Nerm is a broadcaster, DJ and founder of the East London based collective Shiva Soundsystem. Here, he writes about Prince’s influence on him while growing up in 1990s Birmingham, and later, as a DJ touring the world.
Five years ago, Prince died. I never met the guy but the devastation was real.
Looking back at my whole musical life – being in a punk band, forming a collective, throwing raves in our warehouse, DJing all over the world, running festivals and presenting on BBC Radio 1 & 6 Music – I realise just how much of an impact Prince had on every single stage of it.
Being small, skinny, Brown, poor and weird looking was a tricky thing to navigate in the working class, industrial area of Birmingham, where I grew up in the early 90s. Then, Channel 4 aired Prince’s concert film, Sign o’ The Times.
Here was a dark skinned, barely dressed, skinny guy in heels and make up who had the respect of everyone in his team and audience – regardless of gender or race. He seemed to be on fire on stage. Unstoppable. A relentless ball of energy.
Watching that film was an awakening. The conservative culture at home that insisted on conforming and respectability; the daily mission of the three hour round trip to school and back; the belief that studying to be a doctor was the only route out of poverty – all of that just faded away. There was another path out there that I could follow. He planted that seed that grew into a whole other way out of the shit.
The first album I ever bought was the soundtrack Prince did for the 1989 Tim Burton Batman film. I was at Brown Sunday School and we went out of town. My parents gave me a hard-earned tenner for food and emergencies. Immediately, I spent it on a cassette with a shiny gold and black Bat-symbol on it.
The duality that was in my head – of doing what was expected by my family and the pull of a life in music – was perfectly represented by Batman having two identities. The same could be said for Prince. He came up with so many different characters – five on the Batman soundtrack alone. Not to mention he’d grown up poor in his own life; and by creating a persona that got so big it was impossible to see where the real person began and ended, he found a way out. That escape was inspiring. When I got home I got some slaps for spending the money on something as frivolous as music. It was totally worth it.
Of course, an artist as blatantly about sex as Prince was a tricky thing to get away with listening to in a deeply religious household. I managed to convince my mum that Prince was wholesome because he sung about God. All that Eastern instrumentation in “Around The World In A Day” helped seal the deal.
Looking back, I realise that it was “When Doves Cry” from Purple Rain that was my gateway from rock/metal/punk into electronic music. Apart from the fact that Prince did EVERYTHING on that track and made it over one night, how could a dance track with electronic drums open with such a blistering guitar solo? As an intro?! It was like kicking the doors in and saying “fuck you, I can do anything I want to”.
Later, that I-can-do-whatever-the-fuck-I-want-to attitude helped me traverse Birmingham’s nightlife. I shot out of those shitty commercial clubs and into queer house clubs and back rooms of massive techno raves, where nascent drum and bass was taking hold – covered in make up and dressed in silver trousers. Finally, to be among my people was a relief and a rush. The impact of judgement vanished. I was free.
At some point you just stop giving a shit what other people think and suddenly, everything changes. Through all the violence, daily racism, body shaming, projected-homophobia and pervasive bullying - not giving a fuck about what other people thought, was key. That’s what Prince did for me.
And a lot more besides that: “If I Was Your Girlfriend”, and “When You Were Mine” helped me navigate the collapse of intimate relationships. “Ballad of Dorothy Parker” helped me maintain them. “Starfish and Coffee” taught me not to be a dick to people.
It took ages to drop a Prince track in my sets. Nothing would really work in a D&B/bass set. And besides, that was stuff I listened to rather than worked with; it was kind of separate, private and just for me. But then, PAV4N from Foreign Beggars asked me to play a set at his Halloween party - but make it Prince. I was a bit taken aback, but fuck it. Dimitri from Paris had dropped his re-edit of “I Wanna Be Your Lover” and DJs were caning it. It seemed right. Make-up on and off we went. It was terrifying because Prince made music at weird tempos that drifted and changed – it was hard as fuck to keep in the mix. But it was also liberating – finally sharing my not so secret secret!
Fast forward to a year after Prince passed. 2017, April in Minneapolis. I made a pilgrimage to pay my respects and say goodbye. I was filled with trepidation, bunged up with a tight feeling in my chest that needed a release. Over four days, that release happened through visiting his home and studio complex, Paisley Park, street parties outside of the club that was a second home for him, First Avenue and processing the joy, sadness and finally laying the idea that this otherworldly being would live forever, to rest.
Driving to see the house that was used for the film Purple Rain, I passed loads of industrial spaces that took me right back to growing up in Birmingham.
Witton is not exactly glamorous and its bleakness and factory vibes mirrored the bits of Minneapolis I was driving through. My brain raced through my life and the impact Prince had on it. That realisation hit me that I’ve basically been ripping off Prince’s template the whole time: a mononym, a symbol that represents what you stand for, your own space for your art and crew, getting online before everyone else. It was all him. Shit.
We pull up to the house, park and wander over. There are a couple of people there already. Walking up and trying to peer through the windows, I hear a Brummie accent and spun around on the spot.
“Mate, are you from Birmingham?”
“Where about?” I ask.
In my years of travel and touring I’ve never met anyone that knew where Witton was, let alone actually come from there. Four-thousand miles away from a tiny, insignificant part of Brum, here was another kindred spirit that had come to pay his respects. Prince sure did get around.