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09:my amp is frozen: a primer guide to the music of minneapolis  |  by marc ingber 
My Amp is Frozen:
a primer guide to the music of minneapolis

By Marc Ingber                                                                        
September 2009
The city is home to the Walker Arts Center, Guthrie Theater, Best Buy, Target, the Mall of America, Pearson’s Salted Nut Rolls and the Mississippi River, but ask the average American what they know about Minneapolis and they will tell you one thing – it’s really cold.
Though Minnesota has produced artists ranging from Judy Garland and Winona Ryder to Bob Dylan and the Coen Brothers, the state is mostly known for its climate. Almost anyone who isn’t from North Dakota thinks of it as the place where people have to live in igloos and talk with Sarah Palin-esque accents.
This stereotype is only partially true. In actuality, it’s really cold only a couple months out of the year here and a large portion of the population sound nothing like the characters in “Fargo.” But the negative stereotypes about Minneapolis tend to work to its benefit.
The city, which is situated nicely along the Mississippi River across from state capitol St. Paul, has long had a lively and vibrant arts scene with dozens of music venues, theaters and art galleries to explore. Few know that Minneapolis is second only to New York in live theater per capita and that it has a storied music scene - its climate has always prevented it from becoming too hip or trendy on a national level.
Celebrities don’t buy their second, third or fourth homes here, and “The Real World” and “Real Housewives” don’t come to film in Minneapolis. To anyone outside the upper Midwest, the city has been able to remain a well-kept secret.
Though it’s difficult to find literal musical connections between artists that hail from the same city, finding thematic connections is easier. For instance - Bob Seger, The White Stripes and Eminem are all from Detroit. Though the three sound nothing alike musically, they are similar in the sense that their songs are borne from living in a working-class, Midwest town. None seem as though they could have come out of New York, L.A. or Miami.
Similarly, Minneapolis musicians share a similar experience in that they are part of a great arts scene that is a secret to most of the country. Many are original and worthy of national exposure, but most of the time no one is really paying attention to what’s happening here. This sometimes translates into a sense of self-deprecation in the music, or in the case of Prince, aloofness.
Minneapolis has produced a bevy of great artists over the years, but the most well-known by a large margin is Prince. (Though Bob Dylan lived here for a stint on his rise to success, he actually grew up in Hibbing, Minn., a town about three hours north of Minneapolis.)
Prince doesn’t live in the Twin Cities anymore – he moved to L.A. several years ago. But the catalog of albums and singles he produced from his locally-based Paisley Park Studios throughout the 1980s and early ‘90s put him in a league of his own in terms of popularity, success and influence in the R&B world. He also filmed his 1984 movie “Purple Rain” around these parts and the film ends with a performance at Minneapolis’ hallowed music venue, First Avenue.
Prince may be Minneapolis’ most well-known artist, but he wasn’t the first to make a mark on the pop music world. The city produced two garage-rock classics in the 1960s with The Castaways’ “Liar, Liar” and The Trashmen’s “Surfin’ Bird.” Like many songs of that era, both are a little goofy, yet simple and catchy.
At the time, the city didn’t have a particular sound, but that began to change around the late ‘70s/early ‘80s with the dual rise of the city’s R&B and alternative scenes. Prince and his band, The Revolution, helped shape the city’s R&B sound at this time along with artists such as Morris Day and The Time (most well-known for 1984’s “Jungle Love”).
Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, two members of The Time, went on to even larger success as a producing combo. The duo was one of the most successful producing teams of the decade, working with artists such as Gladys Knight, New Edition, Human League and most notably, Janet Jackson.
Jam and Lewis began working with Jackson in the mid-1980s when she was trying to make a name for herself in a musical family that had already seen plenty of success. They produced her first album, “Control,” in 1986, which was a huge hit, and also 1989’s “Rhythm Nation 1814,” which was bigger yet. Jackson even gives a shout out to Minneapolis in the middle of her hit, “Escapade.”
The 1980s were a heyday for the Minneapolis music scene, but it wasn’t only due to the city’s R&B groups. On the flip side to all the mainstream success on the R&B side was an underground movement in the punk and alternative world.
Hardcore punk band Husker Du formed in the Twin Cities in the late ‘70s and released the landmark album, Zen Arcade, in 1984. In 1986, the group became one of the first underground punk bands to sign with a major label. Nevertheless, it never amassed much more than a cult following and broke up in the late 1980s. However, Husker Du’s influence can be heard in many bands that followed, such as the Pixies and Nirvana.
A somewhat similar story to Husker Du is the Replacements. The alternative band is one of the most critically-acclaimed and influential groups of the 1980s, but they never saw that much success when they were still together. This was partially the band’s own doing, as it had a tendency to purposely sabotage any chance it had for mainstream popularity when the opportunity arose. For instance, they got banned from Saturday Night Live after showing up inebriated and lead singer Paul Westerberg swore on stage.

The Replacements split
up in the early 1990s and Westerberg went on to a solo career. However, like many influential bands before them, their legacy has grown over the years and it’s possible to hear their influence in everyone from Nirvana and Green Day to the Goo Goo Dolls and Wilco. Other emerge alternative bands to from Minneapolis in the 1980s include the Jayhawks, Soul Asylum and Babes in Toyland. Since then, the city hasn’t seen quite the influence on the overall music landscape. However, some groups have found success over the years, and the city is still churning out great local artists who will never see a smidgen of national exposure.
One area the city has made a mark on in this decade is in underground hip-hop. Minneapolis’ independent hip-hop label, Rhymesayers Entertainment, is home to a roster of MCs. Slug – one half of the hip-hop group Atmosphere – was one of the founders of the label and the group has been one of its biggest breakout successes. The label is also home to MCs like Brother Ali, Eyedea & Abilities, P.O.S. and others.
Unlike hip-hop scenes in Atlanta or Houston, I’m yet to hear a Minnesota MC rap about money, cars or jewelry, so it’s doubtful you’ll hear one on your local top 40 station any time soon. But in the underground hip-hop world, these artists have helped put the city on the map.
Whether Minneapolis will again have the influence it did in the 1980s remains to be seen, but with all its dive bars and clubs, it’s possible the next Prince might be honing his sound right up the road from me. If you’ve never been here, I recommend making the trip. Don’t let the weather scare you away. Unless it’s between December and March – then I would let it scare you away.
Marc Ingber is a journalist with Sun Newspapers, based in Minneapolis, MN. He was born and raised in the Twin Cities and attended journalism school at the University of Kansas. His primary interests include rock n' roll, movies, food and drink, the Minnesota Vikings and the Minnesota Twins - probably in that order.
Read other articles by Marc Ingber: