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Music legend Prince dies at age 57

by Jay Gabler

April 21, 2016

Prince, a multitalented musician who came out of the Minneapolis scene and changed the world of music forever, has died at age 57. According to a statement from Carver County Sheriff Jim Olson, "on April 21, 2016, at about 9:43 am, sheriff’s deputies responded to a medical call at Paisley Park Studios in Chanhassen. When deputies and medical personnel arrived, they found an unresponsive adult male in the elevator. First responders attempted to provide lifesaving CPR, but were unable to revive the victim. He was pronounced deceased at 10:07 am. He has been identified as Prince Rogers Nelson (57) of Chanhassen." We are continuing to follow this story and will add updates as they become available.

One of the greatest stars in rock history, Prince bridged rock and R&B to fuse a "Minneapolis Sound" that helped define the music of the 1980s. With over 100 million albums sold worldwide, Prince is one of the best-selling artists of all time, widely cited as an influence by artists from the worlds of pop, R&B, rock, hip-hop, and beyond.

Born Prince Rogers Nelson in Minneapolis in 1958, Prince remained a lifelong Minnesotan and had a profound impact on the community here. With the hit movie and soundtrack Purple Rain, he turned First Avenue from a hot local club to an international music landmark. Artists including Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis went from Prince collaborations to performing and producing chart-topping hits that spread the "Minneapolis Sound" across the musical landscape.

Prince’s genius seemed to arrive fully formed, almost as if by magic: he released his debut album (For You, 1978) at the age of 19, and its eponymous follow-up, released the following year, made him a breakout success with instant classics like “I Wanna Be Your Lover” and “I Feel For You.” He wrote, played, sang, and produced the entire collection himself, adding to the sense that somehow lightning had struck in Minneapolis. It had, but recently released compilations like Purple Snow: Forecasting the Minneapolis Sound (Numero Group) and Twin Cities Funk & Soul (Secret Stash Records) shone a long-overdue spotlight on the small but tight-knit and inventive local R&B scene that spawned Prince.

Once Prince was out of the gate, there was no stopping him. Prince was made for the '80s, and the '80s were made for him. Seriously funky but also pop-friendly, Prince was at the forefront of artists who deployed synthesizers and samplers in conjunction with traditional rock instrumentation to create music that felt completely liberated — sexy and fun. "Sexy" was part of Prince's playbook from day one: he knew how to tease his fans into a frenzy on record, on stage, and, crucially, on screen.

His provocative antics earned priceless condemnation from the voices of conventional morality ("Darling Nikki" inspired Tipper Gore to found the PMRC), and Prince — dressing as flamboyantly as the decade demanded, with a regal flair he might have learned from James Brown — played his bad-boy/pretty-boy role to the hilt.

Purple Rain represented Prince in full flower. While some fans and critics argue that Sign "O" the Times (1987) represents an even greater artistic triumph, Purple Rain's vast commercial success was not incidental to its epochal achievement. "When Doves Cry" epitomized the unique power of Prince; at decade's end, critic Dave Marsh wrote that it "may have been the most influential single record of the 80s." A stripped-down, percussive track with a vocal that's so understated it's sometimes half-spoken and — to the astonishment of music insiders who thought they knew how to make a record — no bass track, "When Doves Cry" seemed to break all the rules of pop songcraft, and yet Prince turned it into such an intoxicating single that it shot to number one for five weeks, holding even Bruce Springsteen's "Dancing in the Dark" at bay.

Simultaneously, Albert Magnoli's gloriously shameless film defined Prince's personal mythology and made him one of the greatest pop icons of a decade that had more than its share. Set in Minneapolis, the film depicted First Avenue as a hot spot on the order of Studio 54; instead of driving along Highway 1 as they might have done in an L.A. movie, Prince and his costar Apollonia hopped on a purple motorcycle and cruised out into the Minneapolis suburbs to get "purified in the waters of Lake Minnetonka." To this day, touring acts are visibly thrilled to discover that First Ave actually is a great club, that it actually does look like that (okay, not the dressing rooms), and that it remains the center of a thriving music scene.

Though he never had another smash album as big as the Purple Rain soundtrack, Prince remained a dominant commercial force throughout the '80s and early '90s, producing #1 hits ranging from the hard-flirting "Kiss" (1986) to the novelty "Batdance" (1989) to the sparkling "Cream" (1991) while cycling through various band configurations and sounds.

Love Symbol Album

The early '90s marked a crucial point of transition in Prince's career. He formed a fresh band — the New Power Generation — and released music that increasingly delved into hip-hop, meeting with a mixed reception. If some fans started to sense an identity crisis, they were affirmed by Prince's 1993 decision to change his name to the unpronounceable glyph ("Love Symbol #2") that had served as the title to the 1992 album ironically containing the single "My Name is Prince." The 1993 release of a two-disc greatest hits collection also served to cap a remarkable run on the charts that ended with 1994's #3 hit "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World," Prince's last single to date to crack the American top ten.

The mid-90s marked the end of Prince's relationship with his label Warner Bros. — after releasing a quick series of low-selling albums to fulfill his contractual obligations, he broke from the label in 1996 — and the beginning of his famously tumultuous relationship with the Internet. The iconoclastic perfectionist saw the Internet's potential as a tool to allow him to independently manage his own fandom and distribute his own music, but he also grew increasingly concerned about the danger of having his material freely bootlegged.

Prince was the first major artist to release an album on the Internet (1997's Crystal Ball) and from 2001-2006 ran the pioneering NPG Music Club to sell his music online by membership; but following the closure of that site, he became increasingly negative about the Internet, complaining that other sites (notably, YouTube) were benefiting by unauthorized circulation of his material. In an infamous 2010 statement, the online pioneer declared that "the Internet's completely over."

Releasing music both independently and through various short-term deals with major labels, in the late 90s and the first decade of the 2000s Prince released a flood of new material ranging from the obscure (the instrumental N.E.W.S. in 2003) to the consciously commercial (1999's Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic and 2006's 3121). He reclaimed his given name when his Warner Bros. publishing contract ended in 2000, and his widely-praised Super Bowl halftime show in 2007 proved to the largest possible audience that he was still a fiery live performer.

In the 2010s, Prince stepped back into the public eye in a way rarely seen since the '90s. He formed another new band — the all-female 3RDEYEGIRL — and played rapturously reviewed shows with them at venues ranging from Minnesota casinos to London living rooms. He "took over" an entire episode of Arsenio Hall's talk show, and duetted with Zooey Deschanel on a new song he premiered on a post-Super-Bowl episode of New Girl.

Perhaps most surprisingly, Prince re-signed with Warner Bros. Media coverage of the deal focused on the promised new music and Purple Rain reissue, but a telling detail of the press release is that the deal gave Prince ownership of his Warner Bros. masters. The artist who wore the word SLAVE on his cheek during a 1993 legal battle with his label was a free man.

Most recently, Prince released a pair of HITNRUN albums recorded at Paisley Park, and was performing solo "Piano & a Microphone" shows at venues around the world. He debuted the format with two intimate performances at Paisley Park in January. "I forgot," he said as he momentarily became overcome at one show, "that sometimes music is emotional." He was writing a memoir, which was expected to be published next fall.

Artists associated with Prince are still active. Revolution drummer Bobby Z holds an annual benefit concert at First Avenue, childhood friend and collaborator André Cymone just released his first new music in decades, NPG drummer Michael Bland is a busy performer and producer...the list goes on.

A new generation of local performers are exemplifying the '80s-era spirit of cross-genre fertilization and collaboration, now with a strong and adventurous hip-hop scene that's produced the area's best-known current artists. Prince remained aware and supportive of what's going on. In a classic Prince moment, he showed up backstage when the local supergroup GAYNGS played First Ave in 2010. Prince picked up a guitar and played a little, but ultimately declined to take the stage; some reported hearing him make a comment to the effect of, "Looks like they've got it under control."

Prince's legacy in Minnesota is multilayered — from his early collaborations with neighborhood bands, to his towering hits that put Minneapolis on the world's music map, to the venues he founded (Paisley Park and the former downtown club Glam Slam), to the enduring contributions of musicians he played with, to the example the Minneapolis Sound set for the dynamic scene of today.

Perhaps most importantly, though, Prince's music is evidence — to the world, and to Minnesotans ourselves — of the diversity of our state, and of our music. When you listen to Prince, you hear the influences of all the artists he grew up with: black, white, funky, rocking, groovy, prickly. It's not the sound of Minnesota's lonesome prairie, it's the sound of our dense cities. This utopian artist proved that music truly can break barriers — if u want it 2.

Portions of this article were previously published here.

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This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.