Prince made his second television appearance in 1980 on American Bandstand. He was only 19 years old. During the introduction, the show’s host, Dick Clark, can’t hide his amazement at the fact that Prince self-produced his first two records and played all the instruments—especially at such a young age. He obviously hasn’t seen the kid perform yet. With his guitar slung behind his back and his feathery hair flowing, Prince struts and grinds about the TV set in high heels, gold tights and an open silk shirt like some street-corner teenage hustler. As he lip-synchs his first bona fide hit single, the roller-rink, disco-tinged “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” he looks like the slinky, soft-core love child of Little Richard, Mick Jagger and James Brown. His band is even stranger—a motley, mixed-gender, multi-racial coterie with a ragtag style that makes Sly and the Family Stone look like the Staple Singers. At the end of the song, Clark steps up and asks, “How did you learn to do this in Minneapolis?” Prince turns diffident, a 180-degrees from the salacious performer he portrayed five seconds before. Clark continues in a surprised tone, “This is not the kind of music that comes from Minneapolis, Minnesota.” Prince shrugs and with his hand in his hair, he meekly agrees—then he lets slip an impish laugh like he has something up his silky sleeve.
Clark might have been right that Prince’s sexy, light funk didn’t sound like Minneapolis music, but in 1980 no one really knew what Minneapolis sounded like anyway. Ohio had the sweaty soul and gutbucket funk of the Ohio Players, the Dazz Band, and Zapp. New York had the sex funk of Rick James and the cod-piece club-funk of Cameo. And the rest of the country had disco—including Minneapolis. The Twin Cities’ biggest group at the time was Lipps Inc., a studio band that had the number-one disco hit “Funkytown.” Unfortunately, the song was more metaphor than Minneapolis, which was barely a blip on the musical radar that no one wanted to be taken to. Within the next four years though, that would all change, thanks to the self-producing, high-heeled kid who was dumbfounding Dick Clark.
Prince’s first two albums, For You and Prince, showed that he had a beyond-his-years skill at arranging, producing and performing mainstream urban R&B and funk. He established himself as a singular talent in the studio, giving rise to the ubiquitous label that would appear on many of his albums: “Produced, Arranged, Composed and Performed by Prince”. He traded in horn sections for synthesizers and drummers for drum machines, taking advantage of the new technologies that were slowly usurping traditional funk instruments and allowed him to be a one-man studio band. He laced his flirtatious falsetto with suggestive double entendres and racy innuendos. And live he was an androgynous spectacle, vamping it up in bikini briefs, leg warmers and pumps. When he opened for Rick James in early-80, the 19-year-old often upstaged and out-freaked the Super Freak himself. Yet Prince’s music was still fairly conventional on his first two albums—lite, pleasant soul-pop that was more style than substance. The type of music that ingratiated him to black, R&B audiences, but had little crossover appeal. Prancing around stage in boots and little else, Prince was already pushing the boundaries of sexuality, but he wanted to break down racial barriers in music, too. He was half-black and half-white and he wanted his music to reflect that mix. He wanted to appeal to the Ohio Player and Parliament fans as much as the Rolling Stone and Blondie fans. He wanted to bring about a utopian musical paradise that looked past race, age and gender. His next album would be his creation story.
When Prince released Dirty Mind in the fall of 1980, no one was prepared for, as Rolling Stone put it, “one of the most radical 180-degree turns in pop history.” Gone was the simply enjoyable, slightly suggestive commercial R&B of Prince’s previous albums; in its place was a visionary, wildly ambitious amalgam of funk, punk, new wave, R&B, pop and experimental rock, laced with sexually explicit lyrics and over-the-top shock. The change was like stepping out of a Rated R movie on to a hard-core porno set as Prince gleefully sings about oral sex, threesomes, and even incest. On the album’s cover he stands defiant and seductive, wearing nothing but a bandanna, black bikini bottoms and a bedazzled jacket, letting it all hang out and looking like some new-wave, punk-funk Chippendale. And the music finally matched the image, too. From the title track’s robotic funk to the synth pop of “When You Were Mine” to the hyper-drive punk of “Sister” to the straight-up dance party jams, “Uptown” and “Partyup”, Prince experiments with everything on Dirty Mind and fuses black and white musical styles with little regard for established genres. This breathtaking, newfangled fusion of electro-pop, hard rock and funk not only won over rock and new wave audiences, but it also held on to his R&B audience. More importantly though, Prince’s audacious third album set the style and tone for much of the innovative urban music the Twin Cities would soon be known for.
Besides working Warner Brothers for a self-production deal, Prince also insisted on a clause in his major-label contract that would enable him to recruit and produce other artists for the label. In 1981 he cherry-picked musicians and friends from other Minneapolis bands to puppeteer the Time. The dapper new-wave funk band would be Prince’s pet project and an outlet for his extra material and expansive backlog of potential hit songs. He enlisted local players like Jimmy Jam on keyboards, Terry Lewis on bass, Jesse Johnson on guitar, and his childhood friend Morris Day to sing. Day was a freckle-faced, ego-tripped loudmouth with a penchant for lewd humor and loose women, and Prince let him sing only because he used Day’s song “Partyup” on Dirty Mind—and because Alexander O’Neal, another singer from the city’s Uptown funk scene, was “too black.”
Prince wrote most of the music for the Time, which sounded like Parliament filtered through new wave keyboards and funk-rock riffs, and he performed all instruments and backing vocals on the group’s studio albums — leaving lead vocals to Morris Day and the occasional guitar line to Jesse Johnson. Hits like “Jungle Love”, “777-9311”, “Gigolos Get Lonely Too”, and “The Walk” were all over the R&B charts in the early ‘80s and the Time even inspired a new dance: “The Bird”. Their music was much more accessible than the sexually explicit studio experiments Prince was putting out, and bands like Flint, Michigan’s Ready for the World and Augusta, Georgia’s Le Klass started to pick up on this electronic funk-rock sound. According to Pete Rhodes, owner of BlackMusicAmerica.com, the early ‘80s in Minneapolis was the new era for urban disco and funk. He says, “Even Babyface, who was in a group called the Deele out of Cincinnati, sounded just like the Time. Everybody wanted to sound like the Time.” But the Time were even more well known for their ridiculous live shows. They opened for Prince during his Controversy Tour and often upstaged him with their humorous stage antics and mock-blueblood choreography—later immortalized in Prince’s Purple Rain film.
The same year Prince assembled a Minneapolis all-female vocal trio called Vanity 6 (the name referring to front woman Vanity a.k.a. Denise Matthews and the number referring to the group’s breast count). Incorporating even more new wave and dance-pop into his funk formula, Prince provided the provocative songs while Vanity 6 provided the voices and sex appeal. The three women—two black, one white—performed in lingerie and dripped sex on stage, seductively singing while the Time played the music behind a curtain. This Prince-sanctioned set-up caused some serious friction between the musicians. After releasing one album and achieving a couple hit singles (all written, performed, and produced by Prince), Vanity left the group for a lucrative solo deal and Apollonia Kotero replaced her in the rechristened Apollonia 6. More importantly, she took over Vanity’s lead role in Purple Rain opposite Prince, which propelled her to overnight (albeit temporary) stardom.
Eventually, some members of the Time started leaving the group, frustrated with the lack of input into the project and Prince’s musical megalomania. Morris Day left to pursue a solo career in 1985 after his name-making turn in Purple Rain. Jesse Johnson opted out next and had some minor success with his late-‘80s solo career and also producing the Minneapolis-based Ta Mara & the Seen, who hit it big in 1985 with “Everybody Dance”. More than any other Minneapolis act outside of Prince though, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis found the most post-Prince success, perfecting and simplifying the dance-y synth-funk now known as the Minneapolis Sound for the mainstream. After being fired by Prince, the duo began producing tracks for the SOS Band, Klymaxx and Human League, and their use of the Roland TR-808 drum machine and Yamaha DX-7 keyboard became their signature sound. Their big break came in 1986 when they were introduced to Janet Jackson; they went on to produce her breakthrough album, Control, which won them a Grammy, and then her even-more-successful Rhythm Nation 1814 record. Jam and Lewis’ hard, hip-shaking dance-pop production would define much of late-80s/early-90s urban music.
Other notable acts that orbited around Planet Prince were Sheila E., the Latin-funk singer/percussionist who would join Prince on his 1986 Parade Tour and make her mark with her hit album The Glamorous Life; Andre Cymone, Prince’s childhood friend and first bassist, who would get some folks on the dance floor with “Dance Electric”; Wendy and Lisa, the female members of the Revolution who would forever be mistaken as the composers of “Purple Rain”, even though their only songwriting contribution to Prince’s catalogue was “Computer Blue”.
After the success of Purple Rain—the album and the film—petered out and Prince went from mega-superstardom back to just superstardom, the Minneapolis Sound that he spearheaded and propagated was soon replaced and polarized by hip-hop and hair metal. But throughout much of the 1980s a certain electro funk-rock sound brought together blacks and whites and defined what was pumped out on the dance floor. And no one was surprised that the music came from Minneapolis, Minnesota.
// Notes from the Road
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