“Music Is The Key” was a bully of a track, demanding so much attention that it starved others of oxygen and became one of those records that despite the demands of fashion remains one of the dozen or so quintessential Chicago House Music Tracks.
Even before it had crested, pushed further back in the working DJ’s crate, “Music Is The Key” showed up in countless other recordings, sometimes as an influence, sometimes as a sample in tracks from the likes of To Cool Chris (“Don’t Stop”) and TC Crew’s “The Key.”
And a song by Prince.
The Black Album wound up being Prince’s sixteenth studio album when it was released in 1994, but it had been recorded seven years earlier. And it was two years before that, in July of 1985, that Keith Nunnally, and Steve “Silk” Hurley released “Music Is The Key.”
House Music didn’t just revitalize Disco and let the world know that it was okay to get down again. As part of a broader movement that encompassed Detroit’s Techno scene and the East Coast’s Hip Hop maestros, it completely revolutionized the nature of what was just beginning to be called, politely, “urban music.” No longer were guys with guitars and horns honing their chops in hopes of showcases before the big money men from the coasts. With primitive machines and even rougher production budgets, these pioneers were completely rewriting the rules of the record industry. Airplay was no longer essential. Promotional budgets were DJs in clubs and distribution could consist of how many records you could sell from the boot of your car.
Yet none of these rebels viewed Prince as the enemy, or hated symbol of the old regime. Far from it: many of the early Chicago House Music pioneers wanted nothing so much as to emulate Prince. “Baby Wants To Ride” by Frankie Knuckles and Jamie Principle even has a straight up shout out to Prince. He provided in many ways not just a musical inspiration but a career model as well.
And for his part, Prince – one of the top three established stars in the world at the time – was watching. And listening. He was obviously familiar with “Music Is The Key,” particularly when the DJ International smash managed to peak at #9 on the US Hot Dance/Disco chart. But the lyrics of “Cindy C” suggest he was also familiar with much more of Chicago House in general and JM Silk in particular. While the words “Jack your body” can be heard at the opening of “Music Is The Key,” he almost certainly would have been familiar with another JM Silk track – the even more popular “Jack Your Body,” which had issued by DJ International, RCA and London Records in 1986 and went to #1.
It’s unclear if the world was waiting for a response, but some believed they heard Prince address House Music in the 1986 album Sign o’ The Times. The “house” in “Housequake” was allegedly Prince’s first (and dismissive, if you’re interpreting it this way) reference to the music of the clubs.
A far more direct response was made in sessions recorded a year later. “Music Is The Key” was the envelope that Prince used to send a message back to the community that had been sending so many his way, referenced when he snagged a trace of JM Silk’s massive hit in his devotional ode to everyone’s favorite supermodel, “Cindy C.”
It’s interesting when you read the lyrics to “Cindy C” now that Prince seems to have instinctively recognized one of the most obvious characteristics of House Music today – it’s positivity – and honed in on it. Only Prince could really tell us why it even still held the name “Cindy C” – the lyrics are basically a devotional to the party scene described on so many classic Chicago House records.
Music is the key to set yourself free
From depression, drugs and increasing poverty
The key is to the lock, the lock is on the door
The door has a knob that you’ve never turned before
The jack, use the jack, it opens up the lock
Cause there’s the key to unlock the body
Place it like that to open up the door
The door to the house full of people galore
The beat won’t stop ’til the JM jocks
And he jacks the box ’til the party rocks
The clock tick-tocks and the place gets hot
And believe it or not, all the troubles you forgot
It’s just that easy if you want it to be
For all the fellas, and the young ladies
So ease your mind and set yourself free
To the mystifying music that we call Cindy C
This was a tremendous moment in music history, given the popularity of dance music in the years to come. Yet it was for all intents and purposes almost unknown. The Black Album, as the legend goes, was withdrawn from circulation on the even of its release in December 1987. Promotional copies were widely bootlegged and passed around as a sort of curio – the title of the album lead to rumors of Prince embracing Satanism, though having heard a probably 50th or 60th generation cassette tape at the time, it sounded to me like a devotional to fuzz. By the time it was properly released in 1994, House Music was already on the radio and many of the artists that serenaded Prince were fairly well-known, at least in Europe. Though there was at least one long lasting connection: Years later half of JM Silk – Steve “Silk” Hurley – would lend his slick remixing skills to Prince’s “Gett Off.”