And so it starts – the search for hitherto unknown or rare tracks either written by or featuring Prince Rogers Nelson. 94 East, a funk band co-founded by New York keyboard player Pepé Willie, featured Willie's 17-year-old cousin, Prince, who was hired primarily as a session player on the basis of his precocious talent.
Digging for varying sizes of gold nuggets in the wake of an artist’s death is nothing new, of course (there is a major reissue programme of Prince albums scheduled for next year and, presumably, for many years to come), but to be fair to Willie, these recordings from 1977 have been reissued before in different shapes and formats. This latest reissue, however, brings more to the table: greater resonance, two new songs and, perhaps, a wider understanding of where Prince got and developed his funk from.
Recorded between December 1975 and February 1979, and released in different formats (triple vinyl, single vinyl, CD and digital, all of which have been newly mastered, and which feature historical context, including an illuminating interview with Willie), all 17 recordings Prince made with 94 East are here. Willie’s band wasn’t the first that Prince collaborated with – his time with local Minneapolis outfits Grand Central and Champagne in, respectively, 1972 and 1973, meant that he had previous form within a group structure. In other words, like many pre-fame artists attempting to forge an identity, he was equal measures reined in and champing at the bit.
You can hear hints of embryonic genius, then, as Prince plays guitar on all tracks, and lends audible in-the-mix vocals to several. The most “Prince” track is
Just Another Sucker
, a compact five-minute funk workout;
Better Than You Think
features succinct guitar lines;
You Can Be My Teacher
, meanwhile, is a clear and traceable outline of what the future would have in store.