Review: Got to Be Something Here

Review: Got to Be Something Here

(Featured Image: Cover art for Got to Be Something Here: The Rise of the Minneapolis Sound by Andrea Swensson, from Amazon.)

As readers of this blog are no doubt aware, the last 18 months have seen an explosion in critical and scholarly discourse on Prince: his music, persona, cultural significance, and beyond. It was only a matter of time until the focus would widen to include the “Minneapolis Sound” Prince played a significant role in shaping and delivering to an international audience. Got to Be Something Here, written by former City Pages music editor and current Minnesota Public Radio host Andrea Swensson, is the first major book to discuss the Twin Cities’ unique contributions to African American music; it should go without saying that it comes highly recommended to anyone who reads dance / music / sex / romance.

To be clear, this is not a book about Prince–though he casts a long, purple shadow over the story, lending foreshadowed significance to places like The Way community center, Sound 80, and of course Sam’s Danceteria, later known as First Avenue. Swensson’s history begins in the year of Prince’s birth, 1958, when a Near North doo-wop group called the Big M’s recorded Minnesota’s first R&B single; the narrative path continues through the “chitlin circuit” of early African American R&B venues, the ill-fated integrated dance club King Solomon’s Mines, and finally the grassroots Northside funk community that spawned Flyte Tyme, the Family, and Grand Central. This expanded perspective offers a broader, but ultimately more useful definition for the Minneapolis Sound than the usual “post-disco R&B with synthesizers for horns.” In particular, Swensson convincingly argues that from the 1950s to the 1980s and beyond, music from the Twin Cities was marked by an “aggressive blend of genres” that crossed Minnesota’s de facto but sharply-drawn color lines.

By focusing on the material conditions that necessitated this line-crossing, Swensson offers a valuable, politicized context for Prince and the other Black musicians who put Minneapolis on the map. The most eye-opening part of the book, especially for a non-Minnesotan like myself, is Swensson’s research on the construction of Interstate 94, which displaced St. Paul’s predominantly African American Rondo neighborhood and cut off Minneapolis’ North Side from the rest of the city. The story of the Minneapolis Sound is thus a story of unequal access to resources, and the things Black musicians had to do to get their fair share: chiefly, working twice as hard as their white counterparts, and becoming versatile enough to appeal to audiences outside of the city’s tiny African American enclaves. Pair this socioeconomic backdrop with the emergence of one phenomenally gifted individual, and you have as good an explanation for Prince as any.

If there is a complaint to be had about Got to Be Something Here, it’s that there simply isn’t enough of it: at just over 200 pages, it’s a surprisingly swift read, and it left me, at least, wanting more. While I understand why the book focuses on the Minneapolis scene “Before Prince,” it would have been great to hear more about the Purple One’s immediate peers: not just Jam and Lewis and Morris Day, but also Sue Ann Carwell, to name one perpetually underrepresented figure. I’m also curious to learn more about cross-pollination between the city’s funk and punk scenes: did Minneapolis have its share of Black New Wavers, or were Prince and André Cymone the only outliers? Again, it’s understandable that Swensson would narrow her focus here, as the story of First Avenue, Twin/Tone Records, and so on has been more thoroughly covered elsewhere; it would be fascinating, however, to find the connections between these parallel communities, in the same way that other pop historians have found the connections between punk and disco in late-1970s New York.

But again, these are quibbles: Swensson has made an important contribution to the study of Minneapolis’ musical history, and her passion for both the city and the music is evident on every page. If there are stones left to unturn–and there are–it will be the happy task of future researchers (maybe even Swensson herself!) to continue the work. For now, Got to Be Something Here is a great start: a story that needed telling, carefully and incisively told.

Got to Be Something Here releases tomorrow, October 10, 2017. If you want to support dance / music / sex / romance, you can preorder the book–or buy anything else you want!–using our Amazon affiliate link.

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Partyup

Partyup

(Featured Image: Anti-draft demonstration in San Francisco, March 22, 1980; photo by Chris Booth, Resistance News.)

During the promotion cycle for Dirty Mind in late 1980 and early 1981, Prince talked to the press more than ever before–more, indeed, than he would again until the 1990s. His reasons were purely strategic. Prince’s manager, Bob Cavallo, had hired publicist Howard Bloom with the express goal of breaking their artist into the rock market; to accomplish this, Bloom helped Prince to shape his back story into a compelling and marketable artistic persona, which he then dutifully presented to every reporter who would listen. This was the birth of what we’ve been calling Prince’s “origin myth”: the Oedipal struggles with his mother and father; the sexual and creative utopia he found in André Anderson’s basement; the precocious sexuality and artistry that would find its full expression, conveniently enough, in the album he was currently promoting. The press ate it all up like the confection it was. Bloom “would tell people, ‘Prince sees sex as salvation,’ and then you’d see that in the Washington Post, the New York Times,” Cavallo told biographer Matt Thorne. “He comes up with that phrase and then ten writers use that phrase” (Thorne 2016).

Read enough of Prince’s interviews from the Dirty Mind era and Bloom’s talking points come into sharp relief: titillating racial and sexual ambiguity, a fierce desire for aesthetic authenticity, and an appetite for rebellion–all like proverbial catnip to rock’s punk-era tastemakers. But in one interview with Chris Salewicz of England’s New Musical Express, published in June of 1981, Prince made a specific claim that stands out amidst his more generalized myth-building. “I was in a lot of different situations when I was coming up to make that record,” he recalled. “A lot of anger came up through the songs, it was kind of a rough time. There were a few anti-draft demonstrations going on that I was involved in that spurred me to write ‘Partyup’” (Salewicz 1981).

Continue reading “Partyup”

Uptown

Uptown

(Featured Image: Lipps, Inc., circa 1979; © Casablanca Records.)

“MOJO: Growing up in Minne-wood, as it’s been now called, simply because that is the hot point on this planet right now…

“PRINCE: Well, it’s been called a lot of things, but it’s always Uptown to me.

“MOJO: Uptown?

“PRINCE: Yes.

“MOJO: What was it like growin’ up Uptown?

“PRINCE: Pretty different. Uh, kinda sad, to be exact. (laughs) I mean, the radio was dead, the discos was dead, ladies was kinda dead, so I felt like, if we wanted to make some noise, and I wanted to turn anything out… I was gonna have to get somethin’ together. Which is what we did. We put together a few bands and turned it into Uptown. That consisted of a lot of bike riding nude, but ya know…it worked.”

– Prince Interview with the Electrifying Mojo, Detroit Radio WHYT, 1985

“Uptown” is a real place in Minneapolis: a commercial district in the southwest part of the city, centered around the historic Uptown Theatre at the intersection of Hennepin and Lagoon Avenues. In the 1970s and 1980s, it was a bohemian enclave, part of the city’s burgeoning punk scene. The legendary record store Oar Folkjokeopus (“Oar Folk”), home of underground rock label Twin/Tone, was in nearby Lowry Hill East (“the Wedge”)–as was the CC Club, a regular haunt for punk groups like the Replacements. “It was kind of like this exotic mixture between rock ‘n’ roll, comedians, entertainers, and then just hipsters that worked in the neighborhood,” musician and author Paul Metsa told the City Pages in 2013. “A lot of writers and artists hung out there. And what I loved about it, it was very working-class, and still is. Everybody was equal in that place” (LaVecchia 2013).

But “Uptown,” as Prince commemorated it, was also a product of the imagination. Before he recorded the song, Prince was not associated with the neighborhood, nor with its accompanying art and music scene. In fact, he’d played only two solo dates in the Twin Cities: one at the Capri Theatre in north Minneapolis, and one at the downtown Orpheum Theatre; his gigs with Grand Central had been limited to the predominantly Black Northside. And his home in suburban Wayzata–credited, mythically, on the Dirty Mind inner sleeve as “somewhere in Uptown”–could scarcely have been further away, geographically or culturally, from the Uptown that existed in physical space. “Uptown,” then, is a place that Prince turned into an idea: a kind of inverse to Paisley Park, his most famous idea turned into a place.

Continue reading “Uptown”

The Rebels: A Retrospective from an Alternate Timeline

The Rebels: A Retrospective from an Alternate Timeline

(Featured Image: Cover of The Rebels, 1980; © Warner Bros.)

Note: Just in case there is any confusion, the below is entirely made up, albeit with perhaps an excess of dedication to historical plausibility. See my previous “Alternate Timeline” post on For You for a better explanation of the concept. And have fun!

The late 1970s and early 1980s punk scene in Minneapolis and St. Paul played host to a number of noteworthy groups: Hüsker Dü, the Replacements, the Suburbs. But none were as eclectic, or as underrated, as the multi-racial, gender- and genre-bending act known as the Rebels. A far cry from a conventional “punk” band, the Rebels were a motley crew of disaffected Northside funksters, suburban bar-band escapees, and even a few seasoned pros, whose wild live performances made them the first group from the Twin Cities underground to be signed by a major label. Their self-titled 1980 debut for Warner Bros. was both critically acclaimed and hugely influential for a generation of genre-agnostic musical provocateurs, but internal tensions kept them from fulfilling their full potential. Still, almost four decades later, the mark of the Rebels remains evident across the contemporary pop landscape, from alternative rock to electronic music and hip-hop.

Continue reading “The Rebels: A Retrospective from an Alternate Timeline”