By Belinda Huang
Prince Charles Alexander calls himself a “Renaissance man,” and with three Grammy Awards, over 40 platinum and gold records and a worldwide client list under his belt, he lives up to that title with authority. The man behind the bold, flamboyant name has built himself a musical legacy. Best known for his work as an engineer with big name artists like Mary J. Blige, Destiny’s Child, the Notorious B.I.G. and countless others, Prince Charles is well-versed in the studio, but he is no stranger to the stage either. He has had a successful career touring all over the world with his band, Prince Charles and the City Beat Band. Having taken two classes with this legendary “prince,” however, I have come to know him as more than just a figure of success. Beyond the talent and ambition lies a wisdom and an empathy, and that stands out to me more than anything else.
Born Charles Alexander, he rose out of humble beginnings right here in Boston. He picked up a clarinet in the 7th grade and started picking out the bass and guitar parts of the contemporary music of the time—Isaac Hayes, Earth Wind and Fire, the Ohio Players.
“When I was 13, I went to see Isaac Hayes perform, and I fell in love with him and I fell in love with the idea of standing on a stage in front of 20,000-30,000 people. My mother took me to that show and I said, ‘That’s what I want to do with the rest of my life.’ I remember that vividly.”
Throughout high school and college, Prince Charles picked up the alto saxophone and did everything from gigging to forming his own band to putting out a record. After convincing music genius and producer Maurice Starr to produce him, he put out his first record two weeks upon graduating college, which became a hit and started his career. He went on to tour America and Europe for the next seven years, playing for 40-60 thousand people at a time, following with three more records. He says that it was his persona behind “Prince Charles” that became the commodity people came to see.
“It was different from what I thought it was going to be. I thought was going to be lauded for my musicianship, but what I found out was that the Lady Gaga kind of thing, that you’re crazy so-and-so, was really what got me into the consciousness of the public. Nobody asked me if I was playing something in a minor key or major key. They never asked me about whether I was playing 16th notes. They asked about what I was doing with my hair at that time or my clothes, or why did I wear leather and whips and chains and spikes, and why I had strippers on stage and glitter on my chest and all that kind of crap. Somewhere along the way, I realized I was a little bit too shy to make this happen so I had to create a persona that was not afraid to do all this crazy stuff, and that persona was Prince Charles.”
With the close of the R&B and funk era in the 1980s, Prince Charles shifted his focus and attention to engineering. Upon attending the Center for the Media Arts in 1986, he quickly rose to become a top tier engineer at a primarily African American label called Hush Productions in New York. He then moved on to Uptown Records and started working with R&B group Jodeci, whose first record went platinum. He got hooked up with Puffy and started with Bad Boy Records in 1992, where he worked with all their artists like Mary J. Blige, Faith Evans, 112, and others. He racked up platinum record after platinum record there, and his client base expanded to an international roster, including Japanese, French, Korean, German, American artists.
According to Prince Charles, the hype of being a top-tier engineer comes with the people you know and not necessarily your level of skill.
“The hype and the excitement comes in your associations—who you’re working with and who is distributing you. Your actual knowledge and what you do has nothing to do with distribution and client base. So you can be a whack engineer and know Puffy [successful distribution network] and get platinum records. When I figured that out, I just had to figure out where the Puffy’s were and that’s how I became a high profile engineer.”
He says that being at the top comes with a flip side—the successes that the world sees are coupled with failures that the world sees as well.
“I realized that for every platinum record that I have, I have other records that are embarrassing. Everyone who has some serious peaks have some serious valleys also, even for Puffy. For every record that he had a success, he probably had 15 records that were horrible. I liken it to weigh lifting, no pain no gain. Muscle doesn’t become bigger without creating some tension—tension and release, it’s in music, it’s in life.”
Also at the height of his career, his personal life took a hit. He says that balancing a family life at the peak of success in the music industry is nearly impossible. There is always compromise that happens based on the desires of the individual.
“Could I have done what I did and kept my family together? I’m not sure because I was available 20 hours a day to my clients. I came home one day after a 36-hour session and [my wife at the time] said, “Take care of your son.” And that was the beginning of some very, very difficult conversations. I changed my life and lifestyle to have my current wife and children.” He goes on to say, “Life is being compromised in order to have a certain thing. Is compromising life worth what you get in terms of platinum records and gold records? For me, probably not. Could I eliminate a wife and be worth a hundred million dollars? I don’t know. And there’s a lot of people out there that would say, “Sure, let’s just do it!” because that’s what they want. But when you become a hundred million dollars, everybody you interact with knows it. And now you don’t know whether you’re being loved with all your flaws, or whether you’re being loved for the hundred million.”
Currently, Prince Charles still takes on projects while teaching at Berklee, and he lives around the area with his wife and kids. He has a wealth of technical knowledge, but his heart behind the music defines his true value. He says that there isn’t a point to making music anymore unless it touches people, and he calls that being an empathetic producer.
“I don’t make or listen to music for myself anymore, I don’t see what the point is. I have talent, I can create anything I want to create, but I don’t know that it has any value unless it touches someone else. And I don’t want to just touch one person, I want to touch hundreds of thousands of millions of people.” He continues, “Like Bruce Lee said, ‘Be the water not the glass,’ because the water can turn into any shape it wants to. Some music purists believe that music should be or sound a certain way, and I used to be that way. But I gave that up once I realized how valuable being an empathetic producer is. It has nothing to do with the music, but who the music is touching. We are just conduits of where it comes from and where it’s going to.”
For someone who has built up such a large musical empire, it is an honor to have him passing down the torch of his legacy to Berklee students. We can all take a lesson from the man behind the name and learn to make music that matters and relationships that last. There is no doubt that his name will continue on through the success of his students.