Prince Blog Series, Part 1: The Artist Known As Prince

If nothing else, Prince was always, from the day he arrived on the scene, true to himself. He wrote and composed his own work even playing almost all of the instruments on his first two albums. It was also apparent in his style of dress wearing skin tight gold pants in his first national television appearance, his message, his bold nonconformity, and his unrelenting trek into areas of controversy.

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Part 1

Prince and Being True to Himself

If nothing else, Prince was always, from the day he arrived on the scene, true to himself.  He wrote and composed his own work even playing almost all of the instruments on his first two albums. It was also apparent in his style of dress wearing skin tight gold pants in his first national television appearance, his message, his bold nonconformity, and his unrelenting trek into areas of controversy. His vulnerability on the song “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad” is hauntingly apparent. You can’t help but feel for him until you hear the boldness of “Bambi”, where he suggests to a lesbian prospect, “it’s better with a man”. Prince was famously prolific; however, that becomes more significant with his exploration various genre. He defied limitations. He did not allow himself to be defined by others. He was always about innovation and creating something new and original. His talent allowed him to transcend the rules of race, gender, culture, politics and much more. Prince was fun and funny, yet teasing and hypersexual. He was highly spiritual and inspirational. Beyond that he was androgynous, stylish, rude, irreverent, curious, self-effacing, creative, generous, proud, passionate, health-conscious, intelligent, and expressive. He was unparalleled in his accomplishments and popular both because of and in spite of his personality. He had known rejection, but ironically enough, those who wanted to meet him were faced with the prospect of just as likely being rejected. Just ask Matt Damon. And if rumors are to be believed, Slash and David Lee Roth.

Prince and Minneapolis

When Prince appeared on national television on American Bandstand, he appeared to respond quite oddly giving very brief answers and even holding up 4 fingers in response to a question. It has been suggested that he took it very personally when Dick Clark suggested that Minneapolis was not a place known for producing great music. But one must admit that he did seem nervous his first time on national television. Even so, Prince’s companionship with Minneapolis was like a marriage. It lasted until death. He built his famous Paisley Park Studios in Chanhassen, just southeast of Minneapolis, in 1988. He patronized local business and bought properties there. It would be very hard to imagine, at least for his most enduring and loyal fans, a world where you thought of one without the other. There are a few remarkable things that Minneapolis is known for, but among musicians and fans, none of those come near to eclipsing the name Prince or even Paisley Park. So add to my lengthy list of Princely traits the word “loyal”; at least, to his city and for quite some time (most significantly 1977-1996), his first record company–a topic for another time. Prince chose none other than his real hometown for the setting of the legendary Purple Rain. It very well could’ve been a fictionalized spot in New York City or L.A., but when you hear of Lake Minnetonka and First Avenue, you see Prince’s real roots in a place with 13 lakes and lots of snow. The name comes from a Sioux word (mni) for “water”. Oprah asked The Artist in her interview with him why he stayed in this place of few notable celebrity residents. His reply? “It’s so cold that it keeps the bad people out.” It was one of the few consistencies about him in his career with most in addition to his level of musical skills and showmanship. And with his passing, it was shown that Minneapolis loved him just as he had loved her. Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges called him “a child of our city”. The Star Tribune quotes her as saying, “Prince never left us, and we never left him.”

The Minneapolis Sound

The Minneapolis Sound was considered a sub-genre of R&B/Funk whose origination can be credited back to one man, Prince. Prince was heavily influenced by funk bands, traditional R&B, rock, and even folk music (i.e. Joni Mitchell). His exposure and mastery of multiple instruments further pushed him further into making a more distinctive flavor of music that tapped into not only his influences but also his impressive skill set. When you add in the advent for synthesizers in the late 70s and much of the 80s, you add in a lot of possibilities. Someone as individualistic as the Prince of the Dirty Mind and Controversy eras was sure to find a lot of possibilities for more honestly expressing himself rather than just regurgitating the riffs and instrumentation of the past. Prince was looking to create something that didn’t yet exist; something that defied categorization. Was the Dirty Mind album a hybrid of funk, r&b, 80s pop, and rock? Or was it something of its own that defied description? Perhaps, that was what was so importance of the Minneapolis sound. The obscurity of Minneapolis in association with any kind of genre or distinctive art was the perfect setup to allow Prince’s infectious sound to be labeled. Minneapolis was not previously associated with music or much in the way of pop culture in any meaningful way before Prince. So it became the perfect signature to identify his product. Even the name Minneapolis just sounds has a different ring to it than say, Memphis or Chicago, whose constant mention may have reduced their distinctiveness. It is a city in one of the northernmost states in which you would be highly unlikely to think of as the source of funk at least until Mr. Nelson entered the national stage.

Prince’s Sound: The Proteges

Very soon after his entry into the world of musical celebrity, the sound extended well beyond Mr. Nelson and his bands, whose presence was initially only necessary for onstage performances where instruments would have to be played simultaneously unlike in the studio where he could write, arrange, sing, and play every single instrument laying one track at a time–an interesting scenario that would encourage much experimentation naturally for someone creative. For someone like Prince, that potential would be exploited exponentially. One is left to think that the mentoring of a band may have lead to what came next. Prince’s reach then began to extend to other talent. The most remarkable legacy of this is his introduction of dance/funk band The Time. Not only did Prince shape their sound, but he also introduced swagger to the band reportedly encouraging them to emulate the attitude of his hero, heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali. What is well-known to many who discovered the man prior to or during the 1980s is the number of proteges he introduced to the world–mostly female to boot. The list included Vanity, Apollonia, and Sheila E initially. It would go on to include Sheena Easton, Jill Jones, The Family, Ingrid Chavez and many who during the period after the original Minneapolis Sound had been not so much abandoned as transcended by Prince and his musical repertoire that relied on constant evolution and exploration of many genres and versions of himself as chose to express it. The list could be much bigger until you realize just how difficult it is to say who was a true protege versus a collaborator like former band members Wendy and Lisa or Rosie Gaines who are immensely talented themselves and contributed much to his “sound” and possibly influenced his worldview even if in a subtle fashion. However, with proteges (whose music he wrote and produced), it was Prince who was infamously in total control. He had a message and a mission, and they were a part of that. You could hear not only his sound but also his worldview, boldness, and style in songs like “A Love Bizarre” and “Sex Shooter”.  In the case of proteges like Apollonia and Sheila E., you could see his influence in their onstage fashion and demeanor as if they were members of his own band. Oftentimes they were actually members of the band before or after their own musical releases. This was the case for Sheila E. on classic albums Sign O’ The Times and LoveSexy. He definitely shaped The Time although he insisted, particularly after the firing of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, that it was Morris Day’s band. But all in all, Prince was about influence. He did it not only by constantly reinventing himself but also by making an impact for and through other people.

Patrick Norris (Click to visit my Facebook Page)


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