Numero Group’s ‘Purple Snow’ Captures the Pre-Prince Weirdness of Minneapolis Funk and Soul
Release Date: December 3, 2013
Label: Numero Group
Midway through Prince’s 1985 Purple Rain tour — 98 shows, 1.7 million tickets sold — an innocuous object entitled The Minneapolis Genius appeared in record stores. Credited to 94 East and dominated by instrumental funk jams, the front cover featured a white dove clutching a red rose, while the flip side credited the talents of Pepe Willie and, yes, Prince, who did indeed have a co-write on “Just Another Sucker.” But the recordings had been cut in Minneapolis way back in 1975, when Willie brought a 16-year-old named Prince Rogers Nelson into the studio to help beef up some unfinished tracks. Ten years later, with 94 East still stuck in suburban Maple Grove while their former protégé was changing pop history, Willie dumped that first studio venture onto the market. The Artist was not pleased; from there, lawyers would be notified whenever former associates attempted similar strolls down memory lane.
Despite kicking things off with a slinky number from those 94 East sessions, one doubts lawsuits will greet Purple Snow: Forecasting the Minneapolis Sound, Numero Group’s splendid tribute to Prince-era Twin Cities funk/soul rarities. As befits these Chicago-based crate-digger kings, this is no cheap knockoff, but a detail-oriented labor of love (plus, the two-disc set only claims three tracks featuring its obvious catalyst in any form, none particularly recognizable). But his old Hennepin County orbit is well represented, from childhood friend André Cymone to Mississippi transplant Alexander O’Neal, and through carefully selected obscurities featuring Prince’s progenitors, colleagues, pals, and hangers-on, Purple Snow highlights key facets of the famed Minneapolis Sound.
Not that these tracks portend the genius of Dirty Mind — most pre-Prince Twin City outfits merely mirrored outside R&B trends, from Mandrill boogie (Haze) to Latimore slow jams (Walter Lewis). Even 18-year-old James Harris, soon to be known as Jimmy Jam, betrayed a sizable debt to Gamble/Huff and the Stylistics in his surprisingly ornate (glockenspiel!) basement demos from early songwriting project Mind & Matter, one decade and a lifetime before Jam/Lewis helped detonate Janet Jackson’s era-defining Control. But change is in the sub-zero air: One hears horn ensembles losing ground in favor of ARP Axxe and Oberheim OB-X synths, while the sick keyboards of Stylle Band’s “If You Love Me” almost bring to mind, well, Purple Rain.
Still, nothing startles the way even embryonic Prince could — there’s no dirty disco anthem as catchy as “I Wanna Be Your Lover” or funk-metal pounder half as audacious as the bi-curious “Bambi.” And only Alexander O’Neal delivers vocal performances worthy of comparison to the big man. These 32 tracks are pre-fame curios or journeyman offerings from bands not able or willing to match such audacity: loping Earth, Wind & Fire funk from the Lewis Connection (a band so hard-luck they misspelled “Connection” on their sole release); lo-fi grime from Quiet Storm’s circa-’82 demo tape (they claimed ignorance of Smokey Robinson’s epochal 1975 “Quiet Storm”); and delightful electro-punk sass from André Cymone’s Vanity 6 knockoff the Girls (in the liner notes, one member morosely compares her old project to TLC).
In short, these are the kinds of beautiful losers Numero Group has always championed, and no expense is spared in a meticulously researched spread of color photos, interviews, and pages from Prince’s seventh-grade yearbook (he’s on the bottom right). As a temple to the Purple One, I prefer Michaelangelo Matos’ recent essay on the guy’s tangled relationship with dance music, “We All Wanna Be Prince.” Yet as a work of scholarly revisionism, Purple Snow is peerless. How and why the Twin Cities helped transform Prince Nelson into the Artist remains a mystery. But this is a charming addition to the Paisley Park family.