Numero Group's Jon Kirby on Purple Snow: Everybody deserves to be celebrated

Categories: Interview
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Without Jon Kirby of Numero Group, there would be no Purple Show: Forecasting the Minneapolis Sound. For the label's 50th release, Kirby and his associates dug deep into the local history surrounding the amazing funk, soul, and R&B that was bubbling up in the late '70s and early '80s, and assembled this collection of greats. This week's City Pages will detail how the project came together.

On Thursday, the Depot will host a listening party for the release. Here are some outtakes from the lengthy conversation from Kirby, who will be in town for the party.

See Also: André Cymone: Every time I turned around, I was being compared to Prince


Gimme Noise : Why dedicate the 50th Numero release to Minneapolis funk?

Jon Kirby: I think some of it was just sort of luck of the draw. It just so happened that 50 was rolling around and we had this sort of monumental project. All of our projects are special, but this one, just because of the size and scope of it, was certainly something we considered to be a worthy entry for number 50.

What was the process for putting together this comp?

I think every project here starts with a lead, an idea, a solitary light bulb illuminating. I personally have always been a fan of the larger Minneapolis sound, I've grown up on Janet Jackson, Alexander O'Neal, modern R&B -- those were sort of my first cassettes. So I've always had an awareness of this sound, but it wasn't until we looked at the Minnesota Historical Society's website where we were like, who are these bands? Who is Quiet Storm, who are the Gentlemen of Style? Who are these folks holding double-neck electric guitars, playing stacks of synthesizers, yet they are not household names? A lot of people know the Minneapolis Sound to be these big bright names: The Time, Prince. We knew from dealing with music from Columbus, Cleveland, and Kansas City, that for every break-out name like that, there's a dozen more that are just below the surface. We wanted to do the research needed to find out who those groups were and give them their due as other smaller, but no less significant, architects of the Minneapolis Sound.

How did you arrive at the final list of names?

The process of putting all the tracks together is something that ultimately went on for about two years. This is two years of contacting people, listening to tapes, talking to people in bands about other bands they were in or other bands they might've remembered, talking to engineers about artists they recorded... Really go to people and go back to people time and time again with different prompts or clues or keywords that might help them remember some obscure band that only one member of the band remembers playing with at 7th St Entry or what have you. Over the course of two years, there were some things going in that we knew we were interested in -- the Mind & Matter 45, Jimmy Jam's band that he did in 1977. We knew there were these Flyte Tyme demos that had been sort of shelved in the wake of Cynthia Johnson joining Lipps Inc. and Flyte Tyme getting a new male vocalist, who would've been Alexander O'Neal. So there were a few sort of legendary recordings. 

We knew we wanted to talk to Chris Moon, with his legacy of having recorded Prince, but something they'd never go into in Prince biographies or those books is, what else did Chris do? He was on the scene for a decade or better, he had this studio, it's not something that was built just to work with Prince. It's obvious other artists would've come through over the years. those are some of the people we wanted to identify. There are people we wished we had a chance to work with, but at the end of the day, we got it really solid. We got most of the ones we had on our list. The people who decided to work with us had faith in us and believed in what we were doing. There's no compilation I'd rather have.

Ultimately, I think the people that contributed music or their memories or photos or whatever it is are people who saw that we were trying to do something beneficial to the entire music scene, to celebrate it. We weren't just trying to trade on the marquee names of the Minneapolis Sound, we were actually trying to do something for the greater scene. We're just very happy and very thankful and very grateful to the André Cymones and the Jimmy Jams and the Terry Lewises, and also to the Pierre Lewises, the Barry Brothers, Quiet Storm, people that came through at the very end and were jut happy to be remembered alongside the A-listers.

Tell me about putting together the book of photographs and essays that come with the album.

This scene is one that is very visual. Fashion played a big part in how people identify with the Minneapolis Sound. We knew we wanted a lot of pictures to contextualize this scene to outsiders. We knew there was gonna be a book involved. We knew there was a lot of story to tell and that we sort of had an obligation to explain how all these pieces fit together in a small scene and a small community of R&B musicians who were working during that time. The book is just that. 

The LP version is 108 pages, the CD version is 144 pages, and it's 30,000 words, professional and unprofessional photographs of the artists featured therein, flyers, labels, whatever we could find from this era. The music only goes so far for telling the story, the pictures tell another part of it, Again, there's 30,000 words, essentially a chapter for each group. We tell the story chronologically, so through the lens of each of those groups you sort of see how the scene evolved from a group like Purple Haze that's from St. Paul and got their start in the late '60s, early '70s, and a lot of other younger groups to come along, and then you end with a group like the Girls, who was a side project of André Cymone's after he got his record deal with Columbia.

You end up with a group called the Style Band, or Gentlemen of Style, who is from the Quad Cities but they had traveled to the Twin Cities because it was a sound they identified with, it was a bigger scene, and Jessie Johnson had come up there a few years earlier and they were friends of his from the Quad Cities, so they saw greener pastures in the Twin Cities. You start to see Minneapolis going from this spot in the upper Midwest to actually a destination for other Midwestern acts trying to make a break from even smaller markets like the Quad Cities or Milwaukee or Davenport, you name it, Cheyenne. 

Why do you think this sound grew from Minneapolis specifically?

I think Minneapolis benefited from the isolation. I talked to a lot of artists who say that they couldn't afford to go to a lot of [big-name] concerts, to see the Gap Band, to see the Commodores, unless it was a free concert at the Way Community Center. They had their own ideas of how the music would sound. Again, it was a small scene. You have guys like Prince who are are making this music, and him and André Cymone had one idea of how the music would sound. Jimmy Jam's idea was a little bit more of the vocal groups, more R&B-centric. Terry Lewis was more of the Parliament/Funkadelic kind of guy. But at the same time these bands were competing, so they had, to a certain extent, communicate in a similar language of R&B in order to prove their superiority over the other, I guess. 

You know, there weren't a ton of cooks in the kitchen, so any ideas they had would've just set off each other. You had a lot of people who were really talented, so rather than regurgitating the music being played, or not being played for that matter, on the radio, they were recycling the ideas of their peers and other players, so you just sort of get a feedback loop where everybody's feeding off each other. Okay, Mind & Matter has two keyboardists, now Flyte Tyme's going to have two keyboardists. Minneapolis groups can have two keyboardists, Prince's Revolution can have two keyboardists. Screamer, who would go on to be in Maserati, he's got this double-neck electric guitar, well, R&B groups have lead guitarists, we're going to have guitar solos and all this. I think it was just something that flew with local audiences, so it just sort of found a lane. 

I kind of look at Purple Snow as sort of having three sounds: The early: Purple Haze, 94 East, MInd & Matter, Flyte Tyme, right before Prince made it. Then right when Prince makes it, you have two reactions to that. You have people who see Prince's success and try to emulate him to a certain degree, to the best of their abilities, then you sort of have a reaction faction of people who were trying to distance themselves from Prince, who were maybe trying to do something funkier or something more masculine. But it was a big deal. At the time, if you go back and read The Insider, they made as big a deal of Lipps Inc. or Rockie Robbins getting signed as they did Prince, but I think Prince is really the one, from an artistic standpoint, that people are really like, wow, this guy is insane. A lot of those sounds, the synthetic drums, the flat bass, those kinds of things, they become the currency of the Minneapolis Sound. People didn't always integrate all of those tools into the music, but they did pop up.

What makes it a signature sound?

A handful of certain synthesizers were very popular, a certain kind of understated guitar sound was popular, horns were phased out much earlier than they were nationally. They're just traits of the Minneapolis Sound that were not just adopted by Prince but adopted by everybody. It was just a question of what did each of them do with those tools, or lack thereof.

What impact did the MInneapolis Sound have on a national level?

The Minneapolis Sound stopped being such a geographically specific sound. '81 is a terrific year for the Minneapolis Sound, a few years after Prince and Rocky Robins and Lips Inc get signed. Right there you have a lot of groups, L.A. and New York are doing their own thing, but Minneapolis was certainly a contender. That sound is affecting music on both coasts. It was more of a spirit than it was a sound. It was this thing that was dictated by a small musical community. What it meant in the late '70s and early '80s is this music that we're describing. Hyper-tight, very calculated, kind of slinky, dancable, polished funk music. 

That music came out and started making it's impact nationally as things like New Jack Swing start evolving on the East Coast, or gangsta rap on the West Coast. The sound coming from Minneapolis changes and became a little more unrecognizable. You have people being brought into the fold, like Jimmy Jam and Terry doing Janet Jackson's album or Paula Abdul's album, or Prince working with Sheila E. Are these not Minneapolis Sound records because they have outsiders or imported players in them? That's sort of tough to say. That is sort of the golden era of the Minneapolis Sound, but when I hear "Control" which was recorded down on Nicollett at Creation [Audio], I think that has all the marking of a Minneapolis Sound record. We stopped our compilation at about the summer of '84, right before the release of Purple Rain, and I think that's just important because, basically, the cover was blown. At the point, the Minneapolis Sound, the fashion, the motorcycles, the leather pants, that's it's debut. Everybody from podunk North Carolina to the Pacific Northwest, they know that this is the Minneapolis Sound, this is what it sounds like. We can do this, we can buy a Linndrum and a synthesizer and make this kind of music. 

Not to say it lost its innocence, but it became less of a regional phenomenon and became more of a national phenomenon, something sort of anyone can play. I think [that was] the innocent, early, fertile years of the Minneapolis Sound, when it was evolving but in a very homegrown fashion of being within the county lines. After that, it's all the better that it became more popular and more of a phrase that could be used in studios in Miami... "Oh this is good, let's give it that Minneapolis Sound." That's a huge feat. That's not unlike the advent of reggae in Jamaica. The creation of a whole new phylum of music is nothing to scoff at. It was just changing, in ways that exhibited traits that music had never seen. 

You have something like Purple Haze or something like Mind & Matter, those kind of things could've been recorded in Philadelphia, might have been recorded in Chicago, but then the falsetto becomes real prevalent. It's like, man, everybody's singing in falsetto. And then you start to hear the horns fade out and you start to hear these synthesizer leads and these monophonic leads, kind of polyphonic, rather than guitars you start to hear more keyboards emerging. It starts coming into focus.

You get to stuff like "Borrowed Time" by Alexander O'Neal -- which is Chris Moon and John Rivers, who are people that are almost excluded from the Minneapolis Sound on the level we're talking about. The Time, Jessie Johnson, Vanity 6 kind of conversation. Chris Moon and John Rivers to me are just as much the Minneapolis Sound as anybody. Chris Moon is a white guy who's recording R&B acts basically for free, just asking them to supply the tape. I think that made a lot of things possible. Obviously Grand Central sought out his services to come record their first demo, and history as made. I think that's the cool thing about the tracklisting is that it sequences such, you sort of hear the loose telltale signs of good funk music, but right when you go around the corner on that second disc, you really start to hear something special and unique emerging that I doubt could've been made anywhere but Minneapolis. 

What was your experience like putting this album together?

I've been buried in this stuff for so long. When given the opportunity to talk about it, it gets a little abstract. I've read so many books about Prince, and I've spent so much time thinking about this particular period in music for a particular reason, and the fact of the matter is, we can only speculate what made the Minneapolis Sound the Minneapolis Sound. We can only speculate the terms and conditions, why the elements were just right to make this possible. We found a lot of great musicians, a lot of great people, even people who weren't musicians, people like Spike Moss, who just loved the community. He was like, if the kids want to play music, I'm going to give them a place to play music. I'm gonna get them in the studio, get them on the bandstand with touring acts, whatever will keep them off the street. A lot of just good-hearted people, and the fortunate by-product of their generosity was these young musicians.

Again, we probably created more questions than answers, just stirred up more dust. But again, there are new names and figures and milestones in the Minneapolis Sound that are stuff people talked about on poker night or down at the Spruce Lounge on Sunday, Pierre Lewis' funk jam, now it's in print. Now it can be searched. People who like that sound who are willing to dig a little bit deeper into the waters of Lake Minnetonka, they now have Purple Snow to satiate that need. 

Everybody deserves to be celebrated for the role they played. Everybody's name is in the same size font. Let's just be nostalgic and be thankful and celebrate the era, when this really special, mighty thing was happening, that maybe people could only identify a few years down the road as Purple Rain comes out. It's so funny, because you watch Purple Rain, it's this classic, underdog rising sort of scenario, aspiring to be a rock star. People are wearing these overcoats, you can see their breath as they talk. Inside the club it could be the Paladium or any legendary rock club in L.A., then they walk outside and it's just Minneapolis. Not to detract anything from Minneapolis, but just the fact that they could carry on this sort of Hollywood charade in the Twin Cities is really awesome and really admirable. To anyone who's from a small town anywhere else in America, it's like this, if they can make it there, they can make it anywhere.

Read more about and order a copy of Purple Snow: Forecasting the Minneapolis Sound here.

Purple Snow: Forecasting the Minneapolis Sound Listening Party with Jon Kirby. Free, 5:30 p.m. - 8 p.m., Thursday, December 5 at the Depot Tavern. RSVP here.

See Also:
50 cool facts about the Minnesota music scene
Top 20 best Minnesota musicians: The complete list
10 Twin Cities music acts who deserve to be famous

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