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Ice Cream Castle, 1984

Jungle Love

Long after the audience for a long-winded unpacking of the musical and cultural significance of “Jungle Love” has dried up, its value as a kitsch object will endure.

Prince, as was his wont, had already moved on to his next phase by the time the 1999 tour entered its final stretch in March 1983. The centerpiece of his master plan was, of course, the untitled film project that would become Purple Rain; but he also intended to cement his musical dominance with follow-up albums by the 1999-era “Triple Threat” of himself, the Time, and Vanity 6. Much as he had a year before, he focused on the Time first: booking a few days at Sunset Sound in Los Angeles before playing the Universal Amphitheatre and San Diego Sports Arena on March 28 and 29, respectively.

The Time’s first two albums had been cut primarily by Prince and singer/studio drummer Morris Day alone; for the new project, however, Prince allowed the rest of the band to take on a more active role. “They played on a lot of the stuff,” former Sunset Sound engineer Peggy McCreary told sessionographer Duane Tudahl–though Prince remained the unquestioned “leader of what was going on” (Tudahl 2018 64). The Artist Formerly Known as Jamie Starr was even willing to share songwriting duties, basing “Jungle Love” on an instrumental demo by guitarist Jesse Johnson.

I played… my songs for him, and Prince would literally start laughing… When I brought him the music for ‘Jungle Love,’ he wasn’t laughing anymore.

Jesse Johnson
Prince and the Time’s Jesse Johnson jam on “D.M.S.R.” at the Minnesota Music Awards in Bloomington, May 16, 1983; photo stolen from Jesse Johnson’s Facebook.

“Jungle Love” wasn’t Johnson’s first professional writing credit; as longtime readers know, Prince had already used another of his demos as the basis for the Vanity 6 track “Bite the Beat.” But it does seem to have been the first time the boss took his songwriting seriously. “I played tapes of my songs for him, and Prince would literally start laughing,” Johnson told Michael A. Gonzales for Wax Poetics. “He’d call Morris over and be like, ‘Listen to this, listen to this’ and they both laughed. When I brought him the music for ‘Jungle Love,’ he wasn’t laughing anymore” (Gonzales 38).

Indeed, his demo–which he’d intended to offer to former Tower of Power frontman Lenny Williams before playing it for Prince–stands as proof that Johnson was swiftly graduating from his apprenticeship to become a Minneapolis Sound architect in his own right. According to a 2014 Facebook post, he recorded the track alone on a Tascam eight-track reel-to-reel he’d purchased with his per diem money from the 1999 tour (Johnson March 21). Even without Prince’s lyrics and melody, it already slams: building from a slinking big-cat strut of a rhythm guitar and bass groove to (obligatory for a shit-hot lead guitarist) a scorching solo that carries the song from its halfway point almost all the way to the fade.

That solo was absent from the basic track Prince recorded at Sunset on March 26–though Johnson did play rhythm guitar, using Prince’s Hohner “Madcat” Telecaster (Johnson March 22). Also present were Day, keyboardist Jimmy Jam, and bassist Terry Lewis. It doesn’t appear that the latter two contributed to the track, however: The liner notes for 2019’s Originals compilation credit Prince for all instruments except Day’s drums and Johnson’s guitar.

[Prince] had high-heeled boots, no shirt… a bandana tied around his head, and one around each knee. He was just strutting… and it was an angry strut.

Peggy McCreary

One thing we do know, at least, is that the session was rife with tension. McCreary recalled to Pitchfork’s Sam Sodowsky that she “knew it was going to be a bad day by the way [Prince] was walking and how he was dressed. He had high-heeled boots, no shirt–which was very rare–a bandana tied around his head, and one around each knee. He was just strutting… and it was an angry strut. I guess somebody had lost a tape and he was furious” (Sodomsky 2019). The scapegoat for his foul mood–to the Time’s palpable relief–was McCreary herself: “He was on me all day long,” she told Tudahl. “I remember the guys looking at me like, ‘I’m just glad it wasn’t me he was doing this to’” (Tudahl 2018 48).

If Prince was still in a mood when he recorded his guide vocal, it certainly isn’t evident in his performance. In fact, he sounds like he’s having a blast, audibly cutting up over the song’s intro and slipping into his raspy “Jamie Starr” voice for the outro. Elsewhere, he tries yet another persona on for size, delivering his spoken-word midsong proposition (“Come on, baby, where’s your guts? / You wanna make love or what?”) in a decadent, reptilian drawl.

1936 program and dinner menu from the Cotton Club in Harlem, trafficking in the racist tropes of Black sexuality that “Jungle Love” slyly evokes; photo stolen from PBA Galleries.

Like much of the Time’s material, “Jungle Love” is first and foremost a litany of outrageous come-ons for Morris Day to flex his comedic chops to. But the lyrical premise carries an undeniable racial charge: plugging directly into the long history of “jungle” as a euphemism for raw, “primitive” Black music, from Duke Ellington’s “Jungle Band” of the late 1920s and early 1930s to the Ohio Players1973 funk hit “Jungle Boogie.” In a possible homage to the latter, Prince–and, later, Day–peppers his vocal with bestial ad-libs, hooting like an ape and squawking like a tropical bird. Even the chanted hook (“Oh-we-oh-we-oh”) recalls a slowed-down and syncopated version of the famous “Tarzan yell” from the 1930s films starring Johnny Weissmuller.

Of course, the significance of all these jungle metaphors wasn’t strictly musical. In his recent memoir, Day describes “Jungle Love” as “Prince’s notion of uninhibited hot sex” (Day 90). This, too, has racialized undercurrents; cultural critic Touré writes that the song “blithely and caricaturishly [sic] embraces stereotypes about the animalistic nature of Black sex” (Touré 73). At one point, its hypersexuality even tips into outright menace, with Prince/Day threatening to “take you to my cage / Lock you up and hide the key.” But there’s a reason why these lines are rarely singled out as problematic. “Jungle Love” invokes racist tropes of Black male sexuality as “dangerous” in order to burlesque them; and while that isn’t quite the same as undermining or dismantling those tropes, at least it isn’t uncritically perpetuating them.

The 1984 music video for the Time’s “Jungle Love,” using footage from the song’s performance in Purple Rain.

The Time’s “Jungle Love” was released on July 9, 1984, on their third and (for then) final album, Ice Cream Castle. The album cut used the same basic track Prince had recorded over a year earlier, adding Day’s vocals and reinstating Johnson’s guitar solo. In many ways, though, it wasn’t until the theatrical release of Purple Rain almost three weeks later that the song made its biggest splash.

Shot, like most of Purple Rain’s musical sequences, at First Avenue in downtown Minneapolis, the “Jungle Love” scene crackles with energy; it’s the closest the film ever comes to selling viewers on its narrative premise that Morris and the Time, rather than Prince’s “the Kid,” are the real stars of the local scene. Miming to a live version of the song recorded on the same stage in October 1983, the band moves like a well-oiled machine. Day, the consummate frontman, pulls faces and preens in the mirror proffered by dancer Jerome Benton, all while wearing a canary-yellow jacket with zebra-print trim that makes him look, in the words of Diffuser’s Jed Gottlieb, like a “pimp on safari” (Gottlieb 2017). Even the extras get their moment in the spotlight, as the camera cuts away to a trio of dancers–actually future NPG members Tony M, Damon Dickson, and Kirk Johnson–popping and locking on the balcony. The only thing missing is, once again, Johnson’s solo: Prince and director Albert Magnoli having apparently decided that there was room for only one guitar hero in the film.

It’s this scene, more than anything else, that guaranteed “Jungle Love” its place in the pop culture canon. When released as a single in December 1984, the song sailed to Number 6 on the Billboard Black Singles chart and Number 20 on the Hot 100: easily the Time’s strongest chart performance to date, exceeded only with the release of their 1990 comeback single “Jerk Out.” But I don’t hear “Jerk Out” playing in grocery stores or on adult contemporary radio–my admittedly anecdotal measure of middle-of-the-road ubiquity. What I do hear, more often than not, is “Jungle Love”; it belongs on the short list of Prince-adjacent hits most likely to be heard “in the wild,” right up there with “When Doves Cry,” “Raspberry Beret,” and “The Glamorous Life.”

Jay (Jason Mewes) educates a couple of snotty teens on the Mothafuckin’ Time in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back (Kevin Smith, 2001).

Then there’s the more recent pop culture reference that, I’m convinced, introduced a sizeable cohort of my own generation to the song. In the opening moments of Kevin Smith’s 2001 cult comedy Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, the titular Jay (Jason Mewes) breaks into the chorus of “Jungle Love” while selling a nickel bag to a couple of snotty teens in front of a New Jersey convenience store. When the teens ask him what the hell he’s singing, he takes it upon himself to educate them: “You don’t know ‘Jungle Love’?! That shit is the mad notes! Written by God herself and handed down to the greatest band in the world: the Mothafuckin’ Time!” What I took 1,700 words to try and describe, Mewes handled in a couple of sentences; never mind that only he and Smith’s Silent Bob (who, apparently, “modeled [their] whole fuckin’ lives around Morris Day and Jerome”) properly appreciate the song’s genius.

In the end, “Jungle Love” will probably outlive us all; it certainly outlived the Time, who had already quietly disbanded by the time the song and its parent album were released. Today, Morris and Jerome’s “Jungle Love” dance from Purple Rain persists as a kind of proto-TikTok meme, alongside descendants like Kid N Play’s “Funky Charleston” and Alfonso Ribeiro’s “Carlton Dance.” Audience members did it during the Time’s performance at the 2017 Grammy Awards; pop-rock group HAIM did it (as “Morris Day and the HAIM”) on Jimmy Kimmel Live in 2015. Long after the audience (such as it is) for a long-winded unpacking of the musical and cultural significance of “Jungle Love” has dried up, its value as a kitsch object will endure. And, even as someone who decidedly specializes in the former, I find something comforting about that.

“Jungle Love” (Prince, 1983)
Electric Fetus / Spotify / TIDAL

“Jungle Love” (The Time, 1984)
Electric Fetus / Spotify / TIDAL

One reply on “Jungle Love”

I’m aways in the market for your longwinded unpackings, Zach! I love them all.

I wonder if it was Magnoli who decided there was room only for one guitar hero or was it the guitar hero himself. He and Jesse seemed to have beef on a fairly constant basis from what I’ve read.

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