by Alan Freed
June 07, 2016
It's just a few sleeps ahead of More Funk '16 - Old School '80s and the Mplsound at First Avenue, the funk flo' filla party I'm organizing along with DJ Cowboy, Dean Vaccaro, Roy Freedom and the ace First Ave crew. On deadline, I look online for some inspiring funk to drive home this Current feature. Two minutes later, after sampling a handful of streams and video compilations, I've found one that gets me in my groove. Midnight Star. Earth, Wind & Fire. Janet Jackson. The Time.
It wasn't always this easy to find the funk. Or any music. Today we can get anything we want in seconds at the tap of our fingers. I almost feel like a spoiled Veruca Salt from Willie Wonka & the Chocolate Factory ("Daddy, I want it NOW"). Man, we have it good in 2016.
When I was a kid in 1970s Minneapolis I always gravitated to funky, soulful music, but mostly only what I heard on top-40 radio. Ear cracklings like the horn-fueled energy of Chicago (the band)…Boz Scaggs' understated "Lowdown"….the Philly Sound smoothness of the O'Jays…George Clinton's galactic P-Funk. Most, but not all, of these tracks and artists got top-40 radio play, whether locally on WDGY 1130, KDWB 630, KSTP 1500 and the short-lived stark-raving-mad U100, or via nighttime long distance skywave catches of faraway AM stations like KAAY/Little Rock, WLS/Chicago and, on a really good night when the radio gods were looking with favor upon us, WNBC and WABC, throwing their signals halfway across the country from New York. Anything funkier than what the radio played, however, we had to find on our own. Other than radio, pretty much the only ways a teenaged kid was exposed to music were a few TV shows, record stores and, if you skated, the Roller Garden roller skating rink in St. Louis Park. There was nearly nothing other than those links to feed our young and developing musical appetite.
Believe it or not, there was a time when the local music scene wasn't nationally and internationally known. So when something — anything — Minneapolis/St. Paul or Minnesota-related made even a little noise, it was exciting. Years before the Minneapolis Sound exploded, an unlikely song found its way — barely — onto the Billboard Hot 100 chart. An act called Northern Light in 1975 released the track "Minnesota," literally singing the praises of the state. Possibly the only song ever that has loon calls prominently featured. Despite it being devoid of funk, the saccharin single had a different appeal to an impressionable kid; it was about his home and how wonderful that place was. I'm convinced now that the song's peak position of 88 was nothing more than 88% of the state's population buying a copy. But I didn't think like that then. For teen me, hearing a song about my state all over the radio was a wow moment, and it planted the idea that there was something right here that the whole country was interested in (even if that was a stretch).
Fast forward a few years to 1978. By then, disco had trended into the mainstream in a massive wave. I'd already heard some of the big hits that were anointed top-40 airplay, like The Hustle from Van McCoy, Chic's growing hit list, and the flood of Saturday Night Fever soundtrack hits from the Bee Gees and others. That disco sound really connected with me via its lush strings, horn sections and funky rhythm. And by the end of 1978, the Minneapolis/St. Paul airwaves cracked open a scoch with the debut of 10-watt KMOJ 89.7 (in North Minneapolis, anyway) playing funk, soul, rap, gospel and reggae, plus KFMX 104 following the surge of other stations around the country by going all-disco. The arrival of these two new radio choices was not only refreshing but also perfect timing, ready to play a new R&B artist from Minneapolis on Warner Brothers named Prince.
Prince's Warner arrival was like that "Minnesota" song a few years before, another reason to be cheerful, part 2. I remember browsing in an IDS Crystal Court shop shortly after Prince's debut album, For You, had hit the streets. The store today is a mini-mart but then it was a t-shirt shop, and the PA system was playing a radio station which must have been KFMX or maybe KMOJ. "Soft & Wet," Prince's debut single, came on. Recognizing it, I wondered to myself if the clerk had any idea that the song playing was by a guy from Minneapolis. I didn't ask but I felt a surge of pride. At least I knew. If only I knew what was to come.
Over the next four years and five albums, Prince's star rose and I, just a few years younger than he, began reaching for my own stars. Prince (along with "Jamie Starr") worked the record biz and I blazed my trail in local radio and clubs, playing his songs and those from The Time (his only other creative channel at the time — no pun intended). While Purple Rain was what made him a mainstream star, the locals and Black music fans across the country had already logged into Prince. Watching him blow up with the success of Purple Rain and seeing the attention it brought to the city was an intoxicating payoff, even more so because everyone and everything was coming to us.
We all know that P never abandoned Minneapolis. In the haze following Purple Rain and continuing through Around the World in a Day, Parade, Sign O' The Times, Lovesexy and Batman, he'd still hang at local hot spots. He was a regular at First Avenue's weekly "MF — More Funk" Thursdays, where it wasn't unusual for him to slip DJs Roy Freedom and PD Spinlove a fresh test pressing to play, a bit of market research if you will.
And so this Thursday we set our time machine go-to date to that era of funky fun for one night only, with the original music, the original DJs, original VJs, the same club, even the same night of the week (and an original bartender who has worked continuously at the club since then) for a taste of how it was in a freshly minted Funkytown. A night of '80s jams with an emphasis on the Minneapolis Sound.
"Maybe I'll see you this Thursday night."
- "Superfunkycalifragisexy," from The Black Album
Alan rode the Minneapolis Sound wave as it exploded in the early '80s and continued through the rest of the decade, as an on-air host playing funk and dance at KBEM, KMOJ, WWTC and other stations, as a club DJ, VJ at the long-gone K-TWIN video channel 23 and as a music trade publication editor where he covered the Minneapolis scene for a national audience. He later conducted U.S. research for Swedish author Per Nilsen's detailed books chronicling Prince and Nilsen's articles in the independent Prince fanzine, Uptown. Alan launched Minneapolis' first dance music radio station, Beat Radio, and for three years was music director and on-air on XM Satellite Radio dance music channels. His first interview was at age 10 with folk icon Pete Seeger.