Local Current Blog

BrownMark explains how he and Prince reinvented bass in the ’80s

BrownMark performing at First Avenue with the Revolution in 2017. (Emmet Kowler/MPR)

When you think about the Minneapolis Sound, synths and drum machines probably jump to mind before you think of bass. Possibly the best-known thing Prince ever did regarding bass guitar was to leave it out of one of his most iconic hits: “When Doves Cry.”

As BrownMark explains, though, there was a reason that song fit in on Purple Rain. In the mid-1980s, he and Prince were rethinking the role of bass in pop music. While Bobby Z and Linn drum machines kept the beats crisp, and while Prince himself squealed on guitar, BrownMark was holding down the low end with what he calls a “wild” style borrowed from funk.

I asked BrownMark to talk about his bass style as part of The Current’s breakdown of Prince’s sound. BrownMark (a.k.a. Mark Brown) had a unique insight, as the first bassist to work with Prince after he parted ways with early collaborator André Cymone.

BrownMark says he and Prince clicked because the bassist was readily able to grasp what Prince was looking for at the time: a collaborative, flexible style that defied easy imitation. “I learned very quickly, this guy is looking for originality,” he remembered. “He wants me to develop my own groove and add that to what he’s doing. He always looked for that real wild sound.”

The “wild” style was inspired by the legendary bassist BrownMark cites as Prince’s singular influence, far above all others, when it comes to bass guitar.

“The way Prince approached the bass was exactly like Larry Graham,” said BrownMark. “I understood Larry’s style with Sly and the Family Stone, and so when I got with Prince I figured out very quickly what he was looking for. He wanted that real raw, rumbling style of bass that it’s very hard to find a pattern to, but you know it’s there.”

BrownMark pointed out that on early Prince songs like “Head,” there was a “funky bass line, but the notes were easily understood.” He thinks the song “Controversy” marked a point of transition. “He wanted to break out of that, he wanted that Sly and the Family Stone sound — that live, raw musical feel that’s just grooving underneath the structured pattern of a song.”

Once Prince and BrownMark had figured out how to achieve that sound, “he kind of gave me free rein,” said the bassist. “For instance, ‘Computer Blue’ is just a rumbling bass line. If you try to listen for a pattern, it’s going to be very difficult to find it — but it’s there. ‘America’ is another one of those real rumbling bass line.”

In some cases, for example on ‘Pop Life,’ Prince would still write bass lines and bring them to BrownMark. “You could tell they had a pattern.”

Increasingly, Prince encouraged BrownMark to get creative. “Anything that didn’t have a pattern was usually a bass line that I created on my own. I would come up with a groove, and he would round it out with a synth bass. If you listen closely to the music, you’ll hear a synth bass pretty much ghosting what I do.”

What did the synth bass contribute, besides atmosphere? “It gave me the ability to go an octave below. When you play the two patterns together, it gives you this fuzzy, distorted octave sound. It’s just really funky and really cool. For instance, ‘Erotic City’ or ‘Love Bizarre,’ you really hear the bass and synth gelling together to create this rumbling sound.” Questlove has described the style as “ghost noting.”

When the Revolution played those songs live, who handled the keyboard parts? “Matt Fink was a master at two-hand playing,” explains BrownMark. “He could get funky with his left hand, while doing all the keyboard parts that were required of him with his right hand.

“I would set the patterns,” continues the bassist. “Once Bobby kept a straight beat, I was able to go in and out of all the empty pockets. I would fill them in, and Matt kept a basic pattern that intertwined with my patterns.”

He elaborated: “Listen to the way we do ‘Controversy’ now compared to the album version. The album version is just a synth bass. The way I play ‘Controversy’ is different than any bass player Prince brought on after me, because I rumble and pluck along with the same bass pattern that the synth is doing, which creates this funkier sound.”

So “When Doves Cry” wasn’t just a crazy experiment: it was part of a wider pattern of musical exploration. “I was amazed,” remembers BrownMark about the first time he heard that song. “It was the first time I had heard a song that had no bass, but yet you could feel the drive in the track.”

Prince’s collaboration with BrownMark wasn’t always harmonious. The two developed what BrownMark called “a fallout on a lot of different levels” around the time of Parade, the album that included “Kiss.”

BrownMark isn’t heard on the single version of that song, despite the fact that he developed the track’s music with his band Mazarati. Prince originally gave the song to Mazarati, but what BrownMark and his bandmates did to it was so funky that Prince reclaimed it and went on to enjoy a massive hit. You can hear BrownMark’s bass playing on the extended version of “Kiss,” where his distinctive rumble comes in after the four-minute mark.

Eventually, the Revolution dissolved and Brownmark went on to other projects. He still tuned in to what Prince was putting out, and liked a lot of it even though it wasn’t quite the same. “I loved the way he approached ‘If I Were Your Girlfriend,'” he said: “what he did with the bass and drums on that, the pluck effect.”

In the ’80s, BrownMark heard bands like the Deele (whose members included “Babyface” Edmonds and “L.A.” Reid) and Ready for the World trying to mimic that Revolutionary style. Now, he hears that influence in artists like Jamiroquai.

“Because it wasn’t in the front,” he mused, most fans never realized the importance of the bass in the Revolution’s sound. Now, “I get bass players all the time e-mailing me with an MP3 of their version of something that we did back then, asking me, ‘Is it correct?’ The musicians, the bass players and the drummers, they recognize that bottom end was rocking, and they want to know how it worked.”

It sounds like people are still trying to catch up with the Revolution, I said. “Yeah,” laughed the band’s bassist. “Even us!”

Read more features on Prince’s multifaceted sound — and tune in to our new Purple Current stream for music by Prince, his inspirations, and artists carrying his legacy forward.