*The New York Times once called rap duo P.M. Dawn and its mastermind lead vocalist Prince Be “both underappreciated and quietly influential.”
The sibling duo from Jersey City may have had just two singles that were considered hits, but they made such an impact beyond hip hop — with their ethereal beats and mystical undertones — that they ushered in a whole new arm of hip hop known as “cloud rap.” Critics have credited them as influences and precursors for such artists as Arrested Development, Kanye West, T-Pain and Outkast.
Prince Be died of kidney failure on this day in 2016. He was just 46 years old and left behind a wife and three children. In this EUR Video Throwback, we’re celebrating the road to their breakthrough single “Set Adrift on Memory Bliss,” that time KRS-One physically threw him off a stage, his Elton John moment and more.
Prince Be was born Attrell Stephen Cordes, Jr. on May 15, 1970, and founded P.M. Dawn with his younger brother, Jarrett “DJ Minutemix” Cordes, in 1988. Their first demo was made using $600 that Attrell earned while working night security at a homeless shelter. They took it Tommy Boy Records first, but execs there turned it down, saying they sounded too much like their current rap act De La Soul. Eventually indie label Warlock signed the duo and issued their first single in the U.S., “Ode to a Forgetful Mind,” in 1989.
The single went unnoticed here in the States, but had greater success with its U.K. release through Gee Street Records. Gee Street marketed the song so that it earned considerable attention from music reviewers, and P.M. Dawn found themselves in a bidding war between Gee Street’s head, Jon Baker, and other major UK labels. Gee Street ultimately won and flew the brothers to London in 1990 to begin working on their debut album. But the label was facing bankruptcy at the time. The entire company, along with P.M. Dawn’s recording contract, ended up being sold to the highest bidder, Island Records.
On August 6, 1991, Island released their debut album, “Of the Heart, of the Soul and of the Cross: The Utopian Experience,” most of which was written and produced by Prince Be. With his vocals and stream-of-consciousness lyrics over his brother’s out-of-left-field samples, the album was embraced by both critics and fans. It went gold on the strength of its first single, “Set Adrift on Memory Bliss.” The song famously sampled Spandau Ballet’s 1983 hit, “True” over Eric B and Rakim’s beat for “Paid in Full,” with a smidge of Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me” borrowed for the chorus.
“Set Adrift on Memory Bliss” became the first single by a black rap group to reach number one on the Billboard Hot 100 and the siblings were the third rap act to reach to the top of that chart overall. Prince B is also credited as one of the first artists to blend rap and singing within a track.
With “Set Adrift on Memory Bliss” among the hottest songs of 1991, Prince B did an interview that year with Details magazine in which he questioned the activism of socially-conscious rap legend KRS-One, who was nicknamed “The Teacher.” He said in the article, “KRS-One wants to be a teacher, but a teacher of what?”
In retaliation, KRS-One bum-rushed a January 1992 P.M. Dawn concert at The Sound Factory Bar in Manhattan and threw the group off stage. There’s no footage of this moment, but Dres of Black Sheep was a witness, as his group was on the bill that night. He recounts the entire incident for SiriusXM’s Backspin channel in the clip below:
And then there was this time, when KRS-One responded directly to Prince Be’s “Teacher” remark during a freestyle on “Yo! MTV Raps.”
Prince B survived the KRS-One scare and released a track later that year that first appeared on the soundtrack of Eddie Murphy’s film “Boomerang.”
“I’d Die Without You” was one of several songs to chart from the “Boomerang” soundtrack, peaking at No. 3 on the Hot 100. The following year, it was the official first single of P.M. Dawn’s sophomore album, “The Bliss Album…? (Vibrations of Love and Anger and the Ponderance of Life and Existence).”
“I’d Die Without You” was covered a lot. Brandy and her brother Ray J put their spin on it for her 2002 album “Full Moon,” Alicia Keys revealed her unreleased cover of it in 2015, calling it, “one of my favorite songs ever,” and Childish Gambino recorded a version in 2016.
The “Bliss” album’s second single, “Looking Through Patient Eyes” – with Cordes’ sample of George Michael’s “Father Figure” – also reached the Hot 100’s top 10.
P.M. Dawn released two more albums, “Jesus Wept” (1995) and “Dearest Christian, I’m So Very Sorry for Bringing You Here. Love, Dad” (1998), which were critically acclaimed but failed to connect with fans as much as their previous two albums.
Below, the track “Fantasia’s Confidential Ghetto: 1999/Once in a Lifetime/Coconut” from “Jesus Wept” covers Prince’s “1999” and “Once in a Lifetime” from Talking Heads.
Below is the track “Music For Carnivores” from “Dearest Christian, I’m So Very Sorry for Bringing You Here. Love, Dad.” The album’s title referred to Prince Be’s newborn son at the time, Christian.
As musical tastes shifted, Attrell found success by producing and writing for other artists throughout the 1990s and 2000s, including “When I Think About Love,” for Elton John’s “Duets.” which he also performed with the rock icon.
P.M. Dawn’s final album, “F**ked Music” in 2000, was a mail-order only release available from the band’s website. Below is one of the tracks, “Uoy Rof Flesym Etah I” (“I Hate Myself For You” spelled backwards).
Cordes suffered with diabetes for more than two decades. He also had several strokes, including one in 2005 which resulted in partial paralysis on the left side of his body. One of his legs had to be partially amputated below the knee due to gangrene.
Still, he was able to appear on the 2005 NBC show “Hit Me Baby One More Time,” which featured five former pop acts singing their biggest hit along with a cover version of a contemporary hit. The studio audience chooses one winner per week. Filming the show just months after his stroke, Cordes was helped onto the stage and performed “Set Adrift on Memory Bliss” and Puddle of Mudd’s “Blurry” from a chair. Watch below.
P.M. Dawn ended up beating out Shannon, Juice Newton, Animotion and Missing Persons to win their episode. The group donated their entire $20,000 prize to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.
As his health deteriorated, Cordes had been living in nursing homes during the years before his death on June 17, 2016. He was survived by his wife, Mary Sierra-Cordes and three children: Mia, Christian and Brandon.
— Mary Sierra (@marysierra) June 22, 2016