The Number Ones

November 30, 1991

The Number Ones: P.M. Dawn’s “Set Adrift On Memory Bliss”

Stayed at #1:

1 Week

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

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In May of 1991, the Billboard album charts changed forever. That’s when Billboard stopped tabulating its charts by using phoned-in information from record stores and started depending on SoundScan, Nielsen’s electronic monitoring system, to figure out which albums sold the most. Suddenly, the magazine was able to use empirical data, and it’s a lot harder for record labels to manipulate empirical data. The effects of the SoundScan switchover weren’t immediate; the first #1 album of the SoundScan era, after all, was Michael Bolton’s Time, Love & Tenderness. But in the weeks that followed, albums started debuting at #1, and label heads learned that things like rap and country were way more popular than they realized. A month after the SoundScan era went into effect, N.W.A’s Efil4zaggin was the #1 album in America, something that would’ve been unthinkable pre-SoundScan.

Six months later, the SoundScan era came to the Hot 100. Billboard had always used a combination of single sales and radio play in figuring out the Hot 100, but it hadn’t exactly gathered that data scientifically. Starting in November of 1991, Billboard changed things up, using SoundScan to figure out the sales and Broadcast Data Systems to monitor radio play. Before that, radio-station programmers and record-store owners had been able to switch numbers around. The SoundScan era made that impossible.

Once again, the effects weren’t necessarily immediate. But it can’t be a coincidence that the first #1 hit of the SoundScan era is also the first #1 single from a Black rap group. Before P.M. Dawn’s “Set Adrift On Memory Bliss” topped the Hot 100, the only #1 rap hits had come from crossover-minded white pop-rappers, Vanilla Ice and Marky Mark. “Set Adrift On Memory Bliss” was already racing up the Hot 100 before the official start of the SoundScan era, but it still feels notable that P.M. Dawn’s triumph came at the same time as the SoundScan era began.

“Set Adrift On Memory Bliss” wasn’t a warning-shot hit like that N.W.A album; in many ways, P.M. Dawn were the polar opposite of N.W.A. P.M. Dawn leader Prince Be liked to call himself a songwriter, not a rapper, and he did nearly as much singing as rapping. Like both “Ice Ice Baby” and “Good Vibrations” before it, “Set Adrift On Memory Bliss” is a bright, catchy dance-rap track built on an extremely recognizable sample. But it’s also a strange astral meditation of a track, and it had headier things in mind than anything on those previous hits. Over the years, “Set Adrift On Memory Bliss” has proven sneakily influential, but it also represents a road-not-taken moment in the history of rap’s rise to total commercial domination. “Set Adrift” was the first pretty rap song to top the Hot 100. It would be years before we would get another one.

Attrell and Jarrett Cordes, the two brothers who made up P.M. Dawn, were natives of Jersey City, New Jersey, and they came of age in time to see rap’s early days. (When Attrell Cordes was born, the #1 song in America was the Guess Who’s “American Woman.”) The Cordes brothers’ father died of pneumonia when they were both very young, and their mother later married George Brown, longtime drummer and percussionist for previous Number Ones artists Kool & The Gang. The brothers learned a lot about music from Brown, and they learned more from an uncle who worked as a garbage collector and who brought them the discarded records that he found while working. As kids, the brothers started writing rap songs together.

When he was a teenager, Attrell Cordes, the older of the two brothers, got a job working overnight security at a center for houseless people. The Cordes brothers formed P.M. Dawn around the same time. Attrell, the lead rapper and songwriter, called himself Prince Be, while Jarrett Cordes became DJ Minutemix. In 1988, P.M. Dawn spent $600 of Price Be’s security-guard money on recording a demo. They took it to Tommy Boy Records, but that label rejected them. Instead, P.M. Dawn released their 1989 debut single “Ode To A Forgetful Mind” on Warlock Records, a small New York indie founded by Adam Levy, son of the famous mobbed-up music-business criminal Morris.

Even early on, P.M. Dawn’s whole style was playfully ethereal. De La Soul were a clear influence, and P.M. Dawn were as soft-spoken and psychedelic as De La. But the members of De La Soul bristled at being called hippies, while P.M. Dawn embraced it. They were big into starry-eyed singsong choruses and astral-mysticism lyrics, and that specific kind of idealism gave them little traction in the New York rap world. But when the British label Gee Street licensed “Ode To A Forgetful Mind” for a UK release, things turned around for P.M. Dawn. In the UK, P.M. Dawn’s haziness and post-genre sensibility aligned with fellow travelers like Terence Trent D’Arby and Soul II Soul. There, they made sense.

In 1990, Gee Street signed P.M. Dawn and flew the duo over to London to record an album. Soon after, though, Gee Street went bankrupt. Island Records bought the label and acquired P.M. Dawn’s contract in the process. This did not turn out to be a problem for P.M. Dawn. In 1991, P.M. Dawn’s second single “A Watcher’s Point of View (Don’t ‘Cha Think)” cracked the UK top 40. They followed that single with “Set Adrift On Memory Bliss,” which made it all the way up to #3 on the British charts. When Island started pushing P.M. Dawn in America, they had the added curiosity factor of British success and the investment of a label that actually believed in them.

When P.M. Dawn were working on their album in a London studio, Prince Be happened to hear Spandau Ballet’s “True,” one of the many odes to American soul music that came out of the UK’s whole new-romantic movement. Spandau Ballet came out of punk, and they were directly influenced by the Sex Pistols, but they zagged hard, developing a kind of crushed-velvet hi-fi balladry. “True” came out in 1983 and became the group’s biggest hit, topping the UK singles chart and peaking at #4 on the Hot 100. (It’s a 6.) Prince Be found “True” to be “so beautiful.” In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits, he says, “I basically reincarnated the spirit of ‘True’ for me. I reshaped it as if I wrote it myself, creating ‘Set Adrift On Memory Bliss.'”

“Set Adrift On Memory Bliss” samples the hell out of “True,” using its lush guitar stabs and heavily harmonized ba-ba-bas. But P.M. Dawn’s track combines Spandau Ballet’s song with a couple of classic rap samples. It takes its central pulse from the Soul Searchers’ “Ashley’s Roachclip,” the same once-obscure 1974 funk instrumental that had already emerged from the rap world and powered #1 hits like Milli Vanilli’s “Baby Don’t Forget My Number” and EMF’s “Unbelievable.” It also uses another track that’s been sampled a ton of times: smooth jazz keyboardist Bob James’ hectic, funky 1975 cover of “Take Me To The Mardi Gras,” a song that Paul Simon had released two years earlier. By the time P.M. Dawn used the tense, noisy middle passage of “Take Me To The Mardi Gras,” that track had already been sampled by Run-DMC, the Beastie Boys, N.W.A, and a whole lot of others. Even if you don’t know Bob James’ “Take Me To The Mardi Gras,” you know it.

The members of Spandau Ballet were absolutely cool with P.M. Dawn chopping up “True” and transforming it into “Set Adrift On Memory Bliss.” Spandau Ballet’s Gary Kemp got a songwriting credit on “Set Adrift.” (The Soul Searchers, Bob James, and Paul Simon didn’t get songwriting credits; Kemp and Prince Be are listed as the only songwriters.) Spandau Ballet singer Tony Hadley also appeared in the “Set Adrift” video. That video, from future Going All The Way/Arlington Road director Mark Pellington, is a very of-its-time vision, full of blue skies and dazed faces. Prince Be and DJ Minutemix fully dive into their whole boho-hippie aesthetic, rocking beads and flowing fabrics and John Lennon sunglasses. The clip is almost defiant in its softness. You could say the same thing about the song itself.

“Set Adrift On Memory Bliss” isn’t exactly a song about anything. Instead, it’s Prince Be going into a spaced-out Proustian reverie, thinking about women who he’s known and others who he might one day know. Prince Be opens the track up with a vague scene description that plays around with lyrics from Joni Mitchell’s “The Boho Dance”: “The camera pans the cocktail glass/ Behind a blind of plastic plants/ I found the lady with the fat diamond ring/ Then you know I can’t remember a damn thing.” He muses on dreams and deja vu. He switches up the hook from A Tribe Called Quest’s “Bonita Applebum” and turns it into a shoutout to Christina Applegate, who was then melting a whole lot of hearts as Kelly Bundy on Married… With Children. He lingers lovingly on his memories of women, but he lets those memories remain vaporous.

Some of Prince Be’s “Set Adrift” lyrics read, at least to me, as total nonsense: “An eye for an eye, a spy for spy/ Rubber bands expand in a frustrating sigh.” Others are relatable in their shrugging mistiness: “I can remember when I caught up with a past-time intimate friend/ She said, ‘Bet you’re probably gonna say I look lovely/ But you probably don’t think nothin’ of me’/ She was right, though, I can’t lie/ She’s just one of those corners in my mind.” He sounds noncommittal, sleepily lost, but not unhappy.

In its way, “Set Adrift On Memory Bliss” is a radical record. The samples stack up well, with the beats giving heft and urgency to the Spandau Ballet melody. Prince Be mutters his lyrics so expansively that he almost parodies himself. But the harmonies on the chorus are lovely and luxurious, and they aren’t too far-removed from what R&B groups like Boyz II Men and Color Me Badd were doing around the same time. The track creates its own sense of mood. Where most of P.M. Dawn’s peers, even left-of-center rappers like the Native Tongues crew, were intense and confrontational, P.M. Dawn were shy and retiring. Maybe that’s why “Set Adrift” did so much better on the pop and dance charts than on Billboard‘s R&B chart, where it peaked at #16.

Rap was, and is, a genre that’s built on passion and intensity, on telling the world who you are in concrete and self-aggrandizing terms. “Set Adrift On Memory Bliss” goes against all of that, moving instead in the direction of shimmery meditation. “Set Adrift” anchored P.M. Dawn’s debut album, the gold-selling and painfully titled Of The Heart, Of The Soul And Of The Cross: The Utopian Experience. The rest of the album is nearly as woozily soft as “Memory Bliss.” That softness, combined with the genuine songcraft at work, earned the album tons of praise from the rock-critical establishment, which was only starting to embrace rap as a whole.

For some rappers, a soft group like P.M. Dawn succeeding on the charts was probably just as threatening as the similar success of white rappers like Vanilla Ice and Marky Mark. P.M. Dawn themselves didn’t do a whole lot to make their peers comfortable. In a profile that ran in the January 1992 issue of Details, Prince Be essentially said that he didn’t understand strident, militant rappers like Public Enemy and N.W.A: “I don’t like Black people. I don’t like white people. I don’t like that kind of thing. Once you consider yourself Black or white, you’re stupid. The prejudice thing is so stupid. If you’re prejudiced, you are stupid… Public Enemy and people like that — they just make mountains out of molehills. KRS-One wants to be a teacher, but a teacher of what? N.W.A just don’t do anything at all.”

Shortly after that Details piece ran, KRS-One made his disapproval known in a blunt, theatrical way. One night in January of 1992, MTV was on hand to film a P.M. Dawn show at Manhattan’s Sound Factory. While P.M. Dawn were onstage, KRS-One and his crew bumrushed them, shoving Prince Be offstage and forcing DJ Minutemix and the group’s dancers into the wings. KRS-One grabbed Prince Be’s mic and rapped a couple of his own songs to a crowd that must’ve been losing its mind. I’ve never seen footage of that stage bumrush, but in my mind, it’s KRS lifting Prince Be above his head like the Ultimate Warrior and gorilla pressing him into the crowd. The real situation was presumably a whole lot more chaotic and less cinematic than that. Immediately afterward, P.M. Dawn issued a press release complaining about the Stop The Violence guy responding with violence, while KRS issued a surly apology. (KRS-One’s highest-charting single, 1995’s “MC’s Act Like They Don’t Know,” peaked at #57.)

KRS-One was a revered rap figure in 1992, and his unambiguous act of disrespect could’ve doomed P.M. Dawn’s standing within the rap world. Early on, the group probably looked like one-hit wonders; their follow-up single “Paper Doll” peaked at #28. But P.M. Dawn kept making music just as defiantly soft as “Set Adrift On Memory Bliss,” and they endured, mostly because that music just kept getting better. Later in 1992, P.M. Dawn contributed the transfixed, narcotic sung-not-rapped love song “I’d Die Without You” to the soundtrack of the Eddie Murphy movie Boomerang, and it turned out to be a serious hit for the duo. (“I’d Die Without You” peaked at #3. It’s a 10. Another song from the Boomerang soundtrack will be in this column.)

“I’d Die Without You” made a strong introduction for P.M. Dawn’s 1993 sophomore effort The Bliss Album…?. Another single from that album was “Looking Through Patient Eyes,” which was built on a sample of George Michael’s “Father Figure” and which peaked at #6. (It’s a 9.) Eventually, The Bliss Album…? went gold. That album was P.M. Dawn in their sweet spot — taking elements of rap and R&B and psychedelia, turning them all into their own fully-realized thing.

On their next two albums, 1995’s Jesus Wept and 1998’s Dearest Christian, I’m So Very Sorry for Bringing You Here. Love, Dad, P.M. Dawn got more experimental, and they basically lost the American public. The albums sold badly, but even at the end, P.M. Dawn were able to make their presence known on the Hot 100. In 1998, for instance, P.M. Dawn made it to #44 with the Dearest Christian single “I Had No Right.” It would be their last time on the Hot 100.

In 1995, DJ Minutemix was arrested for sexually abusing a 14-year-old relative; charges were eventually dropped. After that arrest, Minutemix remained with P.M. Dawn, though he was finally kicked out of the group in 2005 and replaced with Prince Be’s cousin Doc G. By that time, P.M. Dawn had been off of Island Records for years, and they’d self-released a 2000 LP called Fucked Music. As the group went on, Prince Be’s health got worse. Prince Be had diabetes, and he suffered a series of strokes. One of those strokes left him partially paralyzed. Eventually, one of his legs had to be amputated below the knee. Near the end of his life, Prince Be lived in nursing homes. In 2016, he died of renal failure. He was 46. Doc G has kept the P.M. Dawn name, and he sometimes plays P.M. Dawn shows.

P.M. Dawn’s legacy is sad and complicated, but it’s not without triumph. “Set Adrift On Memory Bliss” had to overcome a lot of odds to top the Hot 100, and the group’s genre-blurred and ecstatically vulnerable take on rap music would prove oddly enduring. These days, practically all commercially successful rap music is melodic, and plenty of it is vulnerable. At least a few artists who were presumably directly inspired by P.M. Dawn will eventually appear in this column. Before that could happen, though, commercial rap music had to move in a few different directions. In future editions of this column, we’ll see where it went.

GRADE: 8/10

BONUS BEATS: In Rusty Cundieff’s 1993 rap mockumentary Fear Of A Black Hat, Mark Christopher Lawrence, as DJ Tone Def, does a scatological “Set Adrift On Memory Bliss” parody called “I’m Just A Human.” Here it is:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the non-rapping “Set Adrift On Memory Bliss” cover that the Backstreet Boys included on their 1997 album Backstreet’s Back:

(The Backstreet Boys’ highest-charting single, 1996’s “Quit Playing Games With My Heart,” peaked at #2. It’s a 7.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: On Jordan Knight’s 2011 single “Stingy,” Knight’s New Kids On The Block bandmate Donnie Wahlberg stopped by for a guest-rap that heavily quoted from “Set Adrift On Memory Bliss.” Here’s the “Stingy” video:

(New Kids On The Block were already in this column a bunch of times. As a solo artist, Jordan Knight’s highest-charting single is 1999’s “Give It To You,” which peaked at #10. It’s an 8.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Keyshia Cole’s 2017 French Montana/Remy Ma collaboration “You” is built on a sample of “Set Adrift On Memory Bliss.” Here’s the “You” video:

(Keyshia Cole’s highest-charting single, the 2007 Lil Kim/Missy Elliott collaboration “Let It Go,” peaked at #7. It’s an 8. She also guested on Sean Paul’s 2006 track “(When You Gonna) Give It Up To Me,” which peaked at #3. That one is a 7. French Montana’s highest-charting single is the 2017 Swae Lee collab “Unforgettable,” which peaked at #3. It’s a 6. As lead artist, Remy Ma’s highest-charting single is the 2016 Fat Joe/French Montana collab “All The Way Up,” which peaked at #27. As a member of Terror Squad, she’ll eventually appear in this column.)

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