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Diamonds And Pearls: Behind Prince’s Glittering Start To The 90s
Warner Music
In Depth

Diamonds And Pearls: Behind Prince’s Glittering Start To The 90s

With a new band and a jewellery box full of hits, Prince entered the hip-hop era with the ‘Diamonds And Pearls’ album.

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At the height of his Purple Rain fame, in the mid-80s, Prince made a prophesy to his then studio engineer Susan Rogers: “The future of music is going to be bass and drums, with vocals over the top.” By the early 90s, that future – hip-hop – had not only arrived, it had launched an unstoppable assault on the mainstream. From Public Enemy’s militant political diatribes to N.W.A’s furious street-level missives and De La Soul’s altogether more family-friendly sampledelica, music’s latest boundary-pushers had made it clear that the new decade was going to be very different to the one Prince had defined.

Listen to the ‘Diamonds And Pearls’ super deluxe edition box set here.

“The whole presentation was a bit more ethnocentric”

Having sensed that future ahead of time, Prince began setting himself up for its arrival. He’d built the Batdance single, lifted from his Batman soundtrack, around samples of dialogue snatched from the film, while Thieves In The Temple, from his Graffiti Bridge album, was a stripped-back highlight that held its own against the beat-heavy music he had prophesied. But, as drummer Michael Bland told this author for the book Lives Of The Musicians: Prince, “He had the insight to know he was too old to flex himself in the hip-hop game. But he was in a position to mix that with actual instrumentation.”

Having been brought into the fold for the Nude tour, staged in support of Graffiti Bridge, Bland was the perfect timekeeper for the band Prince formed to take him into the new era. The successors to The Revolution, The New Power Generation were a very different prospect: earthier, with virtuoso capabilities and a thunderous bottom end, the group was also made up of predominately Black musicians who further helped Prince align himself with hip-hop’s riotous upstarts. “The whole presentation was a bit more ethnocentric,” Bland observed. “To fans of real Black music – that turned a lot of people on.”

“It was an organic way to stay relevant”

The Black audience was at the forefront of Prince’s mind when he began recording the material that would make up Diamonds And Pearls. Though the Parade, Sign O’ The Times and Lovesexy albums had pushed his artistry to new levels throughout the second half of the 80s, they had also found him moving further away from the funk music he’d used as the launching pad for his “Minneapolis sound”. Calling his band to late-night studio sessions while in London and Tokyo for shows on the Nude tour, he began working up everything from jazz-tinged R&B (Money Don’t Matter 2 Night, Strollin’) to unabashed club tracks which made room for dancer/rapper Tony Mosley to lay down verses against Prince’s own vocals (Daddy Pop). Back home in Minneapolis, he called hip-hop journalists to his Paisley Park facilities, taking their feedback on his new songs and using it to fine-tune the songs.

Yet while drum machines and synthesisers had been the bedrock of much of his previous output, Prince, typically, moved away from those hip-hop cornerstones when it came to working up his own take on the music. “Everyone went out and got drum machines and computers, so I threw mine away,” he told Spin magazine following Diamonds And Pearls’ release. Indeed, after laying down basic tracks live in the studio with his band, Prince would edit them into the kind of samples DJs mined 70s funk and soul for, or – years ahead of The Roots’ rise to prominence as a hip-hop group recording with live instrumentation – simply turned out hip-hop-infused music performed with instrumental flair. “It was an organic way to stay relevant without giving in to the tropes and the trite production models of the time,” Michael Bland told this author.

“On my record, there’s nothing missing”

What emerged, after a year and a half of woodshedding, was an hour-plus album that ran Prince’s usual thematic touchstones – sex, salvation and social ills – through The New Power Generation’s filter. Supremely confident in his new direction, he lifted no fewer than six singles from Diamonds And Pearls’ 13 tracks – several of which still stand among the best Prince songs – and committed himself to promoting the record like no other, making countless TV appearances, granting more interviews than in recent memory and creating promo videos even for album tracks such as Live 4 Love and Strollin’. Select B-sides, too, received their own clips, which Prince collected together for the half-hour Gett Off home-video EP release.

The most memorable video, for Gett Off itself, brought a high-budget fall-of-Rome vibe to MTV as the song led off the Diamonds And Pearls campaign. Going Top 10 both in the UK and on the US Billboard Hot R&B chart, and hitting No.1 on Billboard’s Hot Dance Music – Club Play listing, the single set the album up for double- and triple-platinum sales figures in the US and UK, respectively. And Prince burned up the charts from there. With its late-night atmosphere and blues-drenched guitar licks, Cream slid to the top of US Hot 100 with ease while Diamonds And Pearls’ title track sat imperiously at the top of the Hot R&B charts, proving that, whether he was swinging for roof-raising ballads or digging deep into floor-filling grooves, he could, as he told Rolling Stone, “keep switching gears” on his new band “and something else funky will happen”.

Not since disbanding The Revolution five years earlier had one of Prince’s groups received equal billing on his records, but this line-up of The New Power Generation – the first of many to follow throughout the remainder of Prince’s life – invigorated him at just the right time. With short-lived singer/keyboardist Rosie Gaines, it also gave him a vocal foil straight out of an old-school soul revue, while, going as “Tony M”, rapper Mosley provided not only the album’s most ostensible hip-hop link, but also the opportunity for Prince to express some opinions he may not have been able to directly voice himself: wrapped up as a celebration of a fictional new dance craze, album cut Jughead also included a skit which made clear Prince’s increasing frustration with the music industry at the start of the 90s – a situation which would escalate furiously in just a few years.

“A lot of that record is still super creative”

Released on 1 October 1991, Diamonds And Pearls fulfilled its brief, going Top 5 around the UK, US and Europe, and, following in the footsteps of its title track, making No.1 on the R&B chart. Ensuring that the album covered the spectrum of contemporary Black music had paid off, as Prince noted to Details magazine: “You know when you would buy someone’s record and there’s always an element missing?… On mine, there’s nothing missing.”

He took this maximalist approach on the road in April 1992, filling arenas around Japan, Australia, Europe and the UK. Expanding The New Power Generation to a 17-piece outfit, Prince hit the stage nightly with a brass section, a DJ and a retinue of backing dancers, among them belly dancer Mayte Garcia, newly in the fold but soon to become a central part of Prince’s next album – which, in typically prolific style, he had almost entirely finished before the Diamonds And Pearls tour even opened.

“He had some hits and we were really in the mix of pop culture, Black music at that time,” New Power Generation keyboardist Tommy Barbarella recalled for Lives Of The Musicians: Prince. Reflecting on the album that took Prince there, he added, “A lot of that record, with the rap stuff on it, is still super creative and had never been done like that before.”

‘Diamonds And Pearls’ Track-By-Track: A Guide To Every Song On The Album

Thunder

Prince may have ventured into hip-hop and other early-90s musical trends with the Diamonds And Pearls album, but opening track Thunder found him once again exploring the tension between his sexual and spiritual sides which had provided such rich inspiration on earlier albums, including 1999 and Lovesexy. Deeply sensual lyrics (“Love’s kiss was running all through my veins/The bed started shaking, I don’t know who to blame”) sat alongside religious supplication (“Thunder all through the night/Promise to see Jesus in the morning light”) on a track whose lyrical imagery can also be traced to Operation Desert Storm, in which the US led an aerial attack on Iraq in a decisive moment for the Gulf War. Thunder’s looped beats and Middle Eastern guitar lines displayed Prince’s newfound interest in sampling, though not at the expense of his own virtuosity. Teasing guitar flourishes throughout, he pulls a handbrake turn at 3.23, deploying a few thick riffs, before returning to the instrument for the song’s dramatic outro.

Daddy Pop

An unabashed shot at club play, Daddy Pop sees Prince flexing his prowess as pop music’s most reliable party-starter, strutting into the new decade with conviction and rebuking anyone “Living in the past/When they need to be living the new”. Singer Rosie Gaines and rapper Tony M get featured spots on a cut that also clears a space for Prince’s New Power Generation sidekicks to make their presence felt, the results merging belting soul with rap stylings over a barrage of samples, beats and loops topped off with organ flourishes and a healthy sense of humour. “I got grooves and grooves up on the shelf,” Prince says – no mere boast for a five-minute track any one of whose rump-shaking ideas could be extrapolated into its own song.

Diamonds And Pearls

Indicating the confidence Prince had in his new band’s abilities, the basic tracks for Diamonds And Pearls were recorded in just a handful of takes, with the NPG rhythm section of Tommy Barbarella (keyboards), Sonny Thompson (bass) and Michael Bland (drums). By the time Prince and guitarist Levi Seacer, Jr, added overdubs, and Rosie Gaines unleashed her soaring vocals, one of Prince’s finest ballads had formed, ready to take its glittering place at the top of Billboard’s Hot R&B Singles chart, as part of a months-long run in the US listings that also included a No.3 peak on the mainstream Hot 100.

Cream

Diamonds And Pearls saw Prince make a decisive move towards securing radio play in the modern era, but with the album’s second single – out of six international releases – he proved his mastery of Black music past as well as present, building Cream on a bluesy groove buffed to a pop-rock sheen. “I wrote this while looking in the mirror,” Prince would later joke on stage, after singing the lyrics “You’re so good/Baby, there ain’t nobody better”. In an early studio take, he leads the NPG through a muscular performance characterised by some gnarly electric guitar work; on stage in the mid-2000s, Prince would perform the song solo on acoustic guitar, the stripped-down arrangement highlighting how robust his songwriting was at its core.

Strollin’

As Diamonds And Pearls unfolds, The New Power Generation prove themselves a virtuoso bunch able to follow wherever Prince chooses to lead them. On Strollin’ they lean into swing jazz for a breezy ballad elevated by Levi Seacer, Jr’s clean guitar tones and Prince’s falsetto vocals, the bandleader doubling as an intimate club singer as he imagines taking part in some of his favourite Minneapolis pastimes (“We could rent some roller skates/We could skate around the lake”) during a spontaneous day trip that’s as carefree as his ensemble’s playing is deceptively laidback.

Willing And Able

Initially sustaining the jazzier mood established by Strollin’, Willing And Able builds to a gentle climax, first as the NPG establish their parts, providing a solid base for Rosie Gaines and family vocal group The Steeles to add increasingly fervent gospel interjections, and then as Tony M dials in a brief but charismatic rap that allows Prince to connect the dots between hip-hop and jazz without overstating the point. The song’s sanctified tones are at odds with the subtly scandalous lyrics handed to Gaines (“Let me take a bite/To see if you’re ripe/I’m kinda thinking about taking a hunk, chunk/A piece of your love tonight”), as Prince once again makes an altar of his bed.

Gett Off

The last song recorded for the album, Gett Off kicked off the Diamonds And Pearls campaign with intent in the summer of 1991, when it was issued as the record’s lead single, busting its way to the top of the Billboard Hot Dance Club – Music Play chart and into the Top 10 of the US Hot R&B and UK Top 40 charts. Sultry and salacious in equal measure, the song proved hip-hop could be sexy, Prince savouring the rap-inflected lead vocals himself as he delivered metaphors with his tongue in his check – if not elsewhere (“Tonight you’re a star/And I’m the big dipper”). Built on samples of his own and the NPG’s playing, and with backup from Gaines and Tony M, Gett Off lent itself to endless reworks, including an extended Damn Near 10 Min. mix and a Housestyle renovation that suggested the promise of “23 positions in a one-night stand” was just a warm-up.

Walk Don’t Walk

One of a handful of Diamonds And Pearls songs recorded in London while on the Nude Tour in the summer of 1990 (Daddy Pop and outtakes Schoolyard, My Tender Heart, Pain and Street Walker were taped in the same week), Walk Don’t Walk encapsulates Prince’s innate ability to sit with a simple groove and discover new ways for it to unfold. Taking lyrical inspiration from vintage US pedestrian signs, Prince dismisses society’s commands, encouraging listeners to follow their own paths (“If you’re always walking your way/The sun will shine upon you one day”) over a playful concoction of car horns, percussion and a bassline looped from a sample of his own voice.

Jughead

That Prince made songs people could dance to needs no reiteration. On occasion, however, he also made songs with a specific dance in mind. Sitting in a pop lineage that also includes The Twist, The Swim and The Loco-Motion are cuts such as Sign O’ The Times’ Housequake and Diamonds And Pearls’ Jughead, the latter of which was developed from a routine performed by Tony M, Damon Dickerson and Kirk Johnson, who, together, had formed a dance trio they called The Game Boyz. Largely a showcase for Tony M, who guides the listener through the dance’s Archie comics-inspired moves (“Move your head and shoulders from side to side/Take your back foot, and then you let it slide”), Jughead also featured a coda in which the rapper disparaged certain music-industry practices (“Money-minders are like parasites”), foreshadowing the battle Prince would wage on the wider industry in just a few years’ time.

Money Don’t Matter 2 Night

Opening with the image of a gambler more interested in a flutter than his love life, and then widening the lens to take in global warfare, Money Don’t Matter 2 Night was issued as Diamonds And Pearls’ final international single (Thunder would follow as a UK exclusive), ending the album campaign on a socially conscious note. In an era of economic depression, the song’s Spike Lee-directed promo video underscored Prince’s message in stark black-and-white, as the father of a Black family bemoans his and his wife’s loss of employment, demanding of the then US President, George Bush, “What am I supposed to do? Where are the jobs?” Contrasting with the opulent clips that most of the Diamonds And Pearls singles received, the video helped the song pick up where Sign O’ The Times’ title track left off, Prince judging the government’s fixation on invading oil-producing countries as scathingly as he had their rush to lay claim to the Moon.

Push

Having called the government out on Money Don’t Matter 2 Night, Prince offers Push as a dance-pop corrective. “Every time U get some/People wanna take it back” he sings before exhorting fans to determine their own fates: “Push/Don’t you let them pull U down/Push/Until U get 2 higher ground”. Initially resisting demands his own band make of him (“Prince, get on the mic”), he drops his reluctance, delivering a rap that namechecks a handful of the Diamonds And Pearls songs. When Rosie Gaines picks up the baton, she adds rapping to her own list of transcendent vocal talents.

Insatiable

A boudoir tease, Insatiable doubles as praise of a love interest who sets Prince off like no other. The master of innuendo lets imagination do what it will with the phrase “little red button”, ostensibly indicating the Record function of a camera employed to document the night’s seduction – though in Prince’s self-described “dirty little cage”, who knows what nubbins are on show? The song comes to an end soon after Prince lets loose a pants-tightening scream, though it seems safe to assume the camera would have cause to keep rolling all night…

Live 4 Love

In response to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, on 2 August 1990, Prince began leading his Nude Tour audiences through a “Live for love” chant. Where Diamonds And Pearls’ opening song, Thunder, only obliquely acknowledged the Gulf War conflict that followed, the album’s closing track, Live 4 Love, is an alternately furious and desperate account of the experiences of a fictional young fighter pilot who comes to question the battle he has been thrust into. Initially recording the song on his own, Prince tested out a vulnerable vocal delivery which he would replace with something more assertive once he’d called keyboardist Tommy Barbarella, bassist Sonny Thompson and drummer Michael Bland back into the studio to re-record the song, mere hours after laying down Diamonds And Pearls’ title track together. With Tony M taking the closing rap, Live 4 Love made for an explosive finale to one of the best Prince albums of the 90s.

Buy the ‘Diamonds And Pearls’ super deluxe edition box set on vinyl and CD.

Original article: 1 October 2021

Updated: 1 October 2023

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