The Multidimensional Degrees of Prince
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because if your ass is freed, your mind will follow.
By Eugene S. Robinson
He played all of his own instruments. He was a runaway. He was straight. He was gay. He was Black/white/Puerto Rican. It was all so true or false or confused, and in the late 1970s, about the only thing you could have known with any degree of certainty was this: This cat with the highly suspect name of Prince was rocking a black G-string/jockstrap thing under a long trench coat while sporting high heels. And, oh yeah, he was most often seen playing his ass off on guitar when so-called Black music had all but given up on the instrument — unless you were called the Bad Brains — and doing it while singing about oral sex and masturbation and, um, yeah, more than flirting with bisexuality.
Well, his real name was Prince and whatever he was doing was funky as fuck.
But he didn’t pop out of Planet Prince fully formed. What he did do was synthesize in a way that’s unarguably genius. His influences helped define a style, approach and process that in turn affected/infected a surprisingly wide swath of singers, players and performers and stood like some sort of Rosetta Stone of cool.
Don’t believe it? You should. Now walk awhile with us as we untangle the jumble of style and persona that orbited around the late and greatest: Prince.
JAZZ: SUN RA Bet you didn’t see that coming. Avant-jazz pianist Sun Ra didn’t just play the piano; he composed and led a largish band with a shifting sea of super talents. If you embarked on journey Ra, you were buying whole cloth into his overweening cosmic philosophy and unbridled theatricality. And if you didn’t like it, well, there’s always the door. Sound familiar? Prince didn’t so much interpret or channel Ra as he did tread the same path. But while Ra’s take was about space being the place, Prince’s was about the (sometimes) cleansing power of both fleshy and nonfleshy kinds of love. Ra didn’t so much make it easy or possible for Prince to say “Screw you, love it or leave it,” but echoes do echo.
R&B/SOUL: JACKIE WILSON Fellow Midwesterner and the man dubbed Mr. Excitement, Jackie Wilson was a tenor with a four-octave vocal range whose live shows were so killer that everyone from Elvis and Bruce Springsteen to James Brown name-checked him as having influenced them. One of his most notable hits, “Lonely Teardrops,” featured the refrain “My heart is crying, crying.” On live television while singing it, Wilson suffered a massive heart attack; people unfortunately thought it was part of the show — he went from there to coma and eventual death at 49. Wilson’s stage work was the stuff of dreams and was openly acknowledged by Prince as something he stole from.
ROCK: JIMI HENDRIX Nile Rodgers from Chic played guitar, and so did Bob Marley, but the 1970s — after the death of rock-guitar god Jimi — were a little light in Black guitar players, specifically Black guitar players doing popular music. Prince played the lion’s share of instruments on his debut release, to be sure, but if you saw him back then, you saw him with his guitar. Not just as a stage prop but being used how a guitar is supposed to be used: soloing like his fingers were on fire. This and Jimi’s decidedly nonmasculine couture, heavy on the scarves, heels and chiffon, without a doubt gave birth to who we saw onstage as Prince.
R&B/FUNK: JAMES BROWN The Godfather of Soul. The hardest working man in show business. The amazing Mr. Please, Please, Please himself. James Brown, who frequently felt so funky he had to jump back and kiss himself, acted like entertainment was a competitive sport. Which makes a whole lot of sense when you consider his former life as a boxer. Similarly, Prince was a high school basketball standout. Splits, spins, dances named after him, cape routines and mic play nonpareil set the standard. Ever seen the high-wire stage maneuver of stomping on the mic-stand base so the mic pops into your waiting hand while not missing a beat or even looking? Well, you’ve probably only seen two or three do it and nail it without fail: James and Prince topping the list.
R&B/POP: STEVIE WONDER Forget the treacly later stuff of phone calls made to say he loved someone. Stevie Wonder went wonderfully weird at one point. How weird? Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants weird. And before that, the much less weird Innervisions. But it was all there for Prince’s picking: the almost-painful-wonderful attention to detail, the curious and curiouser philosophical tangents and the pulling in of unlikely musical partners (who saw Prince actually being excited about seeing Tom Petty, of all people, fer chrissakes? But he was). Vocally dissimilar, sure, but we’re talking musical worlds now.
Without these five? Well, it’s not that you don’t have Prince, but maybe you don’t have Prince when we had Prince, and certainly not just rolling over urban tastemakers on either coast while putting Minneapolis on the map and changing the conversation about what could happen onstage and what couldn’t.
In any case, the list of who influenced Prince is short. A much longer list and much more indicative of lasting cultural influence? Who the Purple One himself influenced, outside of everyone.
ROCK/POST-PUNK: THE MAKE-UP When Ian Svenonius and crew came up with the Make-Up and their style, so-called “Gospel Yeh-Yeh,” which had Svenonius lisping through call-and-response numbers while writhing around his mic stand, you would have thought of nothing if not Prince. They might deny having done so, but you’d not be faulted for not believing them in the least.
POP/SOUL: TERENCE TRENT D’ARBY He’s changed his name to Sananda Francesco Maitreya and refuses to acknowledge his older name and accomplishments, but when he hit in 1987, positioned as the lovechild of Prince and Jackie Wilson, it was a positioning that caused Prince to graciously declare, and we paraphrase, “We steal from the same person.” That being the aforementioned Wilson.
R&B: READY FOR THE WORLD Not only were they rocking the Jheri curl, the blouses and the makeup, but one of Ready for the World’s first big hits shared the name of Prince protégée Sheila E. “Oh, Sheila”? Oh yes, they were qualified to fill her needs and ours. Not Prince, but an amazing reproduction. And we loved them for it.
NEW WAVE/POP: THE BANGLES They “worked” with Prince, and lead singer Susanna Hoffs’ guitar playing and stage demeanor with the sidelong coquettish glances were nothing if not Prince.
R&B/NEO-SOUL: D’ANGELO No mistaking that the self-taught multi-instrumentalist son of a Pentecostal minister, which is what D’Angelo is, found a spirit familiar in Prince, whose hothouse latter-day religiosity, if you squinted just right, seemed an awful lot like his previous paeans to sexy time.
POP: BRUNO MARS He name-checked Prince as an influence, without pause and with great frequency. And with the whole multi-instrumental thing — it’s hard to play even one instrument well, really — and his producing, and the hit after hit after hit? Yeah. We get it and admit it: Prince to Bruno Mars makes perfectly good sense.
POP/FUNK: CAMEO Hanging out in the Meatpacking District in New York, wearing lipstick-red codpieces over tights, driving choppers and playing funk with that same sort of Prince-esque badass staccato attack? Check, check, check, check: Word up!
R&B/NEW JACK SWING: TIMEX SOCIAL CLUB Though largely remembered as one-hit wonders, that one hit, the 1986 song “Rumours,” does not exist without Prince.
PRINCE PROTÉGÉS: VANITY, SHEILA E., APOLLONIA and, lest you start suspecting a theme emerging, MORRIS DAY and THE TIME
THE MOST INSANE INFLUENCED PICK EVER
POST-PUNK/NOISE: OXBOW Total disclosure: It’s the band I’m in and have been in since 1988, when I started it in the dirty garage that I called home at the time. On our 2007 release, The Narcotic Story, there’s a song called “Frank’s Frolic.” Toward the end of it, I consciously, and with genius aforethought — his, not mine — channeled Prince. There. I said it.
SLY STONE Weird to put Sly and the Family Stone anywhere but in the upper tier of influencers, but Sly’s glimmering genius was overshadowed by persistent drug problems and the quandaries that went along with those drug problems: no shows, late shows, bad shows. All pointing to a certain lack of discipline making him seem, despite the glaring similarities, more the Anti-Prince in many ways.
ORNETTE COLEMAN A saxophonist, violinist, trumpeter and composer who won both a MacArthur Fellowship and a Pulitzer Prize, he enraged detractors and supporters alike sometimes and, in general, did not give a rat’s ass about any of it, outside of the music. Again: Sound familiar? We think so too.