The Myth of Prophet, a Lost Funk Great Who's Back From Outer Space
Decades after his cultishly beloved debut 'Right on Time,' the mononymous musician returns with a new record, ready to tell his story of acid, aliens, and a lifetime hustling.
A man called Prophet stands on a sidewalk in Highland Park, Los Angeles holding a lemon in between fingers calloused from a lifetime of playing bass. He wears a blue blazer, and peers through his braids—dangling in front of sunglasses taped at the hinges—down at the skin of the fruit. He slices into the rind with a fingernail then slips three starlight mints into the tear like it was a coin slot. The mints disappear inside, then he moves the lemon to his mouth and gives it a squeeze.
Although he performs the gesture with the casual familiarity of a lifelong habit, Prophet only started eating lemons recently after moving from Baton Rouge to Los Angeles to record his new album. A lemon makes a cameo in his new music video for “Insanity,” and when the subject comes up at our interview inside the Stones Throw recording studio, I practically begged him to walk to a corner store so he could show me.
The sweet and sour juice is a fitting snack for Prophet, an obscure funk musician currently entering a career renaissance—he’s taken the lemons and is making his own strange beverage out of it. His solo album Right On Time became a holy grail for collectors, which led to a reissue in 2013 and a new LP, released on May 11. Produced by mndsgn, Wanna Be Your Man features recreations of three classic tunes from Right On Time, plus seven originals. In that “Insanity” video, Prophet performs in front of a velvet curtain, flanked by musicians dressed in chic Sun Ra hoods. Likeminded artists from around Stones Throws’ constellation of weirdos, Dam Funk, mndsgn, and Peanut Butter Wolf all make cameos.
In a parallel funk universe, a video like this might've aired in the mid-80s alongside Prince's “Let's Go Crazy,” but Prophet's career never took off. Right On Time had all the elements: freewheeling slap bass, a runaway drum machine, and flying saucer synth lines, to name just a few of his sonic bonafides. Prophet's breathy almost-falsetto hovers above the psychedelic headphone boogie. And instead of a Princely purple, Prophet's music is a playful yellow, like those lemons. Apparently, the color holds special significance for him.
“Back in '92, I started wearing yellow all the time. I had yellow socks, yellow knit pants, a yellow shirt,” he says in a matter-of-fact tone, like everyone’s gone through a color uniform phase. “When I went outside I'd wear regular clothes, but in the house I always had it on. It was like a protection thing. Nothing really bothered me, but when I took it off, I noticed how vulnerable I became. I did that for around 22 years. Then when I moved to LA in 2014, for some reason it wasn't working. I took it off, that's a wrap. I still sleep on a yellow silk pillow though.”
The mythic funk iconoclast has roots in the acid-washed realms of 70s San Francisco, but Prophet didn't follow a textbook counter-cultural path. Born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, he began playing French horn, then moved to trumpet, flute, drums, saxophone, trombone, organ, and euphonium, earning all state honors his senior year of high school.
To supplement his classical music education, his Mom bought him an electric guitar. “I played guitar for awhile, but I didn't like it. I couldn't connect with it,” Prophet says, sitting in the engineer's chair at Stones Throw's in-house recording studio. “It had too many strings. Four is enough, you know what I mean? When I was 15 or 16 she bought me a bass and I fell in love with the bass guitar.”
At 19, he auditioned for the military band and left Baton Rouge to join a group in San Francisco. Prophet sounds most nostalgic when talking about this period, specifically the first time he experienced the lights of a big city. The army gave him a “West Point-style musical training” while rubbing shoulders with civilian musicians, but his service kept him from diving into psychedelics.
“In the military, you’ve gotta be clean,” says Prophet. “I was trying to focus on what I really wanted to do. Although I did do blotter acid one time and I found it very interesting, you couldn’t do it a lot. If you keep doing it, you’d lose your mind.”
After two years, he left the military and joined a Top 40 “copy” band comprised of four brothers. The group successfully toured Europe, Japan, and Canada, but when Prophet tried to steer the group towards performing his own original music, their relationship soured to the point where he won’t mention their name. Six years after joining, Prophet left to make Right On Time.
At home, he demoed the songs using a four-track cassette recorder, Oberheim DMX drum machine, and Roland Juno-106. He points to the same synth inside the Stones Throw studio, noting it’s still featured heavily on Wanna Be Your Man. After recording the songs professionally and pressing a run of vinyl, it was time to find a distributor. In 1984, that meant literally knocking on doors, but Right On Time didn't resonate with labels, which Prophet accounts to a crowded marketplace of similar artists.
The album faded into obscurity, but he continued playing in local funk and reggae bands while doing odd sales jobs on the side. Then in 1999 he moved back to Baton Rouge to take care of his mother, while still gigging relentlessly, most notably with Louisiana legends Henry Turner Jr. & Flavor. In 2001, he quietly released Master of the Game (don't even bother checking Discogs), then a car accident almost derailed his career.
“I was still playing bass guitar in a band, but I had to walk off the stage on a walker,” he remembers, laughing at how silly he looked. “A lot of people didn't think I'd walk properly again. Two weeks later I was walking normal. I was back in the game then.”
We’re inside the studio at this point and he’s still wearing sunglasses, but when I ask him about whether he considered quitting music, I instinctively feel he’s looking me straight in the eyes. “It never, never, never occurred to me to stop,” he says. “I always knew I had something, it was just a matter of time. It was like I was waiting for the phone to ring for 30 years. A year goes by, another year goes by, 10 years later, the phone still hadn’t rung.”
Even so, Prophet doesn’t sound bitter, or even nostalgic. When speaking of Right On Time, he tents his fingers together, curling them like an evil genius finally sharing his plan. To him, the album wasn’t the peak of his career, it was just one chapter.
Meanwhile, his 1984 debut developed a following of funk collectors, with DJs like Peanut Butter Wolf championing Prophet in interviews. It was both funky and totally foreign. The hooks are there, but masked by a haze of delay, contributing further to his mythic vibe. Synth pads quiver with a dissonance that makes it hard to tell if Prophet is a programming genius or a little out of tune. Drums whiz around the stereo field, as if someone gave a little kid control of the pan knob. But the songwriting is solid, anchored by basslines with an undeniable ‘80s funk swagger. The price for an original copy on Discogs climbed to $200, even he doesn’t have an original copy. 100 mint LPs actually still exist in a warehouse in California, but Prophet’s anonymity has made it impossible to convince the owner of his identity (he jokes about a potential vinyl heist).
One person who does have an original copy is Stones Throw founder Peanut Butter Wolf. “I was actually searching for Prophet since the early 2000s,” says Wolf. “I fell in love with the music, but his real name wasn’t anywhere on the credits, only ‘Prophet’, so his whereabouts were a mystery.” The label Peoples Potential Unlimited tracked him down and repressed Right On Time in 2013, but until then Prophet didn't know the album had a following.
“Did I think the record would come around to where it is now?” says Prophet. “I had no idea. I was in Baton Rouge driving, and Andrew from PPU called me. On the back of my record, I had dedications to my mother and sister. He got Googled my mother's name.”
After the album was reissued, Peanut Butter Wolf met Prophet at the Stones Throw booth at a record fair. They walked around the fair together, PBW proudly holding Right On Time.
“I said ‘this cat’s for real here, this is a real dude right here,'” Prophet recounts with a laugh.
Peanut Butter Wolf then encouraged him to perform live. Filipino producer Mndsgn was commissioned to create the instrumentals and Nite Jewel also contributed a cover of “Tonight” she recorded in 2010. Because of his mysterious image, she wasn’t even sure that Prophet was a real person.
“I tried super hard on that cover. I didn't wanna mess it up, because Prophet was a minor god to me at that point in my life,” says Nite Jewel.
Prophet debuted live on the Stones Throw Boiler Room Takeover then played a few more shows, leading to a single, which expanded to an EP and now an LP. The music on Wanna Be Your Man feels like 1984, but older, wiser, and smoother. There’s still the playful touches of psychedelia, but with a West Coast beat scene edge (to which he humbly credits mndsgn’s production chops). Interestingly though, because of the decades that have passed since the release of Right on Time, the music no longer sounds leftfield to a generation conditioned by the modern boogie of Dam Funk and Bruno Mars’s Top 40 hits. Despite their obscurity, auteurish funk rarities informed the sound of the generations that followed.
“The 80s were an especially flavorful exploration of the influence electronics had on textures and sounds,” mndsgn writes via email. “Black musicians were utilizing these new tools to create a timeless stamp on the way popular music was formulated, and still to this day I feel those traces are very much a part of my inspiration and approach.”
Prophet still records constantly, posting new songs to social media every day, but he hasn’t abandoned the mysterious image that made him such a legend. He Instagrams oblique inspirational quotes (“the spirit of thought is infinite in its revelation. Therefore your thoughts can never be known”) and his songs are accompanied by images of UFOs, a reference to an experience he had at age 15 where he saw an object with flashing white lights hovering in the sky. After 10 or 15 seconds, it disappeared in a black cloud of smoke without making a sound.
“I've experienced too much to know what's real and isn't real. I couldn't tell a preacher what I saw. He wouldn't believe me, he'd try to get me in the church to convert me. But I know what I saw,” he says. Then he walks back the story, a little nervous, unsure if it’s something he wants to share with the public (he eventually relented).
I stood on the sidewalk watching Prophet point towards the clouds above the Highland Park Theatre, lemon in hand, and realized that his musical journey feels just as unlikely as an alien encounter. One unsuccessful album would derail most careers, but Prophet continued playing in bands continually for 30 years before returning to the spotlight. There's enough alien truthers to fill a stadium, but there's only one Prophet.
We finish chatting and walk back to the studio. I have a lemon too (it's surprisingly tasty, you should try it), but after twenty minutes I toss it in a trash can.
“Did you get all the way through it?” he asks.
“It lasts longer than that! You've gotta do the whole thing until there's nothing else in there.” Apparently he'll suck a lemon dry all day in the studio. “As long as it takes to get the juice.”
Before parting ways, we climb the stairs up to the Stones Throw recording studio and I recount a quote that an old editor of mine used to say—is the juice worth the squeeze?
“Sure it is,” says Prophet. “The juice is very much worth the squeeze.”
Dan Gentile is a writer based in Austin, Texas. He's on Twitter.
Justin Staple is a Producer for Noisey. He's on Twitter.
This article originally appeared on Noisey US.