Photos courtesy of: Nate Ryan (Chastity Brown, POS), Alex King (KING), Jabari Jacobs (Lizzo), Tony Nelson (Sonny Thompson), Rich Peterson (Peter Parker), Asata Wright (Toki Wright), Rhymesayers Entertainment (Slug), Sarah White (Sarah White)
The 300 R&B fans who crowded into the Capri Theater in north Minneapolis on January 5, 1979, to watch the 20-year-old hometown kid making his first real performance as a bandleader that night were already plenty hyped. Kyle Ray was there to take them over the top. Ray rapped to the crowd with the slick charm that had made him one of the hottest black DJs in town, stacking one heroic, hyperbolic epithet on top of another to make a legend of Prince before the singer ever stepped on stage. Among the phrases of praise, one rang out: “the next Stevie Wonder.”
Little about Prince’s performance that night suggested the blind Motown genius who dominated American pop music in the 1970s. Not his seductive stage presence, not his virtuosic guitar, certainly not his outfit—an unbuttoned blouse that barely covered more of his chest than the vest he wore over it, plus leg warmers on top of jeans hinting at the lewd and fabulous androgyny that would soon blow people’s minds.
“That comparison may have been a bit too lofty and presumptuous,” cautioned the Minneapolis Star’s Jon Bream in his review. Bream proceeded, as critics will do when hoping to contextualize a new talent for their readers, to list some familiar names: Smokey Robinson, the Isley Brothers, Sly Stone, even Mick Jagger.
All reasonable touchstones. But Prince was a funky black songwriter who played all the instruments on his debut LP. Who produced his own recordings. Who demanded the same creative autonomy record labels had long ago granted white rock stars. And who was determined to cross over to a white audience without abandoning his black listeners. There were few examples of that sort of career, and Stevie Wonder was one.
Certainly no such models existed in Prince’s hometown. The Minneapolis that Prince emerged from was a putatively liberal yet intractably segregated city that musicians who dreamed of stardom abandoned quickly for the coasts, especially if they happened to be one of the city’s 50,000 African Americans, who were denied access to downtown club stages and radio airwaves.
By staying in Minneapolis and becoming one of the biggest stars of his era, Prince changed that. Every Minnesota musical artist to emerge in his wake—particularly black artists—now had a model of local success. Prince’s insistence on controlling his art and his business, his determination to vault over the challenges facing an African American musician in a predominantly white city, the ease with which he moved between musical styles, would be both inspiring and daunting.
Civic boosters of Minneapolis tout its musical heritage—including black musical styles like hip-hop, R&B, funk, jazz, and gospel—alongside other hip urban selling points like bikeability and brewpubs. But while the music scene has been transformed in the nearly four decades since Prince’s Capri debut, segregation and racial income disparities still haunt the city. And while the young black men and women we might consider Prince’s heirs have opportunities he never did, they also face many familiar challenges. Some might just dream of becoming “the next Prince.”
In the 1970s, the best black musicians in the upper Midwest were gigging in the Twin Cities metro area. You could hear bands like Flyte Tyme (featuring future superproducers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis) or Enterprise (led by Sonny Thompson, who’d later join Prince’s The New Power Generation in the ’90s) deliver note-perfect versions of the biggest R&B and funk hits at the Cozy Bar and Lounge up north on Plymouth Avenue, in south Minneapolis at the Riverview Supper Club or the Nacirema, at the Filling Station way out on East Hennepin, even in the ’burbs, where the real money was.
Downtown Minneapolis was another story. “You couldn’t play the downtown clubs,” Jimmy Jam told City Pages’ Peter S. Scholtes in 2003. “It was never said, but we knew what the score was.” The rare exception to Minneapolis’s segregated nightlife was the club Prince made world famous. Throughout its evolution—from the Depot to Uncle Sam’s to Sam’s and finally to the name we all know it by, First Avenue—the old Greyhound station allowed a space for the racially mixed crowds the world would eventually see celebrated in Prince’s 1984 movie Purple Rain.
Soon the sound of black Minneapolis took over the pop world, and Prince was hardly the only craftsman guiding it forward. Jam and Lewis not only helmed Janet Jackson’s Control but produced hits for locals like former Flyte Tyme vocalist Alexander O’Neal. By the early ’90s, however, history seemed to repeat itself. As funk made way for hip-hop, and pioneering rap crews like the Micranots were making a name for themselves, MCs seeking to rhyme their way into the limelight were once more getting shut out of the scene.
“There were a lot of do-it-yourself spaces, but there was a drought of bigger venues,” says Sean Daley, better known as Slug of Atmosphere, the most successful rap group to emerge from Minnesota. “First Ave. kind of closed up; they didn’t do any rap for a long time.”
The club had once been ahead of the curve, hosting an under-attended Run-D.M.C. show months before the group released its debut album. But when members of the opening act at a 1991 Ice Cube show pummeled a soundman, the club scrutinized rap bookings more closely.
White Minneapolis was already uneasy in the ’90s. An influx of new African Americans expanded and fragmented the black community, and a spike in the homicide rate was sensationalized in a New York Times story that used the term “Murderapolis.”
“Black artists could never do anything,” promoter JonJon Scott recalls of the ’90s. “It was hard to book shows, it was hard to get in different venues, it was hard to get on radio. None of that was happening.” Local rappers found themselves at Arnellia’s, a St. Paul club opened by a former waitress at the Nacirema, or The Red Sea on the West Bank, and made do with informal venues as well.
“I can remember not being able to play anywhere—especially as a black hip-hop artist,” says Toki Wright, a 36-year-old MC who grew up on the northside of Minneapolis. “I developed a lot of my skills through the talent show circuit. That’s part of how you come up in hip-hop—the house party or the lunchroom or your high school talent show.”
The success of Atmosphere and the establishment of the group’s independent label RhymeSayers Entertainment as a nationally respected clearinghouse for underground hip-hop—as well as a generational shift in taste—would help change the city’s relationship with rap. And savvy insiders like Scott would have success introducing local audiences to young performers like rapper Greg Grease and the funk collective ZuluZuluu.
But biases remain, says Wright: “A lot of black artists are simply shut out of the ecosystem. R&B performers or black hip-hop artists that appeal to an urban audience, to get anywhere they have to either be friended into the circle of established musicians. Or they have to do so well outside of Minnesota that the establishment has to include them.”
From funk to hip-hop, outsiders have repeatedly stormed the gate of the Minneapolis music scene, but it’s important not to romanticize their rebellion. We celebrate the geniuses like Prince who overcome those obstacles. But we’ll never know the names of the countless potential geniuses who don’t.
Photograph by Greg Helgeson
Prince performs at the Capri in 1979
Prince grew up listening to Minneapolis radio station KQRS. Now a museum of overplayed classic rock, KQ was an adventurous freeform rock station when Prince was in his teens, and from Santana to Joni Mitchell, the music it played would later inspire him to defy stylistic boundaries.
On the other hand, Prince didn’t often hear his beloved funk and R&B on local radio. A town once so white that Soul Train didn’t even air here till the ’80s, Minneapolis has historically struggled to keep a commercial radio station that plays black music. In the ’70s, a 1000-watt station broadcasting out of Golden Valley called KUXL would start playing R&B in the afternoon, but it went off the air at sundown, which comes mighty early in these parts in wintertime. And by the end of the ’70s it had switched over entirely to religious programming. And KMOJ, an African American community station that started in 1976, could barely be heard outside the neighborhood until a signal boost in 1984.
Prince and his friends filled the vacuum created by the lack of black radio by listening to the latest hits in record stores or learning to play their favorite songs themselves, and there was community support for their music-making. When Prince was 7 years old, around the time his parents separated, he started learning music at The Way, the Plymouth Avenue community center run by storied northside organizer Harry “Spike” Moss.
“I had reached out to Minnesota’s jazz masters, including the great [pianist] Bobby Lyle, asking them to teach, nurture, and shape the talent, and mold the gifts of music and art that were abundant in our community,” Moss told Insight News shortly after Prince’s death. In the Minneapolis club scene at the time, according to Moss, “black musicians were not welcome. We knew we had to create a space, a resource for our young and aspiring musicians.”
The role of community centers in the development of musicians is under-acknowledged, says Wright, and it continues today. He points out that the most surprising Twin Cities hip-hop success of recent years—the Y.N.RichKids’ irrepressible “Hot Cheetos and Takis”—was the fruit of the Beats & Rhymes program put on by the North Community YMCA Youth and Teen Enrichment Center.
Back when Prince made the jump from community centers to local sensation, he experienced firsthand how tough it was to break into pop radio. Small community and public stations like KMOJ, KFAI, and KBEM rallied around him right away, and KFMX 104.1 broke Prince’s debut single, “Soft and Wet,” locally just as the station switched its format to disco. But Top 40 giant WLOL largely ignored him until hits like “1999” and “Little Red Corvette”—which even crossed over to local rock audiences on KQRS—made him undeniable.
The lack of commercial radio support for local black musicians persisted into the 21st century, but kids may have stopped noticing it, according to the music director of a station that’s trying to keep rap and R&B on the air in Minneapolis. “Kids are going on their phones and just playing what they want,” says Pete Mazalewski, the Massachusetts transplant who DJs under the name Mr. Peter Parker at Go 95.3, the Pohlad-owned station that he also programs.
The station switched to a rhythmic hip-hop format at the beginning of the year, with an aggressive local focus, which means not just Minneapolis artists, but national artists that Minneapolis radio listeners embrace. Now that radio is no longer the only gatekeeper, radio programmers need to find the music that’s already popular and find a way to use the airwaves to make a social experience out of listening together, a task that energizes Parker.
Radio isn’t the only area of the business where barriers to access are falling. If Prince was ever going to get his music heard outside of Minneapolis—if he was ever to even get his music heard by white Minnesotans—he needed the support of a record label. But he consistently resented his dependence on corporate sponsorship. In 1992 he renegotiated a deal with Warner Bros. that already allowed him an incredible amount of creative control to make him potentially one of the highest-paid artists in the recording industry. But he almost instantly regretted the agreement. He lashed out at Warner Bros. publicly. He changed his name to an unpronounceable glyph. He emblazoned “slave” on his cheek.
Allan Kyariga is too young to remember any of this firsthand. The 22-year-old St. Paul–based rapper, better known as Allan Kingdom, wasn’t even born when Prince began battling Warner Bros. But he knows the stories, and they’ve nurtured him. “Even more than the music, the myth of Prince influenced me the most,” Kingdom says. “How he always stayed true to his independent mentality when he distributed his music. He was always like, ‘I’m gonna do as much as I can on my own.’”
Kingdom was born in Winnipeg to a mother from Tanzania and a father from South Africa, and he landed in Minnesota when he was 8. While he was still in his teens he starting making his music available online, enjoying the possibilities of immediate exposure that Prince would have envied. He soon built up enough of a following that he could book his own show at the Beat Coffeehouse in Uptown and fill the space with fans.
Kingdom and some friends—Spooky Black (who now performs as Corbin), Psymun, and Bobby Raps—formed the rap/R&B crew thestand4rd and soon caught the attention of Doc McKinney, a former Minnesotan now based in Toronto. McKinney had recently produced the critically acclaimed mixtapes of The Weeknd, who was on his way to becoming a genuine pop star, and he invited the Minnesotans up North to record. Then in 2015 Kanye West featured Kingdom on his new song “All Day” and invited him to perform at the Brit Awards in London.
Creating connections with musicians in other communities through online interaction is the essence of the modern independent music business, which values “Internet hustle over street presence,” according to Go 95.3’s Parker. “The people that I know who are winning live on Soundcloud and Snapchat,” he says
Hip-hop and R&B aren’t the only genres where social media has helped local musicians secure national fame. Jovonta Patton is a 26-year-old gospel singer who performs most Sunday mornings at Shiloh Temple International Ministries in north Minneapolis. His latest album, Finally Living, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard gospel charts in July. Patton works as an independent artist and credits his chart success to Facebook presales. He hasn’t ruled out a future label deal but says he can now go into meetings and ask, “What else can you offer me that I could not do myself?” Surely Prince, who was fascinated by the potential the Internet provided for artistic independence, would relish seeing his neighbors secure these victories.
Not everyone has abandoned the old models, though. Earlier this year, the Twin Cities’ most prominent African American performer signed a major label deal and has been recording in Los Angeles. Melissa Jefferson—Lizzo to her fans—was born in Detroit and raised in Houston. She was 23 by the time she moved to Minnesota, and her hip-hop three-piece The Chalice hooked indie crowds and endeared her to hip, predominantly white media outlets like City Pages and The Current. She soon established herself locally as a singer, a rapper, and, above all, a presence.
Lizzo’s rise to local prominence happened to occur around the time Prince was starting to see himself as a mentor to younger musicians, especially women. He invited Lizzo to appear on the track “Boy Trouble” in 2014, which would appear on Plectrumelectrum, the album he recorded with his new all-female group, 3rdeyegirl. As Lizzo tells it, the collaboration allowed her to imagine a larger form of success, particularly when she realized he’d left her contribution essentially untouched. “Even when I was screaming at the end of my verse, he left everything in there,” she told the magazine Paper shortly after Prince’s death. “I was at a point in my career where I was still doing things on a very small, local level. Getting that confidence boost, getting that rite of passage from him, meant so much for my career.”
Lizzo has since scored a hit (“Good as Hell,” off the Barbershop 3 soundtrack) and co-hosted the MTV Video Music Awards pre-show. She’s now the regular host of another MTV show, Wonderland, a showcase for up-and-comers, set in L.A., featuring live performers, both musicians and comedians, that debuted September 15. And the range of avenues she’s pursued to further her career is almost comically varied. Last year she opened for indie-rock trio Sleater-Kinney on its 2015 reunion tour; this year she did voice work for the Adult Swim cartoon Brad Neely’s Harg Nallin’ Sclopio Peepio. Nothing could be more Prince-like than determining your own unique path to fame.
Similar to Lizzo, Prince started out as a product of the record label system. The later ’70s were a singular time, after all, primed for a certain kind of star. Kyle Ray was hardly the first admirer to call Prince “the next Stevie Wonder.” Chris Moon, the producer who recorded Prince’s first demos, marketed him that way to Owen Husney, who became Prince’s first manager. Husney, in turn, used that tag to attract Warner Bros., which just so happened to be looking for an all-in-one black musical genius.
But definitions of genius change with the years. For instance, Lizzo’s role model, Beyoncé, operates as the CEO of her own art, coordinating a multimedia team of songwriters, directors, stylists, and choreographers. And the same technology that allows musicians to craft a full track on their own also encourages them to instantly request input from collaborators, a social process at work in both the sleekest commercial pop and the most underground sounds.
“It’s not that there won’t be more great musicians and artists, but it’s not going to be one guy.” That’s how Stef Alexander, better known as rapper P.O.S., sees the world after Prince. “A musical genius now is someone like Kanye West, coming up with the idea and finding all the best people to execute it. You’re not gonna record all the tracks like Prince and then just call in a horn player to finish it up.”
At 14, Alexander was booking tours for his own hardcore punk band and didn’t even start rapping until four years after that. Today, he’s best known as a hip-hop artist, but he still also plays guitar in punk groups.
Minneapolis is especially prone to that sort of cross-genre pollination. “It’s so common here that no one thinks about it,” P.O.S. says. Even the dynamics of the contemporary Minneapolis music scene—with its mix-and-match aesthetics, genre-fluid practitioners, and constantly reconfiguring musical setups—echo back to Prince, back to the way he fused musical styles, back to the way he invented groups like the Time and Vanity 6 as extensions of his vision.
In Purple Rain, he carefully stage-managed a simulation of the competitive nature of the Minneapolis R&B/funk scene, casting himself as an underdog who had to overcome the jealous resistance of other black performers and black club owners. For years, Prince’s outsized success obscured the depth and complexity of the black music scene that spawned him.
But today’s Minneapolis musicians prefer to tell a different story: not of competition, but cooperation. It’s as much a fantasy as Purple Rain, ignoring the barriers to entry, the artists and styles that are excluded, the way norms are enforced and white audiences remain paramount.
Yet just like Purple Rain, it tells a fundamental truth about Minneapolis: There will never be “the next Prince,” just as there was never “the next Stevie Wonder.” But his influence has been disseminated throughout the music scene. As Slug of Atmosphere puts it: “Living here, he just became a part of our DNA.” The music community thrives as an evolving organism, and Prince rings out in every note that’s played.