Interviews

Prince’s Bassist on the Purple One’s Genius and the Minneapolis Sound

An interview with Prince's bassist Brownmark about his book "My Life in the Purple Kingdom."

Imagine you’re a teenager waiting around in the parking lot of the 7-11 where you work for a stranger to pick you up and drive you to a job interview–with Prince. That’s a key moment in My Life in the Purple Kingdom, the enlightening new memoir from Brownmark, who played bass with Prince and the Revolution at the dawn of the Purple Reign.

Originally known as “Mark Brown” before you-know-who flipped it, Brownmark and the Revolution toured the world and made key contributions to beloved Prince singles and album tracks from 1981 to 1986. An architect of what has become known as the Minneapolis Sound, Brownmark also masterminded the funk collective Mazarati, enjoyed a solo career at Motown records, and currently tours with a reconstituted Revolution. His latest album, House Party, updates the Minneapolis Sound for the age of hip hop.

I spoke to him this June about the racial and cultural factors that shaped that sound, the challenges of working with a controlling artist, the struggles to get his own band Mazarati off the ground, and the moment that Brownmark understood that Prince was a no-joke, straight-up genius.

Alan Scherstuhl

I’d like to start with something I’ve always wanted to ask someone who was there. I feel like critics have ever fully pinned down what was happening in Minneapolis in those early years, the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Could talk about what in your mind makes the Minneapolis sound, where it came from and how it was different from what was going on elsewhere?

Brownmark

I have my own theories on that. Again, everything is always from my perspective, of course. I think a lot of people yell about systemic racism and how it doesn’t exist, and how a lot of stuff is conjured up by our own atmosphere or our own doing. And that’s just not true. And I think there’s no greater story than the Prince story, because we grew up in an atmosphere where, from the surface, everything appeared to be peaceful, people getting along and everything. But underneath the surface, it was dark, because I realized that I did not have the same freedoms.

Even when listening to music. We grew up not able to listen to many artists that I had no clue existed because we couldn’t even get radio. So we grew up listening to a lot of rock and roll, a lot of folk, country, you name it, and very, very little R & B. And then when you start thinking about your crossover type of artists, like Chuck Berry, Sly and the Family Stones, and Jimi Hendrix, it was so different than the funk music of that time, like Earth, Wind, and Fire. We grew up in an atmosphere where we were almost forced to search and dig for stuff. And I believe that’s why the Minneapolis sound developed, why it was so unique in comparison to most of the music of the time coming out throughout the country.

Alan Scherstuhl

Was something uniquely Midwestern about it? Being isolated but with all these other currents coming together?

Brownmark

Yeah. Growing up Black back then–we were just a little under 2% of the entire population–and trying to define who we are musically, we were forced to create based on all we knew. That’s where the power came from. I don’t know if you really listen to a lot of the old-school Minneapolis sound, but it’s got a real rock undertone to. It’s like a rock funk. And I really believe that’s where it came from.

Alan Scherstuhl

You write about how before you were working with Prince, around 1979 or 1980, you were trying to push your bands to crossover out of the Black clubs and into, well, what would it be instead? Clubs that were majority white or clubs that were integrated? 

Brownmark

Back then there was no such thing as an integrated club. I mean, we really were at the mercy of the gatekeeper, the bouncers at the front door. I had the privilege of getting in to Uncle Sam’s at the time and seeing what was going on. That’s how I knew I wanted to make a change. I was like we need to end up in a place like this if we want to get anywhere. So my pushing the band was to learn more top 40 songs, even though I knew it was going to be a battle to get into some of these clubs. But you got to start at the ground. You got to build the foundation. And the foundation was to have a wider, more integrated genre of music to appeal to the managers that would want to let us into that type of establishment. We were starting to be able to see a little more of a merge in the cultures, but still that undercurrent, that race issue, that kept us from being able to show ourselves to the world or to the city.

Alan Scherstuhl

You describe it as a Minneapolis version of the Chitlin circuit.

Brownmark

That’s what it was. That’s what we all addressed it as.

Alan Scherstuhl

You describe learning to play those first three Prince records and realizing that this combination of funk and punk and whatever it was drawing on sounded to you like an opportunity or way forward for Black musicians looking for a larger audience.

Brownmark

Absolutely. He was paving that way for us. He was the ringleader, he spearheaded that movement.

Alan Scherstuhl

So it sounds like you and he were kind of working on the same problem.

Brownmark

Absolutely, just in different age groups. He was three or four years older than me, so he had been at it a little longer. He grew up in the thick of the real segregated Midwest, while I was at the end of it. That three-year difference made a huge difference, even in the musicians of Minnesota. Right after me was when the live music really started to die off. I was one of the last of that generation to really hone into musical instrumentation. There’s a couple of groups that came after us, but they usually came from different cities and moved into Minneapolis. But from that Minneapolis scene, I was part of one of the last generations to surface out of there.

Alan Scherstuhl

Do you think if you had been born five or six years later, you might have come up doing something else musically rather than playing an instrument?

Brownmark

Absolutely. I think I would have been more in the hip hop scene, more into the subculture that was rising and bubbling underneath the surface. And I would have had a different approach to music. I’d have been more into DJing and spinning records and looping beats.

Alan Scherstuhl

You might never have discovered what you describe in the book as a natural gift for the bass. Can you talk about the relationship between a natural gift and the need to hone it and practice?

Brownmark

I took guitar lessons when I was young, and I felt so structured. I felt like, you know, I can’t really understand the feel in these notes. Maybe it’s ‘cause I was just too young. But when I was able to grab an actual bass for the first time it came so natural to me. I mean, I just started thumping it and plucking it as if I’d been playing all along.  It was natural, but I think people who have to like hone in on an instrument, their brains just aren’t wired for it. I had to really sit down and figure the piano out.

Alan Scherstuhl

One vivid moment in the book is when you’re at your first rehearsal with Prince and he keeps shouting at you no, play the bass motherfucker in a way that sounds abusive. You write about being stung by that at first but then also understanding what he meant. What did he mean?

Brownmark

Well, for me at the time, growing up in that street, that was a challenge. You don’t talk to somebody like that. I mean, I’m six feet tall. He was five foot-two–five four with heels. For him to do that that was bold because, you know, I was no slouch. I had to really just think about what was happening. And I always remember my mother, she’s always in my ear, saying seize the opportunity. Don’t let it get away from you. This was a once-in-a-lifetime shot.

So I lived through that. I went home and tried to figure out what he was trying to do. And I realized he was trying to break me from my old habits. And how do you break a person? You take everything away from them, their dignity, everything.  You break them down, just like when going to prison. You got to break that inmate or a P.O.W. You got to break them down so that they conform. I figured that’s what he was doing. So I came back the next day, fully aware of the tactic, and I blew him away.

He came up to me and was, like, that’s what I’m talking about.

Alan Scherstuhl

You were extraordinarily young men–you all were–and to be a young man talked to like that by someone who has power over you, well, the temptation to storm out or pop off must have been strong.

Brownmark

It was. I sat back and I watched each one of us go through it. And, of course Dez [Dickerson] and Bobby [Z.] and Matt [Fink] had gone through that before I arrived. Lisa [Coleman] was new. She was telling me some of the stuff that she had gone through with him and became very protective of me, very protected to a point where she wasn’t, she wouldn’t hold her tongue back.

Alan Scherstuhl

Sometimes in the book, it seems as if his treatment of you is personal in ways that are kind of hard to make sense of. Like, why he would want to turn the lights down on you on stage?

Brownmark

The way I dealt with all that was just acceptance, you know. I’m a band member. I could walk at any time. Nothing was keeping me here. I wasn’t bound by a contract or something. I had to really sit back and think about how this is his world. He’s got one shot to the top, and he’s not going to let anybody stop him. So who am I to think that I’m so great that I should get any special privilege? I had to really put myself into that mindset and humble myself to the point of saying, okay, I’ll submit to this, let me go for the ride.

Alan Scherstuhl

What if he hadn’t been a genius?

Brownmark

If I didn’t see his path, if I didn’t see that genius in him, there is no way in the world that I’ve taken that. I knew I could learn from this guy.

Alan Scherstuhl

When did you know you were dealing with a genius?

Brownmark

After our first show in Pittsburgh. I’ll never forget when that curtain opened and–this was the first time I hadn’t been with a black audience. You know, we had played with the Rolling Stones prior. But now I got to see real Prince fans up close and personal, and it was so amazing. It was like the Beatles or something. And then just seeing how he took command–remember I’m in back of him kind of, to the right of him. His posture, the way he walked away, the charisma, everything about it was so fascinating to me.

And then when he started playing, everything was almost improv. Even though we worked so hard to structure the music, it was improv! He would just come in lickin’ and it was like, Whoa, wait a minute. We didn’t rehearse this. So, he taught me that, because I was absorbing him like a sponge. I watched his movement, his swag, and I was like I ain’t going nowhere. This dude knows exactly what he’s doing. That’s when I was sold on his genius. I knew he wasn’t only a musical genius ‘cause everybody knew that. But he had the art of marketing. He knew how to sell himself to the public. He knew exactly what they wanted and what they would grab.

Alan Scherstuhl

Today he’s pictured in the culture as this kind of sexy saint of music itself. He’s the one artist everyone likes. And I think people maybe sometimes forget the element of danger and edge and mystery that surrounded him, especially in those early years. When you were learning songs like “Sister” or “Annie Christian” what did you make of them?

Brownmark

It was like, what the hell?

Alan Scherstuhl

They’re still shocking, more than what Two Live Crew could have done, because these have genius in them.

Brownmark

It was crazy to me, but I didn’t question it. We probably jammed on “Sister” a couple of times, but “Head” was every show. That was a normal.

I knew what he was doing. You know, that was a no brainer. He was pushing the envelope of sacrilegious singing  because he knew that there was a market. He wanted the loner, the person who thought independently of the current environment of religion or political affiliations. That’s who he catered to. And he got them–he developed a cult following, and look at it today. In his death, people were shocked at the mass amount of people that followed him. People were shocked. I wasn’t. I never was shocked. I used to always tell people Oh, Prince is bigger than Michael.

They’d say there’s no way, there’s no way, Michael’s the King. Okay, he’s the King of pop music. He’s not the King of the artistry of the art. You know, Michael could sing, but Prince can do the same and dance and play every instrument to the utmost degree.

Alan Scherstuhl

With Michael Jackson I never felt I was in a movement when I was listening to him. He would sing about changing the world, but I don’t know that the music was doing that.

Brownmark

Michael wasn’t in the movement, he was a pop star. He was singing songs that appealed to the charts and the radio. Prince was a movement.

Alan Scherstuhl

In the book you discuss your mother, who you call Mama Vader. Did you ever talk to her about this music that used to be controversial or about the weird genius who had such a reputation that you were kind of scared going to meet him the first time?

Brownmark

Yeah. She was afraid for me. When I auditioned, she had no clue that I knew him. She didn’t even know that I joined the band until a couple of days later when he did my hair.

I love my mother. She was my pillar. She was my strength. You know, I called her Mama Vader because she was a mean one, you know, but full of love, a heart full of love, but she was strict. She didn’t take no crap from nobody.

My mother was very smart, and she grew up in a world where people used to call her a beatnik when she was young. I never knew what a beatnik was but I started to realize that my mother and my father had spent a lot of time understanding white culture, understanding what works and what doesn’t for me with this dark skin. And then she would live a life accordingly. Even if she couldn’t afford it, she would strive and push for that. We lived like suburbanites where all my other friends had a totally different environment.

So I grew up listening to my mother, telling me how to maneuver in life, how to deal with people and how to win in a world where you’re always going to be viewed as that Black boy. So when it came to Prince, she taught me how to deal with that. Don’t get mad, don’t get angry, don’t blow your shot just because you don’t agree with something that he does. Ride that wave until the wave is done.

Alan Scherstuhl

You were the first to leave the Revolution, quitting before Prince fired the band. Reading the book, I kept coming back to the idea of all of you being so young back then. Some of Prince’s behavior towards you and your band Mazarati, who he signed to the Paisley Park label, seems irrational for a band leader or a man building an empire. It makes no sense to me that he would sabotage the career of Mazarati after they cooked up the backing track for “Kiss,” possibly the greatest pop single of the era. If Brownmark’s team could do that, why wouldn’t he support you?

Brownmark

I try not to paint a negative picture because I don’t believe that’s what it was from him. I don’t believe that was his intention. I just think that was what he had become and what he needed to become to reach the pinnacle that he reached. I mean, you have to decide what you want to be that famous, that popular, if you want to be that star. And you have to protect [all that] with your life. And any threat comes near you, you have to shut that threat down. Even if you perceive it to be a threat when it really isn’t a threat, you have to shut it down.

See, I understand that. That’s corporate America. If your competitor rears its ugly head, you got to  shut it down. It’s feast or famine. You got to stay on top of the Hill, King of the Hill.

Alan Scherstuhl

I would have loved to have heard a couple more Mazarati records. When the second one came out, I was 15 and I couldn’t find it at my record stores in Kansas City. Was there something up with the distribution?

Brownmark

The second one [1989’s Mazarati 2], the Motown one, I personally pulled it. I pulled it off the shelves. At that point I had spent so much time and money trying to build Mazarati that I lived vicariously through them. I built them as if it were me and I was the true leader of that band. So when they started getting hung up in self destructive behavior, a lot of it had to do with me. Their leader being pulled away from them [after Brownmark left Prince] like foster kids when the foster parent gets taken away and they’ve got to fend for themselves. That’s what happened. So, as they imploded and fell apart, I tried to put them back together when I got on Motown, when I had my freedom again. But now there was that whole element of control coming from a record label and what they felt Mazarati should be versus what Mazarati was.

I did not like the results. It wasn’t what it was supposed to be. And then on top of that, there was that self destructive element within the group itself. And I was like, you know what? I’m done. I’ve lost a half a million dollars on this. I’m not going to lose any more money–I’m done.

Alan Scherstuhl

I love the first Mazarati record, but I don’t know that I love it a half million dollars worth.

Brownmark

It cost me a lot to build that. There was only so much I could do when it fell apart. It was the nature of the environment that we grew up in. It was dog-eat-dog, man, survival of the fittest, and I was just learning.

Alan Scherstuhl

Do you think that, as all of these re-issue campaigns go on, we will hear that first Mazarati record come back out, remastered and with extra tracks?

Brownmark

We will. The problem is I’ve been so swamped with everything else, but it is definitely a goal of mine. The only thing is [the Prince-written track] “100 MPH,”  trying to get that from the family. That’s the only one I don’t own the publishing too. They released the Prince version [on the 2019 archival album Originals.] That explained to me why they would not give me the rights or the master. I understand what they did because they wanted to release that record. So if I do a reissue, it will not be to its completion, unfortunately.  I’m hoping in time, maybe things will change there.

Alan Scherstuhl

On one of his YouTube DJ nights a while back, Questlove was playing a bootleg of a Revolution rehearsal. And he singled you out because of the way you were holding it all down. He said, this jam goes on for like an hour, just one vamp, and that some night he’ll play a night that’s just three hours of these rehearsal tapes. Are you eager for the world to hear that music?

Brownmark

I think it should because that music tells a story. It not only shows that The Revolution was a very integral part of what Prince was in that era, but that the climb to the top was not done by one man. It took a team, it took an army. People don’t realize and think that just Prince did all that. No, we all did that. Sometimes it’s really insulting to us when the fans exclude us or act like we had nothing going on ourselves, or that we should just be glad that we were playing with him. Wait a minute. He’s as happy that he’s playing with us as we’re happy we’re playing with him. So it’s kind of a lot of spit in the mouth when a person says that, because that’s just not true. Wen you hear these jams, these long sound checks, that paints a picture, a true story of what actually happened. The creation of Purple Rain, Around the World in a Day to Parade it came from that. That’s how that style, that unique force to reckon with, was developed. There was nobody that sounded like us.

Alan Scherstuhl

There’s nothing that sounds like “Mountains” or “Girls and Boys” before or since.

Brownmark

Exactly. We were all invested in that. It wasn’t about us–anybody that was about themselves and their own ambitions wouldn’t be in that band. See, anybody that was in that band was committed to him. He had a vision, and we wanted to see it through. We wanted to see him reach the top because it was Prince and the Revolution. It’s on the album cover! I hate when people say we were his backing band. It was not a for-hire group.

Alan Scherstuhl

What’s it been like playing with them in recent years?

Brownmark

It’s been awesome to reconnect. It’s like riding a bike, man. All the chemistry just comes right back, only we’re more mature. So the sound is more mature. The sound is bigger now. We try to stay true to the original because we’re helping people to relive the music or the soundtrack of their lives. And that’s why we’re giving them, although we don’t have Prince and his impulsive, constant changing of things. We don’t have that, but we hit things like a freight train. That’s just how we hit it.

Alan Scherstuhl

Your book in many ways is more about you and that band than it is about Prince.

Brownmark

It’s a story, and he’s in it. It’s about a kid that comes from rags to riches. And the moral of that story is if you humble yourself, you can do anything you want. Nothing can get in your way. I’m not mad or anything with Prince, my brother. I always tell people, you know, families fight. We’re like the Brady Bunch, and we’re going to get in fights. Marcia, Marcia, Marcia, that’s all day long. There’s nothing bitter. There’s no, you know, bitterness or resentment there. It’s just telling a story and telling people what happened.

NONFICTION – MEMOIR
My Life in the Purple Kingdom
By Brownmark
University of Minnesota Press
Published September 22, 2020

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