When Prince announced he would appear on The Arsenio Hall Show with his all-fem (all White) band 3rdEyeGirl, Black folks got excited. Not since election night 2008 had so many folks of color been gathered around their TV sets, noisily awaiting a media event would that would (hopefully) rock their world. Promoting his upcoming album Plectrum Electrum, the 55-year-old genius, who still looks like he’s in his 30s, played powerfully, fielded audience questions, and brushed off the host’s gushing awe with a wave of his hand.
In between, he introduced a new song called “Funknroll,” played a cover of “Mutiny” (a song he wrote for The Family back in 1985) and partied like it was… well, you know. “Put your phone down and get your party on,” he demanded. It was the best hour of television I’d seen the Six Feet Under finale. The show turned out to be a brilliantly bizarre hour of television that reminded me of the Merv Griffin days when Sly Stone would be on for a week and play drums with Richard Pryor.
While I’ve been an enthusiast since first playing my cousin’s Prince album back in 1979 and falling in lust with the electric ecstasy of “Bambi,” I’d moved on from the maestro’s music since the start of the millennium. As though foretold in the song “1999,” it was year that I interviewed him at Paisley Park and heard tracks for his then upcoming project, Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic.
Soon after, my interests began to wane as my tastes began to shift away from his newer music. But like many fans who’d grown up under the purple thumb of Prince’s ’80s influence on pop culture, from the afrofuturistic Minneapolis sound where synthesizers and LinnDrums ruled the soundscape, there was no escaping his musical brilliance. It could pull me back at any time.
Whether hearing the opening sermon of “Let’s Go Crazy” on the radio, dancing drunkenly at a wedding as the DJ blasted “Kiss,” or catching Purple Rain on HBO (recently I discovered, after seeing the flick for perhaps the 100th time, that I knew every word of dialogue), Prince’s songs has become a part of my own soul, of my rhythmic DNA, and each note of his music conjures yesteryear memories when life could be so nice.
With a silken falsetto difficult not to adore, Prince straddled the fence that divided gritty blues boys from glam rockers. Embracing Santana’s guitar fury with the same furor as Curtis Mayfield’s falsetto and Stevie’s synthesizer magic, Prince created brilliant sonic cathedrals that influenced more than a few emerging musicians.
In 1980, when Dirty Mind dropped on an unsuspecting audience, I knew I’d found what I was looking for in a pop star. He was funky, he was nasty, and he was rock ’n’ roll. He was the thin Black duke throwing darts in lover’s eyes as he combined the glam of T. Rex’s Marc Bolan with the funk of James Brown.
As Prince’s exploration into synth rhythms, freaky sexuality and guitar-driven celebration inspired a new generation to make changes, he was simultaneously designing a sonic template for future explorations into sound. At that time I bought every Prince album, every single with a non-album B-side, every offshoot band, slept out for concert tickets and dressed like him for Halloween.
Hearing him sing “She’s Always in My Hair” on Arsenio made me think of my ’80s girlfriend Initia, who claimed she knew I was going to break up with her when I removed my Prince 12-inch singles from her crib. “I was afraid that would be the first thing you would throw out of the window,” I confessed to her years later.
Seemingly unafraid of criticism, Prince’s rebellious edge on record, behind the boards, on screen and on stage was unprecedented. (He famously produced stellar albums for Vanity 6, The Time, Apollonia, Shelia E., Sheena Easton, Jill Jones, The Family and Madhouse, among many others.) With the productivity of a modern day Brill Building, Prince was kicking out the jams at his Paisley Park studios, creating visionary material with the intensity of a machine.
In 2011, former Time guitarist Jesse Johnson told me that Prince knew more about the studio than most musicians. Living at Prince’s purple pad on Lake Riley back in the day, he said, “What I learned from Prince about the studio was, there are absolutely no rules. 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 sh*t. But dude knew how to make records.”
During the question-and-answer period of Arsenio, a fine audience member pointed out that this year marks the 30th anniversary of the Purple Rain soundtrack and movie. Coming out at a time when Kool and the Gang’s syrupy “Joanna” and Lionel Richie’s corny ass “Hello” were ruling the charts, the non-bassline funk of the first single “When Doves Cry” had been in regular rotation on my stereo since May (like everyone else).
Released two days after my 21st birthday, the Purple Rain album became my own coming-of-age soundtrack as I navigated through the artistic streets of New York City in search of something different. From the title track to the infectious balladry of “The Beautiful Ones” (a passionate ditty I still sing to myself while walking down the block), the music gave me the courage to put pen to paper in hopes that one day I might possess similar power as an artist.
“Prince’s work has had a strong impact on many of us,” says soulhead.com founder Ron Worthy. “His music taught us how to approach life, how to dance and how to love. His music was the secret sauce that gave us courage, and was often an indicator of how we picked our friends.” Like Ron, if I met a woman back in the ’80s who wasn’t into Prince, I knew she wasn’t the girl for me.
Getting older, I’ve thought a lot about the musical greats I’ve loved over the years who’ve had shortly lived or tragic lives—folks like Charlie Parker, Jimi Hendrix, Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, Sly Stone, Arthur Lee, Michael Jackson and countless others. In the grinding world of show business, it’s rare to see a Black performer who’s slid so well into middle age without being eaten alive by drugs, drink, gambling or the business itself.
Watching Prince through his various costume changes and musical numbers on Arsenio Hall, I felt a sense of pride that the brother was still here to lead by example, while defining the kind of freedom all artists should strive for in their work. Three decades after Purple Rain debuted, The Kid is still doing things his way.
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.