It should come as no surprise to readers of this website that I was very excited to hear Andrea Swensson, local music journalist and radio host for The Current, was writing a book about the history of the Minneapolis Sound - the trademark guitar and synth-heavy funk style made famous by Prince and many others in the 1970s and 80s. When my pre-ordered copy of Got To Be Something Here: The Rise Of The Minneapolis Sound arrived in early October, I quickly devoured each and every word and wished there was more when I ran out of pages to turn.
The book provides a riveting account of the conditions that led to the creation of the Minneapolis Sound, beginning in 1958 - the year the first R&B record to come out of Minnesota was recorded in the basement of a North Minneapolis home (as well as the year Prince was born), and goes up through Prince's first performance at the venue we now know as First Avenue in 1981. Though Prince is a central figure (one of the chapters is called "Prince and Andre", for instance), the story Swensson tells is more focused on some of the musicians and sociological forces that influenced Prince and his peers. The paths of bands like The Big M's (who recorded the aforementioned 1958 R&B record), The Amazers, The Blazers, The Valdons, The Family and more are traced, alongside recollections of venues that were critical to the success of those bands such as King Solomon's Mines and The Flame.
The over-arching theme of the book, however, is the racist institutional policies that battered these bands, venues, and communities they came from. The construction of Interstate Highway 94 is covered in heart-wrenching detail, as it split off North Minneapolis from the rest of the city and completely decimated the thriving largely black Rondo neighborhood in St. Paul. As is the city's effort to shut down King Solomon's Mines, located where Keys Cafe currently sits in the Foshay Tower. The venue was the only one in Downtown Minneapolis that allowed bands with more than one black member on stage. Despite attendance and support from some of the upper social crust of Minneapolis - entertainers, journalists, Vikings players, etc. - the Minneapolis Police Department hassled the venue and its patrons regularly, up until the club closed after they lost their license to sell alcohol. These themes make the book hard to get through at times, but I assure you, if you are even remotely interested in the history of the Minneapolis Sound, you most certainly want to read this book!
To coincide with the release of the book, Swensson put together an event that featured many of the musicians she wrote about as well as a few artists who got their start decades after the point where the book ends. The author took the stage and narrated, bringing the crowd through an abridged version of the contents of her book, as she was joined on stage by musicians who brought the history of the Minneapolis Sound to life, telling a decades-long story in chronological order, with the help of the very people who were central to that tale. To see that much history on one stage was breathtaking, and the emotion emanating from the stage was palpable. It was one of the most magical evenings of music I've been fortunate enough to experience.
Andrea was interviewed by just about every publication in town ahead of the event, so when I connected with her after the event, I wanted to focus on questions I hadn't heard her answer already. With that in mind, here is my conversation with Andrea Swensson about the book and the event that came with it:
Were there any interesting stories that you discovered while doing research for the book that didn’t fit in?
It was hard because I interviewed so many people for so long, really trying to cover their whole lives, and all the different projects they were involved in and things they remembered, and sometimes these interviews would go on for three hours and then I’d use three quotes in the book, I wanted to keep it focused on the specific narrative. I wish I had told more about The Band Of Thieves, a really crazy funk band from the 70s. Napoleon Crayton, who was in The Amazers and in the early Valdons, he was in that group and their songs are just incredible. I wish there was some way to put more of a spotlight on them.
It was mostly things like that, just bands, like Prophets of Peace, I wish I had written a little bit more about. Haze could probably be its own book with everything they went through, because they got on to the Billboard charts, but they were signed to this local label that was basically being run out of a record studio – ASI. The studio made this record and then it became and a hit and they were like ‘Uh oh, what do we do?!’ and they just got kind of put through the ringer. All the things that can go wrong in the music industry and the bad ways artists can be treated happened to them. I feel like that saga would be very fascinating, it could almost be a movie or something, because the music is so good and they were all so talented, but it kind of imploded.
Were you already aware of the pattern of discrimination against black artists in the Twin Cities before you started working on the book or did that emerge as you were doing research?
Yes, I mean it’s still a theme now. My curiosity about it and knowledge of it is all based on talking to artists of today, and listening to their experiences. There’s artists that have been making great art here for 20 years that still aren’t getting their due. It’s a pattern that it’s minority artists that seemed to be sidelined. I think I knew I was going to be a theme, but I didn’t know it was going to be so intertwined in every part of every story. It really became overwhelming to write about other things. It became the heart of the story – this racism that everyone was dealing with. It was definitely eye-opening for me, I thought I knew a certain amount and now I really understand the depth of it.
You mentioned that artists today are still dealing with racism and discrimination, you said some aren’t getting their recognition but is there anything else you’ve heard from these artists?
You still hear a lot of coded language when people talk about Downtown Minneapolis, how they want to clean it up or make sure that its safe, you know this kind of stuff, and that can really spiral out of control pretty quickly, that kind of talk. What are you actually implying? I’ve heard from artists that are active right now, who are buzzy in the scene, who talk about venues that they’ve had bad interactions with, either people using racial slurs against them, being treated unfairly compared to white artists that are on the same bill, having it assumed that their friends that are hanging out with them backstage are there to cause trouble even though everyone’s just hanging out in the green room. It’s more subtle than I think it was in the 60’s, but that’s how racism works. It’s subtle. It’s not about what you say but how you say it and how you make people feel, and how spaces are either safe or not safe for people to be in.
I know the book just came out and you may not want to talk about this yet, but do you think you might write another book where you take this story further?
Definitely! I was very intentional about cutting off the book at a particular point, because I wanted it to end on that moment where a crossover happens. I would love to see something that de-centralizes Prince, that places him as just one of many people doing really cool stuff in the 80s. There’s so many artists he worked with, especially early on, that people aren’t really aware of. Now that he’s died, I think there’s a chance for them to re-establish their legacies. Sue Ann Carwell, Cynthia Johnson, even Terry Lewis by himself. I want to know more about his story. He gets lumped together with Jimmy Jam so much, that their own narratives kind of get lost. He was a huge force in the funk scene in the late 70s, leading Flyte Tyme, and he’s the one who found Alexander O’ Neal and Cynthia Johnson and Jellybean Johnson, and all those players. I want to know more about that! There’s so many side stories that you could tell and just keep Prince as this person that is also creating stuff, I think that could be really interesting.
I encountered when I started researching, I was using the Secret Stash compilation as a guide as well as Purple Snow and that’s only the bands that were able to get in a recording studio. It doesn’t tell the story of the whole scene. So there’s so many stories out there waiting to be documented. So, I don’t know, we’ll see what happens! I have a lot of ideas that I want to pursue, but I’m totally hooked, I love the process. Music journalism now feels so bite-sized, I’ve really tried to push against that through my whole career, writing with depth and not being afraid to put a 2,000 word piece up on the internet and hope that people get into it and read it. Writing a book was so satisfying, there are so many stories that are way too big for a blog post, or even a magazine article. So yes, absolutely, I’ll be writing till I die probably!
How long ago did it become clear to you that you should do a book release party and have a lot of the artists that you write about perform on one stage?
Three years. It’s funny, a couple of my co-workers here at The Fitzgerald and who manage events for MPR pulled me aside the other day and said ‘I just remembered the very first time I met you, you said we should do this event at the Fitz and have all these funk and soul artists.’ I’ve been talking about it this whole time! I had this vision of, I don’t want to release a book like this and make it about me, it’s not my success story. It doesn’t have anything to do with me, I mean yeah I’m the person who turned the recorder on and wrote all this stuff down, but I really wanted to be intentional about showcasing other people as part of this coming out. I knew basically who I wanted from a very early point. I knew I wanted it to feel like you were seeing these different generations, and getting this sense of evolution. I think such a big part of the book is this kind of tradition that was passed on from person to person in this very community focused way, on a very micro level. So I wanted to be able to show that.
To have Andre Cymone do a Maurice McKinnies song was the first specific idea about it, because Andre told me such a cute story about jumping down in a window well and seeing Maurice McKinnies and The Blazers rehearsing when he was about 10 and realizing that he wanted to be in a band himself. So right there I knew that had to happen. I knew PaviElle and Wee Willy Walker needed to sing together, because I didn’t think Willie had ever heard PaviElle sing before and you could see the excitement on his face when she opened her mouth. I really wanted it to be past, present, and future soul artists, and have it all represented. I’m still in awe of how the night unfolded and how joyful it was. Everyone was just so willing to come and absolutely bring it. Willie Walker got off a plane at 6:30, and walked in the venue during the first act. The production manager told him ‘I’m sorry Mr. Walker, I don’t think we’re going to have time to do a sound check for you’ and he said ‘Is the microphone going to be turned on?’ and then he just walked out on stage and killed it. There were so many moments like that! These people are so talented, but they’re also very show business oriented and they’re just going to come and deliver. It’s in their bones, they just know how to do that.