Purple Snow: What Came Before Purple Rain

A new compilation chronicles the influential Minneapolis R&B sound of the 1970s and early 1980s—right before Prince shared his Dirty Mind with the world.
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Prince performing during his Purple Rain tour in 1985. (AP / Phil Sandlin)

Origin stories are in high demand. Even the early years of the extensively covered Beatles have been attracting renewed attention lately. There’s a new compilation of unreleased recordings they made for the BBC, starting with material from 1962. Which actually is relatively late: The recently released first volume of Mark Lewinsohn’s Beatles history ends in 1962, after 944 pages.

If 944 pages feels overlong, or you’ve heard enough about the Fab Four for the time being, the Numero label has quietly put together a different kind of musical origin story: the compilation Purple Snow, which explores the music that bloomed in Minneapolis in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, right before Prince exploded into national consciousness.

When Prince released his third album, Dirty Mind, in 1980, most people outside of Minneapolis probably did not predict the purple domination to come. A lot of the magic was right there in that album, though. It’s approximately 29 minutes of layered falsetto vocals, neck-breaking guitar licks, bursts of bass, and pounding synthesizers, all illustrating an ability to smash musical genres into one and create undeniable melodies.  

But over the next decade, Prince became the face of an entire swathe of sound emanating from Minneapolis, containing numerous other funky acts, many of whom were connected with him in some way: The Time, Alexander O’Neal, Sheila E, Cherrelle, Vanity 6. When Prince fired keyboardist Jimmy Jam and bassist Terry Lewis from the Time, they formed the production duo Jam & Lewis, who expanded the sound’s reach by producing Janet Jackson, the S.O.S. Band, and New Edition, among others. Jesse Johnson, guitarist in the Time, and Morris Day, the Time’s singer, also recorded solo albums. (Younger versions of Jam and Lewis, O’Neal, and Andre Cymone, who played with Prince in his early years, all show up on the album, as does a youthful Prince, playing lead guitar on two tracks.) The twin cities ruled pop and R&B, and strains of their influence can be found in various albums this year from Janelle Monae, the Weeknd, and Blood Orange.

Purple Snow tries to color in the scene around Prince so it doesn’t seem so monolithic, and to figure out where it all came from. The compilation shows that in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, R&B groups in Minneapolis were adept at any number of styles, and beholden to none. Parliament’s “Flashlight” peeks through in the bass line of Lewis Connection’s “Higher,” from 1979. Earth, Wind & Fire’s “On Your Face” echoes in Michael A. Dixon & Joy’s “You’re All I Need” (1978), while “Got To Be Something Here,” also by the Lewis Connection, has the horn arrangements and steady kick of a Philip Bailey-helmed ballad. “I Have Love At Home,” by Walter Lewis and the All Stars, leans in a different direction, towards the smooth grooves of Bobby Caldwell and Tyrone Davis, and “Together,” by Rockie Robbins, might be a demo for Luther Vandross.

But these songs show a gradual process of narrowing, of settling in on the thinner brand of funk that gave Minneapolis its unique edge. The expansion of ‘70s R&B—longer songs, double albums from Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye, big bands like the Ohio Players and Earth, Wind & Fire, massively orchestrated pieces from Isaac Hayes and Barry White—culminated in the lush expanses of disco, which could incorporate any conceivable sound while maintaining a firm pulse. Minneapolis led a charge in the opposite direction.

Purple Snow illuminates the process of stripping out brassy bombast and building back up, with electrified instruments at their most taught. The horns present in Cohesion’s “Cohesion”—with its James Brown rattle—or the Prophets of Peace’ “Get It On” begin to fade away. (Prince hardly used a horn on his first six albums.) Musicians trade in drum kits for programmed percussion, to the point where Andre Cymone plays the bluesy “Somebody Said” on just a drum machine, bass, and guitar. More and more, the synthesizer becomes an important aspect of funk, blasting in the same rhythmic manner as everything else.

The reason it feels so natural for Prince to spiral into a wild scream or solo is that it releases the almost claustrophobic levels of tension in his songs. Tracks here begin to hint at that atmosphere. In Ronnie Robbins’s “Contagious,” the guitar beats out one rhythm, the synth jabs another. Sometimes the guitar slides along for a strafing series of needle-point attacks on the bass. Every instrument seems to slash and burn its way through the Girls’ “I’ve Got My Eyes On You” and Stylle Band’s “If You Love Me,” where the bass pops with such a rubbery vigor it seems like the strings are about to snap.

But it’s not all hard-heading riffing; there’s levity too, often provided by synthesizers. One swoops into “It’s The Things That You Do,” by the Flight Tyme, twirling lightly. The synth in Herman Jones’s “Ladie” is impossibly tinny, adding a carnival feel to the song, like it would play on the world’s funkiest merry-go-round. And a synth plays long sustained chords in the back of “Can You Deal With It,” its soft textures heightening the contrast with the jolts of guitar.

History can’t account for everything—it provides valuable context, but doesn’t allow for predicting the future. The same goes for this compilation: It tracks the gradual change in Minneapolis sound in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, but the sudden emergence of Prince is something that no one could foresee.  The rhythms on Purple Snow are simpler, the grooves looser, the guitars less volatile than they are in Prince’s material. But Prince needed the funk scene, and the Minneapolis sound needed him.

One of Prince’s stints on lead guitar comes on 94 East’s “If You See Me,” a pleasant, vaguely Latin funk tune recorded in 1975, the earliest track here. “If you see me walking down the street one day/ don’t say nothing,” sings Pepe Willie. A number of the artists collected on Purple Snow couldn’t have known that in 10 years, walking down the street incognito would no longer be an option.

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Elias Leight writes about music and books for Paste and Popmatters.

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