Things were quiet on the Prince-protégé front for much of the early ’90s: between the decline of Paisley Park and his power struggle with parent label Warner Bros., the Purple One had more than enough on his hands just trying to keep his own career afloat. But in 1994, as the dust began to settle around the Warner battle, Prince–now rechristened after the unpronounceable “Love Symbol” that had adorned his 1992 studio album–struck out on his own as an independent artist. And, in one of the period’s many efforts to one-up his past self, he unveiled a whole new slate of side projects for his new label NPG Records: a sampler CD (remember those?!) titled 1-800-NEW-FUNK.
To be perfectly frank, 1-800-NEW-FUNK smacks of desperation–starting right from the packaging, with its crew of awkwardly-posed multiracial models who seem to have gotten lost on their way from a C+C Music Factory video shoot, partially obscured by stickers promising “hits” (of which there were few) and “all songs written & arranged by O(+> (formerly known as Prince).” As for the music itself, it shares with much of Prince’s mid-’90s output a sense of playing catchup with then-current musical trends. Take, for example, opening track “MPLS“, by the short-lived group Minneapolis: one of a long line of semi-successful attempts by Prince and associated artists to latch onto the New Jack Swing style that effectively overshadowed the Minneapolis Sound in the late 1980s–and, ironically, was already on its way out by 1994.
Other side projects spotlighted on the compilation included O(+>’s future wife, Mayte, who offered a breathy version of Prince’s decades-old outtake “If I Love U 2 Nite.” There’s also “Standing at the Altar” from Margie Cox (a.k.a. Ta Mara of the Seen), with whom Prince had recorded and then shelved a whole album as “MC Flash” in 1989. And there are a handful of tracks from artists who can’t really be considered “protégés” at all: legacy artists George Clinton and Mavis Staples; Minneapolis family gospel group the Steeles; O(+>’s own backing band the New Power Generation; and even his fusion side project with Eric Leeds, Madhouse.
Probably the most successful tracks on the collection, both commercially and artistically, are the ones featuring Nona Gaye, Prince’s then-paramour and the daughter of soul music Marvin Gaye. Single “Love Sign,” a blend of smooth G-funk with a slightly jazzy touch, is for all intents and purposes a Prince track with guest vocals by Gaye; it was also the closest thing to a hit on the album, cracking the Top 40 on both the Billboard R&B and “Rhythmic” charts. Gaye’s other cut, “A Woman’s Gotta Have It,” predicts the updated Philly Soul sound O(+> would toy with later in the decade, most notably on the 1996 triple-album Emancipation.
You’ve probably noticed that I’m not offering a lot of critical appraisal of these tracks. That’s because, frankly, they don’t make all that much of an impression; there’s nothing on 1-800-NEW-FUNK as execrable as, say, Carmen Electra’s 1993 album, but nor is there anything truly remarkable. It’s just a grab bag of mostly bog-standard mid-’90s Prince outtakes, with other people on lead vocals (or not, in the case of “Love Sign”). And the record-buying audience seemed to agree with my evaluation. 1-800-NEW-FUNK was purchased by
Prince O(+> devotees, but failed to convince a wider audience of his continued relevance; the majority of the side projects it teased failed to release full-length projects. Today, of course, 1-800-NEW-FUNK sounds as quaint and dated as the toll-free phone number it advertised (just think, if it had come out five years later, it probably would have been called http://www.new-funk.com). But it’s an interesting curio for hardcore fans, and a snapshot of the man’s sound circa 1994. It may not have been the best thing (the Artist Formerly Known as) Prince was associated with, but I think we can all agree it wasn’t the worst.
We’ve got one Saturday left of summer, so that means one more post for Prince (Protégé) Summer. Next week, we’ll wrap up with an overview of Prince’s handful of side projects from the last two decades of his life. Until then, you can check out more of my writing on Dystopian Dance Party and dance / music / sex / romance!