IASPM-US/POP Conference Preview: Zaheer Ali

by justindburton on March 21, 2012

In the coming weeks, we will be previewing several papers that will be read at the 2012 IASPM-US/POP Conference in New York. This preview is courtesy of Zaheer Ali, whose paper “MPLS (Minneapolis): As Site and Sound” is scheduled for the Minneapolis Royalty: Prince lunch session, 1:00-2:00 on Saturday, March 24 in KC 808. The material here is supplementary to Ali’s presentation on Saturday.

In the mid-1980s, if you tuned in to radio, especially black radio, within the hour you would be hard pressed to not hear a song featuring synthesized horns, funk bass lines, choppy rhythm guitar, New Wave-inspired electronic rhythms, and/or even searing guitar solos. All these sonic elements were brought to the forefront of rhythm and blues thanks in large part to Prince, whose 1982 release 1999 had consolidated these elements into what would come to be known as the “Minneapolis sound.” With the success of his 1984 follow up album and film Purple Rain, and the proliferation of Prince’s productions through protégé acts like The Time, Apollonia 6, and Sheila E., the Minneapolis sound began to inspire a range of productions by other Prince associates and non-Minneapolis-based artists as well, such as Flint, Michigan’s Ready for the World and even New York’s Lisa Lisa & the Cult Jam, as record companies scrambled to capitalize on the latest trend. In order to understand exactly what the Minneapolis sound is, it is best to review some songs that exemplify the style. Since Prince’s publishing company has aggressively policed youtube and other internet sites for unlicensed broadcasting of his music, it is fairly difficult to find archival video clips of his music that have longevity online. (My co-panelist, Matt Thomas will explore Prince’s changing relationship to the internet.) As such, here are ten songs by artists other than Prince who incorporated the Minneapolis sound into their work. What better way to illustrate the impact and reach the sound had anyway?


1. The Pointer Sisters, “Automatic” (1984)

Besides sharing the same title as a song on Prince’s 1999 album released two years earlier, the Pointer Sisters’s “Automatic” also shares some key elements of the Minneapolis sound and style: synth horns and electronic drums contrasted by choppy rhythm guitar. Further, the lead female vocal sung in her lower register delivered with robotic cadence references not only the kind of afro-futurism represented in Prince’s work, but the way he too chose in contrast to sing most of his work (his first three albums) in his falsetto. Prince’s “Lavaux,” from his 2010 release “20Ten” seemingly references the melody of the Pointer Sister’s “Automatic,” bringing the Minneapolis sound references full circle.


2. Teena Marie, “Lovergirl” (1984)

Teena Marie opened for Prince during his “Dirty Mind” tour in 1980; and she was a long-time musical companion of Prince-rival Rick James, for whom Prince had opened earlier during James’s “Fire It Up Tour.” Already a trailblazer in her own right, Marie’s “Lovergirl” exhibited both the synths and electric guitar associated with the Minneapolis sound (the song’s opening echoes the drum openings of both “1999” and “Automatic”), and would go on to become her biggest pop hit. As a white artist successful in R&B, she also represented the same kind of challenges to racial stereotypes in music that Prince was attempting with his multi-racial band.


3. Jesse Johnson, “Be Your Man” (1985)

Though he himself is not a Minneapolis native, Johnson was one of the original members of The Time, the Prince side-group that showcased Prince’s more R&B/funk numbers. After “Purple Rain,” when The Time disbanded, Johnson launched his solo career, with the help of one-time Prince manager Owen Husney, who had begin promoting the idea of a “Minneapolis sound,” as early as 1982. The similarities between Johnson’s sound and Prince’s are no coincidence—when Johnson was starting his solo career, he bought some of Prince’s old equipment and his project was engineered by Susan Rogers, who was also a long-time engineer for Prince. Johnson would seemingly comment on the comparisons between Prince and himself in his song “Free World”: “Nobody likes the way I hold my mic / they say it’s too much like my friend / The clothes that I wear, the way I comb my hair…” Like Prince, Johnson would also launch several protege acts, including Minneapolis local Margie Cox, a white artist who took on the name Ta Mara & the Seen and whose work invited comparisons to Teena Marie.


4. Ready for the World, “Oh Sheila” (1985)

Probably the most successful non-Prince affiliated group that emulated his sound and style was Ready for the World, who originated out of Flint, Michigan—not surprising given that for much of his early career, Detroit had been Prince’s largest market. Prominent in “Oh Sheila,” RFTW’s biggest hit are the synth horns and the Linn drum rim shot—something that was a signature in Prince’s productions. The “Sheila” in the title had many thinking they were serenading Prince protege Sheila E., and even caused many to mistakenly think that this song was itself written by Prince.


5. Lisa Lisa & the Cult Jam, “All Cried Out” (1986)

This ballad proved to be one of Lisa Lisa & the Cult Jam’s biggest hits from their debut album. In contrast to the album’s freestyle club hits “I Wonder If I Take You Home” and “Can You Feel the Beat,” “All Cried Out” opens with a piano chord and synth stabs that recalls the quiet opening Prince’s own heartbreak ballad, “The Beautiful Ones,” capped with handclap accents and a guitar solo, while the lyrics utilize well-worn Prince metaphors of falling rain.


6. Cherrelle & Alexander O’Neal, “Saturday Love” (1986)

In proliferating the Minneapolis sound, Prince did not do the heavy lifting alone. Key was the work of James “Jimmy Jam” Harris III and Terry Lewis, both of whom had been members of The Time. Before that they had been members of Flyte Tyme, one of the Minneapolis bands that rivaled Prince’s Grand Central. After Prince fired them from The Time because of their outside production work, they focused primarily on writing and production, racking up a long list of credits as producers of hits for many artists. Their work with Alexander O’Neal (himself a long time member of the Minneapolis music scene) and Cherrelle were among their earliest successes in R&B (which also included the S.O.S. Band and Klymaxx). Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis relied heavily on synths and electronic percussions, and their complex arrangements were innovations on the Minneapolis sound.


7. Janet Jackson, “What Have You Done For Me Lately?” (1986)

Jimmy Jam’s & Terry Lewis’s greatest pop success came with their production work for Janet Jackson. Reportedly, when Jackson’s father Joe was shopping producers, he expressly told Harris & Lewis, “I don’t want my daughter sounding like Prince,” probably in reference to the hyper-sexualized images of women that resulted from Prince productions. Nonetheless, much of Jackson’s Control and follow-up Rhythm Nation 1814 are steeped in Minneapolis sound tropes. Even Prince has included “What Have You Done For Me Lately?” in his own setlists, jokingly asking “Who wrote this song?”


8. The Whispers, “Rock Steady” (1987)

As previously mentioned, Prince fired Harris & Lewis because of their outside production work. According to Prince biographer Per Nilsen, Prince was specifically concerned that they would give away “The Time” sound. He accused them of doing just that on The Whispers’s “Keep On Lovin’ Me,” even though Harris & Lewis had no involvement in the track. “Prince swore we did that record,” says Harris, “but that was just [producer] Leon Sylvers hearing the ‘Minneapolis sound’ and doing his interpretation of what it should be.” (Nilsen, 123) Harris & Lewis were not involved in “Rock Steady,” either, but the Minneapolis sound references are clear in the synth horns and rhythm. As an interesting side note, this was one of the first compositions and productions by Antonio “L.A.” Reid and Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, whose early works could be compared to the Minneapolis sound and be regarded as a bridge to their own style as well as New Jack Swing.


9. Jody Watley. “Still a Thrill” (1987)

Another former Prince band member turned producer was Andre “Cymone” Anderson, whose history with Prince goes back to their teenage years when Prince lived with the Anderson family and when Cymone and Prince were in a band together. Cymone would go on to be part of Prince’s touring band until setting out on his own solo career, with the help of manager Owen Husney. While Cymone’s solo career did not generate any major hits (his biggest hit was the Prince-penned “The Dance Electric” in 1986), he was much more successful as a producer, especially for Jody Watley. Her “Still a Thrill” is classic Minneapolis sound—choppy guitar rhythms and synths laid over a drum track processed with a flanger effect giving it a cyclical rising and falling sound (something Prince utilized extensively in his early ‘80s work).


10. Madame X, “Just That Type of Girl” (1987)

Bernadette Cooper, former founder of Klymaxx, early beneficiaries of production by Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, went on to found Madame X, a trio clearly inspired by Prince proteges Vanity 6 and Apollonia 6. “Just That Type of Girl” features complex drum programming that makes up for a minimal bass line, with crooning and sexually charged lyrics reminiscent of Vanity 6’s “Nasty Girl”

Even with the proliferation of the Minneapolis sound by non-Minneapolis artists or non-affiliates of Prince, he remains the most successful artist to be identified with the Minneapolis sound. For Prince, Minneapolis figured as more than a sound or a trend, but as a site of production, one to which he has been fiercely loyal. This paper examines the historical emergence of Minneapolis as both a musical style and place—a site of music production and an imaginary represented in the music of Prince. The story of the Minneapolis sound is partly the story of local music scenes, fostered by local-based radio programmers, venues that catered to local acts, and a healthy rivalry among local bands; but it is also the story of how a relatively small population of black culture workers overcame geographic isolation and insulation in order to establish both a metaphorical and material space nationally for their own brand of R&B, and then map that sound locally onto their hometown.

Zaheer Ali is a Ph.D. candidate in history at Columbia University where he focuses on 20th century African American history, with a focus on religion, politics, and culture. He is interested in the intersections of geography and history, in particular the role of space and place in shaping the past. He can be found on Twitter @zaheerali.

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