Tag Archives: Wind & Fire

“The ’87 Sound”: “Sign O the Times” by Prince

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!

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Music for the Next ONE 12/5/15: “Famous” by The Internet

I was introduced to the music of L.A based band The Internet by my good friend and musical associate Andre Grindle, when he wrote about their Nu-Funk banger “Dontcha”, produced by Chad Hugo of The Neptunes. That song is a funky tune that struck me for it’s fresh takes on “I Need a Freak” by Sexual Harrasment and “Boogie Nights” by Heatwave, melded with a dry, Neo-Soul influenced studio sound, prominent phat drums, and singer Syd the Kid’s sensually soulful vocals. There was something about this combination of regular looking Black kids playing instrumental, Hip Hop inflected modern R&B Funk that activated my hope genes. And I’m not the only one, as their music became a favorite of most of my music loving friends, without any prior discussion among us about the bands dopeness. One of my favorite music podcasts, “The Music Snobs”, actually recorded an episode with the conversation starter of a theme, “Is the group The Internet the future of R&B?” As the band represents for me a package of good instrumental Funky R&B, with a dynamically modern, relate able and up to date image, with a slyly charismatic front in Syd the Kid, who breaks new ground with her boyish stud vibe. It’s not enough for a would be paradigm shifting Black band to simply play instruments, they must also make those instruments relate able to a young public nourished on drum machines and samplers, beyond the traditional instrumental mainstays of the church and school band room. Today’s Funk feature, “Famous”, is an uptempo stepper released as a digital bonus to their 2015 album, “Ego Death.”

“Famous” wastes no time jumping on the One, starting off with a lead in snare fill from the drummer, setting off the groove at a brisk tempo. The groove has an uptempo Afro-Latin syncopated funk feel, executed as crisply as a funky song from Earth, Wind & Fire, Barry White, M.J, or Sade. The bass line’s broken up syncopated beats combine to create a funky, quick, short and simple pattern. This bass pattern leaves space for the funky, low rhythm guitar part, which goes from single line to emphasizing the holes in the groove with chopping guitar chords. The drum part is recorded in the bands trademark crisp drum style! with. Sizzling hi hats and an anticipatory kick drum. Every fourth bar the instruments stop the groove a fraction of a beat early, creating a bouncy, stop/start groove.

At the chorus, the chords are extended out, the bass has more room to play notes, and the guitar strumming becomes more prominent, as the vocals are enhanced by a multi tracked choir of Syd the Kid’s. Syd flips the script with her lyrics on this one, making the traditional, “I can make you famous”, casting couch romantic jive from a female stud’s perspective. Syd sings “You have something special/I can tell just by the way you dance.” “if you knew girl/the things that I could do for your career.” The whole band punches out a James Brown horn like band “stab” to move from the chorus to the next verse, which is enriched by Fender Rhodes sustained chording. The music grows in nuance, as the guitar adds wahw ah slides up the neck to accentuate the holes in the groove. The song also goes into a slow/rubato/free time breakdown before kicking the groove back into high gear, with the rhythm guitar and drummer in particular showing up to show out.

What I appreciate so much about this joint is the usage of traditional groove band techniques in a modern context. Even a tremendously funky groove like “Uptown Funk” sounds like a “track”. In this song, The Internet steps toward mastering the Funk band ability to create a wall of sound with limited musicians, in this case, 5. The way the drummer kicks it off at the top, then goes to the ride cymbal to give the chorus a different texture, the contrast in bass feels on the verse and chorus, the ratcheting up of guitar activity as the band progresses, the horn stabs that spee rate the chorus from the following verses, the slowing down of the song and picking it back up to end with energy; all musical techniques of a tight, well rehearsed, BAND. They ain’t trying to emulate drum machines or sequenced loops on this one, they’re giving you a sound only a well rehearsed band can give you. And Syd puts a new sincerity to the line, “I can make you famous.” It all adds upto The internet taking this live band thing very seriously!

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