Happy 25th Anniversary to P.M. Dawn’s debut album Of the Heart, of the Soul and of the Cross: The Utopian Experience, originally released August 6, 1991.
With the recent passing of Prince Be (born Attrell Cordes) this past June, many of us have found another reason—albeit a regrettable one—to revisit and reassess his group’s music and much-debated legacy within the annals of hip-hop history.
The Jersey City born and bred Prince Be formed P.M. Dawn with his younger brother Jarrett Cordes, a.k.a. DJ Minutemix, in 1988, wasting little time in delivering their debut single. Upon its release via Warlock Records in 1989, “Ode to a Forgetful Mind” was, no pun intended, largely forgotten, at least here in the states. Gee Street Records, the London based label that found modest success throughout the ‘90s with the Jungle Brothers and Stereo MCs among others, released the single and it resonated markedly better with UK audiences and critics.
Confronted with financial troubles as the ‘80s concluded, Gee Street was salvaged by the famed Island Records, which acquired the indie label in 1990 and galvanized the promotion of its artist roster, including the fledgling, but hotly tipped P.M. Dawn. Featuring a melodic mélange of samples from Prince, The Jackson 5, The Doobie Brothers, and their aforementioned labelmates the Jungle Brothers, the duo’s introspective second single “A Watcher's Point Of View (Don't ‘Cha Think)” surfaced in May 1991. A few months later, P.M. Dawn’s first proper song suite arrived in the form of Of the Heart, of the Soul and of the Cross: The Utopian Experience.
The album encapsulated the Cordes brothers’ retro-bent disposition and idiosyncratic musical vision, a tripped-out breed of hip-hop for the nostalgic, flower-powered Haight-Ashbury set. “Maybe I was born too late," Prince Be confessed to the LA Times in 1991. "I love the '60s—the colors, the attitudes and the music.” Admittedly always dangerously close to falling into hippie-dippie artifice territory, the unconventional duo were musically and lyrically adept enough to pull it off with more than a little credibility, substance, and panache intact.
Perhaps inevitably, more than a few music journos lazily likened P.M. Dawn to De La Soul and their early D.A.I.S.Y. Age propelled themes, the misinterpretation of which De La would lambast on their sophomore LP De La Soul is Dead. P.M. Dawn’s sound and aesthetic were fundamentally different than their Native Tongues counterparts, however, as they incorporated far more spiritual motifs and passionately embraced the “free to be you and me” credo. Not to mention that P.M. Dawn’s songs were largely devoid of the braggadocious and the humorous, two staple qualities that defined De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, and the Jungle Brothers’ records at the time.
In fact, Prince Be seemed to define P.M. Dawn’s debut album in opposition to hip-hop altogether. “[Of the Heart] doesn’t use rap at all,” he insisted to BOMB magazine in 1991. “I’m just feeling my own thing and it comes out so close to rap because it’s talk, it’s conversation. But it’s the lyrics that separate us from the whole rap vibe. I haven’t written a rap song in a while. When you do rap, you have to condition yourself to a certain frame of mind. Up-front, in-your-face, laying-it-on-the-line type of sound. Delivery is what I find interesting about rap. The wholeheartedness of it. The words, I don’t really listen to anymore because they’re sadistic.”
Further clarifying and, as fate would have it, complicating matters were Prince Be’s controversial comments during a late 1991 interview with Details magazine. “I don’t like black people,” he admitted. “I don’t like white people. I don’t like that kind of thing. Once you consider yourself black or white, you’re stupid. The prejudice thing is so stupid. If you are prejudiced, you are stupid. Public Enemy and people like that—they just make mountains out of molehills. KRS-One wants to be a teacher, but a teacher of what? N.W.A. just don’t do anything at all.”
Well, alrighty then. While Prince Be obviously intended to express his condemnation of racial prejudice, and rightfully so, the careless manner in which he articulated the sentiment left a helluva lot to be desired, and more than a few folks scratching their heads. In the short span of a single perplexing quote, he managed to flippantly dismiss the historical legacy and contemporary context of race in America, while undermining three of hip-hop’s most venerated acts, all of whom represent vital voices within the broader narrative of the African-American experience.
Not surprisingly, Prince Be’s words provoked the ire of many within the hip-hop community, none more so than the Bronx-bred Blastmaster himself, KRS-One. During P.M. Dawn’s performance at Manhattan’s Sound Factory on the evening of January 13, 1992, as part of a show that also featured Boogie Down Productions and Black Sheep, KRS-One and his BDP crew bumrushed the stage, bringing Prince Be and DJ Minutemix’s set to an abrupt end, before immediately launching into “I’m Still #1” from their 1988 sophomore album By All Means Necessary. Justified retribution, karmic comeuppance or not, the episode was emblematic of the growing tensions between hip-hop’s more hardcore contingent and the burgeoning, so-called softcore movement fueled in no small part by P.M. Dawn’s success.
That success was initially sparked by Of the Heart’s unforgettable second single. Regardless of where you ultimately netted out with respect to your overall opinion of P.M. Dawn, if you’re like me, you were hooked the first time you heard the pop-infused brilliance of “Set Adrift on Memory Bliss.” A few years before Puff Daddy would establish the approach as his signature production technique, P.M. Dawn combined one of the most recognizable pop melodies from the ‘80s in Spandau Ballet’s timeless 1983 hit “True” with the oft-sampled breakbeat from The Soul Searchers’ “Ashley’s Roachclip” (1974). The result was pure pop perfection.
Featuring Prince Be’s emotive recollections of a past lover interspersed with paraphrased lines indebted to Joni Mitchell’s “The Boho Dance” from her 1975 LP The Hissing of Summer Lawns, “Set Adrift on Memory Bliss” became the first rap song by a black act to top the Billboard Hot 100 pop singles chart (Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby” and Marky Mark & The Funky Bunch’s “Good Vibrations” were the other rap songs that had previously secured the top ranking). The single very nearly topped the UK chart as well, peaking at #3.
While “Set Adrift” will forever be considered P.M. Dawn’s signature song, my personal vote for the album’s strongest track is the atmospheric “Paper Doll,” which flawlessly samples the hushed groove of Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson’s “Angola, Louisiana” from their underappreciated 1978 album Secrets. Released as the third single, “Paper Doll” finds Prince Be imagining a simplified, utopian coexistence where everyone resides on an equal plane, with no judgments passed. “’Paper Doll’ is basically a song of unity,” Prince Be explained to BOMB magazine. “I used paper dolls to demonstrate how I think we should be. Like the little cutouts that are holding hands all the time. I just used that image to show how people should be. No one thinks they’re prejudiced.”
Additional standouts include “Reality Used to Be a Friend of Mine,” Prince Be’s ode to rejecting reality in favor of an escapist unreality, as manifested through musings such as “What is real, a positive plane / Reality and life are not the same / As to her equivalence to what is real / She doesn't appeal to how I feel.” The reflective, Dennis Coffey sampling “Even After I Die” contains veiled references to the Cordes brothers’ father who died when they were young, as Prince Be attempts to reconcile his identity in the absence of having his biological father around to help shape it.
The sublime, spoken-word album closer “The Beautiful” reimagines the repeated refrain from the Beatles’ 1967 B-side “Baby, You’re a Rich a Man” (“How does it feel to be one of the beautiful people”), as Prince Be seeks to redefine beauty in “a quest to be colorless.” The dreamlike “To Serenade a Rainbow,” the midtempo ballad “On a Clear Day,” and the funky “Comatose,” in which Prince Be’s rhyming cadence and tone surprisingly echo that of the other famous PMD (Parrish Smith of EPMD), are bona fide highlights as well.
P.M. Dawn followed up Of the Heart’s breakthrough success with two stellar albums in their own right, 1993’s The Bliss Album...? (Vibrations of Love and Anger and the Ponderance of Life and Existence) and 1995’s more succinctly titled Jesus Wept. After this, the group experienced a slew of personal and professional setbacks. These included the Diabetes-driven deterioration of Prince Be’s health, as well as DJ Minutemix’s 1995 arrest for alleged aggravated sexual assault of an underage female relative (the charges were later dropped due to lack of evidence) and his subsequent dismissal from the group for “conduct detrimental to the bliss,” according to their cousin Gregory Lewis Carr II (a.k.a. Doc. G), who now owns and manages the P.M. Dawn moniker.
The group’ fourth album Dearest Christian, I'm So Very Sorry for Bringing You Here. Love, Dad emerged in 1998 and was followed two years later by the unofficially released Fucked Music. Neither came close to rivaling the critical and commercial acclaim of their precursors, however.
A far cry from the streetwise, ego-driven disposition of their hip-hop counterparts at the time, P.M. Dawn’s unorthodox mix of urban bohemianism, quasi-religious undertones, and advocacy of a liberated human consciousness proved that hip-hop as a genre and community was evolving, the breadth and depth of the music continuing to earn loyal devotees not just in the states, but worldwide. The group’s success also opened the doors of opportunity for a slew of hip-hop acts (Arrested Development and Boogiemonsters, among others) that merged the cerebral and spiritual, and never felt the need to conform to the more hardcore dimensions of the art form. Twenty-five years later, and with much respect to the late Prince Be, the bliss lives on.