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What’s Inside That Vault at Paisley Park?

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Architect’s rendering of Paisley Park. (Photo courtesy BOTO Design Architects)

In 2006, I walked through the front door of Paisley Park for arguably one of the un-coolest reasons ever: as a member of a team filming self-help videos for AOL. That’s because in addition to being the Purple One’s lair, Paisley Park is a production studio for hire. I wasn’t there to record soul tracks, but to tape a segment with the author of “Chicken Soup for the Soul.” I expected the 65,000-square foot facility to resemble a Wonka-esque factory, but the outside looked more like a shiny white office park.

In the wake of Prince’s death, his inner circle is undoubtedly debating the facility’s future, including turning it into a museum. Ten years ago, parts of the inside already seemed like a shrine. Off the lobby was a hallway with a timeline of Prince’s major accomplishments, featuring larger-than-life images of his bikini-bottom Controversy years and jazzy period when he put on more clothes and dropped from pop culture consciousness. The car grill from the cover of Sign ‘O’ The Times was hanging in the onsite NPG nightclub. I saw the basketball court where Charlie Murphy played Prince in a game that was later dramatized by Dave Chappelle.

The producer on the self-help shoot, who’d worked at Paisley Park previously, said the Purple One occasionally appeared on the catwalks above the studio and watched the shoots. “He’s tiny,” she said. “Supposedly he has the motorcycle from ‘Purple Rain’ in a vault here.”

Ah, the vault. Any serious fan wants to know who now has the keys to the Paisley Park vault. The vault that may or may not have a dozen or more albums of unreleased material and several box sets worth of singular live tracks. Former band member Eric Leeds recently told CNN that, for every song that went into an album, he probably recorded another 25 with Prince that were never released. Prince also regularly taped concerts and rarely released the material. Then there’s the documentary Kevin Smith shot, another reported narrative movie and probably a few pancake cookbooks.

Anyone who thinks Tupac has a surreal posthumous career should get ready to hear a new Prince album every year — for a couple of decades. Some fans and collaborators are already arguing in forums and interviews that Prince knew what material he thought was his best and wanted released next.

Even the Paisley Park janitors wore purple. I asked one if Prince required it, and he said “No, but he likes it when you wear it.

But the history of his song “17 Days” makes me think otherwise. My freshman year high school trio played the track, the B-Side to “When Doves Cry,” in the Battle of the Bands. I actually think the B-side is better. “When Doves Cry” is undoubtedly groundbreaking minimalist funk with a cement-heavy snare and a bawling guitar riff that shreds a hole in the space-time continuum. But the smooth and synth-driven “17 Days” has a more soulful vocal melody.

And that track wasn’t the only Prince B-side as good as one of the hits. Few other musicians boast such an amazing library of rarities. Songs Prince quickly penned for protégés and friends turned into era-defining hits like “Nothing Compares 2U,” “Manic Monday” and “I Feel For You.” Even “17 Days” was originally written for his sexed-up answer to the ‘60s girl group, Vanity 6. When Vanity quit working with Prince, he reclaimed the track for a B-side rather than have Apollonia, Vanity’s replacement, record it.

Is it possible there’s so much in the vault because Prince couldn’t always tell what was his A material? Anyone who’s heard “La, La, La, He, He, Hee” will probably wonder why that was relegated to a non-album B-side (of “Sign ‘O’ The Times”) while “The Greatest Romance Ever Sold” was a later and much sleepier A-side.

While reporting a story in Miami, I once met one of the producers credited on the triple-album Emancipation and asked what it was like to work with Prince. Prince handed him a session tape and said, “I’ll be back, let’s see what you can do with these takes.” And the producer turned what was on the tape into one of the stronger tracks for Emancipation.

Maybe Prince just had so many ideas that he couldn’t spend enough time with them all.

Still, a look around Paisley Park makes it tough to question the strength of its creator’s vision. Even the Paisley Park janitors wore purple. I asked one if Prince required it, and he said “No, but he likes it when you wear it. He actually prefers black when people are around.” At the time, Prince was traveling often and, according to my cleaning crew source, only at the facility about a sixth of the year.

Paisley Park public bathrooms were stocked with candles held aloft by curly, wrought iron holders, dishes of potpourri and lavender soap. Lavender soap? When you’re washing your hands with lavender-thyme soap in a potpourri-scented toilet that looks like it dates back to the glory years of ‘90s neo-psychedelia, that’s when you realize you’re in the presence of an obsessive genius… with a knack for fragrant branding.

Walking through the sprawling production studio, I looked around and wondered which door led to the vault. My freshman-year self might have taken a chance and searched for it. Ultimately, I never had the courage to look for the vault, but during a break in the two-day shoot I begged the office administrator to open the gift shop at the NPG nightclub so I could buy a TAFKAP cap with the glyph on it and a 2004ever tour mood candle (because his candle game was obviously on point).

Part of me wants to hear everything Prince ever wrote, even knowing there’s probably a month’s worth of tunes that he’d admit are neo-crap. But what are the odds there are at least 17 days of brilliant B-side worthy material?

Prince’s legacy may be on the verge of becoming even more amazing.

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