The NPG’s MacKenzie Interview: “Sign O The Times is holy to me”
As Prince’s New Power Generation prepare to tour the UK, Alan Parry talks to MacKenzie – the man with the unenviable task of singing The Purple One’s songs.
“I was careful about whoever we got, just not trying to recreate Prince. You can’t do it, so it’s just stupid to try. So you just have to get somebody who can interpret in their own way and still have their own identity. And I think he hits all of the criteria.”
That’s what Morris Hayes, a member of Prince‘s New Power Generation for over 20 years, said when we asked him about MacKenzie. The Virginia-born singer has been fronting the NPG since they started celebrating Prince‘s music following the genius’ death in 2016.
It is easy to see why he was picked. With his gospel roots, MacKenzie is an effortlessly soulful singer, with enough funk to be the all-rounder so desperately needed if you’re going to give voice to Prince‘s music.
The NPG was the name Prince gave his backing band from 1991 onwards, and like the earlier Revolution, they are credited on the covers of classic albums like Diamonds & Pearls and . Unlike The Revolution, Prince went as far as to produce a number of solo band albums for the group during their run.
Ahead of The New Power Generation‘s UK tour, MacKenzie talks to our own Alan Parry about his unusual background, discovering Prince and new music from the NPG.
Planet Slop: Is it true that you grew up in a background where secular music was forbidden?
MacKenzie: I think “forbidden” is maybe too strong of a word, but let’s just say “very frowned upon”. If it wasn’t Christmas music, it wasn’t played in my house. We were raised Southern Baptist in Northern Virginia, and Christianity, and those themes and gospel music was a big part of my upbringing. However, I always tell the story that my parents listened to all of the music that I eventually ended up listening to. I discovered that when I discovered their record collection and that began what I like to call my secular study piece.
PS: So what was in your parent’s record collection, then?
M: Everything they said we weren’t allowed to listen to; Prince, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, The Temptations – who I absolutely love. It was Earth Wind & Fire. It was so much, it was a pretty massive collection.
PS: Quite an eclectic collection then! Parents have a habit of doing that. I know I tell my kids they shouldn’t be doing things and then go away and do it myself! I’m interested in the Christmas music – do you have a good relationship with Christmas?
M: I do! I love any holiday that promotes bringing family together. I’m not really too much into the commercialism of it, and I don’t care about gifts or anything like that. But I love food and I love to be around family and Christmas is usually a time when that happens so I’m all for it. I don’t really do the decorating, but I like to see it.
PS: When you started singing, was it gospel music?
M: Yes, I first started singing publicly at age two.
PS: Wow! That is early!
M: That was in the church, and I didn’t actually sing outside of church until I was 18 years old. That was only one time, and then after that I didn’t do it again until I was over 21.
PS: So, what happened at 18?
M: I kinda got pushed into it, it was like a talent show type thing. I tried it, I did it, and it was fun.
PS: How did you do? Did you win?
M: It was more of a high school talent showcase, so there was no winner or anything like that. But it was funny because I’m very introverted and I was known to be quiet, and if I wasn’t being quiet I was the class clown. But people who went to my school didn’t go to my church, so they weren’t aware of my musical talents. So, I kinda let the cat out of the bag with that one.
PS: So, you discovered Prince through your parents’ record collection, then?
M: Yeah, so what happened was, me and my younger brother found the records in the basement. We had no idea what they were, we didn’t know how to play them. I think my mum thought it was harmless at the time, so she showed us how to play it and I started my closet studies, where I would literally go into my closet and listen to the music as loud as I could without getting in trouble – because, as I said, they’re the records that we weren’t supposed to listen to. And one of those records was Purple Rain. So that was my first introduction to Prince.
PS: Prince could get a little bit raunchy. Do you think that was one of the reasons?
M: Absolutely. And I think when you come from a religious background there’s a certain uniformity that you want in your life and nothing about Prince was that; he was spontaneous, he was completely authentic. He didn’t follow trends, he set them. And my mother, like most parents, had an idea about my life path. I think it was like “If you open Pandora’s Box, then you don’t know where this kid might go with the creativity in his mind”. She was a little worried, but she’s OK now!
PS: Did you become a fan straight away, or did it take a few years?
M: Yes, it was instant. I don’t think I got to understand the music until I was much older, just because of the subject matter. But musically, it blew my mind. Everything in that record collection blew my mind if you understand that I wasn’t exposed to anything like that. Even when we were in the car, we didn’t listen to the radio stations that everyone else listened to. We listened to the AM stations that played gospel music. So hearing Baby I’m a Star is kinda like, shocking when you’re used to choral or gospel music that’s softer.
PS: How do you feel about that gospel music now? Do you go back and visit it, or have a greater appreciation for it now that you’re working in the industry?
M: Absolutely. I find myself listening more to the gospel music I grew up on now than even I did as a kid. I mean, that’s how I learned how to sing. So that’s the music that I’ll always love, so it holds a special place in my heart. And just like with Prince’s music, I don’t think I understood the subject matter as a child the way I do now.
PS: Its funny how these things come full circle, isn’t it? We want to rebel at some point, but we always go back.
PS: On Prince and his music, what are your stand-out records?
M: Well, it’s blasphemous to say which ones are your favourite! [Laughs] But when I was growing up in my late teens, Sign “O” The Times was a very formative album for me. I just thought it was sheer expression. From every note played, even the film, every move he did. And a particular record, The Cross is my absolute favourite record of his. I think that’s because when I heard it, it made me feel the same way I would feel in church as a child. And I hadn’t experienced that with music like that. There was a kind of distinction in the energy from gospel music to secular music. But when I heard that song, I looked at him differently, and I looked at his music differently. The lines blurred for me on what’s spiritual and what’s not. It became if you’re coming from a pure place, and that’s where your energy is flowing from, then I think it’s all spiritual and it’s all holy. And Sign “O” The Times is holy to me.
PS: Have any of your favourites changed since you started playing with the NPG?
M: It’s still The Cross, but I have more favourites now. His catalogue is so prolific that there’s songs I’m still discovering. I’m learning new things about him, musically, every day. Especially being around the guys, they tell me great stories.
PS: I can imagine!
M: Oh my God, it’s insane! I just sit there like a little Church mouse with my mouth shut, trying to take it all in.
PS: Is it intimidating?
M: It is, and it isn’t. It’s intimidating because of what it is, but the guys are so gracious and they really treat me like a little brother. They really wanna see me do the best I can do and they give me all the pointers and all the advice that they can. So I’m really grateful for them.
PS: From the outside, you get the impression that they’re all in it for the right reasons.
M: Absolutely. Prince is their brother, and they do this with honour and reverence. This isn’t a tribute band. This is them thanking him for all that he gave them. It’s an emotional endeavour for them, but they’re doing it from a very pure place.
PS: How did you end up joining the group?
M: I think at the end of 2017, I was doing a musical tribute to Prince with a symphony orchestra, and the band’s manager, Jill, came across a video online and passed it to Morris Hayes. Fast forward a month or two, and I’ve always got to tell this part because Jill reached out to me initially and I ignored her because I thought it was fake. Her email was like “Hi, how would you like to come and meet the New Power Generation?”, because they were set to perform at Superbowl Live. And I was like “What do you mean? Of course I would like to meet them, I don’t know if this is real – prove yourself,” you know that kind of thing [laughs]. So, early February 2018, I walk into Flyte Tyme, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis’ old studio, and there’s Tony M, there’s Morris at his keyboards, there’s Levi tuning his guitar, there’s Sonny. And I’m just freaking out. Just “Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God!” So we do the Superbowl Live and we do a few shows at the Dakota in Minneapolis. And about a week after those shows, they asked me if I wanted to be a part of the band. And before they even got the question out…
PS: “Yes” [laughs]
M: Abso-freaking-lutely, yes!
PS: So, originally it wasn’t intended to be a long term arrangement, but it developed quite quickly.
M: Yeah, when I came out at first it was definitely an audition. Because the bottom line is, it’s a really large undertaking. I think the way I am able to cope with it is I went into this never wanting to impersonate him. I would never want to do that. I love him too much, and I respect him too much. As an artist, I don’t operate that way. So I told them from jump, I can only bring myself to this, and that’s what they wanted. It’s worked out for the best.
PS: We were talking before about how vast Prince’s catalogue is and, from what we’ve heard, most of it is still to be released. So, how do you decide what to play? And do you have input in that?
M: I do. I definitely have a little bit of input. If for nothing else, I’ve got to be the one to sing it, so I don’t want to embarrass myself. So, the guys will get together and we’ll rehearse, me and Tony get together – it’s really hard. Because there’s certain songs that we have to play, like Purple Rain. And then there’s songs that he didn’t necessarily play that often or he might not have played. But, oh, that’s a great song too. Then Morris will say “Well, we used to do this, let’s bring this back”. When you have a catalogue that prolific, that is the hardest part. Saying we’re not doing this song tonight, that is the hardest part.
PS: But you can dip in and out. Maybe play something for a few shows, then switch it for something else.
M: Yeah, that’s how we keep it fresh, for sure.
PS: We’ve seen some footage of you performing, and you’ve said that you’re not trying to imitate him, but you do remind us of Prince, but do your own thing as well. How do you walk that tightrope? Because it is a difficult one.
M: Well, the way approach it mentally is that I let the music be the music. I start by just not taking away anything. His fans know this music note for note, so there are certain notes you have to hit, because that’s what they’re looking for – and, you know, I’m looking for it too. It has to be there. But then I just find my space and insert myself. With the performance aspect of it, he’s an influence of mine, but I’m an amalgamation of a lot of different artists. So I move like myself, but I try to just get as in tune with the music as I can as myself, and I think that’s where I’ve been able to find some success with it.
PS: So you’re in the middle of all these commitments with the NPG, and you audition for America’s Got Talent – and you got pretty far, so congratulations.
M: Thank you!
PS: What made you go for that?
M: Oh, you know what? They had actually been approaching me for quite some time.
PS: That’s interesting! That’s the other side of the coin that you don’t really see.
M: Yeah, they reached out and I was talking to Morris this last time they reached out and he was like “You know what? What will it hurt? Take it as a challenge.” And that’s how I saw it. I’d never done TV before. We obviously wanted to make sure it didn’t interfere with our touring schedule, which it didn’t. It wasn’t a huge time commitment and it was an opportunity for me to stretch myself as an artist. It was a great experience.
PS: You said you’ve never done TV before, so how does the pressure of performing on a show like that compare to the pressures of touring?
M: I think doing the NPG shows, there’s way more pressure there. It’s a different kind of pressure. The thing about TV is, you want to be perfect, it’s going to be on record forever. But you’re kinda removed from the audience. When I step out for the NPG shows, I have double pressure. I have pressure on myself as a lifelong fan. Then I have some odd member of the Purple Family staring at me, sometimes waiting for me to mess up, and I completely understand that because we all wish and pray that Prince could be up there still. So, doing these shows is way more pressure than a TV show.
PS: How do you think that the fans are responding to this?
M: It’s been really great crowds. One thing I’ll say is that the fans show up, and they really give me a chance, and that’s all I can ask for. I think once they see that I’m not trying to impersonate him, they kinda let their guards down a little bit, then they get into the healing aspect of it. It’s almost like all seven stages of grief within the one show. They get the tears out, they get their dancing in. For the most part, I’ve been overwhelmingly embraced. It’s been really, really great and touching. There’s no greater compliment than having a lifelong fan come up to me and tell me that they got a sense of healing after the show.
PS: We’re hearing that the NPG are planning on recording new material next year. Have you made any progress on that?
M: Yes, we’ve been in the studio, cooking up some stuff. Levi’s been cooking up some stuff, Morris, and Tony M’s got some new raps. It’s really exciting. I’m like a kid in a candy store. They’re gracious enough to let me lend my pen to some of this music and I’m very excited about that as well. It’s been a great experience, I’m excited to share with the world what we’ve been working on.
PS: Well, we’re excited to hear it! Have you written before?
M: Yes, I have some of my own music that’s out, and some new music from my own solo projects that’s coming out too. I’ve been writing since I was about eight years old. It’s a real passion of mine.
PS: This will be the first time the group will have released material without Prince’s involvement is there any apprehension over how fans will receive it?
M: Yeah, I think they’re waiting for it. As an artist, there’s always apprehension when you put out new music, because it’s your heart and you want people to love it and to feel it. But at the same time, this is something that, from my understanding from what the guys have said, it is something that Prince always wanted them to do as far as finding themselves as artists and going on. Kinda the way that [Sly & The Family Stone bassist] Larry Graham did after being with Sly. And you know, the NPG is the NPG. They’re not gonna try to be anything other than that, so I don’t think the fans have to worry too much about them trying to come out sounding like what’s commercial now. But they have evolved, they’ve grown, and they’ve changed. They’ve had their own life experiences. I think that’s definitely reflected in the music that we’re making now.
PS: And this is on top of your solo project, so there’s a lot on your plate!
M: Yeah, I like it that way!
The New Power Generation play the following UK dates throughout December. Tickets are available now.
Sat 7th Dec: London, O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire
Tues 10th Dec: Birmingham, O2 Institute
Wed 11th Dec: Manchester, O2 Ritz
Thurs 12th Dec: Glasgow, O2 Academy
Lead image: artist’s Facebook page
New Power Generation UK New Power Generation UK New Power Generation UK New Power Generation UK New Power Generation Manchester New Power Generation Manchester New Power Generation Manchester NPG NPG UK Tour NPG UK Tour NPG UK Tour NPG UK Tour NPG UK Tour NPG UK Tour NPG UK Tour NPG UK Tour