Keeping It Unreal

In the dawning of our Lord Jesus Cobain, a/k/a the fall of 1991, P.M. Dawn's debut hip-hop single, "Set Adrift on Memory Bliss," rode to the top of Billboard's pop singles chart, and it felt like an affront on every level to alt-rockers and gangsta rappers alike: The song drew inspiration from the schlockiest of sources, lifting its central hook from Spandau Ballet's "True," while name-dropping both "Careless Whisper" and "Neutron Dance"; the rap, some kinda hippy-dippy nonsense, was provided by a lisping f(l)ake who was backed up by a choir of fruity-sounding male voices; beatwise, it was more about ringing bells than rocking them. "Set Adrift on Memory Bliss" smelled less like teen spirit than like postadolescent (even yuppie) navel gazing, but the radio-listening, MTV-glued congregation lapped it up, making P.M. Dawn, for a brief moment, the richest wimps in pop since the Pet Shop Boys. (Interestingly, "Set Adrift" ushered in the SoundScan era, becoming the first single ever to reach the number-one spot based on computer bar-code readings, a fact which must've pleased the group's detractors to no end.)

Hailing from Jersey City, the duo—comprising vocalist Prince Be and his sample-happy brother, DJ J.C./The Eternal—scored half a dozen Top 40 hits in the first half of the '90s, all of them collected on a new anthology, The Best of P.M. Dawn. The press kit for this release calls it "a sonically stimulating reminder of how P.M. Dawn helped change the face of pop in the '90s," but whoever wrote that sentence obviously has amnesia. "Sonically stimulating," indeed, but Prince Be and DJ J.C. did absolutely zilch in changing the face of '90s pop; to their credit, but to our detriment, nothing on (or off) the radio has sounded remotely like them since. Puff Daddy, with his grab-bag of Bowie and Police hooks, has proven himself just as shameless a pure-pop freak, but "Let's Dance" and "Every Breath You Take" were mere (albeit gigantic) hooks in his universe; end of story. P.M. Dawn, on the other hand, raided Spandau Ballet, George Michael, the Doobie Brothers, the Beatles, Joni Mitchell, and the Partridge Family for their hook quotient, yes, but also for their trippy ambience, and—at least in the case of the Beatles, Joni, and the Partridges—for their metaphysical pretensions: Like pop's other Prince, they desperately wanted to be "deep." And whereas the vast majority of hip-hop in the '90s, from Vanilla Ice to the Roots, was preoccupied with keeping it "real," Prince Be spent most of his time pondering the tenuous nature of the concept itself: One of his greatest songs was entitled "Reality Used to Be a Friend of Mine" (included here, unfortunately, in a lame house mix); in the supersleek, Eurocentric "Paper Doll," he referred to the "quote-unquote real world"; and in the "Father Figure" rip "Looking Through Patient Eyes," he claimed to have "left reality early," like it was a boring Tupperware party or something. The airy-fairy part of P.M. Dawn's aesthetic is vaguely recognizable in Belle & Sebastian, Magnetic Fields, and other indie sad sacks of that ilk, but these groups are too scrawny and pale by comparison; for all their psychological fragility (Prince Be was on the verge of tears in every track), P.M. Dawn were one of the '90s most full-bodied, sumptuous dance outfits, a dazzling brew of rap, disco, prog, art-rock, folk, postpsychedelic, and neoclassical schmaltz of the Mantovani variety.

All the great early singles are on this collection, my personal favorites being the tinkly piano weeper, "I'd Die Without You," the Deep Purple-ized shuffle, "Downtown Venus," and the breathtakingly gorgeous—ultrafeminine in spirit—"Ways of the Wind." The latter both samples the guitar line and nicks the key melody from Joni Mitchell's 1968 ballad "I Had a King." A girl I dated many years ago used to impress me by reciting and interpreting Joni lyrics I always assumed I was just too dumb (and male) to understand. I'd love to know what she'd make of "Ways of the Wind." To wit: "Send my deepest sympathy to the flowers in December's garden. What's for sale of your emotions tell me trust can't buy me love, well . . . That's OK, tell me of your adventures you know. I bet I could survive the wind if curiosity's killed the snow for real." Obviously, the wisdom of age hasn't set in, because I'm still too dumb (and male) to know what the hell Prince Be's talking about. Yet with music and a voice this seductive, I can't help but get lost in his melancholic, infinite sadness anyway.

 
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