Alexander O’Neal’s importance to the Minneapolis music scene of the 1980’s probably hasn’t been as documented as it should be. The Mississippi native migrated to the twin cities by age 20. During that time,he became a member of two bands who’d eventually come together through the late Prince Rogers Nelson to become The Time: Enterprise (of whom Morris Day was a member) and Flyte Tyme (first home of Jimmy Jam,Terry Lewis and Monte Moir). O’Neal was to have been The Time’s original lead singer. He and Prince didn’t seem to have gotten along. So he was dropped in favor of Morris Day.
What O’Neal did do,with the help of Jam & Lewis’s production,was to conceptualize the Minneapolis sound on a solo career he launched in 1985. Cherrelle’s 1985 album (on which O’Neal appeared as a duet partner on “Saturday Love”) and his own sophomore album Hearsay two years later both followed loose concepts revolving around romantic issues of the mid/late 80’s such as artifice and honesty. As far as O’Neal’s album went,one of the best examples of how this concept dovetailed so well into the funkiest of his music came with the 1987 UK hit single “Fake”.
A pounding,cymbal heavy,percussive drum machine starts out the song. A synth piano scale down gets right into the rest of the song. Another main rhythmic feature of the song comes in-a thick,brittle (and possibly double tracked) synth bass part. Over this is a sizzling synth string orchestration. A higher bass tone accents this on O’Neal’s vocal parts. On the brief bridges before the choruses,big melodic synth brass plays call and response to O’Neal’s vocals. The chorus and refrain both maintain the same similar backing even to the fade out of the song itself.
Friend Henrique Hopkins described this as being a type of funk that’s “punishing”. And that description fits extremely well. This is hardcore,cutting edge industrial funk of the highest order-similar to Janet Jackson’s “Nasty” only with an even thicker funk bump to it. Lyrically it goes well with the albums concept as O’Neal is attracted to a lady who does little more than put on series physical airs just to get attention. The song on the other hand makes no apologies for how funky it is. It manages to be stripped down and sonically dense all at the same time. And its probably my very favorite piece of funk from O’Neal.
Note from Zach: As you may or may not know, I’ve spent the last several weeks writing about the songs from Prince’s debut album on my chronological Prince blog, dance / music / sex / romance. In the process, I’ve been struck by the many contingencies that exist around For You, and Prince’s early career in general. If things had gone even slightly differently; if his label–or, for that matter, Prince himself–had shown even a little less confidence in his artistic development; then we would be looking at a very different musical landscape in 2016. There’s also the fact that, as I’ve noted several times in my track-by-track posts, it’s difficult to look at For You in retrospect without seeing it as just the first, not-entirely-successful glimpse at a talent and vision that would find its full expression in years to come. But what if that perspective wasn’t the default? What if For You wasn’t the first step in a long career by Prince, but in fact his first and last album? This post is my attempt to think my way through this situation: think of it as a look back at For You from a possible alternate timeline. I don’t know if I will do this for other albums in the future–or, like, ever again–but I thought it was an interesting exercise to examine Prince’s earliest days as a recording artist through a completely different lens. I hope you find it interesting, too.
The reclusive multi-instrumentalist known only as “Prince” may not be as much of a household name as, say, Shuggie Otis; but to serious aficionados of 1970s funk and soul, he inspires a kind of hushed reverence normally reserved for the likes of Stevie Wonder. In fact, Prince’s mainstream obscurity and his cult notoriety are two sides of the same coin: both stem from his having released only one album, 1978’s For You, before he disappeared from the music scene completely. Thanks to a decades-long process of discovery by collectors and rehabilitation by critics, however, in 2016 he stands as one of the great “what-ifs” of 20th century pop music.
The story behind the making of For You is fascinating and frustrating in equal measure. An introverted musical prodigy from Minneapolis, Minnesota, Prince signed a multi-million dollar contract with Warner Bros. Records when he was just 17 years old–which unsurprisingly made waves in the recording industry trades at the time. Also remarkable was the fact that, as a 1978 press release put it, “Prince did it all. Composed the music, produced the sessions. Played the instruments (drums, guitars, pianos, bass synthesizers and more) and sang all the lead and background vocals. He even wrote the string parts.” He was, according to legend (and the press release), the youngest producer in W.B.’s history as a label.
(Photo removed at request of rights holder.)
But Prince’s inexperience and perfectionism proved to be his undoing. The story goes that he blew through all $180,000 of his three-album recording budget on For You alone: holing up in the Sausalito Record Plant for days on end, tinkering obsessively with the songs. When it was finally released, the album was a modest success: lead single “Soft and Wet” even reached Number 12 on the Billboard Hot Soul Singles Chart (though it peaked at only Number 92 on the Hot 100). But the second single, “Just as Long as We’re Together,” stalled at Number 91 on the R&B charts; the album itself also dropped rapidly, peaking at only Number 163 on theBillboard 200. Prince did get some positive press from African American teen magazines like Right On!, where his soft, almost feminine good looks and ineffable air of mystery made him marketable as a pop idol. But the mainstream largely passed him by, and Warner ultimately decided that another album wasn’t worth the investment; after Prince made an awkward, tentative live debut at Minneapolis’ Capri Theatre in January 1979, the label cut their losses.
Which is a shame, because if nothing else, For You positively bristles with potential. The aforementioned “Soft and Wet” is futuristic funk, streamlining the pioneering synthesizer sound of earlier acts like Parliament with an added dose of fey, flirtatious sexuality. Closing song “I’m Yours” starts as a lite-funk workout, then transforms abruptly into full-blown arena rock. The opening title track, meanwhile, is lush baroque soul–not to mention evidence of how Prince managed to blow almost $200K on a single record–with a blissed-out a cappella chorus of multi-tracked Princes singing in unison. It’s like an R&B “Good Vibrations”; the kind of bold, hubristic statement you’d expect from an established artist with multiple successes behind them, not an upstart teenager who came out of nowhere and would return to obscurity just as soon.
There are also more predictable pleasures, albeit always with a subtle tweak. “Baby” is a note-perfect Philly soul simulacrum (had Prince ever even been to Philadelphia?), with lyrics about the decidedly unconventional subject of an unplanned pregnancy. “My Love is Forever” is chirpy disco, but with guitar leads more muscular than even Nile Rodgers would dare attempt. “In Love” also sounds decidedly of-its-time, but with lyrics (“I really wanna play in your river”) that are disarmingly frank in their eroticism. And on the soft songs–“Crazy You” on Side One, “So Blue” on the eccentrically-named “The Other Side”–the 18-year-old shows a depth of musical range and vocal dexterity far beyond his years. For You isn’t earth-shattering, per se–there’s a reason why it didn’t set the world on fire when it came out in 1978–but its subtle blend of musical styles and Prince’s oddly demure lustfulness belie an inventive artistic persona that isn’t quite like anything else, before or since. It’s little wonder that several influential members of the new school of “alternative” R&B, including Frank Ocean and Janelle Monáe, swear by this relatively obscure debut record from the late ’70s.
The afterlife of For You is even stranger than the story of its birth. Prince, as mentioned above, seems to have disappeared after he was dropped by Warner: presumably back to his hometown of Minneapolis, though conflicting reports also claim he became a successful session musician in L.A. It’s certainly difficult to imagine an artist as bold and ambitious as Prince clearly was leaving music behind entirely; there are thus numerous rumors of later maneuvers from behind the scenes. The tracks “Do Me, Baby” and “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?” from the 1979 debut album by André Cymone–Prince’s fellow Minneapolitan, and his bass player at the ill-fated Capri Theatre show–are both heavily rumored to have been written by Prince; though they don’t sound quite like anything on For You, so whether it was actually him is anyone’s guess. There’s also been speculation that he played the guitar part on Lipps, Inc.’s 1980 single “Funkytown”: still the biggest hit ever to come out of the Twin Cities. Otherwise, all pop cryptologists have to go by is a string of little-known B-sides from Minneapolis-based artists like Sue Ann Carwell and Alexander O’Neal, with writing credits from suspiciously pseudonymous-sounding names like Joey Coco and Alexander Nevermind.
Meanwhile, the stature of Prince’s sole official release has only grown with time. The album was out of print for most of the 1980s, until it received a spike of notoriety among crate-diggers in the hip-hop era: see, for example, the sample of “Soft and Wet” in RBL Posse’s “I Ain’t No Joke.” This led to the album being reissued in the early ’90s, along with a renewal of interest from critics and musical historians. Today, as noted above, it’s a bona fide cult record, feted among artists and listeners on the left field of R&B, pop, and hip-hop for its unique, genre- and gender-fluid sensibility. Prince, meanwhile, has remained reclusive, though he’s presumably still alive: with the album’s 40th anniversary fast approaching in 2018, it would be great to see him come out of retirement and play some of these old songs for his new and growing fanbase. The world might not have been ready for For You in 1978, but I think it just might be ready now. Hopefully, wherever Prince is today, he realizes that.
(All right, that’s it, y’all…thanks for indulging me in this little A.U. fan fiction exercise. I’m actually taking next weekend off from Andresmusictalk, but I’ll be back on October 8 with something that will almost certainly not be about Prince. See you then!)
She was the songwriter who bought us Michael Jackson’s “Man In The Mirror”,and was also his duet partner on “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You”. One year after all this,Siedah Garrett released her very first solo album. It featured the majority of Quincy Jones’ Westlake studio crew on board. Along with one heavily re-worked Thriller era Rod Temperton composed MJ outtake “Got The Hots” on the ultra funkified “Baby’s Got It Bad”.
Key Jams: “Kiss Of Life”,”Groove Of Midnight”,”The Legend Of Ruby Diamond” and “Baby’s Got It Bad”
The reason this didn’t wind up listed with the Prince alumni article I did was because this album has nothing at all to do with Prince,or Paisley Park. Former Revolution guitarist Mark Brown (rechristened Brownmark by Prince) released this album for Motown. As with Prince,Brown plays most of the instruments. His approach as a multi instrumentalist is closer to the harder kick of a Teddy Riley, however. And this is not an album that compromises on the funky uptempo material at all.
Key Jams: “Next Time”,”She Don’t Care” and “Stakeout”
Clyde Criner is a fairly obscure figure. The reason I picked up this album was because of how much it flaunted its personnel. Mainly MY MAIN BASS MAN Marcus Miller. His slap bass soloing is all over this album,right along with Criner’s melodic block chords on different electric pianos and synthesizers. This album is a potent combination of synth funk and electronic jazz fusion licks.
Key Jams: “Just Might Be That Way”,”Spider” and “Kinesis”
Henrique and myself have a constant conversational theme about how 1987 in particular showcased a time period where heavier funk again became the main basis for dance oriented pop records of the era. And that year was a MAJOR year for 12″ mixes. I don’t have a all of them yet. But this was the first year that brand new music really made a significant impact on me at 6-7 years old. So its a good place to speak for early firsthand experience.
It was Henrique who turned me onto Barry White’s 1987 comeback single “Sho You Right”. This song mixes the synthesized Freestyle dance sound of that era with the strong Latin samba funk attitude White used to get with his Love Unlimited Orchestra. This 8+ minute extended 12″ mix really brings out the sauntering rhythm of it all by emphasizing the drums. The instrumental B-side focuses on the Santana-like Latin rock guitar solo.
The history behind the Alexander O’Neal song “Fake” is amazing in Minneapolis funk circles. It was written by AND for alumni’s of The Time. Jam & Lewis really bumped out the percussive,bass heavy funk for this number. The best part of these 12″ inch mixes is how they thoroughly explore the song. You’ve got an extended mix,a vocal remix-the “patty mix”,an a cappella mix featuring O’Neal,percussion and light synths only PLUS an instrumental with an amazing electric piano walk down. Amazing exploration of the groove and therefore one of the strongest 12″ inch funk singles I’ve heard this far.
Ray Parker Jr. is one of the most underrated guitarist/multi instrumentalists I know of. After a string of funky pop hits in the early 80’s as a solo artist,Parker emerged in 1987 with the single “I Don’t Think That Man Should Sleep Alone”. That,along with the guitar solo oriented instrumental “After Midnight” (title song of his album that year) showcase the urban contemporary jazzy funk side of his nature from his earlier session work with Herbie Hancock and Rufus. This 12″ mix of the song really showcases that.
Lisa Lisa And Cult Jam really brought the new jack swing pioneers Full Force into the limelight. Their Latin freestyle/dance club hits of the late 80’s were not only ultra catchy,but ultra funky as well. with Full Force being there to re-cut and remix their hits “Head To Toe” and “You’ll Never Change” showcased just how deeply these songs grooves.
M/A/R/R/S’s “Pump Up The Volume” was my first exposure to both House music and sampling,though I didn’t know what either were at the time of hearing it. This is an awesomely funky house/scratch/hip-hop number out of the UK. When I heard the Bar Kays “Holy Ghost” a decade or so later,it created a flashback to the “put the needle on the record” segment of this song. Another group member AR Kane provided the B-side “Anitina”,a brittle,Bill Laswell like funk rocker that I always enjoyed. Wanted to say a quick RIP to M/A/R/S member Steve Young,who passed away last month.