By Sam Bleazard
The Cocoa Diaries recently got a rare audience with Andre Cymone, who, alongside Prince went on to become an architect of the Minneapolis sound. Andre recently revived his solo career following a 27 year hiatus. We find him incredibly animated on a whole range of subjects despite only getting 3 hours sleep on a flight from the U.S.
You’ve taken part in concerts with Prince’s New Power Generation band recently, kicking off with a slot on London’s Hyde Park summertime festival bill – how did it come about?
I’d been approached by The Revolution previously to do a show, I just thought it was way too soon. I was still trying to get my head around the fact that he was really gone, but finally his brother talked to me and convinced me that many of Prince’s fans actually wanted me there. Also because Morris Hayes (his long-term keyboard player) asked me, it felt genuine as I knew how close they were over the years.
A 27 year gap – what did you do in that time?
Record companies wouldn’t let me do Rock n Roll albums in the early ‘80s, Prince later wrote ‘Slave’ on his face but I just refused to record. I was signed to a deal at the age of 24, but it was in the RnB department of a major label. I didn’t know at the time that it was a sort of ball and chain to one style of music. I was originally going to do a funk album but Prince beat me to it, I had cut some demos in the studio when he went on to record The Time (Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis’s first band), so he cut me off at the pass there. It made me want to do something completely different. I worked with a lot of artists behind the scenes such as Jody Watley, Adam Ant and Tina Turner, but I always thought I’d come back to solo stuff. I had my own recording studio supporting young artists, which was my way of giving back. I also tried my hand at UCLA for a semester but realised teaching wasn’t for me. On the positive side they let me take classes in screen-writing and directing which still interests me now. I also started a family.
What early memories do you have of making your way in the industry?
Even as teenagers we thought we knew it all before we had knowledge of the industry, in Minneapolis at that time we had all the hype. Luckily there were good people around like Pepe Willie, because although we felt we didn’t need guys like him, he definitely mentored us and gave us some pointers about song structure and publishing, those kinds of things.
Who did you like working with most?
Adam Ant and Marco Pirroni are two of the funniest people I’ve ever met, we had so much fun. Prince also paid attention to their fashion sense when we first came to London – he didn’t get good reviews for what he was wearing back then!”
You saw yourselves as really different?
I always think about our first major tour supporting Rick James in the early ’80s, which was a blast. The first three songs were crazy, I had on clear see-through pants, and Prince had on? I don’t know what! People were going crazy for the first few songs, but by the fourth song the reaction was incredible and we carried that with us for the rest of the tour.
Radio was a big influence in your lives?
There was only one black radio station in Minneapolis, which became KMOJ and is still around today, my wife and I laugh about it now as she’s also from there. You’re in the middle of America, so it’s an amalgamation and a melting pot to some degree, you’re influenced by the west coast and the east coast but you’re right in the middle of America.
As kids were you always politicised?
Yes we were. But as a society it feels like we are ‘de-volving’, we’re going backwards. There was so much diversity in music and culture when we came out, Santana, Jimi Hendrix, Sly and the Family Stone, less so now.
And as kids how did you and Prince develop a musical partnership?
He and I were very close, it was obvious as soon as we met in high school – I had an instinctual understanding with Prince. He was the first person I met, that when I said, “I’m going to be famous one day”, he was the only one who said – “yeah me too!”
How alike or different were you?
Prince always felt we had to come with our best stuff. I was fearless and wanted to do everything right that minute, while he was a little more shy, more restrained but always extremely smart. He was a lot different to how people would imagine him to be, I was the free spirit, while he wrote everything down.
Was Prince like a brother to you?
Yes absolutely, in that he prevented me getting into trouble. He would say – ‘Man, you need to stop doing things like that’. Put it this way, me being 14 and having a brand new car made no sense to anyone in my neighbourhood! My mother was also no joke, she was a strong woman who didn’t take any nonsense. It didn’t help that my brothers got in trouble, one was a pimp and one went to jail for 6 years. My parents were divorced by the time I was 12 and when Prince came to live at my house he became family to us.
On your new album there’s a song called Black Man in America – how did that come about?
Mic Murphy from The System is a really good friend of mine. He came up with the hook line – ‘You don’t know what it’s like, to be a Black Man in America‘. I wrote it after the Philando Castile thing happened (a black man killed by a police officer while sitting in his car in St Paul Minnesota in July 2016) and now it’s back in the headlines again because the officer was let go.
Are there clear parallels between the end of the ’60s and now?
If you think about the U.S., not much has changed. From a black perspective and black communities all over the country it’s just been stuck. I don’t understand it. Its police brutality, and brutalising a culture. It’s also a culture that needs to move in new directions as it can also paint itself in a corner. In the late ‘60s and ‘70s when you went to the movie theatre it was players, pimps and hustlers – all the characters elevated by Hollywood that you were supposed to admire at that time were very flawed. When I look at where we’ve come to as a society now you can’t be surprised at what we got.”
In the late ‘60s you had movements like the Black Panthers – could something like that happen now?
It’s what my album 1969 is all about. The police are brutalising people who’ve got a tail-light blown out, this will breed movements of the kind we used to see back then. Innocent people don’t know who they can call to protect them anymore.
So what’s next for you?
I’m going to keep putting out solo albums. Taking that time off has allowed me to grow, I feel refreshed and I’ve got so many songs to choose from. I think now I might do that funk album, as there are very few artists who are expanding the sound – it feels like there’s space to make a mark. I feel like since Prince’s passing I’m picking up the baton, the spirit we had as kids was always to be different, and do things that no-one else was doing, and I want to keep that going.”
Andre Cymone’s 1969 is out on 22nd September. For further details visit Andre’s website here.