A year of relentless loss in the music world continues with the passing of one of the most unique visionaries hip-hop has produced: Prince Be, the psychedelic rapper who defiantly transcended to a better universe from the dismal ghetto of Jersey City, N.J., died of renal disease on Friday. He was 46 years old.
Even at the height of his powers, as he produced four brilliant albums between 1991 and 1998, Attrell Cordes Jr. was a punch line to many in the hip-hop world:a hulking hippie in a Day-Glo caftan adorned with flowers, espousing a spiritual belief system only he really understood, talking of love and equality at a time when gangsta rappers derided as soft and fake any crew whose output was much less bizarre than P.M. Dawn’s (to say nothing of incorporating samples from Spandau Ballet).
But the albums Prince Be crafted before being sidelined by a stroke in 2005—Of the Heart, of the Soul and of the Cross: The Utopian Experience (1991), The Bliss Album… ? (1993), Jesus Wept (1995), and Dearest Christian, I’m So Very Sorry for Bringing You Here. Love, Dad (1998)—stand as musical and lyrical masterpieces. And in retrospect, P.M. Dawn is the link between early psychedelic-rap classics including De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising and the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique and later efforts such as Outkast’s Stankonia and Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, Common’s Like Water for Chocolate and Electric Circus, and much of the music released by Lupe Fiasco and Chance the Rapper, among many others.
Prince Be is survived by his wife Mary and children Christian, Mia, and Brandon. In tribute to one of my favorite rappers ever—above and beyond the fact that we both are fat misfits who grew up in and somehow escaped Jersey City—here is the passage I wrote about P.M. Dawn in my first book, Turn On Your Mind: Four Decades of Great Psychedelic Rock. Like everyone else we’ve lost in recent months, the man will be missed, but the music lives on.
Reality used to be a friend of mine / ’Cause complete control I don’t take too kind.—P.M. Dawn, “Reality Used to Be A Friend of Mine”
Located just across the Hudson River from Manhattan and ten minutes away via the PATH train, Jersey City is a schizophrenic town with all of the problems of its larger neighbor and none of the culture or charms. Run-down ghettoes abut tree-lined neighborhoods of aluminum-sided homes and gentrified historic districts of renovated brownstones. Political corruption, street crime, racism, and drugs are chronic problems, but more soul-shattering is a subtle but pervasive sense of despair and a chronic lack of hope or vision. Growing up as an introverted, overweight misfit, Attrel Cordes Jr. decided that he could see a better way. Rechristening himself Prince Be and forming P.M. Dawn with his brother Jarrett, a.k.a. DJ Minutemix, he announced that reality was an illusion and that anything could be changed if only one thought hard enough and had enough faith. In doing so, he joined a line of African-American musicians that included Jimi Hendrix and George Clinton, fellow psychedelic visionaries who preached not escapism, but optimism and the power of positive thinking.
Infants when their father died of pneumonia in 1967, the Cordes brothers grew up surrounded by music and spirituality. Their mother sang in the church choir and taught them about Catholicism and Edgar Cayce, a Virginia Beach philosopher who wrote about karma, reincarnation, and the lost continent of Atlantis. At sixteen, Prince Be was kicked out of Jersey City’s gifted and talented high school for cursing at his gym teacher—“I thought I was a B-boy, and I wasn’t,” he told Helene Stapinski in Request magazine—but he soon focused his adolescent energies on music. In addition to MTV stalwarts such as Prince and Culture Club, he was introduced to older sounds like the Beatles and Stevie Wonder by his stepfather, a sometimes conga player with Kool and the Gang. Prince Be toyed with guitar and DJ Minutemix tried drums and piano, but they abandoned those instruments early on. It was in the sampler that they found their true calling.
Working as a security guard at a homeless shelter for the mentally ill, Prince Be saved up six hundred dollars and recorded a demo that attracted the attention of England’s Gee Street Records, the label that launched the Jungle Brothers. P.M. Dawn was flown to London to record its debut, Of the Heart, Of the Soul and Of the Cross: The Utopian Experience. Prince Be alternated velvety smooth rapping and high, clear, soulful singing over hook-filled soundscapes that were lush, inviting, and extremely sophisticated. The brothers preferred the terms sampling artists or songwriters to rappers. The diverse ingredients in their musical collages included Chick Corea, the Doobie Brothers, Sly Stone, Hugh Masekela, and Spandau Ballet. Prince Be was crushed when he couldn’t sample his heroes, the Beatles, but he had musicians duplicate a snatch of “Baby You’re A Rich Man” for “The Beautiful.” (The original artist’s permission is required to sample a song, but not to cover it.)
Although they’re aware of the inspiration behind their favorite Beatles tracks, the Cordes brothers say they’ve never taken psychedelic drugs, and they aren’t interested in trying. “To me, psychedelia is finding something tangible that you can hold on to in the unusual, and that’s what any innovator does,” Prince Be told me. “That happened with the Beatles; they were trying to find something new, they were tired of just the guitars, drums, and that’s that. Then they started using sitars and xylophones and all kinds of stuff. It’s just finding innovative ways of making music—to make it different—to make it sound more and more fresh at any point in time.” Added his brother: “Whatever we do is just part of us. Prince, when he writes, is always asking questions about things. It’s like physical therapy for the soul.”
P.M. Dawn doesn’t believe in utopia, but it does believe in the “utopian experience,” in particular the idea that “heaven is within us all.” Prince Be preaches transcending the outside world by accepting that reality is an illusion, and different realities can be created in the mind. (“When you open up your eyes/What’s in front of you/Is what’s supposed to be there/Really?”) His faith in his own hodgepodge of religious ideas is strong, but he isn’t seeking converts. When he addresses his “father,” it’s never clear whether he’s writing to Attrel Sr. or penning what Brian Wilson called “teenage symphonies to God.” In either case, people who aren’t interested in his personal philosophy can read the poetic lyrics as simple but moving love songs. Prince Be balances even his weightiest raps with infectious melodies and a playful sense of humor. He was clearly having fun with his image as a dreadlocks-wearing, four-hundred-pound guru in psychedelic pajamas. When he and his brother posed on the album cover on an Antarctic iceberg, the image was as incongruous as Parliament-Funkadelic’s brothers in outer space, and it was just as striking.
The Utopian Experience was an impressive hit in the U.S. and England, where it won support in the mainstream as well as the underground rave culture, but like De La Soul, P.M. Dawn was criticized by hardcore rappers as a sell-out. Even worse, Prince Be was called an Uncle Tom because of his talk of a “quest to become colorless,” and he was subjected to homophobic slurs because of his effeminate mannerisms and high-pitched vocals. The Cordes brothers aren’t wimps, and they came back swinging on The Bliss Album … ? (Vibrations of Love and Anger and the Ponderance of Life and Existence). “Plastic” revived a ’60s put-down to dis gangsta rappers who are “hard at first but melt in the heat,” and Prince Be rightfully claimed that he was doing more to move hip-hop forward than his dogmatic peers. “If water can’t go any place and it doesn’t move, it goes stagnant, and I couldn’t see that happening to myself or to hip-hop,” he told me. But unlike De La Soul, P.M. Dawn didn’t allow its anger to distract from its strengths, and the album offers two more beautiful, ethereal ballads, “I’d Die Without You” and “Looking Through Patient Eyes.” There’s also another tribute to the Beatles, a cover of “Norwegian Wood” that transforms John Lennon’s wry tale of infidelity into something much stranger, with noises recalling the backward bird cries of “Tomorrow Never Knows.”
P.M. Dawn flirted with touring following the second album’s release, performing with a powerful thirteen-piece band as part of Peter Gabriel’s first American WOMAD tour. But the ambitious stage show wound up costing the band half a million dollars, and Prince Be said he wasn’t really comfortable outside the studio, anyway. The group retreated for two and a half years. Prince Be got married and had a son, Christian. Fans worried that P.M. Dawn had run its course, but in his new Jersey City home studio, Prince Be was crafting his strongest and most psychedelic album. “It’s pop, with a slightly experimental edge,” he told David Sprague in Request. “It’s not that far-out, it’s just slightly … elevated.” Released in 1995, Jesus Wept is named for the shortest verse in the Bible, and one that Prince Be praises for offering insight into Jesus, the man. The album opens with a snippet from the animated Charlie Brown TV special about the Great Pumpkin—“If you really are a fake, don’t tell me; I don’t want to know,” Linus says—then traces what the singer calls “an individual’s spiritual journey through human existence.” “We wanted to do an album that was spiritual top-to-bottom without being religious,” he told Sprague. “For me, the jury is still out about organized religion. I wanted to evoke the spirituality I feel inside.”
Using real instruments instead of samples on most of the tracks, the album climaxes in an unlikely trio of covers dubbed “Fantasia’s Confidential Ghetto.” The mini-suite starts with a stripped-down version of Prince’s “1999,” shifts into the layered art-funk of the Talking Heads’ “Once In A Lifetime,” and ends with a gonzo version of Harry Nilsson’s “Coconut” that incorporates the now-obligatory Beatles nod by quoting “Flying.” “Put the lime in the coconut and drink it all up,” Prince Be sings. His conviction is strong enough to convince any skeptic that this brew —or at least the act of singing about it—is indeed all that is needed to cure life’s ills. The group has largely been missing from the mainstream view ever since, though Prince Be continues to craft his unique soundscapes, sometimes offering them as free downloads on the Web.