[Read our review of André Cymone’s 1969 here]
André Cymone has never had a problem with adapting to change. The singer, songwriter, producer and musician reemerged after a 27-year hiatus with the release of his 2014 album, The Stone, followed by a socially aware EP two years later, Black Man in America. He used that downtime to nurture and mentor up-and-coming artists.
His benevolent motivation, Cymone says, was to prevent aspiring artists from succumbing to the pressures of the music business, a demanding world he has experienced for close to five decades. “The game was always so rigged against artists avoiding pitfalls,” Cymone reflects. “My goal is to try and get people behind a movement to push our world culture in a better direction. That’s what I’m all about.”
Born Andre Anderson in Minneapolis, Cymone originally made a name for himself as Prince’s first bassist in the original lineup of The Revolution. He then became a sought-after producer for artists like Jody Watley, Tom Jones, Jermaine Stewart, Lalah Hathaway, Evelyn “Champagne” King and Adam Ant. “Music is at the forefront of my reality,” Cymone declares. “This is my reality. I look at music as art.”
His latest full-length effort 1969 is sequenced with guitar-heavy rock & roll and roots music combined with astute, socially conscious lyricism the examines racial identity, geography and police brutality. Not to mention, Cymone was able to draw from his siblings’ experiences in Vietnam, in prison and travels throughout Europe. Cymone’s return to the studio was born out of playing his guitar around the house to simply entertain his kids. His wife, also his manager, further encouraged him to write and record new material.
Subsequent occurrences like Barack Obama’s two terms as President, Trayvon Martin’s murder and the last presidential election fueled Cymone to address these issues through music. “I started writing and before I knew it, there was a lot of stuff going on at that time.”
Growing up in one of the few families of color in Minneapolis in the ‘60s and ‘70s, Cymone flashes back to a period of time when the Twin City’s African-American population was militant. These recollections were filtered through his music. The black community, he remembers, was comprised of predominately transplants from other Midwestern cities. “We were trying to fight for our piece of the rock,” he says. “Blacks were trying to let everybody know we’re here, relevant and part of this society.”
Born the youngest of six kids, Cymone always gravitated towards his siblings’ musical tastes: a potpourri of the Motown Sound, Jimi Hendrix and psychedelic rock combined with Cymone tuning into white pop radio. “I had the benefit of their knowledge and wisdom,” Cymone says, “and they had no problem showing me all of that stuff.”
Cymone became kindred spirits with Prince Rogers Nelson in junior high school because both could both play numerous instruments. Their band, Grand Central, also featured Morris Day on drums, and their ensemble frequently rehearsed in Cymone’s basement. Behaving more like brothers than bandmates, Prince moved in with Cymone’s family. When Prince released his debut solo album For You in 1978, Cymone agreed to join his band but knew at some point their relationship would change.
Prince initially wanted to do something similar to The Brothers Johnson with Cymone. The cooperative bassist famous for wearing a big Afro and transparent pants agreed to be Prince’s bass player until 1981. “It was the moment I realized it was no longer me and Prince,” he says. “It was gonna be different, and from that point on it was.”
Cymone signed a recording deal with Columbia Records in 1981, and once Prince heard his early demos, he changed musical directions, deciding to concoct new wave funk inspired by Devo and Kraftwerk. “Prince put The Time out before I had a chance to do it, so I had to rethink the whole process,” a laughing Cymone says.
Columbia, however, wanted him to make records similar to Prince. Critics also accused Cymone of sounding like a no-frills version of the Purple One. Appalled by his critics, Cymone made the decision to start producing instead. “The record company knew I had it because I could do it,” he states. “It was easy to be a continuum of all that stuff I was a part of creating. They had no idea how I was involved in the ‘Minneapolis Sound.’”
Taking pride in having an “artist first mentality,” Cymone adds: “I sit with artists and try to find out what they want to do and where they want to go. Those things are important for the kind of image they want.”
Collaborating with Watley, also his ex-wife, on her self-titled, Grammy-winning 1987 debut album proved to be lucrative for Cymone. Calling the production a “beautiful process,” Cymone was responsible for the hits “Looking for a New Love,” “Still a Thrill” and “Some Kind of Lover.” He worked on Watley’s subsequent projects up until her 1993 LP Intimacy.
“She has such a very eclectic taste,” Cymone says. “She would always pick the most experimental, avant garde stuff out there.” The music industry took notice as well, wanting Cymone to replicate that sound for other female acts, a far cry from the music business’ resistance to his vision for his own music.
“It was day and night for me,” Cymone remembers. “I became the go-to producer. To give every young female coming up that same vibe is a McDonald’s attitude. I didn’t want to do that.”
Inundated with countless offers to write and produce for other artists, Cymone felt more comfortable with developing and coaching talent. He stayed up on the technological shifts in music, advising record label executives to keep a close watch on consumers changing formats for listening to new releases. He also wanted to present younger songwriters and producers with opportunities. He remembers meeting L.A. Reid and Babyface in a nightclub and passing on a call to produce Pebbles to them.
The future Grammy-winning hitmakers expressed their appreciation to Cymone upon Pebbles’ self-titled debut LP being certified platinum and yielding crossover hits. “They sent a card thanking me,” a chuckling Cymone says.
Many years have come and gone, but music remains a focal point in Cymone’s life. He recently returned to Minneapolis for a few performances with The Revolution and New Power Generation to commemorate Prince’s untimely 2016 death. Those moments on stage, he says, were bittersweet.
Cymone has no regrets about turning down potential hit collaborations, disappearing from view for over two decades or keeping his vision front and center. His ability to distinguish between artistry and entertainment, he says, is what keeps him inspired. His greatest strengths, he adds, are his wisdom, understanding of the world and musical versatility.
“I have the ability to write any kind of song, period,” Cymone says. “It’s what I do and dedicate myself to.”