Prince was well acquainted with the reality of race in the record business. Crossing over from the commercial exile of R&B—a genre acutely feeling the aftereffects of disco’s backlash—to rock’s mainstream was vital to anyone in his situation, especially as a native of lily-white Minneapolis. Writer Steve Perry quoted Jimmy Jam as saying, “Black musicians [in Minneapolis in the ‘70s] were going, ‘We can’t get a job, we better make a demo tape or something and try to get up out of here.’ … Not that we had more talent [than the white musicians]; nothing like that. We just had more initiative, because there was nothing here for us.”
That situation was writ large at the dawn of the ‘80s—which is to say, Prince knew precisely how fucked he would be if he didn’t stipulate that he be treated as a pop act. This was the dark ages of R&B crossover. Billboard’s year-end 1981 singles list featured only eight black records in the Top 40; in 1979, there had been 16 (and seven black records in the Top 10). The number had halved in two years.
“The record industry provides probably the strangest example of segregation since South African apartheid—a frequent, unspoken separation of blacks and whites that subtly and insidiously damages our industry,” Prince’s publicist Howard Bloom wrote in an August 1981 commentary piece for Billboard. “If a black act’s record is rock & roll and belongs on AOR radio, that’s too bad. The black special markets department drops the record because it’s not appropriate to black radio. And the white AOR and pop departments generally refuse to touch the record because of the color of the artist who made it.” This also worked in reverse, as Bloom pointed out: Devo’s “Whip It” got little play on AOR, Devo’s so-called “natural” constituency, but went gold in part because the record had broken on black radio thanks to black radio legend and Detroit techno forefather The Electrifying Mojo, who was also the first DJ to broadcast Prince’s music to the Motor City.
Although Prince liked to kid new wave, he also saw its openness as a beacon of the future. In 1981 he told an interviewer, “Tradition at black concerts a lot of times was to wear your best clothes, to come looking really dapper. It’s not like that at our concerts. There are a lot of black kids out there, but they’re like open-minded and free, and they want to have a good time.” Guitarist Wendy Melvoin told Spin that when she joined Prince’s band in 1983, “We were still seen as part of the underground. I was proud of that.”
Bloom was ready to put his ideals into action, writing in a memo to Prince’s then-manager Steve Fargnoli, “I’d suggest booking him two dates in each market: a date as a second act on the bill to a major black headliner like Cameo, Parliament, etc., and a date at the local new wave dance club … Neither date will conflict with the other.”
The reason for all this was Dirty Mind, which Jean Williams—Billboard’s founding R&B editor—tut-tutted over: “The front cover has Prince standing donned in an open jacket with a handkerchief around his neck and in a pair of black briefs. Maybe it’s meant to be sexy. The back cover gets better (or worse). Prince is lying down with the same ‘outfit,’ however, this time you get a look at his legs and what is he wearing? A pair of thigh high stockings. The effect is one of a nude man dressed in a pair of thigh high stockings.”
Dirty Mind was not just a rock album by a black artist but one that was sold by Warner Bros. as an album, rather than simply as a hit single’s expansion pack. Dirty Mind only yielded one R&B hit (“Uptown” reached #5) and had no success on the pop singles charts. At that time, the album audience was considered very separate than the singles audience—“serious” listeners versus casual—a difference that Warners’ marketing department was particularly adept at exploiting. However, this was a distinction that was creeping toward irrelevance: Within three years, the “tentpole” album, spinning off endless hit singles à la Michael Jackson’s Thriller, would be the major-label norm. But the idea of a crossover from R&B to new wave was both viable and novel in 1980—just ask Rick James, the self-crowned “King of Punk-Funk.”
Little of James’ music—or Prince’s for that matter—actually resembled new wave’s willful primitivism. “For a lot of black people, the word 'punk’ had connotations of homosexuality, and there’s always that macho thing with funk,” Dez Dickerson told Dave Hill. Dickerson himself “was put off by people with no intention of knowing how to play. Then, after a while, the spirit and the attitude of it began to appeal to me.” [Read More]
For the inauguration of First Floor Under, a pop-vanguard culture magazine, artists Moreno De Turco and Mirco Pagano spent more than 200 hours lining up the CDs to recreate the portraits of seven world-famous musicians including Bob Marley, Elvis Presley, Jimmy Hendrix, Michael Jackson, James Brown, and Freddie Mercury.