Prince and Michael Jackson were pretty different musically — nevertheless, the two icons were constantly compared. Their larger-than-life personas dominated the 1980s, from Jackson’s famous sequined glove and flawless moonwalk, to Prince’s signature falsetto, impeccable guitar skills, and killer high heels.
Back in the day, people constantly asked each other, "Who do you like more — Michael Jackson or Prince?" while rumors of a rivalry between the two pop legends started to emerge. Even though the two stars rarely addressed it directly, small clues suggested that they were aware of the comparisons. For example, on his 2004 album Musicology, Prince’s song "Life ‘O’ the Party" included these lyrics: "My voice is getting higher / And I ain’t never had my nose done / That’s the other guy."
Since both Jackson and Prince have passed away, others in the music industry have shared their own memories of the two, shedding further light on their famed "rivalry." Here’s a look at what we know about the relationship between Michael Jackson and Prince.
Prince taunted Michael Jackson with a really strange gift
By the mid ’80s, after Thriller and Purple Rain were both released, the King of Pop and The Purple One were at the height of their careers. So it’s kind of amazing to hear that they might have actually collaborated back then… if only they could have gotten along. When Michael Jackson was working on Bad, the sequel to Thriller in 1986, he and producer Quincy Jones invited Prince over to Michael Jackson’s house to talk about the two possibly doing a duet on the title track. However, judging from Jones’ account, the vibe between the two was rough from the start.
Quincy Jones spilled the tea in a no-holds-barred interview with GQ, saying that Prince strangely taunted Jackson as soon as he arrived at Jackson’s home. "He came in and he had an overcoat on, and he had a big white box labeled ‘Camille.’ He called Michael ‘Camille,’" said the famed producer. Then, as if it couldn’t get any more awkward… it did. "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," said Jones. When asked what happened to the "gift," Jones said that Jackson indeed got rid of it.
Michael Jackson and Prince had a super awkward business meeting
During the same visit to Jackson’s house, Prince and Michael Jackson sat down with producer Quincy Jones to discuss their possible collaboration. According to Jones in GQ, it was a "family table" that "held 24 people." No word on how many people actually with them at the table, but for everyone’s sake, we hope they had some buffers! Actually, one insider did come forward in 1987 who claimed to be at the meeting, and described it to SPIN: "They’re so competitive with each other that neither would give anything up. They kind of sat there, checking each other out, but said very little. It was a fascinating stalemate between two very powerful dudes."
Jones’ account of the meeting in GQ, of course, was a little more colorful. "I said, ‘Michael… Smelly [Jones’ nickname for Jackson], ‘you sit over there so he doesn’t feel like we’re ganging up on him.’ It started off funny. Michael said, ‘I never been to Minnenapolis.’ [Prince] said [angrily], ‘It’s Minneapolis!‘ Oh God… man, this is not going too well. Then Janet went by. [Prince] said, ‘Relax your lips, girl.’ And it was not going well, that’s for sure."
Prince re-recorded "Bad" and sent it to Michael Jackson
Prince’s ex-fiance Susannah Melvoin — who’s also the sister of Wendy Melvoin, a member of Prince’s band, The Revolution — claims that Michael Jackson not only asked Prince to collaborate on "Bad," but he sent him an early track, which Prince wasn’t impressed with at all. Melvoin told Love City podcast host Toure in 2018 (via HipHopDX): "When Michael did ‘I’m Bad,’ he sent that track to Prince before he released it, and Michael wanted Prince to sing it with him. He couldn’t believe Michael had the nerve to call it ‘I’m Bad.’"
Melvoin continued, "He was like, ‘There’s nothing badass about him.’ He could not let Michael get away with it. Not only was he not going to sing it with him, he went in the studio and re-recorded what he thought it should be and sent it back to Michael. Like, ‘No. And by the way, this is what it should be.’ That was the end of that. But that’s how Prince was."
Prince refused to be in Michael Jackson’s "Bad" video
Not only did Prince totally reject the idea of singing on "Bad," but he also turned down a role in the music video. He sat down with comedian Chris Rock on MTV and explained: "Well, you know, that Wesley Snipes character? That would’ve been me. Now, you run that video in your mind." Prince was referring to Snipes’ role of the rough gang member who has a standoff with Michael Jackson.
Yet, it wasn’t really the idea of playing a gang member that bothered Prince. He told Rock: "The first line of that song is ‘Your butt is mine.’ Now I said, ‘Who’s 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 — right there, we got a problem."
Needless to say, the role went to Wesley Snipes — who spun the story a bit differently to Conan O’Brien in 2017. "Me and Prince were auditioning for that role, and I blew Prince out of the water, for that role in ‘Bad.’ …Michael had told Prince that he had the role, and then he met me. This is a true story. Prince actually was considered the lead character in the ‘Bad’ video. And Michael met me, then kicked Prince to the curb. Imagine that," he said with a smile.
Michael Jackson made a fool out of Prince in front of James Brown
On one fateful night in 1983, James Brown performed at Los Angeles’ Beverly Theater, with both Prince and Michael Jackson in the audience. James Brown called Jackson onto the stage, who pretty much slayed the audience with his moves. Afterward, Jackson reportedly whispered to Brown to call Prince to the stage next — and let’s just say, the clips have made YouTube history. In fact, Quincy Jones probably summed it up best to GQ: "[Prince] made a d*mn fool out of himself."
So what happened? Judging from the recording and later reports, Prince tried to swing onto a nearby lamppost as part of his act, but didn’t realize it was just a prop. Not only did he immediately tumble into the audience, but supposedly Jackson had the recording of the whole thing. "Prince told Michael he’d kill him if he showed it to anybody," said Jones in GQ.
Jones claimed that Prince was furious about it and took it out on Jackson after the show, explaining, "[Prince] waited in the limousine to try and run over [Jackson] and La Toya and his mother." When asked how he knew this, he said Jackson told him directly. "He knew. Michael knows sh*t. He was there. He said that was his intention."
Michael Jackson allegedly called Prince "nasty" and "rude"
According to previously unreleased recordings from Michael Jackson’s interview sessions for his 1988 autobiography Moonwalk, Jackson had some not-so-nice things to say about Prince. In the recordings, obtained by The Mirror, we allegedly hear the voice of Michael Jackson saying in reference to Prince: "He was so rude, one of [the] rudest people I have ever met. Prince is very competitive. He has been very mean and nasty to my family."
If these tapes are indeed real, then it sounds like that near-miss with the limo after the James Brown concert didn’t sit well at all with The Gloved One. He also made direct reference to that night, saying, "[Prince] made a fool of himself. He was a joke. People were running and screaming. I was so embarrassed. It was all on video."
Finally, when it came to his supposed rivalry with Prince, Jackson apparently said: "I don’t like to be compared to Prince at all. 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."
If you or someone you know needs help, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
Prince didn’t show up to do Michael Jackson’s pet project, "We Are the World"
When Prince was asked to join several of America’s most talented artists to produce the single "We Are the World" for African famine relief, he refused. Since it was co-written by Michael Jackson, some speculated that it was because he had a beef with the King of Pop.
Lionel Richie, who co-wrote the song with Jackson, told Jimmy Kimmel that even though Prince said no, he kept trying to change his mind. "I kept calling. I was not going to let it go … And then I made the worst mistake. I said, ‘I’ll put you next to Michael.’ …He said, ‘I’ll do a guitar solo.’" However, Richie later told Kimmel that Prince as an "isolationist" who just "didn’t want to be next to any of us."
On his song "Hello," Prince sings: "I tried to tell them that I didn’t want to sing / But I’d gladly write a song instead." Fans speculate that he was referring to "We Are the World" project. Prince did write a song called "4 the Tears in Your Eyes," which he donated to the cause. (via Diffuser)
Biographer Alan Light quoted Prince as saying he turned the project down because he felt he would have "clammed up." Light also quoted former band member Wendy Melvoin, however, who said: "He felt like the song was horrible. And he didn’t want to be around ‘all those muthaf***as.’"
Prince played the bass in Michael Jackson’s face
Will.i.am, who collaborated with both Prince and Michael Jackson, once told a story on The Graham Norton Show about an interesting encounter between the two legends. According to Will.i.am, he got a phone call from Michael Jackson saying he wanted to get together, and the two agreed that Jackson would come to a Prince show that Will.i.am was attending that night. What happened next was both odd and hilarious.
Said Will.i.am: "It was … me, Chris Tucker, Michael Jackson watching Prince rock on stage. So, to make a long story short, Prince steps off the stage and plays the bass in Michael Jackson’s face. Rips the freakin’ bass in 10 different pieces. …To make a longer story shorter, Michael Jackson leaves and goes home and says [imitating Jackson’s voice], ‘Meet me at the house for breakfast.’ So I go to his house for breakfast, knock on the door, first words he says, ‘Why was Prince playing the bass in my face?’" Will.i.am said he responded that Prince was just "being nice," but Jackson disagreed, saying, "No, Prince, he’s always been a meanie."
They once went head-to-head in ping pong
Just like the two were said to be competitive in music, word has it that they even once competed privately over a game of ping pong. Apparently the two stars happened to work in the same Los Angeles studio at one point in the late ’80s, and Prince invited Jackson to play a game of ping pong. Even though Jackson didn’t know how, they played anyway — much to the apparent amusement of Prince.
Engineer David Z, who witnessed the smackdown, told the Star Tribune that Prince asked, "You want me to slam it?" He then said Jackson prepared for the worst. "Michael drops his paddle and holds his hands up in front of his face so the ball won’t hit him. Michael walks out with his bodyguard, and Prince starts strutting around like a rooster. ‘Did you see that? He played like Helen Keller.’"
Drummer Michael Bland, however, added that Prince and Jackson went head-to-head in basketball as well, and that the two had a friendly relationship. "They’d shoot hoops at Paisley Park [Prince’s home]. "We used to get packages from MJJ Productions [with] footage of Sly Stone performing in Europe. Prince would pop it in the VCR, and we’d watch it."
Michael Jackson loved watching Prince mess up
In his memoir Sing to Me: My Story of Making Music, Finding Magic, and Searching for Who’s Next, famed music producer L.A. Reid described an incident (via NYPost) where he went to visit Michael Jackson at Neverland Ranch. After getting a tour of the grounds by the King of Pop, the two then went into a screening room where he said Jackson showed him the recording from the night Prince fell off the stage at the James Brown concert in 1983. "Prince fell as flat as he could, and Michael enjoyed laughing at the video," wrote Reid.
Reid then said Jackson brought out a second Prince video, who apparently was having a good time at this point, at Prince’s expense. Said Reid: "After that, he put on a scene from Prince’s movie ‘Under The Cherry Moon,’ the artsy black-and-white bomb he made after ‘Purple Rain,’ and he laughed some more at Prince."
Prince insisted he had no beef with Michael Jackson
Despite speculation, Prince denied there was any beef between him and Michael Jackson. Chris Rock once asked Prince in 1997 which artist made him think, "I gotta get back in the studio" — opening the door for Prince to mention Jackson — and Prince seemed to squash those rumors. "Contrary to what a lot of people might believe, it was never somebody who was my contemporary," said Prince. Rock then asked Prince directly if there was ever a beef between them, Prince said, "Not to me, no."
Not only that, but Prince even defended Jackson to the press. When asked by a plucky reporter who he thought would win in fistfight between him and Jackson, Prince laughed. "Michael’s not a fighter, he’s a lover." When the crowd’s laughter quickly turned into a low roar — presumably because of the allegations of child abuse against Jackson — Prince then told everyone to reserve judgment: "Can I just say something? I’ve never really spoke publicly about Michael. We should all just kind of, like, chill, because it’s, you know — he may know something none of us really know."
Steve Hyden, author of Your Favorite Band Is Killing Me: What Pop Music Rivalries Reveal About the Meaning of Life, once told CNN that the two stars affected each other positively. "I think that they did motivate each other. They were both such outsized personalities and for both of them playing into the rivalry was good PR," said Hyden.
Prince mourned Michael Jackson’s death
Talk show host Tavis Smiley, who wrote the book Before You Judge Me: The Triumph and Tragedy of Michael Jackson’s Last Days, described a meeting he had with Prince right after Jackson passed which put Prince’s relationship with Jackson into a different perspective. In the book, Smiley describes Prince as being devastated by the news. Smiley told Conan O’Brien that upon hearing about Michael Jackson’s death, Prince "[locked] himself literally in his room for days, and didn’t come out. Didn’t talk to anybody."
Days later, Smiley said he met up with Prince at his hotel suite after a concert, and had a private discussion with Prince about Jackson. He told O’Brien: "From 1:30, 2 o’clock in the morning until the sun came up, I sat and listened to him talk about his respect for Michael’s artistic genius. …Here’s a guy, though, who I think realizes that at some point, like Michael, who’s gone too soon, he’s going to one day be doing his own dance with mortality, and that thing really hit him. And so I just sat quiet… for hours… and listened to him talk. But that moment is something I’ll never forget — listening to this one artistic genius revel in the humanity, and the dignity, and the craft of another artistic genius. It was a powerful evening."