With already 35 years on the counter, it might be nice to look back on that strange winter month of December 1987 and Prince’s infamous black album. What exactly happened there? And why was the record suddenly withdrawn a few days before its release? What is the meaning of Blue Tuesday, the date of December 1, 1987 in this story? And how did this record become the best-selling bootleg of all time? In what way did that black album from 1987 suddenly cross my path years later, the pinnacle of every Prince collector… ? It truly is a beautiful and equally sad story, never told before until now…. more about that later.
History of the BA
The story of the album has its origins about a year earlier, in the fall of 1986: Prince had just dropped the Camille LP, a project with a lot of accelerated vocalization, something Prince loved to engage in: the gender discussion avant-la-lettre. This alter ego already had an unreleased album to his/her name, which included the track Rockhard In A Funky Place.
Superfunkycalifragisexy was recorded just after the breakup of The Revolution, in September 1986. With this track, you can already notice the first signs of Prince’s urge to prove himself: the fireworks of funk are unmistakably present.
Then, in December 1986, he records a few more dance tracks, initially only intended for a birthday party of Sheila E: Le Grind, Bob George and 2 Nigs United 4 West Compton. One can also classify these songs as very driven, fervent and passionate.
Cindy C and Dead On It were ready just before the release of Sign ☮ The Times, in the spring of 1987, but didn’t fit the design of that album.
The concept of a black funk album starts to blossom in the late summer of 1987. Prince was visibly frustrated with the poor sales figures of Sign ☮ The Times in the USA; he felt he had delivered his magnum opus, but apparently America did not understand the idea behind the album. In Europe, on the other hand, the double album sold very well and thus, rising his status to unprecedented heights. Critics in the US accused Prince of becoming too pop-oriented, plus according to them, he was denying his African-American roots. In response to this, in October 1987, he starts compiling an album to prove everyone wrong: a record in the category überfunky. A last track is recorded: When 2 R In Love, the only ballad (and resting point) on The Black Album. Together with the other 7 songs an album could now be put together for a release in December of that year, moreover on his own terms.
The Black Album, the original follow-up to Sign ☮ The Times, was to be released on December 8, 1987 – at Prince’s request without any form of promotion. An all-black album cover, with only a catalog number on the spine, the tracks featured only the labels, not even a single reference to the artist to discover anywhere, the Warners release list only said ‘somebody’… the album didn’t even have an official name. Partly due to the funky content, but also strongly referring to his origins, which he was accused of ignoring, people soon dubbed it The Black Album. Another alternative album title is Funk Bible, which can be heard at the intro of the first track Le Grind. In addition, the LP has a lot of accelerated and slowed down vocals, another confirmation of the anonymity of the record. Prince managed to create a hype in his own way: the status of the black LP was already sculpted before it came out. Despite all this secrecy, the WB sticker on the cover made it all too clear that it was a Prince production, with lines by the likes of ‘all songs published by Controversy Music’. So much for anonymity….
The record company, meanwhile, was increasingly concerned about Prince’s career, from a marketing point of view. They thought it was all way too fast with yet another new album; they wanted to try to milk Sign ☮ The Times a bit more in America, but Prince was already finished with that project. Because of his refusal to do any further promotion, let alone a series of concert, for that particular album on American soil, Prince hastily put together a concert film (albeit a very good one!) with recordings of concerts from Rotterdam/Holland and Antwerp/Belgium, and some necessary tweaks from his newly completed studio complex Paisley Park. Given Prince’s status, WB still approved a release of the Black Album. 500.000 vinyl records were all ready to be shipped in Alsdorf/Germany for distribution on the European market, and promo records and CDs in America. But then came Blue Tuesday…
Blue Tuesday (December 1, 1987)
As was often the case, Prince took his newly recorded music to the nightclubs to test how audiences would react to it. On Tuesday, December 1, 1987 he did that very trick at Rupert’s, a dance club in Minneapolis. There he met singer-songwriter and poet Ingrid Chavez, with whom he had discussions about religion, among other things, something that both were very passionate about. At the same time, Prince is said to have used the new drug ecstasy that night, but given his tiny stature, half a blue pill too much. Those nocturnal hours showed him the clear light, a spiritual revelation. Suddenly realizing that black piece of vinyl that was almost about to hit stores all over the world, had been created during a dark period in his life. It spewed depravity, anger, sexually explicit and violent lyrics…. and a few other convictions. Thus, it had to be deleted immediately.
This crisis of conscience led to a phone call to the chief executive at the Warners record company a few days later: the entire project had to be cancelled. All existing records into the destruction mill, please… logistically an absolute nightmare since half a million vinyl LPs were ready for shipping to the record stores in Europe. In America, the CDs, encased in a completely black cardboard longbox in which the CDs were sometimes released in the USA, were in the hands of some WB executives only. When it was announced on Friday, December 4th. that the record would not be released, a true media frenzy arose surrounding the album. Exact numbers have never been revealed, but at the time it was rumored that only one box of 50 LPs was held back in Germany. The official reading nowadays is that there are less than 100 copies in circulation worldwide. Given the number that have appeared on the free market over the past 35 years, this could be true. The CDs are even fewer in quantity: probably only about 10 copies are said to exist, maybe even less.
The cult status of the BA
In no time a true cult had arisen surrounding the record: everyone had to have the album, everyone had to hear the album. Even The Edge and Bono of U2 expressed they were smitten by the album. Several DJs in Europe played some songs from the record in their radio shows, leading to serious problems with Warner Brothers.
As said, a handful of records escaped the dance of the mill of destruction and are therefore proudly kept in a few selective purple households around the world. Original vinyls were sold for immense amounts of money, with a nice example of a collector in the UK who bought a copy in the spring of 1988 for (then) 40.000 dutch guilders (the equivalent of then £13.500). After Prince’s unfortunate passing in April 2016, two more copies of the original 1987 record were sold through the Discogs website for resp. $42,000 and $27,000. An original CD including its black longbox is, due to even fewer copies worldwide, still the ultimate collectors item in any Prince collection. However, 35 years after the official release date, one must take into account a price tag of at least 5 digits. Since the late 1980’s, only about 3 copies have surfaced on the private market, all from WB executives in New York.
The mystique only ignited a worldwide fire: 35 years later, the BA is still, with many hundreds of thousands of copies, the best-selling bootleg album of all time. The canceled record became the source for many bootlegs during the following years, with a rough estimate of at least about 200.000 illegally sold copies. All unofficial releases are easy to distinguish from ‘the real deal’ by a few markers on record and black cover.
During 1988, when I only had a bootleg of it, many an evening was filled with recording of an enormous amount of cassette tapes, because everyone in my circle of friends / acquaintances wanted to get a piece of this phenomenon… well, there were no MP3’s back then or the possibility of burning a CD within 2 minutes.
Prince himself also managed to contribute, whether consciously or not, to the mythical album. Barely 5 months later, the gospel-like album Lovesexy was to be released, which was presented as the spiritual counterpart to The Black Album. In his first music video for Lovesexy (Alphabet St.) a message is hidden, reading “don’t buy the black album, I’m sorry” (to prevent illegal sales), but only visible if the clip is played in slow motion.
In addition, he often played some tracks of the album in concerts and nightly aftershows in the following years, meanwhile claiming to be ‘spiritually against the album’. Well…
Reportedly, Prince is said to have been ordered to pay a handsome amount of money to Warners as compensation, after having the entire run of the album destroyed.
In the end, it’s all about the music on that black piece of vinyl. So, what about it? You can call many a Prince record driven, but this one really takes the cake. The fanaticism is clear from the start. From opening track Le Grind, it is all funk & party with the only resting point When 2 R In Love, the ballad on the album. Cindy C, an ode to Cindy Crawford, features a rap by Steve Silk Hurley, one of the most influential house producers at the time. So that got my attention too because I bought everything concerning Chicago House back in 1987. Dead On It is an ironic dig at the rap and hip hop scene of the time; rappers can’t sing, was his approach, and I don’t think he was even that far off the mark. Bob George, without a doubt, is the strangest and at the same time most iconic track Prince ever recorded and for me, one of the main reasons why this is such a wonderful and entertaining album. The song contains a monologue recited by a very slowed down, almost unrecognizable voice of Prince where he assumes the identity of a pimp with a rich vocabulary of profanity who suspects his girlfriend is having an affair. The gun-wielding alter ego then fires off a multitude of gunshots, in an emerging manic episode including confronting booty-bass schizophrenia, only to end up being ambushed by the police. According to some, the song was a response to the increasing glorification of violence and misogyny in gangsta rap. Truly an exceptionally formidable criminal track for sure. And Prince himself, not aversive to a bit of irony, quotes himself in the song as “that skinny motherfucker with the high voice”. After Bob, it’s back to top shelf funk with Superfunkycalifragisexy. Truly a sublime song, very driven, and extremely fanatical. Just like 2 Nigs United 4 West Compton: a frantic, instrumental funk jazz jam. The album ends with the infectious Rockhard In A Funky Place including some wonderful hooting from saxophonist Eric Leeds. Rockhard refers, indeed, to the state of his mower tools as the lyrics state: he hates to see an erection go to waste.
Some critics saw it as a rushed funk album, on the other hand there are groups of fans who praise the album because they think it’s one of Prince’s best funk albums. And indeed: the black album cover and the return to the rhythmic funk of yesteryear was seen as Prince’s way of regaining some of the credit he had lost within the Afro-American community. The very reason why the album was created in the first place.
The big quest for an original 925677
Thus far the story behind the album BA1987, though catalog number 925677 has been forgotten by many over the years. Did the record lose its magic? Many versions appeared on vinyl and CD, but all unofficial, also sound-technically very different. It didn’t bother me one bit, that the album was for sale for a short period of 2 months at the end of 1994, with a new catalog number, when Prince wanted to get rid of his deal with WB. The pinnacle, the highest possibly achievable, for any Prince fanatic, at least for me, was of course getting hold of an original from 1987. On the other hand, they were not available very often on the free market. Mind you, there was no Ebay yet, there was no Discogs yet, there was even no Internet! In the meantime I went to every possible record fair in the Netherlands, not exclusively in search of the Black Album, but as time was passing by, the very thought of ever coming across an original would fade into the background.
…until that cold winter of 1997/1998, now 25 years ago, at a record fair in Amsterdam’s Rai, combined with a sci-fi fair. The fair was graced with some real live Star Wars stormtroopers, it was all very comical, in my opinion. Absolutely not a fan of sf, so I wasn’t particularly moving around in that part of the fair, at one point I received a warning though there was a lady on that side of the fair with a small ticket among some Star Wars stuff, stating: also for sale, Prince stuff, including an original BA1987. Pffft, I thought at first, after many disillusions of people who always claimed to have an original, it will be fine, I’ll have a look later. Naturally curious, I went to take a look anyway. The woman in question was already of age, so I couldn’t put it all together: what does such a sweet lady has to do with all that Star Wars stuff and why does she have a Prince collection? Huh?! However, the tension started to rise considerably when she really insisted on having an original Black Album. So, an appointment for the following week was quickly made… provided that she would remove the Prince ticket for the rest of the day at the fair.
A week later, I went with one of my best buddies, Martin, also a Prince fan with -fortunately- absolutely zero interest in that black album, towards Purmerend. It was ultra cold that day, it was snowing quite a bit, so the trip to the village above Amsterdam took a lot longer than expected, with a maximum car speed of about 30 km per hour. After some time, we arrived at the desired address, first having a strong cup of coffee, waiting somewhat impatiently for what would come our way. We soon noticed though it was a moving and emotional event for the woman, who had also invited one of her best friends, to oversee everything, very understandable for security reasons. After talking for about 45 minutes, the underlying truth came out: the things she all offered belonged to her son. The boy was still very young and had died three years earlier in a terrible car accident. Now, after all this time, as a mother she could finally bring herself to look at the things that had been stored all these years in the basement in a large trunk. Talking about a story that grabs you by the throat…. try to respond normally to that. What does one say? Now, we were also spiraled in that emotion, for what a heartbreaking story. Then, the mother went downstairs to retrieve the big box…. leaving us with a huge chunk in our throat. Wow, what’s going on here? Can we do this? Is it still justified to be enthusiastic? Emotions flowing all over the place…. When she came up again, tears were in her eyes; this was, of course, the first time she had seen that stuff again, after all those years. I first asked if this was all OK for her. That was fine, it had to happen sometime, she replied. The lid of the box opened and the very first thing she took out was a black LP. “This is it” she said, “my boy was so very proud of this”…. and yes, indeed: the record had all the features and marks of which I had only read so far, but never seen, let alone held one: the WB logo in the sleeve, the WB sticker on the back, Rockhard spelled correctly on the label, the white 33 rpm logo…. this is not possible! WOW, I was finally holding a real BA1987 after 10 exhausting years! Naturally, it caused a euphoric moment for a while, I really started to shake. At the same time, I thought it was hardly appropriate to respond very enthusiastically, given the background of this story. Yet I dared to show my joy (and disbelief at the same time) as I also wanted to let the mother know that I had been looking for this record for 10 years and really really wanted it. She was happy enough to laugh and I was allowed to buy the record, on one condition: she really wanted to be convinced me buying the record for my own collection, and I was not allowed to use the LP as an object of speculation and then resell it, much more expensive or something like that, just to make a quick buck. She wanted her son’s spirit and pride to live on in another fan. That was of course absolutely no problem and I assured her that it would really work out. The biggest surprise, however, was yet to come: she had a fixed price in mind. I looked genuinely surprised, dumbstruck actually, and told her -very honestly- the real asking price was much, much higher, some 10 years later. It didn’t matter to her though, that was the price she wanted. It was surprise upon surprise this morning. First, a real BA and then, a real bargain as well. Then, it was time for another cup of coffee, to be able to process and wash down all those emotions.
The morning would also cause quite another stir though: the box turned out to be a treasure of some very rare records, bootleg CDs, some for my buddy as well. I asked again if the woman was completely OK with it, it felt like we only came to pluck all the cherries of the cake. There was still a decent box left with all kinds of wonderful stuff, stuff that we already had – after all, I had been a fan for 17 years, as expected your collection would be quite extensive already. She asked if I knew an address where she could get rid of the remaining stuff for a nice price. Of course I did and I promised her to come back the following week, again with another Prince buddy this time. I would then sell the stuff with him in the village of Haarlem. And that turned out to be a story in itself….
For now, home with the one and only black record. And what a story behind this record! It made me even more proud to cherish the LP in my collection. Now, some 25 years later, the record is well hidden somewhere in my purple house. Every once in a while, I take out the box and think back fondly and with quite the emotion to that momentous day in the winter of January 1998.
Batman & Robin
So, there was still a follow-up: the following week it was back to Purmerend. This time with Leon, who just woke up as a Prince fan. So, he still had a nice shot to make concerning his expanding collection. So I already figured out: this would be a good start. And with what was remaining, we headed for Haarlem. At the time there was a little CD shop that I knew was selling bootlegs behind the counter, I had already warned them in advance that I would come around with ‘an interesting briefcase’. When we got there, we were asked who we were and where we lived. I was a bit surprised by the question: why would that be interesting? I answered, very wittily: “Batman and Robin. Take a look in the suitcase if you find it interesting for your store; we’ll be back within the hour”. Do take in mind that around that time the cdR and burning CDs at home were just emerging, so one was already buying ‘fakes’ with some regularity. This, however, was a case full of silver-pressed discs, the real deal. Asking price: 1.500 dutch guilders (it was 1998, so no € yet in the wallet). Two cups of coffee and an hour later the deal was finalized. Satisfied with this transaction, we were able to return to Purmerend with quite a nice amount. The mother was very excited, with the amount of money we scored. But also that she could be able now to take this chapter a little bit further after all these years, if possible close it soon. She gave us a large part of the amount, which we initially refused. However, she insisted that we take it. I made it quite clear again that I was really, really happy with that original Black Album and that I would cherish it until the end of days…
A last footnote…
On a personal note, the album has a much deeper meaning to me than just the music and the mystique surrounding it. Exactly in that same first week of December 1987, I was in the deepest valley I’ve ever known in my life, with only 21 years on the clock. So, the ‘black’ of the album is, at least for me, multi-interpretable. Due to the co-alliance in time, the album has also become a symbol for that ominous week. And also for me a week I wanted to delete.
Text and images: Edward Gubbels