This Saturday I am happy to share that I have been asked to open for my old friend and musical hero Karl Denson at the fabulous The Fillmore. Karl D will be performing #prince‘s #DirtyMind with Con Brio‘s Ziek McCarter doing the Purple vocals. This was certainly a gig I was honored to be offered, and one I was certainly not going to turn down. But it was also, honestly, a gig that terrified the living shit out of me.
“Why? Aren’t you the theme set guy? Prince should be a LAYUP compared to Radiohead right?”
Well the truth is, I may be a funk aficionado and have been dropping Prince tracks since probably my first night DJing in Greece in 1995. But I would never front on being a Prince expert. Rather I, like most of you have all of the early records, and only a fleeting familiarity with his more recent work. I overwhelmingly respect his stance against Itunes and major labels, but truthfully, it HAS made it harder to get ones hands on his music. And in an era, epoch, and personal life where there is never enough time, the deep digging required to keep up with the Purple One has been beyond my means. Hell, keeping up with pretty much anything musically has proven difficult as my responsibilities to HUSHconcerts have grown in the past few years.
There is also the fact that other people do Prince so very well, namely Dave Paul and his The Prince and Michael Jackson Experience and other friends like Renoir Salgado. Why bother learning to DJ Prince when these incredible people can simply be hired for an #ElectricNostalgia or Silent Frisco. I can leave Prince to these adepts and go on being “That geek who does Talking Heads, Radiohead, Beck, Beasties, Psychedelic Rock in Remix, Fatboy Slim, 80’s, 70’s and more obscure types of funk than exist in all the sewers of New Orleans.” Seriously, I’m into comics and history books too so I don’t really need another freaking obsession right?
So yes, it’s an honor, but also a challenge. And just as Andy Bernsteinasking me to do the #Syn parties in 2002 forced me to dive deep in and study, and actually come to appreciate Phish, The Disco Biscuits and STS9, this past week of study for this gig has been one of the most rewarding musical journeys I have ever taken. I do have a process for this that is tried and tested throughout all of these other geekventures so it wasn’t impossible but took a bunch of time. Since a lot of folks have indeed asked, and since I’m characteristically awake when I should be sleeping, I figured I would take the 4 of you who may read this entire post through this entire process in detail. Here’s hoping you are as big a geek as I, either about DJing, Prince, or the creative process. If not, go back to your #catvideos…. now.
The first step in the “process” is to gather EVERYTHING related to the artist. And for this I can thank my good buddy Matt Haze Kaftor for laying on me um… PRINCEs ENTIRE F-ING CATALOG! Mind you, Matt gave me said music the day BEFORE I was asked to do this gig. Holy shinola Matt, if ever a friend appeared at exactly the right time with exactly the right gift, this was the time. It would be like someone gifting Johnny Manziel a robot attorney right before he went out for a night on the town in Vegas. In the annals of gift giving, Matt giving me Prince’s catalog stands somewhere between the Millenium Falcon I got when I was 6 and the Louisiana Purchase. I seriously don’t know how to repay the guy.
So with said “alltime great gift of a catalog” in hand, I dove deep into the Prince boards and got a sense of the best of the best of the people he produced, wrote for, wrote with, jammed with, inspired, etc… People like Dez Dickerson, Morris Day, Shiela E, and Vanity were the obvious ones, but I had no idea how many amazing tracks were cut at Paisley Park. Everyone from Mavis Staples to Janet Jackson to Nona Hendryx and relative unknowns like Andre Cymone, Cheyne, Sue Ann etc.. cut records there. Then there were the other “Minneapolis Sound” folks like Mazarati, the Time and pretty much everything Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis ever touched. So this stuff has to be at least considered to be part of the set. The “CREAM” of that crop, (pun intended) at least. Many of these obscurities I found IN HI-RES due to the incalculably generous work of DJ Richie P and his Fun With Vinylblog. Seriously, this guy deserves a Presidential Medal of Funkdom for the scope and quality of what he has done for all of us diggers.
Then I do my best to listen to EVERYTHING. Yes, much of it I just scan… digging in deeper to what I like and save the rest for enjoyment later. I cull the 900+ songs I surveyed into about 160 that I think could conceivably work in a DJ set. Then the real work begins. I go through each song in detail, classifying it along certain lines, and adding cue points, and where necessary, putting some aside that I think may need to be remastered a bit (more on this later).
The basic classifications that helped me build the set were EARLY (think stuff like “Sign of the Times” and the entire “The Beautiful Experience” album.
MIDTEMPO, UPTEMPO and REMIXES are all self explanatory. OFFSHOOTS is a good way to add the Time and Sheila E’s of the world. But also, Tom Jones/Art of Noise’s cover of “Kiss” and Maceo Parker’s cover of “The Greatest Romance Ever Sold”. SYNTH FUNK is that signature “Minneapolis sound” stuff like “Dirty Mind” “Party Man” and even most of The Time stuff.
STRIPPED FUNK’s best example would be “Musicology” “Kiss” “DMSR” and offshoot Mazaratti’s superjam “Stroke”. Then there’s DOUBLETIME which is basically the stuff he did that has that doubletime hip hop or 87 bpm 3/2 feel that (if one added an “Amen Break” could work as Drum and Bass… stuff like “Delirious” “Sex in the Summer” and “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man”…. A lot of songs ended up in more than one category.
Now that I have all the pieces in the table, I need to determine the structure. For instance, should I start HUGE like a mixtape, or start slow and steady as one would if they are opening a show and people are coming in? I actually prefer the latter and since I will be doing just that (starting with an empty room), this was the structure I chose… It’s in line with what I typically like to do with Talking Heads and Radiohead sets. It also allows me to really reward the early attendees with some of the juiciest obscurities. But keep in mind, that if this was a “mixtape” I was making for dissemination, or if I was NOT opening and had to hit hard and fast with an full room, I would have structured it differently. Perhaps I would start with the midtempo, building from there and ending with downtempo. But in this case, I AM opening, so… slow then fast (just like you like it you dirtyminded Princeophile).
So we have the pieces and the structure and now comes the hard part. THE CULL. I mean, 163 songs (at an average of 3 minutes play time) would equal a 500 minute, 8 hour set that would probably kill me, (and have everyone at the show resembling Ted Striker’s suicidal seatmates in Airplane). Don’t get me wrong, the Radiohead set done right, takes four self-indulgent hours. It’s not quite as self-indulgent as Danny Tenaglia’s 12-hour sets. But I for one have attended one of Danny’s marathons and found myself asking “Why can’t he just do 3 hours of his best stuff?” In reality, you want to get to 2-3 superb hours, which means… roughly 40-60 tracks.
So I did a second time through the list, this time, by category, and cut it down to about 100 tracks. Then I sort that list by BPM to give me a general idea of where stuff might fit if we are going by tempo. I also pull out obvious progressions and combos, like my four versions of “Kiss” and tracks that clearly go together musically or thematically like “Raspberry Beret” / “Uptown” / “Take Me With You” / “Little Red Corvette” or “Erotic City” / “Automatic” / “Nasty Girl” / “When Doves Cry” etc…
Then I start putting the order together, culling even more along the way. I started with the slow juicy stuff that early entrants will appreciate. Songs that are some of his most beautiful but least well known, like “Jam of the Year”, “Staxowax” “We March” ” Poom Poom”. And as I go I listen more deeply yet again, to find obvious mixing points, and additional cue points. Last night I spent about 5 hours putting together the initial order and managed to get it down to 60 tracks, with about 5 extras I could sub in, or add on if the set goes too long.
And that brings up a really interesting challenge. There is really no easy way to TIME these sets. Like I said, 3 minutes/song is a rule of thumb, but what if the song is 5 minutes of bliss or 8 minutes of unbelievable funk (like “Automatic”)… Or the “Mommy, why does everybody have the bomb” in 1999. Or for instance cutting at 3 minutes loses the incredible Michael Jacksonesque synth-disco in the second half of “I Wanna Be Your Lover”.
In most cases, especially as an opener, you play as long as the headliner wants and in many cases, get cut off early. Like the time I did the Setbreak for Gov’t Mule‘s The Deepest End, Live in Concert. They told me I had an 45 minutes, so I planned 45 southern rock tracks and practiced the set for (literally) weeks. Then when I got to then venue it appeared that more legends than planned had arrived and little MoPo’s set was being cut to 25 minutes. Now who the heck am I to complain right? If Jack Cassady and Bill Laswell want 15 more minutes, then far be it from me to complain. In the pecking order of musical life, it goes Bill Laswell… someone… someone… Dirty Little DJ guy. It was a huge honor nonetheless so I sucked it up, rubbed some dirt on it, and played 45 songs in 25 minutes (this is unbelieveable but true). My (belabored) point is simply the illustration of the unforeseen curveballs one can be thrown when NOT the headliner. You are there to SUPPORT which means doing what is in the best interest of the show. “Suck it up and do your job” should be on the inside of every support act’s dressing room door.
The curveball in the case of this show is that I’m still not sure if I am allowed to play tracks from the album “Dirty Mind”. In most cases, an opener, (especially the aforementioned dirty little DJ) does not play something the headliner will play. At best, it’s a gentle nudge or in the case of Grandmaster Flash, a rider that lists 7 pages of verbotten songs. I have even been screamed at by Tom-Tom-Club‘s road manager for playing… Talking Heads tracks when opening for them. It was unpleasant and weird but again THEIR CALL.
Best to steer clear right? Or prepare for both. In this case, I created one version of the set with Dirty Mind stuff in it, and one without. “Dirty Mind” “Head” and “Uptown” could be in there or out and I’ll be fine. I’d rather hear Karl D and Ziek play it anyway. On a related note, David Veith often gets unfairly overlooked in the Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe world, but with the synth-driven 80’s Prince material here I predict he is going to RULE This show. He’s actually one of the finest nudisco producers in the world with hisCrush Effect work and I seriously can’t wait to hear his take on Prince’s material.
But I digress, we’re talking (endlessly) about ME right? Where were we? Oh yes, TIMING. The timing of the theme set is still so treacherous. In many cases of doing the Radiohead and Talking Heads sets I will linger too long on the early stuff to wait for more of a crowd to arrive before dropping the real bombs. But the pitfall here is that you can actually run out of time and not be able to unleash some of your true monsters you have saved for the end of the show. I’ve struggled with this for as long as I’ve been doing theme sets and have to constantly remind myself to “stay on time” so as to not lose out of the real money shots.
In fact the only way to get a sense of the actual timing of these sets is to PLAY the set live. Practicing it in the studio helps a bit, but doesn’t take into account the real-time feedback you get from watching what people truly react to, and how. In some cases I may find myself tempted to let a real winner ride a bit longer, or cut off a track I may like, but the audience doesn’t feel. And this changes from show to show as well. I know for instance that I am in love my own remix of Radiohead’s “Bangers & Mash” but have seen it elicit both quizzical stares and thrilled smiles in two different rooms. So while I will certainly be practicing the set (sometime between my day jobHUSHconcerts, packing my apartment to move in 2 weeks, and playingFRIDAY! Freqo de Mayo feat. Minnesota, Blockhead, Thriftworks, Eliot Lipp & Digital Rust… there will be no true way to prepare for this.
The reality is that my Prince set will probably not be as good a set as I want it to be. The first try rarely is. Don’t get me wrong, people will appreciate it (you better after all the work I put into it, you fickle bastards), but there is no way in hell I will mix it as well as I had wished. And there will certainly be tracks that seemed like they “should” work together, but don’t end up doing so in reality.
I will almost certainly be suffering from serious stagefright as well. This is something I have battled for 20 years and is why I feel far more comfortable in dark clubs than big stages. As Fred Wesley so aptly points out in his amazing book “Hit Me Fred: Recollections of the World’s Greatest Sideman:… you are either BORN a STAR or BORN a SIDEMAN. There are sidemen who play the role of stars (think Thom Yorke for instance) and there are stars with the skills of sidemen (Prince is a great example). But your nature is your nature. And mine is most certainly that of a sideman. I get very lonely on big stages in most cases and there are few stages more pressure-filled than freaking Fillmore West in advance of Karl D playing freaking Prince. Heck, then last time I played the Fillmore I CLOSED the show AFTER Metallica at their XXX show and I felt a lot like a mouse in the lion’s den.
The key to handling stage fright (for me) is to deep breathe before you go on, then make sure to force yourself to smile until your psychosomatics take over and the endorphins release. But keep in mind though that in some ways, how I “feel” is irrelevant. As a professional musician whose job is to entertain the audience, I have prided myself on making sure I can deliver a strong performance no matter how I “feel” or what my “mood” is. Its my freaking job to improve YOUR mood, not the other way around. So while I do suffer from actual and very serious stage fright, I have become somewhat adept at “faking it until I feel it”. If you see me actually dancing on stage it means I have gotten over stage fright. Either way, I feel I owe it to Prince to bring the funk so I will do my best.
With the newness of the material, the pressure of the setting, and the size of the stage, I will be hard pressed to pull off this set as perfectly as I want. There will be (as Chris Stillwell of the Greyboy Allstars is fond of saying) the occasional “CLAM”. While the recorder will be running (as it does for all of my sets, I will most likely not want to share this one). Knowing how weird stuff is with Prince’s licensing people, I’d probably get a C&D if I did anyway, or booted from SoundCloud. Just ask Mojo Filter and Blake Robin about the perils of “sharing”. Hell, I already have 2 strikes and being shunned from Soundcloud would make my career even more obscure and underground than it is.
At any rate, the pointis, this may be the only time you get a chance to hear this cartoonishly elaborately prepared set performed. I sincerely hope you all will get a ticket and come down to the FEEL MORE this Saturday. After 20 years of DJing and my real-life responsibilities growing (Marriage, House, Business… the trifecta…) I don’t take it for granted that I will get opportunities like this very often. If you do come, please try to come early (doors at 8)… as you will get some real juicy musical treats.
Since it’s clear that if you are still reading this you are either “Shirking work” “Ignoring your significant other” “On the toilet” or dare I say “genuinely interested?”… here are few items and observations I uncovered from my deep dive into the Purple’s One’s catalog.
He did an album devoted to one of his loves “The Beautiful Experience” that is just magnificent to behold. I totally missed it and you should not.
Among the tracks I totally overlooked that are incredible are “Billy Jack Bitch” “S&M Groove” “Style” “Flutestramental” “We March” “Hot Thing” “Cindy C” “Poom Poom” and “Jam of the Year”.
Like with every artist who has released hundreds of tracks, I actually hated a good 50 or so of them. Not every experiment works. There are James Brown tracks I can’t stand, Michael Jackson albums I think that are unlistenable, and enough of P-Funk misfires to make an ignnomineous career for many. And this is a timely subject since people other than Prince will conceivably be going through his extensive catalog of unreleased music and releasing a lot of it in the next many years. And while many have called this a “Treasure Trove” I am not as convinced. I would like to believe that if you actually DID release 500+ songs in your career, that you chose the best ones, and whats left over is either unfinished, or of a lower quality. I thought a lot of Bob Dylan’s “Basement Tapes” should have remained in the basement. On the other had when Bruce Springsteen released ‘The Promise’ with the unheard work from ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’ there were some real gems. My point is that if you are expecting ‘Purple Rain Part Deux’, you may end up disappointed.
I rediscovered and fell deeply in love with some tracks that I was familiar with from my teens but had forgotten about… for instance…
• “Automatic” is one of the best minimal funk jams ever laid down. Just an obvious precursor to so much that has happened in dance music since that day… from Laid Back’s “White Horse” to most of the Minimal House scene today.
• “Computer Blue” has always been my favorite track on “Purple Rain” but after listening a few more times this week I think this has to be my favorite Prince track in general. It starts downright nasty, gets filthy funky… then resolves into beautiful tonal stuff… only to descend into dark funk at the end. It’s an amazing combination of the Minneapolis sound and the brighter Brit-psych “Around the World in a Day” stuff he was heading towards.
Dez Dickerson’s “Modernaire” Vanity’s “Nasty Girl” and Apollonia’s “Sex Shooter” all sound completely different if listened to in high res. Like every studio, there certainly was a Paisley Park “sound”, or “mix aesthetic”, similar to how Muscle Shoals, Motown, and The Record Plant had their characteristics. In the case of Paisley, it’s a very obvious “80’s” mix in many cases, with more treble in the mix than we are accustomed to today. And this makes some sense since everything was being mastered for deep, delicious vinyl.
But listen to the same tracks on a CD master and it IS actually a different listen. This isn’t the case with a lot of music, but the Prince-related stuff from the 80’s is one place you can really hear a noticeable difference. And god forbid you listen to these tracks on a low-res MP3 and the accented mids and trebles become so pronounced that they become damn near unlistenable. So if you must listen to Prince and his minions from that era, get the record, or a Vinyl rip at least. Bleep.com is one place I found where you can get hires rips of at least some of this stuff.
And while we’re discussing it, the “mix aesthetic” of Prince’s tracks, you should know that this is a topic of much debate, often of the extremely acrimonious variety in some circles. From what I can discern, there are those who feel his “sound”, even on vinyl, is a bit hollow, and have nominated themselves to right this perceived wrong. There have actually been many bootleg releases of everything from simple home remasters to professional-level remakes. Prince typically reacted to most of these in much the way he did when anyone chose to mess with his art, with (at best) abject derision, and (at worst) vicious legal onslaughts.
But it’s hard to argue that sound mixing in general has come a long way since the 80’s. You can say what you want about analog vs digital, but its hard to argue that the general sound aesthetic of the 80’s was a certain way, whether it was Prince of (god help us) the Thompson Twins. And since everyone’s ears, and (since sound systems are like city-stomping Bassnectar-spawned Godzillas these days) their areas of hearing damage are so different, it’s hard to nail down “What sounds good”. Today, we have the ability to (quite easily) take a track we like, and remaster, remix, cut, slice, dice with ease. In my case, there are a few I decided to remaster just for my set…
please don’t anyone tell Prince’s estate attorneys. Like I said, I already have 2 strikes,