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Prince (Protégé) Summer: Martika and Carmen Electra

Look, guys, I’m not trying to fish for sympathy here, but it’s my goddamn birthday and I just wrote a post about Carmen Fucking Electra’s Prince-produced 1993 album. Okay, maybe I am trying to fish for sympathy. Just click the damn link and share in my misery:

Prince (Protégé) Summer:
Martika and Carmen Electra

Don’t worry, though, I also take some time in this post to talk about Prince’s work on Martika’s Kitchen–which, incidentally, is also celebrating a birthday, as it turns 25 years old today! Remember to come back next week for more posts on, frankly, much better music. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna go actually try to enjoy my birthday…Carmen-free.

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For You, 1978

Crazy You

Side One of For You opens with the title track, followed by “In Love” and “Soft and Wet.” On track four, Prince downshifts into his first officially-released ballad: a jazzy, contemplative sketch of a song called “Crazy You.”

It’s likely, of course, that “Crazy You” is somebody’s favorite track on the album, but I can’t imagine that’s a common sentiment. The song just isn’t designed that way; it’s made to melt into the background, serving as a short palate cleanser between the exhibitionistic single cuts “Soft and Wet” and “Just as Long as We’re Together.” Its structure is wispy, elusive: a single verse over a spare arrangement that just sort of disappears into the ether once it’s done. In many ways, it sounds more like a demo than a lot of the actual demos Prince recorded in 1977.

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For You, 1978

In Love

During the course of this blog, I’ve already made a couple of passing references to the “Minneapolis Sound”; so I guess now is as good a time as any to talk about what that much-discussed label entails. At its most basic level, the Minneapolis Sound is a form of post-disco dance music rooted in R&B, with synthesizers replacing the traditional soul/funk horn section. Prince didn’t “invent” the style, strictly speaking; as we’ve seen (and will continue to observe), plenty of others helped along the way, from Pepé Willie to André Cymone (née Anderson) to Chris Moon and Owen Husney to the Lewis Connection–whose keyboard player Pierre Lewis, you might recall, was the one who lent Prince his first Oberheim Four Voice so he could synthesize those traditional horn parts in the first place. There’s a great collection on Numero Group called Purple Snow: Forecasting the Minneapolis Sound that documents the genre’s early progression–including some early songs Prince actually played on, like the aforementioned “If You See Me” by 94 East and the Lewis Connection’s “Got to Be Something Here.”

What we can attribute primarily to Prince was the formal codification of the Minneapolis Sound as a genre, which he did by simply bringing it to a national audience and turning it into a marketable (and lucrative) style for others to reproduce. But even this process didn’t happen overnight. Case in point: “In Love,” the second track of his 1978 debut album For You, which sounds both exactly like vintage Prince–i.e., the “Minneapolis Sound”–and like something completely different.

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For You, 1978

For You

Prince’s contract with Warner Bros. stipulated that he deliver his first album to the label within six months. But before he could begin work, there were a few issues that needed to be addressed: specifically, the executives at W.B. remained wary of giving full production responsibilities to an unproven teenager from Minnesota. “Warners basically said, ‘We know he’s talented, we know he can play the instruments, we know he can write songs, but does he have record sense?’ Those are distinct areas,” Prince’s then-manager Owen Husney told biographer Per Nilsen. “The question was, ‘Does he have the ability to make a record that will sell?’” (Nilsen 1999 35)

Warner wasn’t sure, so they did what any record label would do in their situation: they hedged their bets. In an odd echo of Columbia’s earlier, failed strategy, W.B. chairman Mo Ostin tried to convince Prince to work with an experienced star producer: Maurice White of Earth, Wind & Fire. But not even the superior White brother could dissuade the 19-year-old phenom from his ambitions. Prince, according to Husney, wrote a lengthy note laying out the reasons why White wasn’t a good fit for his debut: “He had analyzed [Earth, Wind & Fire’s] music and felt it wasn’t going anywhere in the eighties… He didn’t want that. He felt it was going to pigeonhole him. So I called back Mo and I said our decision was still ‘no.’ We wanted to be self-produced” (Nilsen 1999 35).

In the end, Husney and Ostin settled on a compromise–once again, following the earlier negotiations with CBS almost to the letter. Warner flew Prince back out to Los Angeles, under the pretext of offering him some free studio time. As he worked, however, the label sent producers and executives to surreptitiously observe his process: including head of A&R Lenny Waronker, Russ Titelman (best known at the time for his work with Randy Newman), Gary Katz (producer of Steely Dan), and Ted Templeman (the Doobie Brothers, Van Morrison, et. al.). “He thought some of these people were janitors,” Husney claimed to Nilsen. “They were all walking in and out of there. Prince had no idea who the heck it was” (Nilsen 1999 35). But the ruse worked, and in the artist’s favor: Waronker and Templeman in particular were impressed, and agreed that Prince should be allowed to self-produce. “You could not only tell there was talent but there was a vision,” Waronker later recalled to the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “He went out and played guitar, then overdubbed drums. By the time the drum part was recorded, it was clear. We didn’t want to insult him by making him go through the whole process, but he wanted to finish” (Star Tribune 2004). With Warner Bros. sufficiently convinced, Prince became the youngest producer in the label’s history.

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Ephemera, 1977-1978

We Can Work It Out

In the three-sided bidding war that ignited over Prince in Los Angeles, Warner Bros. held the edge. As noted last time, Prince’s manager Owen Husney had a prior association with Russ Thyret, at that time the label’s Vice President and Director of Promotion. Husney told biographer Dave Hill that he considered Thyret “a friend and a man of heart” (Hill 41). “While everybody was wining, dining, giving us lunches, and promising us homes in Beverly Hills, Russ was the man who took us back to his house, sat on the floor, and talked music with us,” he later elaborated to Per Nilsen’s Uptown fanzine. “And in the back of my mind I was always going toward Warner Bros., because of Russ” (Nilsen 1999 33).

Sure enough, it was with Russ, and Warner, that Prince ultimately signed on June 25, 1977. Personal connections aside, the decision made sense. Warner had a reputation in the industry as an artist-friendly label: its chief executive, Mo Ostin, encouraged a culture of receptiveness to artists’ creative development that would have been appealing to Prince and his management, who insisted on not only a long-term deal, but also the ability for Prince to produce his own records. On the latter point, as we’ll discuss next week, Ostin would need a little convincing; but he was willing to invest a considerable amount of time and money in Prince, and that was most important. “Columbia would only give him a two-LP deal, so we decided that we would give him a three-LP deal because we believe[d] in him so strongly,” Ostin recalled to Billboard earlier this year (Aswad 2016).

The actual dollar amount of the contract Prince signed with W.B. has been disputed, and indeed exaggerated: in his interview with Hill, for example, Husney called it “a multi-million dollar deal,” with an initial sum “well into six figures” (Hill 41). The truth, as Nilsen reported it, was quite a bit more modest: an $80,000 advance, with an additional $225,000 if Prince delivered three albums within 27 months. There was also a second option for renewal, entitling the artist to a quarter million for another two albums, delivered within one year. The promised recording budget for the initial, two-year period was $180,000: $60,000 per album. It was, according to Warner Bros. representatives, the biggest recording contract to date for a solo artist–with the exception, randomly, of Texas blues guitarist Johnny Winter (Nilsen 2004 18).