My earliest encounters with the music of Prince was in the late 70s/early 80s. I was about ten years old, cruising Detroit's Woodward Avenue with my big sister. She had a brand new snow white RX-7 with red pinstripes and a massive sound system for the time. With the radio tuned to 107.5 we listened as the legendary disc jockey The Electrifying Mojo called another session of the Midnight Funk Association to order–an on air ritual he performed to gather the forces of Soul every night. The show began with Mojo asking listeners to solemly swear their solidarity to the MFA as he called it. If we were at home, he told us to turn on our porch lights; if we were driving he asked that we toot our horns and flash our lights. Dozens of cars would flash and honk as they cruised the avenue while the girls working street corners stood for a moment with their right hands raised, all of us showing that we were "down in Motown." (check out this link to hear one of these funky rituals)
And then the music played.
I was a Mojo devotee and a card carrying member of the MFA. Many school nights I stayed up past my bedtime, tuning in and receiving the broadcast, getting butterflies of excitement in my stomach when Prince songs like Annie Christian, Dirty Mind, Party Up, or Controversy came on. His music was far out, bizarre, and subterranean for the time yet always groovy. Mojo loved Prince. He broke him to the Detroit scene which Prince often referred to as his second home town. Mojo would play extended versions of songs, or whole sides of Prince records like he was trying to ensure their riffs made a solid groove in our collective psyches.
In a way, Prince became a role model for me.
I didn't emulate his style, but I was influenced by the way he radically pioneered the creation of his own thing, how he used clothing to say something about his true nature, how he wore his soul on his sleeve. He also challenged the idea of masculinity at a time when deviance from the gender norm was severely discouraged. Even as a youngster I didn't relate to what it meant to be a "boy." At least not in the traditional sense. It wasn't so much confusing as it was lonely. I couldn't find any eleven year olds who felt the same way. But discovering fringe artists changed that. With every one I found (usually through record albums) the isolation was lessened. I began to know that I wasn't alone. Prince was a major player in a long line of creative characters who helped me understand that it is possible to forge my own way.
Throughout my life artists have had a profound influence.
I am one of those people for whom a song, a concert, a book, a painting, or a really good dance party can change the way I look at things. I could talk for an hour on the impact Iggy Pop has had on my approach to everything. I could write a book on the radical affect–no, the total upheaval that Henry Miller’s work has had on my life, let alone the music of CRASS, Fugazi, and Black Flag. But I will save those stories because right now it is Prince who is foremost on my mind.
Prince was a great cultural outlaw who expressed a new kind of gender reality–one that was an indescribable blend of male and female at a time when doing so was dangerous. He believed in the power of his soul force–a force so strong the mainstream had to take notice. He did good things with his success–giving millions of dollars toward humanitarian efforts, and in his more recent days courageously exposed the corporate stiffs who try to exploit and rule our lives. But more than any of this, Prince gave us some funky ass revolutionary music that will forever be danced to by people all over this planet. And for that I am most grateful.