Chuck Lightning on the Musical World of Prince
The Janelle Monáe collaborator talks about the inspirations and influences of the Purple One
One half of Atlanta duo Deep Cotton, Chuck Lightning is also a co-founder and the creative director of the Wondaland Arts Society, a collective that’s probably best known for launching the likes of Janelle Monáe into orbit. Lightning, an intellectual who’s been known to eloquently speak on everything from Afro-futurism to race relations to the history of rock’n’roll, attended Morehouse College, and it was there that he met Nate “Rocket” Wonder, his eventual partner in both Deep Cotton and Wondaland. The two have been instrumental in producing Monáe’s music, as the three artists have formed an incredibly strong bond, both in and out of the studio. Advancing the notion that music should no longer be segregated—even subtly—by genre or race, Deep Cotton combines elements of funk, soul, R&B and rock in its music, although Lightning and Wonder remain firmly focused on the future, even if they mine the past for inspiration. In 2015, the group made waves with the song “Let’s Get Caught,” which appeared on a Wondaland compilation, and continues to work toward a debut album of its own.
In this excerpt from his Headphone Highlights on RBMA Radio, Chuck talks specifically about his personal relationship with the music of Prince – and the innumerable roads that it has led him down through the years.
Prince - The Beautiful Ones
My relationship with Prince started in high school. I had a cousin who was dating a drug dealer and he was like a real Suge Knight character. The kind of person you would never have never considered listened to Prince. He definitely looked like somebody who had killed a lot of people. He was at least as big as Suge Knight, if not bigger.
I remember we were going to a funeral and they asked me to ride in the back of their car with them. It was my cousin, Suge Knight, Jr. and me in the backseat. As we were riding along, for some reason that day he was playing Purple Rain. I had heard Purple Rain before, but it never sounded like it sounded that day like in his black town car with the windows tinted and him smoking a Cuban cigar. You’re just wondering, “Are we really on the way to the funeral? Like, where are we going right now?” All the while he’s listening to this album.
I’ll never forget the way this song sounded when I heard him playing it. When I heard the high falsetto voice and the guitar, it just sounded like the most radical revolutionary shit on planet earth. I was like, “Not only is this some crazy music, but it’s black music and it’s some revolutionary rebel ass shit. It just sounded so gangster for this guy that is bigger than a Tyrannosaurus Rex to be playing this damn high-pitched voice and these guitars.
I got into Prince so heavily really quickly. Over a period of three or four years, I was going through the entire catalog and obsessing over every release. Then, of course, after you obsessed over all the Prince releases you’re like, “What about this group The Time? Who is Jamie Starr?” Then you start going through everything else that he did, you know? You find that the other stuff is often times just as amazing as the stuff he released under his own name like “The Screams of Passion” by The Family or “Nothing Compares 2 U” by Sinead O’Connor.
Jimi Hendrix - Who Knows
At this point, I got to a point where I’d heard every possible thing I thought I could hear by Prince. I’d gone through the vault, I’d done live recordings, I’d done everything. Now, I was like what’s next? Then I started diving into all of his influences. Hendrix wasn’t something that immediately came to me. It was something that only came to me after I really had been through every lick of Prince that I could possibly get through.
Sly and the Family Stone - Underdog
We know, of course, how greatly Prince loved and admired not only Sly but also his good friend, Larry Graham. The arrangements and everything else – and what he and James did for funk in the ’60s. Prince took all these lessons and then of course you add in the Jimi stuff. I think with all those things, you’re getting down to the foundation of what Prince was listening to and the things that inspired him.
Bootsy Collins - Munchies for Your Love
Bootsy is one of the funniest emailers in the world. I don’t know if you guys have ever gotten an email from Bootsy Collins before, but his emails are amazing. On record, he’s definitely one of the best bass players out there. He created a whole language on the bass. I think the thing about the whole Pfunk camp is that it was a different perspective: a different way of living life and a different way of playing your instrument and a different way of perceiving arrangements.
All that stuff has meant a lot to us at Wonderland. I know it meant a lot to Prince to see that type of showmanship, to see these big ideas in the cosmic stuff. To grow up and see that and see people making all kinds of music and calling it black music, I think that was really wonderful for him to see. Anyway, this song really creates a world.
Frank Zappa - Inca Roads
Frank is definitely somebody that, I mean, this is just a journey. You know? Prince is somebody that’s wild and crazy and free and adventurous in their music, and that’s like a drug. It’s like a real gateway drug. After that, you go, “Now, who can I find that’s as wild and crazy as that?” That’s a real hard thing to do.
Frank wasn’t an immediate thing. It wasn’t an immediate taste that I had. You don’t go straight from listening to R&B records to “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow.” If you do think about a trajectory through Jimi and through Sly and through James and then through Bootsy and then through Funkadelic, by the time you’ve had “Maggot Brain” and “Cosmic Slop,” you do come to something like “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow” and it makes a little bit of sense. “Inca Roads” has George Duke on vocals. The band, of course with Frank, was always amazing, but his guitar playing is crazy on here.
Eddie Hazel - Frantic Moment
A while back I was working with a band and we decided we were going to play this song live. We started to work on it and the keyboardist looks at me and goes, “Yeah, these are the chords for ‘Do Me Baby,’ right?” It was interesting to me because I had never really thought about Prince listening to Eddie Hazel. I was just imagining him listening to this record and then maybe these chords sticking out to him like four or five years later when he might have been working on Controversy.
With P-funk, a lot of times they were hiding the beauty in their songs that were coming from the keyboards. They were into the danger and the chaos and the one and the groove things. The beauty was something that you had to kind of dig for sometimes in a P-funk record. In this arrangement, the chords were there, but it’s about the guitar and other things. With Prince, he brought out the chords and his vocal – and it’s an all-time classic.
Outkast - Aquemini
Talking about Funkateers that create worlds... I have a lot of respect, of course, for Goodie Mob. One of the albums that we all bonded around when we first met was of course Aquemini. It was a lot of things about the album, but one thing was just how they’re able to create this sonic world that was really true and beautiful. It felt cosmic and out there, but at the same time it felt very truthful. Even though it was some space shit, it still felt like reality. You know what I mean?
Talking Heads - This Must Be the Place
Talking Heads is another band that I probably would never have gotten into without Prince because, like I said, you don’t get into these things right away. It’s a journey, and that journey started with him in terms of really going out there in the music and rhythm and just trying to enjoy music in a whole different type of way.
“Self” by Deep Cotton was actually inspired by what David Byrne and Talking Heads were able to accomplish in their records back in the ’80s. With a song, a lot of times it’s just you trying to figure out where you are in the world and what your life means. I think this is a journey that Prince put all of us on at Wonderland. With “This Must Be the Place,” you’re heading home. I think songs are all about going home. I feel that’s what all of us are really trying to do, you know?