During the weeks leading up to the release of their debut album in July 1981, Prince had honed the Time into a formidable live unit. “He brought stuff out of us that we didn’t think we could do,” keyboardist Jimmy Jam later recalled. Left to their own devices, the band would “rehearse for like four hours and think we were tired. We’d go through the set twice and sit around and talk for two hours.” But with Prince as taskmaster, “we’d work five or six hours straight, over and over, no breaks… He would give us keyboard parts that were impossible. We would be like, ‘We can’t play these.’ He would be like, ‘Yeah, you can, and while you’re playing them I want you to do this step of choreography and sing this note of harmony.’ Couple of days later we’d be doing it. A month later we’d be on tour and it would be automatic. He was a great motivator and the thing that made him a great motivator was that he works so hard himself. He’s always squeezing the most out of everything” (Nilsen 1999 87).
That summer, the Time made their live debut in a showcase for Warner Bros. executives at S.I.R. Studios on Sunset Boulevard–the same venue where, three years earlier, Prince had held auditions for his own backing band. “It was just 10 or 12 of us,” Marylou Badeaux, at that time a marketing executive in the label’s “Black Music” division, told biographer Per Nilsen. “We went down there after work one day to be shown this new Warner Bros. group that was produced by Jamie Starr. No one knew who Jamie Starr was. They turned off all the lights, and this diminutive little character with a veil walked in to stand behind the console and mix it. Somebody says, ‘That’s Jamie Starr!’ And I looked and said, ‘No, that’s Prince!’” (Nilsen 1999 87).
Prince remained the proverbial man behind the curtain in the months to come, as the group made their first public appearances in Royal Oak, Michigan in September, then back home at Sam’s in Minneapolis in October. When they joined the Controversy tour, however, savvy consumers had begun to see through the charade. Frontman Morris Day, drawing on his media coaching from publicist Howard Bloom, flatly denied any connection between Prince and the band’s allegedly reclusive producer. “[Jamie] Starr is an engineer from L.A.,” he told Billboard in December. “What else can I say? The issue was pressed to the point where Prince was credited in the charts one week as our producer, which upset me for a little while, although I don’t want to say that I lost any sleep over it” (Sacks 1981 49). Besides, he claimed, “Prince is a good writer and entertainer, but he’s not as cool as we are” (44).
As it turned out, Morris kind of had a point. Prince had hand-picked the members of the Time from the cream of the North Minneapolis funk scene, then honed their talents even further with his punishing rehearsal regimen. The feel-good funk jams he’d written and recorded for them came to life on stage–and earned even bigger crowd reactions as they took off on the charts. “Cool,” the second single from The Time, was released in November to coincide with the start of the tour; it performed almost as well as Prince’s “Controversy,” reaching Number 90 on the Hot 100 and Number 7 on the soul singles chart. And when Prince released his own follow-up, “Let’s Work,” in January 1982, it fell slightly short of his protégés’ success, peaking at Number 9 on the soul chart and missing the Hot 100 entirely.
Audiences clearly couldn’t get enough of the Time; and Prince, at first, was happy to oblige. During a break in the tour schedule in January, the artist occasionally known as Jamie Starr spent a week and a half at Sunset Sound, working on songs for what would become the group’s second album. When the tour recommenced at the end of the month, the Time had added a new track to their setlist: a rockabilly-flavored raveup called “Dance to the Beat.”
Judged purely on its own merits, it wasn’t much to write home about. Like Prince’s similarly-titled “Everybody Dance,” “Dance to the Beat” feels tailor-made for live performances, giving Morris plenty of opportunities to exhort the audience with the title phrase while the lively synth and guitar riff provides some additional inducement. In sound and structure, it resembles a G-rated “Jack U Off”–which is to say, a “Jack U Off” without any of the things that make “Jack U Off” worth listening to.
Coincidentally, “Dance to the Beat” ended up marking a turning point for Prince’s onstage relationship with the Time. When the group played a pair of solo sets at L.A.’s Roxy Theatre on February 16, Prince joined them to play the song for their final encore. They also played it–for what turned out to be the last time–at Prince’s March 8 performance at Sam’s, now rechristened First Avenue. No longer content to stay behind the curtain, “Jamie Starr” was now inching back into the spotlight–and he was becoming noticeably more reluctant to give it up. When the Time joined him on stage at First Avenue, Prince passive-aggressively cracked, “You can play, but this is my stage tonight.” Morris, also smiling through his teeth, replied, “Say, man, why don’t you take my comb? You could use it,” before promising the audience that they would “show him how it’s done.” They proceeded to play two songs–“Dance to the Beat” and “The Stick”–with deadly precision.
The onstage rivalry between Prince and the Time was, of course, all part of the show; but it also contained a thinly-veiled undercurrent of genuine tension. Due to a combination of youthful naïveté and Prince’s powers of persuasion, the members of the Time had never formally signed to Warner Bros., but effectively remained subcontractors to Prince’s “Starr ★ Company.” Their agreement with Prince’s management team seems to have been informal: “We asked to have something on paper very early on,” keyboardist Monte Moir recalled, but “Prince said, ‘Oh, you don’t need paperwork. You know, it’s kind of a two-way thing. If you guys get pissed at me you could pack up and leave on the road, and I’m stuck’” (Hill 111). The band joined Prince on the road with each member earning $140 a week–already a low amount for a supporting act on a major tour–and their wages did not go up, even after their records began to outsell the headliner’s. “At one point,” Prince’s cousin Charles Smith recalled to biographers Alex Hahn and Laura Tiebert, “Jesse Johnson and those guys were eating peanut butter out of a jar in their hotel rooms so they could have something when they got home” (Hahn 2017 186).
Without any legal recourse, the Time channeled their brewing resentments the best way they knew how: into a fierce musical rivalry with their benefactor. “To a point, it was real positive,” Moir told Hahn and Tiebert. “On our side, it was, ‘Let’s kick his ass tonight!’ But after a while, it became unhealthy” (Hahn 2017 186). The “unhealthiness”came to a head on the last night of the tour, in Cincinnati, Ohio on March 14–as usual, under the guise of passive-aggressive schoolboy pranks.
The previous night, as recently revealed on the Questlove Supreme podcast, Time guitarist Jesse Johnson had sabotaged a scripted moment in Prince’s show when the singer pulled a pair of women’s underwear out of his jacket pocket: replacing the prop panties with “a pair of drawers” so big that “you could put ’em on a car like a bra” (Questlove Episode 95). Later, the group’s onstage valet Jerome Benton threw an orange backstage at Prince’s drummer Bobby Z. “It left a mark on my suit [so] we got to the dressing room and Prince said[,] ‘What happened to you?’” Bobby later told Variety magazine. Once Prince found out who had thrown the offending citrus, “that was it, he was off and running. Strategies were drawn and people went to their camps and plotted and security helped out. This turned into a two- or three-day event, with [tourmates] Zapp in the middle” (Aswad 2018).
The first shot across the bow in Cincinnati came when Prince and members of his band started hurling eggs at the Time during their opening set. Then, with the assistance of Prince’s new bodyguard Chick Huntsberry–a 6’5″, 300-pound biker type aptly nicknamed “Big Chick”–they abducted Benton from the stage, covered him with honey and shaving cream, and pelted him with garbage. “They tarred and feathered him, basically,” Prince’s keyboardist Dr. Fink told Hahn and Tiebert. Finally, while the group continued to play, Big Chick carried Jesse back to Prince’s dressing room while Prince took his place on guitar. After the conclusion of the set, he returned to the dressing room, where Chick had handcuffed Jesse to a 12-foot-long steel coat rack, and began pelting him with Doritos chips. It was at this point, tour designer Roy Bennett recalled, when the mood became less jocular. “I just sat there and said to myself, this is getting out of hand” (Hahn 2017 189).
Had Prince gotten his way, this would have been the end of the battle; whether carrying out his wishes or simply trying to defuse the situation before it spun further out of control, his management team warned the Time not to retaliate during the headline performance. But, Bennett told Per Nilsen, “As soon as Prince got off the stage, all hell broke loose” (Nilsen 1999 96). Bobby Z recalled Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis “wearing these perfectly tailored Hefty-bag suits with shower caps for hats. They were armed with eggs. Matt [Fink] and I were running from them and we burst into [Zapp leader] Roger Troutman’s dressing room and he’s got a party going on and suddenly we’re in his world. I didn’t want eggs thrown into this poor guy’s dressing room, and of course we got pelted the second we left” (Aswad 2018).
Eventually, Bobby recounted, “after a half hour of battle, these trays of pies suddenly arrived. I don’t know if Prince ordered them during the fight but everyone was throwing them and then Jesse broke free–he’s in handcuffs, running around the middle, mad” (Aswad 2018). Jesse, for his part, claims that he wasn’t actually all that angry–as he quite reasonably pointed out to Questlove, if he’d really been swinging around a 12-foot steel pipe in a blind rage, he’d be “on death row right now.” But his escape from captivity was dramatic nevertheless: “When I took that [pipe] down,” he said, “everybody in the room, his band members, everybody fled like roaches” (Questlove Episode 95).
The great Ohio food fight has earned a deserved place in the annals of Prince’s early history. “It turned out to be a major war,” Bennett recalled to Nilsen. “If you go back to Cincinnati and ask [the venue] about it, they’ll still remember. It was quite a hefty cleaning bill” (Nilsen 1999 96). And while most of the participants remember it fondly, there is always an accompanying edge of darkness to their recollections. “It was incredibly fun but there was an element of fear,” Bobby Z told Variety. “The espionage was so intense, it was physical and had weapons: maple syrup, toothpaste, eggs, yellow mustard. Promoters were starting to get nervous. It just didn’t look right” (Aswad 2018).
Time drummer Jellybean Johnson concurred: “It was fun, but it got a little personal after awhile,” he told Nilsen. “I think some people’s frustrations came out during that fight. It was frustrating being under somebody’s wing like that. Prince was getting all over Morris during the party at the hotel, saying it was his fault. I know Morris wasn’t happy because he ended up paying for most of it, even though they [Prince and his band] started it” (Nilsen 1999 96). Indeed, while this skirmish marked the end of the Controversy tour, it was only the beginning of the burgeoning conflict between Prince and his first successful protégé act. Things wouldn’t get quite this dramatic again in the years to come; but they would, in their own way, get a whole lot uglier.