I recently worked on an extensive oral history for Spin magazine on the 25th anniversary of Purple Rain (the story’s not online, but the issue is on newsstands now). Most of the interviewees were Prince collaborators from that era, but I did wind up talking for a few minutes with Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson, the drummer for the Roots. As it turns out, he’s a bit of scholar on Purple Rain, and since I couldn’t fit all of his observations in the story, I thought I’d reprint them here:
I wasn’t allowed to see Purple Rain. My two trips to see it in the movie theatre were foiled by my parents. Then I tried to pull a fast one by spending the night in my grandma’s house, and trying to see it with my cousins. My grandmother was like, “They going to the the movies,” and my mom was like, “Ahmir is not allowed to see Purple Rain. He can see Footloose, but not Purple Rain.” When I was a kid, a lot of my R-rated experiences with movies—or any other type of pop culture—had to be experienced second-hand, via the recapping and the recollections of friends. Eventually, when it came out on videotape, my friend got it for Christmas in 1985, and I watched it.
I always say that Prince really started hip-hop culture, whether the historians want to view it or not. Everything in that film mirrored hip-hop culture. You have Prince himself, a very unsual-looking figure. Most of the mavericks in hip-hop have a very distinct physical trait about them. Prince is about five feet tall, and a musical genius, [and] pretty much anybody that’s considered a musical genius in hip-hop has some sort of physical feature about them that’s odd, i.e. Biggie’s lazy eye. And then the whole idea of beefs—Prince and Morris. Morris’ whole pimp attitude, that was something you didn’t hear since the blaxploitation films of the early ’70s.
[There was also] the innovative use of drum machines, definitely a first in synth music. “When Doves Cry” is pretty much the first ringtone pop hit. It’s bookended by an intricate Egyptian chord in the beginning and a sort of classical run at the end, but in between it’s a very sparse, one-note affair.
And he definitely invented the video ho. Before Purple Rain, brothers had a hard time embracing a bikini-clad, high-heel-boot sporting, five-foot Midwest, light-skinned guy with a high falsetto. But the second after my block saw the “When Doves Cry,” and he was getting on Apollonia. That changed a lot of opinions.