Prince’s 1982 breakout album 1999 was an undeniable landmark for the funk/pop/New Wave hybrid genre known as the Minneapolis Sound—but it wasn’t even the first such landmark he recorded that year. That honor goes to What Time is It?, the sophomore album by Prince’s first and most iconic set of avatars, the Time. Produced by a mysterious Minneapolitan named “Jamie Starr”—gee, wonder who that could be?—What Time is It? is a blast from beginning to end, with Prince’s childhood friend Morris Day finding his voice as an alter-ego and comedic foil over arrangements so hot their mastermind was in real danger of upstaging himself. Prince famously called the Time “the only band I’ve ever been afraid of,” and after listening to this record, it’s easy to see why: cuts like “777-9311,” “Wild and Loose” and the silky-smooth “Gigolos Get Lonely Too” made Morris and the fellas the funkiest Frankenstein’s Monster imaginable.
Another “Jamie Starr” project from 1982, Vanity 6 ran less of a risk of knocking Prince from his own purple throne: frontwoman Denise “Vanity” Matthews had many assets (two of which figured into the sophomoric math of the group’s name), but a strong singing voice was regrettably not one of them. Still, the postmodern girl group’s one and only album comes highly recommended to fans of both underwear as outerwear and Prince’s hardcore electronic side. “Drive Me Wild” and “Make-Up” are basically Twin Cities takes on Detroit techno—and of course, the immortal “Nasty Girl” predicts the entirety of the Neptunes’ production career in just over five deliciously filthy minutes. Bonus recommendation, if you can get past the less-inspired material: 1984’s spiritual sequel and Purple Rain tie-in Apollonia 6, whose “Sex Shooter” and “Ooo She She Wa Wa” knock as hard as anything this side of “Erotic City.”
Calling Sheila Escovedo a “Prince protégé” in the traditional sense would be an insulting understatement: An immensely talented drummer and percussionist, her career as a working musician actually predated Prince’s, with stints playing alongside the likes of George Duke, Marvin Gaye, Herbie Hancock, Lionel Richie, Diana Ross and Weather Report bassist Alphonso Johnson. But Sheila E, pop star, was unabashedly a Prince creation—and both of her first two solo albums, 1984’s The Glamorous Life and 1985’s Romance 1600, together add an indispensable appendix to the Purple Rain era. I’ll give Romance 1600 the slight nod, however, for the way its baroque, jazzy arrangements point the way to the future of the expanded Revolution—and for “A Love Bizarre,” quite possibly the most iconic Prince song that wasn’t credited to Prince.
Like Sheila E, André Cymone isn’t really a “Prince protégé”: as Prince’s earliest collaborator and an important architect for his first four albums (he wrote “Do Me, Baby!”), he’s more like the musical twin his more famous friend (metaphorically) absorbed in utero. But I’m including his third post-Prince album here for two reasons: first, because lead single “The Dance Electric” is ghost-performed Prince par excellence, its original backing track only recently surfacing on the expanded Purple Rain reissue; and second, because Cymone’s arc is a familiar one for Prince associates, most of whom could only last a handful of years under their employer’s lacy-gloved fist. Indeed, not long after the release of A.C., Cymone would throw in the towel on his solo career and foster some protégés of his own, producing hits by the likes of Pebbles, Jermaine Stewart, Tiffany and Jody Watley.
At their best, Prince’s side projects can help to enrich our understanding of his “official” career trajectory, revealing alternate dimensions of concurrent works or foreshadowing what may otherwise seem to be abrupt shifts in trajectory. The Family is perhaps the ultimate example of this. Formed from the ashes of the Time, who disbanded shortly after the release of Purple Rain, their one and only album with Prince is the missing link between the insular neo-psychedelia of 1985’s Around the World in a Day and the kaleidoscopic, jazz-inflected sophisti-funk of 1986’s Parade. Saxophonist Eric Leeds, soon to join the expanded Revolution, enables Prince’s burgeoning interest in jazz music; while Clare Fischer’s majestic string arrangements add a touch of Old Hollywood glamour to minor classics like “The Screams of Passion” and the original version of “Nothing Compares 2 U.”
By 1986, Prince was such a pop music institution that even his protégés were starting to pick up protégés: Minneapolis funk-rockers Mazarati were actually assembled by Revolution bassist Mark Brown, better known as Brown Mark. But their sole charting hit, “100 MPH,” was a Prince joint, and they almost scored an even bigger coup. Their arrangement of Prince’s “Kiss,” cooked up with producer David Z, was so catchy that their benefactor took it back for himself, scoring his biggest hit of the latter half of the ’80s; you can still hear Mazarati’s backing vocals on his version of the track. For that reason alone, it’s worth giving the poor guys’ debut album a listen. But don’t feel too bad for them, because their place in music history is secure: members Marvin Gunn and Tony Christian later went on to become the voice of Paula Abdul’s anthropomorphic cat boyfriend, MC Skat Kat.
Once again, we’re stretching the definition of a Prince “protégé” here—this one is more like a Prince alter-ego. Like his helium-voiced shadow self Camille, Madhouse was a thinly veiled pseudonym allowing the artist to release more, and more experimental, music: in this case, a disc of honest-to-god instrumental jazz fusion, recorded with the aid of ex-Family member Eric Leeds. But is Madhouse’s 8 really any more of a “Prince” album than, say, the Time’s first record? I’m inclined to say no; either way, it’s an underrated gem from the Purple One’s last indisputable creative peak, and a fine complement to both Sign O’ the Times and The Black Album.
Jill Jones got a bit of a raw deal. A member of Prince’s camp since 1982, she was on the hook to get her own album for years, but Prince kept putting the project on the backburner. It wasn’t until 1987 when her self-titled debut finally released, written and produced by Prince with the assistance of David Z. Luckily, Jill Jones was worth the wait, even just as a repository for four years of grade-A Prince outtakes: closer “Baby, You’re a Trip” predates 1999, “G-Spot” and “All Day, All Night” hail from the Purple Rain era, and parts of the infectious “Mia Bocca” appear in the score for his 1986 film Under the Cherry Moon. The quality of this material, and Jones’ able vocals, make the album arguably the last of the “classic” protégé records—even if Paisley Park’s declining fortunes and lack of promotion kept it from scaling the same commercial and pop-cultural heights as the Time or Vanity 6.
##Ingrid Chavez: May 19, 1992 (1991)
Now this is a bit of a weird one. Ingrid Chavez spent only a brief time in Prince’s orbit, but exercised an outsized influence on his musical and, indeed, spiritual direction in the late ’80s. Legend has it that an encounter with the free-spirited artist prompted Prince to cancel the release of his dark, angry Black Album, replacing it with the post-psychedelic (but still kind of dark and angry) funk gospel of 1988’s Lovesexy. She was also, for better or worse, the muse for his third and by far most bonkers feature film, 1990’s Graffiti Bridge. A year later, Prince returned the favor(s) by releasing Chavez’s debut album, May 19, 1992, on Paisley Park. Not a traditional pop record so much as a series of spoken-word poems set to music, May 19 has a sensual, house-influenced vibe reminiscent of Madonna’s “Justify My Love”—which makes sense, as Chavez happened to co-write that song. It’s not for everyone, but if you’ve ever wished the spoken-word interludes on Lovesexy went on for 45 minutes, this is the album for you.
Things got quiet on the Prince protégé front for most of the ’90s, as the artist (soon to become “the Artist”) focused his energies on escaping his contract with Warner Bros., rather than recording even more music for them pseudonymously. But he continued to foster talent, more in the role of a mentor than a Svengali, right up until the end of his life. One of the few side projects from this period to be released on wax was not strictly a side project at all: 2014’s Plectrumelectrum was marketed as Prince’s 36th studio album, with backing band 3RDEYEGIRL receiving co-credit just like the Revolution and the New Power Generation in the past. But I’m including it here to show something of the evolution of Prince’s approach to collaboration since the 1980s. Groups like Vanity 6, the Family and even the Time had been puppet acts, the Oz-like presence of their mastermind behind the curtain only strengthened by his conspicuous absence from the credits. With 3RDEYEGIRL, though, Prince was finally willing to share the spotlight—even if he was still writing and singing every track.
It is one tragedy among many that his untimely death prevented us from seeing more of this new, more generous Prince: a Prince whose first instinct on seeing three beautiful young women was to give them instruments, not camisoles. As with the other tragedies that surround his passing, however, we can at least console ourselves with the work. And Prince, even when he was giving away table scraps, had a body of work unlike any other.