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Postscript: Dirty Mind 40 Graffiti Bridge 30 Virtual Symposium

DM40GB30 thank-you and recap video by De Angela Duff

I was looking forward to De Angela Duff’s virtual symposium celebrating 40 years of Dirty Mind and 30 years of Graffiti Bridge. But I didn’t know I needed it until I was there. It’s been, I think, a rough year for everyone. Those of us who listen to epidemiologists are about to enter our fourth month of staying home and staying isolated to flatten the curve of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Meanwhile, police brutality is running rampant across the country, with yet another man in Atlanta, Rayshard Brooks, joining the depressingly long list of recent victims of state-sanctioned murder, including George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and David McAtee. Under conditions like these, it’s hard to feel much enthusiasm about anything. Speaking for myself, I’ve been at a low ebb in creativity and motivation for a while, even before everything went to shit.

It’s hard to overstate, then, how energized I felt from the first moments of the symposium last Friday. Seeing familiar “faces” in the chat (Darling Nisi, Harold Pride, Erica Thompson, Arlene Oak, Annie Ward, Chris Aguilar-Garcia, Zack Stiegler, and Jason Breininger, to name just a few), and hearing from others who know me from my work, was a timely reminder that I’m not out here alone; that there is a vibrant, welcoming community that shares my passion. The whole thing felt like a warm hug–something that, in these times of social distancing, is in desperately short supply.

I’d also forgotten how exciting it is to hear new research from others in a shared area of expertise. I’ve been out of the academic game for a while, and my last conference even as an independent scholar was Prince from Minneapolis back in 2018. I didn’t realize how much I missed the intellectual stimulation events like this provide. As this blog attests, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about Dirty Mind, but last weekend’s presentations gave me new ways to think about it: from Christopher A. Daniel’s vital excavation of contemporary discourse by music critics of color; to Steven G. Fullwood’s acute analysis of the ways Prince synthesized punk and disco to carve out liberatory new territory in popular music; to C. Leigh McInnis’ rousing, almost Pentecostal oration on the “street philosophy” of Dirty Mind and the ways it reshaped Black masculinity in the early 1980s.

Even more impressive were the ways presenters found to cast Graffiti Bridge–a project that has never been among my favorites–in a new light. Both Monique W. Morris and Robert Loss applied a richness and rigor of analysis to the film that was, frankly, above and beyond what the script demanded; while Kirsty Fairclough (of Salford Purple Reign conference fame) and Casci Ritchie made solid arguments for the film on the basis of its aesthetics. I don’t think I’ll ever be a Graffiti Bridge convert, but I thought more about the movie last weekend than I’ve thought about it in the past 30 years, and that in itself is an achievement.

DM40GB30 keynote with André Cymone and Jill Jones

What made DM40GB30 especially timely, however, were the ways its hosts, guests, and presenters spoke directly to the current historical context. The keynote by André Cymone and Jill Jones (see above) included lengthy discussions of what it was like for a Black person to grow up (in André’s case), or move to (in Jill’s), Minneapolis: a city that, as we know all too well, has often failed to live up to the “Uptown” mythology Prince helped invent. Journalist Hasit Shah also spoke to this context in his presentation, making the argument that “Uptown” is not the uncritical celebration of multiculturalism which it has become in some sections of the fan community, but “a fucking protest song.” Even the weekend-closing musical set by musician Chris Rob incorporated numerous shout-outs to George Floyd, demonstrating that the music Prince recorded in 1980, 1990, and everywhere in-between has lasting social relevance beyond basic fan nostalgia.

If you were at the symposium and noticed I didn’t mention your favorite presentation, it’s probably because I didn’t catch it. I regrettably missed the majority of both the Dirty Mind roundtable, with BBC Manchester presenter Karen Gabay, musician Nicolay, journalist Keith Murphy, and former Right On! magazine editor Cynthia M. Horner (!); as well as its Graffiti Bridge equivalent, with the recurring panel of De Angela, Zaheer Ali, Anil Dash, Miles Marshall Lewis, and Elliott H. Powell. I plan to rectify this–and rewatch a lot of other presentations that I missed, in full or in part–once the video archive of the symposium is available in July.

Mostly, though, I intend to ride the creative and intellectual high I experienced last weekend for as long as humanly possible. I came out of DM40GB30 feeling renewed, inspired, and ready to throw myself into this and other projects–something I haven’t felt in a good, long while. I would, of course, jump at the chance to participate in next year’s symposium, which will celebrate 40 years of Controversy, 30 years of Diamonds and Pearls, and 20 years of The Rainbow Children. But even if I don’t get that chance, I will definitely be attending. Events like this are much too precious and rare to take for granted.

(Thank you so much to De Angela Duff, who clearly put a lot of blood, sweat, and tears–and a decent amount of her own money–into making this thing happen; and to Arthur Turnbull, who did a great job helping to steer the ship. Also, thanks to everyone who tuned in to my roundtable on the Time’s Pandemonium with KaNisa, Ricky Wyatt, and Ivan Orr on Sunday evening–I hope you had even a fraction of the amount of fun I did!)

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Uncategorized

Loving Prince Means Believing Black Lives Matter

I wasn’t sure if I wanted to write about the uprisings against police brutality currently going on in the United States and elsewhere; to be honest, it feels a little self-aggrandizing to insert myself into the conversation. But for better or worse, dance / music / sex / romance is the biggest platform I have, and I would be remiss if I didn’t use it to add my voice to those calling for justice and long-overdue, radical change.

Believing that Black lives matter is the only reasonable or appropriate position for a blog about Prince to take. Prince was a Black man who centered his Blackness in every aspect of his life and work. He was famously a major financial contributor to the Black Lives Matter organization before his death in 2016; he used his platform as a presenter at the 2015 Grammy Awards to shout out the movement; and after the murder of Freddie Gray by Baltimore police officers that same year, he wrote the song “Baltimore” and organized a benefit concert to help heal the city after days of unrest. According to cowriter Dan Piepenbring, he wanted his unfinished memoir to “solve racism.”

All of this indicates a shift, late in his life, to overt political activism; but even at the height of his crossover success, he was already trying to imagine a better world for Black people. “Uptown” is a vision of racial unity, set in a city whose history often does not live up to its inclusive reputation. “America” is a Hendrix-esque reappropriation of “America the Beautiful” with sardonic new lyrics about inner-city desperation. Even “The Cross” draws from the long African American spiritual tradition of using scripture to advocate for liberation. And this isn’t even to mention the litany of songs released later in his career that are even more forthright in addressing racism: from “The Sacrifice of Victor” to “We March,” from “Dreamer” to “Black Muse.”

As a rule, I try to avoid speculating on what Prince would have thought or done had his time on Earth not come to an end four years ago. But I am confident that, had he lived to witness the police killings of Philando Castile in July 2016 and George Floyd last month–not to mention the countless other acts of police brutality, fatal or otherwise, against Black people in the Twin Cities and elsewhere–he would have been fully in support of these protests. And, while I am also usually not one to say that we should do or believe everything that Prince did, in this instance, I can’t think of a more productive way to honor his memory.

But enough from me. I’d like to take this opportunity to share some critical perspectives on Prince from Black writers and podcasters. Please feel free to share more in the comments:

Also, please consider donating to these or other resources supporting the struggle for Black lives in Minneapolis. If nothing else, this is something we know that Prince would have done:

In lieu of suspending Patreon payments this month, I will be donating all patron fees to the above organizations. Thanks for reading, take care of yourselves, and I’ll be back at a time when it feels appropriate.

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1999, 1982

1999

By mid-July of 1982, Prince had completed work on the album that would become 1999, with just one significant exception: “1999,” the song, was nowhere to be seen. When Prince played a rough mix of the album for his manager Bob Cavallo that month, he got a cooler reception than he anticipated.

“‘This is a great album, but we don’t have a first single,’” Cavallo recalled telling Prince. “‘We have singles that’ll be hits, but we don’t have a thematic, important thing that can be embraced by everybody, different countries, et cetera.’” In response, Prince “cursed me, and he went away–but he didn’t force me to put it out. Two weeks later, he came back and he played ‘1999,’ and that became the title of the album” (Light 43).

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Ephemera, 1981-1982

Horny Toad

August 17, 1983: “Delirious” is released as the third U.S. single (and fourth worldwide) from 1999, an album nearly 10 months in the rearview mirror. Two weeks ago to the day, Prince and his newly-christened band the Revolution had played an epochal show at First Avenue in Minneapolis, where they debuted five songs (three of them master recordings) from his upcoming sixth album, Purple Rain. In less than a year’s time, the album would come out and achieve a level of commercial success which would make Prince’s previous breakout hit, the Number 6 single “Little Red Corvette,” look like a mere prologue. But for now, he’s in victory lap mode: riding the coattails of “Corvette”’s success with a second Top 10 hit, backed by a soundalike B-side recorded in his Kiowa Trail home studio the previous summer.

That B-side, “Horny Toad,” does not rank among Prince’s most renowned work. It’s rarely even singled out as one of the best tracks on The Hits/The B-Sides–the collection where, I’m willing to wager, most contemporary listeners first heard it. The closest thing to an official accolade I can find is its bottom-100 placement on the 500 Prince Songs blog (which seems about right)–unless, that is, you count a 2016 shout-out from Wired magazine’s Brian Raftery, who calls it “rollickingly stupid” (also correct).

Categories
Ephemera, 1981-1982

How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore?

From their first session together in 1981, Peggy McCreary had been Prince’s go-to L.A. recording engineer. McCreary, a.k.a. “Peggy Mac,” was a former waitress at Hollywood hotspot the Roxy Theatre who had worked her way up through the ranks to become the first female staff engineer at Sunset Sound, with credits on records by Little Feat, Kris Kristofferson, Van Halen, and Elton John. When she got the Prince gig, it was “just a fluke,” she recently told Variety. “I was available the weekend that Hollywood Sound called and said, ‘Our board went down, do you have an engineer and room?’” (Aswad 2019). But the artist’s salacious reputation had preceded him: “the receptionist said, ‘Peggy can’t work alone in the studio on the weekend with him. He writes really dirty songs about giving head and stuff,’” McCreary recalled to Pitchfork. “I thought, ‘Oh God. Who’s gonna be walking into the studio?” (Sodomsky 2019).

As it turned out, the person who arrived at Sunset Sound that weekend was “extremely polite, quiet… [and] short”–a far cry from the oversexed libertine of Dirty Mind infamy (Kiene 2019). In fact, Prince was so demure that McCreary found him difficult to understand: “He would mumble what he needed from behind a flap of hair,” she recalled. She finally had to confront him directly: “I said, ‘You know what? If you want me to work with you, you’re going to have to talk to me, to my face, so I can hear you!’” (Sodomsky 2019). Sensing she’d offended him, McCreary assumed they’d never work together again; but when he returned to the studio the following January, he requested her for the session.

Soon, the no-nonsense engineer and the reticent wunderkind had developed a close, if occasionally dysfunctional, working relationship. Peggy and Prince “were always about to kill each other,” the Time’s guitarist Jesse Johnson told sessionographer Duane Tudahl, “but she got such a great sound on everything.” McCreary continued to bristle at Prince’s aloof manner and workaholic tendencies: “He didn’t appreciate mistakes,” she later recalled. “Nobody does, but mistakes happen. It’s just human error”–something Prince had little patience for (Tudahl 2018 48). But he was also capable of showing his appreciation, albeit in mostly idiosyncratic ways. He christened “Colleen,” an unreleased instrumental recorded on January 15, after McCreary’s middle name (Aswad 2019). On January 11–McCreary’s birthday–he called her into the studio to record another track. “I was like, God, couldn’t he give me my birthday off? Shit!” she told Pitchfork. But at the end of the session, “he stood there at the door with a little smile on his face and threw the cassette at me and said, ‘Happy birthday’” (Sodomsky 2019). The track, a “rockabilly song” called “You’re All I Want,” remains in her possession to this day.

Perhaps McCreary’s warmest memory of Prince took place on the evening of April 28, 1982, when he asked her out of the blue what she liked to drink. “I said ‘Remy Martin, why?’” McCreary recalled to Variety. “And he said ‘Order a bottle of Remy Martin [and] a bottle of Asti Spumant[e].’ [I] never let my guard down in the studio–you did not f[uck] up around him, it was devastating if you did–so I said, ‘No, Prince, I don’t wanna drink.’” But Prince insisted; and a few drinks later, he was playing the grand piano in Studio 2 of Sunset Sound, singing and keeping time with his feet on the pedals. McCreary remembered “being buzzed and thinking ‘Is this song really as good as I think it is?’” (Aswad 2019).