One of the most underrated bands in funk, The Time harkens back to James Brown and Parliament while remaining firmly in the 1980s, thanks to producer/mentor Prince. Best known for their hit "Jungle Love" from Prince's 1984 classic film Purple Rain, the Time also made their mark as exciting live performers thanks to lead singer Morris Day's antics. Legend has it that the Minneapolis-based group played little part in their first two albums, with Prince writing and performing on most of the tracks except for Day's vocals and a few keyboard solos. No matter who played what, the Time truly came into their own with 1982's funky workout "777-9311."
The Time traces its roots back to 1981; Prince's label, Warner Bros., encouraged the artist to recruit and produce fresh talent for the company. First he hired members of an existing Minneapolis funk band called Flyte Time, which included Jellybean Johnson (drums), Jimmy Jam and Monte Moir (keyboards), and Terry Lewis (bass). Next he sought artists he already knew, including Jesse Johnson (guitar), Day, and Jerome Benton, who had previously served as a promoter for another local band. Day had composed the track "Partyup," which Prince performed on his album Dirty Mind, so he was a proven quantity; interestingly, Prince had originally wanted Alexander O'Neal to take over lead vocals, but O'Neal declined the offer.
Although the album's liner notes state otherwise, the Time's self-titled 1981 debut supposedly featured Prince on virtually every instrument. Certainly the artist's signature Dirty Mind funk sound permeates the record, but Day's slinky vocals added the Time's unique imprint. The Time proved a bigger success in the R&B world, peaking at number seven on the Billboard R&B albums chart. Singles "Cool (Part 1)," "Girl," "The Stick," and "Get It Up" fared moderately well on the R&B and Billboard Hot 100 charts, although "Get It Up" has since become a revered 1980s soul tune. Immediately following up their success with 1982's What Time Is It?, The Time (under Prince's close direction) established themselves as synth-funk masters.
The song succeeds on several fronts: first, its attention-grabbing drum machine beat encapsulates Prince's penchant for slightly off-center rhythms. The scratchy guitar riff and bass line soon kick in, stressing the deep groove of "777-9311." Finally, the synth contributes another layer and perfectly sets up the climax: Day's sultry vocals. "Baby, what's your phone number? / I know I'm kinda fast, but I hate to waste time," he coos. As the groove intensifies, Day also increases the urgency of his plea in the bridge. "Ain't nothin' worse than rejection / I'd feel a little better if you slapped my face," he sings. Another Day and Time trademark is the conversation snippet in the middle. With this pseudo-rap section, the lead singer dramatizes his onstage persona: the narcissistic smooth operator wearing sharp threads and obsessing over his hair (during live performances, Benton frequently trots onstage with a full length mirror, holding it as Day mock-preens and smooths his coif). One can envision Day at a bar or club, flirting with a beautiful woman:
Hey baby, what's your phone number?
I know it sounds fast, but I ain't got all night
Come on baby, what's your phone number?
You know I got to be cooler than this cat you're sittin' with
I'll do you right, baby
As the band--or just Prince--jams, Day continues seducing with his voice and sense of humor. The funk relentlessly drives through, enticing listeners to the dance floor. At the same time, the bass and guitar riffs demonstrate Prince's skill as a musician in addition to his singing and songwriting abilities. The overall sound of "777-9311" propelled the track to number two on the R&B singles chart, and the track performed decently on the Billboard singles charts as well as in clubs.
Unfortunately, tensions surfaced after the success of What Time Is It? Growing resentment of Prince's tight control over the band caused frequent arguments between the Time and its producer. While stories vary, Prince allegedly fired Time members Jam and Lewis in 1983 for missing live shows--the duo had embarked on outside songwriting and production work, to Prince's displeasure. After hiring new members, the Time debuted their new lineup in the hugely successful Purple Rain project. Earning acclaim for his acting turn, Day elected to leave the band to pursue a solo career. The original Time members occasionally reunited over the years, and are currently performing under the moniker "The Original 7ven."
Various differences may have prematurely silenced The Time, but their contributions to 1980s soul should not be underestimated. While Prince may have been their main benefactor, their subsequent live performances prove they are no puppets merely lip-syncing to Prince's music. Huger hits "Jungle Love" and "The Bird" still rock, but their earlier, more organic sound emphasizes pure funk.