Michael Jackson and Prince ruled the music scene in the 1980s. As two artists at the top of their game, naturally their worlds collided, with the pair at one point even coming close to duetting on what would prove one of Jackson’s biggest hits. Ultimately, though, the planned collaboration fell through, as egos clashed and a manufactured rivalry soon turned into a real one.

Originally, Jackson’s camp had the idea of feeding the press the rumour that MJ and Prince were feuding, in order to drum up some mutual publicity. When Prince turned down Jackson’s offer to record his 1987 single Bad as a duet, it began a very real rivalry that ended with the King of Pop describing Prince as “one of the rudest people I’ve ever met”.

Beginnings of a rivalry

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Michael Jackson and Prince were born within months of each other, on August 29, 1958 and June 7, 1958 respectively. When the two first met, Jackson was already a household name thanks to his origins in The Jackson Five and his hit album Thriller. Prince, meanwhile, was at that point lesser known, with his biggest albums, Purple Rain and Sign o’ the Times, still to come.

The pair crossed paths when they both attended a James Brown concert, and after spotting them both in the crowd, Brown invited them both onstage. After Jackson sang Mr Dynamite with Brown, it was Prince’s turn to impress. However, Prince failed to win the audience over. In a last-ditch attempt, he swung from a prop lamppost that turned out to be Papier-mâché, causing it to fall into the audience.

Years later, Jackson cringed at this incident, recalling: “He made a fool of himself. He was a joke…people were running and screaming. I was so embarrassed.”

But just one year later, the tables had turned. Prince became a smash hit with his album and movie of the same name, Purple Rain. Michael Jackson longed to star in movies, and he was intensely jealous of Prince’s opportunities.

“The word in Hollywood was that the film, a drama with music, was so riveting, it would make Prince a major movie star,” one biographer noted. “Michael was deeply disappointed that he had not been able to make a strong impression in films. Being so competitive, he had to see Purple Rain before it was distributed to the public.”

During the preview, Jackson left ten minutes before the film ended, and allegedly commented: “The music’s okay, I guess. But I don’t like Prince. He looks mean, and I don’t like the way he treats women. He reminds me of my relatives. And not only that,” Jackson allegedly said, “that guy can’t act. He’s not good,” before sighing in relief.

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Nevertheless, this moment sparked an idea for Jackson, who was busy writing and recording Bad at the time. He decided to invite Prince to perform the now-famous tune as a duet. Producer Quincy Jones was tasked with arranging an official meeting between the two stars.

The event, which took place in Los Angeles, was cold and unfriendly, according to one bystander: “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.”

Jackson and his manager Frank Dileo then concocted a plan. They plotted to plant news stories about a fiery rivalry between Prince and Jackson, to generate interest in their relationship. Jackson, who was known for his publicity stunts and carefully-curated celebrity appearances, hoped this would help to promote Bad as a duet. Prince, however, was not at all impressed with this plan.

When Jackson sent him an early demo of Bad, Prince responded by re-recording the track entirely, displeased with Jackson’s creative control over the project. “The first line of that song is ‘Your butt is mine’,” Prince later recalled with a laugh. “Now I said, ‘Who’s gonna sing that to whom? ‘Cause you sure ain’t singing it to me. And I sure ain’t singing it to you… So right there, we got a problem.”

Even so, when Prince formally turned down Jackson’s offer to duet with him on Bad, he still told Jackson, “It will be a big hit even if I’m not on it.” In turn, when Jackson heard that Prince had rejected his offer, he simply said: “Figures.”

The rivalry aspect of the song was instead explored further in the Bad music video directed by Martin Scorsese, which casts Wesley Snipes as a one-time friend of Jackson who has taken up a life of crime.

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In another incident of the mid-80s, while Prince was recording the music for his next movie Under the Cherry Moon, the envious Jackson paid a visit to his LA studio. In a bizarre interaction, the pair started a very intense and taunting game of ping pong.

At one point, according to sound engineer David Z, “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 [Jackson] played like Helen Keller.'”

As curious as it may seem, Prince was a passionate ping pong player; Jimmy Fallon has spoken about being challenged to a game by the musical legend, in which Prince proceeded to engage in heavy smack talk and emerge victorious against the talk show host.

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These incidents left Jackson with a simmering resentment for Prince. Tapes recorded in 1988 revealed his hatred of the star, and he also explained why his dislike predated the collaboration attempt. These tapes weren’t released to the public until 2016, after Prince and Jackson had both passed away. “I don’t like to be compared to Prince at all,” he said on the tapes, which were recorded for work on his autobiography.

“I have proven myself since I was real little,” Jackson complained. “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.” Jackson went on to call Prince “so rude, one of rudest people I have ever met… [and] very competitive. He has been very mean and nasty to my family.”

Even in the months before his death, while planning 2009 comeback shows in London that never came to pass, Jackson still had Prince on his mind. According to promoter Randy Philips, “Michael said, ‘… God channels this through me at night. I can’t sleep because I’m so super-charged.’ Kenny [Ortega, the show’s director] said, ‘But Michael, we have to finish. Can’t God take a vacation?’ Without missing a beat, Michael said, ‘You don’t understand — if I’m not there to receive these ideas, God might give them to Prince.'”

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When Michael Jackson passed away from cardiac arrest in 2009, Prince was reluctant to discuss the passing of another musical legend. However, according to Prince’s close friend and talk show host Tavis Smiley, Prince was deeply moved.

“I will never forget the night we sat on the rooftop of his hotel in Switzerland, after he’d slayed the Montreux Jazz Festival,” Smiley has described. “Michael Jackson had recently died, and Prince would talk for hours that night about his own mortality and what the loss of Michael Jackson really meant for him.” Prince even chose to perform Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough during his next tour, in tribute to Jackson.

As late as 2014, two years before his own death, Prince still avoided discussing Michael Jackson’s passing. When he was asked about it in a Rolling Stone interview, he replied, “I don’t want to talk about it. I’m too close to it,” but finally remarked, “[Jackson] is just one of many who have gone through that door – Amy Winehouse and folks. We’re all connected, right, we’re all brothers and sisters, and the minute we lock that in, we wouldn’t let anybody in our family fall.”