Prince was one of the most important figures for advancing funk during the early to mid 1980’s. Funk is the music that represents the rhythms and messages of black America from the late 20th century onward. Free jazz artist James Blood Ulmer once said jazz is the teacher,funk is the preacher. During the early 80’s,the emerging genre of hip-hop was extended on funk’s sociopolitical messages. Because of Prince’s stripped down sound, frank lyrics and appeal to Generation X,The Roots’ Amir Questlove Thompson has even suggested that Prince’s purple funk is a form of hip-hop.
Prince was a very busy man in 1986 in terms of recorded. He recorded enough music for at least three albums that year. While he and Warner Bros argued over how much to edit this material into releasable form,America was facing some major challenges. AIDS was a massive epidemic that was being ignored by the government,gun violence,natural disasters and the destruction of the space shuttle Challenger were inspired many Americans to again raise their voices with some level of protest. Prince decided to protest in his own way in July 1986 when he recorded the song “Sign O The Times”.
Prince gets the song started with a brittle synth snare pulse,accented by brushing percussion even on the two beat end of the rhythm pattern. This is accompanied by a round,dripping synth line playing a funky rhythm guitar type melody. He hits on the live snares during the main chorus of the song-while using a Fairlight sampler to provide the bluesy funk slap bass line. After that refrain,Prince accompanies himself on another more orchestral synth with a rocked up blues guitar lead. On the refrains,all these instruments play in closer unison in the same higher key-until the song fades out on it’s chorus.
Musically speaking,this song is something of a culmination of Prince’s approach as a multi instrumentalist. It’s still got the stripped down rhythms that he pioneered earlier in the 80’s decade. The big difference comes from the approach. Prince had begun to use early electronic samplers on this song-singling out live instrumental bass solo’s (for example) rather than providing a synth bass line. The song also doesn’t feature a synth brass line simulating horns. Everything about the song focuses on the rhythm section. The guitar,bass and drums all have a crawling,bluesy funk flavor within their groove.
Lyrically this songs message rings disturbingly true-especially now. As the news about Omar Mateen,the New Yorker who committed this mass shooting in Orlando Florida, continues to unfold,the media has been asking the question of what kind of nation has America become to almost tacitly accept mass gun violence as an inevitable reality. This song asked questions like that 30 years ago. Prince illustrates seeming passive suicide amid American’s in various ways-even saying “Some say a man ain’t happy unless a man truly dies-oh why?”. If Prince could ask the question,today’s America can answer it.