Prince surprised a lot of people after a five year absence by releasing two albums on the same day: September 30th,2014 to be exact. It was an event that was just in time to be covered by this particular blog as well. Out of the two, Art Official Age seems to be the album that got the best response. During this time,Prince was expanding the NPG off into an all female side project called 3rdEyeGirl. The husband of one of its members Hannah Ford,Joshua Welton marked the first time Prince worked closely with an outside producer. Presumably to give his sound a more youth friendly sound for the 2010’s.
Welton’s contributions to Art Official Age were not as prominent as they’d be on the rather more modern teen EDM styled Hitnrun Phase 1 a year later. Prince was still ever deeply in control of the writing,instrumentation and yes-production on the former album. Still,its likely Welton’s presence reminded Prince of what made his music so appealing when he was at his most vital creative peak in the 1980’s. So with that Prince decided to reinvigorate his classic funk sound and came up with a song for the Art Official Age album entitled “The Gold Standard”.
A one note Linn drum kick starts of the song before a descending synth brass riser punctuates his slowed down rhythmically spoken vocal. The high on the neck rhythm guitar,slightly digitized live bass line and the accenting charts of the NPG Hornz. On the first bars, Prince is singing mainly with the drums and bass alone. Then the horn sections JB’s like charts take higher priority in the mix. The synth brass finally joins in with the live horns After a hand clap powered rendering of the chorus,a P–Funk synth bass initiates as bass/guitar/horn based cadence that fades out the song.
“The Gold Standard” brings together two different sides of Prince’s 80’s funk approach. His classic Minneapolis sound is represented by the brittle synth brass and stripped down arrangement. His rhythm guitar sound at its ever peak performance here as well. Aside from some modern production touches,particularly on the bass line,this also brings out his horn fueled mid/late 80’s period from songs such as “Girls & Boys” and “Housequake”. What it all does so well is showcase how much of an innovation for its time Prince’s condensation of funk was for the genres future-especially in the 2010’s.
Sheila E has been written about so well by blogger on here Zach Hoskins,in his segment about Prince’s female protege’s. Her back story is so well known,and that pulled it all together. It was my mom who gleefully encouraged me to pick up Sheila’s debut The Glamorous Life on CD on a 1997 visit to Rochester,New York. She has never been someone too emphatic about recommending music. But on this one,she was very insistent. Hearing the song had me interesting in hearing as much Sheila E as existed at the time. And luckily within the next 6-7 years,I had all her output up to that point.
In the immediate post Purple Rain period,Prince began pursuing a far jazzier style of music. He began augmenting the Revolution with horns-starting with sax player Eric Leeds. And the music he was producing for (and with) his proteges was really starting to reflect this. The songs continued to stretch out in length too. One such song was one Prince had recorded in August 1985. And it was actually done in very close collaboration with Sheila as well. It was the final track on the first side to her 1985 LP Romance 1600. It was called “A Love Bizarre”.
Prince’s classin LINN LM-1 with the flanger filter effect starts out as the main rhythm for the entire song. Than his round,popping synth bass comes in just before Sheila’s percussion. Eric Leeds’ presence on the song takes two forms. First there’s him playing the main vocal chorus of the song pretty much by rote. Than he continues with a jazzy improvisation throughout the rest of the song. Matt Bliston joins him of a very Sly & The Family Stone pitch dip on some of the rhythmic accents of the song. Prince provides a West Montgomery like guitar solo as the song finally fades out.
The central rhythm to “A Love Bizarre” is very basically funky. But its the many instrumental touches that add the bite to this driving groove. There are musical ideas from all across the spectrum of classic funk in the 60’s and 70’s. There’s the jazzy soloing on the final half of the 12+ minute opus. Also Prince’s guitar solo starts playing the melody for “Frere Jacques” on the bridge of the song. That rounds out to this being a strong collaborative effort between Sheila E.,Prince and his growing band. At the same time,its got that Minneapolis funk touch that just never quits.
Prince was one of those artists whose creative peak hit right around the same time as his creative juices were really flowing. He was the ultimate funk rocker of his day-doing everything he could to prioritize a hard groove while rocking out just enough for the musical demands of that era. And founds ways to challenge himself at doing both. By 1982,he was developing a reputation among musical oriented people as someone who was able to take all the elements of what he did,and strip them down to their most basic elements. Of being instrumentally simple without being musically simplistic.
Late in the year his his fifth album 1999 was released. It came out into a musical environment where MTV’s championing of music video was moving pop music ahead in the same way radio had in earlier decades. Not only was Prince’s visual flair helpful in this regard. But he also was more than aware of the social politics of the final burst of the cold war in America. Following the the USSR’s and USA’s actions in Afghanistan around this same time,the issue of atomic war was again on the map as the world contemplated a nuclear freeze. Prince drew on this impulse for the title track of his new album.
A slow,deepened voice opens this song telling us it only wants us to have some funk-eventually to the beat of a Linn LM-1 drum machine. The Linn’s pulse is then joined by a sustained rock guitar and a dramatic synth horn. A snare heavy live drum begins playing behind this basic structure. This provides the general chorus and refrains of the song as Revolution members Dez Dickerson and Lisa Coleman trade of vocals Sly & The Family Stone style with Prince. On extended chorus at the end of the song,Prince asks “mom why does everybody have the bomb” over his funky rhythm guitar.
“1999” is one of those songs that is rhythmically stripped down but sounds extremely full at the same time. The fiery dynamics of the lead synth brass,now an iconic riff of the style,along with the layers of lead/rhythm guitars (from rocking to funky wah wah) lead this to be one of the hottest funk hits of its time. While its vocal trade offs and sunny melody come straight of the Sly styled flower power funk,it basically reflects the slightly cynical hedonism of wanting to party into the apocalypse. That combo marks this as the beginning of Prince bring his funk more and more to the masses in his musical prime.
Filed under 1980's, 1999, Dez Dickerson, drums, lead guitar, Linn Drum, Lisa Coleman, Minneapolis, MTV, naked funk, Prince, Prince & The Revolution, rhythm guitar, synth brass
Prince was an artist whose musical conceptualization helped me personally to view sexuality as an act of love,rather than as a profane taboo. Considering his classic soul music struggle between spiritual and carnal pleasures,that may be hard for some people to believe. But as far as that aspect of Prince’s talent,it really began to reach its peak in the mid/late 80’s. A period that I feel represents Prince’s creative peak as a musician. Prince was also on the cusp of becoming a 30 something during this period as well. This represented another stage in Prince’s emotional maturity.
Sign O The Times was the Prince album that illustrated this stage of his maturity most fully. Because of the time frame in which I heard it,the 1987 album reminds me of a long period during the 90’s that wasn’t paying attention to Prince’s new music. There is one memory from a rainy afternoon in 1994 when I was driving home with my parents from Strawberries Records. They had the radio on and this Prince song came on with a very deep and strange sound at the beginning. They shut it off before I knew what it was. When I finally heard Sign O The Times,I realized that song was “If I Was Your Girlfriend”.
That “strange sound” I mentioned begins the song over a three note LINN drum hit. Actually sounds like revving an amp’d up electric guitar at its very lowest notes. Then a thick slap bass pop breaks into the refrain of the song. Its a very slow beat accompanied by a trumpet like synth brass solo while foreboding layers of synth strings play along in the back round. On the refrains,Prince sings in a sped up falsetto along with mainly the drum and bass line of the song. Toward the end of the song,the bass line gets somewhat more intricate as Prince raps frantically with some operatic orchestration before the song stops.
Its taken me too long to realize that this is one of Prince true funk classics. The slap bass pretty much carries the entire song-one that TLC would also cover around the first time I first hear…well the intro anyway. Lyrically,this song finds Prince exploring a sexual double standard. His asking a lover if she’d undress in front of him if they were anything but lovers. Even saying by the end “we don’t have to make babies to make love/we don’t have to make love to have an orgasm”. Prince taking on romantic insecurity in this funky musical way was a major step in his evolution as a human being.
Filed under 'Sign 'O The Times', 1987, Funk, guitar, Linn Drum, Minneapolis, Minneapolis Sound, Prince, sexual revolution, slap bass, synth brass, synthesizers
During the mid/late 80’s,Prince was refashioning the MPLS sound into something far beyond its stripped down drum machine/synth brass based new wave style groove it started out as being.His music was becoming far more orchestral and jazzier-showcasing a more live instrumental approach and more improvisational horn charts and solos. In 1986 however, Prince was still close enough to his signature sound to expand on it with some of his newer musical ideas. This came to fruition on the unreleased album Dream Factory,which evolved into Sign O The Times.
When I first started collecting Prince CD’s,Sign O The Times was on my bucket list of albums in terms of introductions to his music. It was actually the last on this list I ended up getting. It was a 2 CD set that I actually had to listen to several times in order to gauge what each song meant to me. Looking back on it now,the album has o conceptual unity as its cobbled together from several unreleased sessions. Yet all the songs sound like they belong together. One of a handful of album tracks that really stood out for me on this particular,the top of that list would be “The Ballad Of Dorothy Parker”.
A drum kick on the Linn LM-1 starts out the song. A steady Linn drum track,with a number of call and response Afro Latin percussion accents and claps,remains the main rhythm of the entire song-save for another drum kick before another refrain. The bass line is an intricate,snaky movement sewing the song together. Prince provides a number of unique synth leads here. One is a high,pitch bent one that sounds almost out of tune. The other is a similarly toned line if a bit lower-both improvising on the series of melodies throughout the song until it ends on the same theme on which it began.
Especially since this same man sang “its time for jazz to die” in 1982,this song shows how much Prince had integrated jazz improvisation and Latin drum patterns into his one man band approach by the mid 80’s. Some of the unusual,improvised modulations of the synthesizers on this sound have a similarity to Joni Mitchell’s music,of which Prince was a major fan growing up. He even name drops her as an element in the story told by the lyrics-a rye musing on Prince being played by a cocktail waitress. In terms of his multi instrumental jazz/funk approach,this is among my very favorite Prince songs.