At the end of 1984, 240 American rock critics voted in the Village Voice‘s annual Pazz & Jop poll. Writing about the results, Robert Christgau noted, “You got three Top 10 bands from Minneapolis” — Prince’s Purple Rain (No. 2), the Replacements’ Let It Be (No. 4), and Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade (No. 8 ) — “and try to make a ‘sound’ out of that, Mr. Bizzer.” Indeed: In the Twin Cities’ mid-’80s rock scene, the buzz was almost as deafening as the amps. And not only did those three records sound nothing like one another, they reflected a city whose scene prided itself on its diversity.
That’s partly to do with the place where much of it was incubated: First Avenue/7th Street Entry, a former bus depot turned big rock club and its smaller side room, a staple of touring acts since 1970, when it opened as Uncle Sam’s. In the twin aftermaths of punk and disco, manager Steve McClellan began booking adventurously both national and local acts, incubating a wide-open atmosphere that was especially friendly to black acts, who were marginalized elsewhere.
It wasn’t just rock, either. First Avenue in-house jock Kevin Cole — now an indie-rock power broker as the programming director for Seattle’s KEXP-FM — was one of the first DJs in the U.S. outside of Chicago to play early house music, and his Depth Probe parties were a crucial first step toward the city’s rave scene. (Minneapolis rave kingpin Woody McBride got his start at the Depth Probe parties.) And while hip-hop hit the city late, the mid-to-late-’90s saw the rise of the Rhymesayers collective in the club’s confines. (For the whole story, see Peter S. Scholtes’s essential oral history of First Avenue, from City Pages.)
First Avenue wasn’t the whole story, either. The Uptown Bar was a crucial melting pot for punk — the Amphetamine Reptile label was especially popular there. A host of coffeehouses and rec centers were responsible for making local hip-hop a viable option. The Gay 90s, a big entertainment complex, consistently employed some of the city’s best house spinners. The list goes on, and it adds up. The ’80s and ’90s were a fertile time, one you still can’t quite put a “sound” on.
Rhymer Slug and beat-maker Ant, this defining Minneapolis rap duo’s consistent members, tour constantly and keep their themes low-key and down-home.
The biggest pop star ever from the Twin Cities is also its most artistically ambitious and accomplished, putting Minneapolis on the pop map for good
Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis
The Gamble-Huff of the tundra, Jam and Lewis left the Time to become R&B’s hottest production team of the mid ’80s, scoring hit after hit with Janet Jackson, Alexander O’Neal and Robert Palmer, among many others.
Paul Westerberg’s heart-on-sleeve teen-punks turned adult rockers made for a great, if tragic fable (Bob Stinson, R.I.P.), but they made even better music.
Live R&B bands are still a staple of nightclubs in the Twin Cities, and few do it better than this veteran St. Paul quintet.
Bob Mould howled through his guitar and his microphone, Grant Hart crooned into his mike and beat the hell out of his drums, Greg Norton held steady on bass and rocked indie rock’s greatest mustache. Together they defined the post-hardcore ’80s.
By all eyewitness accounts one of the greatest live bands the city has seen, the Dave Pirner-led quartet eventually settled into a more mid-tempo groove they had hits with. But Pirner always shouted with soul.
Before Craig Finn and Tad Kubler became the nucleus of the Hold Steady, they played brittle, exciting and punkier with this combo, where Finn’s detail-heavy storytelling found its feet.
“NOISE” reads the T-shirts of Amphetamine Reptile, the Minneapolis noise-punk label that captured the hearts of arty, angry rockers everywhere. Cows’ craggy din was topped off by Shannon Selberg’s theatrical howl — two kinds of noise.
Darn right Minneapolis has a thriving alt-country scene, and the group led by co-songwriters Mark Olson and Gary Louris were a big reason why. They soldier on without Olson to this day.