DJ and producer Kirk Degiorgio talks with Detroit’s finest to uncover the inspirational influence of Prince on techno
The year is 2000 and Prince is playing live at the State Theatre, Detroit. In the third row sit techno producers Richie Hawtin and Carl Craig, the latter with his then partner, multimedia artist Hannah Sawtell. Hawtin first saw Prince live when he was 14, during the legendary Purple Rain Tour of winter 1984 – after that concert, he painted his bedframe black and had purple sheets to match his newly painted bedroom walls, which were adorned with Prince posters. “I sat there night after night listening to his albums, reading the liner notes engulfed in his music and words,” Hawtin emails.
Detroit techno’s love affair with Prince goes all the back to the very beginning of his career. In the UK, he first got noticed on the soul scene in 1979 with the upbeat, sophisticated funk of “I Wanna Be Your Lover”. But in Detroit, his very first single “Soft And Wet” made people sit up and listen. Released in 1978, at a time when disco was still the dominant sound in black American music, it harked back to an earthier, funk driven style which contrasted with its slick production, hi-tech synth lines and sophisticated, smooth falsetto vocals.
Despite this distinctive combination, Prince’s early albums gave little indication he would cross over from R&B to elsewhere. For You (1978) was a slick, polished debut, with only the driving rock guitar of “I’m Yours” hinting at a world outside R&B. His 1979 self-titled follow-up had a similar formula, with immaculately produced upbeat disco funk hits such as “I Wanna Be Your Lover” and “Sexy Dancer” accompanied by sparse ballads and hints of a rockier flavour. As Gerald Mitchell of UR and Los Hermanos explains, they gave little indication of an artist who would redefine rock, pop and funk: “When I first heard about Prince, I thought here is another Sylvers type of group.”
But Prince’s third album Dirty Mind really captured Detroit’s attention. While the conservative, purist likes of the UK soul scene were confused by Dirty Mind’s front cover and press shots of Prince in leather pants, women’s suspenders and high heeled boots, or the half-naked Prince poster that accompanied the following Controversy, in Detroit, this sexually ambiguous image fit perfectly with the city’s outsider loving music fans brought up on a mixture of Motown, MC5, Iggy Pop and P funk. The album was sexually daring and lyrically subversive, with a rock attitude that linked into an overlooked element of black music culture from Hendrix to Funkadelic. “After I heard “Party Up” and those songs,” Mitchell continues, “I began to read Prince’s album covers and found out he arranged, wrote and produced everything! He was different. He became a leading force of inspiration for a lot of groups in Detroit, including me and my brothers’ group Lamborghini. I began learning his material and writing songs that sounded much like his style.”
Prince’s musical rival during much of the early 1980s was Rick James, another multi-talented songwriter who could rock hard, and whose macho pimp image went down a storm in Detroit. Prince and James shared a musical upbringing outside of the more familiar R&B environments. James spent his formative years in Toronto, avoiding the draft and forming a rock band with Neil Young called The Mynah Birds. Prince meanwhile, was a product of the little known Minneapolis funk scene – a thriving micro-community of musicians of mixed races in a cold outpost on the very northern fringes of the America’s Midwest.
The way techno founder Juan Atkins remembers it, it was legendary Detroit radio DJ The Electrifying Mojo who properly broke Prince in the city. Prince’s eclectic sound was a microcosm of the openminded musical approach that characterised Mojo’s shows; and the importance of Detroit to Prince is evident in rare, exclusive interviews he gave to ‘The Electrifying One’. In a post-concert phone-in interview he proudly calls Detroit his “second home”, and Mojo gave Prince’s music a wide exposure before the rest of American radio caught on. “Mojo was the biggest Prince advocate in the United States,” states Craig. “He didn’t just break his music, he genuinely loved the guy – and we all loved Prince through Mojo.”
DJ and producer Alan Oldham backs up Atkins’s account. “Thanks to Electrifying Mojo, all the Prince and Prince-related bands and projects were big in Detroit, all the way down to Madhouse and Mazerati,” he recalls. “The Minneapolis sound was huge. A lot of guys used to dress like [The Time’s] Morris Day and Jerome Benton: suits, Stacey Adams shoes and the hair-dos.” (As someone who has seen Derrick May’s passport photo from the 1980s, I can verify this myself.)
Prince always had an uncomfortable relationship with rap. Despite trying his hand at MCing later on in his career, he wrote lyrics that were highly critical of the genre, and it’s safe to say the harder, macho element within rap culture sat uneasily with the sexual ambiguity and fashion of what Prince termed the Uptown scene in Minneapolis. But for the Detroit techno community – an environment that has always embraced diversity from its roots in disco and house music onward – he was the perfect pop icon. His use of the studio as an instrument, the fact that he played many of his own instruments and self-produced in his own studio with drum machines and synthesizers fired techno’s DIY ethic. Indeed, his fiercely guarded operational independence was another inspiration to artists like Carl Craig, for whom a 20 minute version of “Purple Rain” at the State Theatre show underlined the importance of an artist staying independent and in control of their own creativity. “Making music under different monikers was something I got from Prince,” Craig adds. “Which he may have got from George Clinton.”
Direct musical influences in terms of techniques adopted by Detroit artists is harder to pinpoint. Prince’s 1999, with its driving electronic rhythms, is the album most frequently played by Detroit techno producers in their DJ sets. Ironically, Juan Atkins recalls that his Cybotron release “Alleys Of Your Mind” kept Prince’s “Little Red Corvette” off the number one spot on a local Detroit radio station poll. But a Prince innovation picked up by a later generation of techno artists was the creation of bass using production trickery. “Kiss” is a perfect example of how a heavily gated reverb on the kick drum can provide a ‘rumble’ bass part – Prince applied the reverse reverb preset setting of an AMS RMX16 effects unit to the kick of his Linn drum machine. The track’s gating or sidechaining of the guitar to a hi-hat pattern to create a rhythm part is another often used production technique in techno.
Ultimately, however, it is the image of the artist, alone at night in his own studio, with the machines warmly glowing, the record button permanently on with nothing but themselves and their imagination, having the freedom and technology to be creative, that the Detroit techno ethos takes musically from Prince. He was the pinnacle example of the bedroom producer – albeit a purple-decorated one.