Prince created more great songs in a year than most get in a career. The Minneapolis multi-instrumentalist was not one to shy away from his virtuosity, showcasing his skills on guitar (both electric and bass), piano, drums, percussion and much more throughout his iconic catalog.
Depending on who you ask the best Prince song varies but is often among his first six albums. However, the Purple One’s best song of all time was one that he created for another group, a side project where Prince could work behind the scenes and slowly transform into a producing powerhouse outside of his solo career — The Time‘s “777-9311.”
Released three months before 1999, “777-9311” served as the lead single from The Time’s second album What Time Is It? in 1982. The year was a transformative one for Prince. Prior to 1999, Prince had devoted himself to two side projects: The Time and Vanity 6. Under his producer moniker “The Starr Company,” Prince produced both the former’s sophomore album and the latter’s debut album in 1982, with the trio ultimately embarking on a tour together — 1982/1983’s “1999/Triple Threat” tour.
The tour concluded in April 1983. Following that, Prince starting working on what is, arguably, considered his magnum opus — Purple Rain.
“777-9311” is important in the context of Prince’s musical ascent. The eight-minute long track is enjoyably excessive: the funk guitar strums; the skittering proto-trap hi-hats; the sweltering synths; the bouncy bass. The track is a precursor to maximalist Prince — arrogant, brash, confident, loud and sexy — him coming into his own as a real rockstar.
Using both The Time and Vanity 6 to expand and explore his sonic territory, Prince took chances with the groups that he did not seem to care to do through his solo career yet. By giving “777-9311” to The Time, Prince gave his best song to his side project, the decision arguably working both in and against his favor.
The track showed Prince’s prowess as a producer, with the song featuring some of his best work across various instruments (most notably the bass), and although the track’s unprecedented drum part was not programmed by Prince (the beat was originally programmed into a Linn LM-1 drum machine by David Garibaldi for Roger Linn, although it is unknown how Prince became owner of the instrument), he still formatted the part to where it fit in the song, creating a drum part that drummers still have a hard time replicating almost 35 years later.
Considering Prince’s competitiveness, especially with The Time, it’s easy to view the exchange as the former reminding the latter who is in charge and who calls the shots. After all, What Time Is It? was written without any input from The Time, except from frontman Morris Day.
However, the exchange is also one of respect. Prince surrounded himself with the best of the best and pushed his peers because he couldn’t and wouldn’t settle for less. Offering “777-9311” to The Time wasn’t just a reminder of who was the overseeing boss, but arguably Prince’s faith in the band. That as challenging as this song was they could make it their own.
In the book Prince: Inside the Music and the Masks, author Ronin Ro recounts a story told to him by various members of The Time, when they were having a hard time learning “777-9311.”
“One session, he faced keyboardist Jimmy Jam. ‘Jimmy, you’re doing the bass with your left hand. You’re not using your right hand.’ Jimmy said there was no part there. ‘Well, you make a part there! You add something. You got to make it better than the record. No hands can be lazy. You got to play!”
Jam was unfortunately subjected most to Prince’s critiques while rehearsing “777-9311,” with the latter also telling the former he needed to be dancing with the rest of the band.
“Terry Lewis, Morris Day, and Jesse Johnson were stepping and ‘having a great time,’ Jam recalled. But it wasn’t enough. ‘Jimmy Jam, what about you?’ ‘What about me? I’m the keyboard player.’ ‘No, you got to step with them too.’ ‘What! I gotta play with both hands, sing a note, and be steppin’ at the same time? Forget it. I can’t do that sh**.'”
After several hours of practice, Jam could do it all — “play his keyboard part pull a handkerchief to wipe his face, stow it away, and perform a dance step.” As the book mentions, Prince respected The Time’s talent, even once publicly admitting “To this day, they’re the only band I’ve ever been afraid of.” This is where “777-9311” worked against Prince.
The Time came into its own as a band, realizing that if they couldn’t showcase their talents on record, they surely could onstage. “The only power we had was those 45 minutes onstage, because it’s a dictatorship. [Prince] ran everything. He still does that to this day,” former The Time member Jesse Johnson said in an interview with Spin. So The Time gave their all each night they walked out onstage, serving as the opener for both Prince’s “Controversy” and “1999” tours. Inevitably, they became a threat to Prince — the band he had created was outshining him, he thought. This came to a head during the latter tour, where Prince removed The Time from the tour for being too good.
“You imagine something you created is beating your ass in all these towns down South? Prince was the one who had the money and was putting us all out there, but you’re talking about hungry kids from the ghetto trying to get their groove,” Johnson said in the same interview. Getting upstaged by something you created can be a humbling experience. After completing the “1999” tour, Prince returned to Minneapolis where he recorded Purple Rain, an album that was unlike anything anyone had heard at the time. The release had redefined the Minneapolis sound and had put the city on the map, catapulting Prince to worldwide acclaim.
Everything is calculated on Purple Rain — from the songwriting to the way the album is sequenced. But there’s a fearlessness that is undeniable in Purple Rain, that is accompanied by this big and bombast energy present throughout. That same energy was apparent on “777-9311.” “Let’s Go Crazy,” Purple Rain‘s opener is essentially the spiritual successor to “777-9311.” Big, dynamic and powerful, “Let’s Go Crazy” exudes that same energy on “777-9311,” which also comes to a climactic end as Prince pulls off one of the most memorable and explosive guitar solos that he ever recorded.
The Time brought out the best in Prince. A subplot in the Purple Rain film is basically the tension between The Kid (Prince) and Morris (Morris Day), as the former attempts to create a sound that holds its own against the latter’s band. By the end of the film, Prince has won over the crowd at First Avenue, even winning the approval of Morris himself.
“777-9311” is Prince’s best song. Giving it away to the band he admired and envied most pushed him to become the superstar he knew he was destined to be.
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