Looking around at the current state of hip-hop, one can’t be blamed for having mixed feelings. When exploring through the chart in search of something different and (forgive me for the cliché) revolutionary, put simply, the results come up painfully short, with the vast majority having set the target to contain a moderately catchy, yet simultaneously meaningless hook that one finds themselves humming repeatedly without any control due to its endless sound virtually being played on loop from every direction that they walk in. Scrolling through lacklustre efforts from ‘artists’ such as Iggy Azalea, Wiz Khalifa and the much-treasured Eminem prove that vision and imagination in the arena of mainstream hip-hop is minimal, with our standards being lowered even further when thinking back to the days of the golden age of the genre in the late eighties and early nineties.
Despite this, it is true that there are names in music today, including those emerging from the New York scene such as Action Bronson and the Beast Coast movement that attempt to push boundaries and achieve something other than just popularity for the sake of it, but will they ever be steered to stardom based on merit? I’m hopeful, but it’s unlikely.
I set out on a mission to locate those lost gems that did not receive anywhere near as much attention as they deserved upon release, with the Gravediggaz’ 6 Feet Deep (1994) being at the top of my list. Horrorcore, the unique branch of the genre most recently brought back to prominence by the Tyler the Creator led collective Odd Future, focuses (to much surprise) on the theme of horror, and in some cases vile and twisted imagery that Rolling Stone magazine once described in 2007 “as a short-lived trend that generated more shlock than shock.” But they clearly missed the point, certainly in the case of 6 Feet Deep. The objective of the Gravediggaz’ debut album, released just over twenty years ago, was not to candidly frighten and disturb its audience, but to also create a fictional narrative where each character [The Undertaker (Prince Paul), The Gatekeeper (Frukwan), The Grym Reaper (Too Poetic) and The Rzarector (RZA)] communicate with the ‘living’ in a playful tone and an almost cartoonish demeanour, discussing subjects such as suicide, murder and delving deep into the extremity of human debasement.
The ten second introduction to the record is essential in setting the tone and as Prince Paul states: “I tried to set up the mood and I wanted to let people know what they were getting in to before the whole album started”. In summary, this works. Listeners are hurled into the world of the Gravediggaz in an instant and when Constant Elevation’s intimidating piano sequence abruptly begins with Too Poetic troublingly screaming “BEEWARE!!” we further understand what we’re in for. Poetic assumes the role of The Grym Reaper and introduces us (with a rhythm reminiscent of the late Ol’ Dirty Bastard) to a group that awaken memories of Wu Tang and De La Soul if they happened to be locked up in Broadmoor. However this is no insult. It’s just an indication of the style that the Gravediggaz opted for when developing this project, where impeccable flow is delivered with an aggravated, irregular and altogether menacing quality.
The obsession with death and gore continues throughout the album with another early highlight being Defective Trip (Trippin’), where the remarkably catchy guitar riff briefly makes way for a sharp and repetitive yet also sinister piano chord that plays the background to rhymes revolving around supernatural hallucinations, hence the ‘trippin’’. The RZA transcends this into anxious and confused conversations with himself: “I’m acting two faced, like the signs of Gemini, my head keeps on spinning, constantly continuing, two tabs of mescaline fucks up my adrenaline, I’m in a ‘fuck that shit’ and I can’t escape it!”, indicating a form of multiple personality disorder existing within the character.
The eighth track, 1-800-Suicide is arguably the most absorbing, due to its subject matter and how the group treat it without any sensitivity or understanding and alternatively conduct the material with humour and disdain, going as far to recommend an absurd bucket list of methods to commit the act: “put a slug in your mug; overdose on a drug; wet your hand, stick a knife in the plug, or be like Richard Pryor set your balls on fire, better yet, go hang yourself with a barbed wire”. The production, handled by Prince Paul, creates a relaxed and comical atmosphere that perhaps in theory, unnaturally accompanies the mischievous lyrics surrounding this bleak subject matter; however this is clearly the intention.
Diary of a Madman, the lead single from 6 Feet Deep, is a perfect example of the group’s tendency to sway towards an ambitious story like structure, introducing a courtroom setting (brought into being by Paul as a means of linking the group’s verses) where every character in the song represents one of many personas that the defendant externalises in his murder trial. The outspoken truths of birth, childhood and the corrupting pressures of society are revealed in turn by each individual, at times expressing remorse, desperation and even pride over his appalling actions: “I trick ya, ha, then I’m quick to syringe; deep into my thoughts and bust out your skin”. It is difficult to ignore RZA at the helm for producing this piece, especially when it was made known that it was an unused instrumental during the creation of Wu-Tang’s acclaimed Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) . It supremely differs from the beats assembled by Prince Paul, moving away from the pulsating, forthright and often jagged approach, evident in tunes such as Bang Your Head and the title track 6 Feet Deep.
Concepts such as animosity and disgust form the nucleus of 6 Feet Deep, attacking the supposed lack of substance within the introspectively insipid work of their contemporaries. The members of the Gravediggaz had all experienced minor recognition up until that point and in response sought to spawn an album that was precisely what record labels would shy away from, acting as a huge metaphorical middle finger to the industry. This also made way for the experimental feature of their work, due to the liberty at hand and the previously unthinkable disregard for the view outside of the studio. The independent nature of this piece is greatly significant, with the underlying message being to pursue the stimulating purpose that is missing from the environment that you set yourself to be in. 6 Feet Deep proves to be horrorcore’s finest hour, effortlessly merging the darkness that exists in our society with a unique comicality. After twenty years it has stood the test of time to remain a classic, justifying the little attention the Gravediggaz granted their doubters. In the careless yet admirable words of Too Poetic: “Critics say go to hell, I say yeah, stupid mother-fucker I’m already here!”