Dance Electric: Synths, Soul and the Sound of Prince
"If you're so bad, change your sound."
“Don’t need no cymbals, no saxophone/ All I need is a style of my own.”
—Prince, “Purple Music”
On the afternoon of April 21, 2016, after it was announced that Prince had been found dead inside an elevator at his Paisley Park studios, I reflected on more than three decades as a fan of the man whose musical prowess, brilliance and sheer productivity made him one of the defining musical artists of the 20th century—and beyond.
Even in his final days, as he performed the jazz lounge–inspired Piano and Mic concerts, Prince was still experimenting with musical arrangements and tweaking his ever-changing sound before the sky turned all purple and there were people running everywhere. A sonic chameleon till the end, Prince composed massive amounts of work during his lifetime. While many of those songs have long been recognized as superb, the aural avalanche of unreleased material that surfaced after his death was mind-boggling, exciting and a tad overwhelming.
One song I’d never heard before was “Purple Music,” a track where Prince talked about the high he gets in the studio creating music. “Don’t need no cymbals, no saxophone, just need to find me a style of my own,” he sang. “Ain’t got no theory, ain’t got no rules I just let the purple music tell my body what to do.” The never-released track served as a posthumous self-portrait of a musical genius at work.
Early in his career, when Warner Brothers Records was still selling him to the public as “the next Stevie Wonder,” the label didn’t realize that Prince Rogers Nelson was a singular genius who had no intention of being compared to anyone. When he signed with WBR in 1977, the label discussed bringing in Earth, Wind & Fire leader Maurice White to produce his debut. A “studio rat” who was already savvy in the lab at nineteen, Prince balked at the plan, but still had to convince the label of his talents.
Warner sent him to work at Amigo Studios in North Hollywood. Since they owned the joint, it gave the suits an opportunity to spy on Prince, making them realize that while “the kid” was young, he was already developing innovative concepts. The label decided to let Prince flesh out his ideas, which would take a few years transform from safe R&B pop into a dance electric signature sound that would define the 1980s.
“Prince had total creative control over his art,” says Bill Adler, the writer who interviewed Prince for Rolling Stone in 1981. “Everything that was great about ’70s music, from the funk to Joni Mitchell to punk, was in him. When Prince emerged from Minneapolis, musically, he was already fully formed.”
“A lotta records today are producers’ records,” Prince said in a 1981 interview. “To me it doesn’t mean anything, because I don’t believe in any act, really, which had to rely on a producer. What happens if the cat dies?”
“A lotta records today are producers’ records,” Prince told Andy Schwartz of New York Rocker in 1981. “To me it doesn’t mean anything, because I don’t believe in any act, really, which had to rely on a producer. What happens if the cat dies? There you go, there goes your sound—you obviously didn’t have one. The producer bakes the whole cake.”
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Coming of age in the early Seventies, Prince was as influenced by rock radio in his hometown of Minneapolis as he was by the 45s he bought at Dee’s Record Center every week. Eventually he would combine everything from be-bop to classical, funk to punk, gospel to garage, acoustic instruments and synthesized technology to make his music. Back then, electronic instruments were becoming more prominent in both genres with prog pioneers Pink Floyd, Emerson, Lake & Palmer and Yes rising in popularity while soul artists Sly Stone, the Ohio Players and Stevie Wonder were also plugging in, incorporating electronic sounds into their music.
When he was fifteen, Prince ran away from home and lived with the family of his long-time friend and bassist André Cymone from 1974 until signing a record deal in 1977. “Prince was into everything,” recalls Cymone, whose latest project 1969 was released this year. “He was always more of a ‘head’ than I was, meaning if Prince was into a certain artist, he wanted to hear everything that they did and study it.”
As teenagers, Prince and Cymone were like brothers, both of whom cherished music. Playing the role of bass player, Cymone stood beside his friend jamming in the basement, privy to Prince’s early development as a musician. One of the artists Prince studied was Stevie Wonder, a former child prodigy turned pop genius. In 1972, Wonder began delving into new technology when he collaborated with synthesizer wizards Robert Margouleff and Malcolm Cecil. The duo made electronic music using their custom-built T.O.N.T.O. (The Original New Timbral Orchestra), which Wonder discovered after hearing their album Zero Time created under the name Tonto’s Expanding Head. Stevie used them for the first time on Music of My Mind.
On Margouleff and Cecil:
In addition, Wonder was also digging the Moog music on the 1968 Grammy-winning Switched-On Bach, the Walter (Wendy) Carlos album that ushered synthesizers into the mainstream. “A lot of people don’t consider the Moog an instrument in a sense,” Wonder told UK pop paper Sounds in 1972. “They feel it’s gonna take a lot of work away from musicians and all that. But I feel it is an instrument and is a way to directly express what comes from your mind. It gives you so much of a sound in the broader sense. What you’re actually doing with an oscillator is taking a sound and shaping it into whatever form you want. Maybe a year and a half ago I couldn’t have done these kinds of tracks.”
“Stevie ‘humanized’ synths in that he made them sound as alive and organic as traditional instruments,” says writer Zeth Lundy, author of the 33 1/3 book Songs in the Key of Life. “If you fall into the faction of discerning music snobs who turn their noses up at synths and ‘soulless’ technology, it becomes harder to disavow that kind of thing with someone like Stevie, because the sound of the synth becomes so undeniable. I think that is a large part of his genius—besides being a great writer, vocalist, and multidisciplinary musician—he made synths sound different.”
“Stevie was the blueprint for Prince: the musician who writes and plays it all, dedicates himself to the studio and the craft in this almost monastic fashion.”
“Stevie was the blueprint for Prince,” Lundy says. “The musician who writes and plays it all, dedicates himself to the studio and the craft in this almost monastic fashion. I see Prince as the second coming of Stevie, the next logical step of that archetype’s storyline. However, Prince streamlined it, made the music less cluttered and simpler, like a reduction on a stovetop.
Margouleff and Cecil also worked with the 1973 Isley Brothers album 3+3. “Malcolm built that [T.O.N.T.O.] synthesizer,” explained Isley Brothers keyboardist Chris Jasper, who played an ARP synthesizer on 3+3. “It wasn’t as cumbersome as earlier models, but it was still pretty big. He got some great sounds out of it. Synthesizers looked very different back then. There were a lot of patch cords and it was very complicated. Originally Moogs were used to create sounds and different approaches to atonal music.
When Prince was sixteen, he bought his first keyboard/synthesizer, an Oberheim 4-voice, from a local shop called Roger Dodger Music. “That was his first foray into synths,” Cymone says. Although many Black bands of the era featured horn sections, Grand Central opted for Linda’s keyboard playing (under Prince’s guidance) to fill-in the sound. According Alex Hahn’s recently released The Rise of Prince: 1958-1988, he got the idea after watching Sly & the Family Stone trumpeter Cynthia Robinson doing her thing at a live gig. Substituting horns with synthesizers became essential to the style he developed in his home studio that would later become known as the Minneapolis Sound.
In Prince: The Making of a Pop Music Phenomenon authors Stan Hawkins and Sarah Niblock described the Minneapolis Sound as “…characterized by highly processed [Linn LM-1] drum tracks with less bass than in traditional funk. Dominated by keyboards and rhythm guitar parts, with brash synthesizers substituting for the horn section, the Minneapolis Sound comprised a rhythmic underlay that was less syncopated than funk and clearly influenced by New Wave.”
In 2014, former Bowie producer and ambient music innovator Brian Eno told New Yorker writer Sasha Frere-Jones: “Someone told me that he read an interview with Prince, where Prince said that the record which most influenced him was my Another Green World, which was incredibly flattering. It’s my understanding that Prince had picked up on the idea that you could have records that were kind of sonic landscapes with vocals on them, and that’s sort of what Another Green World was.” While he might’ve overinflated the impact of his record, Prince was listening to Eno in addition to Joe Zawinul of Weather Report, Herbie Hancock, Bernie Worell, George Duke, Roger Troutman of Zapp and the recently deceased Junie Morrison.
“In Black music, other than Stevie, I don’t think there’s anyone that used Moogs funkier, or more prolifically and musically adventurous than Junie Morrison,” says Burnt Sugar keyboardist Bruce Mack. “Junie was with the Ohio Players in their early days. That’s him doing all the keyboard work and the crazy voice on the classic ‘Funky Worm.’ He also did tons of work with Funkadelic and Parliament. He co-wrote ‘One Nation Under a Groove.’”
In the November, 1975 issue of Black Music, journalist Davitt Sigerson wrote the feature ‘Get ARP And Get Down’ as an attempt to explain the “proliferation of new and strange keyboard instruments” and electronics surging through soul music. “The basic idea is that they generate a sound (either smooth or rough) by means of a vibrating gismo known as an oscillator. They then take this sound and do things to it: alter the volume, tone, musical value, the time it takes to build, peak and decay, and the attack—whether it’s a staccato burst, or a siren-like continuum, as in the Ohio Players’ ‘Funky Worm.’ The large Moog is probably the most versatile of synthesizers, but the more straightforward ARP (and also the Minimoog) finds favor with the instinctive musicians more common in soul music.”
Morrison told journalist Chairman Mao in 2015, “I would travel all over the world looking for tech to use on our tracks. As time would have it, I found an ARP Soloist in a shop somewhere in NYC. Immediately, it sung to me and I heard an Arabian-style riff that had ‘worm’ written all over it. I bought this synth and went into the studio with it.”
When cultural critics talk about pioneers of electronic music, rarely are Black music innovators like Stevie Wonder, Bernie Worrell and Prince acknowledged for their contributions.
Still, when cultural critics talk about pioneers of electronic music, rarely are Black music innovators acknowledged for their contributions. “I do think generally that when people talk of the history of electronic pop music they talk about Kraftwerk and Moroder, deservedly, but hardly anyone mentions Stevie Wonder’s pioneering work, or Bernie Worrell,” explains Totally Wired: Postpunk Interviews and Overviews author Simon Reynolds, whose electronic music column blissblog is essential reading. “Equally, they don’t mention the fusion guys like Herbie Hancock or Joe Zawinul. That might be because their use of synths was so musical, groovy, jazzy, virtuosic verging on florid, that it wasn’t as starkly futuristic as the Germans work.”
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Prince left Grand Central in 1976 and, along with Sound 80 studio owner/lyricist Chris Moon and first manager Owen Husney, began working on demos. Prince went back to Roger Dodger and, according to a 2005 interview with the music store owner Dumas, bought a Yamaha DX-7, E-mu sampler and an ARP Omni, which he would later use on 1999. Dumas also taught Prince to program the machines. A year later, the young artist signed with Warner Brothers. Although he used bass synths, Polymoogs, ARPs, Minimoogs and Oberheim 4 Voice on his 1978 debut For You and his self-titled follow-up a year later, both albums were innocent romps compared to his punkish wild child Dirty Mind, a groundbreaking third album that surprised the world in 1980.
“A lot of Prince’s flip had to do with a UK review that said that he was tame compared to British acts,” Cymone explains. “Prince took that very seriously and said, ‘Maybe we need to step things up a little bit.’ ”
Like Robert Johnson standing at the crossroads shaking hands with the devil, Prince changed dramatically. “A lot of Prince’s flip had to do with a UK review that said that he was tame compared to British acts,” Cymone explained years later. “Prince took that very seriously and said, ‘Maybe we need to step things up a little bit.’” That same year, Prince was touring. Cymone recalled visiteing CBGB’s, The Ritz and the Bottom Line in New York, checking out different punk and new wave bands. “It started making us understand what the underground was all about,” he said.
Naturally, Prince wasn’t going to be throwing his pretty self into any mosh pits, but he did plug into a grittier aesthetic. Having previously sold his image as the coy boy, in 1980 he came back hard both sartorially and sonically with Dirty Mind. The punk influence could be seen in the stark album cover and heard in the music’s stripped-down demo quality. From the opening title track to the closing “Partyup,” the songs were as frantic anything by The Ramones or The Clash.
“The key to Prince’s evolution was his being a multi-instrumentalist who played well,” says Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid, who gigged at CBGBs often during the Eighties and would perform twice with Prince a decade later. “He was also coming of age during a revolutionary time in music, so he could go play a P-Funk vibe or a Motown-type thing and then turn around and play something that reminded you of Weather Report.”
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With Dirty Mind, Prince proved he was not only a brilliant musician but also a sonic auteur and a brave writer adept at world building. Like “new wave” science fiction writer J.G. Ballard, who had a knack for taking everyday locations and turning them into something otherworldly, Prince created a fantastic Afro-futuristic hedonistic universe that he called “Uptown,” where anything (especially musically) was possible. Dig if you will the picture of Prince going there, circa 1982:
According to Genius.com, the real Uptown “…refers to the popular commercial district in southwestern Minneapolis, Minnesota, centered at the Uptown Theater (the former Lagoon) at the intersection of Hennepin Avenue and Lagoon Avenue.” Prince however, turned “uptown” into his own personal utopia where “we don’t let society, tell us how it’s supposed to be/ My clothes, my hair, we don’t care/it’s all about being there/Everybody’s going Uptown/ That’s where I want to be/ Uptown, set your mind free.”
“Uptown” represented nothing less than a sonic declaration of independence set in motion the same year Ronald Reagan was elected.
“Uptown” was also what Prince called his studio, but the song was bigger than any one place. It represented nothing less than a sonic declaration of independence, set in motion the same year Ronald Reagan was elected. In Prince’s mind “Uptown” was an imagined sanctuary advocating freaky and free behavior as well as musical, religious and political liberation. “Uptown is a state of mind,” he told a reporter. “It has to do with how free you are.” Listening to Dirty Mind with headphones on, in my imagination “Uptown” became a strange city I could actually visit, a blissful neon-lit landscape where sex and religion were not shameful and futuristic music was plentiful.
It was during this period that Prince became more confident in his skills and began composing and producing such side projects as The Time, Vanity (Apollonia) 6, Shelia E. and Jill Jones, shaping and refining his emerging electro funk/dance style on their early projects under the pseudonym Jamie Starr. “The sound of those records took you to a different atmosphere,” says producer Dallas Austin (TLC, Joi). “That’s what I wanted for TLC.” Austin cited the Apollonia 6 song “Blue Limousine” as the track that lit his fire when planning his production on the group’s sophomore album CrazySexyCool. “I wanted T-Boz to sound like Prince used to sound, but put on her own thing. From the beginning, I made sure that TLC had a distinguished sound, but on CrazySexyCool, I wanted to bring out the Prince side.”
However, just as Prince was getting deeper into punk, the music was literally fading as a new breed of young Brits transferred their angst into a new (post-punk, post-everything) called New Wave. Embracing synthesizers fully, groups like Soft Cell, Ultravox, Heaven 17 and The Human League became early Prince influencers.
After Dirty Mind came two quick follow-ups: Controversy (1981) and 1999 (1982), both breakthroughs in their own right. On the former Prince using a LM-1 Linn drum for the first time on the track “Private Joy.” The latter was “the first record on which Prince started to explore more complex drum machine patterns and keyboard textures,” according to biographer Ben Greenman, the author of Dig If You Will the Picture. That trilogy of albums was a tour-de-force of imagination comprising high tech, gritty and atmospheric music that transcended everything before it.
“Prince utilized things in dance music, rock, jazz fusion, new wave,” Reid said. In the studio putting the final touches on Shade, a soon-to-be-released Living Colour album, he chuckled. “As far as influences, he’d play things out and see where they took him. He was never afraid of what people would say. The dare-to-be-different ethos was very much alive in his work.”
Prince’s love for both sci-fi and electronic music came together beautifully on Controversy’s staggering “Annie Christian” which sounds like a slightly unhinged cyberfunk homage to Numan’s New Wave smash “Cars.” Yet while Controversy gave us a taste of his new wave funk, it wasn’t until the following year with the stunning 1999 that Prince went all the way.
Composing a symphony that was both soulful and synthetic, Prince constructed a synthesizer soundtrack not unlike the scores Tangerine Dream (Sorcerer) and Vangelis (Chariots of Fire) were making for actual films. “The synthesizer had two direct impacts, one on economics and the other on vision,’ writes C. Liegh McInnis in The Lyrics Of Prince Rogers Nelson. “The affordable home synthesizer of the 1980s allowed more individuals the freedom to make music. Because it was specifically designed to mimic a wide variety of instruments, it allows one person to articulate his vision more freely. As Kashif asserts, ‘The synthesizer is one device that allows you to make a myriad of sounds and orchestral textures that are a unique and whole new palate of sounds.’ (Kashif, 2000). This allows an individual who may not be skilled in a variety of instruments or may not have the money to pay a lot of musicians to achieve the vision in his head without the economic restrictions or limitations of the past.
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“It must be noted that while Prince is using the synthesizer, he is also playing the guitar, the bass and the drums on almost every single and on every album,” McInnis continues. “Through the vision of Stevie Wonder and Sun Ra, Prince uses the synthesizer to play with and accompany himself like very few have been able to do. In fact, what Prince does is aid in making the synthesizer an instrument in its own right. Rather than just mimicking sounds with it, Prince used to synthesizer to create other, unique sounds.”
Back in the early ‘80s it sounded as if all of Prince’s music was inspired by electricity, sex and politics, morphing from ditties to dance floor anthems. The mojo of those recordings spread to other emerging genres of American dance music including Chicago House and Detroit Techno. “At the Paradise Garage, whenever DJ Larry Levan played ‘Controversy’ or ‘1999’ the place would go crazy,” recalls Domingo Cante, producer of the outdoor dance festival documentary Hands to the Sky. “As soon as that robotic voice at the beginning of ‘1999’ played through that Richard Long sound system, people would just lose it.”
That robotic voice which opens the title track of 1999 ushers us towards a sonic rabbit hole as Prince drags us through a wonderland of circuitry and sonic textures that included the celebratory futurism of “1999” and “D.M.S.R.,” the auto-eroticism of “Little Red Corvette” and “Lady Cab Driver” and the cybersexy “Let’s Pretend We’re Married” and “International Lover.”
“His mastery of sonic texture and detailing has exploded,” wrote Musician magazine critic Laura Fissinger. “Here he takes a bevy of synthesizers, those pets of the poker-face dada set, and wrests intimate eloquence from them as if they were human voices. Digital drums and infinite other percussion devices are flesh-and-blooded, too.”
The Minneapolis Sound spawned hundreds of acts who had nothing to do with the city, most notably Ready for the World (“Oh Sheila”), Georgio (“Tina Cherry”) and Chico DeBarge (“Talk to Me”). Former Prince associates Terry Lewis and Jimmy Jam would go on to take Janet Jackson to new heights, Andre Cymone made similar moves with Jody Watley, while former Prince bassist Brownmark launched the band Mazarati and guitarist Jesse Johnson spun off Ta Mara & the Seen—all developing their own future-funky productions based on that synth-heavy sound. Prince basically left the Minneapolis Sound behind after Purple Rain, because, as he told me during a 1999 interview, “the biters” were swiping his style.
Over a career that spanned 38 years, Prince’s often seductive, sometimes spooky black noise inspired countless left-of-center artists and producers including Detroit Techo posses, Chicago House folks, Q-Tip, Massive Attack, Dallas Austin, Tricky, Joi, Erykah Badu, D’Angelo, Ween, Pharrell Williams, Beck, Janelle Monáe, Thundercat, Van Hunt, Anderson Paak, Bilal and countless others.
When I had the chance to speak with Prince at Paisley Park, we discussed his many digital disciples and he began goofing on production upstart Timbaland. Apparently the then new-jack producer had been whining in a magazine interview that others were stealing his sound. “Hey, if you’re so bad, change your sound,” Prince mocked. “That’s what I’ve always done.”
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