The almost concurrent episodes with “Dirty Mind” at the record store, and “Dirty Mind” in Don Brown’s house, were instructive. Something could repel me because of what I had been taught, but if I obeyed my innate attraction, there were great rewards to be had. That required unlearning things, which was something I was willing to do. I decided to accept Prince on his own terms, and I would let him lead me, wherever he would go. His power to draw me in overcame programmed disgust. Prince’s image and talent proved more magnetic than I could resist.
The music was too good to resist because of some cultural prohibition, some limiting factor coming down from above to tell me how to react, and how to proceed. And I was more than curious about the people and culture that surrounded and supported this music.
Prince’s band in 1981-82 was a multi-racial, multi-cultural, gender-bending crew. One demographic was missing: black women. The band consisted of black guys, white guys, and one white woman. We were trying to figure this out.
Prince gave his band permission to express themselves how they felt comfortable when playing music. What was so interesting, if you paid very close attention, was that the black guys, especially Dez Dickerson and André Cymone, appeared to be more interested in rock and new wave music, while the white women, Lisa Coleman and Wendy Melvoin, (Wendy actually came along a little later, in the Revolution), were more jazzed up about funk and dance music. The white guys, Bobby Z on drums, and Matt “Dr.” Fink, supported this mixture, as did bassist Brownmark, (Mark Brown).
They were all rushing towards each other, based on how they were raised, and what they plowed through to express what they really liked as their tastes and preferences were formed and developed. Prince was the conductor and the arranger of this potent mix of styles and orientations. I cannot divine why sistas were not involved at this time, but they were around, and Prince was deploying them elsewhere.
Prince contained it all. Basically, in the studio, he did it all. If you look at the “Controversy” record cover, (I used to love this stuff), it credits Lisa for backing vocals on a few songs. It says Bobby Z played drums, and Lisa and Fink played keyboards on one song, if I’m reading it correctly. He composed, produced, arranged, and played most of the songs himself. He almost didn’t need anybody else, but he understood that that wasn’t true. He needed the collaborative process to spur ideas, and that’s why they were around.
Don’t get me wrong. Just as I have control of what is called “Standard American English”, André Cymone controlled funk.
In 1985, almost already past the Prince crest of popularity that was 1984, I was in New York City for a week, staying with the family of my senior year roommate. (Actually, they lived in New Jersey). I was on my own in Manhattan one day in the late summer. Tower Records was the ultimate record store in those days, and I had always wanted to visit one. I walked all over Midtown to find this Tower Records. I located the store, and inside, near the south window, was “The Dance Electric”, a 12″ extended single on vinyl, by André Cymone.
“The Dance Electric” was a distillation of everything “funk” that Prince had done to that point. It sounded a lot like “17 Days”, an awesome extra cut from the “Purple Rain” period. “17 Days” was “my cut”, for a minute. Just like “Erotic City” was “my cut”. And “Little Red Corvette”. And “Automatic”. And “D.M.S.R.”. And “When Doves Cry”. And “Let’s Go Crazy”. And “I Would Die For You”. And…guess who wrote “The Dance Electric”? Prince. Prince had so much coming out of him, that he knew what to do with it. (Did you see what I did there?) He gave it to André, to help him kickstart his solo career.
I truly digress, but “The Dance Electric” was funky as fuck. It sounded like a freight train chugging down the tracks. It was steaming, hot to the touch, and propulsive. I told people it was “slammin'”! It definitely banged.
Nobody I knew, except for my Webster friends, knew who André Cymone was. “The Dance Electric” was my reward for pushing past what I had been taught to ignore, to overlook, to pass by.
I wanted Cymone to succeed. He did, but not as a solo artist. He went on two years later to work with Jody Watley, from Shalamar. She was the “Best New Artist of the Year” in 1987, according to the Grammy Awards. She had been a star for at least seven years, but you were not a real star until you crossed over, as Prince had, in 1984. You were not a real star until you appealed to whites, until you “transcended” race. Being black in America was not a transcendent experience. Neither was being gay. To be black, and gay, was doubly hard.
So it goes with homophobia and racism. If I could fight them, resist them, and unlearn them, and continue to do so, the world opened up to me. Look at all I might have missed! Look at what was possible! (This was just a song. I’m getting to bigger issues). If you could do this, as I was, why wouldn’t you?
It turned out that there was somebody close to me who couldn’t bring himself to this enlightened understanding, because he felt the oppressive force of cultural prohibitions too powerfully to be completely himself in the early 1980’s. I didn’t know who it was yet, but I was about to learn, and it surprised me when I did.
“Thou doth protest too much,” a man said once.