P.M. Dawn’s American Utopia
Looking back on 30 years of the debut album by one of hip-hop’s most misunderstood acts
“Set Adrift on Memory Bliss” was quietly rap’s first number one hit by an African-American artist, ascending to the top of the chart in late November of 1991.
That P.M. Dawn’s jazzy/new age stream-of-consciousness track was more an anomaly from the genre than “Ice Ice Baby” is beside the point. It’s understandable that some may have questioned the record’s street cred–even songwriter Attrell Cordes (aka Prince Be) questioned if his creations could be called rap. That said, the blissful track was clearly hip-hop, just a new branch envisioned by an emotional whirlwind of a 20-year-old creating unique musical concoctions with his brother Jarrett (DJ Minutemix).
VIDEO: Club MTV October 1991 feat. P.M. Dawn
Topping the Billboard charts did not come out of the blue as Of the Heart, Of the Soul and Of the Cross: The Utopian Experience was the buzziest album of 1991 until a certain Seattle grunge band dropped their major label debut a month later. However, it was a bit of a turning point for the perception of a duo whose lyrics lived in the world of perceptions.
Between the massive success of their novelty-adjacent hit, KRS-One’s famous vendetta against the artist, the duo’s hippie persona featuring flowing caftans, and the mist of thirty years’ time, it’s easy to forget just what a critical revelation this album with the ridiculous title was when it came out in 1991. For months, buzz grew around the act who were already famous in the UK. When the album came out here in the States, it would have been natural for oversold critics to dig into it. However, the album was released in August to rave reviews which would carry through to the end of the year when it ranked 5th on the Village Voice’s Pazz & Jop poll and featured on many year-end top 10s, including the New York Times and SPIN.
It’s easy to mistake this record for a Christian album, and who’s to say its not? The title references the holy trinity, Prince Be repeats “I’d like to say what’s up to God” in the intro, and God is indeed a central figure of the album. Further, the Cordes Brothers honed their style in Jersey City churches, so it’s hard to say the glove doesn’t fit. However, while Prince Be did point to his belief in “God” in interviews, the spiritual core of the album owes more to a cosmic power. It’s infused with that mix of philosophy and Eastern mysticism, an idea that God is everywhere and in everything and nowhere and in nothing all at once. To put it bluntly, the album is A LOT (the overblown LP title is a bit of a warning there), but there is also so much to love within it.
Prince Be makes it instantly clear what sort of trip we’re about to go on with “Reality Used To Be a Friend of Mine.” The track deals with mortality in a lysergic series of tongue-twisters and C.S. Lewis-esque meet cutes. He introduces multiple personified forms of “reality” before concluding “I lost touch with reality/I keep it as far as I can from Prince Be/I just didn’t run with the way she flowed/to where I just said ‘yo, I gots to go’” before descending down a rabbit hole that has even his brother questioning his sanity (“Prince, you’re taking this trip too far”). Its repeated fade out gives even more insight into Prince Be’s particular and peculiar mindset: “Chase the blues away/take your mind off reality and leave her alone.” It’s safer in a mystical, unreal world.
Prince Be goes deeper into the halls of his mind with the spoken word R&B of “Paper Doll,” the album’s unlikely second U.S. hit. It samples Gil-Scott Heron and Brian Jackson’s “Angola, Louisiana,” a clear influence on the act’s poetic style. Prince Be defended the then-controversial practice of sampling as a chance to expose young audiences to unheard music from the past. While this may be the easy excuse, I attest that this track was my gateway to discovering the world of Gil-Scott, so he schooled at least one listener. Thanks, Prince Be.
VIDEO: P.M. Dawn “Paper Doll”
“To Serenade a Rainbow” takes the artist even further into beat poetry territory. It takes inspiration/sample from Hugh Masekela’s “Child of the Earth” off 1966’s Child of the Earth, a song that itself is spoken mysticism mentioning rainbows. It also cites the elephant in the room–the Soul, De La that is, on the line “Potholes in my lawn/that’s the ticket but a different definition than the Soul defines.” Of course, it’s a pun with multiple meanings, but we know who he’s talking about.
De La Soul famously sprinted away from the “hippie rap” label after fans and writers tried to apply it to the trio’s classic 3 Feet High and Rising. That album included the band’s debut 12” “Potholes in My Lawn,” hence the ref. While “hippie” is a loaded word, P.M. Dawn’s outfits combined with Prince Be’s mystic poetry would prove pretty on the nose. Where De La ran from the idea, P.M. Dawn was mostly unapologetic. They made it OK to lean into one’s flowery truth. Truly, both stances paved the way for acts like Spearhead, Digable Planets, Arrested Development, the Hieroglyphics crew, OutKast and, well, most of the alt rap of today. All these acts re-defined what hip-hop could be, and De La and P.M. Dawn were in the lead.
Weirdly, on the next track, “Comatose,” Prince Be’s flow switches to furious as he channels his best Chuck D. And that brings us to our other elephant. There was a great contradiction in the public persona of P.M. Dawn. In January, 1992, Kris “KRS-One” Parker bum rushed the stage and literally ejected Prince Be. It’s an incident which has unfortunately colored the memory of P.M. Dawn.
What’s forgotten is KRS-One’s rage did not come in a vacuum. Prince Be critiqued that KRS-One “wanted to be a teacher, but a teacher of what?” Parker’s vendetta was not even particularly personal. He, like Prince Be, was simply trying to change a narrative of negativity and drown out a group of perceived haters including X-Clan, Ice Cube, and hip-hop’s best named group ever, Poor Righteous Teachers. He wanted to take out one of his detractors to make a point, and of that group, the “hippie” was the easiest to “punch.”
For someone who embraced peaceful observation, Prince Be could be savage in assessing his peers, even downright catty. Admittedly, he was responding to a growing clamor questioning his act’s hip-hop cred. But then (1) even Prince Be himself dismissed the idea of genre and (2) wouldn’t his hippie quasi-Christian roots advise him to turn the other cheek?
P.M. Dawn returns to his comfort zone for one of the album’s greatest tracks. “A Watcher’s Point of View (Dont’Cha Think)” pairs a propulsive beat with some of Prince Be’s best stream-of-consciousness lyrics. “I’m so great I amaze myself explains just how vain is vanity” sticks in my craw 30 years later. It just fits a rapper whose self-doubt battles his own ego in real time. The song is also a great example of his perfectly imperfect flow–a flow that echoes real life–as when the MC gets more caught up in his rhyme he gets faster and more frenzied. He’s both measured and impassioned and that embodies the magic of P.M. Dawn.
“Watcher” dissolves into “Even After I Die,” an ethereal spoken-word journey that would seem to be a love letter to God (are we sure this wasn’t a Christian record?). Next, Prince Be turns his pondering eye sharply inward with “In the Presence of Mirrors,” as he questions his place in his own story. It’s also the track which showcases his singing voice which, while a bit off-tune, works for him.
Then we hit the song that brought the masses to this wonderfully strange record. “Set Adrift on Memory Bliss” did not particularly misrepresent the album. Save for maybe “Groove is in the Heart,” it was the most unusual song to hit the top ten in the 1990s to that point. Between the bewitching Spandau Ballet sample, Prince Be’s verbal acrobatics, the Christina Applegate name drop, and a soothing video MTV put in heavy rotation, the track soared #1 on the Billboard Hot 100. It spent the final week of the chart’s old methodology there before dropping back to make way for Michael Jackson’s “Black or White.”
VIDEO: P.M. Dawn “Set Adrift On Memory Bliss”
The House-music echoing “Shake” follows and it’s perhaps the record’s one total klunker, but kudos to Prince Be for trying something different. “If I Wuz U,” using a perfect re-imagining of Kraftwerk’s “Pocket Calculator” as a backdrop, keeps the same energy, but with more of the jazzy magic that makes the rest of the album so enduring.
P.M. Dawn closes their debut with “On a Clear Day,” a perfect hopeful sendoff taking the spirit of “O-oh Child” or “Wake Up Everybody” onto a more new age plane, yet retaining the soulful gospel positivity. On the track, Prince Be utilizes all of his vocal tricks alternating between singing, rapping, spoken-word poetry, and gentle conversation. While I call it the closing track, there is also “The Beautiful” but that’s more an outro as Prince Be, as is his nature, still has stuff on his mind and needs to talk his way out of the album.
After Of the Heart…’s success, their hitmaking career was somehow not over (even with the nonsense and inevitable backlash). “I’d Die Without U,” from the underrated Eddie Murphy film Boomerang spent almost a year on the Billboard chart peaking at #3, while the George Michael-sampling “Looking Through Patient Eyes,” off their follow-up The Bliss Album, made the top ten.
After mixed reviews for that record, they even managed to rebound and create another critically beloved record in Jesus Wept (again, they’re not Christian?) and scored a college and alternative hit with “Downtown Venus.” They found less success with Dearest Christian, I’m So Very Sorry for Bringing You Here. Love, Dad (his son’s name is even “Christian”), but many reviewers still dug where they were going.
Their story does take a turn at this point as Jarrett Cordes (Minutemix) was accused of molesting a young cousin and older brother Attrell’s condition started to get the better of him. They had a moment in 2005 when they beat out Missing Persons, Juice Newton and others on the MTV career revival reality show Hit Me, Baby, One More Time, but Prince Be’s health began to severely decline and DJ Minutemix’s legal problems became worse as he wound up in jail. After multiple diabetes-related amputations, Attrell “Prince Be” Cordes died in 2016 at age 46.
It’s astonishing that P.M. Dawn does not have a loftier spot in the canon. Given their groundbreaking sound, multiple hits, and critical acclaim, you’d think they would be held in higher esteem as a major innovator, instead of merely wistfully remembered. Acclaimed Music–a site that aggregates critic’s lists throughout the years–pegs them at 2160th in all-time “importance.” In fairness, that does put them snugly between Darlene Love and Bobby Brown, so that’s good company. Still, the site does not have this album, which has aged extremely gracefully, in their top 3000. Since the album was a staple of 1991’s year-end lists, it has clearly disappeared from later lists.
It’s hardly a surprise that this album holds up after 30 years as Prince Be always seemed to a man existing outside of time–drawing equally from music’s past and future. In its obituary, the L.A. Times beautifully tagged the singer/rapper as a “nostalgist who heard the future.”
P.M. Dawn technically still exists as Doc G and K-R.O.K. but without either of the Cordes brothers it’s more of a shadow group. That said, they’ll always have Utopia.
AUDIO: P.M. Dawn Of the Heart, Of the Soul and Of the Cross: The Utopian Experience (full album)
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