Saturday, November 21, 2009

"Set Adrift on Memory Bliss" by P.M. Dawn (1991)

Does not compute.

We all know what hip-hop is. We all know what rap is. It’s testosterone, it’s aggression, it’s ‘hard’, it’s ‘raw’. It’s all about ‘keepin’ it real’. Verbal dexterity, the dozens, etc. etc. etc.

What it’s not is soft, sensual and dreamy. And it doesn’t sample Spandau Ballet.

Okay, nobody’s ever going to use the word “revolutionary” in reference to P.M. Dawn. By now, the word most people will use is “who?” The fact is, though, that P.M. Dawn showed us a new direction for music just as conclusively as N.W.A. did. The fact that N.W.A. launched a 10-year industry and P.M. Dawn bore the insults through gritted teeth for a few years before giving up the fight has nothing to do with the relative quality of those artists’ outputs and everything to do with public expectations. I like N.W.A., but they became famous by pandering to peoples’ expectations / fears of what rap, and young black males, should sound like.

I don’t imagine anybody saw this coming. Prince Be was a large man decked out in loose-fitting gypsy robes and dreadlocks. Apparently Christians, at this early stage they evoked no specific religion but just a kind of all-encompassing spirituality that gave Prince Be a sort of Buddhaesque demeanour. You got the impression that he would release mosquitoes back into the wild rather than kill them.

Additionally, he was something that, in 1991, a rapper could be, and perhaps even aspired to be: a ‘poet’. I don’t like that word much in describing lyricists, but this song and others of its vintage weave a pattern of images and turns of phrase in a way that nobody in hip hop is doing today and even back then few people attempted. He was also something that a few people were at this stage but nobody had been until that time: a rapper capable of singing, or a singer capable of rapping, and thus actually wrote songs as opposed to verses.

And then there’s the Spandau Ballet part of the equation. I mean, what, was this team of siblings sitting in their Jersey living room saying, ‘Who should we sample?’ ‘I know! Spandau Ballet! That’ll improve our street cred!’

But that early-eighties synthetic groove, over top of ‘Paid in Full’, somehow worked amazingly, as the result is soulful, seductive and spiritual: one of those hip-hop songs that would still be compellingly listenable as an instrumental.

That is, if this is hip-hop. Among avenues left unexplored, if P.M. Dawn had found more success and spawned more imitators (okay, in a sense it did, but the ‘positivity’ acts that followed wouldn’t necessarily credit P.M. Dawn as an influence so much as a coincidence), would it have wound up coalescing into a genre not called hip-hop but called something else? Listening to second-biggest hit “I’d Die Without You” (in no sense a ‘rap’ song) makes you wonder…
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