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.
Inspired by the birth of Prince Be's son, Dearest Christian is an internal overhaul, a spiritual rampage through the attic, the basement and all the closets. Musically, it's a lush and freewheeling montage that sounds like nothing else out right now. Be's love of '60s pop-rock (he's long had a jones for both the Beatles and the Beach Boys) is all over the disc, but so is the bright soul bounce of Billy Preston (“Art Deco Halos”) and the kind of epic soul production that Isaac Hayes and Barry White once cornered: sweeping strings and heartbreaking melodies, with piano and acoustic guitars high up in the mix. Hand claps and finger snaps run throughout. Tracks alternate in tone, flipping from the bedroom ardor of Maxwell (with far deeper lyrics) to the chilled loneliness of . . . Prince Be.
Lyrically, the album runs the gamut from gut-wrenching confessional to prayer to goofy idealism in the face of madness. Throughout are the doubts Be has about inflicting this world upon his child (“I had no right bringing you here/knowing what I know, feeling the way I feel”), and the upshot is an unexpected one: You get the impression Prince Be will be a great dad precisely because he's smart enough to know that conception is child abuse, and he's already taking steps to make amends. The disc's final track, “Untitled,” is a suite composed of three different passages, inspired by the emotional pummeling Prince Be suffered at the hands of his mother when he was a boy. In it, the angry words of his wife/girlfriend begin to mirror those once shouted by his mother, until the two women blur in his mind: “And she'd say to me/I hate you so much, why can't you go away? I wish you never were/And she'd say to me/I hate you so much, you're nothing to me . . .”
Ironically, having all but abandoned rapping on Dearest Christian, Prince Be delivers one of the year's best raps in “Yang: As Private I's.” If there's one snatch of lyrics that sums up the album, Prince Be and the millennial angst of more than one modern-day Negro, this is it:
I'm tryin' real hard not to be exactly the way I am
the next time I come here all I'm bringing to this atmosphere
is the will not to do it again
Understand, I got neon King Kong standin' on my back
can't stop to turn around broke my sacroiliac
tryin' to keep sealed where this brother's really at
to tell the new millennium “Yo, what da dilly black”
You look cute in your stars and stripes she said are you coming out tonight
Hell no, that's why whoever loves me will have to be my killer
'cause here I'm just a slave tryin' to be the nigga.