The hip-hop foursome Gravediggaz is comprised of Frukwan da Gatekeeper (or Fruitkwan, formerly of Stetsasonic), Poetic da Grym Reaper (formerly Too Poetic), Prince Paul a.k.a. Dr. Strange (formerly of De La Soul and Stetsasonic), and RZA the Rzarector (also part of the WuTang Clan). The foursome assembled to pool their musical talents and experiences for their debut 1994 release, 6 Feet Deep. Originally lumped into the genre of “horrorcore” rap because of their name and grisly themes, they took a three-year hiatus and eventually transcended the narrow confines of “horrorcore hip-hop” by releasing The Pick, the Sickle and the Shovel in 1997, which featured a return to positivity, hip-hop’s original sound, and intention to educate the disheartened and the street-wise. Andrew Emery of Hip Hop Connectionwrote, “The central metaphor of the Gravediggaz project (is) the struggle for recognition of the everyday horror of life, of the black plight in America and world-wide.”
Gravediggaz formed in 1992 with the intent to hoist themselves out of a musical slump. All of the group’s members had been signed to Tommy Boy Records but, by 1992, none of them had a record deal, so they joined forces to usher in a change. They spent two years shopping the Gravediggaz material around to various record companies before Gee Street Records picked up the group up in 1994. Prince Paul told E. Brennan of the U.K.’s Trace magazine, “I had all this music and I didn’t know how to get it out there. So I tried to get brothers who I felt were in the same predicament…. I called Poetic… RZA… Frukwan.” Prince Paul’s original intention was to make a compilation album, but when the foursome met for the first time the chemistry worked so well that they ended up creating a song on the spot.
Before Prince Paul created the Gravediggaz, he was enjoying gold and platinum record sales from his work with De La Soul and more specifically, from their release 3 Feet High and Rising. He had a label deal with Tommy Boy Records, but the label didn’t release his albums and Prince Paul was bound exclusively to the label. His DewDoo Man records imprint didn’t meet with success, and Def Jam didn’t want to pay him for his work with 3rd Bass. He told Brennan, “I was at the bottom of the barrel. I didn’t have the reputation of an LL Cool J or an EPMD. I just got put on the back burner.” The other members of Gravediggaz felt similarly stifled or overlooked, so the foursome had a common bond apart from music from the start. Poetic released “God Made Me Funky” with part of the duo Too Poetic, but his record deal soured. Frukwan left the band Stetsasonic on less than good terms, so he fell back on making custom-tailored clothes to make ends meet. RZA, formerly known as Prince Rakeem, was a struggling solo artist who felt he had been given the short-shrift more than once. After the foursome met and created the Gravediggaz, they held fast to their respect for one another and have prided themselves on their ability to work together without having to grapple with inflated egos or foolish pride. Poetic told Alan C. Page of Rap Sheet, “You’re dealing with Fruitkwan and Prince Paul. That’s 13, 13 years of hip-hop. You’re dealing with me…you got 10 years of hip-hop right there. RZA, same thing. Between us all, you got 40 years of hip-hop.”
RZA became part of the wildly successful Wu-Tang Clan shortly after forming the Gravediggaz, and divides his time between both band, freelance music projects, and even a clothing line business. Rolling Stone’s Neil Strauss described RZA as, “the calm in the center of the Wu-Tang storm… (who) is currently masterminding some 13 records in the coming year (1998).”
“We came up with the Gravediggaz,” Frukwan told Page, “because we still dwell in the ghetto, where a lot of people need knowledge and wisdom, meaning that a lot of people are walking around mentally dead, who don’t know their purpose on this earth.” The connotations associated with grave diggers and physically burying people led to immediate typecasting for the band shortly after their first release, 6 Feet Deep. Bands and musicians like Crustified Dibbs (a.k.a. RA the Rugged Man), the Flatlinerz, and Half Pit Half Dead were
Members include Anthony Berkely (Poetic the Grym Reaper); Robert Diggs (RZA the Rzarector, born 1968 in New York City, also part of the WuTang Clan); Arnold Hamilton (Frukwan da Gatekeeper); Paul Hanson (Prince Paul A.K.A. Dr. Strange).
Released debut album 6 Feet Deep, 1994; released The Pick, the Sickle and the Shovel, 1997.
part of the “horrorcore” music scene, and the Gravediggaz were slated as part of this “new rap movement”. Prince Paul told Hip Hop Connection’s Emery, “If we came out with the album when we first started working on it—it took us two-and-a-half years for that album to come out—it would have been a totally different arena…. Unfortunately, we came out at a bad time, where everybody was coming out with “horror-core” and… that put us in the middle of it.” The band waited three years after the release of their first album to allow the “horrorcore” smoke to clear before releasing The Pick, the Sickle, and the Shovel. Poetic told Page, “We were waiting for the snakes to kill themselves. We let those groups (horror-core groups) qualify or disqualify themselves. In three years, they couldn’t come back with anything.” In the three-years the band took to release their second album, group members were also surprised to see that the record companies that had shunned their material began looking for groups that could emulate them.
The dark tone of the band’s debut release, coupled with the band’s misunderstood name and imagery, obscured the artistry and deeper meaning of 6 Feet Deep, but the band’s second release met with lavish praise. Page wrote that 6 Feet Deep was misunderstood even by their imitators, as the band was simply reflecting reality instead of making up horror-raps. He wrote,” The Pick, the Sickle, and the Shovel focuses on more positivity than the first, especially on joints such as “Hidden Emotions” and “The Night the Earth Cried.”
Band members view the darkness of the first album as akin to being inside of a cocoon, drawing an analogy between a cocoon and the ghetto. They feel the second album reflects their metamorphosis musically and spiritually. Poetic told Page, “On this album (The Pick, the Sickle, and the Shovel ), the caterpillar develops into what it was supposed to be, a black butterfly.”
Spin magazine’s Armond White wrote, “The Pick, The Sickle, and the Shovel … is actually meant to be death defying…. Poetic attempts to wake hip-hop from it’s venal trance….” Vibe’s David Bry wrote, “This second offering from Gravediggaz…finds (RZA) moving away from production and immersing himself fully in the power of words. Standouts like “Twelve Jewelz” remind us that RZA is a master MC.” A review in Details sums up the band’s second effort with, “(the album) raises the stakes with some serious elegiac rhyming,” and Billboard ’dubbed the release “a new mythology that shocked and amazed as it bounced across ear space.” The group also contributed the title song to the film Dangerous Mindz.
6 Feet Deep, Gee Street Records, 1994.
The Pick, the Sickle, and the Shovel, Gee Street Records, 1997.
(Contributor) Dangerous Mindz (soundtrack), Gee Street Records, 1997.
Billboard, November 22, 1997.
CMJ, October 13, 1997.
Details, November 1997.
Entertainment Weekly, October 31, 1997.
Hip Hop Connection, November 1997.
New York Times, October 26, 1997.
Rap Pages, December 1997.
Rap Sheet, November 1997.
Request, November 1997.
Rolling Stone, September 4, 1997; September 18, 1997.
Spin, December 1997.
The Source, September 1997.
Trace Magazine, September 1997.
Urb Magazine, September/October 1997.
Vibe, November 1997.
—B. Kimberly Taylor
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