Outside the Purple Fog: Minneapolis' Unsung R&B Scene That Yielded Prince

Prince photographed in 1979.

Prince photographed in 1979.

During the two years I spent researching and compiling Purple Snow: Forecasting The Minneapolis Sound, Prince was everywhere and he was nowhere. 

He moved through the Twin Cities like an apparition, a being you might encounter after taking a hit of DMT or getting a concussion. In a metropolis responsible for very few household names, Prince was constantly felt, if rarely seen. Legend of two individuals named Prince were kept alive through local folklore; the old-timers spoke of a quiet-but-confident guitar wunderkind named Prince Nelson who fled the Gopher State to become the guy everyone else knew: Prince. Just Prince.

The story of the Minneapolis Sound begins in a much different place than it ends. In the mid-70s, marginalized funk-rock combos with robust horn sections dominated show bills on the city's predominately Black Northside. St. Paul's Purple Haze used equal parts Marshall Stack and timbale to set a psychedelic soul precedent embellished upon by Prophets of Peace, the Family, and Flyte Tyme.

The Magic of Prince's Early Tours: 'You Weren't Ready for How Good He Was'

By his senior year of high school, in 1976, Prince's scrappy ensemble Grand Central was a dark horse at community centers and Battle of the Bands events, a perennial bronze medalist. Jimmy Jam Harris's Mind & Matter had already scrapped the horn section for a twin-keyboard attack, and the Family's Pierre Lewis was flossing the latest synthesizers, upgrading as newer, flashier pieces arrived at Roger Dodger Music. Prince would borrow one such Arp to craft the demo for "Soft & Wet" during a prolific apprenticeship at Moonsound Studios. The studio became his stage. Prince would continue to incorporate the best parts of the Twin Cities burgeoning sound to concoct his own musical identity. All the pieces were scattered around Hennepin County, but it was the way that Prince combined them (or omitted them) that made him Prince.  

A Chicago resident with North Carolina plates, I was by all accounts an outsider. A foreign-born Minneapolis Sound missionary with the nerve to knock on strangers doors during the playoffs to ask if they had unreleased Alexander O'Neal demos or easy access to their yearbooks. But while my icebreakers about Minnesota winters and Kirby Puckett were met mostly with eye rolls, the mention of Prince could warm the frostiest Vikings fans, fetching an otherwise boring story about the Purple One spotted on a beach cruiser at Lake Calhoun, delivered with such grandeur it could have been simulcast on A Prairie Home Companion. But I was there to tell my own story.

Prince Was a Teenage Hired Gun on 'Stone Lover,' His First Release

I conceived of Purple Snow, not so much out of a fascination for Prince, but out of admiration for all of the incredible musicians of color (and a few progressive Caucasians) who helped engineer a creative ecosystem in which an artist like Prince could even occur. Through tireless research and liquor house canvassing, I hoped to illuminate the community in such a way that Prince would be cast in glorious silhouette against a backdrop of talented bandmates, former classmates, and assorted visionary introverts. 

Prince was a private person with very calculated methods of disseminating (likewise, withholding) biographical information. Only by tagging along with 94 East to a December 1975 recording session -- likewise with the Lewis Connection in 1976 -- did Prince Nelson appear along side fellow members of Local 30-73 in the grooves of Purple Snow.

There is no Minneapolis Sound without Prince, but there is no Prince without Minneapolis.

The Time Prince Got Mad At Me Because I Wouldn't Dance

Purple Snow seemed a paradoxical way to celebrate Prince's regional impact, to honor him by nearly omitting him. This was until we exchanged emails with the web masters of Prince ticket stub sites, encountered bootleggers who dealt exclusively in audience recordings, and rode to Bloomington, Minn. with a woman who'd leased a safety deposit box dedicated solely to a trio photographs she'd taken of Prince in 1974. 

We came to discover that every Prince fan harbors a complicated love for their dearly beloved, each trying to channel their enthusiasm in their own weird way. As time passes, things will get better in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, but they will never be the same.

Jonathan Kirby does A&R / research and development at The Numero Group.