the battery in outlets like TMZ, Baller Alert, an Shade Room today. However, unlike many of the famous behind-the-scenes musical feuds over the past few decades, this here was no beef or product of jealousy. It was all competition. The driving factor behind this rivalry was the unmissable parallels between the trajectories of their careers. They were born just two months apart in the summer of 1958, Prince on June 7 and Michael on August 29, and both went on to become genre-defying maestros responsible for blurring the lines between R&B and rock 'n' roll.

In 1982, as "Little Red Corvette" was competing with "Beat It" for airtime on MTV, Prince released his breakthrough album, 1999. The release, which spawned hits like the aforesaid "Corvette" and the LP title track, earned the singer his best-selling album and nod for fifth best seller of the year. Coming off of 1981's Controversy, it set up the proper career incline for Prince. But just one month after 1999 hit stores, Jackson released the pop behemoth otherwise known as Thriller. Enough said there. "Michael Jackson goes to the stratosphere and has the biggest album of the year and the biggest album of all time. And [Prince] is like, 'I gotta get to that,'" said Touré, author of I Would Die 4 U, in an interview with Salon earlier this year. "I gotta be the biggest dog! I gotta get to that!"

Besides shattering sales, records, and everything left to accomplish, Thriller was integral in the MJ-Prince rivalry, because had the LP not been a success, the competition would never have taken on the dimensions it did, leading to some of the greatest works ever recorded. So in 1984, Prince's purple reign was recognized upon the arrival of Purple Rain, an album that led Prince to knock the Beatles as the first artist to have a No. 1 album, film, and single at the same time. Where 1991 served as his breakthrough, Purple Rain crystalized Prince's legend, thus capturing all of popular imagination. Hence the famous "Bad" summit of 1986 orchestrated by Quincy Jones, which found both MJ and Prince together in the same room.

"They're so competitive with each other that neither would give anything up," said an insider, who attended the top secret meeting, to SPIN back in a June 1987 cover story for Jackson. "They kind of sat there, checking each other out, but said very little. It was a fascinating stalemate between two very powerful dudes." And as mentioned earlier, the meeting was intended to see whether or not Prince would sign on to be featured on "Bad." The "When Doves Cry" singer offered a different song to MJ in place of "Bad," and as the story goes it was an updated demo of "Wouldn’t U Love to Love Me". Jackson passed, and so did Prince. "Prince said, you don’t need me to be on this, it’ll be a hit without me," recalled Jones. Eventually released as the second single from Bad, MJ's 1987 follow-up toThriller, "Bad," like Prince noted, was indeed a "hit." It peaked at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, where it remained for two weeks. Bad, meanwhile, became the first album to ever spawn five consecutive number one singles. Almost a decade later, Prince would break his silence on the summit and his decision to opt out of the chance collaboration in an interview with Chris Rock. "Well, you know, that Wesley Snipes character, that would’ve been me," he shared. "You run that video in your mind. The first line of that song is 'Your butt is mine.' Now I said, 'Who's gonna sing that to whom? 'Cause you sure ain’t singing it to me. And I sure ain’t singing it to you… So right there, we got a problem.'"

Prince Talks About Michael Jackson In 1997 www keepvid com
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While "Bad," as well as "We Are the World," , ended the closest we've come to ever getting a collaboration between the two icons, the careers of Prince and MJ only continued to intersect thus giving us unarguably one of the greatest unsung rivalries in music. Prince, the quicksilver virtuoso. MJ, the unstoppable trailblazer. In between the sales clashes of Thriller and Purple Rain and the secret "Bad" summits, the two have sparred during several instances that not only confirm their rivalry but also live in Prince vs. MJ lore.

The 1983 Onstage Duel At James Brown Concert

Michael Jackson,James Brown,and Prince on stage (1983 )
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With James Brown holding court during a concert at the Beverly Theater in Los Angeles, the Godfather of Soul invites Jackson to the stage and surprises him with well-executed Brown dance moves. As if that weren't enough, MJ then murmured the words, "Hey, bring Prince up" into Brown's ear. Out of nowhere, Brown then summoned Prince to the stage. "I don’t think Prince realized that Michael was going to be there," said Alan Leeds to VIBE in 2010. "James looked a little puzzled in that video when Michael whispered in his ear, 'Hey, bring Prince up.'” And of course Prince didn’t really know what to do either. He went to the guitar first but he fumbles with that because it was left-handed. He played a few licks, did some dancing and knocked over a prop by accident. Now I always wondered if Michael intentionally brought Prince up to put him in that position just to say, 'Hey, you think you’re on my ass? Well follow this, motherfucker.' [laughs] Bobby Z called me and said, 'Oh boy…he made an ass of himself tonight.' He said Prince didn’t say a word the whole way to the hotel." Looking at the video (above), no one looks like an "ass."

Unearthed Recordings Find MJ Criticizing Prince

Last week, the Daily Mirror obtained recordings that helped produce Jackson's 1988 autobiography, "Moonwalker," revealing the singer's unfiltered thoughts about Prince. "I don’t like to be compared to Prince at all," Jackson said. "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." The recording also finds MJ referencing the above incident with James Brown. "[He] made a fool of himself. He was a joke," he said. "People were running and screaming. I was so embarrassed. It was all on video."

Prince Beats MJ in a Game of Ping-Pong

"They'd shoot hoops at Paisley Park," said longtime Prince drummer Bobby Z to the Star-Tribune-a couple years back.

While Prince was working on 1986's Under the Cherry Moon, a critically panned cinematic follow-up to Purple Rain, he invited Jackson to play ping-pong. "I don’t know how to play, but I’ll try," said Jackson, according to Steven Hyden's book Your Favorite Band Is Killing Me.

Prince later told MJ, "Come on, Michael, get into it." Then he taunted the Thriller mastermind again: "You want me to slam it?" What happened next, per Hyden via Ronin Rio's Prince: Inside the Music and the Masks, took place as follows: Jackson dropped his paddle, Prince slammed the ping-pong ball into MJ’s crotch, and after Jackson left, Prince said, "Did you see that?" If that wasn't enough, he reportedly added: "He played like Helen Keller!"

Rivalry Kept MJ Up at Night

In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Randy Philips, the promoter behind the ill-fated This Is It comeback shows, recalled the time he and musical director Kenny Ortega met with MJ to discuss the show and beg him to stop adding on ideas. "We went and met with Michael, and Kenny said, 'Michael, you've got to stop. We've got an incredible show, we don't need any more vignettes.' "Michael said, 'But Kenny, God channels this through me at night. I can't sleep because I'm so super-charged,'" recalls Philips. "Kenny said, 'But Michael, we have to finish. Can't God take a vacation?' Without missing a beat, Michael said, 'You don't understand — if I'm not there to receive these ideas, God might give them to Prince.'"

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