The Story Behind Prince & Michael Jackson’s Vicsious Rivalry

Prince and Michael Jackson are two names that modern history is incomplete without. Putting aside the scandals and controversies, both artists simply made terrific music, the kind of which has lasted well past its point of origin. Meanwhile, it turns out that Prince and Michael shared an ongoing rivalry that went well beyond pop chart domination. According to some reports, the two legends even took their feud to physical and occasionally dangerous extremes. Indeed, it looks like we won’t be putting aside those scandals and controversies after all.

Despite the obvious parallels, Prince and Michael didn’t exactly follow the same trajectory on their way up the pop charts. For Prince, an early hit single was proceeded by a string of signature but somewhat underground albums, paving the way for his breakthrough blockbuster “Purple Rain.” It was an early apex to a long-running and famously idiosyncratic career, which underwent various ebbs and flows throughout the subsequent decades. All the while, The Purple One was fiercely virtuosic, prolific, and independent, playing as many instruments and handling as many production duties as was humanly possible.

For Michael, early success as a child singer and actor led to almost immediate success as an adult solo act, when he unleashed “Off the Wall” in 1979. He would top that with his epoch-making follow-up “Thriller,” which remains the best-selling album of all time. Unlike Prince, Michael took years to release his music, relying on a broad arsenal of personnel when it came to everything from songwriting to instrumentation to production. It resulted in songs, production, and dance moves that were quite simply second to none. Far more than an entertainer, Michael Jackson was a cultural juggernaut of unparalleled proportion.

While they might have cultivated different approaches and aesthetics, Prince and Michael Jackson were still often viewed as direct competitors. For example, Prince’s “Purple Rain” could easily be seen as his answer to “Thriller,” in the same sense that The Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds” was an answer to The Beatles’ “Rubber Soul.” Furthermore, both Prince and Michael delivered infectious and dance-friendly pop music and became absolute icons in the process. On these levels alone, some sort of unspoken rivalry seemed only natural to one degree or another. As it turned out, however, Prince and Michael Jackson’s feud was much more serious than alternating chart hits.

What began as occasional rumours or biographical tidbits leaped into the limelight a few years ago, with the release of a previously unheard Michael Jackson recording. Made in 1988 when Jackson was working on his autobiography, “Moonwalker,” the recording features the King of Pop speaking openly about his animosity toward The Purple One.

Talking to an interviewer, 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…I don’t like to be compared to Prince.” Later in the recording, Jackson described Prince as “one of the rudest people I have ever met,” who’d been “mean and nasty to my family.”

Jackson’s biting comments might lead one to wonder: what was the real story behind his rivalry with Prince? Gathering known incidents and loose gossip, we present a breakdown of their famous feud. As you’ll soon discover, it was far more intense than one might expect, involving voodoo, potential hit and runs, and some bass to the face. Here are the highlights.

1. James Brown and MJ Invite Prince Onstage

The year was 1983 and Michael Jackson was on top of the world, still reeling from the success of “Thriller.” While not on the same level (or even close), Prince was on the brink of major stardom thanks to songs like “1999” and “Little Red Corvette.” Rumours of a rivalry were already starting to swirl.

Enter funk legend James Brown, who was a massive influence on Prince and Michael alike. The hardest working man in show business, Brown was performing a concert when he invited MJ onto the stage for some song and dance. Predictably, Jackson killed it with his impeccable vocals and classic dance moves like the Moonwalk.

Then MJ whispered something in Brown’s ear. According to artist and producer Quincy Jones, it was this: “Call Prince up — I dare him to follow me.”

To which James Brown responded, “What?” MJ whispered again and Brown responded, “Who?” After Jackson’s third attempt, Brown stepped to the mic and told the crowd that someone named Prince would be joining them onstage.

Seizing the opportunity, Prince hopped onstage and whipped out his best Jimi Hendrix impression on the guitar. Taking off his jacket to reveal a bare chest, he started howling into the mic and executing some sexy dance moves of his own. He then exited stage right and leaned against a prop lamppost, unceremoniously falling into the crowd and bringing the lamppost with him. Back onstage, James Brown scooped Prince’s jacket off the floor and walked over to return it.

Needless to say, the incident didn’t exactly bode well for Prince. On the recently released recordings, MJ could be heard mocking The Purple One: “He made a fool of himself. He was a joke…People were running and screaming. I was so embarrassed. It was all on video.”

2. Prince Tries to Run MJ Over with his Limo

File this one under “unconfirmed rumour,” though producer Quincy Jones swore it was true in a GQ interview. Apparently, Prince was so mortified by his performance at the James Brown concert that he waited in a limo outside the venue, with every intention of running MJ over. At least, that was MJ’s take at the time.

It’s not exactly clear as to whether Prince made an actual go at the hit-and-run or not, but his intent to mow Michael down is now the stuff of pop lore. Regarding MJ’s interpretation of the incident, Quincy Jones said the following: “He knew. Michael knows s**t. He was there. He said that was his intention.”

3. A Potential Duet Goes Bad-ly

By the mid-1980s, Prince and Michael Jackson were both veritable megastars of near-equal footing. Whereas MJ was known the world over for his iconic dance moves and immaculate songs, Prince was widely regarded as an elusive instrumental genius, who’d cultivated his own brand of modern funk-pop.

While the two might have secretly hated one another, that didn’t stop producer Quincy Jones from trying to mend the gap. And what better way to do that than with a collaboration? First, he approached Prince for the benefit song “We Are the World,” which MJ co-wrote and ultimately performed on. The Purple One promptly rejected the offer.

Next, Jones suggested that Prince and Michael Jackson perform together on the song “Bad,” for an upcoming album of the same name. Likewise, they would both appear in the adjoining music video, which depicted faux gang warfare and predictably exceptional dance choreography.

According to legend, Prince was initially somewhat receptive to the idea…until he saw the lyrics. Specifically, the opening line “Your butt is mine” turned him off to the entire idea.

In a 1997 interview with Chris Rock, Prince offered up his take on the whole affair: “You know that Wesley Snipes character ? That would have been me…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.”

Actor Wesley Snipes put forth a different narrative in a 2017 interview when he said, “Me and Prince were auditioning together, and I blew Prince out of the water…Michael had told Prince that he had the role, and then he met me and kicked Prince to the curb. Imagine that.”

Whatever the case, Prince did not participate on “Bad,” which went on to become another hit single for MJ. You know it.

4. Prince Goes Full Voodoo on MJ

This incident reportedly took place when Prince and Michael Jackson were still in talks to perform a duet on “Bad.” According to Quincy Jones, Prince showed up at MJ’s Hayvenhurst house wearing an overcoat and holding a big white box. On the box was the label ‘Camille,’ which was apparently Prince’s nickname for Michael.

In the words of Quincy Jones: “The box had all kinds of stuff—some cuff links with Tootsie Rolls on them. Michael was scared to death—he thought there was some voodoo in there. I wanted to take it, because I knew Michael was gonna throw it away.”

5. Prince Slaps Some Bass in MJ’s Face

If you thought the Prince and Michael Jackson feud was over by 2006, you thought wrong. In an interview with Esquire, Rolling Stone contributing editor Steve Knopper recalled a story once told to him by Black Eyed Peas leader will.i.am. Here’s what Knopper had to say:

“When Prince was doing his Vegas residency around late 2006, Michael was living in Vegas. Will was a guest artist at the Prince residency, but he was also friends with Michael. So Will arranged it for Michael to be a guest in the audience at Prince’s show. No one knew it really, but Prince knew it.

“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. 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. Everybody says Prince is this great legendary Renaissance man and I’m just a song-and-dance man, but I wrote “Billie Jean” and I wrote “We Are the World” and I’m a songwriter too.'”

And there you have it.

FAQ

Who was first Michael Jackson or Prince?

Michael Jackson was already an established singer and actor by the time Prince released his debut album, 1978's For You. Both talents were prodigies from a young age.

Are Michael Jackson and Prince brothers?

Prince and Michael Jackson are not related to one another in any way.

What did Prince and Michael Jackson die from?

Both Prince and Michael Jackson died from drug overdoses. MJ passed away in 2009 due to a lethal combination of painkillers, including anesthetic propofol and the anxiolytic lorazepam. Prince passed away in 2016 after accidentally overdosing on fentanyl.

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