(Featured Image: Dez Dickerson shoots Prince a bemused look, not for the last time, at the 1982 Minnesota Black Music Awards while Brown Mark looks on; photo stolen from Housequake.)
When he wasn’t busy upgrading his home studio and recording his first Top 10 hit, Prince spent the better part of May 1982 soaking up some long-awaited hometown acclaim. On May 12, he attended the inaugural Minnesota Black Music Awards at the Prom Ballroom in St. Paul, where he was honored in the “Rhythm & Blues” category alongside protégés the Time and fellow-travelers including Enterprize, Pierre Lewis and the Lewis Connection, and Sue Ann Carwell. According to biographer Per Nilsen, his acceptance speech was delivered “in such low tones that no one could hear him” (Nilsen 1999 100).
Two weeks later, on May 24, he was back at the Prom–which, the Twin Cities Music Highlights website ominously notes, “refused to turn on the air conditioning”–for the second annual Minnesota Music Awards, sponsored by the alternative weekly City Pages. Prince was nominated, either himself or by proxy, in eight categories: Best 45 or EP (“Controversy,” the Time’s “Get It Up”), Best LP (Controversy, The Time), Best New Act (the Time), Best Electric Guitar (Dez Dickerson), Best Male Vocalist (himself), Best R&B/Funk/Soul/Band (the Time), Best Producer (himself, for Controversy), and Musician of the Year (himself). The night’s big award went to him; this time–maybe because he’d just recorded “Little Red Corvette” four days earlier–he accepted it with a little more swagger, asking, “When do they give the award for best ass?”
Memorable quips aside, Prince didn’t actually perform at the Minnesota Music Awards ceremony; but the Time did, making their first public appearance since the end of the Controversy tour two months earlier. Seeing his side project in action again–and watching them take home the R&B/Funk/Soul award–may have been what prompted Prince to get back to work recording their second album, which he’d left in a state of suspended animation since his sessions at Sunset Sound in January. Those sessions had produced “The Walk,” “Gigolos Get Lonely Too,” and “Wild and Loose,” all of which made it onto the final track list; as well as “Bold Generation” and “Colleen,” which did not. An early version of “Jerk Out,” which the group would ultimately re-record for their 1990 album Pandemonium, was also mooted and discarded around the same time. But it was “777-9311,” recorded in late May or early June at Kiowa Trail, that gave the nascent album its linchpin.
“777-9311” is powered by a mutating beast of a programmed Linn LM-1 beat: starting with a syncopated kick rhythm, then layering on a complex hi-hat rhythm and snare hits on the offbeat. Unlike the more rigid, mechanical beats Prince was utilizing for his own music in 1982, “777-9311” feels organic; it’s easy to mistake it for a live drummer–albeit one with superhuman dexterity, and possibly four or five arms. Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, drummer for hip-hop group the Roots and self-proclaimed Prince superfan, likes to tell the story of how he spent “three months in 1982 tryna master ‘777-9311’ to find out it was a machine” (Thompson 15). It’s the perfect example of why Thompson has called Prince, “bar none, the best drum programmer of all time” (Touré 8).
Or at least, it would have been–if Prince had been the one to program it. In fact, Time guitarist Jesse Johnsondropped a bombshell when he revealed that the drum track was a stock beat on the LM-1, programmed by none other than David Garibaldi: former drummer for the Oakland-based funk group Tower of Power, and a formative influence on both the Time’s frontman/studio drummer Morris Day and their “official” drummer Jellybean Johnson, who would have the unenviable task of recreating the part live. Prince’s brilliance was in taking what was effectively a tech demo for the drum machine–a programmed beat so complex it sounds like the work of a real, virtuoso player–and using it as the basis for the song’s effortless-sounding groove.
One element of that groove for which Prince was solely responsible is the thumping bass part: “nobody can play that line like I can,” he crowed in a 1999 interview with Bass Player magazine. “It’s like ‘Hair’ [1973’s Graham Central Station, Warner Bros.], or ‘Lopsy Lu’ [Stanley Clarke, Epic]–nobody can play those parts better than Larry and Stanley” (Coryat 1999). Less celebrated, but just as essential, is the rhythm guitar which augments the Linn’s kick drum pattern and lays the foundation for the bass. According to Jesse, Prince borrowed his own “$179.00 Hondo Strat” to play the part: “that’s why the guitar sounds so nice and dull,” he added, “[‘]cause it was cheap!” (Johnson 2014). While Prince, per usual, played everything on “777-9311,” he used the same technique he’d used on “The Walk” to make it sound like a band effort: instructing Day to call out Jellybean and bassist Terry Lewis as their respective instruments take a solo.
These gestures toward authenticity aside, Morris primarily sells the Time’s simulacrum with a commitment to his cartoonishly sleazy lounge-lizard character, who spends the better part of the song’s seven minutes and 57 seconds trying to weasel some poor young thing out of her phone number and, by extension, her pants. At their worst, the lyrics are standard singles-bar stuff, with entendres that barely even qualify as double (“How can I get into you when I’m feeling right?”). At their best, they evince a wry sense of humor: see, for example, the bridge, where Day’s confession that he’d “feel a little better if you slapped my face” is obliged by a resounding smack from the LM-1. Between the frontman’s charisma and Prince’s airtight musical backing, “777-9311” breezes its way to the five-minute mark–at which point an explosive guitar solo melts both the song’s heretofore unruffled cool and the listener’s face.
Most memorable of all, however, is the song’s chorus, which–perhaps inspired by “867-5309/Jenny,” a Number 4 hit for Bay Area power poppers Tommy Tutone in late 1981–turned the titular digits into a readymade singalong hook. The only problem is that Prince “borrowed” the numbers, in what might charitably be called a bit of puckish mischief, from the actual home phone number of his guitarist Dez Dickerson. “Prince called me from the studio and told me he was trying to come up with a phone number that rhymed to write a hook around, and he thought of my home number,” Dickerson later recalled to Nashville Scene magazine. “He played the groove for me over the phone, and I thought [two] things–one, this groove is just nasty; and, two, I wonder what’s going to happen when this comes out.” Sure enough, as soon as the record was released, Dickerson and his wife “started getting crank calls at all hours of the day and night: folks asking for Morris, or just saying ‘Yesss!’ We changed our number within 48 [hours]” (Shawhan 2014).
While Dez may not have been thrilled that his number made for an infectious hook, both Prince and the Time surely were: “777-9311,” released as the lead single for What Time is It? in July 1982, reached Number 2 on Billboard’s Black Singles chart and even cracked Number 88 on the Hot 100, making it easily the Time’s highest-charting song to date. The single release was backed by “Grace,” an extended sketch which reused the instrumental backing track from “777-9311” as a backdrop for a mock radio interview between Morris and Vanity, in character as journalist “Bridgette Harrington.” The bit retreads some of the same territory as their earlier routine on “The Walk,” right down to Morris repeatedly referring to “Bridgette” by the name “Grace” (hence the title). For the most part, it’s a case of diminishing returns, peppered with some mildly amusing boasts (instead of his birthday suit, little Morris was born in a zoot suit). The best moment is Day’s firm reiteration of the Time’s retro-chic dress code: “Lemme just say somethin’ to all the fellas out there,” he interjects, “take off them blue jeans and them New Wave clothes, and go get you some baggies. It’s about the freedom, right? In other words, stay at the hotel with the biggest ballroom.” After a pause–presumably for listeners to roll their eyes–he adds, “Don’t get me wrong, some of my best friends wear blue jeans… I’m just not ever seen with them.” At the conclusion of the interview, Morris asks “Bridgette” point-blank for her phone number; her cool professional exterior melts, and she swoons, “7…7…7…9…3…1…1.” Cue chorus.
“777-9311” is a clear standout on What Time is It? and in the Time’s catalogue as a whole; and, while I wouldn’t go quite as far as Okayplayer’s Elijah J. Watson in calling it Prince’s “best song,” it’s undeniably as much a highlight of his personal oeuvre as his protégés’. That much is evident, not only from his later choice of the bassline as a personal favorite, but also from the song’s regular appearances in his late-career “sampler sets.” When Prince gave away a good groove, he had a tendency to try and take it back; and “777-9311” is one of the best grooves he ever gave away.
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