Tuesday, April 26, 2016

What Prince Meant To Me


By Der Kosmonaut
"I want to live life to the ultimate high
Maybe I'll die young like heroes die"
-"Under The Cherry Moon" 1986

  The above text from Prince neatly sums up the life of the most extraordinary artist of my lifetime. I actually cried when I received the awful news that Prince had passed from our existence. I don't know what's more shocking, his death or that I actually cried. In my lifetime since I first took music seriously at the age of 14, fifteen prominent musician have passed. All but one of them died too young. The fifteen are in chronological order: Scott La Rock of Boogie Down Productions (1987), Kurt Cobain of Nirvana (1994), Shannon Hoon of Blind Melon (1995), Tupac Shakur (1996) Biggie Smalls (1997), Michael Hutchence of INXS (1997), Falco (1998), Joe Strummer of The Clash (2002), Robert Palmer (2003), James Brown (2006), Richard Wright of Pink Floyd (2008), Michael Jackson (2009), Bob Casale of Devo (2014) David Bowie (2016), Prince (2016). 

  When the Hip Hop musicians died, I didn't know who they were until news of their death as I had mostly ignored Hip Hop after 1986. Hence I was indifferent. While I could appreciate Michael Jackson's contribution to music, I was hardly a fan. I certainly didn't share the grief many did when he passed. Though I did like INXS, Falco, The Clash, Pink Floyd and Robert Palmer, I greeted the deaths of those artists with sympathy but didn't invest much emotionally. James Brown, Bob Casale and David Bowie made me feel genuinely sorry but again I didn't take their passing to heart.
  When I had heard that Shannon Hoon of Blind Melon died from a drug overdose, I greeted the news with dismissive callousness. At the time I quipped: "Well what do you expect from a band discovered by Dave Kendall!" Dave Kendall was a famous MTV VeeJay who hosted the 120 Minutes program. He was also the main Goth/Industrial and Alternative Music Club promoter in New York during the former half of the 1990s. Kendall was universally despised in New York City and was generally considered to be an asshole. I met Kendall personally one night at a club. He spent the entire evening going through about a half a dozen coffee cups of cocaine. Hence my reaction to Hoon overdosing on coke.
  However, when I heard that Kurt Cobain blew his brains out I had nothing but contempt and derision for him. I wasn't alone with that sentiment. Indeed those sentiments have become more entrenched as the years went by. The more I learnt about Nirvana, the greater my disdain grew. That disdain forever crossed over the threshold of hatred when I lived in Serbia. There I was reminded how Nirvana's bassist Chris Novoselic who is of Croatian ancestry was a propagandist for both the Croatian fascist regime and NATO during the Yugoslav civil war in the 1990s, justifying the ethnic cleansing of more than 450,000 Serbs from Croatia. I will return to Nirvana later.
  When I thought whose premature death would make me emotional I could only think of the original trio of Talking Heads (David Byrne, Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth), Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart of Eurythmics, Morrissey and Johnny Marr of The Smiths and perhaps John (Rotten) Lydon. Had I been asked how I would take the premature death of Prince, I would have said no differently than that of Joe Strummer. How wrong I would've been. I broke down. It was the first time I have broken down since the passing of my grandmother a decade ago.
  I had no idea consciously how much Prince meant to me personally. It was only in the hours and days immediately following news of his death, did I become aware of how important a role he played in my development as a musician, producer and especially as a DJ. 
  This essay will not go over the minutiae of Prince's life, personality or even his career. There are scores of hack music journalists that will cover that. Rather it will explore how I first got into his music and how it music influenced me.
From Indifferent Snobbery To My First Kiss
  In one of the many paradoxes of my life, I went from being an indifferent snob about music. I really took for granted that I lived in the largest and best music market in the world. I was born in 1972 during the peak of the Soul music era. Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, The O'Jays, The Jackson 5, Gladys Night and the Pips, Stevie Wonder, Earth Wind and Fire were constantly playing in my environment from the day I was born, through my infancy and toddler years. At the age of 3 I was dancing to The Hustle. From the age of 4 I knew all the Disco songs and was dancing to Shake Shake Shake. At the age of 5 in Kindergarten I went to see Saturday Night Fever. In my Kindergarten class we would sing "Ah ah ah ah Staying Alive, Staying Alive". On Halloween of 1977 I went to a house party at the Jackson Avenue Projects where Grandmaster Flash was djaying. I erupted into an orgasmic breakdance when he played Trans Europe Express. By the end of the school term in 1978 DJs came to the class where we would breakdance to Boogie Oogie Oogie. Upon entering Grade School the disco era was in full swing. At summer day camp in 1979 we were taught the popular disco dances such as The Robot and The Bus Stop. At the YMCA summer day camps in 1980 and 1981 we spent half the time dancing. Each day during the summer of 1980 a DJ would come and play a 2-3 hour set. The Breaks was the biggest song in New York that summer. I hated it as it was the most overplayed record that year. The following summer at another YMCA day camp at least once a week we were taken to countless number of street disco parties which were ubiquitous in the city at the time. I took all of this for granted. In fact, I started to get bored of music. This was the era of boomboxes. Everyone and their dog had a boombox. On the streets, on the public buses, on the subways was the constant blare of Disco and Soul Music. At the time Hip Hop was considered to be Disco and hadn't quite become a separate genre in its own right. When it wasn't the boomboxes, then there were the car stereos blasting away. Even at home there wasn't any respite from music, particularly in the Black and Puerto Rican areas of the city as every apartment in every building had a home stereo system. It was common for loud music to emit from half to 3/4 of apartments in a building at all hours of the night. I was tired of the constant barrage of music.
 When Michael Jackson's Thriller was released, the limits of my patience were tested. The reason being all the gossip press about Michael Jackson. When it wasn't Jackson it was Diana Ross or Donna Summer. Who cared about them? Was it really news? I hated music and because of the obsession the masses had about the affairs of the famous artists, I concluded that music was an activity for uneducated people.
  I first heard of Prince in 1984 when the film Purple Rain was released. The trailers were shown on TV and I was instantly turned off. Moreover, all my schoolmates were keen to see it. It was when I first developed my initial skepticism of popular culture which I still have to this day. As I didn't like any of my schoolmates, actually none of them liked me, I wasn't interested in seeing the film. Moreover, I thought Prince was an ugly homosexual and had no interest in seeing him. Of course, I heard When Doves Cry as it was impossible to ignore save for being deaf. I did like that record and when compared to most of the Hip Hop and Soul which I heard all around me in The Bronx, it did stand out from the rest.
  Prince was on TV very often and was often featured in the New York tabloids. I didn't like his public persona. Not only did I think he was gay and too effeminate, I just didn't like the look of him. What fueled both my disdain of pop music and popular culture in general was Mad magazine. I was an avid reader of Mad and always had my uncle buy the latest edition each month. As a satirical publication, Mad mercilessly ridiculed popular culture and entertainment. Prince, Madonna, Boy George and Elton John were viciously assailed. Mad made them appear far more absurd and ridiculous than they actually were. In the mid 1980s there were illustrated cards which were a parody of the Cabbage Patch Kids dolls. The illustrated cards were named Garbage Pail Kids. Not missing a beat to pounce, Mad created a parody sketch of the parody cards featuring cruel caricature of famous celebrities of the day. A particularly nasty one was aimed at Prince which was dubbed "Prissy". It had a sneering overweight depiction of Prince with a broken electric guitar, a worn out mink stole and a greasy drenched head sweatband. 
  But something strange occurred during the winter of 1985-86. I got hooked into pop music by the most unlikely of sources: World Wrestling Federation. In what was Vince McMahon crowning achievement, he created the concept of Rock N Roll Wrestling. He had managed to integrate the biggest pop stars of the era into wrestling. He did so most notably with Cyndi Lauper. In addition to using the WWF in her music video Girls Just Want To Have Fun, she also wrestled and got involved in matches. I got hooked on the WWF through its successful periodical show Saturday Night's Main Event. During it's first season it used Obsession by The Human League as its theme. Up through the third season it would use the intro of Take On Me by Aha during a commercial interlude. Eventually I would watch WWF three times that it aired on New York TV. At the end of one match, they showed the replay of the closing moments of the match in slow motion using the opening bars of A Love Bizarre by Sheila E. and Prince. Not only was I hooked onto the WWF but I was hooked into music. Most importantly, it was the opening of my consciousness and heart to Prince.
  When I completed Middle School before starting High School I began to listen to the radio. I tuned into WPLJ 95.5FM. 1986 was the best year for me to seriously get into music. It's beyond the scope of this essay but 1986 was the peak of popular music in the 1980s which was the Golden Era of popular music. One of the first songs on the radio which caught my attention was Prince's Kiss. I didn't have cable TV in my house. My grandmother associated cable with pornography and she didn't want me to see it. Hence I didn't have MTV. However, the city owned public television station WNYC 31 had a daily video music program, Video Music Box, which aired twice at 5PM and at Midnight. In addition WABC 7 had a weekly 90 minute video music show New York Hot Tracks each Friday night. NBC had Friday Night Videos. On Saturday night CBS aired MTV Top 20 Countdown. Of all the brilliant music videos released during the summer of 1986, Kiss stood out. Prince had changed his look but more impressively he could dance! I was kissed by Prince and there was no turning back.
Stealing Parade From Church, U Got The Look, Housequake Sign O TheTimes
  That same summer Prince's film Under The Cherry Moon was released and universally panned by critics. Though I liked Kiss very much, I still wasn't sold on Prince yet. I went to an extremely liberal Episcopalian church in lower Manhattan. After service there was a reception with coffee, tea and pastries in the basement. The basement had a stereo system. People used to turn it on and play music during the reception. Neither hymns nor holy noise was played. It was always pop or rock. I used to race from the main church upstairs down to the basement to tune into the Top 40 Countdown. By the time service ended, it was down to the Top 5. When the Number 1 song for the week was announced people would gather around the stereo. More often than not I would hush everybody still chatting insisting that they be quiet so that I could hear what was the number 1 for the week. My teen group Sunday school session also took place in the same basement after the reception. We would often bring cassettes to church and play it on the speaker. There was a bureau drawer on which the stereo stood upon. We would often open it to see what was in it. There were two items which I was rather quite keen on. The first was a cassette Walkman. When I opened the Walkman there was a tape inside. It read Prince and The Revolution: Parade-Soundtrack To The Motion Picture Under The Cherry Moon. When no one else was looking I pocketed the Walkman with cassette and all.
  I had expected the songs to all sound like Kiss. It was quite a shock when I heard the opening beats of Christopher Tracy's Parade. In fact, the production was so crisp and sharp that I found myself frantically searching for the volume control. I was immediately swept away by the strings and the keys. I had only one album at that time which was Revenge by Eurythmics. While Revenge opened up ominously but slowly, Parade opened like a Jack In The Box. But instead of a jester popping out, it was a stuffed boxing glove. The song reached its crescendo with an intensity which made my jaw drop. I was walking down into the subway at the same time. The track ends with the sound of a train. Initially I assumed it was a subway train somewhere within the Union Square station. Then immediately without missing a beat New Position comes in. The atonal chimes with the tight snare banged and reverberated around my head. The bass kicks in and Prince does his James Brown imitation falsetto. I found myself swaying uncontrollably. The song reaches an extremely tight and slow crescendo with Prince's voice croaking ascending the scale. I would pay to see the expression on my face then. Though I was an inexperienced virgin there was no misunderstanding as he sang: "I'll do ya, do ya like a big man should." My body probably jolted. Just with Christopher Tracy's Parade, New Position slows and winds down into the next track. I Wonder U has a very slowed down beat with a group of people chanting something indecipherable before breaking out into a very eerie laughter. It reminded me of a scene from Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. I went from being in a state of dance awe to fearful horror. I noticed that all the songs were really short but had supernatural intensity to them. For the third straight time the next track enters without a pause. Under The Cherry Moon is by far the best and most intense track on the album. I was immediately sorry that I didn't see the film. It would've been worth just seeing the scene of the title track on the big screen. I had thought that Annie Lennox was intense lyrically but nothing that I had heard up until then bested these lines: "If nobody thrills me or kills me soon/I'll die in your arms under the cherry moon." This was quite heady material for a 14 year old. Girls and Boys is the very first song I ever listened to in French. That made my head spin. Because of the large Puerto Rican population, I had heard many songs sung in Spanish. French was rarely, if ever used or heard in New York York. Both  Life Can Be So Nice topped the intensity of all the previous tracks. The intensity was made all the more stark by the sudden ending of Life Can Be So Nice which is followed by the last track on side one, Venus De Milo, a soft and breezy jazz instrumental. 
Side 2 opens with Mountains which immediately made me laugh as Prince's voice reminded me of the Bee-Gees. However, I realized that the song was no joke as it went into a characteristically intense bridge. Do U Lie is one of the most charming songs ever recorded. It begins with a young female voice speaking in French. When Kiss finally plays it's a much more subdued affair in the middle of the album than as a stand alone single. It's the third least intense track on the album. The next song is Anotherloverholenyohead. This is the only straight up Soul Funk track on the album which doesn't stray into rock or new wave territory. The album ends on a very sombre note with Sometimes It Snows In April. I think it's the weakest track of the album. It never grew on me. I'm not big on sentimentality in general, and especially not in music. For the duration that I had Parade, I always stopped after Anotherloverholenyohead.
I might have committed a grave sin by stealing in church but it was well worth it!
  In Spring of 1987 Prince released the single Sign O The Times. I heard it on WPLJ radio. The bass guitar hooked it. It was the first time that a bass line caught my attention. The dark tone evoked an eeriness overall. It was the first overtly political song from Prince that I heard. The dark and scary atmosphere was appropriate given the political climate at the time. It was the sixth year of Ronald Reagan's presidency. It was an era of unbridled reaction. The first stanza refers to AIDS. The second to drugs. The third to the spectre of nuclear holocaust and Reagan's "Star Wars" missile defense program. The chorus refers to the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster from the previous year. I didn't buy the single though it struck a chord with me. In September 1987 my uncle died of AIDS. He got AIDS by sharing a needle with a girlfriend of his just as was depicted in the song. The cross reference and the coincidence shook me.
  1987 was a nightmare year of pop music. Whitney Houston dominated the Top 40. WPLJ would play a Whitney Houston record once each hour. While I initially liked the Invisible Touch single and album from Genesis it quickly grew stale. Soul music was exceedingly depressing and boring represented by Freddie Jackson. On the rock front Bon Jovi was competing with Whitney Houston for the most repetitive airplay. That summer established the dictatorship of Freestyle music in New York City. Today Freestyle is associate for improvised rapping. 30 years ago Freestyle was Latino dance music. The most notable Freestyle song that people today would no is Holiday by Madonna. By 1987 Freestyle mostly came out of Miami, Florida. Miami Sound Machine, Expose, The Cover Girls were the biggest Freestyle acts to come out of Miami. The Puerto Ricans and Italians in New York were absolutely swept up into the Freestyle mania. While Blacks continued to blast Hip Hop from their boomboxes, the Puerto Ricans had Freestyle. But the worst had yet to come. Summer 1987 the movie "Dirty Dancing" came out. It's soundtrack was the biggest selling album of 1987. The summer was an endless hell of singles beginning with the atrocious "I've Had The Time Of My Life." I would rather listen to Whitney Houston and The Cover Girls than be tortured by that song. I became disenchanted with pop music.
  The MTV Music Videos Awards show was aired in September 1987. It was announced that Prince would be performing live to promote his new single. The only reason why I even bothered to watch the MTV Music Video Awards was to see Peter Gabriel. I was hoping that he would finally deserve the recognition he rightly deserved. The previous winter Gabriel had been nominated for 8 Grammys. He didn't win one. Nor did he even perform. Instead Whitney Houston swept the Grammys and even performed live. I understood at the age of 15 how corrupt the music industry was. Even if one likes Houston, it's impossible by any objective measurement that her cover of George Benson's The Greatest Love of All was better musically than Gabriel's Sledgehammer. Houston's eponymous album just can't compare to Gabriel's album So. The music video for Sledgehammer is arguably the greatest music video ever made. Sure enough Sledgehammer won all categories it was nominated for including Video of the Year. However, Prince stole the show.
  When Prince was announced to perform a droning synthesizer filled the theater. Suddenly a symphony of percussion flooded the hall. Coming from the back of the theater down both aisles came a parade of musicians all playing drums led by Sheila E. I can't recall how many musicians marched down both aisles but I would guess a dozen. Prince finally made his appearance. He came strutting down the aisle strumming the chords in his pink electric guitar. He comes on to the stage and most of the musicians put down their drum harnesses and pick up bass guitars and other instruments. The audience was whipped into a frenzy. The cameras seemed to have great difficulty capturing it. After a 5 minute grand entrance Prince shouted for the musicians to stop playing. He turned to Sheila E and nodded the cue and Sign O Times began. My jaw dropped. What blew me away was his guitar playing. The guitar shredded the notes and chords out. It was the greatest guitar performance I have ever seen on TV. Prince's ability to play guitar, sing and dance all at once was mind blowing.
  When the record U Got The Look was officially released with the video I was hooked. I became a Prince fan. I ran out to buy the 45 single. I was angry and confused why it had only peaked at Number 2. It was the best record of 1987! How was U Got The Look not Number 1. Yet again, I suspected corruption. How could the most mediocre trashy songs of that dreadful year top the charts? I suspected that the music industry didn't want good products out there.
  The B side to U Got The Look was Housequake. It's very seldom that the B side is better than the A side but on this record it was. "Shut up already damn!" is how the record opens. Little did I know that more than 20 years later how much that oath would mean to my career as a DJ. Since it was a radio edit, the more explicit profanity was muted. I decided that it was time for me to beg my grandmother for the $6 to buy the Sign O The Times album.
  I can overstate how influential that album is in my life. It's an album that has followed me over the past three decades. No matter which city or country that I find myself in, no matter what situation life brings to me, that album is an organic part of my DNA. It's my pick for album of the 1980s and as I expanded my musical tastes and became a professional DJ, Sign O the Times is a constant leitmotiv.
  The album opens with the title track. Unlike the single version it has an extended part with an industrial percussion rhythm. The second track Play In The Sunshine is a peppy and upbeat song with an intense ending with a complex polyrhythmic drum beat with vocal harmonization. The album version of Housequake is uncensored. Prince's emphatic cries of "Bullshit!" was the first time I ever heard profanity in a song. It was so naughty, so subversive, so raw, so wrong! It certainly prepared me for profanity laced songs of the Pixies and Nine Inch Nails which I would hear in the following years. The Ballad of Dorothy Parker is a breather from the intensity of the first three tracks of the album. It's an easy going standard Soul music fare. I didn't know who Dorothy Parker was. Prince was such a good storyteller mostly because he was so provocative:
Well, I ordered - "Yeah, let me get a fruit cocktail, I ain't 2 hungry"
Dorothy laughed
She said "Sounds like a real man 2 me"
Kinda cute, U wanna take a bath?
(do you wanna, do you wanna, bath)
I said "Cool, but I'm leaving my pants on" (she say)
"Cuz I'm kind of going with someone"
She said "Sounds like a real man 2 me"
"Mind if I turn on the radio?"
"Oh, my favorite song" she said
And it was Joni singing "Help me I think I'm falling"
(Ring)
The phone rang and she said
"Whoever's calling can't be as cute as U"
Right then I knew I was through
(Dorothy Parker was cool)
My pants where wet, they came off
But she didn't see the movie
Cuz she hadn't read the book first
Instead she pretended she was blind
An affliction brought on by a witch's curse
Dorothy made me laugh (ha ha)

It is the most intense song musically speaking that I know of Prince's repertoire. Musically it's very simple with a steady 4/4 beat with top synthesizer lines. Though I was still a virgin, the raw sexual lust made me feel that I was missing out on something quite profound and deep. Starfish and Coffee was a song that I didn't understand until nearly a decade later. As a 16 year old I took the lyrics quite literally. I had thought that the character really ate a Starfish for lunch. I wondered how that was possible. Only after I started attending raves and taking hallucinogenic drugs did I understand that Starfish and Coffee referred to MDMA and Speed. Slow Love is a classic Soul RNB track. It was always a bit too sappy for me but the musicianship and songwriting is solid. Hot Thing was the first techno industrial track I heard combined with a Soul music arrangement. Forever In My Life is Prince mixing a cocktail of Soul and New Wave with clever vocal arrangements. 
By far the most interesting, most provocative and most intense song on the album is If I Was Your Girlfriend. It's my pick for the Soul record of the 1980s. I just recently read that Prince sang all of the backup vocals. The song is Prince's best vocal recording. One would never guess that it's the same person singing all the lines. If I Was Your Girlfriend reveals Prince's genius as a singer. I challenge anyone after listening to that song to name another singer, male or female, with Prince's range and versatility. If there is, I would be most keen to listen. As the title suggests, the song is sung from the perspective of being someone's girlfriend. It appears that Prince is imagining himself in a lesbian relationship. This marked a massive tectonic shift in how Western society viewed gender and sexuality. It's no accident that If I Was Your Girlfriend has been the subject of much academic scholarship. The fields of Women's Studies, Gender Studies, Queer Theory all owe their source to this song. If I Was Your Girlfriend is far and above Prince's most important cultural and social legacy. He completely redefined the meaning of love. He upended centuries of Western social moral concepts of love and relationships. Prince single handedly destroyed the concepts of heterosexual traditional love and relationships. Here are excerpts from the song:
If I was your girlfriend
Baby can I dress U
I mean, help U pick out your clothes
Before we go out
(If I was your girlfriend)
Listen girl, I ain't sayin you're helpless
But sometimes, sometimes
Those are the things that bein' in love's about
I mean, we don't have 2 make children 2 make love
And then, we don't have 2 make love 2 have an orgasm
Your body's what I'm all about
Can I see U?
I'll show U
Why not?
U can think it's because I'm your friend I'll do it 4 U
Of course I'll undress in front of U!
And when I'm naked, what shall I do?
How can I make U see that it's cool?
Can't U just trust me?
If I was your girlfriend U could
Oh, yeah, I think so
Listen, 4 U naked I would dance a ballet
Would that get U off?
Then tell me what will!
If I was your girlfriend, would U tell me?
Would U let me see U naked then?
Would U let me give U a bath?
Would U let me tickle U so hard U'd laugh and laugh
And would U, would U let me kiss U there
You know down there where it counts
I'll do it so good I swear I'll drink every ounce
And then I'll hold U tight and hold U long
And together we'll stare into silence
And we'll try 2 imagine what it looks like
Yeah, we'll try 2 imagine what, what silence looks like

Prince never lost of sense and awareness of his irony. After waylaying the listener with  If I Was Your Girlfriend, he follows that with a track named Strange Relationship. In 1987-88 most people would've considered the former song to be the definition of "strange relationship". Indeed the song Strange Relationship should actually be called "Dysfunctional Relationship. The following track I Could Never Take The Place of Your Man recalls Prince's earlier album "Around The World In A Day". The Cross is a sombre and dark religious hymn. It's an unusual counterpoint to his previously thoroughly Christian immorality in tracks such as If I Was Your Girlfriend, Hot Thing and It. My fifth favorite track is It's Gonna Be A Beautiful Night which is a live performance in Paris with his previous backing back The Revolution. Sheila E plays on drums and does what's credited as a "Mississippi Rap". It's a fun and tight jam with a great horn arrangement. The band and later the audience chants "Woe wee o ooooooooooo. Woe wee o ooooooooooo". It's the first dance track on the album since U Got The Look. The album ends with the sappy and weepy Adore. Unfortunately, on both "Parade" and "Sign O The Times" the album ends on a weak note.
  No other album of the 1980s combined New Wave, Rock, Soul, Funk, R&B, Industrial, Techno, Electronic in one package. There might have been subsequent attempts but it's likely that they failed. I won't say that Sign O The Times is the greatest album of all time but it certainly ranks in the top 5.

Leaving Pop Behind But Still Followed By Prince
  Prince followed Sign O The Times with "Lovesexy" album. In typical fashion he generated pre-release publicity by announcing that he would appear naked on the cover of the album. It was obvious it was a marketing ploy to boost sales as the album is weaker than his previous two. I went down to Tower Records just to see if he was really naked. Not that I was keen on seeing his genitalia but I wanted to see if he really had the balls to do it. I don't think that I was alone in my disappointment. Yes Prince does pose nude but his genitalia are hidden behind his thigh. The first single Alphabet St. didn't inspire me. It was several notches below U Got The Look and Housequake. By this time I had quit pop music and had moved almost exclusively into British New Wave Synth Techno Pop. I stopped listening to WPLJ and Z-100 and tuned in exclusively to WDRE/LIR, the greatest music station in the world in the 1980s. Depeche Mode's "Music For The Masses" was deeper and more intense at the time than Sign O The Times only because the latter contained Soul music elements which I didn't like. I got into INXS, Talking Heads, Camouflage, Erasure, New Order, The Cure. 
  In 1989 I saw Tim Burton's Batman movie. Prince recorded the soundtrack. Jack Nicholson will be remembered for his outstanding performance as The Joker. In possibly his greatest scene after "Here's Johnny!" in The Shining, The Joker crashes a high society party at Gotham City Art Musuem. After knocking unconscious most of the party goers with sleeping gas, the Joker and his gang crash through the doors of the museum. One of his entourage is carrying a boombox playing Partyman by Prince. It's a hilarious scene as the Joker and his gang deface and destroy the really bad and pretentious Abstract art. That scene would not have worked without Prince's song.
  In the Spring of 1990 in my final year of high school, Sinead O'Connor went to the top of the charts with Nothing Compares 2 U which was composed by Prince. I liked that song quite a bit. I went to Boston University in the fall of 1990. Boston University is a really bad university. People think it's good simply because it has the words "Boston" and "university". There were only two things I enjoyed at BU. The first was watching its exceptional hockey team. The BU hockey team was constantly ranked in the top 10 in the nation. Many NHL stars came through BU. I got to see Tony Amonte play at BU before he began successful careers in the NHL. The reason why I enjoyed the BU hockey games was not so much the sport itself but for the band which played at all the home games. A woman in my program played flute in the band. Whenever there was a lull in the game or things were getting dull the percussion section leader would play a beat on the bass drum, he was joined by the snares and another on high hat. I loved that beat. In fact, it was always what I looked forward to. I recognized it but I couldn't remember from where. I talked to the percussion section leader. I told him that was my favorite part of the repertoire. I asked him what it was. "It's Housequake," he replied. But of course!
  In 1990 Prince introduced his new backing band New Power Generation or NPG when he released "Graffiti Bridge" album and another film of the same title. By this time I was into Industrial EBM. In my first concert in June that year I saw Nitzer Ebb open up for Depeche Mode. By this time Nitzer Ebb, Depeche Mode and Nine Inch Nails had eclipsed Prince in my mind. Of course there was no escaping Prince. New Power Generation was a huge hit and was quite popular in Boston.
  By 1991 European Techno hit the shores of North America. DJ Debo in Boston was one of the first DJs on the East Coast to embrace it and play it in clubs. He mixed Industrial/EBM with early Techno classics such as James Brown Is Dead, Who Is Elvis, Dominator. Nirvana's "Nevermind" album was released in August that year. By February and March of 1992 Smells Like Teen Spirit had topped the charts. At the same time I became a poet or rather poetry became me. I also began to compose music and learn basic music production and engineering. I had joined the Student League Of United DJs (SLUDJ) at BU. I began learning to DJ by attempting to match the beats of Depeche Mode Personal Jesus with New Order Blue Monday. I was going clubbing 4 nights a week in Boston. I was now 20 and my present adult life was taking shape. 
  Just when I thought that Prince was a relic of my past, he released Sexy MF. That turned my head. It was so cutting edge that Boston's ultra Alternative music station WFNX was compelled to play it on rotation. Unlike the commercial Top 40 stations, WFNX didn't censor it. I didn't buy the record but it was still part of the atmosphere. 
  I followed with some interest Prince's battle with Warner Brothers. By this time I was a professional musician and had produced my first records. I thought it was unfair when Warner Brothers confiscated his record label Paisley Park. When he changed his name to "The Artist Formerly Known As Prince", I thought it was another outburst of one of his extravagances. By 1994, I was one of the founding DJs and producers of the New York City Jungle Scene. I spent the next 15 years inhabiting exclusively the underground Techno, Jungle and Electronic scenes in New York, Europe and Canada. 
  But Prince wouldn't leave me alone! After an ill-fated trip to London in 1999 I found myself sitting on a Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747 flight to New York disoriented and intoxicated on LSD, MDMA and 2CB. On the inflight personal entertainment panel was a choice of albums and films to watch. I scrolled through the films and nothing interested me.  I then scrolled through the list of music. Take a guess which was the only decent album listed as an option. Sign O The Times. But of course!

How Prince Saved My DJ Career In Serbia and Austria

 I relocated to Europe in 2007. At the end of that year I moved to Vienna after a disastrous sojourn in Berlin. The only positive result of my stay in Berlin was the production of my last EP "Prior To Der Kosmonaut". Upon arriving in Vienna I did a series of live music performances which led me to becoming a part of the art and cultural scene there. I resumed DJaying as a way to earn an income. During a series of performances in which I would combine my poetry and music, I would DJ the final part of the evenings. A German was really impressed with my repertoire. He gave me MP3 files of over 45,000 songs. The ranged from pop and rock to hip hop and soul. Surprise, surprise Prince was in the package. It included "Parade", "Sign O The Times" and A Love Bizarre. 
  In February 2008 I began writing my novel The King of the Woods. I was making incredible progress but I couldn't find any peace. I was bouncing around from place to place including a six month stint at EKH squat. Unfortunately, people didn't understand what I was doing. They only observed me sitting day and night on my laptop. People simply don't understand that writing a novel is a full time occupation. They thought that I was simply being lazy. In October 2008 I made my first move to Belgrade, Serbia. I wasn't quite prepared and after a couple of months found myself back in Vienna. My grandfather had died the year before. In March 2009 I obtained part of my inheritance. I moved back to Belgrade and was able to afford to my own apartment. I completed the novel that May. 
  I was running out of my inheritance money. My girlfriend suggested that I start DJaying. I attempted play what I do best, which is New Wave and Industrial music. I managed to land a gig but that didn't work. I was then introduced to the club boats moored along the Sava River. I met the owner of 20/44. I told him what I liked to play. He wanted only Funk music rather than New Wave and Industrial. 
"You're Black and from New York. Surely you can play Funk!"
Faced with no other prospects I burned six CDs from the MP3 tracks given to me in Vienna. That was a success. There was another boat moored on the Sava. I was asked once again to play the Funk. I never imagined myself to be a Funk DJ but that was what was asked. 
Belgrade is the hardest city to DJ in. Apart from the low pay (I never made more than 35 Euro on a night), the Serbs have a different sense of rhythm than Western Europeans and North Americans.  Moreover, many of the youth didn't have the access to much Western music. They were unaware of many songs. Trying to get Serbs to dance is like extracting teeth from a cat. Worst was the constant badgering and harassment by club goers. I was constantly barraged with requests to play music which I didn't have. If I did have a song that was requested, it would've been inappropriate to play in that situation.
  I would often play old school hip hop as it has many elements of funk. One night I played Planet Rock by Afrika Bambaataa. One irate man gave me attitude. "What the fuck are you playing?"
Stunned by his hostility I replied: "I'm playing one of the classic Hip Hop songs.:
"This isn't Hip Hop. It's techno shit!"
It took every ounce of self control to keep myself from bolting out of the booth. It was a remarkable display of self-restraint. As Malcolm X would've said, I was about to get physical with this moron. It was stressful to deal with this display of ignorance and hostility. 
But fundamentally a club DJ lives and dies on the ability to make people dance. To my utter astonishment I was unable to get people to dance to James Brown! Even most arrhythmic sedentary dud dances to James Brown. When I found success in making people dance, I would mix in some reggae. I would play Bob Marley's Three Little Birds and the dance floor would empty. 
I was in a panic. Neither James Brown nor Bob Marley would make people dance. I was ready to hat it up as a DJ. I was throwing the kitchen sink and nobody would dance. Out of annoyance and desperation I threw on Housequake. At last people danced! The lyrics of Housequake took on a real meaning for me. "Shut up already, damn!" That is what I wanted to say to people when they complained about Afrika Bambaatta or insisted that I play songs which I didn't have or didn't want to play. When a woman complained that she couldn't dance to James Brown and when the floor would empty to Bob Marley I could really relate to the line where Prince says: "I mean really, really!" This was confirmed at another club I worked at. There were only two men that danced to every song that I played. One of them came to the booth to compliment me. He was from Toronto and his friend was from London. He remarked: "You're a damn good DJ! I can't believe that no one is dancing. You're burning up the floor but no one dances! Unbelievable!"
I obtained my biggest gig as a resident DJ at Momma's, Belgrade's biggest underground After Hours club. When I was playing at one of the boats on the Sava River, the owner of Momma's showed up. He liked every song I laid down. I dropped A Love Bizarre and he was sold. He offered me a residency at Momma's.
Upon my return to Vienna my DJ skills were noted and I landed a series of gigs. The greatest irony is that I played all the music which I heard all around me in New York in the 70s and 80s. The very music which I had scorned at the time was now my bread and butter. I took it for granted that I grew up listening to best music every recorded and produced. My last DJ gig was on April Friday the 13th. I was featured DJ. It was the largest crowd I ever had just to hear me play. I was given the prime time slot for 3AM. The pressure was on. I knew that the first track had to solid. I selected the 12 inch cut of Prince's Controversy. It worked. I didn't even have to play Housequake for change. However, I felt that I would've been remiss if I didn't drop A Love Bizarre. Prince saved and revitalized my DJ career.
On Artistic and Musical Genius 
   In our present era of Totalitarian Capitalism perhaps no other word is bandied about carelessly as genius. It extends far beyond the artistic and cultural fields. In business as well as politics the word genius is lobbed about with the greatest of abandon. The greatest crooks and scoundrels are crowned with the term genius. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs are lauded for their alleged genius. Mark Zuckerberg wears the Silicon Valley crown of genius. The coca-cola intellectual (Simonovic) economist Larry Summers is lauded as a genius. Henry Kissinger, the biggest war criminal after Himmler is credited for being a genius. It appears that being capitalistically degenerated earns one the title of genius.
  In the cultural field unworthy people are given the title of genius. Over the past 25 years the two names acclaimed for their genius are Kurt Cobain and Kayne West. This nonsense needs to be called out once and for all. Let's deal with Cobain first.
  Apart from being a third rate mediocre musician what has Cobain done to earn the title of genius. As far as I know he only played guitar, sang and wrote the songs of Nirvana. There's really nothing special about that. Was Cobain like Prince insofar that he played the bass and drums for Nirvana? On top of that, did he produce Nirvana's records? The answer is no. The truth be told Nirvana was nothing other than a Digital remake of Big Black and the Pixies. "Nevermind" was all digital computer production and engineering thanks to Butch Vig and Steve Albini. Strip away the digitized computers and  all that's left of Nirvana is a sloppy wannabe Punk outfit. Did Cobain have the performance talent of Prince where he could sing, play guitar and dance at the same time. All Cobain did at his concerts was smash his guitar and have a temper tantrum. All he did was copy what Pete Townsend did with The Who in the 1960s. What did Nirvana do that no one had done before? Nothing as far as I can see. Yet he's crowned a genius! Take away his band and producers. What is Cobain by himself? He's just a white boy with long hair and a guitar. Any possible legacy he's left behind is a dubious one.
  Kayne West is without doubt a talented artist. He can actually produce a record. However West barely plays any musical instruments. He apparently has played piano on one song. He obviously has an ear. However, he relies heavily on samples from other people's music. Perhaps West can be called a genius on vocoder. Despite his inability to play one instrument with any proficiency along with his inability to write a completely original tune without biting from other musicians, West is hailed as a "musical genius"!
  When one looks at Prince, Cobain and West not only stand exposed naked but they appear emaciated. Prince was able to play 27 instruments! Not only was he able to play 27 instruments, he was able to play them to write and produce his own music. I can't state with a certainty that Prince never sampled from others. There's nothing wrong with sampling in and of itself. The point is that Prince from day one played all the instruments and produced his records alone. His backing bands The Revolution and New Power Generation were used more for his life shows. Moreover, Prince played all the parts first and then had the musicians play what he told them to play.
  Let's look at his output since 1978. He's produced 39 studio albums, 4 live albums, 13 EPs and 104 singles. Each and every one of them composed and produced by Prince. Most of them he played all the instruments. If that's not genius then nothing is.
  The very fact that Prince wasn't credited during his lifetime as being a genius says more about the music industry and society as a whole. Part of it is due to racism but the preponderance has more to do with his critical stance of society. After Jimi Hendrix, Prince was the only Black rock guitarist with any degree of status. Unlike Hendrix who's maligned and dismissed among Blacks, Prince appealed to people of all races. With West, apart from his public criticism about George W. Bush not caring about Blacks people, he is a very conformist figure. West has not challenged established creeds and belief systems as Prince has. At least not yet. Many fans of Cobain and West sneer at Prince's public persona. They will justify their dismissiveness with accusations of Prince's ego, exhibitionism and other irrelevant matters. But none of that can erase Prince's real achievements.
  At the end of the day, under Totalitarian Capitalism conformism and mediocrity are hailed as radical and genius. Those that are neither conformist nor mediocre are dismissed and ignored. The more nonconformist and more revolutionary the artist and intellectual, the more opposition they arouse. However, history is the ultimate judge. The popular heroes of the day are at best relegated to a footnote in history. The heretics and scorned of the day are often than not elevated to the marquee of the great historical figures. Mozart and Galileo are just the two most obvious examples. It's highly doubtful that Cobain and West will be remembered in a century from now. It's certain that Prince will.

Conclusion
Prince was an artist who played a key role in shaping me to be the artist that I am today. I took him for granted and I'm sorry that I did. He was only Black artistic role model that I had. There are lots of Black artists whom I admire and respect, but none of them influenced me to the extent that Prince did. In many ways I can relate to the struggles of Prince. My career as a writer and poet suffers in North America because I'm neither a rapper nor do I make Hip Hop music. I've only won one Poetry Slam in North America. I've lost every Slam simply because I failed to live up to what a Black Spoken Word artist should be. Also like Prince I'm often misidentified racially. Almost everyone seems to think that I'm half white even though I'm not. Additionally people mistake my sexual orientation just as with Prince. Prince was the ultimate outsider. The only difference between me and him is that I don't have 1/100 of the talent he had. That's what ultimately saved Prince and what made him successful. It was his genius which carried him. I'm not a genius and hence I'm shit out of luck.
It's been said that Prince has hundreds of songs recorded but hasn't released yet. Though he's gone in body, he's going to be with us for a while still with his music. Now that he's passed, expect to be hearing his music sampled, especially in Hip Hop. I'm sure Kayne West is salivating at the prospect of his next gold record off the sweat and labor of Prince. 
I will now spend the next months listening to all 39 albums of Prince so that I can discover the depths of his true genius. Thank you Prince Rogers Nelson. I'm sorry that I didn't express my gratitude while you were still around. I'm really sorry. Please forgive me.
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4 Comments:

Anonymous Clarissa said...

This was as nice a write up as I thought it would be. Strange thing, I felt so strongly the need to apologize to Prince, too. Couldn't put my finger on why until just now. We knew he was so far over his contemporary's heads, but hopefully time will see Prince given the fullest respect for his art. And it truly was art.

Couple other things I resonated with:

- I did cry when I heard Joe Strummer died, this was just before what was to be his final album (with The Mescaleros) was to be released, and I had hopes of seeing him on tour. I've had hopes of seeing my musical heroes on tour just before they died before (most recently, Allen Toussaint who toured everywhere until he died), so I'm going to have to resolve to see these people when I can.

- I was a fan of Kanye during his College Dropout years, he seemed fresh then. I look back at the Kanye that wrote "Jesus Walks" and "Through The Wire" and the Kanye of today and wonder what happened. Well, marrying a trash hobbit is part of his problem...

- Which brings me to seeing Prince as an unrecognized feminist of sorts. Look at how Kanye and his ilk, and the majority of male rock stars, make a choice of marrying dumb as rocks glorified bimbos and won't collaborate with women on their own level. There's exceptions, of course, but it's still not the rule. You know now how I love Sheila E. and I didn't get to see her on the Grammy's with Prince as you did, but in other performances together with her and with other women he collaborated with you could see he loved women who held their own musically. In general, he was genuinely supportive of a lot of other artists and helped them shine, I can't think of many other artists who do that.

- There's a verse in the Bible that says "be in the world but be not *of* the world", I think that sums up Prince in the music industry as he was fully in the industry but never *of* or for the industry. With his Moon conjunct IC, he lived and recorded as much as possible in his hometown of Minneapolis and I'm thinking he must've known it was for his own good that he stay by his roots. I think the physical separation from the industry (NYC and LA) was key in keeping his mind separate from it, too.




That's all I have for now, I liked your take on it and it is interesting to see how you see other people’s views of music. I'm a spazzy sort of dancer myself :) but I can't imagine not feeling like dancing to Marley!

Thursday, April 28, 2016  
Blogger Der Kosmonaut said...

Thank you very much Clarissa for your comment. It's nice to have comments on my blog. It's very seldom that readers leave any. Your insights, as usual, hold water. Yes, Prince was a feminist and really did love the women he collaborated with. You're right about very few male rock stars working with women equal to him or even on a higher level. As much as Prince was a kick ass drummer, Sheila E kicked his ass. Hence the reason he had her on the drum kit countless times.
There's nothing wrong with being spazzy. There's no such thing as bad dancing.

Thursday, April 28, 2016  
Blogger Izzy said...

It was very sad indeed to lose Prince, he truly was a musical genious.
This article was an excellent piece of writing, I really enjoyed reading it. I found it to be very unique and not your typical drama based story you read in the rag magazines, but based on honesty from a real human perspective..I appreciated the writer’s reflections on other artists and his own memories of Prince, and how Prince seemed to not only follow him throughout his own life, but truly was an intregal part of his life.
The realizations of how precious life is, is weaved throughout the story. It was deeply heart-rending to read about the writers realizations of his own emotions.
I found my self going on a psychological journey, not only through the story of Prince, but in the mind of the writer.It was humorous to read how when he was younger,he went from being a music snob, to taking music for granted then to complete boredom of it. The article does not only describe Prince’s life, but he incorporates all aspects of life, the humour, the sadness,excitement,travel, spiritual, politics,church,sin etc,etc, but, then again,one must admit that Prince himself was everywhere,his life had reflections in the live’s of millions and in all walks of life as well, WWF, YMCA, Church etc,etc. When the writer mentions that it was Prince’s music that caught his attention for the first time to a bass line, I thought to myself, Hence the reason your musical horizons got expanded. I like how the writer expresses himself fully and very eloquently throughout the entire article, and even when he describes each of Prince’s songs, it was very detailed from emotion to logic. This whole article is a real education.
Thank you DerKosmonaught.
Izzy

Monday, May 09, 2016  
Blogger Der Kosmonaut said...

Thank you for your comment Izzy.
Yes it's true that Prince was the soundtrack of my life. I think about him everyday and new insights come to mind. Prince was my introduction to the underground. I used to think and say that David Byrne and Talking Heads, in particular "Stop Making Sense", inspired me to become an artist. In reality, it was Prince.
It's also interesting how Prince was the common thread through seemingly unrelated and disparate institutions such as the YMCA, Church and the WWF. Prince himself played with the themes of sin, sexuality and spirituality. There's a sincere sense of grief and sadness throughout the world to Prince's passing. People who had at most a superficial knowledge of Prince have been taken aback by his sudden departure. For those of us who had an intimate knowledge of both his music but music in general, his passing is a serious blow that will take years to overcome.

Thursday, May 12, 2016  

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