Listening Session #20

Prince – Purple Music

Tschack! Bumm! With the first snare, there’s no stopping it. This thing is running. One. Two. Three. Four. Kick. Snare. Kick. Snare. 140 BPM barely leave time to catch your breath. A stick sound keeps the off-beats moving and swirls one or two sixteenths around the one. After four bars of intro: double tap on kick and snare and suddenly a minimal synth/organ bass line in the left channel. Three short, well-aimed notes on the first three beats, in small steps upwards. On the next one all over again, only this time the second and third notes don’t want to wait and are pulled forward to the beats 1-and-e and 2-and. Nevertheless – with all their impatience – they take their time, landing, if only milliseconds, behind the metronomically targeted beats and thus delaying, however subtly, the steady forward thrust of this kick-snare locomotive.

(Taking) time – that’s a good heading at all for what Prince is doing here. »Purple Music”, a sketchy, never officially released recording from 1982, is a prime example of the new state of the funk machine that ‘The Purple One’ heralds in the 80s. [Hold up! The 2019 re-release of the 1999 album in a comprehensive ‘Super Deluxe’ version also marked the first time that “Purple Music” was released in a fully produced studio version. The previously circulating bootleg version has since been blocked by youtube. Above you will find the official version embedded, which thus sounds different from what is being ›listened to‹ here]. The provisional character of the production, the questionable sound quality of the bootleg versions that can be found on the internet, both rather enhance the appeal of this track than stand in its way. Anyway, after eight bars, a thick and broad centre-placed electric bass doubles the run. It sizzles for a moment, something swirls through the air and Prince’s strangely thinly mixed vocals kick in without further warning. »Don’t need no reefer, don’t need cocaine. Purple music does the same to my brain. I’m high.« Prince immediately answers the hint of music-induced frenzy by ripping into the wide-open off-beats of the drum pattern with a couple of ultra-casual funk guitar chords. »So high!« The typical pitched-down clap of his Linn Electronics LM-1 now complements the backbeat. 

The loyal drum machine also claims the undisputed foreground in this track. For more than ten minutes of running time, it keeps everything in constant forward motion. Does Prince really start the next verse with a reference to the machine’s lacking cymbal sounds, which are not available due to limited memory? »Don’t need no cymbals, no saxophone. Just need to find me a style on my own. I’m high.« Could also have meant ›symbols‹. Either way. »So high!« In any case, The Artist later known as ›The Symbol‹ ignores all the ›special timing circuitry‹ of his machinic funky drummer. A ›human rhythm feel‹ is not what he’s hip to. As said before, funk has always already been a machine. The sixteenths are rattling absolutely straight. Here, funkyness is certainly not a matter of swing percentage. Prince’s ultra-straight machine funk shifts everything into the interstices, into the gaps.

»And then there’s that thing that soul music does so well: the tension comes from not moving. In rock music there are great dynamics […] but in soul music the tension comes from: ›Stay right there, just stay right there!‹ And those were the two words that Prince used to say to his band all the time in rehearsal. When they get in the sweet spot with the groove he’d say ›Don’t move, don’t move!‹«

Susan Rogers

Susan Rogers, Prince’s sound engineer and key sensory engineer between 1983 and 1988, describes this paradoxical funkiness of almost (but only almost!) absolute straightness in an interview. »The immensely hypnotic effect of the perfect time-keeping of a machine.« Keeping the thing going – don’t move! – is a moment of tension (Anspannung) and release (Entspannung) at the same time. No, perhaps better: of (em)bracing (Einspannung). An (em)bracing of the listening, dancing body into the complex microtemporalities of the track. The different pulse layers pull and push at different parts of the body. They seem to run apart, begin to drift barely noticeably, and yet move steadily in a common direction. The machine runs by running asunder. »The machine […] is worked by a desire for suspension. […] The difference that machinic autopoiesis entails is based on disequilibrium, on the exploration of virtual universes far from equilibrium.« (Guattari, Félix (2014): Chaosmose. Wien: Turia + Kant. 52 [own transl.])

Anyway. So while dancing to “Purple Music”, I have to make a new decision every other bar: Do I dance on the beats fired with precision in an uninterrupted fusillade of kick and snare? Or do I shift my movements to the three-beat pulse that the bass figure spreads out above just to disappear again immediately afterwards? Or – third option – I let the heterochronicity of both pulses jerk through my body(s). »Just let the purple music tell my body what to do.« Temporal diversification of bodily one-ness? Two-track durée? Can’t my feet dance around a different temporality than the one my upper body is being thrown around by? 

»The feet that move, the hips which swivel in time, the head which nods, the nerves which pulse: all the body counts. To get funked up is to acclimatize yourself to the endless complexification of these states, to be sensualized by all the processes that process you.«

Eshun, Kodwo (1998): More Brilliant than the Sun. Adventures in Sonic Fiction. London: Quartet Books. S. 152.

The whole body is engaged in counting down the funk groove. All the body counts. Or, no, the other way round: the funk groove counts the non-simultaneity(ies) of the body. The processes that process you… Groove is aesthetic-epistemic practice, the (re)cognition of heterochronicity, the aesthetic experience of an irreducible diversity of time regimes.

»Next page!«

Prince has been grooving along this track for minutes, absolutely locked in. The LM-1 hits a few snares on the eighth notes. Shortly afterwards, the snare and clap suddenly run off track and into an ultra-short delay. The backbeat now starts to buzz in a dubby way. Completely absurd reverberation spaces open up for a very short time, only to collapse again right after. »Funk is extraterrestrialized through the mixing desk«. (Ibid., p. 146) The text is also finished long ago, but that is completely beside the point. Just start from the beginning. Whenever the track seems a bit out of breath, Prince plays a brilliant run on the guitar or sprinkles a bit of electric piano over the LM-1 and it’s on again. »Funk is a thermostatic device that alters environments.« (Ibid., p. 147) His voice wanders through the panorama, slipping to the side, as if he wanted to step aside for a moment to look at this LM-1 funk machine from the outside. Stopping it seems impossible by now. Seven, eight minutes, this track can’t end because it’s always already running. The drum pattern keeps varying now, swirling some kick drums over the sixteenths, but the backbeat keeps going. Painting It Purple. Prince just keeps the machine running until its stoic dash finally starts slipping on his funk guitar sprinkles. »Funk becomes mobile audioarchitecture, the simultaneous sliding of rhythmic strata.« (Ibid., p. 149) If groove is familiarity with machinic time regimes (R. Oliver), then no one is more familiar with the LM-1 than Prince.

This Listening Session is a translation from the book ›Futurhythmaschinen‹. Drum-Machines und die Zukünfte auditiver Kulturen by Malte Pelleter. The book (in german language) can be accessed here.

Citation: Pelleter, Malte (2020): ›Futurhythmaschinen‹. Drum-Machines und die Zukünfte auditiver Kulturen. Hildesheim: Olms und Universitätsverlag. 422-425.