Of all of the songs that come to mind when I think of the music of 1987, Prince’s “Sign O the Times” shines among the brightest. It’s slightly delayed, knocking rhythm groove, and bluesy synthesizer bass, slurred like the speech of old men drinking cheap liquor, was the perfect seasoning for the meat of the matter, Prince’s late Reaganomics, state of the world address, sung in a plaintive falsetto very close to the moan of the old spirituals.
It’s clear that for Prince, those words were the thing, evident in the lyric video he produced for the song and the posters with the full song reprinted as if he wanted us to learn and take heed to each and every word. On this particular song he once again achieved the lyrical poignancy of his musical role models such as Bob Dylan, Curtis Mayfield, Joni Mitchell, John Lennon and many others. He also succeeded in updating the blues for the age of Digital R&B and Hip Hop in much the same fashion Marvin Gaye did for the age of Funk with 1971’s “Inner City Blues.”
Prince’s singular ability to take all of the wonderful music he knew, could play and imagine, and distill it into their most vital elements, is essential to the musical success of this piece, which caught my ear coming from my Dad’s stereo system. It starts off with four kick beats from the drum machine, answered by a delayed percussion sound, in a digital African call and response pattern. No snare drum, no vocals, no bass line, until Prince lets out a soulful “Oh Yeah”, which is the cue that brings in the reverberating snare drum and that bass.
That bass. Oh, that bass. The bass line was one of my early attractions to the song, it is a synthesized tone with a very human, vocal quality. The spareness of this arrangement is part of what makes it stand out, as other musicians and producers of the time such as Quincy Jones, Teddy Riley, Jam and Lewis or even The Bomb Squad might have added more delicious layers to the track, Prince simply let it be so that he could bring his message across. And of course, Prince had a musical history of making the most of simplicity, as seen in previous classics such as “When Doves Cry”, and “Kiss.” This also helped him in the climate of a rising nation of Hip Hop music that focused solely on the rhythm and made him an influence on that side of music.
Part of what Prince shared with the pioneers of Hip Hop music, as well as innovators like Stevie Wonder, Herbie Hancock, Bernie Worrell and many others of his time, was no fear about making music through technological means. And “Sign O’ The Times” is a song made possible by the Fairlight CMI synthesizer, an expensive sampling keyboard and computer system that only the richest of musicians could utilize in the 1980s. The synth sold for $40,000 back then and it amazed many musicians with its ability to put a whole orchestra at your fingertips, which is something modern DAW’s (Digital Audio Workstation) do for a fraction of the price. But Prince pulled most of the sounds you hear on this song straight from the factory settings of the Fairlight.
“Sign O The Times” is so important to me personally because it is the very first song I can say that started me on the road to being a Prince fan. Being born in the early ’80s, I grew up with songs like “I Wanna Be Your Lover”, “1999” and “Soft and Wet.” All of this was music you heard up and down the block in Oakland, California. I’m also the youngest in my family and my siblings were all teens at that time, and Prince’s music expressed what they were going through as teens and young adults. My mother and father were also fans of music, especially my father, but Prince, along with Hip Hop, is where they began to question things. Part of it was the fact they were very religious, Jehovah’s Witnesses in fact, which is ironic because Prince himself would be for the last 20 years of his life (and Larry Graham was once a member of the exact same Kingdom Hall I grew up in Oakland, California.) My mother used to say, “That boy is fine, but why does he have to be naked?. It’s funny because the outrageousness of Prince’s image and approach wasn’t itself new. In their collection they had Issac Hayes albums where Black Moses was shirtless, chained, wearing tights, they had Herb Alpert’s “Whipped Cream” with a naked lady covered in the white stuff, numerous disco albums featuring scantily clad ladies, The Ohio Players soft porn album covers, even gender benders like Little Richard and David Bowie! And certainly…LOTS of short rock stars in HEELS (James Brown, Mick Jagger, Miles Davis etc).
Now my Dad in particular, he was rigid without being rigid. He never railed AGAINST Prince, and he tapped his toes and nodded his head to several hits over the years, maybe even picked up a 45 or two, but he mainly saw Prince as an entertaining gimmick more than a musician, and Dad’s first true love was Jazz. But “Sign O’ The Times” hit him much differently. ’87 was a big year I remember because Dad was going back to Liberia, West Africa for the first time since the 1980 coup. He was excited about getting some local mining exchanges started up that would help people in the interior of the country. Now when Dad was in Africa, he was known as one of the best people to get the new American music from, and he wasn’t about to let his reputation slip in ’87! So he taped a lot of songs off our local radio stations in the Bay Area, mainly KSOL, to take with him and play for Liberian parties.
“Sign O The Times” really caught Dad, from the plaintive vocals, the modern beat, and the comprehensive state of the world lyrics, dealing with AIDS, Natural disasters, gangs and drugs, the Space Ship Challenger and many other things. In fact, here was Prince with a record that very much supported a Biblical, “end times” view of the world like the JW’s had. Also, the deep blusey nature of the song hit Dad in a deep place, because Jazz and Blues were his roots music.
It seems in 1987 though, after two terms of Reaganomics reverse Robin Hood approach (Steal from the poor to give to the rich), many people in Black music had sentiments very close to Prince on this song. In this series, I will cover other politically themed songs from Stevie Wonder, EWF, and new (at the time) Hip Hop artists like Public Enemy and BDP. In history, 1987 would see the greatest stock market crash since the Great Depression, and the fiasco of the Iran Contra affair, which left a serious stain on the Reagen Presidency. The Inner Cities were beginning to crumble as ’87 was about the second or third year of the crack epidemic.
“Sign O’ The Times” has continued to grow in importance for me, from my elementary school years in 1987 to now. Chuck D, one of my favorite artists, once said on VH1 that he was impressed by and influenced by the lyrical power of Prince’s “Now he’s doing Horse, Its June” line from the song and how much that taught him about lyrical economy and suggestion. And it just so happened 20 years after that, when I walked into a party here in the Bay Area playing Prince music, hosted by DJ’s Dave Paul and Jeff Harris, the song that was playing when we walked in was “Sign O the Times” which me and my friends knew every word two, now picture that, 8 Black men singing “Sign O The Times” in unison! Prince took the title of this song from the journal of his 7th Day Adventist religion, and it was very fitting, not just for this masterwork of a song, but for the amazing transitional, funky, grooving, urban message-oriented music of 1987 and the late ’80s!