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Group consists of Prince Be (born Attrell Cordes, early 1970s, in Jersey City, NJ), samples, vocals; and D.J. Minutemix (born Jarrett Cordes, early 1970s, in Jersey City), turntables. Addresses: Record company-- Gee Street/Island, 825 Eighth Avenue, New York, NY 10019.
"P.M. Dawn's hefty front man Prince Be has been called everything from an ersatz hippie to a fraud," reported David Browne in Entertainment Weekly. The name-calling was prompted by P.M. Dawn's challenge to rap's limited subgenre categorization, which fomented a controversy over the legitimacy of rap that tends toward pop music and away from the hardcore, "gangsta" stance. As early as 1989, Prince Be and his brother DJ Minutemix were using the tools of hip-hop--the standard vocal rhymes and "sampling" of bars from previously recorded songs--to make music that appealed to the largely white pop audience. The debate over this genre-bending would even go beyond argument to erupt into a violent confrontation in 1992.
The brothers who comprise P.M. Dawn actually answer to several names. Even those they initially adopted for the music world, Prince Be and DJ Minutemix, mutated in 1993 with the release of their second disc to become The Nocturnal and J.C. The Eternal, respectively. But in Jersey City, New Jersey, where the two grew up, they were known as Attrell and Jarrett Cordes; Attrell, the older of the two, has generally been the decision-maker in their work together and--as Prince Be--is customarily treated by the press as synonymous with P.M. Dawn.
Prince Be described the brothers' 1970s Jersey City home as a reflection of that blurring of genres that he has incorporated into his music; in August of 1991 he told Melody Maker' s Everett True, "I lived sort of between the yuppies and the killers.... You could literally walk across the street and get into trouble and walk across the street and get into even bigger trouble. It was right next to this park where all of that stuff would mix up. When you're 14, it's hard to know how to deal with that sort of thing." Be detailed a similar scenario in Spin, while also stressing his need for escape from that environment: "Being male ... being in an urban environment, you know what to expect if you don't have that same point of view. I was easily influenced back then, instead of trying to develop my own identity ... I had no choice but to follow what everybody else was doing. I saw myself slowly becoming an idiot. So I left."
The most accessible exit route presented itself in the music and spirituality of Attrell and Jarrett's parents' home. They were both exposed to the funk and pop of the 1970s through their stepfather's extensive record collection; five uncles and one aunt were DJs who further exposed the boys to new music. The brothers were also afforded the opportunity to see the music world firsthand, since their stepfather was a musician who played briefly in one of the early incarnations of Kool and the Gang, which was among the most influential funk bands of the 1970s. And there was the church, where both boys and their mother sang in the choir.
Attrell began drawing on the family talent as early as the ninth grade, when he offered himself up as DJ at local parties; he was also starting to compose his own songs at the time. Within a few years, he had determined to make a demo tape of some of those pieces; he managed to put aside $600 from his first job after high school. As a security guard at a homeless shelter, he had time to work on his music while earning the money he needed. By then, he and Jarrett were putting in studio time as P.M. Dawn.
They first approached Tommy Boy, the rap subsidiary of Warner Bros., with their demo but were turned away; they were too much like alternative hip-hoppers De La Soul and not enough like hardcore rap they were told. They managed to issue a debut single, "Ode to a Forgetful Mind," in 1989, on Warlock, an independent label that failed to market them. The debut went unnoticed.
The label that released the single in England, however, managed much better. Gee Street mixed and marketed the song so that it earned considerable attention from music reviewers, and P.M. Dawn found themselves courted not just by Gee Street's head, John Baker, but also by most of the major record labels in England. Soon after Gee Street brought the brothers to London in 1990 to record tracks for an album, the label found itself facing bankruptcy; the P.M. Dawn contract--the company's chief asset--was offered to the highest bidder. The winner was Island Records, a powerful English label that acquired not only P.M. Dawn, but the entire Gee Street operation along with them.
Before the first Dawn album was released in England, Island issued a few more singles to test the water; the reaction remained warm. A Melody Maker review in June of 1991 praised the second release, "A Watcher's Point of View (Don't Cha Think)," reporting, "The gently-plucked acoustic guitars, lilting bassline and supple beats, Sixties vocal harmonies and samples of The Monkees' 'Pleasant Valley Sunday' add up to one of the most delightfully summery hip hop tracks ever recorded." By October, "Paper Doll" had become single of the week, Number Five on the charts, and had earned further praise from the august Melody Maker, the paper calling it "one of the lovelier tracks from the most pure-and-simply gorgeous album of the year."
With the release of P.M. Dawn's debut album, Of the Heart, of the Soul, and of the Cross: the Utopian Experience, in late 1991, Prince Be and DJ Minutemix were effectively rescued from obscurity. In October, Michael Azerrad of Rolling Stone had noted "PM Dawn is the hippest thing in England, and the Cordes brothers are hoping their thing hits big in America." It did: the single "Set Adrift on Memory Bliss" reached the Number One spot on three Billboard charts--pop, R&B, and dance. Part of its charm derived from a sampled bit of the song "True," which was a hit for the British "new romantic" band Spandau Ballet in 1983; this stroke of creative borrowing was a splendid and unusual choice in a hip-hop world saturated with James Brown and P-Funk passages. Within two months, Of the Heart sold over 500,000 copies, earning a gold record; platinum came close on its heels. James Hunter praised the album in the Village Voice, deeming it "brilliantly conceived, executed and marketed." In Interview, Rob Tannenbaum went so far as to compare Prince Be to rock legend Jimi Hendrix. And a writer for People noted a few years later that the disc "flowed and undulated--it was something new, hip-hop that ignored the streets and aimed for the heavens."
People also commented, however, on the issue that would create so much conflict for P.M. Dawn in the year between the release of the debut album and that of the follow-up, The Bliss Album ...? (Vibrations of Love and Anger and the Ponderance of Life and Existence); People' s reviewer remarked that the duo was "embraced by the mainly white rock press as the second (non-threatening) coming of rap." Prince Be responded to charges that his music was too "soft"--that it diluted rap with too much pop music--with his own critiques of the rigidity of hardcore rappers; he was especially skeptical of the violence espoused in the lyrics of such hip-hop stars as Ice-T, Public Enemy, and KRS-One of Boogie Down Productions. Although Prince Be was also careful to tell interviewers how much he admired these rappers, the confrontation escalated until KRS-One actually broke up a P.M. Dawn performance at the Sound Factory in New York City in January of 1992.
P.M. Dawn also took much of the criticism to heart and thought about the conflicts that had arisen while recording the second album. In the Source, Prince Be recounted to Brione Lathrop his disappointment with the attention the debut album had received: "P.M. Dawn got a lot of recognition, we got a lot of critical acclaim, we got a lot of street level acclaim, but we got a lot of flack as well.... I looked around and I saw that a lot of the stuff that I read--[black-oriented publications] Black Beat, Ebony --I wasn't in those and it looked very weird." Be and Minutemix approached the second album with an eye toward correcting this, attempting to appeal more explicitly to inner-city and African-American audiences. Prince Be continued in the Source, explaining, "I made it more biased to an urban crowd, because they felt so neglected the first time, and I didn't want to do that. I guess that was through my own stupidity. 'Cause I didn't want them to feel neglected, and they do, so I made it for them and their consumption." He also tried to address the black/white, rap/pop tension explicitly in both music and lyrics. The rapper noted that the song "Plastic," in particular, was intended to resolve conflict: "It's about the idiosyncrasies that exist between hardcore hip-hop fans or artists and alternative hip-hop fans. It's about the tensions that's between the two, it's plastic, it's not real."
"I'd Die Without You," the first single from The Bliss Album ...?, was released as part of the soundtrack to the film Boomerang. The soundtrack was a best-seller, and the song became a Number One Hit. When the full album followed, in 1993, Entertainment Weekly' s Browne declared, "Once again, the duo effortlessly blends disparate elements--balladeering and rapping, samples and live orchestration--into gorgeous wide-screen tableaux of sound." James Hunter, writing for Rolling Stone, remarked, "A flowing work filled with chaos and conflict, The Bliss Album ...? will not disappoint." But People' s reviewer was somewhat disappointed, venturing, "While there is no denying Be's talent and melodic pop savvy, he needs something new to say and a new way to say it."
Aside from the conflict over genre, P.M. Dawn suffered another setback in their blissful rise to fame: Prince Be's discovery that he is diabetic. After falling into a three-day coma in December of 1992, he was diagnosed and began treatment. But, as he explained to Spin' s Danyel Smith, the revelation of the malady put a dent in his self-image. He said, "To top it all off I found out I had diabetes, which automatically made me a human being. Pinned me down as a human being. And I like to think that I'm not. I don't like to think that anyone is a human being." This desire to be more than human reflects the spirituality that often defines P.M. Dawn's music. Prince Be told Interview' s Tannenbaum that his spirituality "comes from myself. I've read the Bible. I believe in God, I believe in Jesus Christ. I don't really like to be told how to worship God." He elaborated on his name--his original rap handle, by which he is generally known--to the Source' s Lathrop, saying, "My name is Prince Is, Prince Exist, that's my whole entire thing"; and for Rolling Stone' s Azerrad, he explicated his band's name, stating simply, "the darkest hour, comes a light."
by Ondine E. Le Blanc
P.M. Dawn's Career
Prince Be worked as DJ, mid-1980s, and as security guard at homeless shelter, late 1980s. Group formed c. 1989; released single, "Ode to a Forgetful Mind," Warlock, 1989; released singles in U.K., 1991; released Of the Heart, of the Soul, and of the Cross: the Utopian Experience, Gee Street/Island, 1991.
P.M. Dawn's Awards
Platinum record for Of the Heart, of the Soul, and of the Cross, 1992, and gold record for The Bliss Album ...?, 1993.
- Selective Works
- Of the Heart, of the Soul, and of the Cross: the Utopian Experience (includes "Ode to a Forgetful Mind," "Set Adrift on a Memory Bliss," "Paper Doll," and "A Watcher's Point of View [Don't Cha Think]"), Gee Street/Island, 1991.
- The Bliss Album ...? (Vibrations of Love and Anger and the Ponderance of Life and Existence) (includes "Plastic" and "I'd Die Without You"), Gee Street/Island, 1993.
- (Contributors) Alternative NRG Hollywood, 1994.
- Details, August 1993.
- Entertainment Weekly, April 2, 1993.
- Interview, October 1991.
- Melody Maker, June 15, 1991; August 31, 1991; October 5, 1991.
- Musician, June 1993.
- People, June 7, 1993.
- Rolling Stone, October 31, 1991; April 15, 1993.
- Spin, July 1993.
- Source, June 1993.
- Village Voice, December 24, 1991.
- Additional information for this profile was obtained from Gee Street/Island Records publicity materials, 1993.
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