Calling all music lovers, come with us - back to the early 1980s. As a teenager Mark Brown first saw Prince, entering a restaurant he was working at, looking like a rock star (but long before he became a superstar). At the tender age of just 19, he joined his band, renamed Brownmark he was the first bass player to perform Purple Rain live one hot August night in a club called First Avenue in Minneapolis, which went on to be immortalised in the hit movie. He took his place onstage, and became a part of music history, as a pop culture phenomenon was born.
1min - Meeting Prince for the first time.
2mins45s - Minneapolis clubs in the late 1970s.
5mins - Sharing the limelight with Prince and being a new face with a fanbase.
8mins - Roller skating at the lake with Prince and Vanity.
10mins45s - Prince's bass playing and musical influences.
15mins30 - Debut gig supporting The Rolling Stones, and Prince regroups.
22mins - Life in the Purple Kingdom, the world of fandom and entertaining the people.
26mins - Staying up late and burning the creative candle at both ends.
BrownMark YouTube page.
I'm delighted to say that with us today we have Mark Brown. Mark was still a teenager when he joined Prince's band to play bass, as a key member of Prince and the Revolution. An early gig saw him supporting The Rolling Stones, before going on to be part of Prince's 1999, Purple Rain and Parade tours. He left the purple kingdom in the mid 1980s for a solo career with Motown records, before later going back to what he described as a normal life. And Mark is also known for his work with the group Mazarati, and still tours with the Revolution to this day. Last year he documented his formative years in the book Life In The Purple Kingdom. Mark welcome.
Thank you. Thank you for having me, appreciate it.
No problem. Can you take us back to meeting Prince for the first time? Did you sense even then that he was a bit different?
Definitely. The way he dressed alone, you know this guy. First time I met him, he walked into a restaurant that I was cooking at. I was young, I had to be 15 or 16 and I was cooking in the restaurant, and he was dating Kim Upsher who was one of the waitresses, and so you know, he shows up of course to pick her up or to come see her, and she comes running to the back. Now I didn't really know who he was. I had heard that, you know this guy had put out an album, but I never heard it yet at that time. I had never heard it but I heard he had a song out called Soft and Wet, and I heard that he did all the instruments himself, and you know, so I was pretty excited when she told me it was him, that was out there in the restaurant and so, I had the privilege to cook pancakes for him. And years later me and him had a big laugh about that because he had no clue. That was me behind the counter there cooking his food. But that was my first encounter with him. And I mean I remember when I looked at him, he was just the weirdest looking dude. I mean just weird. I mean in a good way, I mean funky weird, you know, he looked like a rock star. So that kind of blew me away. I was just trying to figure out what a rock star was supposed to look like. So I was in the early stages of it.
What was Minneapolis like in the late 1970s, early 1980s for a young black teen growing up there? Can you describe that experience?
It was interesting, you know, depending on the person you talk to, you'll get a different answer. Um, but for me, growing up in Minneapolis, it was very, very segregated, even though it was diverse and blacks and whites were living together. There was still this sense of segregation in the sense that we didn't share the same clubs, we didn't share the same music venues and it was very different for us. Like I would go to a club just to get a feel for it and I would get removed from the club because they would say I was harassing the females or something. I didn't even talk to any females back then, you know, so it was always an excuse. Heck, I couldn't go to the bathroom without a security guy following me in there, you know? And all I would do is go in there and lean up against the wall because I'm just, you know, soaking in the vibes and so this was the norm and so it got really uncomfortable to go to some of these clubs and so I would stick with, like the Macarena, the Elks club, the Fox trap, you know, some of the clubs where black people frequented rather than go to the white clubs. And it's a shame that back then you had black clubs and white clubs. It's a shame, but that's the way it was.
I wasn't aware until I read your book that there was genuine concern from Prince that you might be an attractive man in the band, that you might get some of the limelight. You were getting interest and female attention from the crowd. It really tickled me that that story. I just kind of wondered what your reflections on that were because a lot of people may not know that, but obviously Prince being Prince, you described him as the boss, but also an incredibly competitive individual as well. Was that part of the reason that in the long term you couldn't stay, because there was just no opportunity for anyone else to have a share of the limelight.
In the early days he was extremely narcissistic, extremely, and I don't take that away from him. I mean, you know, you need that to get to where he got, you know you can't reach that pinnacle of success if you don't have a level of narcissism and control of your own destiny. I mean I remember Madonna giving an interview about how, you know, she watched Prince and what Prince did, even for her own career. I mean, so, you know it takes a level of narcissism. So I knew that going in, I had a really good mother who was well grounded. My mother really taught me well about what to expect from people, and one of the things that I learned very quickly about Prince was, oh, this is all about Prince, I'm coming into his world and he wants me to be 110% and look and be my best, but if I start taking anything away from him, chop chop chop, you know, he's he's going to handle it really quickly. And it started to happen when I started to find myself. That's probably the head bumping that he had with Andre because Andre, you know, he was a good looking guy, got a lot of attention. I mean I knew that coming in because a lot of Andre's fans looked at me and were like 'you ain't Andre!'. A lot of the girls they wanted Andre, and so I was a new face for them and they didn't like it. So I had I started developing my own fan base but it started to grow, and it started to get bigger and bigger, and as it got bigger, oh man, he did not like it at all. Did not like it. That's when he started really shutting me down, putting me more behind the scenes than more in the front of the scenes. Yeah.
And just to explain Andre, for anyone who doesn't know, Andre was the first bass player with Princess band and someone who grew up with Prince in his formative and school years. So there's a very, very funny story in the book, if you don't mind me recounting it, in fact, I'll need your help. You describe meeting Prince, I think roller skating at a lake with his girlfriend, Vanity, who was a famous model and had a recording career of her own. She was originally meant to be in the film Purple Rain before being replaced by Apollonia - actress Patty Kotero. Can you describe to anyone who is not aware of this story, why you were meeting Prince roller skating on the lake and just his general appearance and the memory of it overall?
Well, you know Prince like to roller skate and in the early days he had time, you know, he had more of the ability to do things out in public than he did as he got more and more popular. So, when I was coming in, you know, Prince was just on the verge of that explosion of pop stardom and fandom. He wasn't quite there yet, but he would ask me to go do things with him in public when I joined the band. I remember Lake Calhoun, which was what it was called at the time. They've changed the name of the Lake now, but it was called Lake Calhoun then. He asked me to meet him there to go roller skating, because I love to roller skate. So I was putting my skates on and he had come round the corner - he saw me arrive and then he came and met me by the car where I was putting my skates on. He was on the ground, and he sees me looking and I'm like, dude you're not going to believe what's coming our way? I said, oh my, you know, I was like, OMG look at what is coming. Vanity had on, it looked like a camisole or something, you know, and all I can remember is - I'm low on the ground looking up and I'm putting my skates on. I have never seen anything like this. I was like, oh man, do you see this? And then he starts laughing at the top of his lungs, she's coming right towards us and I was like, 'she's coming towards us!'. I said, oh man, and then she jumps on top of him, starts hugging him and he's just laughing at the top of his lungs, because I'm like dumbfounded. I have this blank look on my face, my eyes are bugging out. I'm in awe. I'm like, no way what just happened there? And he's like, Mark meet Vanity. And so that that was the way I met Denise. That's what her name was back then. That's how I met Vanity.
People that love music know that Prince stripped the bass out of When Doves Cry. I think that's fairly well known. Prince had a very specific way of playing the bass as well. I think I heard Jimmy Jam talking about it once. Did he call it the 'mama done bass'? How would you describe his playing for bass guitarists out there?
The one person that me and Prince have in common for influence was a guy named Sonny Thompson. Sonny Thompson is one of the most underrated bass players of our time. This dude is so bad, and so funky. And I learned a ton from Sonny because Sonny used to play in my band Phantasy. He used to sit in with us all the time on guitar and I would always get him to get on the bass. And man, I would just study him. Sonny's got this growl about him, the way he attacks the bass, he's left handed, so he plays it upside down, but the way he would attack the bass. I picked up on that style. I then created my own style because I would always pick up things and pieces of different people like Mr Marks from Slave, the group Slave. I loved his bass style. So I took a lot from him, I took a lot from Larry Graham too, but then I formed my own style. That's why I have my own style of playing. It is not Prince's style. What Prince liked about my style is that it is similar to his, very similar. Now Prince, that's a bad boy. That's a bad bass player right there. I think like me he picked up styles from so many different people and he kind of formed his own, and it's very different than mine. Prince is more like a guitar player that understood the bass because I mean he had such a...if you ever hear him play guitar, I mean he has such a unique approach to it. Very aggressive the way he attacks the strings, and especially when he starts plucking and stuff. I mean just listen to Controversy live. You'll hear what I'm talking about. He just has a very unique style and he would take that to the bass. And so, you know, his bass would just be like, wow, what are you doing? He had these real backwards rhythms and he would just find these weird pockets. And so me and Prince are very different kinds of bass players but very similar. And I am a sponge. So I mimic people. That's how I learned their style. So of course I sopped it up like bread and gravy. I sopped all his style and ate it, I was like naw Prince, you just gave it away. You just gave me all your juice. So I'm about to incorporate that in my style as well. So what you got to say about that? But he loved it. He loved it that I was able to absorb it, but still be me. See that's what he liked about my playing. But just to set the record straight with all these bass players out here. Sonny Thompson was definitely an influence to me and Prince both. But we all have our own style of bass playing. You know Prince didn't teach me how to play bass. I taught myself and Sonny didn't teach Prince how to pay bass. Prince taught himself. We were all influenced by each other and that's just the accurate truth about how that Minneapolis bass sound came about. Even Andre Cymone plays a lot like all of us, we all have this kind of really backwards rhythm thing going on. We all have our own style. I had to say that because I get so tired of bass players saying, well you know Sonny Thompson taught Prince, and then Prince taught BrownMark. No, he didn't.
Correct me if I'm wrong here Mark. But from what I've read in your book, and from what I've read generally about your entry into Prince's band, is it fair to say that when you were asked to, or when Prince was asked to support the Rolling Stones, that was one of your first gigs with him? And also it's now become an infamous gig because it was one of the very few times, maybe the only time in Prince's career that we're aware of, where he was actually booed off stage. And obviously that's become a very infamous incident. So two questions in summary - was that genuinely one of your first gigs? Because it was a massive concert. Can you describe the aftermath of it in terms of Prince's attitude?
Yeah, it was the first show and when he asked me to join the band and I was in the group, I didn't even have a chance to rehearse with the band for a long time. Man, we were off to L.A. and it was shopping, it was music videos, it was all this other stuff, so we didn't really even have time to sit down and really dig in. And I remember the Rolling Stones gig when he approached me and said, 'we're going to be opening for the Stones and we're going to go on tour with them'. And I was like 'whoa The Stones', oh this is gonna be interesting, because there was all this androgyny and sexuality and that's just not the Rolling Stones. It's not that audience, you know, it was rock and roll, bikers and Hell's Angels. I mean I was like, this is gonna be interesting and when we hit that stage, Woo! It was everything that I thought it was gonna be, it was Woodstock all over to me, 90 something thousand people. I have never been in a stadium with that many people ever. And they're screaming, they're hollering, they're woo hoo and they're happy, they're drunk they are you know, hot, sweaty. Women were in their bras, bras started coming off and flying on stage. I mean it was the craziest thing I've ever seen...they were on the shoulders of the guys. Then there's pushing and shoving. You can see the whole motion of the audience going back and forth, because the stadium, it was stadium seating, festival seating. So they were all crowded in. And I mean, they looked like cattle, they had fire hoses on the sides where they would spray the people so that, you know, they would stay cool. It was unbelievable. And so we hit the stage and everything is good so far, and you know there's two nights, there were two different days that we played and so I'm only recalling the last day. Everything was good until he wanted to switch to set up, because on the first day the reaction wasn't as good as he wanted it to be. So he switched the set up a little bit for the second day, and he threw in the song Jack U Off. I knew that was a mistake. Oh man. So we started singing, I'll Jack U Off. Man, that audience almost went into a frenzy. The first time I got scared, I mean I was like, oh man they are mad because you know to them...it sounded really...It became very homophobic, you know very quickly. We were these guys up on stage, this dude singing, he got on a G. String with his butt hanging out, talking about jacking off you know what I mean? So it was a very intense moment of confusion and misunderstanding because that's not what Prince was about, but I don't think he understood the difference in culture. So all that backfired and they went berserk and started throwing stuff, and I got hit with a few items. Prince got hit upside the head with, I think it was like a silver dollar or something, and that was it. Once he got hit he ran off the stage and we all ran after him. I was the last one on stage because I was like - 'what do I do?'. And everybody left me, and when I saw everybody was gone I was like I'm out of here, and I started running and then that's when the boos happened, because we were gone. We left, we weren't finished, we just left abruptly. And so it was like, where are they going, boom, you know? And it wasn't because they didn't like the music, it was because we just left, we didn't like the rowdiness. And so he left, got on an airplane the first time and he had to come back. The second day I remember he picked me up when he came back around and asked me to hop in his car. I remember we were driving around and I think he was very nervous about my reaction, because I think he was a little embarrassed and he told me we're not going on on tour with The Stones, and I was like, oh good. You know, I'm glad to hear that because if that's what it's going to be like, and we're in Los Angeles. Imagine when we start getting to like the Ohio Area, some of the midwestern states - it's gonna be 10 times worse you know? And so he was like, yeah, he said, I just hope that didn't discourage you. I think he was scared I was going to quit, you know? He said wait till you see our crowd, and I was like our crowd? What does that mean? And I think he was just talking about his audience, the Prince audience, and he said - it's going to be a whole different reaction. I didn't understand what he meant, but I was like, good, we'll see what happens. And then we opened up in Pittsburgh with a totally different attitude. It was night and day, even his attitude when he walked out on that stage, he was so cool, I ain't never seen somebody so cool. He knew he was home, he commanded that stage and he commanded that audience and it was the baddest show I had ever seen in my life.
Listening to you talk there, that show you talked about in Pittsburgh - the opening of the real Prince experience for you. When Prince was on top form, do you still - for people kind of outside that bubble hearing you reminisce - do you still get goose bumps about that sort of stuff? I mean, do those memories inspire you or is it just something that is a life experience now?
It is a life experience. It does inspire me as well, because what it helped me to realise is that in the world of fandom, that's what I call it - you are entertaining a group of people that are there to be entertained. They want to be entertained. See, I used to look at music as, people want to dance and they want to hang out with each other because there's a band in town. And I had such a different concept of why you went to a concert. You know I went to a concert because I used to listen to records and then I'd be like, oh I want to go see what they sound like, you know, in person. And so that's why I went, I didn't go because I was looking for this entertainment or wanting to be mesmerized and pulled in. So I had a different concept about it. And when I watched this audience, the first thing that came to my head to my mind was the Beatles, I slapped a girl's hand. You know I don't know what I was doing. I was just copying Prince. He walked up there, and so I was like oh okay, let me let me entertain some audience. And I saw some girls screaming and I tapped one of them on the hand. She passed out cold and I was like, whoa, wait a minute did I do that? I said, all I did was tapped her on the hand. She passed out cold, and missed the rest of the concert. They had to take her out, hauled her out. I was like, dang! I cost her a whole concert. And so they hauled her out. And that's when I realised that we had such power on that stage - our presence, our imagery, everything about it changed my whole world. So inspiration, yes. It totally made me realise the power of music and how people need it, want it and love it, and you got to give them a show. People want a show, and they want to be entertained, and Prince understood that. That's why he was so bad and you know, he learned from the greatest. Heck, James Brown, Chuck Berry, Al Green, Marvin Gaye, Elvis Presley. See Prince studied these guys and you could tell, you know, I don't know how closely you followed Prince, but just look at his clothing change. You can tell what mood he was in. If he was trying to be like James Brown or Elvis Presley or the Beatles, I mean you always could tell by the way he would dress, and so like they say, there's nothing new under the sun. If you can't beat them, join them. He wasn't trying to reinvent the wheel, he would study the greats and then he would come out and just mimic what they did. That's what Prince did. Only he would add this sexuality to it, because he was a good looking guy and then he had such an androgyny about him, and he wore women's clothes. So he had this whole different vibe and the women went absolutely berserk over it, you know? And so he had the sexual thing on top of what the rest of the people had. Elvis kinda had a little sex thing going on too, but like James Brown and some of the others that I mentioned, they mesmerised the people, but Prince had that sexuality like with Elvis, and so the girls would go crazy over that.
I think what's good about talking to you Mark is that, you know you're maybe - not one of the last people - but you may be one of the few people who actually saw that this was a regular guy, albeit a very talented individual. But on the flip side of that coin, did you ever look at him sometimes and think - where is all the music coming from? Because we now know that there's just this vast trove of music, a lot of which you worked on in the 1980s. But were you ever surprised by the sheer volume that he was able to keep churning out? Presumably he didn't sleep a lot in those years, and burned the candle at both ends. But you know, did the band ever discuss, where is this actually coming from?
Not me. Me and Prince are just alike. I mean that's one thing we had in common. A bottomless well of music floats around in our brains. I'm just like him, me and him. He could call me up early at 1 or 2am because he knew what I was doing. I had my own studio in my house, like he did. I copied him, everything he did. I copied. I don't know if you've ever seen the BrownMark Youtube page, but you go on my YouTube page there's a ton....a plethora of different genres of music that I tap into. I mean orchestration, jazz, you name it and it's endless. If I don't get it off my chest, if I don't get it out of my brain, I don't sleep. I probably write a new song, I probably write 2-3 songs a week on average. Prince probably wrote five songs a week. I mean he was a little more dedicated than I was. When I wanted to sleep I slept, he didn't sleep. I used to watch him stay up three days and I'm looking at him. I'm like Prince, you need some sleep bro, get some sleep, no more coffee, go to bed, you know? And so you know he was a workaholic like that, but it didn't surprise me where it came from, because I understood where it came from. It comes from deep within when you grow up where we did, especially in a place like Minnesota, you have so many different influences in you. And as you start to grow and you realize that you you can like whip up this, this tasty dish, you know, or tasty dishes, you become a connoisseur of that. You're experimenting constantly with new stuff and it never leaves your brain. I could be watching a television show and an idea just comes and I'm like, oh I got to go in the studio. My friends used to think - 'this dude is crazy' and you know because I would go at the drop of a dime, we'd be at the movie theatre and I would hear something, I'd be like, oh that sounds good. I would leave, and go right to the studio. They'd be like, man I thought we was going out. I was like, man I'll catch y'all later, I gotta go to the studio. Because when it hits you, you've got to lay it out, if you sleep on it, it's gonna haunt you. You're not going to sleep, you're not going to be able to do anything. So I understood Prince's mentality there because it takes you over.
Join us in part two, where we discuss the rise of Prince, and the Revolution.