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If Prince had been the only musician to have come out of Minneapolis, the city’s musical reputation would already be at legendary status.
The late, legendary Prince wasn’t just from Minnesota. He was of Minnesota. Even after achieving global stardom, Prince kept a presence in his hometown, establishing Paisley Park, a studio, creative space and musical mecca outside of Minneapolis.
And as Minnesotans know, Prince is one of many Twin Cities musicians to have made a mark on the world. Bobby Lyle, Jackie Harris and a host of other funk and soul musicians helped establish the Minneapolis Sound. Bands like The Time and Mint Condition diversified R&B offerings. The Replacements, Hüsker Dü and Soul Asylum steered new trends in alternative rock before the Seattle sound came to dominate MTV. And today, Lizzo, PHO and a handful of other artists are bringing more attention to a music scene that shows no signs of fading away. (Check out the playlist below for some samples.)
In a special episode from the studios of Minnesota Public Radio, we hear stories of Prince from people who were close to him, and we explore the musical landscape he grew up in and helped shape for the next generation.
- Afshin Shahidi Photographer; collaborator with Prince; author, "Prince: A Private View" ; @AfshinShahidi
- Andrea Swensson Host and music writer, Minnesota Public Radio's The Current; author, "Got To Be Something Here: The Rise of the Minneapolis Sound"; @slingshotannie
- Donna Grantis Guitarist, Donna Grantis Electric Band; former lead guitarist for Prince's band 3RDEYEGIRL; @DonnaGrantis
The Minneapolis Playlist
Photos From Afshin Shahidi's "Prince: A Private View"
Read the Prologue of "Got to Be Something Here: The Rise of the Minneapolis Sound"
by Andrea Swensson (University of Minnesota Press, 2017) Copyright 2017 by Andrea Swensson. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission of the University of Minnesota Press. www.upress.umn.edu
“Prince is a human being. All these cats are.”
Dozens of books have already been written about Prince, his lasting imprint on American rock music, and his roots in Minneapolis. If there is one thing to take away from all of those unauthorized biographies—aside from the fact that they contain multitudes of conflicting details, mostly because Prince rarely allowed his interviews to be recorded—it is that so many of these narratives are delivered with a sense of surprise. How did this guy even exist? How did he manage to emerge on the national scene fully formed, like a Martian who was beamed down to teach us about the joys of lace and the virtues of squealing guitar solos, electronic drum samples, and the color purple? In the words of Dick Clark, who introduced a shy young Prince Rogers Nelson to the world on American Bandstand in 1979, “This isn’t the kind of music that comes out of Minneapolis!”
If we choose to believe that, then we would also choose to believe that there weren’t any artists playing funk, soul, R&B, and jazz music in Minnesota prior to Prince’s reign. We would choose to believe that Prince couldn’t possibly have been exposed to the deep grooves and electric sizzles of black music in a lily-white, Lutheran, Scandinavian metropolis like Minneapolis. And we would choose to believe that a boundary-smashing artist who channeled music from both white and black worlds is an inexplicable anomaly and not an observant and inquisitive human being who drew from his experiences growing up in both North and South Minneapolis to make simultaneously unifying and subversive art.
The truth is that the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul were then and continue to be deeply segregated. And the more we treat Prince like a singular creature who must have been beamed down to Earth, because he couldn’t have possibly emerged from an actual place, the more we help to erase the generations of influential jazz, gospel, soul, R&B, and funk musicians who first made it possible for African Americans to earn a living making music in Minnesota and contributed to the ongoing evolution of sound that eventually enraptured a young Mr. Nelson.
Prince and his teenage comrades Morris Day, André Cymone, Jimmy Jam, and Terry Lewis were the products of Minneapolis. They were raised by parents who were deeply rooted in the community, both musically and socially, and they were exposed to legions of talented predecessors in the R&B and soul community who inspired them and gave them the drive to get better and better. They were the products of a school integration program that bussed North Minneapolis kids to the south side, exposing them to mainstream classic rock, and white fashion and culture in the process, and they were the products of more than a decade of community building and social services that were developed to give young minority students a creative outlet on the north side. When we talk about Prince and his peers blazing a new trail in music that blurred genre and race lines, we can’t fully appreciate that narrative without drawing lines across a map of Minneapolis and St. Paul and connecting them to the previous twenty years of African American struggles and triumphs in the Twin Cities.
To truly tell the story of the Minneapolis Sound, we must tell the story of Minneapolis.
As a music journalist working in the Twin Cities, I have become leery of the overwhelming whiteness of our historical narratives. We talk about Bob Dylan and the time he spent in Hibbing and Dinkytown; we talk about the Castaways and the Trashmen and their garage rock peers who were catapulted onto the national arena by Soma Records. And then, like a rock skipping across Lake Minnetonka, we pick up the story in the early ’80s with the rise of Prince, the Replacements, Hüsker Dü, the Suburbs, Soul Asylum, and so on. But what about those years in between? What was happening in the seventeen years between when Dylan left Minnesota in 1961 and Prince released his debut album, For You?
Unfortunately, I know firsthand just how easy it can be for the media to focus on the prominent white narratives and turn a blind eye to our communities of color. I have heard the frustrations from artists of color in the community, some of whom have been toiling away out of the limelight for twenty years or more. We like to pride ourselves on being a progressive place. The best biking city in the nation! And one of the most literate, too! But in recent years we’ve been forced to confront some ugly truths about our metropolis. We have some of the worst racial disparities in the nation when it comes to income, education, and housing. We knowingly bulldozed poor communities of color to build freeways and give suburbanites easy access to downtown jobs and nightlife. And our police force struggles with the same issues of unnecessary force and racial bias that have been plaguing the rest of the nation.
When I started to research this book, it quickly became apparent that this story is not limited to the albums that were recorded and the shows that were played by these fantastic bands. This story is so much bigger than the music that beats in its heart. In order to understand, for instance, why King Solomon’s Mines, the first downtown Minneapolis club to host black musicians and cater to a black clientele, was unfairly raided and closed, we have to understand the levels of corruption and poisonous rhetoric that turned the downtown club scene into a political battlefield. In order to understand why many musicians migrated to the Twin Cities from the South in the late ’60s and left disappointed by the early ’70s, we have to examine the false promises Minnesota made to minorities in that time period and the destructive decisions that were made by the city and federal government that harmed the African American population in particular. And in order to understand why those scrappy young kids from North Minneapolis were cut off from the rest of the city and led to create their own tight-knit little creative community, we have to study how the construction of I-94, 394, and Olson Memorial Highway razed black-owned clubs and effectively quarantined the black population into small, easily controllable areas.
As I write this now, I am embarrassed to say that while some things have improved, there are persistent issues affecting citizens of color in the Twin Cities that seem the same, if not worse, than they were in the 1960s. I watched with a lump in my throat as Black Lives Matter activists overtook I-94 during protests in 2016 in response to the brutal and unjustified police shooting of a St. Paul elementary school employee, Philando Castile. It wasn’t just that their passion and commitment to their cause were enough to stop traffic; the protest was powerful because the young activists were literally walking in their elders’ footsteps, reclaiming ownership of the historic black neighborhoods that were lost to the freeway’s construction. When they shut down the stretch of I-94 between Dale and Lexington, the protesters were literally screaming, singing, and marching their way through the heart of the long-lost Rondo neighborhood.
And when protestors sat in the freezing cold and rain for eighteen days in November 2015 in front of the Fourth Precinct police station in North Minneapolis to protest the city’s response to the shooting of another young black man, Jamar Clark, it was impossible to ignore that the precinct sits on the exact site of the defunct North Minneapolis community center named The Way, which was once regarded as a safe haven for aimless youth and politically minded young activists who needed a space to breathe and plan, when they were embroiled in similar conflicts in the late 1960s, and which served as an incubator and a launchpad for many of the artists we now associate with the Minneapolis Sound.
Music can be an incredible lens through which to view our world. It can unite us in times of loneliness and isolation, and it can heal us in times of struggle. It can teach us profound things about ourselves and our relationships, and it can help us to express the things we thought were unspeakable.
* * *
Volumes have already been written about the Minneapolis Sound’s impact on the larger pop world, from Prince’s reign over the 1980s to Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis’s continuing success as producers for top-selling artists like Janet Jackson. Which is why you’ll note that the narrative arc of this book concludes with Prince’s debut in the First Avenue Mainroom on March 9, 1981; it was the first time Prince crossed over to the more mainstream white rock audience in his hometown, and the moment when many tastemakers and historians say they knew the Artist was about to launch into the stratosphere. The incubation of his sound was complete, and he was ready to take it global.
Where my interest lies is in examining that sound, turning it around, taking it apart, and studying it from the inside out. What is the Minneapolis Sound? Do you know it when you hear it? Is it when synthesizers replaced the traditional horn parts present in funk and soul music, updating the genre for a generation who grew up watching the moon landing and became obsessed with Star Wars, E.T., and contemplating life in outer space? Is it found in the fact that funk, rock, new wave, and dance music had never been combined so potently? Or is it in the fashion, the sexual expression, the pure celebration of togetherness and funked-up freedom?
To start at the Sound’s explosion in the early 1980s and move backwards, digging deeper into where it all started, exposes an intricate and winding root system of different genres and scenes. There are the more obvious lineages—like the bustling jazz community that inspired a new generation of artists to pick up horns and write parts for their friends’ soul bands, or the gospel music that taught teenage bands to harmonize their voices over the chug and churn of the more secular rhythm and blues. Tracing those roots brought me all the way back to 1958 (coincidentally, the year that Prince was born), which was when the first R&B band from Minnesota was captured on record.
And then there are the curveballs, like the fact that black artists had an added incentive to stay up to date on all the Top 40 hits by popular white artists of the day so they could get gigs playing for the Twin Cities’ predominantly white audiences, especially in the 1970s, when the hard lines around “black” and “white” musical genres had started to erode and iconic artists like Jimi Hendrix and Carlos Santana were reinventing what it meant to be a minority musician making popular music. Or that young African Americans could barely access music being made by progressive black artists on Twin Cities airwaves, with the only early black-oriented community radio station, KUXL, barely audible outside a one-mile radius of its North Minneapolis-adjacent station.
So it’s no surprise that musicians from the area were especially prone to melting different sounds together, infusing their work with a scintillating blend of jazz, soul, R&B, funk, disco, early punk, new wave, dance, and all different kinds of rock ’n’ roll, from Sun Records to psychedelia, country-rock to prog. But the sound goes so much deeper than labels; it is also defined by a relentless drive and demand for excellence. You can hear it even in the earliest recordings: a pulsing, indefatigable energy, as if every musician who participated in the development of the sound were on a quest to take first place in a competition whose final score could never be tallied. It was an unrelenting desire for Black Excellence, for a slice of that hometown pride, for the loudest applause, for respect. And it propelled artists from every genre, every neighborhood, and every ethnicity to come together to create sounds that were leaps and bounds ahead of their time.
Researching this book was simultaneously wrenching and inspiring, eye-opening and heart-rending. It was a process that relied heavily on the oral histories of the people who experienced these movements, and their willingness to share their stories with me. After spending countless hours speaking with musicians about their memories, driving around with them through the neighborhoods where they came up, and combing through the newspaper archives of various Minneapolis and St. Paul libraries, I learned things about the city that I will never unsee; I sat in awe contemplating the perseverance that was required to create this music and organize these shows. Even when confronted with utter hatred, bigotry, and ugliness, the music persisted, and the artists’ quality of work remained undisputed. Even when their clubs were repeatedly closed and they were forced back underground time and time again, they never stopped singing. A sense of urgency and hope remained.
It’s also impossible to welcome you into this narrative without noting the monumental losses to the Minnesota music community that we endured in the three years I was researching this book. Obviously, Prince’s death on April 21, 2016, sent a shockwave across the entire globe, and I never could have imagined that I would finish writing this book in a world that didn’t have him in it. It was the honor of a lifetime to speak with him directly about some of the topics that are included in this book, and my only hope with this work, as with anything I write about him, is that I do the man proud. Thank you, sweet Prince. You made me a better writer in ways I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to explain, and your legacy will forever be interwoven into the city I call home.
Minneapolis also suffered the loss of the tremendous saxophone player Morris Wilson, whose 1979 album Fantasy Island will live forever as the most underappreciated experimental jazz-funk album to come out of Minnesota. (Seriously: cop that.) In addition to being a fiercely talented player and composer, Morris was also a huge advocate for the promotion of black music in the Twin Cities.
And speaking of advocates, it was heartbreaking to learn of the passing of Minnesota’s pioneering home studio engineer, Gaity Records’ David Hersk, who recorded the first 45 by an R&B band in the state (by the Big M’s); Dean Constantine, who ran King Solomon’s Mines in the face of significant adversity; and James Martin, who managed two of the most popular St. Paul R&B vocal groups of the early 1960s, the Amazers and the Exciters. Finally, as the book neared its publishing date, we learned of the devastating loss of the soul singer Sonny Knight, who was in the midst of a glorious second act of his career.
Learning of these losses during the research of this book only added to my urgency in getting it all down on paper. While this book is far from a comprehensive guide to every musician who had a hand in shaping the Minneapolis Sound, I hope it brings us a step closer to better honoring and documenting the unsung men and women who poured their lives into this music.
The title of this book is borrowed from a wonderful song from the Lewis Connection’s 1979 self-titled album. Not only does the song perfectly illustrate the cross-pollinating collaborative nature of the R&B and funk scene of the late ’70s: also, the song is billed as the Lewis Connection but was actually recorded by the Family, with lead vocals by Family frontman Sonny Thompson, playing by the Connection’s Pierre and André Lewis, and a little guitar work and background vocals by a young Prince Rogers Nelson, who was something of an understudy to the older generation of players. Given the narrative arc of the book, the sentiment of the lyrics feels profound.
Of all of the songs I’d listened to and sentiments that I’d heard expressed in interviews and articles, it was this lyrical passage that stood out. In one succinct phrase, Sonny Thompson—who Prince would later recruit to play in his New Power Generation and give the stage name Sonny T.—captured the eternal search for a sense of belonging amid chaos and discord, the reclamation of what is “ours” versus what is “theirs,” and the overwhelming sense of place that came to define this era and sound: “There’s got to be something here for us.”
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