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The Current Rewind

The Current Rewind: April 21, 2016

The Current Rewind
The Current RewindKaitlyn Bryan | MPR
  Play Now [35:39]

Description: The day Prince passed away, thousands of fans congregated outside First Avenue. Although the street party might've seemed like magic, of course real people made it happen – and we talked to a few of them for this episode. It's the last full installment of our season, and it celebrates Prince, parties, and Minnesota music.

This is the ninth and final full episode of The Current Rewind's "10 Pivotal Days at First Avenue" season. If you missed the first eight episodes, catch up below.

April 3, 1970 (The day it all began)
Nov. 28-29, 1979 (The days that told the future)
Sept. 27, 1982 (Bad Brains/Sweet Taste of Afrika/Hüsker Dü)
Aug. 3, 1983 (The birth of "Purple Rain")
Oct. 22, 1990 (Sonic Youth/Cows/Babes in Toyland)
March 4, 1991 (Ice Cube/WC and the MAAD Circle)
Nov. 2, 2004 (The day the doors closed)
Aug. 12, 2015 (The day the sky fell)
April 21, 2016 (The day the streets turned purple)

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The Current Rewind is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment's Arts and Culture Heritage Fund.

Transcript of The Current Rewind season 2, episode 9: "April 21, 2016"

[🎵 "Sometimes It Snows In April" by Prince plays under Lisasia's reading 🎵]

Lisasia: [reading her blog post] Thousands gathered in the streets in front of First Avenue that electrifying spring day. There were long embraces and much reminiscing. Many wore purple. Folks made art: paintings, banners, poems. Catharsis was found in grief-ridden tears, but also so much life-giving dance. Sometime around sunset, it rained, and most people swear the sky turned purple. For three days, the celebration continued until the sun came up. Prince's death made ripples through a worldwide community, and those ripples certainly made waves closest to home. It was one of those moments in time where a collective memory was created. If you were there, you know.

Much like Prince showed us that feminine men can walk with a hard-ass swagger in their step, he showed us that celebrating life after death can be something profoundly beautiful if you lean in, follow our hearts, and dedicate ourselves to imagination – even, and especially, during times of loss.

[🎵 Prince sings the first verse of "Sometimes It Snows In April" 🎵]

Cecilia Johnson VO: Lisasia is a funeral celebrant and grief advocate from Minneapolis. That was an excerpt from a blog post she wrote this year, thinking back on April 21, 2016.

Before April 21, 2016, many of us lived in the Twin Cities with an understanding that we might just see Prince around. He'd ride his bike around Chanhassen, the Minneapolis suburb where he'd lived for decades and built Paisley Park. In downtown Minneapolis, he'd be sitting upstairs at a Janelle Monáe concert or a jazz show. Every once in a while, he'd announce these "surprise shows," where anyone could head over to Paisley Park to see him perform, often alongside special guests such as FKA twigs or Kendrick Lamar.

And then, one spring day in 2016, he passed away, due to an accidental fentanyl overdose. He was 57 years old. And as the shocking and tragic news of his passing spread through Minneapolis and the world, thousands of fans and community members congregated outside First Avenue. People came to be together, to absorb the shock and heartache, to remember and celebrate, and to listen to his music: songs that revolutionized American pop culture, and pop music around the world.

[🎵 Icetep, "Hive Sound" (theme) 🎵]

Cecilia Johnson VO: [over theme] I'm Cecilia Johnson, and this is The Current Rewind, the podcast putting music's unsung stories on the map.

In this season of Rewind, we're zooming in on several important dates in the history of First Avenue, one of the Twin Cities's – and the country's – greatest live venues. Most of these episodes have featured a different guest host. Today, we've got my friend Jade on deck. She's a host on The Current, and she hosted that street party outside First Ave. I was there, too, and I remember it as a surreal and overwhelming night.

[rewind noise]

Jade VO: Surreal is right – and the perfect amount of bizarre and true to honor someone so wholly iconic. I'm Jade. I've been a host on The Current since 2008. And in that memory box of days, April 21 of 2016 will remain at the top of the pile. Not just being on air to break the news of Prince's death to our listeners, which is one of the hardest things I've ever had to do in this job, but the whirlwind speed at which the event came together, and that pin-drop quiet of the streets outside First Avenue as I stood on stage, surrounded by Prince fans and musicians and mourners. That is something I'll never get over.

Famously, Prince was born in Minneapolis and lived in the area for much of his life. The electrifying live performances in his 1984 movie Purple Rain were staged in First Avenue, and the hit movie turned the club into one of Minneapolis's foremost tourist destinations. And even though, over the course of his career, Prince only performed nine official shows at the club, every one of them was an event. The fourth episode of this podcast season covered the August 3, 1983 concert where he and the Revolution debuted the song "Purple Rain."

Although it may have seemed like the First Ave street party following Prince's death erupted spontaneously, like magic, from the energy of fans, of course real people made it happen. One of those people is Jeffy Hnilicka, who used to work for Minnesota Public Radio as the Director of Live Events. Around midday on April 16, Jeffy found out about Prince's death, and they remember staring out their office's window and getting lost in thought.

Jeffy Hnilicka: I had this like really clear memory of when Kurt Cobain died. I was definitely in 7th grade, and I remember watching MTV News, and they were – they were like [running] coverage all day, and they were showing scenes from Seattle. And like, all of Seattle was coming out lighting candles, and Courtney Love was there – you know, like this whole scene. And I was like oh, well, this place is as important, like, it's so connected. I mean, like, for people that have not lived in Minneapolis and especially, like, don't go to a lot of shows at First Avenue, every time – like, before Prince died, like 70% of shows involved someone covering a Prince song. Like, bands are in town, they always play a Prince song at First Avenue, especially in the Mainroom. And so I was like, I wanna have a dance party at First Avenue with my sister. That sounded really fun. So that just, like, kinda popped into my head, and then it was the board meeting, and so like everyone that could make a decision like that – give clearance for something was all locked in a room together for the day.

Jade VO: Outside the board meeting, Jeffy found Dave Kansas, who was then the COO of MPR's parent organization.

Jeffy Hnilicka: I saw Dave in the hallway, and I was like, "Dave, I think we should throw a party. I think we should throw, like, a street show in front of First Avenue. Can I do that? Can I spend whatever money I need to do that?" And he was like, "Yeah, you should do that." And then I just started calling people.

Jade VO: So many people helped organize the party.

Jeffy Hnilicka: Justin Levy, Rose Martin, Ellie McKinney, Ali Lozoff – um, I'm sure I'm forgetting folks – Jeff Kamen, Tom Campbell, people that do events all the time coalesced to figure out how we were gonna throw a party by that evening.

Jade VO: They called up First Avenue, the City of Minneapolis, and Slamhammer, a local company that rents audio equipment and stages.

Jeffy Hnilicka: So they were getting this phone call like, hey, Prince died; can you get us some sound equipment? And people were like, we'll do whatever we can, like, of course we'll figure it out.

Jade VO: It's not typical for the City of Minneapolis to grant a same-day permit for a street party, but around 5 p.m., the organizers got the green light. Meanwhile, they had to figure out who was going to perform Prince's music.

Jeffy Hnilicka: We wanted to keep it as simple as possible, so we booked a house band. There's kind of a group of musicians who play a ton of Prince music in town, and then sorta guest vocalists that would hop up. You know, I think the ethos was that Prince was so incredible at putting and introducing women of color in his bands, and I think we wanted that to be definitely in the thinking of the programming, that that would sound and feel right.

Jade VO: Once the permit from the city came through, The Current's Mary Lucia started telling radio listeners about the street party. But even before that, people started to gather outside First Ave.

Jeffy Hnilicka: Even if you didn't know that there was anything going on, if you love Prince, and you wanted to honor him, you probably would go down to First Avenue without even thinking that it was a thing to do. You know, people were at Paisley that day, too.

Jade VO: So fans and the party organizers were starting to find their way down to First Avenue. But Jeffy had to make a quick stop home.

Jeffy Hnilicka: I was dressed kind of like, board meeting day. So I was a little formal. I was like, I'm not wearing this to the Prince party. [Jeffy and Cecilia laugh] And everyone was, like, racing over to deal with stuff and set stuff up, and I was like, I'm sorry, I need to go home and change. And so I raced home. I saw my husband, like, "Honey, I'm throwing a party. You should come. I gotta go." [laughs] And I had this amazing, like, sparkly purple kind of – like an early Delta Burke Designing Women look. Big shoulder pads, sparkly paisley. It was incredible. It was the perfect look. Um, so I threw that on, ran downtown. And people started showing up. It was really amazing, like, it had gotten nice enough that it was actually kind of pleasant to be outside, and it's April in Minnesota, so it was actually sort of a novelty to be spending time outside.

The music started. It was so special. Like, people would just like turn the corner onto 7th Street wearing these amazing outfits and crying and laughing and being excited and being inspired and um, being together. People just kept showing up and kept showing up, and then I'd see people that I knew, and it felt like this total, like, genuine community event.

Jade VO: As the streets filled, a squad of Minnesota musicians started performing Prince covers. Chastity Brown covered "Little Red Corvette," Claire de Lune sang "When U Were Mine," and deM atlaS ran and jumped around the stage while singing "Let's Go Crazy." Cameron Kinghorn, of Nooky Jones and Black Market Brass, sang one of his most treasured Prince songs.

[🎵 "How Come U Don't Call Me Anymore?" Prince cover by Cameron Kinghorn 🎵]

Jade VO: By 2016, Cameron was a well-established singer, trumpeter, and songwriter. But back when he was still figuring out his voice, he picked up a few tricks from Prince.

Cameron Kinghorn: Once I heard his music, then it was like, oh yeah. There is something about this that immediately clicks, and that now has become a big part of what I do. So like as a male vocalist, doing the falsetto thing, that was huge – huge for me. If we're talking about specific moments – I remember the first song that I sat and listened to, and I was like, "Okay, this is it," was "How Come You Don't Call Me Anymore." And so, the first version of that song I had heard was by Bilal, and then I was looking deeper into it, because I was like, I love this song; this is incredible. And I was like, oh, this is a Prince B-side, and then I went and checked out his version. And it was just like, game over.

Jade VO: Speaking with our scriptwriter, Sun Yung Shin, Cameron reflected on the powerful combination of emotions on display outside First Ave.

Cameron Kinghorn: Yeah, I remember this combination of sadness, this deep sadness, along with, like, basically it felt like a celebration of life. Yeah, Prince's music was being DJed, and just like pounding, and you could like feel it.

Jade VO: By the time Cameron got on stage, a lot of people had shown up.

Cameron Kinghorn: And it wasn't until I got up there [when] I was like, whoa. Every direction I looked, like, literally, you could not see the end. It was unreal. To have that many people – it felt like a celebration, like, everyone was singing every song – all the words to every song. There was people, like, laughing, smiling, people crying. It's hard to really define what that feeling was like. Like, a new feeling – something like on that scale I've never experienced, and I don't think that I ever will again.

Jade VO: Near the end of the night, Lizzo treated the audience to an astonishing cover of "The Beautiful Ones" from Purple Rain.

[🎵 "The Beautiful Ones" by Lizzo fades up 🎵]

Jeffy Hnilicka: And then Lizzo was sort of the final act, and she was a local love enough, at that point, that people knew that she was gonna be there and were excited to see her.

Jade VO: Lizzo had spent the past several years living in Minneapolis, and she was just starting a new chapter in Los Angeles. Within hours of hearing about Prince's death, she boarded a plane back to Minneapolis.

Jeffy Hnilicka: So we're like – you know, people know that Lizzo's coming. She's trying to get downtown from the airport. At this point downtown is, like, basically shut down because of this party. She can't get in. We're trying to figure out how to get her in. Our permit at this point is, like, well overdue. Like, the party is supposed to be done. She ends up pulling up on Hennepin and entering the back of the event, like, the back of audience, and you just see this, like, purple parting of the sea, and Lizzo's, like, walking down the entire avenue. And she just like climbs onstage from the crowd – from a crowd of probably 10,000 people and then destroys it and it's amazing.

[🎵 more "The Beautiful Ones," 🎵]

Jade VO: Outside First Avenue, the crowd gave it up for Lizzo. Inside the club, Slipknot's frontman was headlining the Mainroom.

DJ Smitty: We had a sold-out show that night with Corey Taylor.

Jade VO: DJ Smitty was yet another person who helped keep the evening running. He has worked at First Avenue since 1993 as a bartender, cashier and concert DJ.

DJ Smitty: I had worked late the night before, so I was sleeping in, and my phone went off, and I look, and there's a text message asking me if I wanna go down to The Depot bar and play some Prince music. And I'm like, "No. Trying to get some sleep here." Threw my phone back, tried to go back to sleep. Then it just kind of slowly – "what a strange thing to ask"; and, "Oh, no." So I turned on the TV, see the news, just throw on clothes and head down there, because you know what's coming. You know that people are gonna come and surround the club. They're gonna need some hands, and I'm close by. So I get down there, and you know, there's already 50 people down there. People are taking turns taking pictures with the star. People are bringing flowers. And it was – it was unlike any other celebrity death I had dealt with before, where you don't actually know this person but you – there's a connection between Prince and the Twin Cities and First Avenue and people.

Corey Taylor had to play in the midst of all this, and you would think the Corey Taylor crowd may not be the biggest Prince crowd, but he opened with "Purple Rain," solo acoustic. And it was great. And Corey Taylor did his thing; played 'til 9:30, 10:00 p.m., then we opened the doors for a Prince dance party that was going to last until 7:00 a.m. They did not inform me of that when I got to work.

It was a game of telephone at work that day, yeah. "We're staying up 'til 1:00." "We're staying open 'til 4:00." "We're staying open 'til 7:00." "Last bartender on, you're doing it all night." Great. And the people were coming in. I don't know what they were expecting. They didn't know what they were expecting, but they – it was nice. It was very nice. I hugged more strangers that weekend than I have in my life. People were just thankful that we were open, that they could come down to this. And basically, you would work 'til 7:00, go home, sleep, come back, because people stayed around First Avenue. Then we had two sold-out nights with Bob – Bob Mould. Well, they were sold out after. You know. People bought tickets just to get in, because they wanted to see First Avenue.

Jade VO: National and international news crews visited Minneapolis to report on Prince's death. Fans from all over the world caught planes into town. So many people associated Prince's legacy with his home state that Minnesota was like a purple magnet. During the street party, a news helicopter hovered over the crowd, broadcasting aerial views of downtown, meaning even if you couldn't physically be in Minneapolis, you could see the party on YouTube. This gathering, which lasted days, offered Prince's local and global community a way to process grief. People danced and sang. Minnesotans are known for keeping a polite distance from others, for maybe not moving around too much. But outside First Avenue, we let down our guard.

Jeffy Hnilicka: I feel like the party is like, the ritual place.

Jade VO: Jeffy has been throwing parties, personally and professionally, for years.

Jeffy Hnilicka: It's like, organizing queer parties, and I ran a queer art space for a long time, cooperatively. And so I – throwing parties, and thinking about why you throw parties, there's – I wish I could quote who said this. But they talk about, like, you have to make the revolution irresistible –

Jade VO: Jeffy's talking about Toni Cade Bambara, a revered Black woman writer, artist, and teacher who lived from 1939 to 1995.

Jeffy Hnilicka: And so I feel like the party makes the revolution so much fun, and that's why I get excited about the party. The party has a sense of danger and possibility and chance, and I think that's why I still like to throw parties.

Jade VO: The First Avenue street party was the biggest and longest-lasting memorial to Prince, but certainly not the only place where people gathered to be together and pay tribute. Minnesotan food justice activist LaDonna Redmond co-organized the Prince memorial concert at Sabathani Community Center, along with Sabathani's executive director, Cindy Booker. Redmond, who grew up on the Southside of Chicago, is currently the board president of Seward Co-op, and she's the CEO of Redmond Consulting, where she helps businesses improve their diversity, equity, inclusion, and employee wellness practices. She told us about the moment she found out Prince had died.

LaDonna Redmond: I was sitting at my desk and started to get these texts from friends who know I'm here, and they were like, "Hey, what happened at Paisley Park," and I'm like, "What?" So I look at my phone, and basically they were saying that there was a body that was found at Paisley Park, and everyone was hoping that it wasn't Prince, and of course TMZ. When they say somebody has made a transition...

Sun Yung Shin: Right.

LaDonna Redmond: They were announcing that it was Prince. I belonged, at that time, to a gym where many people grew up with Prince, and some people were his bodyguards and had relationships with him. I went down there, and I have never seen so many men on the floor, crying and simply distraught.

Jade VO: When Sun Yung asked her about her first memories of Prince, Redmond thought back even further, to her childhood crush on Michael Jackson and the Jackson 5. She says that crush was a key part of forming her identity as a Black girl.

LaDonna Redmond: "My mother used to say, "You gonna lose your mind if something happened to them." I like, "Yeah, you are right."

Jade VO: Then, as a teenager, she found another object of affection.

LaDonna Redmond: So about the time I was 13, my girlfriends and I saw a poster on the wall of a local record store, and it was a poster of Prince. And we were like, "Who dat?" [laughs] Who, who might that be? And he was like, it's this kid out of Minneapolis, and you know, he played the album for us, and we bought it immediately. So from there, I was a freshman in high school and got a chance to try out for the pom-pom team, and the song that we danced to was "Soft And Wet."

Sun Yung Shin: Wow.

LaDonna Redmond: Juxtaposed with "You and I." My mother was not happy. These were really super racy songs, you know, for the '80s.

Jade VO: Soon after Prince's passing, LaDonna helped put together a block party outside Sabathani Community Center in South Minneapolis. Walter "Q bear" Banks and Shed G from local radio station KMOJ agreed to co-host it.

LaDonna Redmond: And then, I just started calling my friends, and we started to put together a roster. You know, my back was out, and I could not go downtown to First Avenue to figure out how to stand up all day. And I wanted to do something that was accessible during the daytime for all ages, but my focus wasn't just, "We're gonna play Prince music." We're gonna do something that I think Prince would like, which is facilitate the musicianship and artistry of young people. We had everybody from a drum corps marching band from North Minneapolis, to Flavor Flav showed up, to the Sounds of Blackness. We got it done. Between Cindy and I, we were able to convince folks that, yeah, this is something you should – you wanna be a part of this.

Jade VO: One of the performers they found was Dameun Strange, a composer and sound designer who's currently working on his second and third full operas. He grew up in the Columbia Heights and Petworth neighborhoods of Washington, D.C., and he's now based in Minnesota, where he is the Director of Community and Belonging for the American Composers Forum. Strange first heard Prince at the age of about seven, through his dad.

Dameun Strange: That was the intro to Prince, and from that point on, Prince was the person I looked to for inspiration and for what was new and for what was fresh, in terms of Black music. And he looked the way I wished I could look, in some ways. Like, he was fearless in the way he dressed, and despite the fact that both my parents were artists, my household was pretty conservative, and so I had to dress fairly conservatively, and so I kinda lived vicariously through Prince's outrageous outfits. [laughs]

Jade VO: Dameun described how the Minneapolis Sound permeated 1980s pop music.

Dameun Strange: Another artist that I felt attached to early on was Janet Jackson, and you'd listen to, like, Control and subsequent albums. They were produced in Minneapolis, and you could hear that influence, that rhythm, that funk with that, sort of, steady kick drum. The horn shouts and things that they would do on the synthesizers was such a huge influence in pop music. So when I was trying to write pop music as a kid, that's what I looked for. That's the sound that I wanted.

Jade VO: Strange, who writes operas, among other projects, shared how Prince's relationship to his Blackness inspired his own work, in particular his first opera. Mother King is an interpretation of the story of Alberta Williams King, the mother of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Dameun Strange: And I will point again back to Prince for that. If I think of an album like Around the World in a Day – I mean, a lot of his albums had very eclectic, or like, the spectrum of Black music. But I think of how orchestral that album was, and I think of like "The Ladder," for example, on that album, and sorta the storytelling sort of component of that song, or elements of that song. And how big that track was, because he was telling an epic tale. And that's kinda what I have tried to do as a composer, as well, and that's why opera is so appealing to me: the fact that we can tell a huge story with music and art, visual art, from sort of the costumes and set design and video and dance. Prince was always trying to do that.

Jade VO: One of Dameun Strange's musical projects is the Afrofuturist band Moors Blackmon. The band describes itself as "an intergalactic vessel from the future, which landed here on Earth to accelerate the development of humans through the power of sound." That's the band Dameun performed in at the Sabathani memorial. He talked about the magic of covering two of their favorite Prince songs.

Dameun Strange: We ended up being able to play on that stage in that celebration of Prince's life there, which was huge. It was actually the largest crowd that Moors Blackmon had ever played for. You know, we'd played jazz fests and things like that at smaller venues, but that crowd was huge that day, and so we played some of our music, some of the stuff that I felt was really inspired by Prince and his sound, the Minneapolis Sound. But then we also did a cover of "She's Always In My Hair," which is one of our favorite Prince songs. And then actually one of my absolute favorite Prince songs was "Computer Blue," so we covered that song, and people were really excited about our performance, and I just felt good that we could honor Prince in that space and honor his life and his legacy.

Jade VO: LaDonna Redmond talked about how Prince uniquely brought so many kinds of people together, and how that was present again at the Sabathani gathering.

LaDonna Redmond: I mean, we had young people there, we had older people there, we had people from NPG were there. It was fantastic. There was not one race, color, creed, age group that was not represented out in the little lot behind Sabathani. It was fantastic.

Jade VO: Many believe that this physical human life is not the end. When asked what he would say to Prince if he met him on the astral plane, singer Cameron Kinghorn talked about gratitude.

Cameron Kinghorn: Yeah, like the path that he laid, others, like myself, have been able to walk on, and obviously, what he did for the city. Yeah, I think gratitude. That's just like the biggest thing, is like, thank you.

Jade VO: Lisasia said she sees an "intimacy with death" in the way Minnesotans submerged themselves into Prince music and purple family that week.

Lisasia: What I mean when I say that, um: slowing down to pay homage to this essential rite of passage, because in this country, we view it as something that's very gruesome. We would rather look the other way. We would use a lot of really negative adjectives to talk about death, or prefer to not talk about it at all. And I think finding ways to talk about death in a holistic way that does acknowledge the grief that's there, but also acknowledges how beautiful it is to honor the people that we've loved and honor their rite of passage, and really being able to integrate the experience of death and their death with honor.

Jade VO: We know that music heals. Art can heal. It can hold us together and carry us through so we can keep going, surviving, and hopefully thriving. LaDonna Redmond spoke lovingly and hopefully of Black genius, freedom, and healing.

LaDonna Redmond: Be free. Be free, and – there's a piece of the historical trauma, right? So a lot of our genius comes out of being forced to make a way out of absolutely no way. And so, how do we create healing from trauma? The reflection of Prince's life and some of our own lives indicate historical trauma, as well as interpersonal trauma. How does that fire come together to create the people that we are, and then what do we do with it? Sometimes the fire can ingest us, but the fire can also be that spark of inspiration that really, truly frees us.

[🎵 "Hive Sound" by Icetep 🎵]

Cecilia Johnson VO: This episode of The Current Rewind was hosted by Jade and me, Cecilia Johnson. It was produced by me and Jesse Wiza and scripted by Sun Yung Shin. Marisa Morseth is our research assistant, and Jay Gabler is our editor. Our theme music is the song "Hive Sound" by Icetep, and Johnny Vince Evans mixed this episode. You can find more about Lisasia's business at [Note: A special thank-you to the rest of the people who helped assemble and cover that street party, such as Brett Baldwin, Michael DeMark, Jay Gabler, Emmet Kowler, Jim McGuinn, Nate Ryan, David Safar, Corey Schreppel, Erik Stromstad, Joanne Spencer, Andrea Swensson, Luke Taylor, and so many more.]

Thank you for listening to The Current Rewind's First Avenue season. We hope you've learned something new about First Avenue and the surrounding community. This is the last full episode of the season, but we have two bonus episodes on the way. Next week, we'll publish a bonus episode about First Avenue's stars, and the week after that, we'll share some memories about the club's staff Thanksgiving dinners. [Correction: The Thanksgiving ep is coming first, then the stars episode!] And then...who knows? If you have any feedback or questions based off this season, please reach us at And if you want to support this show, I would highly recommend finding us on Apple Podcasts and rating and reviewing our show.

The Current Rewind is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment's Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund. It is a production of Minnesota Public Radio's The Current.

Jeffy Hnilicka at First Avenue street party in honor of Prince
Jeffy Hnilicka of Minneapolis celebrates with fans during First Avenue's street party held in honor of Prince on the one-year anniversary of his death in Minneapolis, Minn., April 22, 2017. First Avenue was a location for the movie "Purple Rain" where Prince often performed.