Silly Rappers Talking Silly (Part 2 of 3)
by Miles Marshall Lewis
David Ellis was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, sometime in the 1950s. Singer Sue Ann Carwell “is my sister, we share love and parents,” he tells me when I reach out with a fact-checking text message. (“Our personal family business and affairs I’m not willing to exactly share due to the fact that some members of our family could be emotionally hurt or scarred. Like The Temptations said: papa was a rolling stone.”) Both destined for the Minneapolis music scene, Dave Ellis briefly became a tweenage drummer in church and for local funk bands like Touch; Sue Ann Carwell sang, earning a distinction as Prince’s very first protégé. Ellis attended St. Paul’s Highland Park High School, dropped out, transferred to the St. Paul Open School, and migrated away from music after graduating. He became a juvenile corrections officer. He became a commercial pilot. He became a railroad brakeman. As a teenager, he’d even been a Golden Gloves boxer.
“Prince had a first cousin that lived in my neighborhood, his name was Darnell White. Darnell’s mom and Prince’s mom were twin sisters, and Darnell’s father was my boxing coach,” Ellis says over speakerphone from Las Vegas. Prince’s aunt’s house is where Ellis first met him. “We must have been 11 or 12, we kinda grew up together. His band, Grand Central, played at the prom. I’ll never forget because when they did an intermission, Prince came out and played the piano, just him. He did a serenade on the piano for about 20 minutes.”
In 1979 a friend brought “Rapper’s Delight” by The Sugarhill Gang back to St. Paul from a field trip in some major metropolis (“Chicago or somewhere,” says Ellis), and the 15-minute rap classic reignited the creative spark Ellis snuffed when he stopped playing drums. “I delved into what they were doing, understanding how these guys were taking the best part of a record, going back and forth and extending the beat. They didn’t have no instruments. They’re trying to get the party going and being innovative. That sparked my interest in it, so I started playing around in the car, freestyling and trying to rap. It just infected me. I could see the vision. Something in me knew rap was gonna be the big thing.”
The closest thing to Minneapolis urban radio back then, station KMOJ, didn’t take a chance on a supposed novelty act like The Sugarhill Gang. But singles from their homegrown hero got plenty of play by ’79: “Soft and Wet,” “Just as Long as We’re Together,” and Prince’s first true hit, “I Wanna Be Your Lover.” The Black band tradition of the city stretched back to the jazz and funk groups of the previous generation, and Prince’s deal with Warner Bros. shot local ambitions even higher. Dave Ellis started managing his cousins’ band, grooming the group to present them to his childhood friend. The Syndicate consisted of cousins Gerald Benford and David Connover, with André Lewis of the Lewis Connection (who’d already recorded some independent singles). The trio’s shtick was very Village People: its members masqueraded onstage as a preacher, a policeman and a gangster. But egos stopped The Syndicate before they really started.
“I need an artist that’s gon’ listen to what the fuck I’m telling them,” Ellis thought. “I kept trying to come up with something. Then, I came up with myself.”
From 1980 forward, Dave Ellis woodshedded his rhymes to present himself to Prince as an MC. His sister had already gone through her own tête-à-tête with Prince in ’79. Combing Minneapolis for additions to his touring band following his For You debut, Prince heard 16-year-old Sue Ann Carwell front a funk band called Enterprise one night on bassist André Cymone’s suggestion. Rather than add her to the band, he devised the idea to produce, compose and perform an album for her to present to Warner Bros. as a solo act. It was the very idea that soon led to protégés like The Time, Vanity 6 and Sheila E. in years to come. Warner Bros. rejected the completed demo for sounding too much like Prince (ironic, considering they’d throw this concern out the window for albums like The Time and Vanity 6). Carwell accepted the consolation of joining Prince’s band as a percussionist and was rehearsing for the role when Warner Bros. flipped their decision, offering her a deal after all provided that she team with Donna Summer songwriter-producer Pete Bellotte. (Remember “Hot Stuff”? That was Bellotte.) Understandably pissed, Prince felt betrayed.
His sister out in Los Angeles recording an album, Prince soaring with “I Wanna Be Your Lover”—a music career seemed like an ever-plausible possibility to Dave Ellis. Despite limited radio airplay and record industry hesitation, rap still persisted. Ellis saw Kurtis Blow pump “The Breaks” on Soul Train. The Sugarhill Gang hit again with “8th Wonder.” Major new voices like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Afrika Bambaataa and the Soulsonic Force, and the Treacherous Three bubbled up from the ’hoods of New York City. Hiphop started its own shadow indie music industry, and Ellis convinced himself Prince could help him get in on the ground floor.
Had Sue Ann Carwell set the world on fire in ’81 with Sue Ann, she’d have hooked him up herself. But the straightforward R&B of her single, “Let Me Let You Rock Me,” and the rest of her debut underwhelmed; her next record—for MCA Records—wouldn’t drop for another seven years. When Prince sealed the deal to sign The Time (his protégé funk band) to Warner Bros. that year, he reenlisted her as a background vocalist on their first hit single, “Get It Up.” Her credit listed her and keyboardist Lisa Coleman as “various girlfriends.” Sticking to the original plan, Dave Ellis would have to step to Prince.
Hiphop, meanwhile, continued to blow. In contrast to the burgeoning culture’s reputation as a voice for Black male expression, even white women started rapping. Millions more heard post-punk singer Debbie Harry’s rhymes on Blondie’s “Rapture” than Kool Kyle, T-Ski Valley or any of rap’s other passing fancies. The Crash Crew who? Radio was playing the hell out of vanilla soul singer Teena Marie’s “Square Biz” instead, her deliciously chocolate rhymes smack dab in the middle of the song. Prince toured with Marie the previous spring; he had to have cocked his ear as “Square Biz” zoomed to number three on the Billboard Black singles chart. With rap’s commercial prospects at an all-time high, Ellis made his move.
“He was like, ‘Man, I really ain’t interested,’ ” Ellis recalls about shooting his shot. “I think initially he was into his own thing, and rap kinda looked like a fad. He didn’t really get it. I think he looked at rap as just a subsection of what he was already doing. ’Cause you know, Prince would rap anyway. He might do a song and have a little rap part in it, but they didn’t call it hiphop. It wasn’t considered rap. It was like the same thing Teena Marie did when she would put a little rap part in her song. That was how Prince looked at it. It wasn’t a standalone genre on its own.”
In 1982, the end of Prince’s fourth single from 1999—“Let’s Pretend We’re Married”—featured this:
Whatever you heard about me is true
I change the rules and do what I wanna do
I’m in love with God, He’s the only way
’Cause you and I know we gotta die some day
If you think I’m crazy, you’re probably right
But I’m gonna have fun every motherfuckin’ night
If you like to fight, you’re a double-drag fool
I’m going to another life, how ’bout you?
The lines came at you rhythmically, with plenty of reverbed echo, over a two-four electronic backbeat decidedly non-hiphop. One wouldn’t have heard it and thought “OMG, Prince is rapping!,” not in the cringe-worthy sense of his later 1992 single “My Name Is Prince.” But sure, Prince was rapping. Kind of.
“I’ve gotten criticism for the rap I’ve chosen to put in my past work,” Prince told Spike Lee in 1997 for Interview magazine, alluding to “My Name Is Prince” far more than “Let’s Pretend We’re Married.” “But there again, it came during my friction years. If you notice, not a lot of stuff is incorporated into my sets now. On the rap tip though, it is an old style and I have always done it kind of differently—half sung, you know, like ‘Irresistible Bitch’ and some of the other things I used to do.” (Spike’s telling question: “Do you feel that you successfully incorporated rap into your music? Sometimes it felt like it was just stuck on.”)
“Irresistible Bitch,” a spare, funky B-side to “Let’s Pretend We’re Married” that didn’t appear on 1999, flaunts the half-sung flow Prince is talking about, the “rap anyway” that Dave Ellis is talking about. The song is singular for its vocal delivery, and provides the greatest evidence that Prince had hiphop on his mind when the likes of Grandmaster Melle Mel started sharing R&B radio airwaves with him in 1983. Of 1999, Rolling Stone asserted, “Prince works like a colorblind technician who’s studied both Devo and Afrika Bambaataa.” Colorblind to be sure, but clearly his real homework was being done on Kraftwerk (the German electronic band that influenced Bambaataa), not the leader of hiphop’s Universal Zulu Nation.
Like Eazy-E, Jay-Z, and no small number of other MCs at various points, Dave Ellis sold drugs by the time Purple Rain ruled. Rebuffed by Prince, he finally got DIY self-actualized to record and release music on his own. Back in the seventies, an urban rivalry between Minneapolis and St. Paul led Ellis to claim both cities as a way to sidestep the conflict. Since high school, he was known as “T. C.” because he repped both twin cities and could maneuver between them without any problems. After learning the recording ropes at Creation Audio studios, and a little sideways inspiration from “The Real Roxanne,” T. C. Ellis self-produced and released “The Twin City Rapp (A True Story).”
“I was a hustler,” Ellis admits. “I was bringing shit to Alexander O’Neal and whoever was to do some coke, right? So I went in the studio and they was showing me all this new equipment they had, this Oberheim drum machine. Showing me how if you put in the beat, it would start a loop, right? I could hear ‘The Real Roxanne’ through the speakers: ‘Did you meet him at the beach?/Hells no, in the middle of December when it’s 20 below.’ For some reason that offended me. You know, I’m from Minnesota.” He laughs hard at the memory. “I was balling, I had a lot of money from off the street hustlin’ and gettin’ paper. So I was like, ‘Aw, she’s talkin’ shit ’cause I ain’t rapped to her yet.’ I got on the little drum machine and tapped out my beat, just playing around. It was in the speakers and it kept going. Then I started rapping: ‘Minnesota, Minnesota, this is the state.’ Everything just, bam, came together.” His electro-funk single—released as the Twin City Rappers along with C. T., a rapping cousin of Ellis’s from Chicago—name-checked everyone who’d just broken out nationwide in the wake of Purple Rain: The Time, Sheila E., André Cymone, Morris Day, Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis, Alexander O’Neal, Apollonia 6, Jesse Johnson, Vanity and, naturally, his sister Sue Ann and Prince.
KMOJ had launched Hip-Hop Shop, a dedicated rap show where DJs Travitron and Freddy Fresh gave “The Twin City Rapp” plenty of spins in 1985 amongst the Slick Rick and Schoolly D singles of the time. Prince remained unimpressed.
Riding in my Thunderbird on the freeway I turned on the radio to hear some music play I got a silly rapper talking silly shit instead And the only good rapper is one that’s dead… on it —Prince, “Dead on It”
“Well, first, I never said I didn’t like rap,” Prince told Sky magazine in 1991. “I just said that the only good rappers were the ones who were dead on it—the ones who knew what they were talking about. I didn’t used to like all that braggadocio stuff. ‘I’m bad, I’m this, I’m that.’ Anyway, everybody has the right to change their mind.”
The Black Album came between Sign o’ the Times and Lovesexy—or through a hiphop lens, between the Edward Lear poem in “It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night” and the Cat Glover rap on the Lovesexy lead single “Alphabet St.” One of the most notorious bootlegs of all time, The Black Album never made its original release date in December 1987 because Prince went through an epiphany that led him to release the spiritual Lovesexy five months later instead. (Some say the epiphany was inspired by a bad Ecstasy trip with Paisley Park Records poet Ingrid Chavez.) Ironically shelved for its dark content, The Black Album is much more comedic than it’s ever given credit for. Some of the record was recorded specifically for a Sheila E. birthday party, and ended up on Warner Bros. release schedule because Prince got proactive about his waning African-American audience. Its original title? The Funk Bible.
On “Cindy C,” an ode to supermodel Cindy Crawford, Cat spits a rhyme stolen in toto from the legendary Chicago house music producer J. M. Silk’s “Music Is the Key.” No biter, Prince most likely didn’t realize this at the time. But four months before releasing the rap-tinged “Alphabet St.,” the aborted Black Album featured “Dead on It”—a song where Prince raps for the first time. A summary: the only good rapper is one that’s dead (theatrical pause, wait for it…) on it; “Negroes” from Brooklyn don’t play the bass better than ones from Minneapolis; rappers’ problems stem from tone deafness; Prince has a gold tooth (picture that image for a moment) that costs more than your house, and diamond rings on four fingers the size of mice. His final words: “Can’t nobody fuck with me.”
This is the mentality that wouldn’t be swayed by “The Twin City Rapp” of T. C. Ellis. Before hiphop dominated as the youth culture pop music of the 1990s, Prince’s attitude was hardly novel for the time. George Harrison once told the London press “all this rap rubbish, it’s just computerized rot.” As a twentysomething Black man, one would expect Prince to be hipper on the subject than the ex-Beatle. Still. True musicians must have felt bias against rappers for not playing instruments and cutting into their sales anyway. And a fair share of the enmity was undoubtedly racist.
But the lede has been buried, dear reader. True Confessions by T. C. Ellis became the first rap album released by Paisley Park Records in May 1991. To quote the immortal hiphop DJ Mr. Magic: persistence always overcomes resistance.
Not only a dealer but a consumer, Ellis entered drug rehab three times in the eighties until the 12-step program finally set in for him. Clean by early 1989, he pitched Prince yet again. “I was relentless with him, I had been bugging Prince all the time,” Ellis remembers. “One day I came into the Pacific Club. Prince was in there, he said, ‘T. C., come here, man, I gotta talk to you. You gotta quit coming up to me every time you see me out talking about that rap shit.’ ” Ellis finally pulled a trump card from years back. “I said, ‘Prince, you know when homeboy was fixing to kick your ass in the Fox Trap when you was fucking with his girl? Who was taking up for you back then, before you had all these bodyguards?’ He said, ‘How much do I owe you?’ I said, ‘You don’t owe me nothing, man. Just open up the door, I can get it myself.’ “So then he said, ‘That was then and this is now,’ did his little strut and took off.”
Returning to the indie route, Ellis teamed with Prince guitarist Miko Weaver at his Bolero Flats apartment recording studio in downtown Minneapolis, where he produced and recorded the second T. C. Ellis single, “The Batrap.” Batman posters blanketed the buses and walls of the city, advertising the summertime blockbuster to come. Prince’s soundtrack to the gothic superhero film by director Tim Burton would hit number one and sell millions, achievements that had been evading him for years. As his “Batdance” single coasted to the top of the Billboard chart, Ellis got a call.
“Prince’s brother Duane told me that Warner Bros. was snooping around asking Prince if he had put ‘The Batrap’ out,” Ellis says. (The company might have been especially upset because they’d just nixed a “Batdance” remix completed by producer John Luongo, featuring the highly street credible Big Daddy Kane.) “They were playing it in Minnesota, some colleges were playing it, and they wanted to know who it was. Prince finally called me soon after that. I think that was the motivation. ‘Come out here with your stuff, man, let’s do some tracks,’ right?”
At long last recording at Paisley Park Studios, Ellis collaborated with a Svengali who was still heavily conflicted over hiphop. Wendy Melvoin told Pandora’s Questlove Supreme podcast the following story in 2016: “I remember when we had broken the band up and Do the Right Thing had just come out. Lisa and I went to Minneapolis. I was a fanatic for the main title song [‘Fight the Power’]. I put it on there at Paisley and [Prince] seemed visibly angry at the track. And it was because he was so uneasy, I think, with Chuck D and the cadence of Chuck’s voice being in that lower sort of demanding frequency. It kind of freaked him out. It was like, why am I being assaulted with that? And everybody, as soon as it was played in the room, getting up and dancing. I think it’s like the metal people when they hear Nirvana: ‘oh my god, it’s changed.’ And I think he knew it changed right there. He knew it.”
To which Lisa Coleman added: “It was almost the antithesis of what Prince was trying to do. Like, he was aiming at your grandmother now, not at your kids. Chuck D was aiming at the kids.”
END OF PART 2
Listen to this playlist which includes many of the tracks in this essay:
Miles Marshall Lewis has written for The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Ebony, Essence and many other publications. His work has appeared in Black Cool: One Thousand Streams of Blackness, Hip-Hop: A Cultural Odyssey, The Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers, and elsewhere. He’s also the author of There’s a Riot Goin’ On and Scars of the Soul Are Why Kids Wear Bandages When They Don’t Have Bruises. Follow MML on Twitter and Instagram. Check out some of his work for soulhead.