The Numero Group has not-so-quietly built a reputation for lovingly crafted compilations resurrecting forgotten scenes, artists and labels for public appreciation. So focused have their efforts been in bringing obscurities to light that only this year did the imprint start to tackle sources of lost music with any significant pre-existing public interest. They began 2013 by reissuing work from post-hardcore band Unwound and they now end it with Purple Snow: Forecasting the Minneapolis Sound, an examination of the central and largest jewel in the Twin Cities’ musical crown.
Minneapolis first entered music’s fray by planting what would become some of the seeds of alternative rock via Husker Du, Soul Asylum and The Replacements. More recently, the Twin Cities rap scene has blossomed through acts affiliated with the Rhymesayers label including Atmosphere, Doomtree and Brother Ali. In between, however, was a fluid hybrid of rock and soul paradigms from a small community of fierce funketeers flying under the radar yet longing to be spotted by it. Here was indie R&B way before it was this decade’s “indie R&B,” and Purple Snow surveys the clubs, crews and studios that eventually produced some of urban music’s most distinctive names and sounds through the 1980s and into the 1990s.
Eventually—that’s the key word here. As a historical document, this might be one of Numero’s finest investigative efforts, tracking down the likes of Alexander O’Neal, Lipps, Inc., The Time, Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis and, above them all, Prince and The Revolution, all when they were on the wrong side of anonymity. Across two-plus hours of music, names like these dip and dive through local lore as mere newcomers and session players still building their résumés, a few years or lineup changes away from generating enough heat to transform Purple Snow into, well, Purple Rain. With the exception of O’Neal, the artists on the playlist have precious little marquee value. You might think that means the music won’t engage you. You’d be wrong.
Many of these nascent efforts at multilayered funk include loose performances and often rough production that combine to make some surprising sonic connections: The Sound of Philadelphia, James Brown ensembles, even Afrobeat. There you can hunt for flashes of the latter-day disco, quiet-storm ballads and electro-rock hybrids that would come to dominate Top 40 and urban radio. Coupled with written and pictorial evidence of the scene’s near-painful isolation by race and geography—new bands most often formed from chance meetings or ugly firings—the music of Purple Snow suggests a freeze-frame of a freeze-frame. The Minneapolis sound ultimately didn’t go very far, but it’s incredibly fascinating to hear its origins.