Prince – D.M.S.R.
I think it’s safe to talk about Prince now.
In April of this year, when I first learned that Prince Rogers Nelson, the artist formerly, currently and forever known as Prince, died of what it is now believed to be an overdose of opiate painkillers, I, like many others, was caught completely off guard. Although his commercial prime had long since passed, Prince was still perhaps the defining artist of his generation, a true musical visionary whose musical appeal crossed genres and boundaries. While Prince had many, many hits, he was one of the few musicians of the rock/pop era who really was defined by his overall body of work rather than a few great records. He was also a generous and inspiring songwriter, one who wrote great songs not just for himself but, (as we’ve pointed out in several columns on this site), for many other artists. As a music nerd, I’m often asked who is my favorite artist of all time, and the answer has always been Prince. The thought that he would no longer be around to compose great music and perform amazing shows was really too much to contemplate, and as a result I didn’t really feel like writing anything about him right away. It also seemed somewhat crass to cash in right away with a tribute, particularly when there were so many great ones already being written.
I discovered Prince fairly early in his career. I was an obsessive listener in my teens to Casey Kasem’s weekly radio countdown show “American Top 40,” and during one chart week in 1979 I heard I Wanna Be Your Lover for the first time on the show. The local top 40 radio stations in Seattle didn’t play a lot of mid-chart hits by artists of color at that time, desegregating their playlists only for the biggest hits (e.g. Donna Summer or Earth, Wind & Fire). Funk in particular was regulated to the soul stations, and so I hadn’t heard I Wanna Be Your Lover until Kasem noted its chart debut on the top 40 towards the end of 1979. I loved the record and immediately went out and bought the 45 around the time it reached its US no.11 chart peak. It was a great record, but it was very much of its time, and it didn’t really provide any indication that Prince would become an artist to be reckoned with. That didn’t happen until his next album, the amazing Dirty Mind.
Like Prince’s previous hits, the singles from Dirty Mind got very little airplay in my hometown. Instead, this time I discovered this latest release through reading a review of the album in Rolling Stone, where it received one of that magazine’s highest ratings and was described as “positively filthy.” That phrase alone made me rush out to the record store to buy it, and I was rewarded with a masterpiece – an album that laid the groundwork for all of Prince’s records to come: a little bit dirty, a little bit funky, a little bit romantic, a little bit WTF and one-hundred percent great, full of blazingly original ideas and incredible musicianship. It also annoyed my parents, which made it especially wonderful. I was hooked.
The next album, Controversy, continued in this mode, with great songs like the title track and the amazing Jack U Off. But once again, little mainstream airplay followed. It was the album that came after– 1999 – that shot Prince and his royal sexiness straight into the public eye. 1999 took all of the best raw and dirty things about Controversy and Dirty Mind and polished them with a commercial veneer, resulting in his biggest album yet, one that went 4x platinum in the US and yielded three top twenty hits there: Little Red Corvette, Delirious and the iconic title track. (The UK, of course, was a little late to the party – it took 1999 and Little Red Corvette a few years to hit the top 10, as a double a-side.) 1999 is a packed and loaded double album, chock full of potential singles that never were, and it is here that you can find the song I’ve chosen for this column, the deeply funky and deeply sublime DMSR.
I’d been thinking of writing about Prince for this site for a long time, and before his death was having a hard time choosing a specific song. I chewed on Take Me With U from Purple Rain for a while, which is probably just a hair behind Raspberry Beret as my favorite Prince song of all time. Running a close second was P Control from The Gold Experience, one of the dirtiest of all of Prince’s many many dirty songs. But after he died, I was trying to find that one non-hit song that I thought would best highlight and sum up everything that made Prince a great artist. Most people writing about him at this death chose Purple Rain, his most iconic song and the one probably best appropriate for a reverent send-off. But for me, D.M.S.R. is the one. For starters, there’s the title. DanceMusicSexRomance is the definition of Prince’s music: it’s what he does, and what he’s always been all about. Then there’s the rhythm guitar line, as funky as they come: it starts out as slinky as a snake, and propels the beat forward, leading the listener on to the dance floor of Prince’s dreams, where he is king and we are powerless to resist. And like many of his greatest songs, the lyrics are both sexy AND hilarious: “I say do whatever we want, wear lingerie to a restaurant” and “Never mind your friends, girl it ain’t no sin, strip right down to your underwear” – has anyone ever captured the fun and freedom and silliness of a dance party so accurately? I think not. If I were planning Prince’s funeral, this is the song that I would play to get the party started.
D.M.S.R. wasn’t a single in either the US or the UK, but it remains one of Prince’s most popular album tracks and for many years it was also one of his most popular songs in concert. After he converted to the Jehovah’s Witness faith later in his career, however, he stopped performing many of his dirtiest songs live, D.M.S.R. included. Yet in 2011, the song became a key part of one of my favorite Prince experiences ever. That night, he’d played an abbreviated “hits” concert at the Tacoma Dome, a cavernous and horrible arena outside of Seattle. The show ended after about an hour, and most of the audience left disappointed. A few friends and I, however, had heard about a Prince “aftershow” at a local downtown Seattle club called Repuliq. We entered the club at about 12:30 AM on an early Monday morning (a work day, of course), and after about an hour of grooving to hits spun by Prince’s favorite DJ Rashida, the mighty Purple one appeared onstage, all five feet of him, in huge platforms. He went on to play until 4 in the morning, accompanied by his amazing band, in this tiny club where the 500 or so of us were treated to the concert of a lifetime. And in the middle of the show, the best and most intimate concert I had ever seen by the best artist of my lifetime, the band started playing the familiar funk intro lines of D.M.S.R., and the crowd roared. At that moment, Prince leaned back, flashed an amazing smile, pointed his guitar in full phallic position at the audience, and delivered a blazingly hot solo. That is how I’ll remember Prince: funky, sexy, funny, beautiful and mesmerizingly talented.
Entered chart: was not released
Who could sing this today and have a hit? No one would dare touch this one, but Sheila E. is probably the only person who would do this justice.