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Purple Snow — An Introduction to the Twin Cities Sound

In the late 1970s, a peculiar sound began to bubble up out of the City of Lakes, in its land of 10,000 freshwater bodies. Isolated in the upper Midwest, populated by ancestors of French fur traders, and buried annually beneath 50 inches of snow, Minneapolis made a Sound far different than what one might have expected; it issued forth as a slick, black, technologically advanced genre fusion. While never known for a sizable African-American population, Minneapolis, and its twin city St. Paul, in fact harbored a tight-knit community of musicians who spent the late 1970s and early 1980s on radical manipulations of American dance music, coating their futuristic funk with the glamorous sheen of guitar rock.

There were perms, then animal prints, and later ass-less pants, each of them symptoms of an infection that came on quickly. From a historical standpoint, the coming of the Minneapolis Sound was less like Darwinian evolution than it was a Big Bang. As did the cocaine trade in sleepy Miami and the discovery of gold in rustic California, the era of synthetic instrumentation hit Minneapolis hard, and the resulting music changed pop culture indelibly.

Prior to America’s bicentennial, there was nothing particularly moving about the Twin Cities’ modest R&B scene. The Chitlin’ Circuit serviced the region, and crossover acts of color peppered radio playlists as they did anywhere in America. On Main Street, there was work for the local soul man, but no sustained scene. There were small stations with low wattage and even smaller labels with no distribution. Prospectors, transplants, and natives came and went, as greener pastures beckoned in every direction. It wasn’t until the late 1970s, when the fate and function of dance music became a national concern, that a rising generation of Twin Cities musicians shifted the paradigm. The shape of funk to come—the Minneapolis Sound, as it would be popularly known—was not entirely the invention of the prince who became the city’s most famous citizen; it was instead a perfect storm of individuals and influences. Their output signaled a coming flood—and a welcomed levee failure—that would unleash a new era of musical expression into the Land of 10,000 Lakes and beyond.

Musically, revolution had always been in the Minneapolis air. In 1957, Amos Heilicher founded Soma Records, which spent the 1960s catapulting future smashes like “Liar, Liar” by the Castaways and “Surfin’ Bird” by the Trashmen onto the charts and into the national marketplace. In a few short years, Heilicher had assembled a robust distribution network, grasped the helm for a chain of Musicland retail shops, and acquired an ownership portion of Kay-Bank, the region’s preeminent recording studio—positioning himself, in effect, at every interval of the region’s music business.

Even by the mid-’60s, the Minneapolis Sound was young and rebellious, infectious and at the beck and call of anyone willing to embrace it. As the years wore on, Kay-Bank would beget Cookhouse, which would be joined by Sound 80, Creation, Audiotek Studios Inc., and Moonsound as facilities busily tracking the region’s mutating music scene. The self-sustaining nature of Minnesotans—the pride and camaraderie perpetuated by the state’s people—made selling a couple hundred copies of any recording a very achievable goal, and this fact turned Minnesota into a utopia for privately pressed records of all genres. Many bit at comprehensive studio packages offered locally in Minneapolis, and few could be faulted for having been reeled in.

From a historical standpoint, the coming of the Minneapolis Sound was less like Darwinian evolution than it was a Big Bang.

Still, substantial triumphs for homegrown black music were not easily won. Golden Valley frequency KUXL appeared on the AM dial at 1570 in the early 1960s, issuing glimpses of the R&B charts from sunrise to sunset. This was the Minneapolis of Cornbread Harris—James “Jimmy Jam” Harris’ piano-playing father—as well as pianist and bandleader John “Prince” Nelson, who passed his stage name down to his youngest son, Prince Rogers Nelson. In the late ’60s, early adopters Maurice McKinnies and KUXL radio personality Jack Harris began minting upbeat R&B on McKinnies’ own Black and Proud Records imprint, marking early advancements for area soul music.

While plenty of venues provided homes for jazz, rock, and even country or polka, only a handful of establishments hosted the region’s more pigmented attractions. These equal-opportunity stages—at the Cozy Bar, the Taste Show Lounge, and the Nacirema, among others—offered employment to hometown heroes including the Amazers, the Exciters, and the Valdons. A low slots-to-acts ratio bred a fiercely competitive attitude amongst R&B bands, which fueled the constant upstagery that came to define the scene for the next generation. Innovators—among them “Jimmy Jam” Harris, Terry Lewis, Morris Day, André Cymone, and, yes, Prince Rogers Nelson—set the tone for this emerging movement in black music. Fortunately, the nearby availability of decent performance opportunities and mentorship allowed such talented teens to make history at home, rather than looking to the promised lands lining the nation’s coasts.

Emerging from The Way—a community center on Minneapolis’ predominantly black north side—multi-instrumentalists Pierre Lewis and Sonny Thompson were cited as prodigies, in a class beyond that of Prince Rogers Nelson or anyone else. Their band, the Family, played laps around the metropolis. But it was Nelson who navigated the Twin Cities’ obstacle course the fastest, shopping his demo to several curious Los Angeles labels in 1977. Nelson had developed a fascination with the recording process as early as 1975, evident in collaborations with Pepe Willie’s 94 East at Cookhouse Studios and in endless demos he made with Chris Moon at his namesake Moonsound facility. Papered in 1977, Nelson’s recording contract with Warner Bros. amplified Minneapolis warning shots fired that year by Mind & Matter, Cohesion, and MLF. By the time For You, Nelson’ debut LP, hit record store shelves in April 1978, few of Minneapolis’ brightest stars were being observed from outside state lines.

On the heels of Nelson’s breakout, a few performers successfully escaped Hennepin County, but none sustained a career to hold a candle to that of the Purple One. Overnight sensation Cynthia Johnson secured eternal footing in the disco pantheon for voicing the infectious “Funkytown” for Steve Greenburg’s fantasy group Lipps, Inc. By signing an exclusive deal with Casablanca Records, Johnson rendered promising demos by her own Flyte Tyme unit useless to bandmates Terry Lewis, [Anton] Johnson, and Jellybean Johnson. Their new frontman, the wild and versatile Alexander O’Neal, would also find fame as a solo performer, alternately burning bright and burning out through the 1980s.

The Family

Standout singers were constantly cherry-picked from their bulky groups, as bandstands shrunk on a national level. Despite having displayed greater range with regional rock groups, singer and carwash heir Rockie Robbins was marketed to the masses as a balladeer, a field that was soon flooded by the mighty pipes of Luther Vandross, Al Jarreau, and countless other crooners. Sue Ann Carwell showed immense potential from a young age and was signed herself to Warner Bros. in 1979—but marketed ineffectually as the female complement to Prince. André Cymone (whose mother had taken Nelson in as a teenage runaway) joined Prince during his initial descent on Los Angeles, where they continued to nurture the brain trust they had established in their first group, Grand Central. Though he and Nelson had formed much of their mutual musical identity in tandem, Cymone suffered years of over-comparison to his former bunkmate, even after a trio of Cymone releases for Sony made clear, hard distinctions between the brethren. Sonny Thompson would eventually get called up to the majors to play bass for the New Power Generation, but his potential as a songwriter remained unrecognized in a marquee capacity.

The shadow cast by Prince would grow notoriously long; it made careers and broke them, and hangs over Minneapolis to this day. Even Jimmy Jam Harris and Terry Lewis—perhaps Prince’s most successful and established contemporaries—had to undergo sizable transformations: They’d begun as hired hands in Prince’s songwriting vehicle The Time, and would make themselves into writers and producers of paradigm-shifting recordings for SOS Band, New Edition, and both Michael and Janet Jackson. In the Minneapolis of 1976, Harris is keyboardist for Mind & Matter, a gifted teen who eventually gets strong-armed into joining Terry Lewis’s Flyte Tyme as foil to keyboardist Monte Moir. The full embrace of synthesizers by the region’s plastic-ticklers helped establish a prevalent style well before Nelson’s final demo was tracked at Sound 80 using an Arp Axe on loan from Pierre Lewis.

Sue Ann Carwell

But more than gear was borrowed in the Twin Cities, and accusations have circulated for decades regarding many an innovator’s innovations. Studios and jam sessions were breeding grounds for playful plagiarism—it was not uncommon to see guitarists playing with their backs to one another to keep their licks from being duplicated. In such a concentrated and isolated community, though, a certain inevitable amount of borrowing worked to strengthen the firmament of its burgeoning sound. National acts like Sly and the Family Stone and Tower of Power found favor with musicians of all color nationwide, and helped break down barriers on a local level as well. Willie and the Bees, Dave Brady and the Stars, and the Mystics brought on black frontmen to flavor their rock stock, and Twin Cities funk progenitors Prophets of Peace and Haze found better visibility and downtown bookings to be the welcome byproducts of Caucasian hires. The integration of the Minneapolis music scene was a product of a greater awareness amongst acts, but also a necessity to replicate Santana’s Latin slink or Chicago’s dense brass rock. Likewise, fashion was passed between punk and pop, and instruments—from galloping clavinets to pitch-bent keys—were borrowed from fusion and new wave. The battle to look and sound the best was fierce, but it was a healthy ferocity that produced better performers. The resulting music could have originated anywhere, but it happened in Minneapolis.

In the years following Prince’s emergence, many A&R scouts came looking for the next genre-defiant breakout, and just as many performers tried to modify themselves accordingly. But what a majority of folks on both ends of the business model failed to recognize—or chose to ignore—is that the Minneapolis Sound was less a sound than a spirit. Prince embodied it, but he did not create it. Once that became apparent, the vortex all but closed, resulting in few Minneapolis success stories in the intervening years. Many took the chosen one’s departure to heart, and chose to reinvent. When Prince’s blockbuster biopic Purple Rain hit theaters nationwide in July 1984, Minneapolis’ cover was officially blown, and its signature Sound instantly emulated in Flint and Fort Lauderdale, Oakland and Oklahoma City. But there had been that precious few years, during which the Minneapolis Sound called nowhere else home. On the mend from disco, in anticipation of rap, the musicians of the Twin Cities had lived and created in relative harmony during these industrious years—abiding citizens on the eve of a revolution, in the “funky town” that begat “Funkytown.”

The lavish, circus-like premiere for Warner Bros. Pictures’ Purple Rain, held July 27, 1984, at Mann’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, announced the Minneapolis Sound to music buyers and filmgoers everywhere as a rolling global tide of violet. Stars in their droves—from David Byrne to Pee Wee Herman—amassed in front of MTV cameras, as the excitable young video outlet contorted to pit Prince’s coming-out party against the might of Michael Jackson’s empire. The film’s soundtrack LP, trimmed in flowers and depicting Prince as a coy motorcycle Lothario, took mere weeks to go platinum, then was sent truly stratospheric by the infectious “When Doves Cry” and its unorthodox, bass-free arrangement. Billed brashly as “His First Motion Picture,” Purple Rain fell as a nebulous biopic that seemed to pull back the veil on Prince Nelson’s humble and domestically violent past. In truth, the screenplay was a brackish marsh of facts and fictions dragged timewise out of the 1970s and into the mid-’80s, so that a few of Prince’s contemporaries in Minneapolis Sound might play out their respective roles.

The shoot had taken place around Minneapolis, although Los Angeles-shot filler footage slipped a few palm trees into frame. First Avenue, a downtown club Prince had played only a handful of times, was booked for a solid month of movie production, and its stage saw Prince’s ruffled Revolution and Morris Day’s besuited The Time recreating actual First Avenue performances from months earlier. Crowd shots were stocked with a cultural cross-section of waifish New Romantic extras decked out in knee-high boots, bandanas, and mascara. The landmark film and soundtrack album would capstone a meteoric decade born when Prince first laid down lead guitar for Pepe Willie’s 94 East demos late in 1975, and maturing as inked signatures faded on his record deal with Warner Bros. The whole of the Purple Rain project boldly defined the androgynous look and inclusive, technologically propelled sound of Minneapolis via motion-picture postcard from His Royal Badness of the Twin Cities, to the world, with love.

As white-on-purple credits rolled worldwide, the Minneapolis Sound shot out of the clubs and studios of its founding as a bona fide marketing behemoth. It propelled the stunning Patricia “Apollonia” Kotero, Purple Rain’s lusty love interest for Prince’s The Kid, into the Top 40 with the “Take Me With U” duet; Kotero’s Apollonia 6 LP produced “Sex Shooter,” which made its chart run late in ’84. A California transplant and former Los Angeles Rams cheerleader, Kotero had been drawn into Nelson’s sphere after the dismissal of Canadian knock-out Denise Matthews, the Vanity Prince set in front of Vanity 6—a sexed up feminine reciprocal to his Revolution. Vanity 6, and Apollonia 6 in the film, were both propped up on record and stage by The Time, backlit and scrim-obscured...and both racked up notable sales.

Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, the Minneapolis sound’s first rebel faction, had famously defected in 1983 from the Prince-picked membership of The Time, produced a string of chart hits for Clarence Avant’s Tabu label. After taking Los Angeles native Cheryl Anne “Cherrelle” Norton to the R&B top ten in 1984 with “I Didn’t Mean To Turn You On,” the studio twosome reached #11 the following year for their work on Alexander O’Neal’s “Innocent” (slated for the Jam/Lewis-produced Alexander O’Neal LP). In “Innocent,” Jam and Lewis pinpointed O’Neal’s silk baritone as easy counterweight to Cherrelle’s demure and fragile tweet, and taped sessions for both singers on different days. Not until the “Innocent” video shoot would O’Neal and Cherrelle meet in person. On duets to come, the Jam/Lewis suturing of O’Neal with Cherrelle would see Alexander’s recording career hit its highest heights. But neither O’Neal’s inner Donny Hathaway, which he’d channeled on early Enterprise Band of Pleasure recordings, nor the quavery gothics he’d summoned on “Do You Dare” for Erect, were ever revisited over three more 1980s Tabu-labeled O’Neal LPs. For Jam and Lewis and their Flyte Tyme Productions the balance of 1984 witnessed mid-profile work done for Change, Thelma Houston, and Klymaxx. The Flyte Tyme Studios work that made Jam and Lewis household names began in earnest in August 1985, on Janet Jackson's 1986 breakthrough Control, a Grammy-laden landmark for the King of Pop’s kid sister and an early triumph, among so many, for the Flyte Tyme technique.

Meanwhile, Morris Day preened solo career hopes in his mirror, following The Time’s Ice Cream Castle LP (from which two selections scooped up Purple Rain screentime). Former Timers Garry “Jellybean” Johnson, Jerome Benton, and Paul Peterson reincorporated for another Prince-produced project, The Family—named by its members with innocent disregard for Minneapolis’ longer-tenured The Family. The Family’s self-titled 1985 debut boasted the Prince-penned and Prince-ified album cut “Nothing Compares 2 U,” rendered incomparable in 1990 by a stripped-down rethink, and its matching, minimal tear-stained music video, from Ireland’s Sinéad O’Connor.

Elsewhere in 1984, fictional Detroit cop Axel Foley’s Tinseltown caper provided one real-life Minneapolitan with a career apex. After Rockie Robbins’ string of A&M LPs straddled the ’70s-to-’80s transition, the Beverly Hills Cop soundtrack gave Robbins’ “Emergency” a Side A slot alongside The Pointer Sisters’ smash “Neutron Dance.” World-beating cuts by Glenn Frey and Patti LaBelle, plus Harold Faltermeyer’s synth-hook minefield “Axel F,” dragged Robbins’ inclusion along for a ride to Billboard’s pole position. Rockie’s name proudly rode the movie platter’s jacket callout list, but 1985’s Rockie Robbins LP for MCA came and went more modestly.

The whole of the Purple Rain project boldly defined the androgynous look and inclusive, technologically propelled sound of Minneapolis via motion-picture postcard.

The very westerly film industry had just begun to acknowledge, with a Breakin’ or a Beat Street, that rap was catching nationally. Minneapolis/St. Paul was far from immune. Indigenous hip-hoppers eked onto the scene over the first half of the ’80s, giving Minnesota its roboticized couplet anthem in David “T.C.” Ellis’ “Twin City Rapp.” A rhyming history lesson released in 1985, “Twin City Rapp” handed out props evenly to the Minneapolis Sound’s framers, name-dropping Prince, André Cymone, Morris Day, The Time, and the Jam/Lewis departure from it, all while aping the musical efforts of each through a vocoder. The 12” depicted Prince as a charitable genius who “helped out friends he knew along the way,” allowing David Ellis to posit Sue Ann Carwell, a “Twin City slim,” as an antidote to the then-surging Real Roxanne. By mid-decade, Carwell, first lady of the Minneapolis Sound, had been emulated and embellished by a series of transplant divas. Only in 1988—long after Prince set careers in motion for Vanity, Apollonia, and Oakland native Sheila E.—did Carwell reemerge as Sue Ann with MCA Records’ Blue Velvet.

André Cymone, out of Prince’s immediate orbit since 1981, had been doing well with his alternate take on the uptown sound. But for record buyers, Purple Rain’s supernova transcended anything either artist had created, obliterating all handiwork traceable to the Anderson/Nelson boyhoods on Russell Avenue. Even with Prince’s “The Dance Electric” for its lead track and initial single, Cymone's 1985 AC LP, a valiant effort by previous standards, was rendered an instant anachronism by His Badness’ plum-colored tours de force. Instead, it was his songwriting efforts with Soul Train dancer and Shalamar vocalist Jody Watley that Cymone most visibly impacted late-’80s pop. A trio of singles—"Looking For A New Love," "Don't You Want Me," and "Some Kind of Love"—helped Cymone’s new flame and future wife secure 1988’s Best New Artist Grammy, edging out Terence Trent D'Arby, himself breathlessly feted by restless music prospectors as an heir apparent to Prince's throne.

André Cymone

Emboldened by new love for Cymone’s Watley, plus Jam and Lewis’ mastery of Control, hordes of non-Minnesotans took to plagiarizing and integrating elements of the Minneapolis Sound, by then a minted pop music currency. Flint, Michigan’s Ready for the World sent the blatantly Princed-up “Oh Sheila” as high as records go in ’85, while Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds’ The Deele, out of Cincinnati, left little doubt about the musical roots of Material Thangz album cuts like “Suspicious.” Everywhere, national acts rolled up and copied blueprints by Minneapolis architects, free of oversight from Twin Cities foremen.

Back on Minnesotan concrete, Purple Rain had cast the Taste Show Lounge as a single-story structure in neon and slate. Three-storied in reality, The Taste’s Wednesday evening Ladies Nights drew pop’s local players, often entertained by the persistent Stylle Band. For his own side project, Revolution bassist Brown Mark auditioned and hired Stylle staple Craig “Screamer” Powell for the glam-funk group that became Mazarati, which Prince put on track to the majors—he even handed them “Kiss,” but reneged when he heard their version of it. Mazarati’s airbrushed 1986 debut LP appeared on Prince’s Paisley Park Records—already several dozen deep into Prince, Sheila E., and The Family releases by that point. Mazarati cruised to considerable sales on the strength of the Prince-gifted “100 MPH” single, while The Stylle Band, all but gutted, puttered along for a few more years, to eventually be scrapped for parts.

On Paisley Park’s outskirts, diverse veins in Minneapolis Sound were being mined. The Wide Angle imprint, tasked with circulating homegrown 12” singles to an evolving species of local and national club DJs, was partnered in 1984 with Minneapolis-based Twin/Tone Records distribution. Rockie Robbins’ brother Ronnie had his own bass work pressed by Wide Angle in ’84 with Moonsound saxophonist Bill Gaskill’s pitched-down composition “Drop Funkin’,” credited on WAR 105 to Bill Blow. Wide Angle principals Jerry Silver and Walter McLean expressed interest in the Ronnie original “Contagious,” but requested a remix to suit their label’s synthetic club aesthetic.

Ronnie Robbins’ refusal to play ball relegated “Contagious” to the shelf alongside countless other half-formed Robbins demos. With Margie Cox as mouthpiece, Lipps Inc. returned from its Casablanca sojourn, taking Wide Angle 8545 in 1985 with "Does Anybody Know Me?” b/w "Hit The Deck." Silver and MacLean cast a wide net for Wide Angle, in handling the Tommy Boy-bound pure energy of Information Society in its new wave infancy, in developing diva Viola Wills with Joni Mitchell material, and in bringing Robert and Jerry Marsh of Tyler, Texas, into American Artists to tape Minneapolistic dancefloor throwbacks “Call Me Up” and “Strict Concern.” Produced by David Rivkin, backed by Prince Revolutionaries Brown Mark and Matt Fink, and billed as Bromar, the ruffled Marsh brothers brooded on their 1985 12” sleeve, but ultimately took few calls back.

Outside Wide Angle's field of view, a class reunion of Twin City players convened in 1986 at Joey Karriem's Platinum Studios in St. Paul, featuring Karriem’s Flyte Tyme crewmate Terry Lewis and Cynthia Johnson, herself a former Flyte Tymer and the voice that had broken so much “Funkytown” ground. Taking producer Chris Moon and Cohesion/Aura polymath John Rivers’ formidable "Eternity" as a collective battle cry, Lewis arranged, Rivers and Karriem produced, and Johnson belted out an athletic lead on the time-traveling collaboration. A wrap party credited to Cynthia Johnson on Karriem Records 00001, “Eternity” went down as a small yet symbolic gathering of Minneapolis Sound’s first responders.

Over the back half of the ’80s, Prince busily posted signs of the times, planted his own “Kiss,” paraded under a cherry moon, and scrapped an entire “black album.” But as 1989 dressed itself as the very early 1990s, the Minneapolis Sound was going fully incognito. Joker facepaint in the Batman-related “Batdance” video would serve to mark The Purple One’s first public steps toward discomfort with his own public identity. In another corner was Paula Abdul’s “Opposites Attract” and its Grammy-awarded 1990 video, heavily rotated by MTV. After the song and clip attracted global adulation, Abdul’s rapping cartoon cat foil, MC Skat Kat, would be voiced—during Skat Kat’s mercifully brief period of vogue—by Twin Cities M.C. Derrick “Delite” Stevens. The record buying public took naked leaps of faith into several chilly lakes, only to find that none of them were Lake Minnetonka.

Then, on June 7, 1993, Prince’s 35th birthday, the megastar announced to the world that he’d changed his name to an unpronounceable and mostly inexplicable symbol, an amalgam of glyphs for male, female, and soapstone. The Minneapolis Sound—legitimized by Prince, anticipated by a legion of Minnesotans, and carried into early retirement by countless other talents worldwide—had become a thing unnamed. Its slick and sexually ripe pop construct succumbed to an era made for disheveled Northwest punks and rhyming gangsters from both American coasts. Prince’s acolytes had left the room, leaving Prince Rogers Nelson to act as a mere Artist, painted into a corner of his own making by the genre formerly known as the Minneapolis Sound.