The Brooklyn location of Spike Lee’s “Prince’s Born Day Purple People Party” was a little confusing, so there were a fair number of people emerging from the Nostrand Avenue subway station looking confused — until their ears picked up the distant but unmistakable drum-machine thump of a vintage Prince song rising above the usual Saturday afternoon sounds of the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. They followed their ears a couple of blocks to Restoration Plaza — a large courtyard just off of Fulton Street — and found the celebration, with hundreds of people in purple and Prince-themed outfits, in full swing.
Spike Lee isn’t just a great film-maker, he also knows how to throw a hell of a party.
Lee worked with Prince twice during his career: on the “Money Don’t Matter 2Night” video and, more famously, on the “Girl 6” film, which featured a soundtrack made entirely of songs from across the artist’s career, along with a new song he’d written specifically for the film. Lee has been throwing Michael Jackson-themed celebrations for several years, and began this tradition in the hours after Prince’s death in April of last year. He threw an impromptu block party outside his Brooklyn office that ended up being live-streamed on CNN, and even got the cooperation of local police when it ran over the time he’d been allotted.
Ordinarily at events like this, people are standing around impatiently waiting for something to “happen.” But by 3 p.m. on a cool and sun-kissed Saturday afternoon, this Prince celebration, co-sponsored by Spotify, was in full swing. There was a booming sound system blasting Prince classics and deep cuts, often in remixes or rare live versions. There were purple banners hanging from the buildings and the speakers on either side of the stage; dancers came out and performed at various points during the day. There were bouquets of purple flowers all over the courtyard; there were bright purple T-shirts, glittering fedoras and necklaces for sale; and (backstage anyway) there were small plastic bottles of a potent “Purple Punch” that was apparently about 60 percent vodka. And best of all, there were hundreds of people of all ages and races representing in purple: shirts, dresses, shoes, hats, dozens of different Prince-themed T-shirts, and even several men in purple suits. Lee even brought a guitar that Prince had given him, which La La Anthony paraded through the crowd during the afternoon. The event was supposed to end at 6 p.m. but they got an extension, and finished the festivities with a screening of Prince’s dazzling 1987 film “Sign O’ the Times,” which is arguably one of the greatest concert movies of all time.
Spike Lee with La La Anthony and one of Prince’s custom-made guitars (Photo: Taylor Lampkin and Simon Melekhov)
Lee was the obvious master of ceremonies, speaking to the crowd, leading singalongs, and often just coming out and playing hype-man. He’s a ball of energy most of the time, but today it was exhausting just trying to keep an eye on him — clad in one of the custom T-shirts and purple fedoras he’d had made for the day (and an amazing pair of Prince-themed Nike sneakers), he was in constant motion, moving from the DJ booth to the stage to backstage to the crowd and back, posing for selfies and speaking with friends and fans every step of the day. “Where’d Spike go?” were the most commonly heard words backstage all afternoon.
Amid all that, a highly distracted Lee managed to spare five minutes for a quick chat with Variety.
Usually when someone so beloved dies, there’s a vigil. What inspired you to throw a party instead?
Prince is about a party! The day he died we threw a party in front of my office, CNN sent a truck and it went worldwide. But we have something more formal now — this is our second annual party. We just want to celebrate his music, his legacy, the person that he was.
Are you going to do it every year?
Well, we hope to. I want to thank Troy Carter at Spotify for sponsoring this — we’ve been doing Michael Jackson [parties] for nine years, so every year we’ve gotta [pool resources], because it’s not free.
What was it like working with Prince on the video and “Girl 6”?
He was a great collaborator. He called me out of nowhere because he wanted to do a video [for “Money Don’t Matter 2Night”], and I said “Okay, I’ll do it!” He said “One thing – I’m not gonna be in it!” And for “Girl 6” I told him I wanted to go through his body of work for various scenes, and he offered to write a song and that was the “Girl 6” track.
What are some of your favorite memories of being with him?
We were just cool. [Earlier in the afternoon] La La Anthony went through the crowd and I was holding Prince’s guitar — which he had gifted to me. When he gave it to me I said “Can you please autograph it?” and he said “I’m not autographing it” and I said “Okay! Just don’t take it back!” (Laughter) I’ve got a lot of stuff, but that’s my most prized [object] – it’s amazing to have his guitar.
Do you have any plans to make a film or documentary about him?
Nothing I can talk about. I’d love to, but it’s not for me to say. It’d have to come from the estate or the publishing house or the label — I’d love to, but I can’t just say “I’m doing it.”
Did you hang out with him much outside of work?
Not really. He’d show up at the club at four in the morning. I couldn’t hang. I gotta go to bed!