Jesus Wept – P.M. Dawn by Michael A. Gonzales
Back in the early 1990s, when so-called “realness” began reigning supreme over rap music, most anyone not subscribing to the sinister outlook of street narratives was perceived as a fake punk just asking for a beat down. The equivalent of young Black kids being teased by their peers for “talking white,” the rules of rap realness kept the music as grimy as possible, caught up in a trick bag of ghetto demands. Real men, according to macho hip-hop mythology, represented and rapped about the streets, their honey booty sweeties and “playing the game” with the precision of hustler.
Unable to be merely content doing their own thing, some artists were determined to tear down any aural agitators who dared not to embrace the soiled imagery of crack infested buildings, pissy projects staircases and dope boys slinging rock on park benches until the break of dawn. While a few bohemian crews, namely De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest and whoever else was down with the Native Tongues, was given a ghetto pass, perhaps because they socialized at the same spots (Union Square, The World) or recorded at the same studios.
Without a doubt, many hardcore hip-hop fans never really gave P.M. Dawn a chance. With their monogrammed clothing, surreal lyricism and Dr. Strange personas that reeked of Black mysticism and white witchcraft, P.M. Dawn wasn’t hanging in deathtrap hip-hop clubs, banging out beats on abandoned cars or worried about their baby mamma’s hounding them for child support. Indeed, as Prince Be later explained on the hypnotic single “Reality Used to Be a Friend of Mine” (1992), “What is real, a positive plane, reality and life are not the same.”
Coming from Jersey City, New Jersey, P.M. Dawn were brothers Prince Be (Attel Cordes) and J.C. the Eternal (Jarrett Cordes), who would later call himself DJ Minutemix, who were seen as interlopers from the beginning. Nerdy kids who’d spent more time in the library than on the playground, they went to Catholic school and watched tons of movies. “What is your favorite movie,” I asked Prince Be in 1992. He smiled. “Under a Cherry Moon,” he replied; that answer alone said so much.
Having come of age in the MTV era of the ‘80s, the boys were reared on their share of Michael Jackson, Prince (whose Joni Mitchell endorsement and post-Purple Rain psychedelic period led many young Black men astray), Culture Club, Run-DMC and Cyndi Lauper. Price Be, who handled the bulk of the production and lyric writing, explained the collaborative process with his baby brother. “I’m like a kite and Jarrett keeps me from going too far out there. If I go way out there, I will either fall or keep going.”
Their step-daddy, whom was in some way down with Kool and the Gang, introduced them to the music of Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix and Sly & the Family Stone. “But, we were from an urban area, and hip-hop was everywhere. Some of the biggest musical innovations have been coming from hip-hop and we were a witness to that.”
It was 1992, and I was sitting in the Island Records office of their publicist Bill Adler and the telephones were constantly ringing. “When we first started out, we didn’t even want to be rappers, we just wanted to produce, but no one trusted us. So we looked at someone like Quincy Jones, a great producer who started out as an artist; so, we decided to do that.”
Prince Be came up with the name P.M. Dawn while reading the religious magazine The Plain Truth, and soon the brothers were constructing their first single “Ode To A Forgetful Mind.” With its minimalistic beat and maximalistic rhymes that were as bugged out as the poetry of original beat Bob Kaufman, the track was released in the states on Warlock Records in 1988.
That same year Eric B. & Rakim, Public Enemy, EP.M.D, Stetasonic and Slick Rick were making the most noise on Planet Rap, and “Ode…” flopped. However, over in jolly olde England, the record was licensed by Gee Street Records, the future home of Stereo MCs, Gravediggaz and Ambersunshower.
In the U.K., black Brit brothers like Jazzie B, AR Kane (can’t nothing in the cosmos convince me that Prince Be didn’t spend hours in his flat listening to the dreamy pop of 69 through Bose speakers) and Neneh Cherry was encouraged to be different, and P.M. Dawn was on that same vibe. England, where somewhere Kate Bush lived and Marc Bolan died, was the perfect place for them to be free.
When Gee Street bought out their contract, the boys recorded their brilliant debut Of the Heart, of the Soul and of the Cross: The Utopian Experience. At the same time they were recording, across town Massive Attack was completing their debut Blue Lines. In Spin magazine, positive reviews for both records were published next to one another. Of the Heart, of the Soul and of the Cross: The Utopian Experience on August 6, 1991, and the album became a critical darling.
While they made rap that was Afro-Goth shoegazing without being gloomy, it wasn’t just what P.M. Dawn said, but how they said it, in soft voices that flowed between tender rapping and velvety singing on the enchanting “Set Adrift on Memory Bliss,” the group’s second single. “Our music is very hip-hop oriented, but it doesn’t stay there. It doesn’t stay in hip-hop, it doesn’t stay in pop, it doesn’t stay anywhere,” Prince Be explained. “The music goes wherever my emotions go. There is a difference between Paul Abdul and Pavarotti, and there is a difference between P.M. Dawn and Naughty by Nature.”
Yet, coming at a time when singing wasn’t really the hip-hop thing to do (pre-Puff, Ja Rule, 50 Cent, Lil Wayne and Drake) the street wasn’t trying to hear P.M. Dawn harmonize like Smokey Robinson on a Saturday night or church choirboys on a Sunday morning. Hardcore rappers, though, they got jokes and those “mean boys” wasted no time goofing on the overweight outcast arthouse freak who strolled into their rap room barefoot. However, instead of snapping, they should’ve been paying attention to Prince Be’s dope sampling skills, because dude was like a cyberfunk character stumbling through the Black futurist soundscapes Kodwo Eshun documented so perfectly in More Brilliant Than the Sun.
“Sampling artistry is looked at as thievery, but to me it’s more about creativity,” Prince Be said. Of course, as long as P.M. Dawn stayed in their “alternative rap” box they was cool, but once America embraced the wistful “Set a Drift on Memory Bliss,” which sampled Spandau Ballet’s new romantic ballad “True,” and the song went number one on the Billboard charts, it was a problem. In the ears of the boom-bap nation of rap fans, P.M. Dawn was considered sell-outs who needed to be stopped.
When Of the Heart, of the Soul and of the Cross went platinum, the torch and pitchfork carrying haters were ready to storm the castle. A few weeks before my interview with P.M. Dawn, who were promoting their 1992 sophomore The Bliss Album…? (Vibrations of Love and Anger and the Ponderance of Life and Existence), the group endured what would become one of the most infamous disses in hip-hop when, one chilly January night at the New York City nightclub the Sound Factory, rapper KRS-1 tossed Prince Be from the stage during a P.M. Dawn set.
What writer Michelangelo Matos years later dubbed, “The Shove Heard Round the World,” became the talk of town and became more talked about than the music. In Matos’ 2011 essay in The Stranger documenting that dark hip-hop moment, he wrote how the Bronx bomber lyricist KRS-1, who thought of himself as a teacher and a preacher, felt disrespected by Prince Be questioning his “knowledge” during a Details interview and chose that moment, with the MTV cameras rolling, to flex his machismo.
“I never even knew we had a beef,” Prince Be said. “Even that night in the club I was like, ‘Oh, shit, there goes KRS-1.’ He just looked at me like I was insane, just totally insane. I wasn’t trying to dis him, it’s just that I get mixed signals from his work; I get mixed signals when hear ‘9mm Goes Bang’ and ‘Stop the Violence.’ All I said was I didn’t understand.”
The Bliss Album… contained “I’d Die Without You,” an aching ballad that was as melodramatic as a Douglass Sirk picture. The song was released the year before on the Boomarang soundtrack; earlier this year the song was beautifully covered by Childish Gambino. For folks who thought P.M. Dawn was a melancholy duo without humor, their video for “Plastic,” a brilliant track about not being street enough or making “a love song about a Tech 9,” and overall not faking the funk.
The clip opens with the brothers sitting in crossover hip-hop rehab sitting next to MC Hammer and Gerado. “People often accuse P.M. Dawn of selling out,” Prince Be told me in 1995. “When you’re a sell-out, you do shit that you hate in order to make money. But I don’t do that. I love my shit.”
Prince Be also loved God, or perhaps more the concept of God, and he wasn’t afraid to let folks know it. In the video for “Looking Through Patient Eyes,” shot mostly inside a church, Prince Be wore a t-shirt that read “Than You, Jesus” while singing a track that appeared to be a love song, but morphed into a track about God and spiritually. Although Bliss went gold, the brothers took a three year break.
Releasing Jesus Wept in 1995, the brothers created an album inspired by heaven, love and the afterlife (Be could chat about reincarnation forever) as much as it’s influenced by pop, Prince, parables, psychedelia and Pet Sounds. Writing about the brilliant album in Vibe magazine nineteen years back, I described Jesus Wept as combining “cool existentialism, religious symbolism, romantic ecstasy and electric guitar mojo.” For me, it was like riding the 13th floor elevators to the white room where a red candle was burning and melting chocolate dripped from the ceiling.
Exquisitely recorded at the group’s own Bliss Studios in Jersey City, the experimental and loopy Jesus Wept was on a mission to take rap music to new heights no matter how much the world resisted. Sitting on the floor in a Lotus position smoking my pipe like the caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland, I simply let oceanic sound wash over me, baptizing me in its light. While Prince Be has always maintained that he didn’t use drugs, the entire album was like a Victor Moscoso illustrated acid trip in Zap comics that took the listener around the world in a day. Jesus Wept was also a testament to Be’s crate digging skills and sampling savvy as he mixed-in beats ranging from Al B. Sure’s new jack “Nite & Day” swoon on “Sometimes I Miss You So Much (Dedicated to Christ Consciousness)” to Deep Purple’s rockin’ boogie “Hush” on the glam first single “Downtown Venus.”
Meanwhile, showing that they could still swirl straight soul if need be, “Miles from Anything” has the appeal of a Delfonics/Thom Bell song. Although P.M. Dawn was only following the spiritual path they’d been musically mining since the beginning of their careers, in the years before Lecrae made it cool to be a Christian rapper, MCs usually only mentioned Jesus in their liner-notes or on stage at the Soul Train Awards. For P.M. Dawn to even talk about spirituality was more rebellious than screaming about drugs and guns.
“People always perceive Jesus as someone bigger than life,” Prince Be said in 1995 as we sat in his Jersey City living-room. “They forget he was also a man. The album isn’t meant to reflect Jesus weeping in sadness or in joy. It’s that people are afraid to find religion within themselves, that’s why movie stars and singers are as big as they are. People have to realize that they are important to themselves and to each other. That’s what I wanted to get across.”
Two weeks before Jesus Wept was released on Oct. 3, 1995, Jarrett Cordes was arrested for allegedly sexually assaulting his 14-year-old cousin. Ten years older, Jarrett was turned in by the girl’s parents and arrested outside their home. Released on $10,000 bail, child molestation charges doesn’t sell records and the disc Billboard called “a multifaceted tour de force” rose no higher than #119 on the Top 200 chart. The case was later dropped due to lack of evidence, the damage was done.
In 1999, P.M. Dawn released their last Gee Street album Dearest Christian, I’m So Very Sorry for Bringing You Here. Love, Dad, and soon drifted away from us mere mortals on a multicolored cloud last seen hovering over New Jersey. P.M. Dawn continues to inspire, and one can hear them in the music of Lenny Kravitz, Citizen Cope, Pharrell, Kanye West, Common (brother must’ve been possessed by the spirit of Be while recording Electric Circus in 2002) and countless others.
“I just wanted to help hip-hop be bigger than it was,” Prince Be said in 1995. Nineteen years after the release of Jesus Wept, certainly that’s exactly what P.M. Dawn has achieved; their eternal sound is forever.