He wouldn’t have been Prince if mainstream radio had accepted him right away. For the first four years of his career, Prince depended mostly on R&B radio for airplay.
“I Wanna Be Your Lover” was a moderate pop hit, but the Dirty Mind and Controversy albums that made him a critical favorite did so during the heart of the early ‘80s “disco backlash” that destroyed careers and kept all but the poppiest R&B music from crossing over. In 1983, “Little Red Corvette” would be a dramatic final act in breaking down pop (and rock) radio’s resistance to black music.
We know that Prince paid attention to the radio, if only because he worried about “Purple Rain” sounding too much like Journey’s “Faithfully.” There’s little evidence of him trying to write for radio airplay, however.
The last years of an artist’s radio career are often marked by copying their radio competition. But when Prince became a radio superstar, radio came to him, and when the hits ended, as they must, he didn’t go running after radio and tarnish his legacy in the process. (For the purposes of comparison, Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler is trying to reinvent himself as a country artist and has just released a “bro country” single that sounds like “Cruise” by Florida-Georgia Line.)
These are my radio memories of Prince, and what they meant, both about radio at the time and about his relationship with radio.
Washington, D.C., 1978 – I’m interning at the news department of R&B station OK100. Prince’s debut single “Soft & Wet” is climbing the R&B charts and when it plays, people gather in the hall outside the programming office and start talking about it. “And he’s only 19,” says somebody. (It later turns out he’s really twenty at the time, but would anybody have really been less impressed?)
Monterey, Calif., 1979 – At a medium-market top 40 station, a friend of mine is program director. The GM tells him that he’ll have to drop “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” his No. 1 request, because the owner objects to the lyric. These days, “make you come… running” could be in a country hit without issues.
Detroit, 1981 – It’s a great time for music. It’s a terrible time for music on pop radio. The only R&B that crosses over is essentially “yacht rock” (although that term is decades away from coinage) that happens to be by artists of color – James Ingram, Al Jarreau, Diana Ross & Lionel Richie. The year before, Prince’s “Dirty Mind” came out to unanimous acclaim, but no pop airplay.
And “Controversy” is set to repeat the pattern. But in Detroit, Prince is already a radio superstar, thanks in part to the influential R&B DJ “Electrifyin’ Mojo” whose twin pillars are Prince and Parliament/Funkadelic. The Twin Cities were home, but over the years, Detroit would be Prince’s radio home. “Controversy” crosses over in Detroit, as well as San Francisco, another market that chooses not to observe the disco backlash.
Detroit, 1982 – A handful of R&B records – many of them with some rock aspect – are breaking through at pop radio. So far, “1999” isn’t one of them. It does go top 10 at home on WLOL. But in Detroit, the entire album is phenomenal. New R&B outlet WDRQ signs on and “1999” is basically its fall ratings book promotion. Seemingly, every single cut on the album makes WDRQ’s nightly countdown at some point, battling for No. 1 with multiple cuts from the second album by the Time and with Vanity 6’s “Nasty Girl.”
Ann Arbor, Mich., 1983 – It’s five months later. “Little Red Corvette” has crossed over and will compel the successful reissue of “1999” to pop radio shortly. At this point, the issue is no longer whether top 40 will accept Prince but what rock radio will do. It’s no longer a corporate rock world.
In the Twin Cities, the excitement about Prince (and Michael Jackson and new wave) will propel the growth of WLOL and push KDWB to abandon “real rock radio” for top 40 at year’s end. In Ann Arbor, a college friend does weekends at the tight-playlist local “Album Rock” station WIQB. By the time they start playing “Little Red Corvette,” there are no complaint calls, only “what took you so long” comments.
Los Angeles, 1984 – It is the height of “Purple Rain.” Michael Jackson ran his course with the seven singles from “Thriller” a few months ago. Madonna is starting to rack up hits, but “Like a Virgin” is a few months off. Prince’s closest competition at this moment is Bruce Springsteen, but at pop music’s moment of abundance, there is room for more than one superstar.
Almost anything Prince gives to another artist is a hit (Sheena Easton’s “Sugar Walls”), but even covering one of his old LP cuts gives Chaka Khan her biggest hit with “I Feel For You.”
In Los Angeles, R&B station KDAY is becoming the famed cradle of West Coast hip-hop, but that music is still nascent and at this moment, KDAY is Prince HQ. (And L.A.’s first big hip-hop crew, Uncle Jam’s Army, is very Prince-influenced.) Even the B-sides of Prince singles are R&B hits in L.A., and one of them, “Erotic City” crosses to top 40 despite multiple apparent uses of the F-word (for which some stations would subsequently be fined).
Top 40 KKHR doesn’t bleep “we can f**k until the dawn” (radio maintains the word is “funk”), but they do edit “I just want your creamy thighs” because, as the PD tells me, “You’ve got to draw the line somewhere.” KDAY does a particularly random edit of “Darling Nikki.” The lyric about masturbation is summarily edited to the senseless, “I met her in a hotel lobby, magazine.”
Washington, D.C., 1989 – You would never know that R&B had ever struggled for acceptance at pop radio. At this moment, R&B, novelty hip-hop, and rhythmic pop are the dominant sounds at Top 40, punctuated only by an occasional Def Leppard or Guns N’ Roses record. The phenomenal station in Washington when I drive down from New York to cover a top 40 radio convention is WPGC, nominally a top 40 but really a hit-driven urban station. Prince is still a star and a radio presence, but he’s been inconsistent for the past few years.
For every “U Got the Look,” there’s an “Alphabet St.” The rise of “new jack swing” is pulling R&B away from rock influences. Hip-hop is in danger of making Prince actually seem quaint. But this weekend, there’s excitement about Prince again. Warner Bros. is screening Batman, with its Prince soundtrack, at the convention and the song I hear repeatedly on the drive to and from New York is the just-released “Batdance.”
New York, 1991 – Top 40 radio is in decline, and it’s about to be buffeted from both sides by the release of “Nevermind” and “The Chronic.” When Prince’s “Cream” goes to No. 1, top 40 is relieved to have it. He’s the safest thing they can play. “Cream” is actually the rare mainstream pop record that top 40 can have to itself. Literally. Because R&B radio plays “Insatiable” instead.
Even “Let’s Go Crazy” had been a No. 1 R&B hit, although I remember one DJ jokingly backselling it as AC/DC. Over the last decade, it’s become typical for artists to release different songs to pop and R&B radio. But it’s hard to imagine what that strategy would have done to Prince’s mission if it had happened early on.
Miami, 1999 – Another industry convention, this one the Billboard Radio Seminar, which I have to help plan as editor of Billboard’s radio publication. Usually we struggle for acts, but Prince has just signed to Arista, and they actually call and volunteer him to play the awards show. At this point, Prince is five years past his last real radio hit (“The Most Beautiful Girl In The World”), but the normally jaded program directors couldn’t be more excited.
It doesn’t help the single, “The Greatest Romance Ever Sold,” and the Arista deal lasts for only one album. And there’s certainly no sign of the type of A&R that Arista’s Clive Davis does for Whitney Houston or others.
For the last 15 years, new Prince music has landed mostly at Adult R&B radio. Of Prince’s contemporaries, only Madonna even attempts to have mainstream pop hits these days, something she’s regularly mocked for. (Even Gwen Stefani, a decade less veteran, struggles to remain accepted.) Prince is a staple at “greatest hits” stations like Kool 108, but according to stats from radio programmer Chris Huff, it was Adult R&B stations (plus a contingent of Twin Cities programmers) that typically gave him the most posthumous airplay in any given market.
Sean Ross is the author of the radio industry newsletter, Ross On Radio.