If hip-hop has its own Brian Wilson, Prince Paul is the likeliest candidate: No producer in the genre’s history has poured more musicality into its sound — at a more important moment — while also exploring and exorcising his own feelings in such an honest way. De La Soul’s groundbreaking first three albums are as much his as they are Trugoy, Posdnuos, and Maseo’s. But Gravediggaz, a side project developed to vent Paul’s frustrations at an industry that he felt was fickle and ungrateful, became his magnum opus. Not only did he assemble its group’s members — including a struggling young rapper named Prince Rakeem who had yet to become Wu-Tang Clan impresario RZA — he poured his heart and soul into translating the quartet’s collective ambitions and frustrations into a macabre, cathartic, and tremendously influential musical experience.
The group’s debut album 6 Feet Deep celebrates its 25th anniversary this year (on August 9), but Paul’s relationship to RZA went back at least five years before that, when the rapper was, like him, a dissatisfied artist on the iconic Tommy Boy record label. “I met RZA during the time I made 3 Feet High And Rising,” Paul tells Entertainment Weekly. “That’s when he was Prince Rakeem. We made demos together and I thought he was an amazing lyricist, but I lost contact with him. When I started coming up with the idea for the Gravediggaz at the end of 1990, he was one of the first people I thought of.”
Paul’s sense of loyalty also inspired him to reach out to his former Stetsasonic bandmate Frukwan, along with a rapper named Poetic who he’d signed to his Dew Dew Man imprint for Russell Simmons before the label was dismantled. “He reached out to me and said that there’s a few other MCs he thought was great, and it’d be good if we all met each other and create something,” RZA says. “We met on Long Island at his studio. I don’t recall which meeting we came up with Gravediggaz — I don’t like doing no type of self praise, so I can’t say if I came up with the idea or not. But I just know I was in a dark spot in my life, and the Gravediggaz really fit the attitude and the mentality as an artist that I was in.”
RZA says that the concept behind the group was to mobilize like-minded people through the theatricality of the music, lyrics, and presentation. “I recall it being a conscious effort to dig up the mentally dead — that was one of our slogans,” he says. “Of course, we are fans of horror movies, but the worst horror is the man who is mentally dead walking around. And the gravedigger’s job is to dig them up and bring them back to life.
“So we took on personas that take you through that process,” he continues. “Of course there’s [Frukwan] the Gatekeeper. There’s [Poetic] the Grym Reaper. There’s [Paul] the Undertaker. And then there’s the RZArector — after they go through all those phases, they gotta be resurrected.”
The group’s natural competitiveness with one another proved to be an asset; they quickly recorded a demo that all of them were happy with. Paul had effectively assembled a hip-hop supergroup comprised of rappers no one (yet) knew well, unified by the precision of his adventurous, sample-heavy production. The trio’s early sparring sessions in the studio quickly evolved into more complex, thematically rich collaborations, such as the satirical “1-800-Suicide,” where they take turns offering fans ways to off themselves, and their eventual first single “Diary of a Madman,” where the group’s mock trial turns into a referendum on the social, cultural, and supernatural forces that turned them into monsters.
“I recall all of us being in that studio and actually realizing how much talent that everybody really had,” RZA says. “Poetic was a musician, and his father was a musician. He could play guitar, he could play piano, he was a martial artist, you learned that from the friendship and camaraderie in the studio. Frukwan was also a producer, DJ, had talent — he actually ended up producing the track [“Deadliest biz”] on the second album.”
Emboldened by his familiarity with Paul, former Stetsasonic MC Frukwan indicated that the recording sessions became a clearing house not just for the producer’s concepts, but each vocalist’s idiosyncratic approach. “It was like battling,” Frukwan says. “RZA had his own flow. He did things differently, but it was effective. Poetic was just crazy — he would come out with all kinds of lyrics, and then he’d throw a little R&B melody into his verse. Me, I’m not a singer, so it was a challenge for me. But everything worked out perfectly because the concepts were strong, the lyrics were strong, and everybody held their weight.”
Tapping into as rich a cinematic legacy as Wu-Tang did with martial arts movies, Gravediggaz skillfully recreated the iconography of horror and encapsulated the genre’s gruesome, metaphorical spirit on record. But in a world that hadn’t yet been conquered by Wu-Tang, Paul quickly grew frustrated by the lack of interest labels had in signing the group.
“We got an offer from [Eazy-E’s] Ruthless Records that was bad enough at that point that I’d rather have no deal than to sign it,” Paul reveals. But while he was unhappily shopping the record to prospective distributors, RZA hustled tirelessly to launch his own future empire, a move that helped after Wu-Tang’s “Protect Ya Neck” exploded as a single, leading to that group’s signing to Loud records.
RZA admits he was inspired by Paul’s grand vision to explore projects not just musically, but conceptually. “What I got from him on a broad level is the cohesiveness of an idea,” RZA confesses. “I bring out Wu-Tang Clan and it’s packaged in a whole idea — martial arts, spirituality, street warrior, kung fu warrior. He’s a pioneer of a package like that, because he was bringing in sounds and ideas that some of didn’t know.”
Gee Street originally signed Gravediggaz, although Paul says that he had to pester them to lock down his key collaborator. Like the producer, the label hadn’t yet begun to take RZA’s other project as seriously as they should. “RZA was kinda on the fence of signing because Wu-Tang was starting to blow up. So Gee Street said, ‘We don’t need him to sign, but as long as you and the other guys sign we’re good,’” Paul says. “They didn’t think he was important enough. But I’m like, if he doesn’t sign, I don’t sign. And the irony of it is, at the end of the day, he became the star and then they signed him to do the solo Bobby Digital [in Stereo] record and they forgot about me and the other guys!”
Consequently, RZA honored his commitment to the rest of the group even when it became an obstacle to the growing Wu-Tang empire, not to mention some of the folks in the organization who didn’t quite understand what he was doing with Gravediggaz. “Wu-Tang was the hypest thing in hip-hop and I was the de facto leader, the creator, the producer, the owner of the company — and now I’ve got to show up for Gravediggaz videos, album photo shoots, and tours,” he says. “The artistic value that Gravediggaz bought hip-hop at the time, only half the Wu appreciated, and the other half didn’t. Some members didn’t appreciate it because they saw hip-hop as only the street side of it. So not only was it challenging on my time, it was also challenging creatively and confrontational within my crew.”
Unfortunately, the release of the album didn’t quell Paul’s initial doubts about the music industry. “We sold 100,000 copies of the single, which now would be great, but back then I was like, it’s a failure,” he says. “In my heart I was like, they’re not gonna understand this until 10 years later when it’ll probably be accepted as a cool record. But back then to me, my career was ending.” But Paul’s career didn’t end, and 25 years later, 6 Feet Deep is not just accepted, it’s a venerated classic that spawned its own subgenre: horrorcore. By his own admission, Paul saw the record mostly as a one-time opportunity to explore the album’s dark themes, but Flatlinerz and Insane Clown Posse followed group’s lead in short order, and acts like Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, Eminem, and Tyler the Creator eventually picked up 6 Feet Deep’s decomposing baton and ran with it.
Meanwhile, Frukwan and Poetic continued to record under the Gravediggaz moniker until Poetic’s death in 2001 from colon cancer — a demonstration of fortitude and commitment to the group’s early ideals that Frukwan feels duty-bound to honor today. “Grym Reaper showed me how much strength he had when he was going through chemo and all of this stuff and still wanted to record,” he says. “There were times when we were in the studio recording and he was spitting up blood, but he wanted to finish his verse. He lived and breathed hip-hop. Hip-hop has a story for certain MCs who didn’t just jump in this to make money and shit and then go off to do movies and stuff like that. He lived it, he expressed it. So I’ve got to give Grym props — that’s my brother to the end.”
Today, Paul sounds more relieved to have finished 6 Feet Deep at all than to relish its impact. “I just hope that they can hear all the work,” he muses, laughing. “That record was a labor of love. And that’s why when people ask about my favorite records, that’s at the top, because there was a lot of blood and sweat putting in.”
But even if Paul’s penchant for self-deprecation keeps him from fully acknowledging the album’s legacy, RZA is more clear-eyed about the group’s impact on rap music. “The Gravediggaz are part of the pioneer legacy of hip-hop. It’s probably one of hip-hop’s first supergroups,” he says. “Think about how many MCs were inspired by the Gravediggaz — even Drake said he was a Gravedigga in one of his labs! If you don’t want to consider them one of the pillars of hip-hop, you gotta consider it one of the beams. If hip-hop has 50 beams holding it up, the Gravediggaz was one of those beams. It bought a nice chunk of creativity, innovation, and mind expansion to the hip-hop community.”
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