Friday, June 29, 2007

hip-hop amnesia

Remember P.M. Dawn? The hip-hop duo of Prince Be and DJ Minutemix, otherwise known as brothers Attrell and Jarrett Cordes, respectively, were popular for a few years in the early '90s. And they're performing in Chicago tonight.

They haven't put out an album since 1998 (Minutemix left the group two years ago; Dr. Giggles, a cousin of the Cordes brothers, took his place), and they're not touring behind a new one. So are they touring the country just for the hell of it? Not as far as I can telltheir Web site says they're also playing in Lincolnshire, Illinois, tomorrow night, but that's it. They did two shows in Australia earlier this year, and, which uses a looser definition of "tour" than I do, posted this news back in February:

The tour continues! P.m. Dawn will be heading to Chi-town for a few days starting Friday, February 23rd. You can catch them on LIVE TV, on the WGN Morning News Show, local channel 9. Later that night you can catch P.m. Dawn Live at the Good Times Pub in Elmhurst, IL. And Saturday the 24th, they'll be live at Sharky's in Round Lake Beach, IL.

It sounds like P.M. Dawn has become a bar band. How did that happen? And how come they only book gigs Down Under and in the Land of Lincoln?

It struck me recently that P.M. Dawn was the first Mellow Gold hip-hop act. De La Soul didn't like being called hippies back in '89, but they had nothing on P.M. Dawn's flower power, and no other rappers I can think of were placing songs like "I'd Die Without You" and "Looking Through Patient Eyes" on adult-contemporary playlists. "Set Adrift on Memory Bliss," the hit single from their debut album, Of the Heart, of the Soul and of the Cross: The Utopian Experience (1991), floats along like a cloud, which isn't something you can say—or would even want to sayabout the hits of a rapper like DMX.

P.M. Dawn never got that much love from other rappers, and I'm not even talking about the time KRS-One and his posse shoved them offstage during one of their performances in 1992,
which inspired them to write "Plastic," an unexpectedly hard-charging track on their second LP, The Bliss Album...? (1993): "So now I'm accused of spiking the punch / And I'll be the scapegoat for faking the funk / But when they set up another prime-time beef / What's hard at first but melts in the heat / They call that plastic." KRS-One was mad that Prince Be had said, "KRS-One is a teacher, but a teacher of what?" in a magazine interview, so he decided to challenge P.M. Dawn during a show. Whether it was KRS-One or one of his friends who punched Prince Be and threw him into the crowd is unclear, but the resulting melee helped reaffirm Prince Be's original point: the rapper who preached nonviolence had chosen to debate P.M. Dawn by way of a physical confrontation.

P.M. Dawn's discography could easily be placed in the unofficial category of "rap music white people like." (Read Michaelangelo Matos's 2000 review of The Best of P.M. Dawn for his assertion that Prince Be is the Brian Wilson of hip-hop.) But somewhere around the middle of The Bliss Album...? Prince Be stopped rapping.

Here's a decent rapper who happens to have a terrific singing voice, so by the time of 1995's Jesus Wept, Be was exclusively crooning on ultramellow tracks like "Sonchyenne" and a cover of Prince's "1999." (Whether or not he was better off rapping his philosophy, as Matos believes, or singing it is hard to say.) But by that point P.M. Dawn's commercial moment had passed, and 1998's Dearest Christian, I'm So Sorry for Bringing You Here. Love, Dad made it seem as if the group's spirituality had eclipsed their ability to make radio-friendly hits.

Although I sold my copy of Dearest Christian a year or so after I bought it, I don't remember P.M. Dawn's religious leanings getting in the way of the music; their songs just weren't as compelling on the fourth go-round. Due to problems they had clearing the rights to unlicensed samples, which also affected Dearest Christian, their fifth album, the Internet-only "Fucked Music," was pulled from the Web in 2000 before anyone except the group's most fervent fans had a chance to hear it.

In 2002 it looked like a new album was finally on its way when the single "Amnesia" was released. One review even said that it was "the lead-off single for P.M. Dawn's The Jim Sullivan Syndrome album," but that album still hasn't been released, possibly because P.M. Dawn was never able to land a deal with a label willing to pay for all the samples they wanted to use. Nevertheless, "Amnesia" is a stunning track all on its own; it's easily one of P.M. Dawn's best, and proof that they're still capable of making sonically rich hip-hop that incorporates elements of soul, pop, and soft rock in unexpected ways.

I hope P.M. Dawn has a good show tonight at the Heartland Cafe in Chicago and tomorrow at the Cubby Bear in Lincolnshire. (Rowdy Cubs fans apparently can't get enough of the blissed-out sounds of P.M. Dawn. Really takes the edge off after a hard day of pounding Old Styles.) But I'd much rather see them deliver on the promise of "Amnesia" by releasing a new album sometime soon.


  1. I was asking myself the same questions last year about these guys, and only got slightly further answer-wise. Unfortunately, most of what follows is hazy hearsay ...

    * Supposedly there's a fan-only album released sometime in the early 2000's, containing a number of unclearable samples. Not sure if this is related to "Amnesia" or not. Never could find a copy, 'cause the PM Dawn mailing lists and websites had been either inactive or a complete mess.

    * They were once slated to produced the Bee Gees in the mid-90's, so the story goes.

    * Used to be a miserably embarrassing and recent clip of "PM Dawn" performing "Set Adrift ..." in a bar over on youtube. Can't bear to bring myself to look for it now.

    * And rumor has it Prince Be is going blind (??)

    These guys have an amazing canon, and in 2007 are criminally underrated. Hopefully the comeback's underway ...

  2. "Supposedly there's a fan-only album released sometime in the early 2000's, containing a number of unclearable samples. Not sure if this is related to 'Amnesia' or not."

    You're referring to the album called "Fucked Music" that I mentioned in the post. "Amnesia," as mentioned, was supposedly going to be on the "Jim Sullivan Syndrome" album, which was going to be the follow-up to "Fucked Music."

    I heard that rumor about Prince Be going blind as well (caused by diabetes?), back when P.M. Dawn appeared on an NBC game show/reality show called "Hit Me Baby One More Time" in the summer of '05. P.M. Dawn apparently won the competition.

    Thanks for the Bee Gees trivia. Sounds like it would've been a good fit. I just wish Prince Be could get some new music out there. "Amnesia" really was a terrific comeback that hardly anybody heard.

  3. I had completely forgotten about how great "Plastic" was. "What's this? Huh? What's this?" Both lyrically and (this time) musically as well, it just demolished KRS-One's entire career output.

    Can't say I had any use for the hippie/"spiritual" stuff I heard from them, though. Do please let me know if anyone ever pisses Prince Be off again, because I think I really like him when he's angry.

    1. You might enjoy "Be Bastard," from "Fucked Music," but it's no "Plastic":