35 Years Later: Prince’s ‘1999’ Is the Most Influential Album of the 1980s
By 1982, Prince was midway through a transition from mysterious funk outsider to chart-topping pop iconoclast. He was the new, bold musical genius in pop; having been marketed as the Stevie Wonder for the 80s generation and earning comparisons to Jimi Hendrix for his flashy guitar playing. Prince didn't seem all too comfortable with the comparisons, but he definitely knew that his moment had arrived. And with all eyes on Prince Rogers Nelson, he decided to deliver a grand, sweeping statement for his fifth album in four years.
1980s Dirty Mind made Prince a critical darling, which he'd sustained with 1981s Controversy, but despite the praise, the mysterious multi-instrumentalist from Minneapolis hadn't quite become a household name. He'd toured with elders like Rick James and The Rolling Stones, but both excursions were mired in controversy: he and James developed a mean-spirited rivalry on the road, and his first date with The Stones was marred by audience hostility towards this androgynous Black singer. Prince was so rattled by the jeering Stones fans that he walked offstage midway through the set.
"In addition to rank and file fans, there were hundreds of Hell's Angels in the audience," guitarist Dez Dickerson recalled in 2014. "They did not look favorably on a short Black man wearing high heels, leg warmers, bikini underwear and a trenchcoat, singing in falsetto, on the Stones' stage, and they let us know, along with a few other similarly inclined individuals. They threw paper Coke cups and booed heartily, but they were outnumbered by those who cheered us."
And Prince's band had undergone changes. Gone were bassist André Cymone and keyboardist Gayle Chapman from the early days; they'd departed following Dirty Mind, replaced with Brownmark and Lisa Coleman. The only mainstay was Dez, who was still Prince's closest friend in the band and his onstage foil. But Dez was also struggling with his role in the band following his conversion to Christianity in 1980. Prince's racy subject matter and stage show was becoming more and more uncomfortable for Dez—even as the band reached higher heights.
"I went back out on the road with a radically changed perspective, although I remained in the group for almost three more years." Dez's spiritual conflict echoed Gayle Chapman's from two years prior. "Eventually, it was the realization that the incongruity of who I needed to be and who I had to be as 'The guy with the kamikaze headband' was changing me in ways that made me difficult to live with. Ultimately, when you know it's time to turn the page, nothing else matters but going out and doing what you are, as opposed to continuing to do what you've always done, what makes you famous, etc."
In addition to the work Prince was doing as his career was suddenly red hot, he was also pushing out a tremendous amount of material for his associated acts. His contract with Warner Bros allowed for side projects, and with his seemingly-endless stream of songs, the prolific songwriter/producer was taking full advantage. He'd written and produced Minneapolis funk band The Time's eponymous first album and the follow-up, What Time Is It?, released summer 1982. He'd also written and produced the bulk of his girl group Vanity 6's debut album, including their smash single "Nasty Girl."
But Prince had started working on his own new material following The Controversy Tour in spring 1982, and he was pushing his sound into a more polished, mainstream place. The new songs retained the funk and New Wave elements he'd been working on since Dirty Mind, but the production was slicker, the melodies more developed. Coleman would introduce Prince to her friend, Wendy Melvoin, who would contribute vocals to a quasi-patriotic new ballad, "Free."
This would be the most hook-driven album he'd made up to this point. And some of his quirkier tendencies would take a backseat to accessibility. The explicitness of previous Prince tracks like "Head" and "Jack U Off" was toned down slightly; though there was still an unapologetic freakiness to tracks like "Let's Pretend We're Married" and "Lady Cab Driver." "Free" would be the most topical song of this new collection, but the message was sentimental.
Released in September, the album's title track was an apocalyptic slice of dance pop, featuring co-lead vocals from Dez, Lisa Coleman and backup singer Jill Jones. With lyrics that evoke partying as the world ends due to nuclear war, "1999" would be the first Prince video to get heavy rotation on MTV, making video stars of the band. The song would initially peak at a paltry No. 42, but upon re-release, it would become of the album's biggest hits.
"1999" was re-released following the success of the album's second single. "Little Red Corvette," with its flashy guitar solo from Dickerson, appealed to rock audiences, and would peak at No. 6—becoming Prince's first Top Ten hit in the U.S. Prince and Dez had developed an affinity for rockabilly tunes after hearing retro ravers The Stray Cats in 1981. The bouncing "Delirious" featured an Elvis Presley-like 1950s bop fused with Prince's trademark New Wave synths; it would be Prince's 2nd Top Ten hit in late 1983.
"D.M.S.R." was the sound of Prince's funk style in full flight. The embodiment of the Minneapolis Sound, it features a hard dance beat, call-and-response hook and synths acting in the place of a traditional funk horn section. "Automatic" is just as dance-worthy, with light synth lines punctuating the unique drum programming that had become Prince's trademark.
The most uniquely progressive musical moment on 1999, is the epic "Something In the Water Does Not Compute." It retains the funk elements that Prince had refined, but it doesn't feel like a funk track. It has the atmospheric qualities of synth-driven New Wave, but it doesn't feel like a New Wave track. The cryptic lyric adds to the undefinable quality of the song. "Free" carries over some of the politicized commentary of earlier Prince songs like "Ronnie, Talk to Russia," but is less questioning and more of a rose-colored depiction of American freedoms.
"Lady Cab Driver" is another of the album's quintessentially funk moments. A bawdy tale of a seductress' conquest in a taxicab, it's a streamlined version of what Prince was doing on Time albums around the same period. And the workout "All the Critics Love U in New York" was a tongue-in-cheek nod to Prince's newfound standing with rock critics, and is one of the most uptempo tracks on the album. "International Lover" was the kind of smokey ode to seduction that had become par for the course for Prince, delivered with equal parts panache and oddness, as the closer for Prince's most ambitious album to date.
Initially a double LP, 1999 would become Prince's first smash album. Upon release on Oct. 27, 1982, it was Prince's first Top Ten album and eventually sold four million copies. Prince's blend of skittering drum patterns and punchy synths would prove extremely influential; in addition to his work with The Time, the 1999 album would form a sonic foundation for chart-topping acts like Ready For the World and the Full Force-produced Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam later in the decade; as well as the production work of ex-Time members Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, which yielded major hits for The S.O.S. Band, Human League and, most notably, Janet Jackson, throughout the 1980s. Jackson's 1986 breakthrough album Control bears the earmarks of 1999s musical influence. Additionally, Stevie Nicks would recruit Prince to play synths on her 1983 hit "Stand Back" after hearing "Little Red Corvette"; and Phil Collins wrote his 1985 hit "Sussudio" based on Prince's "1999."
The synth-driven sound of mid-80s hip-hop would quickly devour the more straight-ahead disco and funk roots of the genre's earlier hits. Herbie Hancock's hit 1983 album Future Shock—lauded for its embrace of digital hip-hop elements—bears traces of Prince's approach to drum programming. Acts like Mantronix, Afrika Bambaataa and superproducer Larry Smith may have mostly used the Roland TR-808, but the approach to programming echoes what Prince was doing on the Linn LM-1 up through 1982. And Smith's dark, dramatic synths on songs like Whodini's "Five Minutes of Funk" and Run-D.M.C.'s "It's Like That" are heavily indebted to the sweeping, apocalyptic soundscape of "1999."
Of course, Prince would go on to even bigger commercial heights in 1984 with Purple Rain. Dez Dickerson would leave for good in 1983 following The 1999 Tour, and Prince would officially add Wendy Melvoin to the band in his place—completing the most famous iteration of his backing band, which would soon be officially named The Revolution (though the name subtly appears backwards on this album cover.) Purple Rain would be his most iconic pop culture moment, but the 1999 album stands as his most influential. It's an album that became a touchstone for innumerable pop and R&B artists throughout the rest of the decade. Michael Jackson and Madonna were just as ubiquitous and their MTV-dominating approaches to image and media certainly set a standard; but, strictly from a musical standpoint, its Prince who cast the widest shadow over the sound of the Reagan era. You can hear echoes of 1999 in everything from the grooves of Wham! and George Michael to the hooks of INXS. Considering that his own albums would become an outlet for his ongoing creative and stylistic experimentalism, Prince's traditional Minneapolis Sound would mostly be sustained in subsequent years by his hits for others. Sheena Easton's "Sugar Walls," Chaka Khan's cover of "I Feel For You," Sheila E.'s hits "The Glamorous Life" and "A Love Bizarre"—they all sound like reminders of what Prince perfected in 1982, a sound that defined funk/dance in the decade of excess.
Decades later, that sound is still best exemplified on 1999. It's a transcendent moment in 80s popular music; proof that Prince was just operating on a different musical gear. And his reach was wider than virtually everyone else's. Even at this relatively early stage in his career. Having perfected his mix of funk, New Wave, dance and pop, Prince was defining and redefining his times. And he made the threat of nuclear holocaust sound like a blast.
But don't worry—he won't hurt you. He only wants you to have some fun.
Watch Prince's Video for "Little Red Corvette":
Watch Prince's Video for "Let's Pretend We're Married":
Watch Prince's Video for "Automatic":
Watch Prince's Video for "1999":