It all started with Batman, in 1989. I was living in Jakarta, Indonesia; my father worked as a diplomat, so we always travelled around a lot. Tim Burton’s movie was huge that year. Toys, posters, music: I bought them all, including the soundtrack by Prince. I remember being seven and enjoying the “Batdance” video immensely. I thought it was hilarious; I had never heard or seen anything like it! Built around samples of the movie’s dialogue, it was a catchy, quirky, fun creation with a scorching guitar solo. Back then I was too little to understand who or even what Prince was. In my mind, Prince wasn’t even real: he might have possibly been spawned from the same Gotham universe as the Joker figurines I collected.
Fast-forward two years: I was living in Algeria, at the beginning of a bloody civil war that would engulf the country for the next 15 years. For many, music was often a light amidst dark times. President Mohamed Boudiaf, the leader who had helped liberate Algerians from French colonialism, was gunned down during a televised speech. The psychological aftermath of the shooting was similar to that of the JFK assassination in the U.S.: it had a profoundly traumatizing effect on the nation’s collective conscious. People found refuge and comfort in music, just like the Beatles’ first U.S. tour and Dionne Warwick’s “Anyone Who Had a Heart” had helped heal the American public in 1963 and 1964. For my friends and I who were high schoolers in Algeria, it was the Minneapolis Sound—including the music of Prince and the omnipresent 90s R&B productions of Jam and Lewis—that healed our souls.
Before the Internet, most people in Algeria found out about new music through satellite and French TV. “Cream,” “Gett Off,” and “Diamonds and Pearls” hit the airwaves in Europe pretty much simultaneously. The over-the-top visuals and craziness of these music videos were a delight; critics often deride Prince’s early 90s work, but I still think it’s some of his most enjoyable. The Minneapolis musicians playing on these records are some of the best funk musicians ever, including legendary bass player Sonny Thompson and monster drummer Michael Bland.
Now that I have a music career of my own, people often ask what first made me want to play guitar. The answer has always been very clear: the jazzy guitar solo on “Sexy MF,” played by Minneapolis musician and Prince co-producer/co-writer Levi Seacer Jr., hit me hard. I still think it’s the one of the very best guitar solos ever recorded; I can sing you that solo note for note. Levi’s bop-influenced guitar playing was the catalyst that got me into jazz guitar much later, digging players like Grant Green, Wes Montgomery, and George Benson. Years later, I also found out that Levi co-wrote many of my favorite Prince songs, including the understated, unreleased minimalist masterpieces “Open Book” and “Get Blue.” (Prince: release them!)
A couple years later, still living in Algeria, with the war around us worsening, another Prince song hit the Algerian schoolyard: “Love Sign.” Released independently by Prince during his legal battle with Warner Bros., it was pure Minneapolis funk, a duet with Nona Gaye (Marvin’s daughter). A slick promo video directed by Ice Cube was featured heavily on French TV music shows before Warner Bros. pulled the plug on the whole release. I remember everyone at school was crazy about this song, but of course, we had no idea where to find the record. Little did we know the song was never properly released. It took me another four long years before I could get my hands on it in a small vinyl shop in the south of France.
“Love Sign” was co-produced by an amazing Minneapolis musician: Ricky Peterson, brother of Paul Peterson, The Family singer who first sang “Nothing Compares 2U.” (I met both Peterson brothers a few years later at a Sheila E show in Sydney.) “Love Sign” made me understand the power of production—and of bass guitar. Prince’s slap bass playing was on a higher level, and the Peterson brothers are still Minneapolis music legends, part of a very restricted club of musicians allowed to co-produce some of Prince’s best work (including the global hit “The Most Beautiful Girl In The World”).
When I recorded my debut album Somewhere in Time, I knew it was going to have a credit reading, “Produced, composed, written, arranged, and performed by.” I first noticed this sentence on the back of Prince’s albums and it seriously blew my mind: You were listening to the vision of one person, in its purest form. You would listen to an album like Dirty Mind and you’d feel you were right in Prince’s head. This was what I always wanted to achieve from the very start. Many artists will tell you about the mysterious process of translating sounds you hear only in your head to tape; that is our reason for making music.
I ended up leaving Algeria for Brazil and was finally able to access more records from many Minneapolis-based Prince-related artists such as the Time, Jill Jones, Madhouse, Sheila E, The Family, and Wendy & Lisa. I also started gaining an enormous knowledge of African-American and Twin Cities music, my Minnesota music collection increasing exponentially as I was making my first steps as a musician. The first song I ever learned to play on guitar was not “Smoke on the Water” or “Satisfaction,” it was “The Cross,” from Prince’s classic 1987 album Sign o’ the Times. The first bass line I learned was not “Under Pressure,” it was “Jerk Out” by the Time. And, of course, the first guitar solo I unleashed on a bewildered audience during open-mic night was “Computer Blue”!
My music never sounded much like Prince or the Time, but the Minneapolis Sound was the biggest influence on my development as a young music producer. It was my dream to merge live instruments with electronic sounds, to create minimalist productions with quirky drum machine rhythms, soulful guitar solos, and real bass mixing with analog synths, multi-layered falsetto vocals delivered with soulful emotion.
You can even hear all these elements in my instrumental work, a song like “September Memory.”
The Minneapolis Sound changed American popular music forever; the same way Motown changed everything in the 60s and early 70s. It certainly changed my universe, and like many musicians worldwide, I will always go back to that sound for inspiration, discovery, pure enjoyment and a good old ass-kicking, Minneapolis style.
Ilias is a musical artist currently based in Sydney, Australia.