Without a doubt, Prince’s third album Dirty Mind, which celebrates its 35th anniversary today, October 8th, was the charm that the brother needed to propel him beyond genre limitations into his own realm of sound that contained elements of soul, funk, rock and electro-synth flourishes. His first two albums For You and Prince reflected his penchant for crafting soft R&B and disco tracks. But besides telling us about his girlfriend “Bambi” leaving him for another woman, Prince was as safe as cartoons on Saturday mornings.
While the little girls reading Right On adored the doe-eyed cutie riding on a Pegasus towards pop paradise on the Prince album cover, the “real” music establishment and gatekeepers weren’t checking for him. However, to paraphrase torch singer Dinah Washington, what a difference a year made, because when Prince returned in the new decade, he had shed that storybook persona and picked up more than a little perversity in the process.
With Dirty Mind, it was as if the relatively innocuous artist we knew from the first two records had suddenly dashed into a phone booth and changed into a super-duper freak-a-zoid clad in black underwear, high-heeled boots and scarf, while falsetto wailing about getting “Head” from some chick on her wedding day. Like a teenager going through puberty, Dirty Mind was Prince’s sonic wet-dream and there was no looking back.
Fans have speculated for years about what might’ve happened to make the Afro-wearing neo-hippie who a few years before was sitting in a room in the lotus position while strumming a guitar (granted he was nude, but he looked so innocent). But if you ask me, it was that rip-roaring rivalry between Prince and Rick James that pushed him to the edge musically. While James’ present-day legacy has been reduced to the catchphrase “cocaine is a hell of a drug” and his dirty boots on Eddie Murphy’s couch, as Charlie Murphy schooled us about on Chappelle’s Show, many have forgotten how much of an influence the self-proclaimed “punk-funker” had on Black music in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.
Releasing his debut album Come Get It! in 1978, two weeks after Prince dropped his first joint For You, James joined Prince as prime contenders to be the next big thing. Ten years older than Prince, he had already been in a few real bands, including the Mynah Birds with Neil Young, before getting locked-up for draft-dodging. Also, James was a real street brother who liked drinking, drugging and dogging. On the other hand, Prince shaved a few years from his biography to appear as though he were a precocious teenage prodigy, had a soft persona as he purred through velveteen singles “Soft and Wet” and “Just as Long as We’re Together,” and bragged about never indulging in vice.
Our man Rick popped out of Motown already a rebellious artist into sex (“You & I”), drugs (“Mary Jane”) and rock ‘n’ roll (“Hollywood”). The following year, James expanded on his wild boy rep with the release of Bustin’ Out of L Seven. “Well, alright you squares it’s time you smoked / Fire up this funk and let’s have a toke/ It’ll make you dance and some of everything / Everybody get high, sing bustin’ out, bustin’ out,” he declared on the title track.
On Prince’s self-titled second album, he was beginning to get in touch with his sexual side on “Bambi” and “Sexy Dancer.” The big single “I Wanna Be Your Lover” was a bit coy even if you did “come running.” Shortly after the album was released, Prince decided to go on the road with James as the opening act for the Fire It Up tour. It was a decision that would change both his life and music. In the James biography Glow penned by David Ritz, James discussed the competition between Prince and him, taking every opportunity to diss him or threaten to kick his ass.
The Black pop biopic I’d love to see would be an entire film about the Fire It Up tour with James as the street bully funk star accusing Prince of stealing his stage moves, playing the drums badly and acting as though he were better because he abstained from drugs and drink. After Prince crashed the Motown artist’s 32nd birthday party, Rick claimed he “went over to his table, grabbed him by the back of his hair and poured cognac down his throat. He spat it out and started crying like a baby. I laughed.”
Of course, Prince would have the last laugh, because after the tour played its last date at the Capital Center on May 3, 1980, Prince returned to his home in Minneapolis and immediately began working on the tracks that would comprise Dirty Mind. Unlike his first two albums, which were recorded in fancy California studios, Dirty Mind was made in Prince’s home studio. In 2011, guitarist Jesse Johnson described the studio as a simple set-up. “He had garbage speakers and a 16-track board that was made for live sound; it wasn’t even a recording board. What I learned from Prince about the studio was there are absolutely no rules. Stuff people said about spending a million dollars on equipment and going to recording school, he flushed all that down the toilet.”
Standing at the creative and career crossroads, Prince had a choice to make: he could keep composing cornball cuts or he could start taking chances. With a little help from friends including Dr. Fink supplying synths to the title track, Andre Cymone plucking the bassline that would become the utopian funky wonderland of “Uptown,” Lisa Coleman’s whispered vocals on “Head” and Morris Day’s groove on “Partyup,” Prince finished the entire joint in less than two weeks.
In 1981, he explained to New York Rocker writer Andy Schwartz, “My album took about twelve days for the tracks and about a week and a half for mixing. If you really listen to it, you’ll hear that a lot of the harmonies aren’t perfect, that I was just singing whatever I felt, playing whatever I felt.” With the new music came a fresh style that made him look like a punk rock flasher. “The rhythm tracks I kept pretty basic. I didn’t try a lotta fancy stuff so I didn’t have to go back and do things over.” The sexcapades on Dirty Mind were about being free, but the album was more than just a display of carnal knowledge. It was also a brash musical statement that declared the former boy wonder had transformed into a bona fide musical visionary and grown-ass man. The formerly soft-boy artist of two years ago was replaced by an all-true man posed in front of bedsprings on the album cover.
However, for all of Prince’s smut-speak on the album, as he brags about laying chicks down (“Dirty Mind”), supposedly boning an older sibling (“Sister”) and doing it to you right (“Do It All Night”), like fellow Gemini genius Brian Wilson, he learnt how to play the studio as though it were another instrument. Sex was great, but making great records was better. “The studio itself was just a regular bedroom,” Johnson recalls, “but whenever you walked in, Prince was recording some incredible stuff. He always worked in the middle of the night on some vampire shit, but dude knew how to make records.”
Rick James might’ve coined the term “punk-funk,” but there was Prince behaving like some kind of CBGB refuge and D.I.Y. renegade who was so bad (as in good) that he got a stubbornly selective company like Warner Brothers to release his demos as the final product. “I brought them (the demo tapes) out to the Coast and played them for the management and the record company,” Prince told New York Rocker. “They said, ‘The sound of it is fine. The songs we ain’t so sure about. We can’t get this on the radio.’” As Rolling Stone critic Ken Tucker pointed out in his positive review, “Nothing could have prepared us for the liberating lewdness of Dirty Mind.” From the opening jam “Dirty Mind” to rocking anthem “Uptown” to killer-diller closer “Partyup,” it’s obvious that Prince created an alternative universe where it was cool to be as horny and hedonistic as you wanted to be.
It was, as Prince’s idol James Brown once sang, “a man’s world,” but unlike his pimpish peer Rick James, the sex on Dirty Mind was naughty fun, not simply the side effects of the cocaine. “Turning kinky sex into groovy songs,” as A.V. Club writer Noel Murray described the project, was only one goal of Dirty Mind; the other was to prove to the world that he too was a grown man with a mastery of pop craft. However, while he didn’t get many spins on the radio, real rock critics, including Ken Tucker in Rolling Stone, praised him for having the courage to do his thang while comparing him to everyone from Elvis to Sly Stone, Kraftwerk to David Bowie, Smokey Robinson and Michael Jackson.
Prince, feeling as though he had finally gotten close to his “real” image also began to flaunt his confidence on stage and in the studio, where he began working with The Time and Vanity 6, taking on the production persona of Jamie Starr. Four months after the album’s release, Prince delivered an extremely memorable performance of “Partyup” on Saturday Night Live with Andre Cymone (it was his last performance as a Prince’s bassist) and Dez Dickerson.
Lying on the couch in my mother’s Baltimore basement reading Breakfast at Tiffany’s, I was barely paying attention until these cats damn near crashed out of the screen. Dropping the book on the floor, I stared at the television as though the aliens had taken over the world. In 1979, “Bambi” had made me a fan, but seeing Prince perform a wild abandon kick-ass “Uptown” made me a cult member. I was devoted.
Dirty Mind didn’t sell well, but it made Prince into a star and a respected artist. Rick James still hated him until the day he died, but so what. Dirty Mind was Prince’s first masterpiece, but it wouldn’t be his last.