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Prince Be of P.M. Dawn made it 'OK to be weird' while countering '90s hip-hop orthodoxy

Del Cowie

Prince Be of P.M. Dawn, born Attrell Cordes, died Friday of renal kidney disease. He was 46 years old. Cordes' death in a hospital in Neptune, N.J. was confirmed by his wife. Cordes had been suffering from diabetes for many years and had a stroke in 2005 that left him partially paralyzed.

Along with his brother, Jarrett, known as DJ Minutemix, Prince Be was the MC in the duo P.M. Dawn who were best known for their 1991 song "Set Adrift on Memory Bliss." Sampling U.K. new wave group Spandau Ballet's 1983 hit "True" and featuring random pop-culture referencing lyrics like "Christina Applegate/You gotta put me on," it was the first hip-hop single by a black act to reach number one on Billboard’s pop singles chart, the Hot 100.

The group also had a significant hit with the ballad "I'd Die Without You," featured on the soundtrack to the Eddie Murphy film Boomerang and their sophomore record, 1993's The Bliss Album…? (Vibrations of Love and Anger and the Ponderance of Life and Existence). With that song's heartfelt singing and Prince Be's soft-spoken introspective raps, they were very different from the popular hip-hop groups of the time that were immersed in harder beats and samples, largely eschewing the emotional vulnerability in P.M. Dawn's music.

Given hip-hop's current willingness to incorporate melodic and esoteric acts in 2016, P.M. Dawn were ahead of their time. "Set Adrift on Memory Bliss" and the group's debut album Of the Heart, of the Soul and of the Cross: The Utopian Experience arrived at a time when the sonic rivalries between the East and West coasts was beginning to gather steam.

However, in the early '90s, the West Coast was already under the thrall of the influence of N.W.A. with Dr. Dre's G-funk about to claim ascendance. The East Coast had taken a decidedly jazzy sonic turn, digging in the crates for obscure samples, eschewing the use of easily recognizable songs like Spandau Ballet's "True."

Hailing from Jersey City, PM Dawn were definitely closer to the sounds emanating from the East Coast and were clearly disciples of Long Island's De La Soul and their 1989 classic 3 Feet High and Rising. However, by 1991, De La had already killed off the hippie tag that had been placed on them with their bristling sophomore effort De La Soul is Dead. In short, P.M. Dawn's rigidly bohemian approach did not fit into either sonically dominant coastal camp and the group were easy targets for ridicule and ostracization.

The most jarring indication that P.M. Dawn did not fit in with the prevailing order of hip-hop of the 1990s came when widely acknowledged legendary hip-hop artist KRS-One of Boogie Down Productions interrupted a 1992 P.M. Dawn show, pushed Prince Be off the stage and grabbed the microphone to perform one of his own songs.

The incident stemmed from an interview with Details magazine where Prince Be made some comments about Krs-One, crystallizing around the comment "KRS-One wants to be a teacher, but a teacher of what?"

The larger context was P.M. Dawn's overall vision of a utopian worldview that negated the significance of race, but the KRS-One comment was what garnered the most attention. The group's reputation never really recovered from the event and each of their following releases was met with increasing indifference.

However, with artists like Kanye West, Kid Cudi, Drake and A$AP Rocky notably incorporating wider notions of hip-hop masculinity and ambient soundscapes in their music today, P.M. Dawn's willingness to do this in the early 1990s when these perspectives were not quite as widely accepted should be noted.

The underground strain of hip-hop called "cloud rap" that has gained traction in recent years, yielding groups like Main Attrakionz and Flatbush Zombies, can definitely trace an aesthetic debt back to P.M. Dawn.

Speaking to Rolling Stone in 2011, Doc G, Prince Be's cousin and recent member of P.M. Dawn, spoke of the group's influence.

"Kanye West, T-Pain, Outkast ... but you can't mention P.M. Dawn without mentioning De La Soul, and you can't mention Arrested Development without mentioning P.M. Dawn," he said. "Everybody begets somebody. We had the weirdness. Now it's okay to be weird; it's okay to wear bizarre things."