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In Memoriam

From 80s Pop to Warehouse Raves: Tracing Prince’s Influence on British Music

Every country thought they had a special connection with Prince, but his eternal bond with the UK remained unquestionable.

This article originall appeared on Noisey UK.

Matt Thorne is a Booker longlisted novelist, writer and journalist, and the author of 'Prince: A Celebration'.

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It might be hard to remember this now, but away from all the God-like musical genius stuff, Prince Rogers Nelson was a prankster. Not cellophane across the toilet bowl type gags, but pranks all the same. His finest London moment is an expert pisstake: the video for “Come On” features him disguised as an old guy, flipping the bird at passers-by, busking, running around the city, and eventually getting mugged in Regent’s Park. This was in 1998, when he was calling himself Spud and hanging out with Scary Spice.


It sounds unusual on face value, but it wasn't for Prince. He was always simultaneously (and paradoxically) the world’s biggest pop act and the world’s biggest underground artist at any given time, in London especially. He might have jammed with rock’s old guard (Ron Wood, Sting, Eric Clapton) in the early days, and gone clubbing with Scary Spice in the 90s, but as he fell in love with the city, he also started co-signing London’s more unique subcultures, drawing off the energy of electronic music, and even trying to organise his own rave in the early ‘90s at Bagley’s Warehouse. (Although the owner at the time, Billy Reilly was less than impressed by Prince when talking to Thump in 2014, recalling that: “He tried hitting on the girl I was with at the time!”)

Despite only ever scoring a solitary UK singles number one with "The Most Beautiful Girl In The World", his most significant second home was London. Not just because he played, jammed, filmed videos, or threw parties here, but also because he inspired and influenced artists up and down the country, from rappers to rockers to pops stars to blues singers to internet-age enigmas like Jai Paul. There’s a reason British band Hot Chip felt the need to call their debut single “Down with Prince”, encapsulating how at one point, it felt like every aspiring bedroom producer you met at a house party in Peckham was gushing about how their new stuff “sounds quite Prince.”


Purple fever first properly hit Britain in the 80s, during which almost every major chart act – Wham!, Duran Duran, the Pet Shop Boys – owed him something. Mike Scott of The Waterboys claimed their 1985 hit “The Whole of the Moon” wasn’t a depiction of Prince, but he was bluffing. Even Prince recognised himself in the lyrics, about a musician who travels the world but can’t compete with a studio-bound genius with greater creative vision. Flattered rather than offended by Scott’s homage – as he often was when musicians or comedians shaded him – Prince covered the song (twice), from the perspective of the genius rather than the admirer. Which is exactly the kind of baller move you’d expect from a man who knew he was without peer.

When he did collaborate with UK artists, the artists he chose were always unexpected. It’s easy to see why he wanted to work with Kate Bush, a pop star almost his equal in mystique, though the collaboration was regarded as ill-fated. But taking squeaky clean UK pop starlet Sheena Easton and gifting her a song (“Sugar Walls”) about the sweetness of her vagina, was a much more classic Prince move – no doubt getting a kick out of smuggling his melodic smut into the British charts.

Despite hating hip-hop at first, he also found time for female British rapper Monie Love, whose “Born 2 B.R.E.E.D” and “In a Word Or 2” still remain two of Prince’s most obscure productions; the kind a vinyl hoarder would proudly frame on their basement wall. But for all his influence on the charts, it was Prince’s lo-fi home recordings that had the biggest, most lasting, and most fertile impact on British music. While the big pop acts could ape his production and studio budget, bedroom-bound boffins the world over heard what he could do on a 4 track, synths and a sampler in his home studio and set out to do the same. And just as Detroit’s techno musicians like Frankie Knuckles adored his Royal Badness – making “Controversy” a staple of his warehouse sets – so did hundreds of British dance acts. Whether it was one-hit wonder White Town or much more significant figures like producer Luke Vibert, who repeatedly sampled odd Prince pop cuts throughout his work.


I recall quite vividly a friend playing me Super_Collider’s debut album Head On in 1999 and being convinced he’d scored a Prince bootleg I hadn’t heard. It wasn’t Prince but it was definitely the most startlingly direct homage yet released, with Jamie Liddell’s vocals sounding as if he’s deliberately trying to emulate the way Prince’s voice sounds on a degraded tape.

Prince liked it when female singers drew from him, but when British male musicians stole his moves, it brought out his competitive side. When Jamie Liddell blossomed into a solo singer with an explicit Prince-inspired sound, Janelle Monae tried to bring the two of them together for a summit. Characteristically, Prince didn’t diss the younger singer’s vocals but instead slayed the cut of his suit. As the story goes, Liddell felt the insult especially keenly as Prince was wearing a yoga outfit at the time. When you’re Prince, it doesn’t matter what you’re wearing: no one else could compete.

When I first heard dubstep, it seemed pretty obvious that some of these musicians had Prince 12”s in their vinyl flight cases: from Bristolian dubstep artist Joker claiming purple was the best way to describe his own synth sound, to the dub-inspired electronic act Kode9 turning “Sign o’ the Times” inside-out with “Sine o’ the Dub”. And when dubstep spawned “post-dubstep” or “blubstep”, Prince’s influence seemed at the forefront of emotional and spacious ballads from singers like James Blake, who – just like Prince – covered Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You”.


It took a long time for the man himself to fully absorb dubstep as an influence, and when he did in 2015, it came via his wunderkind producer twentysomething Joshua Welton, who – though American – was importing London sounds to the States and smuggling them into Paisley Park. One of Prince’s last truly great tracks is “The X’s Face” on his penultimate album, Hit n Run Phase One. The sound is unmistakably dark and reminiscent of dubstep, twinned with suggestive and sinister lyrics that wouldn’t sound amiss on a Shackleton, Appleblim or Pinch record.

Despite those links, it was frustrating that Prince often seemed to eschew name-checking new artists, in favour of endorsing big UK names like Radiohead or Coldplay (although he did tweet about Sunderland band Field Music once). And if it felt too on-the-nose when he covered “Creep” at Coachella 2008, it was an undeniably affecting performance, as Prince transformed the song from an outsider’s lament to a ballad of inclusion.

Less surprisingly, he fell in love with Amy Winehouse’s “Love is a Losing Game”. I remember being up close to the stage in 2007 when he brought the singer (in pretty frail condition) up to the mic with him to duet at a London aftershow. He made the city promise to look after her, and that didn’t happen. That Prince might need looking after himself seemed unthinkable at the time, especially as he was regularly performing for five hours a night.

In the seven years of my life I spent writing a book about Prince – interviewing, researching, writing and recording – one thing was always abundantly clear: every country, no matter how big or small, thought they had a special connection with him. The Dutch claimed it because he played his best ever aftershow there (88’s Small Club performance). The French claimed it because he came to the Côte d'Azur to shoot Under the Cherry Moon. Year after year, he would show up in almost every European city, singing “Hey, Funky Copenhagen” one night, “All the Critics Love You in Monaco” the next, charming the pants off Europe as he went. Yet his eternal bond with the UK remained unquestionable.

His Royal Badness left purple chemtrails of influence across the skies of British music for decades upon decades. Prince’s relationship with London may have been a strange one, but it was an essential part of his past, and no doubt the legacy of his music too. Hot Chip may have had their crosshairs on hipsterdom when they wrote that debut single, but when your legacy is as prolific as his, an entire country being "Down With Prince" was probably quite inevitable.

If you enjoyed this, you should read: Prince Wrote About Women in a Way That Most Contemporary Male Artists Still Can't.