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Gravediggaz: The 16th Anniversary That Hip-Hop Forgot

I’m actually pretty mad at myself. I’d known that one of my favorite albums ever was released in early August many years ago, but, for some reason I’m too ashamed to uncover, I forgot the exact date. All this self-loathing is to say that, in a perfect and flawlessly planned world, I would’ve dedicated this past Monday’s post to the Gravediggaz album 6 Feet Deep, not four days later.

Monday, which was August 9, marked the 16-year anniversary of the record’s release. Easily the best horrorcore LP of its era, and perhaps of all time, 6 Feet Deep has proven to be a seminal listening experience within my life’s so-far scale, a point I’ll further explore in a hot second. But first, for those not in the know, I should briefly explain just what Gravediggaz was: a supergroup consisting of “The Undertaker” Prince Paul (original Stetsasonic member and early De La Soul producer), “The Rzarector” The Rza (he of Wu-Tang infamy, of course), “The Gatekeeper” Frukwan (also of Stetsasonic) and “The Grym Reaper” Too Poetic (one-time Tommy Boy Records artist who broke through via Gravediggaz, and passed away from colon cancer in 2001).

Released on the now dead-and-gone record label Gee Street (1985-2001) in August 1994, 6 Feet Deep seemed like it was too good to be true when the project was first announced. By that time, I’d had over a year to absorb and dissect Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) debut, more than enough time for that album to basically amplify my rap fandom from passionate to obsessive. Simply put, 36 Chambers is the reason I work in the hip-hop industry today. Everything about that record, from the inventive use of kung-fu samples to its overall grit and lyrical assault from nine different angles, blew me away. At the time, I was third-grader in a private Catholic school, located in a reasonably wealthy New Jersey town, meaning that my classmates came from highfalutin families and listened to bands such as Nirvana and Spin Doctors. I, on the other hand, hid my love of rap music from my peers, due to an overwhelming sense of insecurity—I’ll save that for my inevitable trip to some therapist’s couch in the likely-near future, though.

Long story short, 36 Chambers was the first rap album that I loved to the point of pride; a feeling that I’d discovered a dangerous, rule-changing piece of musical work that was clearly a bit too mature for my 11-year-old ears, but I didn’t care. I was already watching blood-soaked, R-rated horror films by then, the result of my dad renting flicks like Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead and Creepshow for me behind my mom’s back. Frankly, the hip-hop-loving horror-hound that my friends, colleagues and family members see today owes his tastes in entertainment to Wu-Tang and Mr. Barone (my pops).

So imagine my delight when I found out that The Rza, the mastermind responsible for the brilliant production on 36 Chambers, was about to dabble in something coined “horrorcore.” My first thought was, I must work some extra chores to earn cash in order to buy the Gravediggaz album on release day. Second thought, however, was, How in the hell will my parents understand that my 12-year-old ass wants to buy an album called Niggamortis? (That was what 6 Feet Deep was originally called, before worries of controversy inspired a title swap. Fortunately for my Caucasian ’rents, that never presented itself outside of my daydreams.)

Then came the album’s first single, “Diary of a Madman,” featuring Wu-Tang affiliates Killah Priest and Shabazz the Disciple. Now, when I say, “That song sent my head into a tailspin,” I’m not trying to sound cute. From the courtroom scene-frame to the haunted house of a beat (produced by the three-headed monster of Prince Paul, The Rza and RNS)… “Diary of a Madman,” even down to its eerie video, had me open. Truthfully, if you put a gun to my head’s temple right now and asked me to name my five top songs ever, “Diary of a Madman” would make the cut. And I’m quite aware of the fact that I could be the only person alive who’d say that.

I remember buying the “Diary of a Madman” cassette single in this rinky-dink music store down in Wildwood, New Jersey, early that summer of 1994, on the boardwalk, next to the Ferris wheel; the B-side was “Constant Elevation,” aka track number two on 6 Feet Deep. Come August 9, I was armed with $10 cool cash as I eagerly stepped foot into the local Paramus, NJ-located (Nobody Beats) The Wiz. I popped the cassette into my trusty Walkman once I got back home, and the rest is history.

I have no bad memories of 6 Feet Deep, if you can’t tell already. Hell, they even went and made fourth-grade me ecstatic by shooting videos for my two other favorite songs, outside of “Diary of a Madman”—“Nowhere to Run, Nowhere to Hide” and “1-800 Suicide” (though the latter’s video version is different verse-wise than what’s heard on the album.)

I could write about each of the album’s 16 cuts (three skits included) in exhaustive detail, but I’m trying to keep this tribute as short as possible (and clearly failing). I could talk about how the creeping, almost chopped-and-screwed organ notes heard on title track still remind me of the score used in this awesome Tales from the Crypt episode called “Television Terror,” starring Morton Downey Jr. (not Robert). I could express the minor frustration I felt over the too-short length of the one-minute, forty-four-second song “Mommy, What’s a Gravedigga?” and how happy I was when a full version of it surfaced some months later on white label. Or how perfectly the beat on “Defective Trip (Trippin’),” which sounds like a blues band playing while highly intoxicated off the hooch, provides a nice sonic alternative to the ghoulish instrumentals that dominate the rest of the album. But I’ll hold back.

The bottom-line: sometime this week, 16 years after 6 Feet Deep arrived and conquered, be a fine rap head and revisit the album if you’re familiar with it, or give it a long-overdue first listen if you’re not yet hip to the game. Sadly, they don’t make albums of its breed anymore—a straight-faced, well-executed and Clive Barker-friendly listening experience. Just the way I like it. —Matt Barone

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