by Adam Protextor
Talking with Bobby Z is effortless. The drummer for and founding member of Prince’s seminal and most important band The Revolution, Bobby first became friends with Prince in the late 1970’s Minneapolis music scene while working for the man who would become Prince’s first manager, Owen Husney. Telling the story, he is boldly humble and earnestly grateful for the extraordinary coincidences that made him an integral part of musical history.
He speaks with a warm countenance, with any cynicism that might be expected from decades spent in the music industry transformed into a confident, at-ease, and good-hearted knowingness. He is grateful to play this music, and he has every right to be – The Revolution are world-class musicians known for some of the most timeless arrangements and songs ever recorded. On this tour, they’re assembling for the first time since Prince’s death in April of 2016 to perform the songs they made famous together. They’ll be appearing in Austin tomorrow, December 29th at Emo’s.
Bobby has a way of both humanizing the giant we think of “Prince” as being while also deepening the reverence for his music and art. He is perhaps the best equipped to tell this story – the closest apostle to a deified man – and I’m eager to hear the gospel. We speak on what is a gray December Thursday for both of us via phone from Minneapolis.
Adam Protextor for Ovrld: So first off – this tour that you’re on. You’re doing three Texas dates in 2018, and then The Revolution’s gonna head to Europe.
Bobby Z: There’s three at the end of January in the Bay Area, and then we head to Europe February 2nd or 3rd, and return to some of the places that it all started when I worked with Prince. We’re playing the O2 in London and actually the Paradiso in Amsterdam, which was Prince’s first show there in 1979, which’ll be interesting.
Ovrld: Obviously this tour is a tribute to the life and legacy of Prince, but you’re one of the most essential members of this group. If I’m correct here, you were the longest running member along with Dr. Fink.
BZ: That’s correct. If you take the years before he had a deal … so you have to add two years to me before it all even bubbled up, it’s a very strange and yeah, very different experience from most people’s experience with Prince – we started very un-famous together. Most people met him when he had a relative amount or large amount of fans.
Ovrld: And I know that early on, in the liner notes for the self-titled, he described you as being “heaven-sent.” Did you feel that you were there to help from the get-go?
BZ: Yeah. I was kind of a … a guide. I don’t know how else to explain it, but to guide his immense talent and protect him in an early sense, against the world, people, if you understand what I’m saying. When I was driving for Owen [Husney], our friendship started. Because even when Owen started to manage him, if I had errands to run for the ad agency, he would just come with me. So we would just hang out for literally months in my ’74 Ford Pinto woodie station wagon, lime green. And talk, and play music, and that was kind of how this all started. The dream of a band that I’m very grateful he took me with to see to fruition, all the way to the final Revolution with Wendy [Melvoin] and Lisa [Coleman], which was the dream all along: the combination of The Rolling Stones and Fleetwood Mac. So it was kind of a plan that I helped with and followed orders to execute together.
Ovrld: In terms of records, you started working together on Controversy. That album to me very much feels like a defining moment because it’s both a continuation of the work on Dirty Mind but also feels like a change and marks this evolution. How was that for you as someone who helped guide the band?
BZ: So let’s go back to the “heaven-sent” helper thing. When we’re talking about sitting in the car, then he made his first album. Then we’re talking about the band forming and starting to play after the second album. So between the first and second albums, his management situation was unsettled, he was totally dependent on the record company, and at that point I think he said I was “heaven-sent” because I kind of helped him keep his life straight for that moment. But you’re absolutely right – it was on Controversy the confidence was found, his voice was found, his risk-taking was found. It was definitely a moment for sure.
Ovrld: You’ve been drumming basically your whole life. As those sounds got to be more of an electronic sound and you started working with the electronic drum kit and the evolution of that sound, how did y’all play with that together?
BZ: Well he was one of the early pioneers with the Linn LM-1 as we know, and probably the pioneer of “I wanna play this thing. I wanna be able to make these sounds on pads and hit them, and have them trigger the drum machine,” so he was forcing everybody to hurry up technology around him. He had some great techs and people that built interfaces that were primitive and not really trustworthy as far as their integrity of consistency, double triggers, it was kind of a Model-T jalopy if you will.
BZ: But everybody else caught up quickly. Simmons and Linn … Simmons especially with their pads and their interfaces, so in ’86 percussive electronic drums were kind of exploding, and Prince helped it explode. So there’s a story when I walk into rehearsal one day and the Linn was pounding away and Prince’s manager was there, Steve Fargnoli at that time, and I looked at him and I kind of felt like all union workers do, standing up for all drummers of all time everywhere since the beginning of all time – “That machine is gonna take our jobs!” And Steve Fargnoli gave me some really good advice and said, “It’s here. Learn to use it.” That was the beginning of working with Prince to develop kind of a tricky, to this day fools a lot of people, [sound]. What it was was an amazing hodgepodge of electronics and real drums, foot switches, and it was definitely challenging, I’ll give you that.
Ovrld: On that note of genre fusion, Prince is extremely responsible for breaking down barriers between funk, soul, disco, and rock, and now we’re kind of at this crossroads of hip hop being the major cultural force doing that. I know Prince had a complicated relationship with hip hop, but I’m curious what your take is on his influence on that genre-blending that’s going on now and how you see Prince’s legacy in the music of today.
BZ: I think that Prince is a benchmark for people. No one feels that they can achieve that, but even rappers, producers, and all the musicians in hip hop still point back to Prince. As well as the polka people and the metal people and the classical people – everybody knows that this guy was a benchmark, as far as musician, songwriter, performer. So it kinda radiates as a 360 as far as I see it: of course hip hop is effected by Prince, but so is every other genre. [Laughs]
Ovrld: Do you think that the sampling aspect of hip hop is at all driven by that? Prince never allowed anyone to sample his music, which might have pushed some to try and recreate it without those resources.
BZ: Yeah, I think that he realized that making records from other records was happening, and he certainly didn’t feel that his stuff should be used in that way, as we know now. He wanted each one of his songs to stand alone as an individual forever. That’s just how he felt – he called them his children, these were golden eggs that he laid. He just didn’t want anything touched in any of his art, so it goes without saying that he wouldn’t want a song sampled. Of course people took his voice and started sneaking it in, but then I think he got that was a form of flattery, when people would use his high-pitched squeals or some of that stuff that got sampled later, I think he realized it was a form of flattery.
Nicki Minaj’s “Blow Ya Mind” is probably the most audacious sampling of Prince with its prominent use of “Darling Nikki”
Ovrld: I don’t want to guess what Prince would’ve thought of streaming now, but do you think that his protectiveness around his art has impacted younger generations’ ability to experience it at all?
BZ: To his music? Well they just released 26 albums and all of his independent albums all at once, so if you want to dig into the later years, they’re pretty much all there. As far as the classic albums, they’ve been on iTunes, so you can always sample those, and moving into the next logical step to streaming, you know, he liked to make deals. I think he would probably, just like everybody else, come to terms – The Beatles, Taylor Swift – I mean, everybody comes to terms. I think he would’ve probably participated, because it’s really the only delivery system that’s in great numbers today.
Streaming caught everybody off guard. It started with “free,” so Napster is really what scared the pants off of everybody and got the music business off into a really bad start in the digital world. All these things that were around for just pirating left and right, file sharing left and right, and it never recovered and the musicians never trusted again. Steve Jobs saved the day with the old model, which is basically a dollar for a 45 record. That model saved it. But streaming and convenience always were lurking as the quicksand underneath it. Basically, the wall caved in … with hip hop actually, because that genre creates so much weight in streams. The earliest, heaviest streams were hip hop, so I think that just kind of broke free. Everyone in the music business has no choice but to deal with it now.
Ovrld: Kind of like the new drum technology. “It’s here.”
BZ: Yeah, you go to the NAMM [music technology] show now and every single drum set has an electronic brain and it’s playable in multiple ways and it’s got sounds and it’s just part of percussion now. It’s just taken for granted.
Ovrld: Something else that’s happening a lot now is talk of the death of the label system. Do you think Prince predicted that?
BZ: Let’s flip again. He pioneered, but really what he was imitating was what he loved about James Brown and people in the early days that broke rules. James Brown owned his masters, and was really one of the first people and certainly one of the first African-American artists to have that kind of power and clout, and I think that [Prince] was paying attention, not just to the music but to the business that was going on with his favorite artist, even at a young age.
A legendary performance in 1983 where James Brown pulled both Prince and Michael Jackson on to the stage
Ovrld: I wanna talk about Purple Rain a little bit. Just going back to this idea of you two riding around together brainstorming. I see Purple Rain as Prince’s biopic that he got to decide on, and the peg of that movie is very much about this brilliant artist who needs to set their ego aside and listen to their band more. How rooted in reality is that?
BZ: That goes back to West Side Story, it’s really the Sharks and the Jets. And Quadrophenia was a huge influence on him with the Mods and the Rockers, and so The Time versus The Revolution is a classic music tale, or street tale if you will.
Ovrld: In terms of The Revolution itself, there is that plot where he doesn’t want to play the song Purple Rain that’s been written by others. Did you feel that he opened up to more collaborative ideas as you continued to work together or is that an artifice of the movie?
BZ: If you had a song anywhere along the journey, he was always open to receive it. If he liked it or not was a different story, but he was always open. That was the thing – he was so on the fly with creativity, but if you could jump in and participate, that was good. [Laughs] It was a good feeling for the whole vibe. If you had an idea and it didn’t work, you ate it and you know, just went with the next wave of ideas. But songwriting – because he was so brilliant at it, it couldn’t help but inspire you to give it your best, and when you had the guts to play it for him, sometimes it was good. You know, I wrote “River Run Dry,” and he accepted most of my lyrics, which was really … a great day.
BZ: Ah, so now you’ve unlocked a door – the word “party.” You’ve hit a key to the story. That’s a very good question – “what is the word ‘party’ to Prince?” So after The Rolling Stones debacle at The Coliseum, he was left to retreat to create what we now know as 1999, a masterpiece. And what he learned after Rolling Stones, and of course touring with Rick James for three months, which is a whole other encyclopedia, was “I’m going to take the Stones audience with, here’s ‘Little Red Corvette,’ a rock pop song, and then I’m gonna take Rick’s audience, and we’re going to par-tayyy.” And 1999 is when he rolls it out, and what he’s doing is he’s just shaving right off the tail end of that disco but just enough to let people realize “forget it,” because they were burning disco records, it was really bad. So he needed – he surfed right on that wave of taking whatever was left of that disco, whatever Rick had goin’, and he just went “Paarrty/Got a lion in my pocket/I’m ready to roar,” and that was it right there. Now Prince had “party”. It was a culture. He had “black, white, Puerto Rican/Everybody just a’freakin‘” – he had ’em all right then. And that was the beauty of 1999. It just brought so many different kinds of people together.
Ovrld: There’s definitely that unifying aspect of that “party”, that sexuality…
BZ: That was the beginning of The Revolution, of “Uptown” realized, of the dawn of all this talk, of all this thinking of our own world, our own utopia. Paisley Park he hadn’t thought of yet, but you know what I mean – that thinking.
Ovrld: That really Revolutionary mindset of “let’s all have a good time together.”
BZ: Yeah, but – you gotta be yourself. You gotta dress like yourself. If you wanna wear lingerie, if you wanna be a freak, you can do whatever you want.
Ovrld: I love that. I feel like that liberating influence has still not gone away.
BZ: Well, you’ve touched on a thing. We’re obviously all individual people, and we’ve been on this journey together. As you know, I started at a very young age and have been playing the drums since I was basically 6 years old. And in the biggest moment of my life, I’m involved in this amazing band for 10 years. A huge block of time with incredible musical interactions with some amazing players and wonderful people. And I think now it’s just, after he’s passed, and it’s been a little bit of time, I think grief turns to celebration. Celebration’ll turn to nostalgia.
I think there’s just natural steps that will happen with somebody of this magnitude. What I know now and I think what we know now is that this music makes people so happy that it’s life-cycle music. People are literally conceived [laughs] by this music and have birthdays to this music and their grandpa loves this music and my sister’s uncle is a huge Prince fan can you please sign my shirt for him and … my point is he saved people’s lives, I believe. Because he was a little bit of an oddball – everybody knew he was this kind of odd, underdog kind of character, but he could transform himself into the coolest guy in the room. And he gave you confidence, if you were a little bit odd or if you were a little bit different, and you could cling to him and have purpose. And it’s just beautiful to see these people that never really got to talk to us in the 80’s or the heyday, and now with social media and meet-and-greets that he wouldn’t do or weren’t invented for that matter, we can get out with people and the tears flow, and the hugs and the thank yous, and it’s just unbelievable to be a part of that music.
Ovrld: Do you think it’s ever possible for that to happen again? For someone to come along, make the oddballs feel confident, and give people this universal love?
BZ: You gotta realize – I don’t know how old you are, but obviously I’ve been around the block a day or two, and people say “Ah I don’t like this music today” and I just look at them and say, “You’re old.”
BZ: Because Ariana Grande might be doin’ that for a lot of people right now. So it’s generational. But, are you comparing the magnificence of that? Of his music living 300 years where hers may not? Mozart status? No, I don’t think that comes around. [Laughs] I think that this was just a complete cluster of protons and neutrons and cells and genes and blood and flesh and God and man that made one mind and body that could perform music and create music on a level that might not be seen again.
Ovrld: That’s beautiful.
BZ: I just, you know, really appreciate the dedication people have to him, because it’s worthy, and I think the study of this is. Obviously, I’m intimate to the story, but I can’t speak to every human being about it, maybe in a written form at some point, but I’m just proud that he did it when we were just those guys, you know what I mean? And grateful he took me with. It’s just, it’s unbelievable to me sometimes that it’s … it’s him. That it was just … him, if you know what I mean. Just a guy in your life.
What I saw literally was a human metamorphosis, a person that could take themselves from a caterpillar to a butterfly, and it was just incredible to witness. And I’m just very grateful that people paid attention and appreciate everything that was going on because it was a lot of work. A lot of people put in a lot of work in all kinds of creative endeavors and they don’t see it. It was his destiny that’s so beautiful, and it all wraps up in the song “Purple Rain”, which is his destiny and our destiny, and it’s a special moment in the concert. That song always seems to be a lot. Even when it was recorded it was captured like lightning in a bottle, and it seems to have that same feeling when it’s played now, and it starts out very somber. Wendy does an incredible job with the guitar solo, but she’s in tears too. The whole thing is just brutal and beautiful and raw at the same time.
BZ: No, we’ve definitely learned to put on a show and give it our best. But there’s always a moment, starting that song, where Wendy tells the crowd “this song belongs to you, and you have to sing it.” When you get to the “ooh oohs”, it’s kind of a moment in people’s lives where they’re screaming out. You can just – that’s when it’s raw, when it opens up that moment and you just turn that measure around and just go “oooooooh”. That thing, that’s like a portal, like an earthquake, like Old Faithful, or some kind of conjured up moment in the universe.
Ovrld: Brian Wilson once said “music is God’s voice”, and I think if that’s true, Prince is its greatest prophet.
BZ: Yeah. He was a prophet. A musical prophet. And he knew it, and he delivered it, and he did it, and he lived and breathed music like no one else maybe ever has, you know? He’s compared to Mozart, people like Da Vinci, Shakespeare – yeah, that’s right, that’s right.
The Revolution will be performing at Emo’s in Austin tomorrow, Saturday, December 29th.