One of the great chroniclers of Prince during the final decade of the musician’s life, journalist Andrea Swensson made it her mission to reveal the man behind the self-cultivated myth of the Purple One.
“He liked to have that air of mystery, but at the end of the day he is a man who was born in a specific time and place, and that’s really what I wanted to explore,” said Swensson, who does just that in her new University of Minnesota Press book, “Got to Be Something Here: The Rise of the Minneapolis Sound.”
Writing for City Pages and later 89.3 The Current, where she hosts “The Local Show,” Swensson was perfectly positioned to document Prince’s return to the Twin Cities from L.A. in 2009. She caught Prince’s attention with a sketch of his band on stage at a no-cameras Dakota show in 2010, and within a year Swensson was invited to meet with him at Paisley Park, his Chanhassen headquarters — the beginning of a friendly back-and-forth that would continue until Prince’s death at age 57 in April 2016.
“Got to be Something Here” serves as an extended prologue to Prince’s breakout 1981 performance at Sam’s, the downtown Minneapolis nightclub that became First Avenue. It opens in the year of Prince Rogers Nelson’s birth, 1958, the same year a 45 by the Big M’s became Minnesota’s first R&B record.
Through research and interviews with the musicians who lived it, Swensson traces the evolution of a music scene and two Twin Cities that shaped both Prince and the Minneapolis Sound, a fusion of genres and influences that broke through the color line.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Southwest Journal: You asked to meet at Key’s Café in the Foshay Tower. Why is this an important location?
Swensson: In the late 1960s, this was an R&B club called King Solomon’s Mines, and it was very short-lived. It was only about a year and eight months that it was active.
Even though it’s a really short period of time it ends up being so pivotal and influential for a whole community, and I really just felt like the story of King Solomon’s Mines was the perfect microcosm of what a lot of African-American musicians had to go through to play.
It was the first club downtown to welcome bands with all black musicians, which was unheard of at the time. It grew in popularity, and the scene was very mixed. It was black and white, it was rich and poor. It was people that were very high class — who played for the Vikings and ran big businesses — and then it was people who were maybe more troubled and scraping-by in life. And they all came together around the music.
Pretty quickly it became branded this trouble spot, even though there weren’t really any crimes being committed in the club. The city had its eyes on this space, and eventually the police raided it and took 10 people to the police station saying that they were underage.
When they got to the police station, they all could produce identification, which (meant it) was just kind of a bogus raid, but they were able to use that to suspend the liquor license and put the club under investigation.
I was surprised by your description of how long and how strictly segregated Minneapolis music venues were, and even local radio stations dragged their heels for years before they would play black artists. How aware of that history were you when you started researching this book?
Pretty much everything I knew was in the context of Prince. I knew that other radio stations around the country embraced him before he was embraced here. I knew “Funkytown” (the 1980 hit by Minneapolis band Lipps Inc.) had become a national hit before they would play it here. But, for me, the curiosity came in because I know there are still issues now, and they had to come from somewhere.
I feel that our music community is still very segregated, and I wanted to know why. How did it get that way? Has it always been this way?
It just seems like it’s a lot harder for minority musicians to be taken seriously and to be spoken of in the same way, the same depth, as other musicians.
You dedicated the book to North Minneapolis and Rondo, and you write extensively about how midcentury freeway construction was so destructive to the African-American neighborhoods in those communities. Can you talk about how geography plays a role in this book?
Absolutely the construction of (Interstate) 94 not only displaced residents in Rondo but destroyed music clubs, like the Western Lounge. It started slicing up North Minneapolis, which would also get cut by 394. It’s just another example of all these barriers we seem to throw up in front of black people who are just trying to live their lives and thrive.
But it also seemed to cut off North Minneapolis from the rest of the city in a way that strengthened the music community, even though it was harming the overall community. People were very close together, and it almost turned into an incubator. It’s really interesting how Prince and Andre Cymone and Morris Day all lived within blocks of each other.
It’s not like it’s good that it happened to this neighborhood, but it’s interesting to me that they almost had no choice but to look within the area that they were, because it was hard to get downtown, even though it was close by.
When I asked you about geography, there’s even — and I think it’s still true today — the differences between North and South Minneapolis.
Yes, and that is a huge thing I learned about (Prince), that he was a product of busing to integrate schools. He started in North Minneapolis but then would get bused down south for high school and some of junior high. And I think that totally shaped his approach to music and culture, where he didn’t see it as a black scene and a white scene. He wanted to experience the world as someone who could move between these worlds.
Central High School was very diverse, and I think you saw that in the bands that Prince formed. He was very intentional about having white and black players and women in his bands, and I think he picked up a lot of that from being able to wander through the city a little bit as a teenager and see it through a lot of different perspectives.
You make the case that segregation and the struggles black artists went through to play in front of white audiences shaped what would eventually become known as the Minneapolis Sound. It’s funky, it’s based in R&B and jazz and black music, but it’s also influenced by the popular, largely white rock acts that were being played on Twin Cities radio in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s.
It’s partly a survival technique, that they had to play top-40 songs in order to play for white teenagers. I think there’s some creative choices there, too, especially for Prince and André (Cymone) and Jimmy (Jam) and Terry (Lewis). They saw that music was starting to come together, like Sly and the Family Stone and all these bands that were integrating these different styles.
And then Prince took it a step further and adamantly refused to be categorized as a black artist or an R&B artist because he knew what that did to people’s careers. You get kind of quarantined in a certain section of the music industry.
I think that’s how he and Michael Jackson ended up being the first black artists to get played on MTV. They broke down these barriers because he said no, and he said I demand you represent me in this way.
I was taking frequent breaks from “Got to Be Something Here” to Google artists like Maurice McKinnies so I could hear the music you were writing about. What is your advice for readers for how to build a soundtrack for this book?
I found YouTube is a great place to find those 45s. I put together a playlist, which I should post publicly.
Otherwise, I’ve been directing people to go to the Secret Stash Records compilation (“Twin Cities Funk & Soul,” 2012). I think they did such a really nice job.
The “Purple Snow” compilation (released by Numero Group in 2013) is great, but it’s a little bit later. And it’s artists who, some of them had an impact on the scene and some of them are more obscure. The Secret Stash one just gets into that history I’m so interested in: Where did this begin?
IF YOU GO:
Andrea Swensson presents “Got to Be Something Here: The Rise of the Minneapolis Sound”
When: 7 p.m. Nov. 15
Where: Magers & Quinn Booksellers, 3038 Hennepin Ave. S.