It’s been about two and a half years since news first broke of an official Prince documentary, to be produced by Netflix in collaboration with the artist’s estate. Since that time, the project has been mostly radio-silent–with the notable exceptions of the 2019 departure of original director, Ava DuVernay (13th), and her (still officially unconfirmed) replacement by Ezra Edelman (O.J.: Made in America) last year. So, I was intrigued to learn about Mr. Nelson on the North Side: another, independently-produced documentary which premiered online last weekend. If nothing else, the film’s focus on the beginnings of Prince’s life and artistic development in North Minneapolis promised to be an interesting change of pace–covering territory (both literal and figurative) that remains underexplored in Prince biographies across all media.
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,” 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.
Even as he continued to record for himself and his prospective protégés, Prince also managed to lend the occasional hand on sessions for other local artists. He’d helped raise money for his 1976 demo tape by contributing guitar and backing vocals to the Lewis Connection’s “Got to Be Something Here” (later released on their self-titled album in 1979), and had also played and sung on “10:15” and “Fortune Teller”–featuring a young Colonel Abrams on lead vocals!–by his cousin and mentor Pepé Willie’s band 94 East. The latter had been intended for release as the group’s first single, but a change in management at Polydor Records resulted in 94 East being dropped in mid-1978. Pepé and singers Marcy Involdstad and Kristie Lazenberry were understandably upset; but Prince, Willie later claimed to Minnesota Public Radio’s the Current, “was more upset than anybody.” With the help of André Anderson–another beneficiary of Willie’s tutelage, from his time in Grand Central–he resolved to “go back in the studio and record more songs with Pepé” (Renzetti 2016).
The resulting sessions took place at Sound 80, with Willie on percussion and keyboards, André on bass, and Prince, as was his wont, on everything else. Two of the three tracks recorded, “Dance to the Music of the World” and “Lovin’ Cup,” received no formal songwriting input from Prince–though the former, an instrumental, does feature some fiery synthesizer and guitar licks by the 20-year-old virtuoso. It’s the third track, however, that’s the real gem: “Just Another Sucker,” the only song in either the 94 East or Prince catalogue to bear a “Willie/Prince” songwriting credit.
During the course of this blog, I’ve already made a couple of passing references to the “Minneapolis Sound”; so I guess now is as good a time as any to talk about what that much-discussed label entails. At its most basic level, the Minneapolis Sound is a form of post-disco dance music rooted in R&B, with synthesizers replacing the traditional soul/funk horn section. Prince didn’t “invent” the style, strictly speaking; as we’ve seen (and will continue to observe), plenty of others helped along the way, from Pepé Willie to André Cymone (née Anderson) to Chris Moon and Owen Husney to the Lewis Connection–whose keyboard player Pierre Lewis, you might recall, was the one who lent Prince his first Oberheim Four Voice so he could synthesize those traditional horn parts in the first place. There’s a great collection on Numero Group called Purple Snow: Forecasting the Minneapolis Sound that documents the genre’s early progression–including some early songs Prince actually played on, like the aforementioned “If You See Me” by 94 East and the Lewis Connection’s “Got to Be Something Here.”
What we can attribute primarily to Prince was the formal codification of the Minneapolis Sound as a genre, which he did by simply bringing it to a national audience and turning it into a marketable (and lucrative) style for others to reproduce. But even this process didn’t happen overnight. Case in point: “In Love,” the second track of his 1978 debut album For You, which sounds both exactly like vintage Prince–i.e., the “Minneapolis Sound”–and like something completely different.