Andrea Swensson Q&A

March 9, 2020
Andrea Swensson explores the remarkable R&B scene in the Twin Cities pre-Prince.

“You know how when you watch a documentary about a famous person they always show a class photo that slowly zooms in on the famous person’s face while slowly graying everyone else out? I wanted this book to do the opposite. Let’s put all the other surrounding characters in focus so we can view the community as a whole.”

When did you realize this was a book that had to be written?

I have a vivid memory of attending a rehearsal for the release of the Secret Stash compilation “Twin Cities Funk and Soul” at the Secret Stash offices/studios in Lyn-Lake, and meeting so many of the people I would eventually interview for the book: Willie Walker, Sonny Knight, the Valdons, members of Band of Thieves and Prophets of Peace. They had gathered together for the first time in years to get ready for the release show, and you could feel an electricity in the air as they laughed and played together, with so many memories returning to the surface for the first time in decades. I was standing there with the DJ Brian Engel, taking it all in, when he said, “Someone should write a book about this.” I agreed but it took me a couple years to realize that I’d better get moving if I wanted to see it happen. I felt an urgency about it that only grew over time, especially as I realized that so many of the keepers of these stories had either passed away in recent years or were in poor health. So much of this history exists only in the memories of those who lived through it, and my main role, especially in the beginning of the research process, was to just get a tape recorder rolling as quickly as I could.

Your book reveals not only the rich heritage of African-American music in the Twin Cities but the terrible impact of gentrification. It was frustrating to read about what happened to Rondo in St. Paul and the North Side of Minneapolis.

It was hard not to feel really, really angry while learning more about this history. I think that we as white people have a lot of work to do in terms of seeking out these stories and attempting to understand the systemic injustices that people of color have faced. I spent a lot of time in the microfilm room at the Minnesota Historic Society reading newspaper headlines from the late 1960s that could have just as easily been written in the 2010s, and seeing so many parallels between the young activists working at The Way in the late ’60s and the Black Lives Matter activists of today. To take a step back and look at the big picture – how people of color were forced into certain neighborhoods in the Twin Cities due to racist housing covenants, then coldly displaced due to the highway construction through those very same neighborhoods — was eye-opening for me. It’s important to study this history. This is an essential part of our story as Minnesotans.

Maurice McKinnies seemed like the coolest guy ever.  

YES. What a rock star. And a prime example of the fact that an artist could have all the right pieces of the puzzle — the talent, the charisma, the community support and connections – and still be criminally overlooked by the white mainstream audience. I tried to connect with Maurice directly but unfortunately he wasn’t well enough to do an interview, and passed away shortly after the book was released. One of my favorite memories of researching him was speaking to Andre Cymone (Prince’s childhood friend and first bandmate), who was only about 10 when he first encountered Maurice in the projects in North Minneapolis. Andre was on the verge of tears remembering how significant it was for him to see such a cool dude making music in his own neighborhood; he used to sneak over to Maurice’s house and jump down into a window well to watch him rehearsing in the basement with his band. What a memory, what an image.

It was elegant how you described the environment that Prince was born into without focusing on him until the end. How did you choose that as the book’s structure?

Toward the beginning of my research process, I remember having a conversation with my editor, Erik Anderson, about how I wanted to de-centralize Prince and be sure to portray him as just one figure in a cast of characters who were building up this incredible underground scene. You know how when you watch a documentary about a famous person, they always show a class photo that slowly zooms in on the famous person’s face while slowly graying everyone else out? I wanted this book to do the opposite. Let’s put all the other surrounding characters in focus so we can view the community as a whole. It helped that the timeframe for this book was primarily pre-Prince, the solo recording artist, as I wanted to focus on the late 1950s through the late 1970s. When Prince finally does enter the picture, he’s just a 12-year-old forming his first band and hoping that one day he’ll be as cool as his mentor, Sonny Thompson, and his band the Family. I love that. It’s such an underreported and misunderstood period in Prince’s life, and it was obvious while interviewing all of Prince’s peers that they are rarely asked about this time in their lives, even though it was so significant for all of them. I also saw it as a way to humanize Prince – even though people like to talk about him like he was some kind of otherworldly alien creature (language I find to be troubling and othering), he’s just a person who happened to grow up in this very specific time and place.

I loved learning about the labels that were around back then, including Dave Hersk, who would record groups in his basement. 

I followed a lot of breadcrumbs that were left by Secret Stash, who did so much foundational research for their compilation, and it led me to some incredible lost recordings, forgotten labels, and hidden archives. I bought a LOT of records on Discogs and eBay, sometimes multiple copies just because I was so excited to find them, and also came across a lot of rare recordings on YouTube, which was super useful.

At the end of the book, you list places to go to find this incredible music. Which of the acts do you think with a little luck could have been gone national?

The Amazers were so close to breaking out nationally, especially with the Curtis Mayfield connection, as was Wee Willie Walker when he was recording for Goldwax. It would take much more than luck for these artists to find that kind of success, though – as I heard time and again. The Twin Cities were simply not ready to embrace or even properly acknowledge the contributions of black artists in this era. It’s really a shame because not only did they not get their due when they were active, but they are not canonized in the same way as other artists today. There is no reason why the Amazers, Exciters, Maurice McKinnies, Willie Walker, and countless others should be excluded from the canon that includes revered Minnesota garage rock bands like the Trashmen and the Castaways, beyond our state’s failure to uplift non-white voices. Uh oh, I’m getting fired up again.

I had no idea KQRS back in the day had such a reputation for eclectic playlists, everything from prog to Joni Mitchell. Was that new to you?

It was! I wish I could tune in and hear what it sounded like in the ’70s. It was something I’d actually heard quite a bit about from my dad, who still talks about how cool it was that KQRS would play the weirdest and most psychedelic stuff, and how they would play entire records, so everyone could listen to them together.

I loved seeing all those Charles Chamblis photos in your book. Were you aware of his work before you started researching the book? 

Yes, the Minnesota History Center did a wonderful exhibit of Charles Chamblis’s photos and I visited several times to take it in. He was an essential documentarian of black life in Minneapolis in the ‘60s-‘80s. I was so happy to see that they released a book of his photos, too – it’s called Sights, Sounds, Soul, and it also includes some incredible writing on race, community, and music by the jazz drummer and deep thinker Davu Seru.

You write about the segregation in the city, in which African-American acts could not get booked in certain venues, and how Prince was the one who finally united audiences. Do you feel like we’ve reverted back to pre-Prince days? 

I think there is a tendency when looking back at history to view these watershed moments as turning points where everything changed and was better from that point forward. I personally know I fell victim to that thinking at times when it came to reflecting on Prince and his legacy. After doing this research and talking to artists of color who are active in our scene today, it’s become all the more clear to me that things have not improved as much as we’d like to think – and in some cases, they are painfully similar to how they were in the ‘60s. There are still venues that are struggling to be inclusive, and spots where marginalized communities simply do not feel welcome. Our arts media is still overwhelmingly (almost exclusively) white. I do have hope, however, that change is possible, especially now that artists can share their work on their own platforms and are gaining more control over their own careers and stories. As a state, Minnesota has been in the midst of a major awakening about racial injustice over the past decade and overall I do think people are trying to be more intentional about creating inclusive spaces, programming, and events. It will take time, but it does seem like things are gradually heading in a positive direction.

— Photo by Leslie Plesser