This episode, I’m taking a little break from the University of Salford Purple Reign conference to talk to musician Paul Bonomo, a.k.a. Snax. We discuss Prince’s professional and personal impact on Paul, of course, but we also speak more broadly to the two-way flow of influence between Prince and gay culture–an area that’s been vastly underexplored in the popular discourse around the artist. I’m excited to see the extended conversation that comes out of this frank and at times provocative discussion.
Next episode, we’re returning to both Manchester and queerness with two presenters from one of the Purple Reign conference’s Gender and Sexuality panels: independent scholars Chris Aguilar-Garcia and Natalie Clifford. In the meantime, remember that you can subscribe to the d / m / s / r podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, or Google Play; you can also stream individual episodes on Mixcloud. If you like what you’ve heard of Snax, you can also follow him on Facebook and check out his new album, Shady Lights, when it releases on October 27.
“I can’t believe people are gullible enough to buy Prince’s jive records,” Rick James griped to Britain’s Blues and Soul magazinein 1983. “He’s out to lunch. You can’t take his music seriously. He sings songs about oral sex and incest” (Matos 2015). It was the first public shot across the bow in a years-long, mostly one-sided beef between the godfather of “punk-funk” and the young upstart who first rivaled, then surpassed him. But it was hardly the first time these titans had clashed: James’ comments were transparently rooted in tensions from three years earlier, when Prince was the opening act for his early 1980 Fire It Up tour. And it was just before his tour with James when the “mentally disturbed young man” debuted his most notorious song about oral sex, “Head.”
“To me, disco was always very contrived music,” Prince told NME’sChris Salewicz in 1981. “It was all completely planned out for when the musicians were recording it in the studios.” In contrast, he claimed, “what I do is just go in and play” (Salewicz 1981). I don’t know if Prince had his own 1979 song, “Sexy Dancer,” in mind when he gave this interview. Most likely he did not; the two years between the song’s recording and his conversation with Salewicz, after all, represent basically an eternity in Prince time. But his comments are nevertheless instructive for understanding the song’s approach to what is–sorry, Prince–clearly an engagement with disco, if not strictly a disco track.
His stated distaste for the genre aside, Prince was clearly no stranger to disco in 1979. In his interview with Martin Keller of the Twin Cities Reader early that year, he mentioned that he “used to hang out at the Infinity,” a dance club in suburban St. Louis Park (Keller 1979). What he shared with many other musicians of the era, however, was a healthy skepticism for disco’s emphasis on the role of the producer. Disco, Prince told Salewicz, “was filled with breaks that a studio musician would just play and fill up when his moment came.” But Prince was his own producer–and, for that matter, his own studio musicians. “It’s easy for me to work in the studio,” he claimed, “because I have no worries or doubts about what the other musician’s going to play because that other musician is almost always me!” So, rather than playing to “fill up the breaks” in a producer’s master plan, Prince would “just play along with the other guy”–himself (Salewicz 1981).
Owen Husney’s dismissal from the Prince camp came at a critical juncture in the artist’s career. Prince spent the summer and fall of 1978 assembling a backing group, in hopes of touring behind For Youthe following year. It didn’t go entirely to plan; he wouldn’t embark on his first tour until November of 1979, after recording and releasing a much more successful second album. But the musicians he brought together would nevertheless determine his artistic direction for the following decade: providing the nucleus for the Revolution, the band with whom he would eventually conquer the world.