When Dystopian Dance Party recorded our Prince spinoff podcast earlier this summer, we talked about how the glory days of the Prince protégé were pretty much over after 1987. As we’ve seen in this series so far, the half-life for Prince’s side projects seemed to have been about three albums, max; after that, either he started to lose interest, or his charges began to bristle under their lack of creative control. There was also the practical matter of Prince’s commercial decline in the latter half of the decade. While 1987’s Sign “O” the Times and 1988‘s Lovesexy were both incredibly strong albums, they fell short of sales expectations; The Black Album, meanwhile, was infamously scrapped at the eleventh hour before release. Prince still recorded for other artists in the late 1980s, but not with the same svengali-like approach he’d taken in the earlier part of the decade; his few attempts at traditional “protégé” albums, such as the aforementioned follow-up records by Sheila E. and Jill Jones, the Time‘s Corporate World, and a solo debut for dancer Cat Glover, remained in the proverbial vault.
By 1990, however, Prince was ready to try his hand once again at the idolmaking game. The hit soundtrack for 1989’s Batman had returned him to a state of financial solvency, and his new film and soundtrack project, Graffiti Bridge, was an attempt to aim for the mainstream–a sequel to Purple Rain, at that! So, just as he had with his feature debut, Prince filled the film with a stable of peripheral talent: including the breakout stars from the previous movie, Morris Day and the Time. In addition, much like early configurations of Purple Rain‘s soundtrack, about half of the accompanying album was devoted to tracks from the film’s guest stars. The problem was that Graffiti Bridge wasn’t Purple Rain, and Prince’s 1990-era side projects were a far cry from their 1984 equivalents.
Graffiti Bridge isn’t all bad, of course–or at least, the album isn’t. As mentioned before, the Time’s tracks are basically a less satisfying appetizer for their own Pandemonium; and the best of Prince’s tracks are, conspicuously, the ones he pilfered from earlier (and better) unreleased projects. But “Round and Round” by then-13-year-old Tevin Campbell was one of Prince’s most successful attempts at writing and producing in a New Jack Swing mode, not to mention one of his most radio-friendly songs in years: the second-biggest single on the album, in fact, placing at Number 12 on the Billboard Hot 100 and Number 3 on the R&B charts. It is, admittedly, something of a stretch to call Tevin Campbell a Prince “protégé”–he was actually discovered by legendary producer Quincy Jones–but Prince did write and produce several songs for his 1993 sophomore album I’m Ready, including the original version of the classic Gold Experience ballad “Shhh.” Another track from these sessions, “The P,” thankfully didn’t make it to wax; bootleg versions are in circulation, however, for any masochists out there with a sick desire to hear Tevin Campbell rap about genitals.
Another decent protégé from the Graffiti Bridge era, if not an especially remarkable one, was Elisa Fiorillo: a former Star Search contestant who can be heard on the Time’s track “Love Machine” (though, confusingly, in the movie her part is lip-synced by Ingrid Chavez). Fiorillo’s own Paisley Park debut, I Am, was released the day before Graffiti Bridge, with production handled mostly by Prince’s longtime engineer David “Z.” Rivkin. Prince contributed several songs, however, as well as production and instrumental duties for the gauzy, sensual single “Oooh This I Need.” After parting ways with Prince, Fiorillo worked through the ’90s primarily as a backing singer, and later joined the New Power Generation full-time in 2009; earlier this year, she appeared alongside numerous other former Prince associates for Sheila E.’s tribute at the BET Awards.
Less auspiciously, Graffiti Bridge also saw the first and last appearance on a Prince project by Robin Power. Having made appearances on Soul Train and in several early hip-hop videos, here she raps–if that’s what you want to call it–on her singularly grating feature “Number One,” which ended up in the film but (mercifully) not on the album. Prince gets a lot of flak for his early NPG rappers T.C. Ellis and (especially) Tony M.; trust me, though, next to Robin Power, they’re basically Biggie and Pac. But we also can’t place all the blame on her: the beat, which aims for Public Enemy‘s Bomb Squad but comes closer to nails on a chalkboard, is all Prince.
In the end, though, probably the most significant Graffiti Bridge protégé was another one who made the film but not the album: none other than the movie’s co-star, Ingrid Chavez. Chavez is a fascinating figure, if only for her important role in the Prince mythos; it was, by all accounts, a spiritually- and sexually-charged encounter with her in late 1987 that led to Prince scrapping The Black Album in favor of the more beatific Lovesexy, where she appears on a few spoken-word interludes. Indeed, Chavez seems to have lived her life in the late ’80s not unlike Aura, the character she played in the Graffiti Bridge film: wandering wherever the wind took her, causing spiritual epiphanies in every man who crossed her path (or, in the case of an earlier encounter with Lenny Kravitz, co-writing “Justify My Love” for Madonna). Though she doesn’t appear on the album, she clearly inspired the Graffiti Bridge project as a whole; the movie often feels like a thinly-veiled allegory for her and Prince’s brief but intense relationship, with an extra layer of Christ metaphors for good measure.
Prince worked with Chavez on her own album, May 19, 1992, from late 1987 until early 1991, with Prince providing musical accompaniments to Chavez’s spoken-word poetry. A conflict with parent label Warner Bros. eventually caused Prince to leave the project; his contributions remained on the record, however, notably the single “Heaven Must Be Near.” Chavez then presumably turned into a white feather and blew away in the wind (nah, just kidding, she collaborated with Ryuichi Sakamoto and former Japan vocalist David Sylvian, then retired quietly from the music business to have a family).
Released 26 years ago this weekend, the Graffiti Bridge album is basically the definition of a a mixed bag: its songs range from great to embarrassing, from catchy and commercial to boundary-pushing and experimental. The same can also be said of Prince’s supporting artists from this period (though, again, the less said about Robin Power, the better). One thing that can’t be denied, however, is that the quality of Prince’s side projects in 1990 had taken a distinct step down from that of their mid-’80s predecessors. Unfortunately, however, we haven’t come close to reaching rock bottom: next Saturday–deep breath–we’re talking about Carmen Electra.