When you live in Minnesota, trying to understand the magnitude of Prince’s accomplishment is kind of like trying to talk about the sun when you’re standing on it. Here’s a story that helped me get my mind around the extent of Prince’s musical celebrity.
When Michael Jackson agreed to play a set of wildly-anticipated comeback shows at London’s O2 Arena in 2009—the shows he was rehearsing for at the time of his death—he initially agreed to only ten performances. His advisors pointed to the insatiable demand for tickets, and asked if he’d play more shows for his fans’ sake. Nope, said Jackson—ten shows was it. Then there was the matter of Jackson’s finances: he’d fallen so deeply into debt that he was risking bankruptcy and the loss of his publishing catalog—but money didn’t motivate him either. Jackson stood firm: ten shows.
Finally, his advisors played their trump card. They pointed out that Prince—the artist with whom Jackson had “an intensely competitive fascination,” writes biographer Randall Sullivan—had been the first artist to play the O2, and Prince had played 21 times. That did it: Jackson added shows.
The man born Prince Rogers Nelson in Minneapolis in 1958 is one of the few musicians to have entered that vaunted realm of larger-than-life celebrity—like Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Michael Jackson, and now Beyoncé, he’s not just famous, he’s mythic. Among artists of his generation, Prince may have the greatest natural genius for music: he’s written dozens of hits for himself and other artists, he’s a guitar god and a virtuoso on multiple instruments, he can sing across an epic vocal range, and he’s legendary for his live performances. Not only did he create his own career with protean force, he spawned an entire scene in Minneapolis, and demonstrated a Midas touch writing for artists ranging from the Bangles to Sheila E to Sinéad O’Connor.
We’re naming Prince our Local Current Artist of the Month for July in honor of the 30th anniversary of the Purple Rain movie and soundtrack—the biggest album ever to come out of Minnesota. The film is an apt calling card for the artist who subsequently became known as the Purple One. The movie portrays Prince (“The Kid”) as an up-and-comer, his band the Revolution in hot competition with slick acts including the Time and Apollonia 6, vying for a coveted residency at First Avenue. In reality, Prince created all three of those bands, and he was the one who made the club legendary. Add the layer of domestic psychodrama (a talented musician father, a character whose personal style flirts with androgyny but whose behavior can be outrageously macho), and watching the movie starts to feel like crawling into Prince’s subconscious. (Listen to the Current from 6:00-7:00 on July 27—the 30th anniversary of the film release—to hear a new audio documentary about Purple Rain hosted by Andrea Swensson and Tom Weber.)
Bob Dylan was the earlier globally venerated music icon to come out of Minnesota, but unlike Dylan, Prince remained in Minnesota even as his career went into orbit—and that decision had a transformative effect on the state’s music scene. If Prince had abandoned his home state, Minnesota music would today exist in an alternate reality so different that it’s almost impossible to imagine. In the reality we know, Prince invented what became known as “the Minneapolis Sound,” a funk-rock-synthpop fusion that became one of the dominant commercial sounds on 80s pop radio. Prince-spawned acts—the Time, Apollonia 6, Sheila E, Mazarati—climbed the national charts, and producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis bestowed the Minneapolis Sound on artists ranging from Janet Jackson to George Michael to the Human League.
With the rise of Prince, Minnesota—a state previously known for having produced Dylan, the Andrews Sisters, and an impressive polka scene—became famous for a funky, danceable urban sound that grew out of our African-American music community but refused to obey boundaries of color or style, and Minneapolis became an international music mecca.
Prince’s genius seemed to arrive fully formed, almost as if by magic: he released his debut album (For You, 1978) at the age of 19, and its eponymous follow-up, released the following year, made him a breakout success with instant classics like “I Wanna Be Your Lover” and “I Feel For You.” He wrote, played, sang, and produced the entire collection himself, adding to the sense that somehow lightning had struck in Minneapolis. It had, but recently released compilations like Purple Snow: Forecasting the Minneapolis Sound (Numero Group) and Twin Cities Funk & Soul (Secret Stash Records) are finally shining a long-overdue spotlight on the small but tight-knit and inventive local R&B scene that spawned Prince.
Once Prince was out of the gate, there was no stopping him. Prince was made for the 80s, and the 80s were made for him. Seriously funky but also pop-friendly, Prince was at the forefront of artists who deployed synthesizers and samplers in conjunction with traditional rock instrumentation to create music that felt completely liberated—sexy and fun. “Sexy” was part of Prince’s playbook from day one: he knew how to tease his fans into a frenzy on record, on stage, and, crucially, on screen.
His provocative antics earned priceless condemnation from the voices of conventional morality (“Darling Nikki” inspired Tipper Gore to found the PMRC), and Prince—dressing as flamboyantly as the decade demanded, with a regal flair he might have learned from James Brown—played his bad-boy/pretty-boy role to the hilt. “Prince’s ‘1999’ and ‘Little Red Corvette’ videos,” remembered producer Sharon Oreck in an oral history of MTV, “were just smoke, then Prince’s face, then smoke, then Prince’s butt, and then smoke. […] They were, like, porn bad. His videos were so filled with smoke that everyone on the set would get diarrhea, because mineral oil was so thick in the air.”
Purple Rain represented Prince in full flower. While some fans and critics argue that Sign “O” the Times (1987) represents an even greater artistic triumph, Purple Rain‘s vast commercial success was not incidental to its epochal achievement. “When Doves Cry” epitomized the unique power of Prince; at decade’s end, critic Dave Marsh wrote that it “may have been the most influential single record of the 80s.” A stripped-down, percussive track with a vocal that’s so understated it’s sometimes half-spoken and—to the astonishment of music insiders who thought they knew how to make a record—no bass track, “When Doves Cry” seemed to break all the rules of pop songcraft, and yet Prince turned it into such an intoxicating single that it shot to number one for five weeks, holding even Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark” at bay.
Simultaneously, Albert Magnoli’s gloriously shameless film defined Prince’s personal mythology and made him one of the greatest pop icons of a decade that had more than its share. Set in Minneapolis, the film depicted First Avenue as a hot spot on the order of Studio 54; instead of driving along Highway 1 as they might have done in an L.A. movie, Prince and his costar Apollonia hopped on a purple motorcycle and cruised out into the Minneapolis suburbs to get “purified in the waters of Lake Minnetonka.” To this day, touring acts are visibly thrilled to discover that First Ave actually is a great club, that it actually does look like that (okay, not the dressing rooms), and that it remains the center of a thriving music scene.
Though he never had another smash album as big as the Purple Rain soundtrack, Prince remained a dominant commercial force throughout the 80s and early 90s, producing #1 hits ranging from the hard-flirting “Kiss” (1986) to the novelty “Batdance” (1989) to the sparkling “Cream” (1991) while cycling through various band configurations and sounds. Later film projects—including Under the Cherry Moon (1986) and Graffiti Bridge (1990)—sometimes invited more ridicule than praise, but quixotic as those efforts might have seemed, even stranger days were to come.
The early 90s marked a crucial point of transition in Prince’s career. He formed a fresh band—the New Power Generation—and released music that increasingly delved into hip-hop, meeting with a mixed reception. If some fans started to sense an identity crisis, they were affirmed by Prince’s 1993 decision to change his name to the unpronounceable glyph (“Love Symbol #2”) that had served as the title to the 1992 album ironically containing the single “My Name is Prince.” The 1993 release of a two-disc greatest hits collection also served to cap a remarkable run on the charts that ended with 1994’s #3 hit “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World,” Prince’s last single to date to crack the American top ten.
The mid-90s marked the end of Prince’s relationship with his label Warner Bros.—after releasing a quick series of low-selling albums to fulfill his contractual obligations, he broke from the label in 1996—and the beginning of his famously tumultuous relationship with the Internet. The iconoclastic perfectionist saw the Internet’s potential as a tool to allow him to independently manage his own fandom and distribute his own music, but he also grew increasingly concerned about the danger of having his material freely bootlegged.
Prince was the first major artist to release an album on the Internet (1997’s Crystal Ball) and from 2001-2006 ran the pioneering NPG Music Club to sell his music online by membership; but following the closure of that site, he became increasingly negative about the Internet, complaining that other sites (notably, YouTube) were benefiting by unauthorized circulation of his material. In an infamous 2010 statement, the online pioneer declared that “the Internet’s completely over.”
Releasing music both independently and through various short-term deals with major labels, in the late 90s and the first decade of the 2000s Prince released a flood of new material ranging from the obscure (the instrumental N.E.W.S. in 2003) to the consciously commercial (1999’s Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic and 2006’s 3121). He reclaimed his given name when his Warner Bros. publishing contract ended in 2000, and his widely-praised Super Bowl halftime show in 2007 proved to the largest possible audience that he was still a fiery live performer.
In the 2010s, Prince has stepped back into the public eye in a way rarely seen since the 90s. He’s formed another new band—the all-female 3RDEYEGIRL—and played rapturously reviewed shows with them at venues ranging from Minnesota casinos to London living rooms. He “took over” an entire episode of Arsenio Hall’s talk show, and duetted with Zooey Deschanel on a new song he premiered on a post-Super-Bowl episode of New Girl. He seems to have made some peace with the Internet, making selected material available on iTunes, Spotify, and YouTube—and even joining Twitter, or at least participating in 3RDEYEGIRL’s use of it.
Perhaps most surprisingly, Prince has re-signed with Warner Bros. Media coverage of the deal focused on the promised new music and Purple Rain reissue, but a telling detail of the press release is that the deal gives Prince ownership of his Warner Bros. masters. The artist who wore the word SLAVE on his cheek during a 1993 legal battle with his label is now a free man.
As I was writing this essay, Prince sent word that he’d like to welcome my colleague Andrea Swensson to hear some of his new music at Paisley Park. You can read Andrea’s own account of her late-night visit, which illustrates how Prince is continuing to mentor and advocate for new artists. His Chanhassen studio, which had sat largely closed to the public for two decades, has recently been re-opened for a series of “Paisley Park After Dark” concerts showcasing local musicians—and, sometimes, Prince himself.
Artists associated with Prince are still active, and benefitting from renewed interest in Prince’s early years. Revolution drummer Bobby Z holds an annual benefit concert at First Avenue, childhood friend and collaborator André Cymone just released his first new music in decades, NPG drummer Michael Bland is a busy performer and producer…the list goes on.
Though enough time has passed that the Minneapolis Sound is no longer the Minneapolis sound, a new generation of local performers are exemplifying the 80s-era spirit of cross-genre fertilization and collaboration, now with a strong and adventurous hip-hop scene that’s produced the area’s best-known current artists. Prince isn’t seen on local stages as commonly as he was in the past, but he’s remained aware and supportive of what’s going on. In a classic Prince moment, he showed up backstage when the local supergroup GAYNGS played First Ave in 2010. Prince picked up a guitar and played a little, but ultimately declined to take the stage; some reported hearing him make a comment to the effect of, “Looks like they’ve got it under control.”
Prince’s legacy in Minnesota is multilayered—from his early collaborations with neighborhood bands, to his towering hits that put Minneapolis on the world’s music map, to the venues he founded (Paisley Park and the former downtown club Glam Slam), to the enduring contributions of musicians he’s played with, to the example the Minneapolis Sound set for the dynamic scene of today, to Prince’s own ongoing releases and performances.
Perhaps most importantly, though, Prince’s music is evidence—to the world, and to Minnesotans ourselves—of the diversity of our state, and of our music. When you listen to Prince, you hear the influences of all the artists he grew up with: black, white, funky, rocking, groovy, prickly. It’s not the sound of Minnesota’s lonesome prairie, it’s the sound of our dense cities. This mystically utopian artist has proven, and continues to prove, that music truly can break barriers—if u want it 2.
Previous Artists of the Month:
January 2013: Andrea Swensson on Dan Wilson
February 2013: Barb Abney on Low
March 2013: David Campbell on 12 Rods
April 2013: Jon Schober on the Jayhawks
May 2013: Jon Schober on the Hopefuls
June 2013: Jon Schober on the Hang Ups
July 2013: Jon Schober on the Soviettes
August 2013: Jon Schober on the Suburbs
September 2013: Jon Schober on the Replacements
October 2013: Walt Dizzo on Charlie Parr
November 2013: Andrea Swensson on Information Society
December 2013: Andrea Swensson on Sounds of Blackness
January 2014: Jay Gabler on Lookbook
March 2014: Jim McGuinn on Jeremy Messersmith
April 2014: Ali Lozoff on Lifter Puller
May 2014: Mark Wheat on Atmosphere