On Friday, we lost another member of our urban music family, Prince Be from the ’90s R&B duo P.M. Dawn. According to reports he suffered from years of diabetes that had gotten to the point where he was in a lot of pain.
Today on UB we celebrate his life and 25 years since the release of the album that introduced him to us, “Of the Heart, of the Soul and of the Cross: The Utopian Experience,” released August 6th, 1991.
Attrel (Prince Be) Cordes
P.M. Dawn enjoyed some impressive pop-music success in the 1990s with the hippie-style, radio-friendly, peace-and-love rap songs of Prince Be and D. J. Minutemix. The unusual samples and gliding melodies from these two young New Jersey musician-brothers were showcased in their 1991 hit “Set Adrift on Memory Bliss,” from their platinum-selling debut album, “Of the Heart, of the Soul, and of the Cross: The Utopian Experience.” Pegged as the harbinger of a new kind of psychedelic rap, the brothers were sometimes ridiculed by more hardcore rappers, but their crossover success broke new ground for black acts in American pop music. Grouping P.M. Dawn with such others as De La Soul and Arrested Development, Jay Lustig of Newark, New Jersey’s Star-Ledger described the group as “philosophical instead of macho,” adding that they “described what was going on in their minds rather than in the streets.” Lustig noted that P.M. Dawn’s “music wasn’t harsh and spare, like most rap, but lush and dreamy, based more in gospel and soul than blues and rock.”
P.M. Dawn was fronted by a heavyset, dreadlocked singer who called himself Prince Be, and his brother D.J. Minutemix commandeered the group’s turntables. Prince Be was born on May 15, 1970, in Jersey City, New Jersey, as Attrell Cordes. His brother, D.J. Minutemix, was born Jarrett Cordes on July 17, 1971. The Cordes boys’ father died when they were young, but they grew up in a two-parent household with their mother Janice, an occasional gospel singer, and her boyfriend, a musician who had once been a member of a Jersey City act called Five Sounds and the Jazziacs, which later became Kool and the Gang. The rest of the Cordes family was also musically inclined, with several uncles and even one of their aunts working as local disc jockeys. The boys grew up listening to old-school funk along with the gospel classics.
Prince Be began working as a disc jockey for parties when he was still in high school, and eventually began writing songs. Working as a security guard at a homeless shelter gave him plenty of time to work on his music, and he and his brother saved six hundred dollars to record a demo tape at a local sound studio. Tommy Boy, the rap subsidiary of the Warner Bros. musical empire, rejected it. The Cordes brothers did not give up, and released the single “Ode to a Forgetful Mind” on the Warlock label in 1989 as P.M. Dawn. It came and went with little notice, but it did attract some interest from a small British label called Gee Street. The duo signed with the label, which brought them over to London to record an album in 1990. But Gee Street then ran into financial problems and was forced to sell P.M. Dawn’s contract to Island Records, a British label that had been instrumental in bringing Jamaican reggae music to a worldwide audience in the in the 1970s.
The group’s next single, “A Watcher’s Point of View,” was released in Britain in 1991, and broke into the Top 40 U.K. charts. The overseas success paved the way for a U.S. launch, and P.M. Dawn’s debut LP, Of the Heart, of the Soul, and of the Cross, was released in August of 1991. The first single from it, “Set Adrift on Memory Bliss,” used a sample from a 1983 pop hit, “True,” by the British new-wave balladeers Spandau Ballet. The lilting hook helped propel the song to No. 1 on three different Billboard charts—pop, R&B, and dance—in 1991. It also made music history as the first single to be certified No. 1 in sales thanks to a new technology called SoundScan, which used a bar-code scanner at the cash register.
As their debut record climbed to No. 29 on The Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop album charts, Prince Be and his brother were ridiculed by some rappers for their hippie style and non-threatening lyrics. In January of 1992, during a concert at New York City’s Sound Factory, rapper KRS-One shoved Prince Be off the stage, commandeered the microphone, and broke the record that Minutemix was playing. This was done in response to a comment that Prince Be had made questioning KRS-One’s status as a spokesperson for African-American youth. Somewhat ironically, KRS-One was a founder of the Stop the Violence movement, which urged young rap fans to foster peace in their communities. The entire fracas was captured on tape for Yo! MTV Raps, the music channel’s highly rated weekly program.
P.M. Dawn’s next album, The Bliss Album…? (Vibrations of Love and Anger and the Ponderance of Life and Existence), was released in March of 1993. It did even better than its predecessor on The Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop, climbing to No. 23, and also peaked at the No. 30 spot on The Billboard 200, helped in part by the single “I’d Die Without You,” which appeared on the soundtrack to the Eddie Murphy movie, Boomerang. Another track, “Plastic,” addressed the rap-world controversy surrounding their debut, with lyrics written by Prince Be that painted the debate as a manufactured one. That and other tracks had a harder edge to their music, but the group earned further scorn when they appeared on Elton John’s Duets LP with the track, “When I Think About Love (I Think About You).”
Prince Be was diagnosed with diabetes in late 1992, after sinking into a coma that lasted three days, and the setback fueled even more introspective lyrics on P.M. Dawn’s third LP, Jesus Wept. Released in the fall of 1995, it failed to achieve the success of their previous two records, selling just 88,000 copies. The brothers returned in October of 1998 with Dearest Christian, I’m So Very Sorry For Bringing You Here. Love, Dad. The title song was an homage to Prince Be’s oldest son, and much of the lyrics reflected his sense of responsibility to Christian and his twin brother and sister, Mia and Brandon. One single from it, “Being So Not for You (I Had No Right),” made it into the Billboard Top 40 Mainstream chart, but the duo virtually disappeared from the public eye until June of 2005, when they appeared on Hit Me Baby One More Time, the NBC showcase for forgotten bands and one-hit wonders. They performed “Set Adrift on Memory Bliss” and won their round with it. The prize money of $20,000 was donated to a juvenile diabetes research foundation.
A few years earlier, V2 Records had released a greatest-hits compilation, The Best of P.M. Dawn. It prompted music critics to re-evaluate the Cordes brothers’ earlier success, and most granted that they had done a worthy job in bridging a gap in pop music in the early 1990s. “Little in contemporary hip-hop can match the succulent splendor of ‘The Ways of the Wind’ and ‘Set Adrift on Memory Bliss,'” wrote David Browne in Entertainment Weekly. “Even if their later attempts at harder grooves didn’t always work, P.M. Dawn were the missing link between Johnny Mathis and Jay-Z.”