It was a hot, muggy, midwestern Wednesday night, August 3rd, 1983. Prince was performing at First Avenue, the premier music venue in downtown Minneapolis, in a benefit for the Minnesota Dance Theater. 1 First Avenue has no seating — the crowd was on its feet from the first — and the former Greyhound Bus depot was packed with fans excited to hear the city’s native son perform. The Minnesota Dance Theater, where Prince Rogers Nelson had studied ballet as a high-school student, was strapped for cash, and its future was hanging in the balance. Even more immediately for the band, executives from Warner Bros. were in the audience. If the songs slapped, funding was guaranteed for a film that at the time was tentatively titled Dreams. If they fell flat, hope for the movie would be all but extinguished.
It was a hot, muggy, midwestern Wednesday night, August 3rd, 1983, and Prince was performing at the premier music venue in Minneapolis.
For many fans and critics, this performance stands out as perhaps the artist’s most important, because it set him on a path to superstardom; the film that became Purple Rain (1984) was in a sense created that August night. For me, the concert remains pivotal not for its pop cultural significance, but for what it reveals about Prince and his hometown, and by extension about the geography of music. Nothing musical happens in a placeless vacuum, though it may sometimes seem that way for listeners used to endlessly shareable recordings. The “sounding and resounding of music” transmit through physical space, creating auditory landscapes in the process. 2 And, of course, physical locations don’t exist in vacuums either. They are shaped by social forces such as racism, class inequality, sexuality, migration, habitation, and displacement. Musical cultures and communities, therefore, help to create place — and the dynamics of those places are reflected and refracted sonically.
What has been dubbed the “Minneapolis Sound” refers to Prince’s signature blend of funk, R&B, rock, synth-pop, punk, and new wave. 3 But the Minneapolis Sound is more than a description of a musical idiom. It’s a way of talking about the history of the city as a mid-19th-century outpost where White settlers from Scandinavian and Germanic backgrounds sought to establish high-cultural bona fides; as a progressive municipality where, from the early 20th century, school-based music training forged a general public with unusually high levels of musical literacy; as a racially segregated place where Black musicians nevertheless flourished; as a postindustrial city where an influential punk-and-alt-rock scene emerged in the late 1970s and ’80s. Prince’s sound is a musical hybrid, in which the history of Minneapolis, its people, and the social forces organizing life there are brought together. Yes, Prince’s sound is a testament to his musical genius and unparalleled work ethic. But “Prince’s sound” encompasses more than his talent and achievements. Listening to him, we can immerse ourselves in a soundscape that was nurtured by unique historical economies, migrations, and patterns of social interaction.
First Avenue, as a place to listen to and make music, was exciting, avant-garde — and, even in the 1980s, it was one of few venues in downtown Minneapolis where Black artists were welcome. Prince took the stage that Wednesday night with a newly retooled band, the Revolution, featuring Wendy Melvoin on lead guitar, replacing former lead Dez Dickerson. Their twelve-song set covered Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You” and debuted six new songs that Prince had written to accompany the film he was developing. They played catalogue hits like “When You Were Mine,” “Little Red Corvette,” and “D.M.S.R.” But it was the new material — “Baby I’m a Star,” “Let’s Go Crazy,” and especially “Purple Rain” — that sealed the deal with the studio execs. These songs had incubated during long rehearsals at a former pet-supply warehouse just outside the city proper, along Highway 7 in the suburb of St. Louis Park. This modest locale not only gave Prince and his bandmates a place to work, but fostered an environment in which the artist did something he’d not done before, which was to write music collaboratively.
Musical geographies are shaped by social forces such as racism, class inequality, sexuality, migration, habitation, and displacement.
Prince Rogers Nelson grew up in North Minneapolis, the son of musicians Mattie Shaw and John L. Nelson. He got to know Loyce Houlton, artistic director of the Minnesota Dance Theater, when he began taking dance lessons — uncharacteristic for boys at that time, in that place — as a grade-school student. A few months before the benefit concert, in April, at the conclusion of the “Triple Threat” tour for his album 1999, he had returned to the theater to work on choreography for a new project, the semi-autobiographical screenplay he was calling Dreams. But the dance company had fallen on hard times. Houlton found out where the star was staying and camped in front of the building to ask for help. He took up her cause and enlisted his favorite local venue, First Avenue, to stage a fundraiser. 4 Prince charged $25 per ticket (about $60 today), and the show sold out in minutes. The Minnesota Dance Theater, which is still in operation, has not had financial problems since. 5
The Minneapolis Sound
Comedian Chris Rock once joked that only two Black people lived in Minnesota: Prince, and Minnesota Twins Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett. In fact, though small numerically, Black populations have been in the region since before the state was founded.
Dakota and Ojibwe peoples inhabited the land that is now Minneapolis for some 12,000 years before Europeans came along. 6 Blacks from Canada traded with these Native folks in the 18th century, and enslaved people were a presence in the territory beginning in the middle of the 19th century. The state’s first free Black settlement was established nearby in 1857, along the banks of the Mississippi. 7 After Emancipation, migration increased sharply; between 1880 and 1930, the local Black population grew from 362 to 4,276. 8 Minnesota’s growing liberalism and willingness to enfranchise Black men (women did not have the vote until passage of the 19th Amendment), sent a signal to southern Black people that they would be treated fairly in the northern metropolis.
Instruments, rhythms, harmonies, and melodies came from New England, Scandinavia, and Germany, as well as Mississippi and Louisiana.
European settlers had been arriving since April 1680, when the French priest Louis Hennepin and his companions Michel Accual and Antoine Auguelle, who were looking for the northwest passage, first saw the only waterfall on the Mississippi River. The Ojibwe called it Kakabika (which translates roughly as “severed rock”) and Kichi-Kakabika (“great severed rock”), names derived from the limestone blocks lining its base. The Dakota called it Minirara (“curling water”), O-Wa-Mni (“whirlpool”), and Owahmenah (“falling water”). Hennepin renamed it the Falls of St. Anthony. 9 Father Hennepin’s writings drew other explorers in his wake; the adventurer Jonathan Carver wrote a best-selling book, Jonathan Carver’s Journey Through America, 1776–1778 (first published in 1778), describing the wonder, and soldier-explorers Zebulon Pike and Stephen H. Long also publicized its beauty. 10 European immigrants and White northeasterners poured in, attracted by cheap land and jobs at lumber mills powered by the falls. By the close of the 19th century, Minneapolis had subsumed the village of St. Anthony and boasted a population of nearly 400,000. 11
In numbers, the Black population remained small compared to those in other midwestern cities, just one percent of the total in 1930. 12 But Black music had been moving up the Mississippi River for decades, and minstrels, ragtime, jazz, and blues were beloved in Minneapolis, hybridizing with musical traditions brought by the New Englanders and Europeans. Instruments, rhythms, harmonies, melodies, and musical knowledge that had come from New England, Norway, Sweden, and Germany, as well as Mississippi and Louisiana, found their way into the first musical halls built in the city in the 1850s — Barber’s (1854), Bibbins (1855), the Summer Garden Verity theater, Elfelt’s, Fletcher’s, Nedderley’s, the Scandinavian, the Chambers, and Edwards (all 1856), the Universalist church (1857), Woodman’s (1857) and Woodmans No. 2 (1858), Stanchfiels (1858), and Hawe (1859). Shabby wooden buildings lacking decent acoustics, these institutions established the city’s music scene. In-migration grew, and venues proliferated; by the turn of the last century, dozens of music halls, music stores, schools, clubs, and choral societies, as well as hundreds of music teachers, were to be found. 13
Minneapolis held its first music festival in 1884. This three-day affair in June, featuring local and national musicians, was a coming-out party for the (White) midwestern outpost, highlighting its speedy growth and showcasing local talent. City fathers hoped to place their home on par with rivals in the northeast. They succeeded; the Minneapolis Tribune declared the event “a superb triumph,” asserting that it had established “beyond a cavil the fact that Minneapolis is not to be, but is, perhaps one of a half dozen musical centers on the continent, where festivals of this character and magnitude can be organized and regularly maintained.” 14 Musical societies boomed, and the state’s first symphony orchestra was founded. Sheet music was being mass produced; choirs and glee clubs grew, and some of the best musicians in the country visited to perform. Among them were Emma Juch, the country’s most popular soprano; the “Swedish nightingale” Christine Nilsson, one of the greatest sopranos alive; and Theodore Thomas, the “king of conductors,” with his 60-piece band. 15 It was in this context that Minneapolis took the radical step to institutionalize its collective love of music.
Compulsory music education from first grade through high school put the tools of sophisticated music-making into public hands.
In 1911, the city’s public school system hired Minnesota-born Thaddeus P. Giddings to be Superintendent of Music Education. Giddings was a zealot for his calling, and within a year he’d convinced the school board to make music education universal. 16 All students were trained in voice, instrumentation, and reading musical notation. Giddings’s legacy in Minneapolis public schools lasted for the better part of the century, though it diminished after his death in 1954. Compulsory music education in the Minneapolis public schools increased the musical literacy of thousands of children and put the tools of sophisticated music-making into public hands in a way that did not happen in New York, Boston, Chicago, or St. Louis. Generations of local musicians, including Prince’s parents, as well as Prince himself and his friends Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis, and Morris Day (bandmates in The Time, which coexisted with the Revolution), received daily music education from first grade through senior year in high school. In middle and high school, Prince was taught by the multi-instrumentalist James Hamilton, who’d moved to Minneapolis in 1965 after coming off the road with Ray Charles.
When Prince was born, in 1958, the state’s Black population could still be measured in single-digit percentages. Even so, in choosing the Twin Cities, Hamilton was following what had become a well-worn path, as a local jazz scene that was by then several decades old had confirmed for Black musicians that this place could be livable. 17 Other transplants included tenor saxophonist Lester “Prez” Young, and pianist James Samuel “Cornbread” Harris II, as well as all four of Prince’s grandparents, who came from Louisiana after the First World War. 18 Jimmy Jam Harris was Cornbread’s son. The parents of Terry Lewis, and those of the Revolution guitarist Dez Dickerson, arrived in the same period.
The rich but problematic character of the city’s segregated musical landscape was absorbed into the inheritances of his musical family.
During the prohibition years, the center of Black (and Jewish) life in Minneapolis had been in “Near North,” just north of downtown. 19 The neighborhood was filled with jazz and blues venues, and when Black artists visited the city, they performed at places like The Chef’s Club on Olsen Boulevard and the Cotton Club on 6th Avenue North. Mattie Shaw was a jazz vocalist and John L. Nelson a pianist and composer; both performed on the north side. This musical landscape was, however, created through racism. Although the downtown network of clubs and performance halls was just blocks away, an apartheid system kept Black bands and audiences out. Local singer Dick Mayes described the experience in downtown Minneapolis as “terrible, absolutely terrible … you never saw Black bands down there.” The few Black musicians who performed downtown for Whites-only audiences might be instructed not to stand in front of the establishment when they took breaks. 20
By the early 1970s, the Black population in Minneapolis was still “small enough to be ignored.” 21 But Prince, Morris Day, Andre Cymone (the Revolution bassist), and other Black kids were putting a new spin on the music they’d grown up with. Mixing funk, rock, and synth-pop, a new sound was being conjured in Near North. 22 As this was happening, a White indie-rock and-punk scene was growing downtown. These youngsters rejected the banality of top-40 radio stations and rock cover bands. They were inspired, instead, by new wave, punk, and glam rock coming out of London, Detroit, and New York. Shows by The Ramones and the New York Dolls, and albums from David Bowie, Pattie Smith, and Iggy Pop ignited a fury of band-making. The Suicide Commandos, Hüsker Dü, and the Flamingos were born during this period, and made a home at the Longhorn bar downtown, as well as at a dive bar at 5th Street and Hennepin Avenue called Blitz. 23
The rich but problematic character of the city’s segregated musical landscape — evidenced by the city’s targeting and closing of King Solomon’s Mines, a Black nightclub, in 1970 — was absorbed by Prince along with the specific inheritances of his musical family. 24 His first band, Grand Central, for example, was made with childhood friends who had also been musically educated in public school; they played funk/soul, tinged with rock. 25 When Prince began recording at Moon Studios in South Minneapolis in 1976, these sounds, and the musical education that underwrote them, shaped what he produced. His 1977 debut, For You, opens with a melodic falsetto that channels his idol, Joni Mitchell. Traversing staccato funk on “Soft and Wet,” synth-pop on “Crazy You,” and R&B and rock on “Just As Long As We’re Together” and “I’m Yours,” this look-what-I-can-do album signaled that this cat was anything but ordinary.
Rather than affiliating himself with just one aspect of the surrounding scene, he synthesized the sounds the city offered: R&B and funk from Near North and South Minneapolis, and indie-rock and punk from downtown. His sophomore album, Prince (1979), includes songs like “I Wanna Be Your Lover, with its fusion of funk and R&B, and “Bambi,” which, with its over-the-top guitar riffs, sounds like Led Zeppelin. The critically acclaimed Dirty Mind (1980) fuses punk and funk with R&B rhythms, while Controversy (1981) works at the intersection of rock and R&B. By the time his synth/rock/gospel mashup 1999 was released in 1982, Prince had committed to bringing the omnivorously interwoven sounds of Minneapolis to audiences in other places, who didn’t have the aural sophistication that generations of free public musical training had produced.
Over the course of the first four of these albums, Prince’s creative process had been that of a one-man band; he wrote, composed, arranged, and played all 27 instruments on For You. 26 When he signed with Warner Records in 1977 at just eighteen years old, he delayed the legal process to make sure that sole production rights were written into his contract. Warner Bros. had wanted Maurice White, from the venerable band Earth, Wind, and Fire, to produce the teenager’s first album, and threatened to drop him if he disagreed. He did disagree, though. As the story goes, the record company compromised by setting up a demonstration to see if Prince could produce himself. With execs in the control booth, he walked into the studio and recorded a perfect rhythm section. Then he recorded drums. Perfect again. He was ready to record the baseline, but the company brass had seen enough and made him coproducer. In practice, there was no co-. Prince did everything himself. 27
The band rehearsed and recorded in the suburbs, at a former pet-supply storage facility they called the Warehouse.
After the release of 1999 (in 1982), the idea emerged for what would become Purple Rain. A kind of total artwork involving music, choreography, storytelling, and filmmaking, the project required a new level of collaboration. Keyboardist Lisa Colman had moved into Prince’s house in the suburb of Chanhassen, and the two spent days making music together (recordings from this period were released in 2019, on a deluxe anniversary reissue of 1999). But working from home wasn’t adequate for the development of Purple Rain because Prince needed the band to test their choreography while playing, which they couldn’t do in a suburban house. From April to August of 1983, Prince and the Revolution (Melvoin, Cymone, and Colman, plus keyboardist Matt Fink and drummer Bobby Z) rehearsed and recorded in the suburb of St. Louis Park, at the industrial space they called the Warehouse. Rehearsals sometimes lasted 24 hours. 28
The Warehouse was big and utilitarian, with an open floor plan that gave the band the space they needed; given that they also recorded on site, acoustics must have been good too. The most important thing about the Warehouse, however, was its remoteness. Being on the city’s edge, away from temptations and distractions, was important to Prince for most of his career. He had secured a level of seclusion when he purchased the Chanhassen house in 1980, but in the Warehouse, collaborative experiment could scale up. In addition to working out the kinks of their routine through assiduous repetition, the Warehouse offered a place where the Revolution could “write as a band,” Coleman recalled. 29 Prince would bring outlines or parts of a song and allow the other musicians to add chord progressions, change keys, or even reconfigure how Prince himself voiced certain parts. This stark shift in Prince’s creative process facilitated one of the most prolific periods in his career. Between 1983 and 1987, he would release Purple Rain (both the album and the film), as well as the records Around the World in a Day, Parade, and his magnum opus Sign O’ The Times, which originally comprised three albums’ worth of music and was titled Crystal Ball (Warner Bros. made him edit it down to a double album). He was also writing music for his funk band, The Time, his R&B band, Vanity 6, and songs for Shelia E. and a slew of other artists from Mitchell herself to Chaka Khan to the Bangles. Many of the songs on Purple Rain were developed, co-written, rehearsed, and even recorded in St. Louis Park.
The song that surprised the downtown crowd that August night at First Avenue, “Purple Rain” was born out of these sessions. According to Bobby Z, Prince introduced “Purple Rain” toward the end of a rehearsal. “I want to try something out before we go home,” he told the group. “It’s mellow.” He had been working on the song since the 1999 tour, Fink later explained, “but the arrangement wasn’t quite finalized yet and I don’t think the lyrics were finished. So, he brought it to us and said, ‘play what you feel’” — a startling invitation from the artist who, just six years prior, had played 27 parts himself. 30 Melvoin recalls first playing the song during that session, and making a significant suggestion. “Prince’s chords were much more simple then. We kept all those suspended chords in there and then I put a 9 in.” It was the addition of the 9th note that gave the track its reflective, melancholy vibe, like a country song — which helps to explain why it stunned the First Avenue audience, who were used to eclecticism from Prince, but not to the extent of something haunting or twangy. The last-minute-before-we-go-home trial lasted six hours, after which the song “was mostly written and arranged.” 31
Located at the corners of N. 1st Avenue and N. 7th Street in downtown Minneapolis, First Avenue and its adjacent smaller space 7th Street Entry remain the most important performance venues the city has produced, a site for the intersection of its diverse musical legacies. Yet, until Prince began performing there in 1981, only national Black acts like Al Jarreau and B.B. King were invited. The only local talent playing First Avenue came from the downtown (White) indie-rock and punk scene, along with some White musicians from St. Paul.
Until Prince began performing at First Avenue in downtown Minneapolis, only national Black acts had been invited.
The Greyhound station that became First Avenue was built in 1937. A two-story structure with an art-deco inspired façade, it was designed by Minneapolis architects Oscar Lang and Arnold Raugland. The bus station relocated in the late 1960s, and the building was bought by local businessman Allan Fingerhut, heir to the Fingerhut mail-order catalogue business. He kept the checkered terrazzo floor and curved façade, and turned the place into a rock club called The Depot, which from 1970 on became the city’s main stage for national acts as well as the growing local rock-and-punk scene. Joe Crocker, Tina Turner, Alice Cooper, Frank Zappa, Rod Steward, John Lee Hooker, and many more performed there. In 1972, as rock and punk were taking backseats to disco, Fingerhut renamed his venue Uncle Sam’s, and instituted a new corporate structure. This produced the dullest period in the venue’s history, focused on attracting White middle-class audiences from the suburbs. There was a dress code. Uncle Sam’s made it clear that it didn’t want Black acts or patrons.
The end of the decade brought change again. Uncle Sam’s became just Sam’s, and rock and punk returned to center stage, ushered in by memorable performances by Pat Benatar in 1979 and The Ramones in 1980. That same year, a second, more intimate stage was constructed on the 7th street side of the building. This room, the 7th Street Entry, hosted local talent, like the punk groups Hüsker Dü and Suicide Commandos, and the alt-rock band The Replacements. The Entry gave First Avenue an experimental vibe. 32 Cymone, Prince’s childhood friend, remembered that Sam’s “had a buzz. … It was an edgy venue.” The band knew that they, too, were cutting-edge, and Prince wanted to play there. They first took the stage at Sam’s in 1981, in front of a packed crowd. In a breathtaking 95-minute set, Prince gave “the city claim to a star.” 33 This was the first in an intermittent series of shows leading up to August ’83. When the venue entered its final metamorphosis in 1982, becoming First Avenue & 7th Street Entry, Prince showed his appreciation by holding a surprise concert. 34
Prince liked First Avenue because it “felt big and theatrical” — like the Warehouse. 35 He liked that it was friendlier to Black artists than other downtown clubs and functioned as a kind of middle ground between the North Minneapolis Black community where he had grown up, and the South Minneapolis Black community where George Floyd would be murdered in 2020. He liked the flawless acoustics, which bonded the band to the crowd despite the size of the no-frills room. He appreciated the place’s hometown vibe, and the fact that he could walk in unannounced and watch a show without being bothered. 36 And he liked that he could perform there whenever he wanted, even after he became a superstar.
Through the course of the show on August 3rd, the crowd sang along to hits and inhaled the new work on offer. It was the penultimate song of the set, however, that earned Prince the backing for his film and secured legendary status for the performance. Ablaze with stage light, Wendy Melvoin strummed a B-flat suspended 2 chord with a D in the bass, a sound that contradicted the show’s punk/funk/rock/R&B/synth-pop groove. It was wistful, and in a particular way it sounded like the prelude to an anthem, a mode that Prince had been tinkering with. 37 The “unusual” chord subdued the audience, and the band filled the empty space. 38 After nearly two minutes, Prince’s melancholy vocals slithered in: “I never meant to cause you any sorrow / I never meant to cause you any pain.” Nearly eleven minutes long, “Purple Rain” was pure Minneapolis.
Arguably the greatest pop musician of all time, Prince collaborated, in effect, with the city itself.
As the band walked offstage, Albert Magnoli, who had already been chosen by the studio to direct the unfinished, unfinanced movie, ran up to them. “That song … that could be the song!” “It’s really not done yet,” Prince responded. 39 The director told him that this song would make the film.
April 2021 marked five years since Prince died at age 57 in his Paisley Park Studios, the private complex in Chanhassen that eventually took the place of his first house and the Warehouse alike. Returning now to the story of the 1983 show, I am reminded of the links between Prince and the place in which he grew. In that performance, I hear the creative intersections made possible at First Avenue and 7th Street Entry, forged through challenges to a longstanding musical apartheid. And I hear an artist who is, arguably, the greatest pop musician of all time collaborating on multiple levels — not only with his bandmates, but, in effect, with the histories that created the city itself.