Don’t You Forget About Me: P.M. Dawn – “Set Adrift on Memory Bliss” (1991)
Posted by Andrew Unterberger on September 10, 2008
That’s the way it goes….I guess
Everyone knows that Vanilla Ice had the first-ever rap single to hit #1 on the hip-hop charts with “Ice Ice Baby” (so very, very close, Tone Loc), a statistic used mostly by lame white people to show how lame white people are. What fewer people know is the answer to which hip-hop single by black people to reach pole position was. That is an honor of distinction held solely by Prince Be and DJ Minute Mix, a.k.a. PM Dawn, with a little help from Gary Kemp and Chuck Brown, on the 1991 classic “Set Adrift on Memory Bliss“–also the first #1 of the SoundScan era, incidentally. If this song seems only vaguely familiar, or if you’re under the age of 22 and probably haven’t heard of it, there’s a pretty good reason–it makes “Ice Ice Baby” look like something off of ELIF4ZAGGIN by comparison.
P.M. Dawn was essentially, to quote Avon Barksdale, a rap duo without a country. The basic formula–one dude speaks rhythmically and unmelodically over another dude’s funky, sampled beat–is hip-hop by just about any standards. But what sub-genre, what movement would possibly claim these guys for their own? Aside from a tossed-off reference to A Tribe Called Quest’s “Bonita Applebaum,” “Set Adrift on Memory Bliss” seems to contain nothing else to tie it to hip-hop culture. It’s all about transcendence, longing and near-tantric romantic bliss, with a calm, resigned tone. The beat is vaguely danceable–frankly, anything that uses the “Ashley’s Roachclip” sample (of “Paid in Full,” “Unbelievable,” “Blame it on the Rain” and countless others fame) will be–but it’d sound far more natural in a physical therapy center than a strip club.
The closest comparisons I can think of in hip-hop culture are some of the more hypnotic, ethereal-sounding East Coast love songs, classics like De La Soul’s “Eye Know,” Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth’s “Lots of Lovin'” and LL Cool J’s “Hey Lover.” But none of those guys would ever make a video quote like that of “Set Adrift,” swathed with soothing beach imagery, swirling with pastels and psychedelic colors, and full of weirdly-dressed individuals falling through the blue sky for no particular reason (which, along with the videos for New Order’s “Bizarre Love Triangle” and The Pretenders’ “Back on the Chain Gang,” makes for a rather bizarre music video cliche). None of those guys would ever name their breakthrough album Of the Heart, Of the Soul, and Of the Cross: The Utopian Experience (I’m not even sure Arrested “Zingalamundi” Development would ever sink to quite such depths). And perhaps most importantly, none of these guys looked quite like Prince Be, a man of such large disposition that he was sort of the early-series Bobby Baccala to Biggie’s Tony Soprano.
Perhaps P.M. Dawn were never met for hip-hop culture to begin with. The early, pre-Nirvana 90s, were a pretty chill time to begin with, and when you start comparing “Set Adrift” to hits like DNA and Suzanne Vega’s “Tom’s Diner,” Urban Dance Squad’s “Deeper Shade of Soul” and even Enigma’s “Sadeness (Pt. 1),” I guess it starts to make a little bit of sense. Yeah, they’re black, and yeah, they sort of rap, but I guess you could view it more as spoken word, whatever hip-hop elements being used more for their mantra-esque powers (mantric?) than for hip-hop’s more traditional methodologies and goals. For later hits, like ’92’s #3 hit “I’d Die Without You,” they’d drop any tenuous connections to hip-hop anyway, for a sound much closer to Shai’s “If I Ever Fall in Love Again” (which is pretty much always a good move).
Whatever you wanna call it, I really like this song. Something about the combination of that “Roachclip” drum loop and the guitar sample from Spandau Ballet’s “True” hits you like a Corona and lime (though not like the extremely stress-inducing”Corona and Lime”), instantly melting away all pressures of the outside world until you are setting adrift in complete serenity in the world of Prince Be and DJ Minute Mix. The lyrics can be a little much (“An eye for an eye / a spy for a spy / rubber bands expand in a frustrating sigh”?), but they certainly set the scene, and Be’s sighing monotone provides the proper chilling, heartbeat-lowering effect. Plus, even if it doesn’t fit the genre itself, the song’s legacy in hip-hop culture is more or less cemented by the influence it had on other rappers’ picking up of the “True” sample, later used in Nelly’s “N Dey Say,” Lloyd and Lil’ Wayne’s “You,” and apparently even Silkk the Shocker’s “Be There.”
Kind of song that makes summer being over sort of a bummer.