Illustrations by Brent Schoonover
Illustration of Morris Day
On Friday night I was invited to cover The Time’s return to Paisley Park by the manager for the opening act, Judith Hill. I was given a plus one, but would have to do without my other journalist crutches—no cell phone, no recording device, no camera, I couldn’t even bring cigarettes. (Paisley Park is an alcohol and tobacco free zone. Has that always been the case?) The magazine did wonder if there could be a loophole in terms of behind the scenes imagery: would it be OK to bring an illustrator along, somebody who could record our Paisley experience the way a courtroom sketch artist might? They agreed with one caveat. I could bring a notebook and a writing utensil and the illustrator could bring “more or less normal sized” sketchbook. “Anything larger—like a canvas—would be problematic.”
So we hired an illustrator, Brent Schoonover, and I brought along a producer buddy of mine, BJ Burton (he’s produced albums by Lizzo and Low), a native North Carolinian who had never been to Paisley before. BJ and I took an Uber out to Chanhassen and from Highway 5, we saw Paisley Park lit up with purple lights. I had only been out here once before, and it wasn’t even for Prince. It was an open house during the time when Prince was away, when somebody was trying to drum up some business. (The highlight back then was listening to Maceo Parker play a couple of tunes on his sax in Studio A.) I don’t know why I never became a true Prince devotee—I’ve only seen him in person once, at a block party he played in 2000. Maybe it’s because I’m in a weird tweener generation—I was in college when late nights at Paisley first became a thing. But I know enough to know that Paisley retains its mystique—anything can happen out there. On Friday afternoon my editor emailed me, “People have been seeing Flava Flav in the skyways today. Anything can happen!”
People were disembarking from a park and ride bus when we got there and we skirted the chaos to find the lady with the list near the front door. She found our names and we were escorted to a round table in the lounge area. Right above our booth there was a trompe l’oeil of Prince peeking out from behind a black curtain. There is a sense that you’re being watched at Paisley—nobody takes your cell phone but you think twice about taking it out of your pocket, even to check the time. Prince is here somewhere, behind one of these black curtains, making your neck hairs stand on end, like that scene in Purple Rain where Prince is watching Apollonia watch The Time and when she turns around…poof, he’s gone.
I re-watched Purple Rain before this show and noticed how cool the movie makes Minneapolis look. The crowds are multi-racial, multi-cultural, multi-facepainted. The crowd at Paisley tonight is noticeably whiter, noticeably older, and although there is one lady wearing classic Purple Rain-era lace leggings, the fashion is sort of stuck in the New Power Generation late ‘90s—lots of jeans with flared pockets, and jackets and T-shirts with busy script. I see the DJ Tony Fly cruising by our booth and flag him down. Tony has a new gig at the throwback R&B station 105 The Vibe, which is broadcasting the concert tonight. I introduce him to BJ and explain that I’ve been listening to Tony for half my life, back when he was spinning “Poison” by Bel Biv Devoe on KDWB. “I just played that one this afternoon,” Tony says.
We check out the main concert room and Paisley and BJ is taken by the environment. He especially likes the obviously teasing iconography—the “He’s here!” semiotics—for instance, there’s a side stage with candles and huge androgynous Prince symbol being projected on the wall. A DJ is spinning Drake’s “Jumpman” and a local breakdance troupe is doing their thing. At around 9:45 Judith Hill goes on. She recorded her album with Prince at Paisley last winter, and now she’s here with her touring band, which includes her dad Pee Wee on bass and her mom Michiko on keys.
Judith Hill is a powerful singer. Her band lays down a Janis Joplin-esque swirling funk groove behind her and she belts nearly the entire time. Hill is a striking woman: half-Japanese and half-African with a gigantic halo of curly hair, she looks like she’s 10 feet tall on stage, and she’s wearing a sexy kimono thing with side vents that show off her legs when she sits down to play keyboards. Most of her songs seem to be about perseverance, about not giving up or giving in. There are moments when she’s pushing so hard it almost hurts to listen to somebody digging like that, like you’re listening to the vocal equivalent of a Rocky movie. For me, the best part of her show was the flute solo by her horn player, it offered a soothing counterpoint to all the belting.
We were promised a post-show interview with Judith Hill. We waited back in the lounge area and I noticed a tall, bearded dude wearing a suit. “Hey, are you Royce White?” It was! I told him I thought the way he stood up to the NBA on mental health issues was cool and he told me his foundation work is still involved in those issues. When Hill’s manager found us to bring us upstairs Royce let me go. “Do your thing, man.” Judith seemed wiped, understandably. I thought about how I’ve never gotten anything good out of a post-game locker room interview with an athlete and how this felt like the same situation. She bristled at my Prince protégé questions. She dutifully retold the story about how Prince reached out to her after hearing her say she wanted to work with him in an interview. BJ and Brent actually made more progress—BJ asked a smart question about what recording with Prince is like, if they get caught in granular instrumentation or if they have big conceptual discussions. “Both,” she said. And she explained that her band wasn’t a part of the recording process other than the horn player—that it was just her and Prince playing all the instruments. She says this record, Back in Time, is about the times we live in today, about dealing with police brutality and violence in the streets. And when Brent asked her about Chanhassen restaurants, she said she always ended up going to Kona Grill.
During the interview with Hill we could hear a gonged out countdown happening downstairs. It was almost time for The Time. When we got down to the big room, everybody except Morris Day and Jerome had taken the stage. The first thing you notice about The Time’s sound is the fat electro slap of the keyboards—it hits you square in the chest, it’s like being in an arena with Keith Richards’ open tuned guitar for the first time. This is the backbone of the “Minneapolis Sound” made famous by Prince and Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis in the ‘80s. Morris Day’s return to Paisley with this band is a big deal—a reconciliation, really. In 2011, The Time was forced to release an album, Condensate, under the moniker “The Original 7ven” because Prince wouldn’t let them use their original name. This tension has been going on since Prince formed The Time back in 1981 as a sort of alter ego—a classic R&B revue in the James Brown mold. Maybe because the project is rooted in a high school rivalry, really, going back to when Morris and Prince were in Grand Central, the pride of Minneapolis Central, and Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis and Jellybean Johnson were in Flyte Time, the rival outfit from North High. Maybe this is why Judith Hill bristled at being thought of as a “Prince protégé.” His relationships to his protégés always seem to end up complicated if not completely soured, and the The Time was the first example.
Morris takes the stage in a canary yellow zoot suit. His valet holds up the mirror for him but it doesn’t look like the original Jerome. He refers to him as “Thomas,” and he appears to be a younger, trimmer man. But his swag is perfectly in synch with Morris’ and he has the Jerome head bobble down. “Minneapolis! Are you ready to Get It Up?!” The crowd is stoked, and they know all the hand gestures for “Cool.”
There are some monitor problems early on, and BJ really appreciates it when Morris pulls down his shades to look the monitor guy in the eyes. There’s a lull in the middle of the show when everybody starts to realize how sober we all are. The people in the VIP area in front are sitting down in their chairs. There isn’t much juice in the call and response segments with Morris. A guy in a suit comes through our side of the crowd and asks if we want to do The Bird on stage. BJ says, “maybe,” and the guy says, “I gotta know!” There aren’t many takers right away. Morris seems a little flustered by the lack of energy. He says he’s going to use this segment “to talk a little shit.” Morris brings up Bruno Mars and his homage to the Minneapolis Sound, “Uptown Funk.” He points out the part where Mars sings “I got to kiss myself because I’m so pretty.” Morris believes there’s been a miscarriage of credit. “Where do you think he got that shit from?!” Morris says that just because Mars is young and Morris is old doesn’t mean that Morris has lost his cool. He claims he isn’t even sweating up there. “I’m like a bottle of champagne where the cool is inside and the heat of the world brings it out—I condensate.” It’s strikingly vulnerable for a character who was built on the crux of material wealth and unrepentant narcissism in Prince’s basement in 1980. After explaining that “sexiness is a state of mind” Thomas brings a string of women on stage for “Ice Cream Castles” and Morris demands that a lady equal parts “sexy” and “nasty” be brought to the front of the stage. Thomas’ first try is a millennial with a shaved head and red-framed glasses. When Morris asks her for her age and she says, “20” he has Thomas yank her back to the line. “That got me feeling like a pedophile.”
The Time wraps up with “The Bird.” Before the encore, Jellybean Johnson comes out from behind the kit to strap on a guitar and play the solo from Janet Jackson’s “Black Cat.” Then Morris Day climbs up and does a drum solo. Finally, they come out and play “Jungle Love.” The crowd has summoned a second wind, and when The Time leaves the stage to Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy” about half of the people stick around, obviously hoping that the evening holds something more. I’ve been teased by Prince three times in my life at this point—once at the Gayngs Prom, once at the Dakota on the night Michael Jackson died, and once after a Liv Warfield concert at the Dakota when some idiot barback Instagramed a picture of Prince’s guitar during soundcheck. I ask Brent how long he’s prepared to stay and he says he’ll give it a half hour. The vibe in the room is weary and nervous and very, very sober. Sort of like a middle school lock in. There’s no re-entry and the concession stand is closed. BJ doesn’t think there’s any way Prince is going to show up. “I just don’t feel it, man.” He challenges me to find two people who are optimistic so I walk around the VIP area and find the girl with the bald head with her mom. “Oh you never know!” she says. “He’s so unpredictable.” Brent comes back from the bathroom and he reports that he ran into the sound guy. When he asked him what the chances are the guy just shook his head and laughed. Finally after about 35 minutes of listening to the DJ spin ‘90s jams the lights go up and the PA announces that the last park and ride bus is leaving. It isn’t going to happen tonight.