Perfect Sound Forever

Prince

Is he still royalty and
where does he get those wonderful (musical) toys?
by Ben Newman
(October 2006)

As a new generation gets exposed to the man who is again calling himself Prince, (although apparently he never officially lost his name anyway) does it matter to the future of music that this intermittent genius is back after years of out-takes, side projects, compilations and fan-club-only releases? With a generation trying earnestly to get rid of a relentlessly youthful Madonna, do we really need another '80's maverick on TV? Prince, however, does have advantages over the aforementioned rival. He was always the more ingenious of the two, and although still on good physical form (despite rumours of a hip problem), he realises his age and is not cavorting around in uncomfortably flexible position in minimal amounts of spandex.

Telling my friends that instead of listening to electronic music, I was primarily listening to Prince came as a bit of a shock to them. But what astonished them was that Prince (like Madonna) had never stopped writing music. They were then further shocked when they learned that he had released 27 albums, the last of which came out this year. Witnessing their reaction made me realise that it is almost as if the mighty return of the mighty one went…well, slightly unnoticed.

Ok, so there were massive 3121 album posters all over London's underground and "Black Sweat" seemed to be often on MTV, but rarely on radio. My local radio station never had it on their play lists while I worked there. Even his much hyped last minute performance at the Brit Awards did little in generating widespread public realisation of his continued comeback, instead acting as a further reminder of why he used to reign supreme.

Unfortunately for Prince, he doesn't have someone like producer Stuart Price (the man behind the Jacques Lu Cont name and more famously Les Rhythms Digitales) to update him on the world of meticulous dance music or to get him a Number 1 as Madonna did. He seemingly being more fastidious, would rather do it himself, which unfortunately does not always yield good results. But are all Princes' efforts, and Universals expenses, worth it for the 21st century public and for the popular music community in general?

As a multitalented, vivaciously inventive, "Swiss Army Knife" of musicians (like Stevie Wonder in the '70's), he broke new musical ground during the eighties. Often praised for turning pop on its head by proving music can have widespread appeal while being inventive, his unique sound challenged what could be popular. Prince's original styles and crossover fusions significantly influenced the modern R&B sound of today. Now, with every budding musician being their own producer, can a man who was seen to tread new ground in this field compete with illustrious figures like Pharrell Williams and Tim Mosley (who have both established themselves as leading forces in American R&B production)? Having both developed a hit list nearly as impressive as Prince's, can a 48-year-old funkster still continue to be a pioneer?

In 2004, the nostalgia act that Prince had become emerged from the shadows and he returned to the charts with his new album Musicology. Getting generally positive reviews, the lead single (also called "Musicology") utilises many of Prince original compositional traits which made him a revolutionary in the 1980's. Initially obvious is the pitch of the bass, playing high, in the same spectrum as the rhythm guitar. It only drops to the lower register on the 1st beat of every bar and again on an addition note which alternates between the anacrusis and the up-beat of the one beat. When the bass is used in its traditional register, its main purpose is to emphasis the kick drum beat on the one.

Mind you, this isn't unique in Prince's catalogue. As such, it's worth exploring his impressive track record to see what's so special and unique about his sound. As an example, like "Musicology," the bass guitar in the song "1999" (from the same-titled album, 1982) is used in a similar way, reinforcing the kick drum rhythm. Only moving off the tonic of F on the refrain to follow the chord progressions of B minor and C major, but even then, the rhythm completely copies that of the kick drum.

Although "When Doves Cry" (from Purple Rain) was the first Prince song where he took out the bass line completely, most of his music did not utilise the stereotypical Larry Graham slap bass groove, to the extent that other funk artists before him had done. Songs in this vain, like "Uptown" (from Dirty Mind, 1980), "Alphabet Street" (from Lovesexy, 1988) and "Emancipation" (from same-titled album, 1996) are rare in Prince's vast cannon. Prince often used the bass as a percussive element instead of a harmonic one. Its heaviest use was in lead-in's to the snare beats on the 2nd and 4th, adding just an single slap or flourish here and there to syncopate the groove and emphasis the drum beat: "Automatic" (from 1999) is notable for this. Apart from a rapid quirky slap flourish every four bars on beat 4.5 (the fourth beat plus a quaver, or the last quaver before the bar line) to emphasis the one, this is the total bass guitar input for the entirety of the song apart from the ending. This is because the music is driven by Prince most recognisable compositional characteristic; the drums.

The interplay between the bass and drum parts have in his music is extremely intricate. 1999 is perhaps the album that best demonstrates this. At the forefront of every mix in 1999 is that distinctive 1-kick…2-snare…3-kick…4-snare, with hardly any fills or breaks to interrupt the ostinato, as often is the case within his music. With snares sounding slightly ahead of the beat, it produces this drive that is ridiculously catchy in itself. Songs like "Let's Go Crazy" (from Purple Rain, 1984) and "If" (from Sign O The Times, 1987) are both songs that are driven by their unyielding rigid drum patters. Prince's drums aren't only significant because of their prominence but also their timbre; especially with the snare. One trick he developed was running his infamous LM-1 drum machine through a Boss effects pedal to create unique drum sounds. The results of these experiments were used in the majority of his '80's material, making every song sound like it has its own specific drum kit.

Where other funk artists like George Clinton tended to focus on bass grooves to drive the music and James Brown generally used the guitar or horns for his, Prince utilised his drums programming. His drum sequences are not clever because they are complex or completely original, but due to the way they propel the music forward. To hear this explicitly, listen again to Prince's catalogue from the album 1999 through to Sign- there, his drum timbres contain rich variation with some repetition of the ideas that generally returned with slight variation. Parade is probably the best example- it's an album which contains the widest variation in percussion from one song to the next, including a lot reversed phased percussion, like the snare on the opening track "Christopher Tracy's Parade" and the bass drum in "Kiss." One distinct percussion signature he used during this time (especially on Purple Rain) was a processed rim shot sound, most notably on "Lets Go Crazy," "The Beautiful Ones, " "Computer Blue" and "When Doves Cry" (all from Rain) as well as "Raspberry Beret" (Around the World in a Day, 1985) and "Play In the Sunshine" (Sign O the times). This drum sound is very distinguishably and keyed to Prince's aural world.

Another distinct drum sound that Prince cultivates is the way he accent snare hits by changing them, either by different processing, using a different snare sound entirely or even replacing it with processed hand claps or using a completely different percussion instruments altogether. Some examples are:

- "When Doves Cry" - in a two bar cycle, he accents the 2nd bars 2nd beat.

- "I would Die 4u" (Purple Rain) again in a two bar cycle only during the chorus the snare is different on the 4th beat in the first bar and is left out completely in the 2nd bars 4th beat.

- The chorus of "Delirious" (1999) uses a more prominently processed snare on the 2nd beat of every bar that is not present in the verse.

- On the chorus of "Raspberry Beret," there is a more prominent snare beat on the 4th beat every 2nd bar.

- "It" (Sign O The Times) is also unique in its simplicity, as it has this continual heavily processed robotic drum beat that consists only of snare and bass drum throughout.

As such, although his drum programs often sound simple on the surface and very perpetual, they contain a lot of depth, with percussion often randomly coming in and out of the basic rhythm. If you really listen to them, they can become riveting.

The reason why house music, like funk, is so danceable isn't because there's anything clever about four to the floor beats, it's because they are the perpetual focus of the mix. So when anything syncopates with that rigidity, it further exemplifies their rhythm. Positioning the drums so forward in the mix was new to popular music. Although drum beats were always an integral part of popular musics, like rock, this prominence was reasonably unheard of and led to newer genres taking this feature further, most successfully in House and Hip Hop. Moreover, Prince often developed instrumental passages around these exposed beats; ending, breaking or starting phrases before and after the snare hits, thus emphasising the drum rhythm further.

Leading us back to the present, this year, Prince used this technique to great effect on "Black Sweat." Everything in the backing of this song works towards emphasising the 2nd and 4th snare hits. This drives the groove in the same way as it does in hits twenty years ago like "D.M.S.R" (from 1999), "When Doves Cry" (from Purple Rain) and "Kiss" (from Parade, 1986). So does "Black Sweat" breaking any new boundaries? Well, there's nothing thematically new in "Black Sweat" that Prince hasn't covered before. It proves that Prince can write songs that are as catchy as those he wrote in his peek, and can keep them sounding up-to-date (in this case by adding modern industrial stylised drums) without loosing his musics essence, and above all they are still funky.

The title track to 3121 is Prince's most daring song since "Shy" (from The Gold Experience, 1995) or maybe even "The Ballad of Dorothy Parker" (from Sign O The Times). Built upon a continually looping bass and drum pattern which, unusually for Prince drags a bit. Here, the muddy bass emphasises the snare by thickening the texture of the backing along with the plodding low synth chords. Again though not totally leaving the past behind him, Prince brings back the 'Camille' voice of the '86-'87 period as well as dated synth sounds. Although 3121 includes element of the past, it also contains new realms of experimentation, indicating that Prince may once again want to break ground in new musical territory, instead of writing music which has the sole aim of becoming a hit.

So should we care that he is back? Perhaps the question is irrelevant as the critical world only seems to care about an artist when they are succeeding anyway. Although Prince has often strained people's patience, it's nevertheless good to see him producing chart-worthy music again that is still striving for originality. A gifted musician in many areas, numerous people believe that he squandered his talents potential, if nothing else, this is a chance to put that right, now that people are listening again.


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