By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
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Numero Group's landmark 50th release ought to appeal particularly to Twin Cities music fans. The Chicago-based reissue label's Purple Snow: Forecasting the Minneapolis Sound is a collection of Minnesota funk and R&B from 1974 to 1984, and it brings together the artists who helped introduce the world to Prince and defined a new sub-genre of music.
"We didn't try and slight people like Prince or Morris Day or anybody like that, but we tried to just put everybody on equal level," says Numero's Jon Kirby, who spent two years obsessively researching this compilation. "They all played a part in it, let's celebrate them as a community."
The collection's four LPs (or two CDs) focus on the impactful scene of musicians beyond just the household names. Long before the rest of the world heard it, there was a distinct sound bubbling up locally — a hybridized form of funk seasoned with new wave, synth-pop, and rock elements. During this era, bands began to move away from horn sections and guitar leads toward electronic drums and synthesizers, falsetto vocal arrangements, and understated bass tones.
Purple Snow:FORECASTING THE MINNEAPOLIS SOUND Listening party with Jon Kirby. Free, 5:30 p.m.-8 p.m., Thursday, December 5, at the Depot Tavern; 612-338-1828
Propelled by a passionate drive and the necessity of building their own scene — national touring artists were often too expensive for people to go see, if they came at all — the talent represented in Numero's time-capsule compendium cultivated a distinct aesthetic long before Purple Rain brought Minneapolis music to the masses.
Even without being included directly — you'll hear his guitar on 94 East's "If You See Me" and see his name pop up alongside artists throughout the collection's liner notes — Prince looms large over this collection, both as a major factor in the movement's popularization and a figure that overshadowed the innovations that surrounded him.
"There would be no Prince as people know him without a lot of those guys. I know that for a fact," says André Cymone. "I thought it was a great opportunity for others who played such a large role to get the light shined on them and to get the credit they deserved."
One of the formative players in the Minneapolis Sound, Cymone was a perennial subject of Prince comparisons. Though Cymone was topping R&B charts by 1985, Kirby asked him to dig into his archives for something lesser-known to include in the collection, and he dusted off the reel-to-reel for "Somebody Said," a slinky, stripped-down electro-funk gem, recorded in 1975 when Cymone was just 17. This was around the time when the infamous Grand Central, the band that counted a young Cymone, Prince, and Morris Day as members, was winning battles of the bands and playing community centers around north Minneapolis.
"If you weren't in a band in that particular point in time, you kinda weren't cool," says Cymone. "It almost became like a bloodsport, in terms of artists taking what they do serious and just really going after it. It was just a hustle mentality. Doing whatever you gotta do to get big."
Before the A&R influx the Twin Cities saw after the overnight success of Lipps Inc's "Funkytown" and Prince's platinum-selling self-titled sophomore album, footing was difficult to find for the scene's early innovators. Purple Snow details the hard-scrabble tales of bands ahead of their time across an impressive 108-page book of photos and 30,000 words' worth of essays. Early examples like Haze and Cohesion found success locally but learned the harsh realities of the industry during failed attempts to play outside state lines. Jimmy Jam, an obvious stage talent who led the featured eight-piece band Mind & Matter at age 16, found only so much room to grow within the city's confines and gradually moved toward writing and production.
But after a young Prince Nelson inked his contract with Warner Bros. in 1977, the spark from his hometown began to finally see some real potential.
"He's making music [that] he believes in 100 percent [and] no one can tell him otherwise. That boldness really empowered the musicians of Minneapolis," Jon Kirby observes. "People didn't necessarily want to follow him, but I think people wanted to form a unified movement in his wake. You had a lot of people who were really talented, so rather than regurgitating the music being played on the radio, they were recycling the ideas of their peers and other players, so you get a feedback loop where everybody's feeding off each other."
Purple Snow is the best summation of that scene to date, and it solidifies the status of the Minneapolis Sound in music history. But the important takeaway is that this was a community of artists and not an anomaly. "It was a perfect storm of factors [that were] not just musical [or] creative; they're social, economic, geographical," Jon Kirby concludes. "The creation of a whole new phylum of music is nothing to scoff at."