Minneapolis music pioneer André Cymone speaks for the first time in twenty-seven years
by Ericka Blount Danois
Since his heady days leading the teenage band Grand Central in the basement of his mother’s home, André Cymone has always been a leader, if not an unassuming and underappreciated one.
That band was nurtured by his mother, Bernadette Anderson, a divorcée and mother of six who reinvented herself from a maid by going back to school and eventually had the local YMCA named in her honor for her community work. She was in fact a mother to many in the burgeoning cauldron of Black talent in Minneapolis—even to a diminutive, enigmatic ball of energy appropriately named Prince who she adopted as her own son.
The band—all self-taught—featured drummer Morris Day (who replaced Prince’s cousin, Charles “Chazz” Smith); André’s sister, Linda Anderson, on keyboards; Terry Jackson and William Doughty on percussion; André on bass; and Prince on every instrument he could get his hands on. They were managed by Morris’s mother, LaVonne Daughtery, and competed against other local bands like Flyte Time (Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis, Jellybean Johnson, Monte Moir, and Cynthia Johnson.)
Equally talented as Prince, André was less celebrated for his contributions to what came to be known as the “Minneapolis sound.” By the mid-’80s, he left the music scene altogether, pursuing a career in film—studying filmmaking, screenwriting, and production in Los Angeles. Last year, he was inspired to change the monotony of the music industry and create his first album in nearly thirty years.
One of those songs, the thumping “America,” speaks to the importance of this upcoming election. The single was released in September for $1 as a digital download, and proceeds will go directly to Obama’s campaign.
André talks to Wax Poetics about the good ole days and the importance of making the right choices for the future.
What was life like for you in Grand Central?
I grew up in a rough neighborhood, the projects in Minneapolis. My mother was fifteen when she had my oldest brother. It was really rough. She worked as a maid for a Jewish family, but she didn’t see that as her beginning and end. She went back to get an education, with six children as a divorcée. One of my brothers went to prison and another went to Vietnam—which is how I came to the song “America.” My brother came back with all of these health problems, and he passed away a couple of years ago—basically for this country—younger than he should have.
We moved to a new neighborhood, and I didn’t fit in. I was like a fish out of water. I thought everybody was really stiff when we moved to a middle-class neighborhood.
I remember the first day of school; I didn’t know any of these people, and they just looked weird. I looked down the line, and I saw this kid and I thought, “He looks cool.” I went up to him and said, “Hey, how you doin’? My name is André.” He said, “My name is Prince.” I said, “What are you into?” He said, “I’m into music.” I asked him what he played. We went to his Dad’s apartment and we were jamming. He was playing the piano, and I thought, “This dude is good.” We were in seventh grade.
He came to live with our family, and eventually my mother adopted him. We were able to rehearse in the basement. I was like, “We are going to be the biggest band. I’m saying, the Jackson Five ain’t got shit on us.” All I ever did was practice. We engaged in battle of the bands and won almost all of them.
How did you come to the song “America”?
I was working on the album and had written this song “America,” but my manager didn’t want me to use it because he thought it would be too political. As the election was progressing, I thought that song is perfect for right now, and I really, really love our President; he’s our best hope for America. This election is the most important election of our lifetime. We have to get people to understand that it’s not just about the president; it’s voting in the House and the Senate. It’s important to vote, period.
What caused you to take a break from the industry?
I really enjoyed being in the background and helping other people realize their dream. I’m lucky. I’m blessed that I have been able to make any kind of music I want. But I saw that no one was doing music anymore. My old manager called me up, and we had a conversation. I told him I was thinking about making another album. I told him I play guitar and I sing now, the kind of stuff I didn’t do back then. He told me he wanted to hear something. I played something, and I said, “Right here the chorus happens.” He said, “Okay, well sing it.” Then he said, “Okay, stop. Just play it and sing it without talking.” He said, “Today is Wednesday; I’ll come back on Friday. I want you to play and sing me that song and two other songs without talking.” We came back that Friday; I played and sang him both songs and added two songs with them. He said, “Yeah good, I am gonna come back next week, and I want you to create four more. He kept doing that until I got up to sixty-seven songs. He said, “We need to make your album.” And we picked thirty-four songs from that. All of these songs just came to me. A couple of songs we’re finishing up, but we are basically done with the album. Name of the album is called The Stone.
What other things are you doing for the campaign?
My son was Obama’s “twitpic” of the day. My American Dream is a campaign we started where we get pictures of people from all around the country. They take a picture and put up a sign that says “My American Dream is….”—whatever it is.
Tell me about the stories about you not getting credit for work you did.
Because Prince and I were so close, I never thought about whether I was ripping him off or he was ripping me off. Literally, we were learning how to do what we do. My bedroom was in the attic, his bedroom was in the basement. I’d write a song and come down and play it for him. He’d write a song and come and play it for me. That was the reality. One day, we were rehearsing to do our tour. Some of the band members loved the groove I was jamming on. Prince came in and he jumped in the jam. He recorded it and came back the next day with lyrics and it was the song “Controversy.” In the way we grew up and developed, I didn’t think anything of it. But Matt Fink and Bobby Z, when they heard it, they said, “That’s André’s song.” Prince said something… I realized at that moment, if I stay in this situation, I will never get credit for anything creative that I do. So I quit.
What did Prince say?
He said basically, “Well, guess who is gonna get the credit?” That’s when I realized things had changed, and I just went to do my own thing.
What about your stage show—I heard that Prince borrowed from your show?
I started wearing clear pants, which became very controversial. The girls would scream because it looked like I was just in my underwear. We both looked similar; we had the curly ’fro. We dressed funky—rock and roll—and we both had that swagger like we are the baddest motherfuckers on the planet. That’s the way we carried ourselves. Managers eventually started trying to control that—telling me I couldn’t wear clear pants.
What are some of your First Avenue memories?
It was just a local club that we would frequent. I was into Seventh Street Entry—another club with funk and rock and punk bands. We ended up playing there, because we knew there was an eclectic group of people where you could play whatever you wanted to play. First time I saw Culture Club was there. I saw Grace Jones play there. It was a great club to see people and be seen. We became kind of local heroes there in a way.
How did Minneapolis inform your sound?
My dad was very much an idealistic dreamer, and he passed that on to me. It had a lot to do with how we were able to do a lot of the things we did—coming from Minneapolis, and coming from the part that we came from. It takes an idealistic dreamer to think that he can become successful.
I loved Kraftwerk and Devo, and from a Black perspective, nobody was doing that. And I was always looking to do something that nobody was doing. I just came up with this electronic, futuristic thing from a Black perspective, but I couldn’t get the record company to get behind it the way I envisioned it. When I look back at it now, it’s pretty groundbreaking.
Why do you think so many Black musicians came out of Minneapolis at that time?
When we grew up, there were music and after-school programs to help inner-city youth like myself, and Morris, Prince, Jimmy Jam, and Terry Lewis. You had outlets. Now they cut a lot of those programs. You see more kids on the street. The environment we grew up in, joining a band became the thing in Minneapolis. If you weren’t in a band, you weren’t really cool. [If you were in a band,] you had girlfriends, you were popular; we played at every school function, every New Year’s party. Morris’s mom became our manager. It was, for us, basically a way for us to stay off the street and still be able to maintain our girlfriend quota.
I read that Prince was a basketball phenom in high school, and then there’s Dave Chappelle’s skit. Did you play too?
We would challenge people to two-on-two. Before I had a growth spurt, we were both about the same size. They would laugh at us, and by the time we said “game”—like Charlie Murphy (but we didn’t have on the outfits)—that was the reality. Prince was really, really good. I could hit from the outside anywhere. We would play games in our basement, using garbage cans in the corner as our basket—any kind of thing that we could put to hang up. We would play some knock-down, drag-out games in our basement using some aluminum garbage cans as a basket. We would play game after game. Prince’s cousin, Chazz, and him were really serious about basketball. They would watch it. They would yell out names as they were playing, screaming “Earl the Pearl!” when they made a shot.
We grew up in the Girard projects. Prince saw a lot when he came to live with us. One of my brothers had just come out of prison; my other brother was a pimp. My mother became the director of the Y, and eventually had the Y named after her. Morris’s mom was beautiful. I was in love with her. She looked like Pam Grier to me. Whatever she was saying went right over my head. She could say anything, and I’d say yes. She could put anything in front of me, and I’d sign it.
Tell me about “The Dance Electric” coming together.
I was flailing away doing my new-wave thing and wasn’t really having much success, and Prince was having all kinds of success; everything he touched was working out in his favor. His record company backed him and understood his vision. Me, on the other hand, I had a record company that didn’t know what I was trying to do. It was a totally different situation. I think he honestly wanted to help me, but on his terms. He had a song, “Dance Electric,” that he thought would be that vehicle. Originally, I didn’t want to do it. The record company was behind it, so I did it. I ended up doing the song, and he was like, “I gave this to André and blah, blah,” and all the reasons why I didn’t want to do the song came about. He made it tawdry and not cool. I thought it was like a friend coming together to do something because of our background, and he kind of cheapened the whole experience.
What have you been doing in the interim, and what do you want “America” to achieve?
I’ve written three screenplays. I was able to take courses in screenwriting, directing, and producing. I was studying filmmaking during my time off. I just want to do my part. If I get a handful of people to contribute that’s great. I would love to become an artist who writes songs for the purpose of healing.
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