Prince in 1982, surrounded by rare releases and ephemera from the extensive Prince collection of Chicago house producer Melvin Oliphant III, aka Traxx Allen Beaulieu/Rhino; Ryan Edmund for Chicago Reader
The track starts with a four-on-the-floor drum pattern. A sudden keyboard hit buzzes like an electrical wire. Paired vocalists enter: “We can’t help ourselves,” they coo in harmony. “We all wanna be Prince.”
Chicago producer Felix da Housecat speaks for generations of house musicians on 2009’s “We All Wanna Be Prince,” paying homage to the artist who helped shape the genre during its birth in the early 80s. The track’s color palette is all purple—it borrows shamelessly and lovingly from the danceable electronic sounds of Prince’s 1999. Just like house music, that 1982 double album remains vital and influential today, and it’ll be reissued by Warner Brothers on November 29, remastered and packaged in three increasingly lavish editions that include as many as 35 unreleased live and studio tracks.
Prince’s first album with his band the Revolution, 1999 was a commercial breakthrough for him—for the first time, he hit the top ten on the Billboard 200, and he sent his first two singles to the top ten on the Hot 100. Still a couple years away from the stratospheric fame of 1984’s Purple Rain, Prince was then an enigmatic former wunderkind, refining and expanding his sound five albums into a Warner Brothers contract. But beginning with his debut, For You, in 1978 and continuing through 1999 and beyond, Prince’s early albums left a mark on a generation of Chicago musicians—and they took inspiration from his sexuality and his synthesizers when they created house music.
Prince’s early singles reached Chicago in clubs and on the radio, via WDAI (now WLS-FM, it switched to a disco format on the first day of 1979) and Herb Kent’s early-80s WXFM show Punk Out (which played to the South Loop juice-bar crowd with a mix of punk, new wave, and R&B). “A lot of his songs in those days were very four-on-the-floor anyway,” says DJ and producer Jesse Saunders, who’s widely credited with creating the first house single, 1984’s “On and On.” “With Chicago being a disco kinda market, it fit in very well. You could play ‘Soft and Wet,’ ‘Sexy Dancer,’ all that kind of stuff in your set.”
Jesse Saunders and Vince Lawrence are widely credited with creating the first house single in 1984.
Prolific producer and music entrepreneur Vince Lawrence, who wrote “On and On” with Saunders, says “I Wanna Be Your Lover” (a single from the 1979 album Prince) was one of the first songs he learned on piano—and he hums a few bars of the intro into the phone as proof. Producer and DJ Steve “Silk” Hurley, who’d go on to top the UK singles chart with the J.M. Silk track “Jack Your Body” in 1987, bought the 1980 Prince album Dirty Mind at the recommendation of a high school friend. He had to borrow money to afford it, because at the time his budget only allowed for 45s.
Prince’s brazen, androgynous sexuality was key to his persona from the start, and it made him irresistible to Chicago’s youth—his earliest hard-core fans were queer Black and Brown kids, but very shortly the mania was general. “Every adolescent teenager was into the oversexualized lyrics of Prince,” says Lawrence, laughing. “Do Me, Baby,” “Let’s Pretend We’re Married,” and “Head” played at all-ages clubs and house parties. When producer and songwriter Harold “Big Ed” Matthews, a house head from the early days who started making his own tracks in the 90s, first heard the term “house music,” the only meaning he knew for it was music too risque for the radio—music you would only hear inside.
Oliphant with a live Prince recording made in Vienna, Austria, in May 1987 Ryan Edmund for Chicago Reader
Chicago house producer Melvin Oliphant III, aka Traxx, wants to do the same thing as a DJ that Prince did as a performer, and he’s blunt about what it is: “l want you to fuck,” he says. “That is how serious it is for me, because that is what he did, and no one really talks about that.” While touring Europe in the 90s, Oliphant amassed a large collection of Prince bootlegs and other rarities. When he met the man himself at a Paisley Park party in the early 2010s, Oliphant says, the Purple One was impressed enough by what he’d heard about the collection to pass along more music from his vault to Oliphant via a mutual friend who worked as a caretaker for Prince, looking after his stepmother and his doves.
Oliphant always includes Prince in his sets, specifically cuts from his archive of unreleased material. “It was Prince who taught us what ‘fuck’ is,” he says. “‘Fuck’ is what we all hope to achieve in this life, when you break us down to our core. So when I say ‘fuck,’ I mean Prince was literally the embodiment of ‘fuck.'”
Prince’s easy openness about sexuality is also at the core of house music’s pursuit of pleasure, manifest in classics such as Jamie Principle’s “Your Love” (especially the 1987 version produced by Frankie Knuckles). In harmony with singer Adrienne Jett, Principle moans, “I need your touch / Don’t make me wait for your love,” sounding like he’s rushing closer to climax. In 2016, Noisey called it “one of the sexiest songs in the annals of electronic music” and “one of the most enduring.”
In case the libidinousness of his work didn’t make the connection clear enough, singer and lyricist Byron Walford had chosen a pseudonym that pointed to his chief influence: a reference to one of Prince’s many aliases, Jamie Starr, combined with a surname that literally had “Prince” in it. “Jamie Principle was so Prince-like in his mannerisms and demeanor that we idolized him too,” Lawrence says.
With his eyeliner and high-heeled boots—and a sexuality miles from the macho sleaze of similarly glammy hair-metal stars—Prince anticipated by decades the inclusive attitude about queerness and gender variance displayed in much of today’s mainstream pop. And house music, like Prince and like disco, originally caught on with queer Black and Latinx audiences, building to critical mass at legendary Chicago clubs such as the Warehouse and its successor, the Muzic Box. Word spread fast: soon even straight fans like Matthews and his friends were staying out past dawn at gay clubs, because the music was better there than anywhere else.
The 1999 track “D.M.S.R.” perfectly illustrates what made Prince such a huge influence on producers who targeted dance floors.
Chicago singer Jermaine Stewart, a friend of Lawrence’s, released a Prince-influenced synth-pop single in 1983 called “The Word Is Out,” whose lyrics about a clandestine relationship convinced plenty of folks that it was describing a same-sex couple. “The word is out that you and I are lovers,” he sang, “that you and I been getting it on.” As Lawrence recalls, “Jermaine said a lot of his strength came from Controversy. Prince saying ‘Am I black or white, am I straight or gay?'”
Prince also shaped the sonics of house music. On 1999, he debuted a sound that would become his signature: a distinctly Prince-ified Linn LM-1 Drum Computer. It’s audible from the very start of the album, its knocks and bumps cascading through the title track’s iconic synth fanfare. Though the machine was widely used by recording artists in the early 80s, Prince manipulated its preloaded drum samples, sometimes with guitar pedals, to arrive at distinctive tones that were organically funky while clearly synthetic. Such was his ability to program grooves with the Linn that in 2016 Spin commented that he’d mastered it “like Miles Davis did the trumpet.”
Chicago house producer and music entrepreneur Vince Lawrence Tyler Curtis
The LM-1 and its successor the LinnDrum became highly desirable to house artists in Chicago, but for most they would remain out of reach—few were made, and new they cost $10,000 to $18,000 in 2019 dollars. “We couldn’t wait to get a LinnDrum,” Lawrence says. “We wanted that side-stick sound and the smashing, detuned snare drum like from 1999.”
Prince radically tweaked the sound of his preferred equipment, though, so at first hardly anyone knew he used a Linn. “We were trying to get the Prince sound, and we were like, ‘What the fuck are they doing to these drums?'” Lawrence says. “That drove us to try playing the Mattel Synsonics drum machine—which was a toy—through the PA.”
“I remember I searched high and low trying to figure out how he made that sound, and found out he was using a Linn drum machine, which I already had,” says Saunders. “All he did was turn the side-stick all the way down,” detuning the machine’s sampled cross-stick rim hit into a deep knock. Once Saunders mastered the effect on his own Linn, he used it on several tracks he produced or coproduced in the mid-80s, including “Funk You Up,” “Love Can’t Turn Around,” and “Real Love” (a version of which featured Chicago DJ and producer Farley “Jackmaster” Funk scratching with Prince records).
Jesse Saunders incorporated Prince’s distinctive Linn side-stick knock into “Real Love.”
Oliphant hears plenty of Prince in “It’s About House (Off Beat Acid Mix),” a 1989 cut by Trax Records group J.R.’s House Co. with Felix da Housecat on keyboards. It’s driven by a relentless barrage of hi-hats and steady, powerful kicks and snares from a Linn. “The song was made with a bass guitar, which is unheard of in Chicago house music at this time,” Oliphant says. He considers it a descendent of the extended film version of “Let’s Go Crazy,” with its long instrumental breakdown. “Whoever the producer was took the ideas of what Prince was doing and made it sound sicker than ever.”
For both Prince and house producers, the Linn drum machine serves the same purpose: a pulse that hints at transcendence through physicality, whether on the dance floor, in church, or in the bedroom.
Steve “Silk” Hurley was inspired by the Oberheim synthesizer work of Prince and his former proteges Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. Hurley played an Oberheim OB-8, a model they’d all used, on his 1987 hit “Jack Your Body.”
That same year, Hurley got a call from Cat Glover, a Chicagoan who’d joined Prince’s entourage as a dancer and vocalist. She was excited to share the news that Prince’s forthcoming project, The Black Album, would include her rendition of a rap written by Hurley, originally from J.M. Silk’s 1985 single “Music Is the Key.” It would appear on a song called “Cindy C.”
On The Black Album, Prince dabbled in and sometimes reacted against hip-hop and house, and it’s compelling to hear him work with genres he himself influenced. Hurley looked forward to the royalties he’d get from a contribution to a major-label superstar’s song, but his hopes were dashed when Prince abruptly withdrew the album just before its release. (A probably apocryphal story in Per Nilsen’s 2004 Prince biography Dance Music Sex Romance claims he connected the record to spiritual negativity following a bad experience on ecstasy, which was peaking in popularity as a club drug at the time.) Instead Prince released Lovesexy, and The Black Album existed only as a bootleg until its belated official release in 1994.
Hurley saw no use in pursuing credit for a song that wasn’t generating any on-the-books revenue. “Sometimes patience plays a part in getting what you deserve, not aggression,” he says. His forbearance paid off a few years later, when he was contracted to remix Prince’s 1991 single “Gett Off” in his signature house style.
While remixing an artist he idolizes, Hurley says, he likes to play their vocals alone, so he can pretend he’s in the room with them. Once he arrived at the remix’s pulsing organ line, the rest of the track came quickly. It eventually got its own video, quickly incorporated into MTV’s rotation. “I was like a fan sitting in there, listening to him singing over my track,” Hurley says.
The video for Steve “Silk” Hurley’s house remix of Prince’s “Gett Off”
To this day, Hurley isn’t sure why Prince chose to use a rap he’d written on The Black Album. “Maybe because the rap was saying ‘Music is the key to set yourself free’—that’s what happened with him and what happened with me,” he says. “I was kind of a lost soul, because I wasn’t a great student. I was very quiet during my first two years of high school, but came out of my shell when I was around music. I found myself through DJing, and played keyboards in a show. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life, and I found myself through music.
Prince and his band the Revolution during the 1999 era Allen Beaulieu/Rhino
“I was talking about the song could set you free, and you could be away from the world right now when you listen to the song,” Hurley continues. “But I was also talking about DJing and the culture of house music in general. When people went to the house-music parties, there weren’t a lot of fights. People were there to escape all that.”
Prince’s greatest impact on Chicago may have been to remind it that a young Black man in a deindustrialized midwestern city could make music that reached around the world. “Big Ed” Matthews took inspiration from Prince’s end-to-end talent: he wrote, performed, arranged, and produced his own work. “People in the business, even in house music, found out Prince did everything himself,” he says. “They fashioned themselves after that. A do-it-all type of artist.”
Vince Lawrence’s first group, Z Factor, photographed in summer 1982 in a park near his mother’s home, with future house pioneer Jesse Saunders second from left and Lawrence at far right Vince Lawrence
Prince was already a profound influence in Chicago during the days of Lawrence’s first group, Z Factor, active from 1981 till ’83. “You can very easily find group photos of Z Factor—you can just see it,” he says. “You can see all these poor Black kids trying to be Prince. That’s just what it was.”
Prince dabbled in house music throughout its commercial peak in the 90s, releasing house remixes of several songs (“1999,” “My Name Is Prince,” “The Future,” “Do Your Dance”), and he continued recording new material until his death in 2016. In a 2012 e-mail interview with Time Out Chicago, the Purple One reflected on his early-80s shows at the Uptown Theatre and Park West. “We’re not 1 2 reminisce, but we always got the audience we deserved and that time was pretty wild. Chicago is a music town,” he said. “My father spoke of it often as being one of the places he liked 2 play best. They have seen the best and expect nothing less.” v