Category Archives: Paisley Park

Prince (Protégé) Summer: Martika and Carmen Electra

martika

If 1990’s Graffiti Bridge project was a clear case of diminishing returns for the Prince side project industry, then the years to come were downright dire. In fact, this week we’ve finally arrived at what most fans agree is the all-time nadir of Prince’s work for other artists: the dreaded 1993 album by model/actress/2004 MTV Movie Award Best Kiss winner Carmen Electra. But first, as a palate cleanser/stalling tactic, let’s look at a less-reviled 1991 project by Marta Marrero, better known as Martika.

A former child star (Kids Incorporated, Mr. T’s Be Somebody…Or Be Somebody’s Fool!), Martika launched a career as a pop singer in the late 1980s, reaching Number 1 with her 1989 single “Toy Soldiers.” For her followup album, she approached Prince to contribute a few songs, giving him a notebook of her own lyrics for inspiration. Four of Prince’s tracks ultimately showed up on the album in 1991: the title track, “Martika’s Kitchen,” plus “Spirit,” “Don’t Say U Love Me,” and lead single “Love…Thy Will Be Done.” Prince also demoed another song, “Open Book,” for the sessions, but it didn’t make the final cut; it would ultimately be released by Jevetta Steele on her 1993 solo debut Here It Is.

Like Elisa Fiorillo’s album the previous year, Martika’s Kitchen is pleasant but not earth-shattering. Probably the most remarkable track was its sole Top 10 hit: “Love…Thy Will Be Done,” for which Prince wrote music to accompany a prayer composed by Martika. It certainly seemed to be Prince’s favorite: he was known to perform it himself onstage from 1995 until his last solo piano tour in 2016. Incidentally, today actually marks the 25th anniversary of Martika’s Kitchen‘s release; I didn’t plan it that way, but hey, it’s kinda cool when things work out like that.

carmenelectra

But enough stalling; we all know what we’re really here to talk about. Carmen Electra was born Tara Leigh Patrick, and first encountered Prince in 1991 during auditions for an all-woman rap group he was putting together around our girl Robin Power. After that idea was wisely scuttled, Prince came up with something even worse: he would write and produce a solo album for Tara herself. Oh, and also her name was “Carmen Electra” now, because Prince was apparently incapable of speaking to an attractive woman without giving her a fantastical stage name.

1993’s Carmen Electra is infamous simply because it exists: it’s widely believed to be a major reason why Concrete Jungle, the long-unreleased solo debut by New Power Generation singer/keyboardist Rosie Gaines, never made it out on Paisley Park. If that’s true, then it’s easily one of the worst decisions made by Prince–even in an era that, quite frankly, won’t ever be remembered as his most artistically or commercially astute. Carmen was/is undeniably gorgeous, but as an M.C.–because Carmen Electra was a “rap” “album”–she makes the aforementioned Robin Power look like Missy Fucking Elliott. Her lead single “Go Go Dancer”–the closest the album came to spawning a “hit”–was basically invented for preteen boys to watch on mute after their parents had gone to bed.

I know I’ve been hard on some of Prince’s side projects, especially in the last few posts; Carmen Electra, however, is truly terrible. Listening to it in full is a test in endurance I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. For hardcore fans of Prince, it’s arguably even worse, as he had the gall to dig up some of his own songs for Carmen to, er, spit over. Second single “Everybody Get on Up” samples Prince’s unreleased 1986 cover of the Esquires’ “Get on Up“; even more sacrilegiously, slow jam “All That” is a godawful remix (de-mix?) of “Adore,” arguably Prince’s most enduring ballad.

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If Carmen Electra was meant in earnest, then it was a decision many orders of magnitude more baffling than when Prince changed his name to an unpronounceable glyph that same year. If, on the other hand, it was some kind of passive-aggressive act of self-sabotage against his parent label Warner Bros…to be honest, it still wasn’t worth it. Perversely, though, I kinda like the fact that it exists. If nothing else, it’s an important reminder that Prince, amazing as he was, was only human. Really, we’ve all done things we regret for people we wanted to bone; Prince just happened to do it in public, on a major label, for a woman who later went on to bone Dennis Rodman and Dave Navarro.

Next weekend I’m out of town, so my guest post series will be skipping a week; I’ll be back on September 10, though, for a look at Prince’s ill-fated side projects during the Symbol Era. Summer isn’t technically over until the 22nd of September, so Prince (Protégé) Summer will be going at least until then; in the meantime, if you’re interested, feel free to check out my work at Dystopian Dance Party and dance / music / sex / romance.

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Filed under New Power Generation, Paisley Park, Prince, Uncategorized, Warner Bros.

Prince (Protégé) Summer: The Graffiti Bridge Era

Graffiti Bridge

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.

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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.

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GRAFFITI BRIDGE, Ingrid Chavez, 1990, (c) Warner Brothers

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.

I guess I’ll see you then. In the meantime, keep checking out Andre’s work throughout the week, and come see more of my stuff on Dystopian Dance Party and dance / music / sex / romance.

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Filed under 1980's, 1987, 1988, 1990s, Paisley Park, Prince, Uncategorized

Prince (Protégé) Summer: The Family

thefamily

Unlike Sheila E., the Time, or even Vanity/Apollonia 6, the Family aren’t exactly household names (unless, that is, your household still has a subscription to the NPG Music Club). Among those in the know, however, their self-titled 1985 album is a buried gem. It’s certainly of interest to fans of the group’s svengali, Prince: with its mix of post-psychedelic whimsy, sweeping Classical Hollywood glamour, and organic jazz-flavored funk, it’s effectively the missing link between His Purple Majesty’s 1985-1986 albums Around the World in a Day and Parade.

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, the Family were born out of the Time‘s acrimonious mid-1984 split: Andre has aptly described them as the Led Zeppelin to the Time’s Yardbirds. With the majority of the band now fired or resigned, Prince retained drummer Jellybean Johnson and dancer/comedic foil Jerome Benton, promoting “St. Paul” Peterson, who had joined the group less than a year earlier on keyboards, to the role of co-lead singer. The other frontperson was none other than the twin sister of Revolution guitarist Wendy (and Prince’s then-fiancée), Susannah Melvoin. Finally, the lineup was rounded out with saxophonist Eric Leeds, with additional support by Sheila E.’s guitarist Miko Weaver.

Arguably the real star of the Family, however, was never actually part of the group–and, in fact, never even shared the same room with them. Prince had long been a fan of jazz keyboardist, composer, and arranger Clare Fischer: specifically, his more pop-oriented work with Chaka Khan and Rufus from the mid-to-late 1970s. And though they would share a fruitful partnership of their own throughout the rest of the ’80s and into the ’90s, it was The Family that marked their first-ever collaboration. Fischer’s orchestrations add a layer of musical sophistication to the album, particularly on slower, dreamier tracks like first single “The Screams of Passion” and the Bobby Z.-penned “River Run Dry.”

Elsewhere, more conventional funk tracks like “High Fashion” and “Mutiny” betray the Family’s origins in the Time; while two instrumentals co-written by Eric Leeds, “Yes” and “Susannah’s Pajamas,” prefigure Prince’s growing interest in jazz fusion, to be explored more thoroughly in side projects the Flesh and Madhouse. Today, probably the best-remembered track on the album is “Nothing Compares 2 U“: the original recording of the classic Prince ballad later made famous by Sinead O’Connor. I go back and forth on which version I prefer, but I can definitely say that the Family’s is the more “Prince-like”–and Fischer’s arrangement, of course, is gorgeous.

Even in the volatile world that was Paisley Park in the mid-’80s, the Family were especially short-lived. Sales for the album were weak compared to Prince’s other projects at the time–it reached only number 14 on the Billboard R&B chart, missing the “mainstream” charts entirely–and St. Paul chafed under Prince’s micro-management, opting to ditch the group for a solo career in late 1985. In the end, the original incarnation of the Family played only one live show, at Minneapolis‘ First Avenue in August of 1985. Perhaps that’s why, more than any of the other “spinoff” acts, the Family tends to be thought of more as an extension of Prince’s solo work than as a separate entity. Certainly, that’s a point of view Prince encouraged when he absorbed Susannah, Jerome, Eric, and Miko into an expanded version of the Revolution in 1986, even performing his own version of “Mutiny” onstage–not to mention reappropriating the group’s whole velvet-jacketed aesthetic for his film Under the Cherry Moon.

Still, like their evolutionary ancestors the Time, the Family would later return for a second act without Prince’s involvement. A one-off charity gig in late 2003 eventually blossomed into a full-blown reunion, as “fDeluxe,” in 2009; since then, they’ve released two studio albums, a disc of remixes, and a live recording from Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis. The fDeluxe records obviously aren’t up to quite the same standard as The Family, but still well worth listening to for anyone who wants to hear more of their uniquely baroque take on the Minneapolis Sound. Most recently, like Sheila E., the Family/fDeluxe have found new vitality in the wake of their onetime mentor’s death: on May 4, 2016–exactly seven hours and thirteen days after Prince passed away–they reunited once again to record a new version of “Nothing Compares 2 U.”

Next week…well, to be honest I haven’t 100% made up my mind about what to tackle next week. It’s between Mazarati–more of a “Prince protégé protégé,” I suppose, but one with an interesting history–and Jill Jones. Any preferences out there? Let me know. And as always, you can see more of my writing on Prince at dance / music / sex / romance, and more of my writing in general at Dystopian Dance Party.

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Filed under 1980's, 1985, 1986, 2010's, 2016, Eric Leeds, Jerome Benton, Miko Weaver, Minneapolis, Minneapolis Sound, Paisley Park, Prince, Prince & The Revolution, Susannah Melvoin, The Time, Time, Uncategorized, Wendy Melvoin

Anatomy of THE Groove: “The Undertaker” by Mavis Staples

Mavis Staples represents the  black American civil rights era in music so much for me. She went from a gospel child star to one of the earliest purveyors of “people music” as the lead vocalist of The Staple Singers alone. She made a series of solo albums during the 1970’s. All without officially leaving her family’s musical fold. During the early 80’s,she returned with the Staple Singers as they modernized their sound. Later in the decade, Prince celebrated her strong musical legacy of humanistic gospel and funky soul by signing her to his Paisley Park label. There she recorded two more solo records in 1989 and 1993.

During her collaboration with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy as her producer,Mavis has never ceased to make civil rights messages the focus of her songs. That’s extremely admirable. Yet her productions by Tweedy and now M.Ward find her in a bluesy country rock musical direction-one where only her voice projects the strong funky soul element. Her brief time recording with Prince (including her memorable appearance in his final film Graffiti Bridge) really allowed Mavis to be funky AND sociopolitical at the same time. One good example comes from her 1993 Paisley Park album The Voice in the form of “The Undertaker”

Backup vocalists The Steeles  start the song off by singing its title. That breaks off into Michael B’s slow funky drum shuffle. Sonny Thompson’s 2 note bass pump is held up by non other than the late Pop Staples’ bluesy guitar licks. The NPG horns and Ricky Peterson’s organ washes play a call and response element to both Mavis’s vocal leads and The Steeles’ back-rounds. On the last couple of refrains of the song,Pop’s and Mavis deal with that father/daughter duet style they did so well-with his gentle tone and her husky well leading the groove onto it’s fade out.

This bluesy funk jam is a fine example of funky message music in the early 90’s. With it’s use of re-sequenced vocal and horn licks,it plays along with the slowly funky variety of hip-hop at the time as well. The New Power Generation’s groove holds up Mavis’s gospel authority delivering the basic message to the streets saying “Put away the guns for future’s sake/Don’t you be another number for the undertaker”. This LA riots era concept resonates with what’s happening today-with black American’s having enough of institutionalized violence towards them. So in that sense,this funk is still right on time!

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Filed under 1990s, blues funk, drums, Funk Bass, hip-hop funk, Mavis Staples, Michael Bland, New Power Generation, organ, Paisley Park, Pops Staples, Prince, rhythm guitar, Ricky Peterson, Sonny T, The Steeles, Uncategorized