Today began early this morning at 8:00 a.m. with me attending the Hinds County Democratic Caucus as a drafted/forced delegate from my precinct. I only agreed to do it because my father informed me that this would be his last act as Chair of the Hinds County Democratic Executive Committee, and he would like me to represent my precinct because Clinton does not have as many active democrats as other districts. After those morning duties I graded midterm papers and read submissions for Black Magnolias. While I usually get a lot of work done when Monica is gone, she emailed from the Gulf Coast with the grandnieces and grandson to tell me that while checking her emails, she read that today is the twenty-five year anniversary release of Sign “O” the Times with the added note, “Twenty-five years! Good Lawd! You old playa!!!”
As I smiled at her email, I began to calculate. Purple Rain (1984) is twenty-eight years old. Dirty Mind (1980), the record that made me a Prince fan, is thirty-two years old. Dirty Mind has special memory for me because it was the awakening of what music could be as it is an intersection or a seamless amalgamation of soul, funk, and rock and the socio-political mantra of the individual: Eff the arbitrary indoctrination of this world filled with mindless cowards, revolution of the individual, now let’s funk and roll! It is also much of the material Prince was performing when he opened for Rick James as someone in their infinite wisdom thought it would be a good idea for me, a ten-year old, to attend that show. Whether it was a good idea or not, I’ve been an individual funkateer since that night. “Reproduction of the New Breed…” And in 1987, Sign “O” the Times presented my favorite Prince, angry Prince, proving to the world that he could still funk, rock, and soul better than anyone. Sign “O” the Times followed two very metaphysical and eclectic albums, Around the World in a Day (1985) and Parade (1986), which, of course, heightened Prince’s mad genius, pop/rock icon status, but also worked to lessen his popularity in the ‘hood. I, for one, didn’t care about his lessened popularity in the ‘hood, especially when I heard all the bull that was supposed to be more streetwise than Prince now was. I was enjoying the lyrical metaphysical ride with a kaleidoscope of sounds. Yet, at seventeen it did become a bit annoying to hear, “Man, Prince done sold out; he ain’t bringin’ it like he used to..” So when he dropped Sign “O” the Times, and it crushed the competition, I walked around with a silly smirk on my face at all the fake b-boys who thought they were funky. (Okay, in truth, some of those dudes were on the school bus, amazed that Prince had come that “hard” and that “real” talking about gangs and drug use. Of course, my response to them was, “Prince has always been that hard and real, but some people are just not analytical enough to get it. Yeah, teachers have been writing ‘does not play well with others’ on my report card my entire life.) But more importantly, Sign “O” the Times reminded me of the vastness of Black music. It was all that had come before with more possibility of what could be. It is James Brown as the sweat and funk of “Housequake,” especially the live version. It is Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield in the message of “Sign ‘O’ the Times”. It is the funky horns and grooves of Brown and Parliament/Funkadelic in “It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night.” It is Al Green and Luther Vandross showing that soul music is rooted in gospel as “Adore.” It is Jimi Hendrix’s physical questioning and metaphysical answers in “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” and “The Cross.” It is the nasty cafés and juke joints of “It.” It is the great poetry of Smokey Robinson in “Forever in my Life” and even more well-crafted poetry in “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker” with a groove that would inspire a new generation of neo-soul folk like D’Angelo and Angie Stone. It is the Saturday night slow grind groove of “Slow Love.” It is the experimental form of digitized soul with jazz sensibility in “Hot Thang” and even more experimental sounds laced with poetry that celebrates the beauty and power of positive self-esteem in “Star Fish and Coffee.” It is Prince’s Stevie Wonder, Gaye, and Mayfield ability to craft poetry and sound that reflect the dichotomy of being flesh and spirit in “Strange Relationship.” And, it is the funky simmer of “If I Was Your Girlfriend” with the unapologetic metaphysical thinker/poet who didn’t really care if most radio listeners aren’t analytical enough to follow subtly or irony. Plainly put, while many critics assert that it is Around the World in a Day with its psychedelic funk and roll and daringness to be released after Purple Rain that elevates Prince to icon status, it is Sign “O” the Times that made him a legend. And for my mind and ears, it fulfills two needs. It provides a plethora of sound while boldly asserting, as most of his albums, that physical problems are merely symptoms of or results of metaphysical problems, and as long as we try to solve metaphysical problems with physical solutions—drugs, sex, money, and status—we will continue to travel the road of chaos and destruction. Thus, it was only appropriate that the album following Sign “O” the Times is the third greatest concept record of all time (after Stevie Wonder’s Secret Life of Plants and Marvin Gaye’s Here My Dear) Lovesexy, which is the apex of the metaphysical journey until the much later Rainbow Children (2001).
Prince cancelled the US leg of the Sign “O” the Times tour, opting to use the concert movie as an alternative. The cancelling of the US tour and the releasing of “If I Was Your Girlfriend” all but killed the momentum that the album had been building. As former road manger Allen Leeds stated, “Sometimes, Prince could be too smart or daring for his own good.” Radio wants an uncomplicated jam, not a lyrical puzzle that questions how gender perceptions affect the relationships between men and women, with an easily misunderstood title that causes most males to think they now have affirmation of Prince’s sexuality. While few Americans saw the film, Ricky Graham (my closest non-family friend) and I saw Sign “O” the Times sixty times in thirty days at the old dollar movie just off J. R. Lynch Street. There was a 7:00 p.m. and 9:00 p.m. showing, and we would pay a dollar and stay for both showings. But, in truth, the theatre manager stopped charging us after the first week, and even gave us a bag of the stale dollar movie popcorn and flat sodas for free. The first night he offered this, the look on my face prompted him to say, “Purple people gotta stick together. We are surrounded by fools that either don’t kno’ the funk or be tryin’ to fake da funk.” With that, we took our stale popcorn and flat sodas and enjoyed a month-long run of one of the greatest concert films made. And twenty-five years later, the album and film still crush most of what can be put beside them. Peace and be funky, no matter how old you are.
C. Liegh McInnis