While guitarist Dez Dickerson’s most fleshed-out contribution to The Time was the aforementioned “After Hi School,” it was his work as a lyricist that had the more lasting impact. Dickerson wrote lyrics for at least three songs recorded in April of 1981 and (most likely) intended for the new side project. Two of these, “Dancin’ Flu” and “I Can’t Figure It Out,” we only know as titles from The Vault; but the third, “Cool,” would become the Time’s second single and one of their trademark songs. “Prince called me up one day with the title and asked me to write some lyrics to go with it,” Dez recalled to Per Nilsen’s Uptown fanzine. “I called him back about 20 minutes later with the song” (Nilsen 1999 86).
According to Dickerson, the genesis for “Cool” came during the Dirty Mind tour, on a night when the band was hanging out with Warner Bros. A&R exec Ted Cohen. “I had this voice that I adopted at times, and, that night I just kind of got ‘stuck’ in it, cracking jokes,” he wrote in his 2003 memoir. “I fell into this thing where I kept telling Ted, ‘Ted, man, you bad! Ain’t nobody bad like you, Ted!’ Well, you guessed it–the voice and the phrase ‘ain’t nobody bad…’, which would later become the signature of the Time’s banter, came from that night” (Dickerson 137).
While I am skeptical of attributing the whole “Morris Day” persona to Dez alone–both Prince and André Cymone, not to mention Morris himself, are also on record as having used the hoarse, jive-talking “pimp voice” most publicly identified with the Time–it is certainly true that “Cool,” and Dickerson’s “ain’t nobody bad but me” lyric, played an essential role in bringing that persona to life. Equal parts smooth and clownish, “Cool” laid the parameters for the hair-slicking, Stacy Adams-wearing, two-stepping caricature from which Morris remains publicly inseparable to this day.
But whoever was responsible for “Morris Day” as we know him, the transformation was not immediate or seamless. “Morris was undergoing this huge change,” keyboardist Lisa Coleman recalled to the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “He was a friend who would run and get us hamburgers–a funny guy with this freckled face and big ‘fro. Prince was grooming him, giving him a haircut.” At one point, Coleman remembered showing up in the middle of a vocal session with Morris and Prince; by the time she arrived, Prince’s insistent coaching had reduced the frontman-in-training to tears (Star Tribune 2004). “The guy had had a huge responsibility thrust upon him,” she told biographer Matt Thorne, “and what seemed like fun and games at first became a big deal” (Thorne 2016).
The way Day tells it, his larger-than-life persona was developed as a means to project himself into the unfamiliar role of lead singer. “I’d come up to sing a couple of slow songs, but Prince said, ‘Be cool; put your hand in your pocket,’” Day recalled to Wax Poetics. “So I tried that and just kept working at it and kept coming up with different things… it just evolved into a whole way of me doing business. It started from, ‘Okay, I’ll put my hand in my pocket, and I’ll walk a lot.’ And [it] went from there” (Van Nguyen 44).
Indeed, there could scarcely have been a better song to build the new singer’s confidence than “Cool.” Dickerson’s lyrics read like an imaginative, tall-talking set of daily affirmations: not only does Day’s character have “a penthouse in Manhattan” and “two more in Malibu,” but he also recently acquired both a Cadillac Seville and a Maserati; he wears diamonds on his fingers and toes; he flies around the world in his own private Lear jet, and has enough ladies and money to measure them, respectively, by the dozens and by the ton. Prince’s arrangement offers more than enough funk to back up Day’s boasts, with a grinding synth-bassline–later lifted by electro-hop DJ the Egyptian Lover for his “Freak-a-holic”–tailor-made for the singer to do the walk.
The mental image evoked by “Cool” was inseparable from the literal image being created around Morris and the Time. The cover for the first Time album–monochrome, save for the group’s name in bold red–was shot by Dirty Mind photographer Allen Beaulieu: capturing the band, in the memorable words of biographer Dave Hill, “looking like a cross between the Harlem Mob circa 1945, and the most dangerous homosexuals on earth” (Hill 102). All six members were dressed in ’40s- and ’50s-style suits from Tatters, a hip vintage clothing shop located in Uptown Minneapolis. Their look was as distinct and arresting as the one devised for Prince’s own group: the thrift-store aesthetic of early punk and New Wave invested with a specifically African American sensibility, a jazz-age hipness inherited from the sharp dressers of John L. Nelson’s generation.
Likewise, the look fed effortlessly back into the music. The gang-like vibe Hill observed, for example, was reflected in the call-and-response chants between Morris and the band: a move, originated in “Cool,” that would be recycled not only on other Time songs, but on future productions by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis (see: Janet Jackson’s “Nasty,” 1986), as well as a slew of Prince’s own compositions. Notably, “Lolita” from 2006’s 3121 feels like a sly sequel to “Cool,” with Prince and Morris’ jet-setting ladies’-man character now confronted by the oddly specific midlife crisis of sexual interest from an age-inappropriate woman.
It was Terry Lewis’ brother, Jerome Benton, who first introduced the band to Tatters–and who also serendipitously provided the last piece of the puzzle for the group’s stage persona. One day while watching the band rehearse “Cool,” Benton was struck by the inspiration to take Day’s exclamation of “Somebody bring me a mirror” literally: “Jerome runs into the bathroom and snatches the mirror off the wall and ran up to me, and that was it,” the singer told Wax Poetics. “From that day on, he was in the band” (Van Nguyen 44). The camp image of Morris preening in a mirror held by Jerome, in character as a dancing valet, would be one of the Time’s most indelible–as much a part of ’80s pop culture as the “Jungle Love” dance from Purple Rain.
“Cool” was not only the most iconic song on The Time, but it was also the most successful: the only one of the album’s three singles–and the first Prince-written song since “I Wanna Be Your Lover”–to make the pop charts (albeit only Number 90). It thus makes sense that as late as 2008, it would be the subject of a remarkably straightforward, Teddy Riley-produced cover version by rapper Snoop Dogg, whose playful latter-day take on the pimp aesthetic owes no small debt to Morris Day and the Time. It also makes sense that it would be singled out by Prince himself for revival on his 2010, 2011, and 2012 tours: often paired with Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” and his own “Let’s Work,” as if to reassert its place in the post-disco canon. Like the song goes, “Ain’t nobody bad like me.”