Another Underappreciated Prince of R&B: Prince Be

The long, brilliant career of the artist known as Prince brings to mind one of the very few artists in the 1990s whose fusion of disparate styles is similarly impressive, and whose best work can stand up to his: the group P.M. Dawn, whose lead rapper and singer is appropriately named Prince Be. P.M. Dawn's biggest hit, "Set Adrift on Memory Bliss," is about the way that memories fade, whether we want them to or not. Now, as the summer recedes into a purple sunset, it's a good time to remember just how good they were.

The late 1980s and early 1990s were for rap music what the late 1960s were for rock. Bands from De La Soul to the Beastie Boys to NWA were pushing hip-hop beyond all conceivable limits and tracing the future direction for its sound for the next twenty years. In those heady days, P.M. Dawn occupied the western border of hip-hop and R&B opposite Boyz II Men and New Jack soul. Long before Cee-Lo (of Goodie Mob and Gnarls Barkley) or Andre 3000 (of Outkast) gave up rapping for singing, Prince Be sang hooks and alternated sung and rapped verses, while his brother DJ Minute Mix sampled artists from Spandau Ballet to the Beatles in psychedelic, sunny, new age beats.

Unlike Prince, no matter what artist they covered or genre they sampled, P.M. Dawn's sound was always its own. The lyrics were meditations in a major key about memory, knowledge, love, and identity -- in other words, like nothing else that anyone considered rap. But the beats were danceable, the harmonies were gorgeous, and for a brief moment they topped the charts with crossover appeal. However, because of their pop leanings, they suffered the fate of many early 90's rap stars (think of MC Hammer, Vanilla Ice, and a host of other novelty acts with no street credibility), and fell unjustly into obscurity.

The first Prince managed to spread his influence through legions of proteges, associates, and collaborators, like Sheila E., Wendy and Lisa, Morris Day, Appollonia, Vanity 6, and even Chaka Khan. P.M. Dawn's legion of imitators was much less sprawling, but hardly less noteworthy. They emerged in the midst of a fertile alt-rap landscape, along with De La Soul, Arrested Development, Digable Planets, and A Tribe Called Quest -- all seminal acts in their own right -- and their sonic footprint can be heard in the work of their peers, both rappers and neo-soul singers.

P.M. Dawn's first album, 1991's stunning Of the Heart, Of the Soul, and Of the Cross, showed their genre-defying sound in full blossom; subsequent albums didn't offer new ideas so much as hone the tone they'd already created. Sadly, this happened as their popularity dropped, and their new albums, all beautiful, fell on few ears. The longer P.M. Dawn stayed around, the fewer of their peers remained: Digable Planets broke up in '95; Arrested Development in '96; Tribe in '98. Over the years, while P.M. Dawn continued to refine their sound, they stood increasingly alone musically and lyrically. The promise of the early 1990s as a time of ethnic uncertainty and cultural fusion gave way by the end of the decade to familiar retrenchment. P.M. Dawn's joyous combination of new age, new wave, and old school soul, which was once ahead of its time, became anachronistic, a coulda been for a musical future that never was.

In the end, the world wasn't quite ready to give a lasting embrace to a rap group whose philosophical muse was closer to Woodstock than to gangsta, and that's too bad. Even in the late 1960s, when tastes and genre distinctions were less intractable, there were only a few African-American artists who managed to span the breach between soul and rock, music that captured audiences of all races and colors. They were genuine hippies, geniuses in multiracial bands, like Arthur Lee of Love, and, of course, Jimi Hendrix.

In the years since then, despite the co-option of rap and soul by Top 40 radio and svengalis of all shapes and sizes, the number of African-Americans in rock music hasn't substantially increased. So perhaps it's not exactly surprising that Prince Be and his brother ended up alone. But they deserve better. Now that the millenium's actually come, it's time to give them a new chance at the smiling dawn their music heralded. They're one of the best acts of the 1990s, just as the other Prince is one of the best acts of the 1980s and 1990s. It's time to give them their due.