Joni Mitchell: “I Had a King” / P.M. Dawn: “The Ways of the Wind”
Joni Mitchell (1968)
P.M. Dawn (1993)
I’m always a sucker for the good use of an unexpected and/or obscure sample in a song. Not that there are really that many times I get to look for them in music I listen to on any sort of regular basis, outside of Beck, the Beastie Boys, or Public Enemy. But I recognize ’em when I hear ’em — such as Deee-lite’s “Groove is in the Heart” and its great Herbie Hancock sample. I don’t like it when someone takes basically the entire song backing and simply records new lyrics over it, but I can certainly appreciate the creative repurposing of a riff.
And so, to finally get back to a Cover Friday after a long time off (sorry about that, all you covers fans), I’m showing up with a Sample Friday (close enough?)…
You couldn’t really have found many similarities between Joni Mitchell and P.M. Dawn prior to the release of P.M. Dawn’s The Bliss Album…? (the ellipses and question mark are in fact part of the title) in 1993. Joni Mitchell was folk’s greatest female songwriter and performer (at least up through 1976 or so — nothing after Hejira is up to her best work), and beyond that, one of the best songwriters in popular music, period. And P.M. Dawn was a ’90s rap/smooth pop/urban-R&B/hard-to-pigeonhole duo that at least for a couple of albums showed a lot of promise in blurring genre boundaries (they straddled a very fine line for me between the great literate rap of groups like De La Soul and the crappy lite pop of groups like Boyz II Men, with a dash of Prince thrown in, and thankfully they fell more on the De La Soul/Prince side of things with The Bliss Album…?). Little connection between the two artists would have been possible prior to 1993.
On The Bliss Album…?, however, P.M. Dawn took the guitar figure from Joni Mitchell’s “I Had a King,” from her 1968 debut album, Song to a Seagull, and turned it into the basis of a incredibly catchy, if somewhat sappy, hip-hop/soul song, “The Ways of the Wind.” I remember hearing it for the first time after buying their album based on some glowing reviews and immediately recognizing that I knew that riff. But the distance between them and Mitchell was such a large one that it took me a couple of listens to realize what song it was from. But I was very familiar with it: Song to a Seagull was one of my parents’ albums that I heard on a frequent basis from a very young age, and its music sank in in such a way that it will always be part of my musical makeup. I can’t hear the album without a wash of sentimentality for my early childhood years in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, sweeping over me. And years later, now owning the album myself, it’s easily one of the best albums to put on late at night when you’re feeling a bit melancholic or simply mellow. Try it sometime, you’ll see.
In any case, it was kudos to P.M. Dawn for what they did with that riff, wrestling it from the hands of melancholy and placing it firmly into an uplifting song (well, okay, maybe there’s still a light undercurrent of melancholia), without missing a beat — and come to think of it, they added quite a few of those.