André Cymone: Every time I turned around, I was being compared to Prince

André Cymone: Every time I turned around, I was being compared to Prince
Photo courtesy of Numero Group

As part of a forthcoming City Pages story about Numero Group's excellent collection of Twin Cities funk and R&B, Purple Snow: Forecasting the Minneapolis Sound, Gimme Noise spoke to André Cymone.

The pioneering artist was one of the earliest breakout stars of the scene, and has become a successful producer in his own right. In conversation, he was quite frank and open about his memories from the late '70s and early '80s, which is the era celebrated in the compilation. Additionally, he is working on his first solo album in nearly 30 years. Here's an extended cut that didn't make the final print story.

Gimme Noise: Tell me about your contributions to the Purple Snow compilation.

André Cymone: I was able to correspond quite a bit with Jon [Kirby of Numero Group] on it. He did such amazing research, a lot of different artists that I'd forgotten about. When he was talking about it, I went back and talked to a couple of fellas from back in the day, and they brought up names of groups that I hadn't thought about in nearly decades. It was really cool. 

They chose your song "Somebody Said" for the compilation, which you recorded by yourself with just drum machine, bass, guitar, and vocals. The song hints at where the Minneapolis Sound went, with your focus on an electronic groove. Do you feel that represents your work well?

Well, from back then. I did it when I was 17 or something like that. It was kind of an interesting thing, because I hadn't done what he asked me to do literally in years and years and years. He contacted me and asked if I had an old song... pre-Prince days and all that kind of stuff. Something that I felt represented where I was at when I was living in Minneapolis. I used to be the one in the band that would record all the rehearsals, and I forgot that I literally had buckets and buckets of cassette tapes and stuff, I actually had some reel-to-reel and the original demo tapes.

I came across so much stuff; "Somebody Said" was on [one of the tapes]. I played it to [Jon], and I gave him about four or five songs, and he picked that one to be the song [used on Purple Snow]. I think music is music, and sometimes people get a little too precious. But at the end of the day, if you're a songwriter and a musician, you do what you do. It's fun. I think people who really appreciate music in its evolution can appreciate [the songs on Purple Snow], so I thought it was a great idea, great concept. I was really happy to be involved, happy they asked me. 

What do you think made Minneapolis in the '70s and the early '80s such a creative hotbed?

You know, there's a lot of things. From my standpoint... you're in Minneapolis right now, which at times will drive you into the crib real fast. Me personally, my family's from Fergus Falls, so I played hockey, I did all winter sports. My father used to go hunting, he was into bows and arrows, all that kind of natural stuff like that. but for the most part, when we moved into the city and I started hanging out with Morris [Day] and Prince and all those guys, they were such city boys. They were wearing mittens and stuff [laughs]. I had a hard time relating to them. You wind up just in with your guys hanging out. And everybody was so into music. That was the thing that was really kind of cool, getting out my reality into a reality [with] other people that actually were as inspired by music as I was. That had a lot to do with it. I think it happens in the Midwest, to answer your question, because you're sort of in the middle.

You see what's going on on the West Coast, you see what's going on on the East Coast, and so you're kind of trying to fight for some kind of identity. It makes you work a lot harder. When you're in the Midwest, it's a weird thing to be sandwiched in there, because radio, when I was growing up, they played everything. They played Santana, they played Chicago, they played James Brown, Jimi Hendrix; it was just all over the map. You got so many different radio stations playing Top 40, and we soaked it in in Minneapolis. 

It was cool to be in a band. I should be able to play. When I moved from where we came from to where I met Morris and Prince and Terry [Jackson] and the other guys, that whole group, it was just a hustle mentality. I would grow up and look at the groups that were playing and say, "We're better than you, you guys ain't shit, blah blah blah", [they'd respond] like, "If you're so great, let's see you play!" We'd go up and basically get the gig. That competition had a lot to do with groups coming out of that era. First, being so many of them, and being really, really good! I mean, some of those groups were just... It was a really unbelievable time for somebody like me to grow up. It was a blessing to me.

That alone, beyond going out and producing records for different people, getting hits or whatever, which is fantastic, but I have to say, I look back on those days more fondly than the days where I made a bunch of money or [the] other trappings you get involved in in rock 'n' roll and the music business. Those things and those artists were so special, it really kind of shaped [me]. I can't speak for anybody else but I know they shaped me as a musician and gave me the attitude that I had, and that I have now. 

I think now it's even worse, I have even more attitude. It sustained the status that you kind of have to have to be successful. That's the attitude, it's cocky, but it's cocky because you actually do the work. You actually practice. People who knew me used to laugh at me because every time they saw me, I was always playing my guitar. I played my guitar if I was going to see one of my girlfriends; if I was watching TV, I was sitting at the TV playing my guitar. It was really cool to finally meet people like Prince and Morris, and the other guys that were in my group; they were as passionate about music as I was. I think when you get people that are all like-minded, I think great things are gonna happen.

It seemed like you had to be really passionate to even be in a group and get gigs at all.

You did, you really did. It's such an unfortunate bygone era. I've always threatened one day to write a book or something, because it's so vivid in my mind. There was so much done, and it's something that just doesn't seem to be a reality right now. One of the other things I would say is the community centers played a major part in that experience, and that's something else that doesn't get very much credit, which again, definitely politics shut down those opportunities for inner-city kids. If those things hadn't existed when I was growing up, I can guarantee you I would've been a thug.

I would've been that guy that if you saw me, you'd be locking your door. Women'd be clutching their purses going, "Oh no! Here he comes!" But I think, fortunately, it was [north Minneapolis community leader] Spike Moss and the community centers that played such a major role in having outdoor festivals, and letting us rehearse sometimes whenever our parents got sick of us rehearsing in the basement. They really kind of looked out for us and nurtured that spirit. That had a lot to do with keeping it going, at least on the North Side. 

In St. Paul, with Purple Haze and some of those groups, we used to do gigs with those guys. They were our peers. It was so cool, because they had such amazing equipment. I know that sounds really silly at this point, but when I was a kid, you have no idea. We used to show up to gigs with these little tiny amplifiers -- Airline I think was the name of the brand. I was the tech of the group, more or less, the electronic guy. So I stitched together these amps, they barely worked, there was always this feedback, you could hear like radio stations start coming in in the middle of the song, everything was wired wrong. But we would go with those guys, and they'd be like, "Oh, you guys can use our amps," and it was like somebody just opened up the gates of heaven. I'll never forget the looks on all of our faces, because we were doing this battle of the bands, and I'm sure they probably regretted it because we actually wound up winning.

We had a shabby drum set, shabby amplifiers, all that kind of stuff, and they felt bad for us and let us use their gear. And we couldn't believe it; when we went into "Hear My Traina Comin'" I think we did a Jimi Hendrix song, I know we did a Santana song. We wound up winning the battle of the bands. It was amazing, it was just a great time. And those guys were really spiritual, beautiful people. They really gave us a lot. I think altogether, we really set off each other. I think that's what really made the music during that period. I think that really made it come alive. I can only speak for myself, but it had a lot to do with me going solo and a lot of the things that I ended up doing and continue to do. 

The compilation was in conversation with Prince's material but focused more on the stuff that surrounded it. People maybe don't know the scene he was surrounded by.

I think it's spot on. I think that's a testament to what Jon set out to do, because he was very focused. He asked me some questions and laid out very specifically what he was looking for, and what he wasn't looking for. He articulated it very well, and I connected with it, because I really think that's a good way to look at it. I think a lot of those people don't get, or haven't gotten, the respect that they deserve for the part they played in what people call the Minneapolis Sound.

A lot of people know Prince's career obviously, and I think everybody is very, very proud of him, and will obviously continue to be proud of what he's done and what he's accomplished. I think it's hard, you get a lot of guys, at least that I'm aware of, that are a little bit bitter because they haven't gotten credit. I try to do whatever I can to make it known. Between Prince and myself, I'm obviously not the most known. If there's any chance I get, I try to give everybody as much credit as I think they deserve. I know the role I played in his getting involved in whatever, it's just a fact. 

My wife films documentaries, and is working on a documentary on the Minneapolis scene. She was able to do a lot of interviews with a lot of different people. From my Grand Central thing and the group's surrounding situations. One of the things that seemed to be very consistent, unfortunately, [is that] a lot of people felt kind of slighted that they didn't get the kind of credit that they deserved. I think that that's kind of sad, because there's enough room for people to get credit for what they do and what they brought to this thing. People really have a lot of respect for them. I also think in order for things to be really well represented in the history of music, the record needs to be set straight, in terms of what parts people played. I think the compilation and what Jon Kirby's done will go a long way to do that.

The photographs in the booklet that comes with the album really highlight how important the imagery and the fashion were at the time.

It was. You think about the groups then, a lot of us were integrating the Ohio Players and Parliament/Funkadelic, Jimi Hendrix, Sly and the Family Stone, James Brown, all that kind of stuff. But I think also, the era in which we were doing what we were doing is really from an R&B and a black perspective. The times we were in at that particular juncture, it was like coming out of the '60s, from a black perspective. We had gone through the whole civil rights thing, we got this freedom thing going on. It opened up an interesting floodgate for people to express themselves in really profound and different sort of ways. That's a magical time that will probably never come again.

When you think about it, there's so many different things coming together emotionally, it's like a veil lifted off. I think a lot of music that was going on back then represented that. I'm telling you, it was just a great time because you had characters in our community that, if you don't come from a black neighborhood or the black experience, a lot of times you don't see the inside of what really goes on. You have hustlers and boosters and pimps and prostitutes; there's so many rackets going on in a five or six square block radius that the average person, they just have no clue. You just drive by and you pass those four or five blocks, you have no idea what's actually going on. 

For me, that's where I was getting down. That's where I was living. That's what I was walking past and being exposed to every day. A lot of these people making some of this music, that's what they were dealing with, and I think some of the people they were looking up to were some of those pimps, with the cars... My brother, I hate to say it, but he was one of them. We looked up to him; he was in our same house. He had the big brim on, we got pictures, the unfortunate blackmail evidence [laughs]. The tri-colored jumpsuits and the platform shoes... We had that going on right in our own home.

We had people that would come to our house, literally, and say, "What size you wear? Come on man, 6 1/2, 7? I can tell what size your shoe is," and then they'd come back within a half hour with whatever kind of platform shoe, they'd have these silver Bootsy, Kool & the Gang platform shoes... You couldn't order that stuff from a catalog! [laughs] I'm telling you, it's hard to get people to get their head around the reality of what life was in that community back in those days. It was almost surreal. In some ways, it makes absolutely no sense, but when you're living in it, it makes all the sense in the world. 

That's just what you know.

Yeah, it's crazy and dysfunctional [laughs], but that's just what we were working with. I gotta say, it was such a fun time. Just looking at those pictures in the booklet and being involved with that really brought back a lot of memories. It actually was almost therapy for me to do what Jon had asked me to do. It happened at a time where I was working on my record; my record's pretty much done. It made me realize and reconnect with something that I had completely forgotten about and disconnected [with]. I'm not usually one for dwelling in the past. Usually I just keep on moving forward and doing what I gotta do next. Life is what life is, but doing that made me go back and reconnect with the André that kind of got left behind once the Prince thing took off.

I didn't realize how much things had sort of been rewritten. It had kind of been written out of the script, unfortunately. Jon Kirby made me reconnect with that and made me think about it from a more realistic perspective. It made me go back and connect with the individual that I was before the whole Minneapolis music thing jumped off and went into whatever direction it went into. It was cool to have that kind of reconnection. Again, I have to thank Jon Kirby and Numero Group for putting together this compilation and making me see the light on that. It was really cool.


What made you eventually move into more of a producer role, sort of similar to Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis?

I can only speak for myself. Those guys do whatever those guys do, but the difference between me and them is I did solo records, and I had every intention on being a solo artist, either in a group or just by myself. To me individually, I just got a little bit tired of being lumped in with the whole Minneapolis thing at the time, back in the '80s. Every time I turned around, I was being compared to Prince. You're doing somebody a disservice if you don't understand where they come from. [Prince is] like my brother and all that, but I was an individual before that, a very serious musician before that.

Our fathers played in a group together, which we didn't know until we started playing together. We had no idea. That's why I decided to step away. There's enough of that. If that's what people think, they should have that and I'll just go do something else. That's why I started doing other things, producing, until I started realizing, hey, you can make a lot of money doing this. You don't have to pay for tour support, you don't have to pay for sound and lights, you don't have to tune every five seconds. 

It became a very interesting endeavor. You can do different things; when you're doing your own thing you've kind of gotta be on that, you gotta be consumed by that for a long period of time. Whereas when you're producing, you can produce something here and do something there. Jimmy and Terry, they're more business-minded than me. They did a lot of different people. Me personally, I wasn't interested in doing everybody that came along. I did Jody [Watley's] record and it became really successful, and then all these record companies came to me with a girl [they] wanted me to produce. It probably would've been smarter to say, "Sure," because I probably would've made a whole bunch of money, but that's just not my thing. I just think individually, I guess because I come from what you see represented in that booklet; they were all individuals, all those different groups. That mindset, I don't think you realize that you return to where you come from, one way or another. It might be subliminal. For me, [I didn't want] to do cookie cutter, assembly line albums.

Instead I was doing Adam Ant, Tom Jones, Tina Turner... MCA executives were cracking jokes with me, because they offered me Patti LaBelle, Deniece Williams, Vanessa Williams, all these different female acts, and instead I threw a thorn at them and did Adam Ant. I worked with him, first of all, because I really respected him as a producer and as a songwriter. I knew all the different things he was involved with. I don't believe in just doing the same stuff. Spread out. Some people, that's their thing, they're good at it, they feel good about that. That's just not my thing. Nothing against that, because obviously Jimmy and Terry made a chunk-load of money, and did really, really well. They put themselves on a producer's map and a songwriting map that I'm sure will stand the test of time. 

You're working on a new album set for release in February, your first since 1985's AC. What made you want to cut another record after all this time?

I'm super, super passionate about it right now. One of the things that made me get back into it was the climate of music, for one thing. There's nobody representing, at least not from a black perspective, with any kind of real passion, the artist aspect. We know about performers and entertainers, [but] music has kind of been hijacked in my opinion. I don't wanna sound like somebody bitter or anything like that, because I'm not. It's just that I'm a very take-no-prisoners kind of musician. Nobody's really ripping anybody's head off. They're not doing it for the art, or the music; they're not taking music and putting it on a higher level. The music has become so marginalized now. I don't think I can do it on my own or anything like that, but I think music is extremely powerful.

Somewhere along the line, something happened to me. I know it sounds crazy, but something just woke up in me and said, "What the hell are you doing? You've been given a gift, and you're just sort of kicking back and chilling." I don't want to sound weird or odd or metaphysical or any of that kind of junk, but it really has been a very interesting experience because I've been writing songs that have been writing themselves. I can't even take credit for them; I wish I could. I have no idea how I wrote them, why I wrote them, where they came from, So to answer your question why I came back, there's so many different reasons. The main reason I came back is because music needs me. I know that sounds crazy, but I think music has very few champions. 

A lot of the music that I'm doing tends to be political. I did the Obama thing to do what I could do to try to bring up awareness and get people to donate and get involved. The Trayvon Martin thing, when that happened... Where are the artists? Back when I was growing up, talking about this era we're looking at now, there were artists that used to talk about stuff like that. There were artists that used to represent. Nowadays artists don't do that, it's like taboo or something. I just thought that that's missing, and I want to be that voice. I want to step up. I wasn't under a bridge starving or anything. But something just woke up inside of me, something bigger than me, bigger than music. I was sort of brought back, hopefully it's not just a weird anomaly happening with me. 

One of the things with making this record is I reconnected with my old manager, who I hadn't talked to or seen in years. He challenged me in ways I've never been challenged before in terms of writing and focus. He had me write songs and play them on acoustic guitar, and he wouldn't accept anything other than for me to sit there and play them. He didn't want to hear no demo tapes, none of that. He said, "I want you to play me three songs, I want you to play them and sing them and don't stop." And I couldn't do that at first. It was weird because I consider myself a really serious musician, I've always been kind of cocky from that standpoint. And he just brought me down to earth and go back and connect with why I should be cocky.

We did that for about two weeks, and before we knew it I had 67 songs for this new album. So we pared it down from there to 11 songs. I've definitely cleared the air from Prince and the whole Minneapolis thing. If nothing else, like you said, people know where Prince is coming from. His thing has been well-chronicled, and he's been able to do his thing, and he's done it really well. Now I think it's a great time to be able to put a record out that can stand on its own. I'll always have to deal with a certain amount of comparison, but I think this is gonna be a little bit different. This record's going to be completely a departure from what I think people expect.

Read more about and order a copy of Purple Snow: Forecasting the Minneapolis Sound here.

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