The Rebels

I’ve just had my first piece published in a magazine; the back page of this month’s issue of Wax Poetics features an article I co-wrote with Tony Best, about Prince’s early project, The Rebels. You can buy the issue directly from their website:

  • Wax Poetics
  • This below is an early working draft which we wrote, which is quite different to the final article, but which fleshes a few things out.

    When Prince released ‘For You’, his self-performed, slickly produced R&B debut in April ’78, he was heralded as the new Stevie Wonder. But as that album’s guitar-crunching cut ‘I’m Yours’ suggested, Prince was on a mission to mix not just soul and funk, but also new wave and rock into one explosive cocktail. Up until this point, his main partner in crime had been his homeboy André Cymone, but Prince wanted his musical ambitions to be reflected by a racially and gender democratic band and his “rainbow coalition” concept began to take shape with the recruitment of drummer Bobby Rivkin and keyboardists Matt Fink and Gayle Chapman, all white. Prince recalled, “There was a lot of pressure from my ex-buddies not to have white members in the band. But half the black musicians I knew only listened to one type of music. That wasn’t good enough for me.” After a dazzling audition, vital rock stimuli arrived in the form of ax-man, Dez Dickerson.

    This motley crew of musicians began rehearsals that November, feeling each other out and vibing. Writing in his autobiography, Dickerson remembers, “there was this explosive spark when we jammed – something about our collective styles and influences.” But these sessions had not yet yielded a cohesive or polished set by the time of their stage debut at the Capri Theatre in Minneapolis in January ’79. A mix of nerves and equipment failure meant that onlooking Warner executives were left feeling the band needed more time and they put the breaks on a planned tour. Suddenly left with a lot of free time, the band members began developing more material, but Prince withdrew to Los Angeles to record his sophomore album, ‘Prince’, which saw a return to his more controllable one-man-band approach. Aware of the disgruntlement this caused amongst his band members, and by way of appeasement, Prince announced his plan to record a side project called The Rebels, an album that would bring everyone’s ideas to the fore.

    The concept was that all the band members, including Prince, would remain anonymous (and be represented as silhouettes on the cover) and Prince hoped that The Rebels project would allow him to explore punk rock and new wave without confusing his R&B “Prince” persona. The 12-day recording sessions began on July 10th in Boulder, Colorado and Prince’s management intended to bankroll the project and have Warner reimburse them upon delivery of the tapes. Prince wrote four songs for the album, whilst Cymone contributed two and Dickerson three. Refusing to rely on black music clichés, the material ranged from bluesy Stone-esque romps (‘Hard To Get’ and ‘You’), nasty slices of Minneapolis funk (‘Thrill You Or Kill You’) to Moroder-infused machine rock (‘Disco Away’). The Rebels made a conscious decision to destroy preconceptions of how black artists should sound, but whilst Prince, Cymone and Dickerson were excited about the project, the other members weren’t so enthusiastic and questioned its validity. By the end, Dickerson had also begun to have doubts, asking, “what are we doing? Where are we going with this?” Eventually, the album and tapes were never presented to Warner; it seemed that a collective band effort had again faltered.

    After the summer, the band performed another showcase for the label executives in Los Angeles and this time the band was focused and ready. They revamped the electro boogie hits from Prince’s self-titled second album with crunching lead guitars; “after the first song, I could see that we had them. They had bought into Prince and his band big time and left the place absolutely buzzing,” recalls Dickerson. Warner’s faith in the band was renewed and it inspired them to push the ‘Prince’ album hard. Whilst in LA, Prince and the band shot two videos, including ‘I Wanna Be Your Lover’, and an effort was made to present them as more of a group rather than a Prince solo project.

    By the time of their promotional tour, the band had also stepped things up with regards to their image, with Prince, Cymone and Dickerson wearing brightly coloured spandex and see-through plastic pants, knee-high boots and suspenders. But critics were baffled by the band’s mix of funk, rock and new wave, and their manager insisted that Prince wear underwear underneath the tight spandex. Prince replied by wearing only bikini briefs for the remainder of the tour! Prince later reflected that “we all felt that we wanted to dress this way, talk this way, and play this way. When we first started out it was like shock treatment,” and for the band, breaking down barriers was key.

    After the ‘Fire It Up’ tour of early 1980 (which saw Prince and the band blow Rick James out of the water), Gayle Chapman, who refused to sing the lyrics to Prince’s censor-defying, ‘Head’, was replaced by new wave keyboardist Lisa Coleman. Classically trained, Coleman further expanded the group’s sound and here began the most creative period of Prince’s recordings, with his smooth R&B grooves finally giving way to stripped down, new wave funk. That summer saw the start of the ‘Dirty Mind’ sessions, in many ways a reassertion of the abandoned The Rebels concept, and jam session ideas would be taped and reworked by Prince at his home studio in Lake Minnetonka.

    Prince’s highly sexual lyrics were mirrored by his raw production and when the ‘Dirty Mind’ album was turned over to Warner they initially balked, but decided to indulge Prince by releasing it after some additional mixing. The sleeve art showed the band in full punk-funk glory and Dickerson says, “Prince seemed determined to push the envelope in every conceivable way – the look, the sound, the message. Everything was calculated to be taken beyond what had been done before.” The initial public reaction to the album was, however, lukewarm and most of his audience didn’t get the look or the raw sound of the record; radio stations shunned it, feeling it was too explicit and freaky. But Prince was unfazed because he knew this was the honest way to express himself – talking in Rolling Stone magazine, he said, “it was a revelation recording this album. I realized that I could write just what was on my mind and things that I’d encountered and I didn’t have to hide anything.”

    It was only when the music was made flesh with their ‘Dirty Mind’ tour that people began to embrace this new direction and album sales shot up in cities like New York and Detroit. Barnstorming across North America with their glam punk/new romantic/black rockstar personas, complete with studded trenchcoats, make-up, skinny ties and spandex pants, they knew they were breaking down barriers, and Dickerson affirms, “we were something that had never been seen in black music.” In May ’81 they embarked on a European tour and the band became enamored with the look and sound of the new romantic movement in London’s nightclubs. They felt they were on the right track and Dickerson saw the London scenester’s style-heavy presentation as “confirmation that we were in the thick of a new wave of artists who would be making a global impact.” Full of self-belief and serious attitude, these rebels from Minneapolis left in their wake a young global audience hungry for more… their brand of punk-funk controversy was about to define a decade.

    One of the artists on my label, Robert O’Dell, also sent me some of his recollections:

    “When ‘Dirty Mind’ came out I was really digging the style and sound. Back then, everyone who really liked Prince in high school wore Rude Boy buttons, but no-one had one exactly like Prince’s. It made me mad! Sometimes you would catch someone with leg warmers and a trench coat on… cold blooded it was.

    “I used to try to dress like Prince… then The Time came out and saved me! They had better Prince look-a-likes in my school so I was happy to change my style. ‘Get It Up’ and ‘My Stick’ were the hottest things that ever hit radio and The Time started playing clubs days after they released their record. I dragged my dad to this place, The 20 Grand in Detroit. I don’t ever take my dad anywhere like this, but the EP that they had was so hot! It was a good show.

    “The Electrifying Mojo used to play Prince all the time. I was going to school one morning… boom boxes weren’t allowed and I would ride in the back of the bus with one of those flat cassette tape machines that uses C batteries. I had ‘Head’ on one time and this girl lost it and started gyrating her pelvis on the seat and licking her tongue out. It was so funny because she was seriously jacking off in front of us.

    “My band back in high school, The Bratts, got signed to 8 Mile Productions through the drummer’s aunt. We were able to get Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis to come to the drummer’s house to hear us. They were going to be our producers, but someone sabotaged it all. This was around ’83. I finally got to play at Fifth Avenue in ’97 in a group called Super Glue.

    “‘Dirty Mind’ is like a major Warner underground release that they pressed up in the middle of the night on coke, laughing, because there was no-one around to stop them; then sunrise came and they started packing that shit on the truck and it was too late. Then ‘Controversy’ came out… mega star!”

    Posted by Manny Z

    Related Entries:
    Robert O’Dell
    Dez Dickerson
    ‘Modernaire’
    André Cymone

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