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”

Podcast: Something Wrong with the Machinery – Carmen Hoover on the Salford Purple Reign Conference

Podcast: Something Wrong with the Machinery – Carmen Hoover on the Salford Purple Reign Conference

(Featured Image: “That Moment” during “Computer Blue,” Purple Rain, 1984; © Warner Bros.)

We’re nearing the end of our miniseries on the University of Salford’s interdisciplinary Prince conference, but there are still a few treats in store–starting with today’s conversation with Carmen Hoover. Carmen is a current professor at Olympic College in Washington, and a former First Avenue employee who watched Prince conquer the world from Minneapolis in the early 1980s. We talked about the conference, the time she saw Prince at a gas station, and most importantly, her paper on the evolution of a particular moment (you know the one) between Prince and Wendy in Purple Rain. If your interests are anywhere near as prurient as mine, it’s a can’t-miss.

Remember that you can subscribe to d / m / s / r on any of the major podcast services (iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play). If you like what you hear and want to share it with others, leave a review–it will help us reach more listeners! We’ll be back in a week with another pair of presenters from the conference.

Continue reading “Podcast: Something Wrong with the Machinery – Carmen Hoover on the Salford Purple Reign Conference”

Kiss Me Quick

Kiss Me Quick

(Featured Image: The storied Vault, which looks even more like Prince’s vault than I ever dared imagine; photo stolen from WCCO Minneapolis.)

As I mentioned last week, one of the things I live for as a Prince fan is the sense that at any moment, some incredible, previously-unheard track could come out of nowhere–even, astonishingly, now that the artist himself is no longer with us. That happened last month with the studio version of “Electric Intercourse” and, more controversially, with “Deliverance”; but it’s happened many times before, often through less legitimate means. In late 2014, for example, bootleggers released “Kiss Me Quick”: a song whose title was familiar thanks to sources like Per Nilsen’s The Vault, but which had never been heard by the general public.

Back when “Kiss Me Quick” was just a title in The Vault, it was widely assumed to have originated from Prince’s Kiowa Trail home studio in 1981; now that we can hear it, however, it couldn’t be a more obvious product of 1979. With its galloping beat, rubbery bassline, and rapidly-ascending chord sequence, it’s certainly Prince’s most conventionally “disco” song this side of “Sexy Dancer.” But in this case, rather than self-consciously attempting to elevate the form, he just goes all-in, crafting a sparkling ideal of a disco track that could easily have made the Dance charts if its creator had bothered to, you know, put it out.

Still, it’s hard to begrudge him for leaving “Kiss Me Quick” in the Vault (or the Closet or Shoebox or whatever he was using in 1979): because, as good a song as it is, it’s not necessarily a great Prince song. It’s too conventional-sounding to have fit on the track listing of his second album; the sexual persona he inhabits is too innocent and demure for the libertinish “Spandex kid” he became in the transitional phase before Dirty Mind. Indeed, it’s likely that “Kiss Me Quick” was never meant to be a “Prince song” at all: according to biographer Matt Thorne, Pepé Willie recalled it being intended for his off-and-on protégée, Sue Ann Carwell (Thorne 2016). It thus makes sense that when Carwell left Prince’s orbit, the song would go back on the shelf, replaced by any number of the endless hits and almost-hits he was cranking out with assembly-line consistency.

And in a way, the thing that makes “Kiss Me Quick” interesting, more than anything else, is the possibility of those other songs. If this little gem could go from a title in a book to actual, audible music, then who knows: in a few short years, we could be hearing “Aces,” or “Machine,” or “Neurotic Lover’s Baby’s Bedroom,” or any other early song that exists now only as an intriguing name and a stub page on Prince Vault. Whatever else we might say about Prince’s handling of his music in life, he certainly left a lot of surprises behind; and the fact that we’re still able to look forward to “new” Prince songs is the one silver lining of his tragic and premature death.

Tomorrow, I’ll be back with the last full episode of my podcast with Jane Clare Jones. Then, next week, it’s on to 1980 and Dirty Mind! See you soon.

“Kiss Me Quick” YouTube