Out of the darkness emerges a classic hip hop concept album.
(Note: ‘6 Feet Deep was released with a slightly different track listing as ‘Niggamortis’ in Europe. For brevity, this album will be referred to as ‘6 Feet Deep’ throughout.)
‘And just when you thought it was over…now, comes the Gravediggaz.’
– Prince Paul, ‘just When You thought it Was Over’
In 1994, rap music was in the middle of its second golden age. Albums such as ‘Illmatic’, ‘Ready to Die’ and ‘Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik’ left indelible marks on the hip hop landscape, as classics dropped on a seemingly weekly basis. However, for all the iconic albums from nascent superstars and underground legends, to some in the rap industry, Prince Paul, a name once synonymous with classic albums (Stetsasonic, De La Soul, 3rd Bass), was a has-been, a producer who, after his Resident Alien project was shelved, was a fall-off.
To these industry naysayers Prince Paul, in a musical sense, was dead.
Imagine then, the horror that these non-believer’s must have felt, when hip hop’s concept album King clawed his way out of the grave they’d placed him in, taking rap for a ride to the dark side with the classic ‘6 Feet Deep’, released in the August of that glorious year.
‘This one goes out…to all those who forgot to take No-Doz…all the low-lifes, snakes and liars…and to the A & R who couldn’t understand the product…’
– Prince Paul, ‘Nowhere to Run, Nowhere to Hide’
His acolytes on this journey were three similarly maligned talents, who, after years languishing in rap limbo, were back from ‘the dead’. Frukwan (‘The Gatekeeper’), an underrated MC whose notable credits were working alongside Paul as a member of Stetsasonic, as well as a feature on the classic ‘Self Destruction’ single. His rugged-yet-limber delivery perfectly complimented fellow Gravedigga Too Poetic (‘The Grym Reaper’), an equally underrated lyricist with a charismatic, theatrical presence and distinctive voice and style. RZA had recently bum-rushed the industry with his Wu Tang Clan brethren. Credited more for his beats than his rapping, as a Gravedigga (‘The RZArector’) he would turn the tables and further validate himself as an MC.
Whilst most of the production – funky, soulful, sombre and unhinged – was courtesy of Prince Paul (‘The Undertaker’), there were also fitting contributions from RZA and RNS, Mr. Sime, Frukwan, and Too Poetic. Each track was in a similar enough vein so as not to stray too far from the overall theme, yet diverse and engaging enough to stand out. The intelligent sequencing meant that, for example, the smooth Patrice Rushen flip on ‘Mommy, What’s A Gravedigga?’ calmed listeners’ nerves shredded by the haunting operatic vocals and horrors conveyed on ‘Diary of a Madman’.
The album cleverly mixed horror movie imagery and layers of dark humour (‘1-800 Suicide’), with explorations on the psychological impact of slavery (‘Diary of a Madman’), social commentary (‘Deathtrap’), autobiographical tales of growing up in the streets (‘Blood Brothers’) and references to the teachings of the Nation of Gods and Earths (NGE) and the Nation of Islam (NOI) (‘2 Cups of Blood’ and ‘Graveyard Chamber’, respectively).
‘…you had your bumba raas picking cotton / now you hate your knotty hairstyles / I guess you figure the texture is too wild, child.’
– Grym Reaper, ‘2 Cups of Blood’
Lead single ‘Diary of a Madman’ provided a particularly visceral example of how the horrors of slavery have left deep scares on the African – American psyche: ‘I realize my ideas / had been spawned, from 400 years / of blood, sweat and tears…’ reveals a tortured sounding RZA. Elsewhere, tracks like ‘Deathtrap’ built further upon the foundations that Paul had laid several years before, with the song ‘Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa’ on De La Soul’s classic ‘De La Soul is Dead’
‘Millie…’ details a young girl’s sustained abuse at the hands of her father. The song ends with Millie shooting her dad, a pillar of the local community, whilst he performs as Father Christmas at Macy’s department store, after her allegations are scoffed at. On ‘Deathtrap’, Frukwan, RZA and Too Poetic detail the demise of several ghetto inhabitants. The last of which is, again, an abusive father attacked by his own daughter whose pleas for help have been ignored.
‘I’m blood-thirsty / thirsty, for sure / about to blood-suck the same ones, who blood-suck the poor / you’re…not safe…anymore…’
– RZA, ‘Constant Elevation’
‘Diary…’ and ‘Deathtrap’ are two tracks which show that the mistreatment that oppressed peoples suffer at the hands of their fellow man is, at the very least, as horrific as anything involving ghosts, ghouls and goblins. There are numerous urban legends, folk tales and horror movies telling of beings who wreak havoc and commit despicable acts because of how despicably they were treated in the first place – the 1992 film ‘Candyman’ is one fitting example of this archetype – and, in their Gravedigga guises, the group carried on the timeless tradition of ‘the bad guys…with a cause’, to borrow a phrase Method Man has used to describe brethren the Wu Tang Clan.
The album is peppered with NGE and NOI references to uplift the oppressed. Note RZA’s opening couplet from ‘2 Cups of Blood’: ‘Arm to the Leg Leg Arm to the Head / yo, be the RZArector, RZArect the mental dead.’ and on ‘Constant Elevation’ ‘Positive Energy Activates Constant Elevation.’
There is also a fair share of gallows humour which provides some light – or perhaps dark – relief. Grym croons: ‘Maybe you’re a bastard child, you think / mum and dad are white and you’re dark as ink / maybe you’re Sicilian with a tan / but you hate lasagne and the pizza man.’ on the poignant ‘1-800 Suicide’. Throughout the project, Grym (an acronym of ‘Ghetto Repaired Young Mind’) shone as a storyteller as adept at painting pictures of suffering and desperation as he was at spitting witty punch-lines, though even his more humorous moments were still often tinged with heartache. His passing from cancer in 2001 was yet another shocking loss to a culture in which death often comes all too soon.
Whilst some listeners found all the references to graveyards, blood and guts too much to stomach, the album was well received by many listeners and reviewers. The project was loved by many hip hop purists, as well as the same indie / metal fans who dug Public Enemy, Onyx, Cypress Hill and cross-genre collabo’s like the ‘Judgement Night’ soundtrack. ‘Bang Your Head’ in particular, with its white noise and rowdy chorus, was a big hit with ‘alternative’ radio programs in Europe and it was not uncommon to see fans of various styles and persuasions rocking hoodies and tee’s adorned with the Gravediggaz logo.
‘Out of the darkness…from the parts unknown…people fear what they don’t understand…we’re here to explain there is nothing to be afraid of…have no fear / Gravediggaz are here.’
– Frukwan, ‘Constant Elevation’
Hip hop loves the underdog, and in ‘6 Feet Deep’ you have four artists who came back ‘out of the darkness’. In Prince Paul, you had a producer who showed he was very much still alive and well; in the RZA you had a producer and MC who, as his own fame and glory grew was not afraid to step out of his comfort zone; and in Frukwan and Too Poetic two MC’s who, when the time came for them to step back up to the plate to show and prove to a wider audience, did not disappoint. For all the talk of doom, despair and death on ‘6 Feet Deep’, there are still elements of survival, success and rebirth to hold onto.
Grab a shovel and dig in.