PURPLE MUSIC: THINKING ABOUT PRINCE’S ‘ORIGINALS’
June 20, 2019
Of course, from the beginning of his career Prince was punk. Although it took a couple of albums before he revealed that side of himself visually, when it came to making records, his DIY aesthetic was always part of the foundation on which he built his legacy and the library of songs that are today considered classics. Writing the music and lyrics, Prince recorded demos where he produced the sessions, played the instruments and sang the songs. While Vanity 6’s 1982 album was Prince’s first commercial foray into crafting pop hits for others, in the tradition of Holland–Dozier–Holland, George Martin, and Curtis Mayfield, it was just the beginning of a long career of collaborations.
In the ‘80s, Prince’s wondrous musical vision constructed tracks for both emerging and veteran artists, which included Sheila E. (“The Glamorous Life”), The Bangles (“Manic Monday”), The Time (“Gigolos Get Lonely Too”), Jill Jones (“Baby, You’re A Trip”) and Kenny Rogers (“You’re My Love”). While a few were hits, for Prince completists these tracks meant investing in yet another 45, LP or both by an artist. Prince fans loved Prince songs even when Prince wasn’t singing them. With the release of Originals, the latest project to emerge from the Prince’s infamous vault since his death in 2016, the general public gets to hear for the first time the demos that he made of various tracks and that he later passed on to other artists.
While many hardcore fans have heard these tracks years before as lesser-quality bootlegs, Originals gives both the novice and expert something special. “First and foremost, as a collection, Originals is a testament to Prince’s wide-ranging and diverse style,” says C. Liegh McInnis, author of The Lyrics of Prince, and editor of an upcoming scholarly publication on Prince. “These are songs recorded by funk, rock, soul, and country artists. Most artists just can’t do that because most people are not well-read or well-versed in different artistic styles. ‘Baby, You’re a Trip’ is not just soulful; it’s a reminder that soul music is gospel music with lyrics that raise romance to religion.”
“At the other end of the spectrum is ‘Manic Monday,’” continues McInnis, “which manages to be manic (depressing) and whimsical simultaneously, as it provides light and airy synths underneath gloomy lyrics about an unfulfilled life in which the speaker can only dream about escaping. As raw/explicit and even escapist as Prince’s songs can be, they are, often, songs about real life, about people’s desire to make more of their life than what it is. That type of emotive passion and intellectual insight touches people in the depths of their being.”
Grammy-winning singer/songwriter Kendra Foster was born the year (1979) Prince’s self-titled sophomore album was released, and considers him, along with George Clinton and Stevie Wonder, to be a member of her musical holy trinity. “I’m a Prince fan the same way I’m a revolutionary,” says Foster, who collaborated with D’Angelo on Black Messiah, co-writing the single “Really Love,” which won Best R&B Song at the 2016 Grammy Awards. “Some of the songs on Originals had me catching the holy ghost. Though I’m attracted to melody first, I’ve always loved how Prince’s lyrics were so simple, yet profound. One of my favorite songs on Originals was “Baby You’re a Trip,” which I’ve been thinking about covering since I heard it.”
First recorded by Jill Jones for her 1987 debut album, it’s an aching ballad on the same level as “Adore” or “The Beautiful Ones.” Jones, who I interviewed in 2017, was one of Prince’s premier “protégés” and background singers, and her self-titled album, though slept on, was one of the best full-length projects to come out of the purple music factory. “For inspiration, Prince loved driving around town, blaring music in the car,” Jones recalled. “He’d play the Cocteau Twins, Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix, Nino Rota, Roxy Music’s Avalon album. He once made me a mixtape with nothing but Miles Davis songs on it.”
Prince was a “studio rat” from the time he was a teenager working with Chris Moon, who was his first mentor to the environment that would become such a major part of his life. His knowledge and obvious talent represented a sonic declaration of independence. Even before building the studio/sanctuary Paisley Park, he had a studio at his purple pad on Lake Riley where The Time guitarist Jesse Johnson, co-writer of “Jungle Love,” also lived.
“What I learned from Prince about the studio was there are absolutely no rules,” Johnson told me in 2014. “Stuff people said about spending a million dollars on equipment and going to recording school, he flushed all that down the toilet. When I first moved in, he had garbage speakers and a 16-track board that was made for live sound; it wasn’t even a recording board. The studio itself was just a regular bedroom, but whenever you walked in, Prince was recording some incredible stuff. He always worked in the middle of the night on some vampire shit, but dude knew how to make records.”
While their time together wasn’t always harmonious, Johnson, who also worked on material with D’Angelo on Black Messiah, learned a lot about both the studio and song-craft from the late genius. “Jungle Love,” recorded by The Time in 1984 on their Ice Creams Castles album, began as an idea in Johnson’s mind, and was the first musical contribution that Prince accepted from the guitarist. “I used to play tapes of my songs for him and Prince would literally start laughing,” Jesse said. “He’d call Morris (Day) over and be like, ‘Listen to this, listen to this,’ and they both laughed. When I bought him the music for ‘Jungle Love,’ he wasn’t laughing anymore.”
Living Colour vocalist and songwriter Corey Glover has been a Prince fan since he was a teenager growing up in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. “What got me from the beginning was Prince’s style and language,” Glover says. “He was obviously young and writing from experience, but the music sounded older.” Although Living Colour covered Prince’s brilliant b-side “17 Days” in 1993, one of Glover’s favorite tracks was the original “Nothing Compares 2 U,” recorded by The Family in 1985. “I like that better than the Sinéad O’Connor version,” he says. “Though you could hear that Prince was inspired by Al Green, Smokey Robinson, and Sly Stone, he was doing something completely different. I’m also a big fan of Mazarati’s ‘100 MPH.’ They wore a lot of make-up, but they were funky.”
Science fiction writer and editor Sheree Renée Thomas is another one who has been a fan since her childhood days growing up in Memphis, Tennessee. “Prince had a unique gift for making us co-conspirators in his musical seductions,” Thomas says. “What made Prince a brilliant lyricist was his ability to make the listener feel as if he was writing, singing, creating every single song directly for us. He captured the fantasy and the real, who we thought we were and what we might want to become. He got it all down—capturing our desires with a conjurer’s mind, that all-seeing, -knowing eye, matched with a poet’s gift for words and images. I remember hearing his music in my coming-of-age, long before I had ever fallen in love and thinking, ‘this music is what it must be like.’ From his most beautiful ballads, the spiritual, surreal works, all the way to the raunchiest stuff, Prince’s songs captured it all, all the stages of that first fire and the knowledge that sometimes what seems like an end is actually a beginning.”
Cultural journalist and lifelong Prince fan Tonya Pendleton says, “What stands out most on Originals is how little most of them differ from the recordings that were ultimately released. They were pretty much done deals that other artists just added vocals to. In some cases, most notably on ‘Gigolos Get Lonely Too’ and even on the Sheila E. songs, the personality of the artist does come through, but the songs are mostly just as Prince had demoed them.” Still, Pendleton was not as impressed as the others. “I do like the songs as I knew them best, so I wasn’t one of the people who thought this was such a great project, although I can appreciate it for its potential marketability. Prince made great music throughout his life and yet the decisions made (choosing music for this project) limit him to just one era. It’s so not what he was about.”
Soulhead.com owner Ron Worthy has published more than a few purple-culture related essays on the site, most recently the impressive “The Paisley Diaries” series by journalist (and AFROPUNK contributor) Miles Marshall Lewis. Much like myself, Worthy went through his age of early eros with Prince as his guide and soundtrack. “Prince simultaneously captured the fragile nature of love, intimacy and its connection to spirituality,” says Worthy, citing “Sex Shooter” as one of his favorites on Originals. “During my early teen years, he helped provide a sensual roadmap that I would follow on how to treat my fledgling relationships with woman. By listening to the imaginative ways he expressed and enjoyed various aspects of love and lovemaking, I felt very equipped when that time in my life came.”
Naturally, everyone has an opinion of what Prince songs recorded by someone else should have been on the album. While Pendleton named-checked the little known “Get Blue” recorded by Louie Louie, C. Liegh McInnis voted for Tevin Campbell’s “Shhh” and Ron Worthy choose “If I Love U Tonight” by Mica Paris. My personal choices would be Sheena Easton’s glorious track “101,” one of Prince’s dark broken-hearted ballads, or Andre Cymone’s dope AfroFuturistic jam “Dance Electric,” or Nona Hendryx’s hyped “Baby Go Go” from her 1987 album Female Trouble.
“I had met Prince years before in Minneapolis, while I was performing,” Hendryx told me recently. “He was shy and didn’t say a lot, but he told how much he loved [my old band] Labelle and how much we had influenced him and his music, and, maybe one day we could work together. Well, it took a while for that to happen, but when I called him, he sent ‘Baby Go Go,’ which I got my friend Mavis Staples to sing background on, which was how the two of them met.”
For Prince fans, his material has always been more than mere songs, they were multi-textured universes of sound to be explored. You can daydream on these songs, make love on the notes or simply float on the melodies. Ytasha Womack, author of Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture, says, “Prince painted pictures with words. He created worlds with his lyrics. With each song, we as listeners were brought into the plush pink, often purple, magic-filled, erotic world of swirling colors, guitar sirens, and syncopated funk. His world was surreal, inviting, soft, and a total happy space.” Like a postmodern Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, Norman Whitfield or The Beatles, Prince’s songs have become American standards that will be loved and covered for years to come. And while various artists breathed their own lives into his music and lyrics, as heard on Originals, Prince’s songs always remain just that.