We All Wanna Be Prince: Exploring The Purple One’s Impact on Dance Music

October 4, 2013

"Walk around like you're bigger than Prince," Curtis A. Jones mutters on his current club hit in his Green Velvet guise. At first "Bigger Than Prince" sounds like it's throwing shade, but it's actually advice – this is how you get past people talking smack about you on YouTube, or anyplace else that, as Jones puts it, "what they say is cra-zay." (That word choice is itself another Prince-related nod: "Crazay" was a 1986 single by former Time guitarist Jesse Johnson, featuring Sly Stone.)

The admonition is funny anyway. Partly that's because it's widely believed that Prince Rogers Nelson is only five feet two inches tall when he isn't wearing the heels in which he typically walks around. And partly it"s because the original track is a dead ringer for the Minneapolis auteur's iconic mid-'80s sound – a flat downbeat with swinging accents programmed on a LinnDrum, spooky synths that recall the spacier moments of 1999 and, at one point, near-directly quote Apollonia 6's "Sex Shooter."

Prince has been a constant in dance culture from the beginning.

Go ahead and call "Bigger Than Prince" mere dance-music retromania; it's certainly shameless enough. But it's hardly alone. There's Apollonia, the French label of Shonky, Dyed Soundorom and Dan Ghenacia, named for Prince's lover in the movie Purple Rain; its first issue in February 2012, by Shonky, was a EP called The Minneapolis Touch. Three years earlier, Chicagoan Felix Da Housecat issued a single whose title laid it out plainly: "We All Wanna Be Prince."

But moreover, this is all part of a longstanding tradition. Electronic dance music has been steeped in Prince since the beginning, and as the post-house/techno diaspora has spun out in all directions, his DNA has gone with it. In U.K. hardcore, an exhortatory "Let’s Go Crazy" sample ignites the fuel of Warp-style bleeps, dancehall vocals, and rattling breakbeats in Ragga Twins' "Hooligan 69" – produced by Shut Up and Dance, and one of the first fissions that led to drum & bass.

The iconic dubstep-and-beyond label Hyperdub kicked off in 2006 with "Sine of the Dub," Kode9's weed-drenched cover of "Sign 'O' the Times." Shortly down the same line, Bristol dubstep producer Joker dubbed his gleaming-neon synth sound "purple" – Prince's signature color. Appropriately, Joker & Ginz' lurching 2009 dubstep anthem "Purple City" featured linoleum-piercing keyboards that could have been swiped off the work tapes for "Jack U Off" or "D.M.S.R.." Whatever his position in the pop market at a given time, Prince has been a constant in dance culture from the beginning.

The Electrifying Mojo – born Charles Johnson in Little Rock, Arkansas – had long taken on-air phone calls. It was as big a part of his overnight show on Detroit's WGPR (107.5 FM) as his nightly "landing of the Mothership" – in which he'd utilize sound effects, John Williams' Star Wars score and his own delectably theatrical voice instructing his listeners to turn on their flashlights – or giving his favorite tracks multiple spins. For example, Mojo thought nothing of playing Prince's "Controversy" three times in a row.

Detroit is like my hometown. I mean that. I could have stayed in Uptown and partied, but I wanted to come down and party with y’all.

Prince at Detroit’s Cobo Hall, June 7, 1986

Though he was secretive about himself in order to maintain his mystique (much like Prince himself), Mojo had an easy, loose bonhomie with his callers. The most famous, and unexpected, of these occurred during the early morning of June 7, 1986, when Prince called ahead of his show at downtown Detroit's Cobo Hall, a 12,000-seat arena he'd sold out in a half-hour, after announcing the concert mere days ahead of time. He was calling to thank Mojo for playing his music before anybody else in Detroit, and casually mentioned that he had some 320 unissued songs sitting in a "vault." It was Prince's 28th birthday, and at Cobo that night, a grinning Prince told the crowd, "Last year we had a party and it was fun, but it wasn’t as fun as this."

Prince loved Detroit, and Detroit loved him back. He'd played Cobo on his first major U.S. tour, opening for Rick James in early 1980, and in early 1983 had returned there as a headliner for six shows in four days. (He added another show at Joe Louis Arena near the end of that run, behind the 1999 album.) Prince kicked off the Purple Rain tour in November 1984 with seven Cobo appearances, all sellouts.

Prince's call to Mojo was significant – it was his only interview between his Rolling Stone cover stories of 1985 and 1990. But it wasn't quite unexpected. Mojo carried serious weight with his listeners – and Prince wasn't the only musician he brought to a wider audience. The same year as "Controversy," Mojo had begun playing Cybotron's "Alleys of Your Mind" and A Number of Names' "Sharivari," two pivotal singles that paved the way for Detroit techno; he even gave A Number of Names its moniker.

Detroit dance music became defiantly do-it-yourself in part because Detroit is a DIY town, and partly because as the '80s progressed, synthesizers and drum machines became cheaper and easier to access. But Prince's example – and his grooves – played a major role as well. As Brendan M. Gillen (BMG) put it in his 2003 Red Bull Music Academy lecture in Cape Town, Prince became Detroit's "patron saint of the auteur, the guy who did everything, the total control freak – one man who could make an orchestra of music." When Juan Atkins split from his Cybotron partner, Rick Davis, and began recording as Model 500 in 1985, he codified techno as solo auteur music in the Prince mold.

Moodymann - U Can Dance If U Want 2

Prince's career was an ideal for Detroit artists in other ways as well. Not only did he have the surest hand with drum machines and synths of any musician or producer in the pop world, he offered a model for uncompromising vision. "I had some fucked up situations with large record companies and realized that these majors don't work on the same frame of mind as artists," Derrick May told Mixmag's Tony Marcus in 1997. "I went in as an artist and was suddenly told that I had to be an entertainer... An artist is Prince, people who tend to be able to say what they want to say the way they want to say it – and make money at the same time."

An artist is Prince, people who tend to be able to say what they want to say the way they want to say it – and make money at the same time.

Derrick May, 1997

Prince also provided irresistible raw material for Detroit's DJs, a lineage that stretched from Mojo to Moodymann. The latter re-edited the 1999 nugget "All the Critics Love U in New York" for his 1997 12-inch "U Can Dance If U Want 2" – slowing and distending the track, giving it new, unique shape without bothering to disguise its source. The stepping-stone was Jeff Mills, in his Detroit radio guise of The Wizard. At his RBMA lecture, Gillen played a rough, stuttering cut up of Prince's "Kiss" from a late '80s Wizard broadcast. "This is how we heard music throughout the '80s in Detroit," he said. "From day one it's a cubist viewpoint. We hear it chopped up."

Dezz 7 - Funny Love

As a fellow Midwestern bad boy who blurred lines between sexual and racial identities, Prince's influence can be seen even more clearly in Chicago's early house scene. "Controversy" was a staple of Frankie Knuckles' Warehouse sets, while Ron Hardy and Farley "Jackmaster" Funk were both fond of "When Doves Cry." One Hardy set from the Music Box in 1985 (scroll to 461) features the Prince-produced "A Love Bizarre," by Sheila E., bridging very early Chicago house (Jackmaster Dick's Revenge's "Sensuous Woman Goes Disco," released a year later on Trax) and Peter Brown's 1977 disco classic "Do Ya Wanna Get Funky With Me."

[Jamie Principle] pretty much fashioned everything he was doing at that time around Prince... hence the name Jamie Prince-iple.

Frankie Knuckles, 2011

House architect Vince Lawrence, who co-founded Trax Records and its song-oriented sibling label Precision, bought a LinnDrum in order to emulate Prince's sound. In 1985, Precision issued a 12-inch, "Funny Love," by a local act called Dezz 7 – so named because its leader, Sidney Winters, "looked so much like Dez Dickerson it wasn’t even funny," according to Lawrence. (Dickerson was the lead guitarist for Prince's band the Revolution from 1979 to 1983, when Wendy Melvoin replaced him; he played the solo on "Little Red Corvette," Prince's first pop top ten hit in '83.) Dezz 7 – who, Lawrence notes, wore a lot of paisley – had a lead singer named Byron Stingily, later the front man of house-crossover hit-makers Ten City and a solo artist for Nervous Records.

If Winters – who issued a string of house 12-inches on Trax under names like Dancer and Fat Albert in the late '80s – named himself for Prince’s guitar player, Byron Walton's performing alias cribbed from the man himself. "He pretty much fashioned everything he was doing at that time around Prince – he was a real big Prince fan, hence the name Jamie Prince-iple," Frankie Knuckles told Stephen Titmus in 2011. Not to mention Prince's own early alias, as writer-producer for the Time, Vanity 6, and Sheila E.: Jamie Starr.

Frankie Knuckles / Jamie Principle - Baby Wants to Ride

Principle and Knuckles made some of early Chicago house's greatest recordings, but easily the most Prince-like was 1987's "Baby Wants to Ride." It prominently features Prince"s skidding synth sound – a suspended-swinging chord-riff, answered by a short, staccato bassline, a la the Time's "Wild and Loose" – as well as his vocal and lyrical style. "When I go to bed at night / I think of you with all my might" could have come straight off of Dirty Mind, while the mix of shouts against South African apartheid and a giddy "I wanna fuck you – whoo!" nods to Controversy.

Prince was a nightclub habitué; chances are that he ran into house music a lot.

Early Chicago house hardly bothered the U.S. airwaves, but overseas, it was chart pop. In 1986 and 1987, Trax and DJ International began landing top ten records in England. At this point Prince also began spending more time in Europe, filming Under the Cherry Moon in France and touring the continent behind both its soundtrack Parade and Sign 'O' the Times. Prince was also a nightclub habitué; chances are that he ran into house music a lot.

At the end of 1987 – the same year as "Baby Wants to Ride" – Prince had created, manufactured and then pulled from distribution The Black Album, an eight-song funk disc intended as a "surprise" release, less than nine months after Sign 'O' the Times; it quickly became a popular bootleg. One of its songs was "Cindy C," on which dancer-vocalist Cat Glover recited, with slight alterations, the rap from J.M. Silk's "Music Is the Key." (Glover herself, Soul Underground reported in 1988, asked after 808 State to produce tracks for a debut album that never materialized.) There was something mocking about including J.M. Silk's rhymes; for all his finesse with sequencers and LinnDrums, Prince hardly took seriously anyone who couldn't play music in a traditional manner as well. He took straight-up hip hop even less seriously, deriding it outright on The Black Album's "Dead on It."

Criminal Element Orchestra - Put the Needle to the Record

But after 1987, the joke was on the genius. Hip hop and house music were pop music's future, and soon Prince was struggling to catch up. In 1989 he issued "Batdance," a megamix of the tracks from his Batman soundtrack; it went to number one in the States, but it felt opportunistic, dating a lot faster and more thoroughly than models like M/A/R/R/S' "Pump Up the Volume" and Coldcut's "Beats + Pieces" (both 1987) – not to mention Criminal Element Orchestra's "Put the Needle to the Record," Arthur Baker's attempt to, as he put it in a 2006 interview with Future Music, "make rap records without the rap," utilizing early Emulator and Akai samplers – not to mention the whirling guitar intro of the 1986 #1 "Kiss."

Prince's vocal hip hop excursions are a tangent unto themselves – hooray, 1995's "P Control"; boo, Tony M. But his toe-dips into dance music were equally frustrating, in part because house and techno are styles he could have easily adapted to. Unlike most of his R&B peers in the early '90s, Prince used outside remixers sparingly. The big exception, Steve "Silk" Hurley's "Houstyle" remix of 1991's "Gett Off," fits the era a little too snugly; later, Hurley lamented in an interview with 5 Magazine that in his period he "was locked into a 'Hurley Sound' that labels wanted every time they hired me" is audible in the track. (You can hear it on this 1991 Dimitri From Paris mix, beginning at 11:56.)

Unlike most of his R&B peers in the early ’90s, Prince used outside remixers sparingly.

Prince's mid-'90s forays into beat-driven tracks were more intriguing, though similarly problematic. "Loose!" – from the 1994 contract-filler album Come – was a halfhearted stab at techno, fast and frantic but not much else. And the third of 1996's three disc Emancipation begins unpromisingly with "New World," Prince's futuristic-promised-land spiel over a rote house beat. But the disc also contains the surprisingly sharp "The Human Body" and "Sleep Around." The former's dark, jacking pulse has some dated tics (it's made up partly of Prince's own gasps and grunts), but it's easy to imagine a savvy modern Ableton jock re-editing it back to life. "Sleep Around" is sleek swinging disco-house with a horn chart that Masters At Work could have gone to town with, if only Prince had let them.

Few dance diehards knew about "The Human Body" and "Sleep Around" in their time because (a) Prince was a commercial non-entity by 1996, unless you watched Oprah, and (b) DJs played vinyl, and Emancipation was so wedded to the CD format that the artist (he was actually being called The Artist at that point – not worth going into here) engineered each disc to precisely sixty minutes apiece. Few diehards know them now because Emancipation has been out-of-print many times longer than it was actually available, even digitally. Prince's widely publicized disdain for digital media is almost certainly the reason. (He called it Emancipation because it was the first thing he released once his Warner Bros. contract ended.) Nevertheless, both tracks are, if not quite lost club classics, fascinating and honorable attempts to stay with the times, if not get ahead of them.

Basement Jaxx feat. Meshell - Right Here's the Spot

Not long after Emancipation, Prince's dance music legacy swelled yet again. In a way similar to Dirty Mind and Controversy's rewriting of R&B in leaner, nastier terms than disco's, the swelling sound of arena trance and filter house incurred a backlash in the form of electro and mash-ups – song-oriented forms that kept a floor's pulse going. A big progenitor of this was Basement Jaxx, a Brixton duo who explicitly worshipped Prince. Their first three albums, Remedy, Rooty and Kish Kash, incorporated a punk-funk vibe that recalled the pre-Purple Rain years, outright aping him with the help of Meshell Ndegeocello on Kish Kash's "Right Here's the Spot."

Even more libertine was the cover of "Sexy Dancer" from 2001 by electro producers 7 Hurtz featuring Peaches and her old roommate from Toronto Bitch Lap Lap. (Six years later, after reverting to her real name, Leslie Feist, Lap Lap would sell a million copies of her second album, The Reminder.) Instead of simply covering the song, the two women toss the lyric aside and start talking uninhibitedly about how they look that night, how they're going to tear up the dance floor – and how Prince is eyeballing them on the floor. They accomplish something unique – they turn a Prince song into something even dirtier. Dance music is supposed to be sexy, after all. That's what Prince taught us.

On a different note