By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
Photo by Mike DiverFuture hip-hop/pop/R&B archaeologists will be kinder to P.M. Dawn than are folks in the here and now. Twenty-first-century Negro musicians will cite them as a touchstone, speak in hushed and baffled tones about the lack of love given them by the black folk of their day -- in much the same way that it's hard for us now to imagine Jimi Hendrix's constant struggle for recognition from his own. Or the pain that struggle caused him.
Exiles from hip-hop who keep stretching the genre from outside the media- and market-drawn margins (where the dissimilar but similarly afflicted likes of Basehead, Lazy K, Hieroglyphics and Aceyalone keep them company), P.M. Dawn is now more hip-hop in (tortured) spirit than execution. Following a creative path dictated by defiance of the poison-tipped disses of "real headz," and by tracking the flow of his own aesthetic juices, Prince Be -- the architect of P.M. Dawn's vision, sound, agenda -- has quietly positioned himself as a pop-music MVP, one of its endangered-species true artists. Chuck D. and Joni Mitchell can teach him how to keep his head up in the face of diminishing sales and popular disinterest.
When P.M. Dawn (Prince Be and his brother, J.C./The Eternal) dropped their debut single, 1991's "Set Adrift on Memory Bliss," they scored a huge pop crossover hit but earned the scorn of hip-hop purists, who heard the song's hyper-white-boy sample from Spandau Ballet's "True" as the sound of selling out, as the Cheez Whiz soundtrack to hip-hop's bastardization. But some of the same hip-hop Gestapo who howled so loudly in protest of that track now sit and spin on Puffy's dick as he artlessly lifts unadulterated samples from the likes of wack-ass Gloria Estefan. And if P.M. Dawn had sampled the Annie soundtrack for a hook, you can bet they wouldn't have made the covers of almost every major hip-hop magazine, draped in praise for their daring and innovation.
It didn't help matters, though, that the duo favored hippie gear (making even the Native Tongue collective look hardcore by comparison) or that the lyrics on their first album, Of the Heart, Of the Soul, Of the Cross: The Utopian Experience, were an unabashed celebration of the spiritual over the material, of abstractly poetic love songs over dick-waving bravado. Or that Prince Be's voice and flow carried forth everything black men are not supposed to possess: vulnerability, woundedness, the grief of betrayal. And at a time when realness was fast becoming a narrowly cast, vigilantly policed, highly marketable item, Prince Be had the audacity to rap, "Reality used to be a friend of mine . . . reality tried to house me/but a house has doors."
With Of the Heart tracks like the sublime "Paper Doll," Be proved both fan and master of the revitalized Brit soul movement of the early '90s (even the beats for "Set Adrift" were more Soul II Soul than New York classic); on "Shake," he boiled a thick house groove down to its barest bones, revealing beats that were undoubtedly hip-hop, and then leading the chant "Everybody thank Todd Terry!" long before most folks had any idea who Todd Terry was.
The backlash that followed -- KRS-1 taking time out from his Stop the Violence campaign to angrily storm a concert stage where P.M. Dawn was performing and diss them in front of the crowd; constant digs from other hip-hop artists; even wiggers (exercising the plantation privilege that accrues like frequent-flier miles with every purchase on Daddy's credit card) feeling free to question Prince Be's blackness -- took its toll, but Be countered his foes in the pained and furious "Plastic," the lead single from the duo's near-flawless sophomore disc, 1993's The Bliss Album . . .? (Vibrations of Love and Anger and the Ponderance of Life and Existence): "Now I'm accused of spiking the punch," he spat, "and now I'm a scapegoat for fakin' the funk." Wrapping it all up, Be took aim at the rigid niggas who dogged him: "What's hard at first but melts in the heat?/They call that plastic, y'all . . ." The homophobic taunts hurled his way were met with "More Than Likely," a fragile and beautiful duet with Boy George. Be was still knocking the strictures of realness -- "I left reality early due to the lack of love" -- but also displaying a gift for pulling off gorgeous melodies: "I'd Die Without You," "Looking Through Patient Eyes," "The Ways of the Wind." Topping it all off was a cover of the Beatles' "Norwegian Wood."
On their latest album, Dearest Christian, I'm So Very Sorry for Bringing You Here. Love, Dad (in the interim was 1995's Jesus Wept, an experiment in burning all hip-hop bridges), the brothers harmonize a hard-knock life of profound and soul-crushing beat-downs. Racism, poverty and everyday violence aren't even spoken of: It's their side effects (and the way they have of reinventing themselves, mutating and passing from generation to generation) that concern the duo -- but without lyrical didactics. What makes Prince Be such a powerful pop figure is his willingness to risk ridicule by airing his estrangement from community, by putting on the table the pain of existing in a world without connection or bond, and not dressing it up in swagger or indifference. Community for most folks is the knowledge that if you fell backward you'd be caught. Prince Be's heartache is the knowledge that no one has his back. For a black man -- raised and indoctrinated with the political and cultural sanctity of that kinship, surrounded by it but not part of it, exempt from its perks and security -- it's like looking in the mirror and having no image.