prince (circa 1984)

Still "Crazy" after all these years

Thirty years ago, on June 25, 1984, Prince’s masterful Purple Rain was released and the world of Black music hasn’t been the same since. Spearheaded by the multitalented boy wonder from Minneapolis (who had no problems prancing around onstage in his bikini underwear while playing the hell out of a out of a Fender Stratocaster), this was the first disc that Prince credited his touring band, the aptly named the Revolution, for their contributions.

Proving themselves as musically tight as their fearless leader, who rehearsed them as relentlessly as James Brown did his players, the Revolution was a Sly Stone-inspired, racially and sexually diverse band at the top of their game. With the release Purple Rain, group members Wendy Melvion (guitar), Lisa Coleman (piano/keyboards), Brown Mark (bass), Bobby Z (drums) and Matt Fink (keyboards) all became stars in their own right.

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Prior to the Purple Rain phenomenon, the little brother in the platform shoes already possessed a devoted fan base following his music since the salad days of his debut, For You. Luckily for us, Prince wasn’t sacked by his record label; Warner Bros. allowed him more free expression in his art than, say, Capitol Records ever gave to Jheri-curled rival O’Bryan. Instead of bringing in outside producers like Earth, Wind & Fire’s Maurice White, they left him alone, crossing their moneyed fingers as they awaited the dopeness they knew he could deliver.  

Having grown up listening to a mixture of funk (James Brown, Ohio Players), rock (Little Richard, Carlos Santana) as well as Joni Mitchell, Gamble & Huff, the Beatles and Motown, Prince began combining the coolness of computerized instrumentation with the heat of guitars, drums and bass. From the beginning, he had the voice of a naughty angel and the swagger of a Minneapolis pimp. “Ain’t no pimp like a Midwestern pimp,” guitarist Vernon Reid once said.

While he was a little cheesy early on, posing for teen-dream magazine centerfolds and being a smartass on American Bandstand in 1980 (where he performed his first big hits, “I Wanna Be Your Lover” and “Why You Want to Treat Me So Bad”), Prince soon began slipping into various personas. Building on the sexually charged wild boy on his third joint, Dirty Mind, and the apocalyptic visionary soul man who reared his horny head on 1999, on Purple Rain, he was content to become a sonic savior whisking us all from the boredom of our everyday existence into his own new wave-funkdafied Oz.

‘Purple Rain’ trailer

‘Purple Rain’ trailer

For many of us comics-reading Black nerds coming of age in the 1980s, Prince’s music became a gateway to erotica, as we made finely thought-out mix-tapes for the objects of our affection. (Beginning, for example, with the adolescent corniness of “Still Waiting” and ending with the very much adult fire and desire of “International Lover,” the last track on 1999.) As a songwriter—as witnessed on the lesbian lover’s triangle track “Bambi” or “Controversy,” a mixed signaled anthem of sexuality that refused to conform to the constrictions of society—Prince was often as miserable as Morrissey. But he still managed to get laid in the process.

As the ’80s progressed, Prince went from being a student of music (absorbing everything from moody Tangerine Dream to the big band boom of Kid Creole and the Coconuts and outer drugged-out comic adventures P-Funk) to becoming a soul sonic experimentalist who borrowed from the best before graduating to his own sound that others couldn’t wait to copy. “If people are stealing your sound, then, if you so bad, change your style,” he told me in 1999.

For those committed to the cult of Prince, who bought singles for the B-sides (i.e., “17 Days”), tried to decode his surreal lyricism, and couldn’t get enough of his Smokey Robinson/Phillip Baily inspired falsetto, we knew Purple Rain was going to be different. A perfect collision of synths, soul, spunk and electric guitars that only got better with each replaying, the Oscar-winning title track—with its melodramatic lyrics and screeching guitars—was an instant favorite.

For those who’d conveniently forgotten that brown-skinned men named Ike Turner, Chuck Berry and Little Richard pioneered rock, Purple Rain was a reminder. Eddie Van Halen, who laid down a free solo on Michael Jackson’s zillion-selling “Beat It” single the year before, might’ve gotten more props at the time. But Prince was the more wide-ranging in his style. On the successful “When Doves Cry”—a strange and stark track without a bassline—Prince talked psychological smack to a former flame who just left him “standing alone in a world that’s so cold” on Purple Rain’s first single. He was in the process of propelling himself from cult status to the reigning rock star of the moment.      

Suddenly, folks who only listened to nothing but the radio were asking, “Have you ever heard of this Prince guy? He’s pretty good.” Still, unlike punk rockers who bitterly complain whenever their favorite artists become successful, Prince fans were more than happy to share their idol and his brilliant Black noise. It didn’t matter that he would no longer be our private joy, because we wanted the world to embrace his genius too.

Months later, after the film was released, it was impossible to go clubbing without hearing the album’s end-of-the-world go-go party, “Let’s Go Crazy,” screaming from the sound system. Three decades later, Purple Rain is a still brilliant jewel of a record that shines as bright as it did the sunny morning I stood outside Inner City Records in Baltimore an hour before the store opened, anxiously awaiting the moment I could hold its lavender loveliness in my hands. A fan since Prince’s self-titled sophomore album, only Dr. Strangelove dropping a bomb on Baltimore could’ve kept me from buying Purple Rain its first day of release.

Having never brought an album on the first day, I expected the streets to be crowded with Prince fans swooping onto the sidewalk on backs of winged unicorns, dudes with glistening Controversy hair and high-heeled women slinking through the shadows dressed in Dirty Mind raincoats. Instead, I was by myself, an army of one waiting for a revolution to begin. When I was finally admitted, I ran over to the display case, where there were stacks of Purple Rain albums. It was pop heaven.

On the album cover, with its art directed, graffiti-style purple logo and kinky cool album art, Prince sat confidently on his custom built purple motorcycle (the classic symbol of a Wild One rebel) looking like he’d just driven out the pages of the sci-fi novel Neuromancer. Published the same year, the William Gibson novel popularized the phrase “cyberpunk” to define the merging of high technology and low life aesthetics, which included sex, drugs and rock and roll.

Infusing elements of noir literature, dime novels, German expressionism, Beat culture and postmodern dreams, the cyberpunks were defined by writer Bruce Sterling as “an unholy alliance of the technical world and the world of organized dissent—the underground world of pop culture, visionary fluidity, and street-level anarchy… cyberpunk comes from the realm where the computer hacker and the rocker overlap, a cultural Petri dish where writhing gene lines splice.”

I run all that down simply to say that, to me, the stunning Ron Slenzak (whose work was also featured on album covers for Rick James, Teena Marie and Rockwell) photograph projected an image of pure cyperpunk. While Prince might not have read William Gibson’s instant classic, Prince and the Revolution’s ideas of being forward-thinking artists and thinkers with a gritty edge was similar. Purple Rain was a musical manifesto whose sole mission was to as free and futuristic as possible and let the tunes do their thang.

While the album would go on to win countless statues, Prince’s real award was the influence Purple Rain had on popular culture. Thirty years back, Purple Rain not only opened the floodgates for a posse of new fans, many who were willing to follow him wherever his creativity might lead, it also inspired and influenced a few generations of creative folks include musical artists—Janelle Monáe, D’Angelo and OutKast, as well as graphic artists, painters, playwrights and more than a few perverts who’ve spent their lives searching for a real-life version of “Darling Nikki” and her magical magazine.

“When I first heard Purple Rain, I was just blown away,” says Bruce Mack, keyboardist for the Burnt Sugar Arkestra. (In honor of its anniversary, the group will perform the album in its entirely at Harlem’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.) “The music was just crazy, with its mixture of gospel, contemporary keyboard sounds and straight-up soul. Thirty years later, Purple Rain still stands alone.”

Cultural critic Michael A. Gonzales has written cover stories for Vibe, Uptown, Essence, XXL, Wax Poetics and elsewhere. He’s also written for New York and The Village Voice. Read him at Blackadelic Pop and follow him on Twitter @gonzomike.