On Thursday afternoon, just a few hours after Prince‘s death was first reported, Spike Lee announced an emergency tribute outside the office of his production company on South Elliott Place near Brooklyn’s Fort Greene Park. At 8 p.m., the scheduled start time, the street was nearly empty, but when the host arrived at 8:25, he looked out on a dense crowd dressed in everything from purple bathrobes to commute-home business-casual. “Alright,” he said, addressing both the people in the street and the DJ, J. Period. “You know why we’re here.”
Immediately, Period opened with the only song it would be appropriate to open with. “Dearly beloved,” Prince’s voice rolled from a pair of speakers on the sidewalk, “we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life.” But before the DJ let the people go crazy, he looped the spoken-word intro until they demonstrated some enthusiasm. On the fourth try, there were finally cheers, and on the fifth, he let the beat push through and the record continue, setting off NYC’s first major outdoor dance party of 2016.
J. Period, who has worked with Nas and selects music at Nets games, had a simple job: Don’t fuck this up. He didn’t, and in retrospect, it’s hard to imagine how he could have. “1999” came next, matching the apocalyptic-yet-irrepressible mood of both the opening selection and the crowd. If this was a kind of judgment day, the people on South Elliott should be given high marks for their ability to get down in public and recite the verses of “Starfish and Coffee” totally a cappella. Every song inspired something from someone. During “When Doves Cry” a group of steppers took over the middle of the street; “Housequake” was a hit for all those who recognized it; “7” took the crowd to church; and “Kiss” provoked rounds of couples dancing both times it was played.
Spike himself spent most of the evening next door, sitting at the top of the stoop and doing interviews as he bopped to the beat of tracks like “Nasty Girl” and “Sexy MF.” You know it’s an event when the party photographers are from CNN – and you know it’s a good one when the cameramen walk through the crowd singing “Little Red Corvette.” This was a sad occasion, but there was enough community to make the vibe feel almost positive. The air was filled with as much gratitude as sorrow, and dancing became a way to say thank you.
Chaka Khan’s version of “I Feel for You” was the one that really got Spike moving, and a little after 10 p.m., the director announced that this celebration would be ending with the only song appropriate to end with. Yes, it was time for “Purple Rain.” “We’ve all come out to celebrate a great human being,” he said while the guitar intro looped. “Let’s give it up for Prince!” And so everybody on South Elliot Place raised their hands in the air to record video, shine a flashlight or give themselves over to worship. The song itself has never sounded more like a prayer. Six people paid their respects by opening umbrellas, one of which even had drawings of Prince on each of its panels.
As the song neared its conclusion, Lee turned his own prayers to the cops standing next to the mixing board. From across the street, you could see him hold up his finger to ask for one more and clap after they gave him the OK. So, once again, “Purple Rain” from the top. This turned out to be necessary: In between takes, the crowd seemed to collectively pass from the depression stage of grief to the acceptance stage, and this run through the song was unmistakably lighter. There was less swaying and more laughing. During the finale, the guy standing next to me dabbed each time Prince or his choir sang the title. “Purple rain” – his face went into his left elbow. “Puuuurple Rain” – his face went into the right. It was perfect.