What makes Prince Paul a hip-hop legend cannot be measured purely in terms of commercial success. Obviously, the Long Island native produced the De La Soul classic 3 Feet High and Rising and its follow-up De La Soul Is Dead. Each album earned RIAA sales certifications of Platinum and Gold, respectively, as well as hits and album cuts for the likes of 3rd Bass, Big Daddy Kane and Queen Latifah. But to reduce his contributions to what sold well or got radio airplay ahistorically reduces his rich and often tumultuous story to a mere highlight reel.
The way people sometimes talk about Gravediggaz — that misfit cabal of fellow Tommy Boy Records rejects that Paul assembled — it’s clear that his legacy has gotten no small amount of retrospective polish. The group’s first and most saleable album, 6 Feet Deep, debuted on the Billboard 200 at No. 36, lasting a total of 11 weeks on the chart. It also reached No. 6 on what’s now known as the R&B/Hip-Hop chart, while its single “Diary Of A Madman” peaked at No. 82 on the all-genre Hot 100.
By the standards of 1994 hip-hop albums like Warren G’s Regulate... G Funk Era, Coolio’s It Takes a Thief or The Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready to Die, 6 Feet Deep’s sales weren’t exactly game-changing. Indeed, Paul’s subsequent projects, including Handsome Boy Modeling School’s So… How’s Your Girl and his 1999 magnum opus A Prince Among Thieves, were even more modest sales wins. Despite the exuberant love fans continue to show toward them, there are other high-concept records of his that never quite found a wide enough audience, such as the downward-spiraling Psychoanalysis: What Is It? and the tongue-in-cheek Politics of the Business. Putting aside his role on Chris Rock’s best-selling comedy albums, Paul’s catalog just isn’t one to judge primarily by the numbers.
The RZA, by comparison, experienced far greater quantifiable success overall, with scores of RIAA Gold and Platinum plaques for Wu-Tang Clan albums and records he produced for its individual members. At the time that 6 Feet Deep dropped in August of 1994, the Shaolin Abbot’s career was on the rise thanks to Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), which had achieved Gold status earlier that year, but not yet Platinum. (To date, it has gone Platinum three times over.) He was still closer to the sting of his troubled times at Tommy Boy as Prince Rakeem than his winning streak with the Wu when Gravediggaz became a thing. So while it’s easy to tag the union of Paul and RZA, accompanied in no small way by rappers Frukwan (formerly of Stetsasonic) and Long Island’s own Too Poetic, with the word supergroup, the hip-hop industry wasn’t exactly demanding a crew like theirs to emerge.
Paul has gone on record, especially in recent years, about the opposition he faced in the business. After his off-kilter and sophomorically branded Dew Doo Man imprint for Russell Simmons’ Rush Associated Labels failed to launch, leaving its artists Resident Alien to float in limbo, he couldn’t quite catch a break. De La Soul Is Dead hadn’t done as well as its predecessor, and sample clearance issues and corresponding legal actions around 3 Feet High and Rising would take a considerable toll, leaving the producer rudderless in spite of his past successes. His reputation had suddenly sagged, especially as the sound of New York hip-hop seemed to move more toward dirtier, grimier streetwise themes. Gravediggaz, in a sense, became his defiant response to both the personal blackballing and the sonic shifts afoot.
The group made demos at Paul’s home, but shopping them around to labels proved a lengthy and arduous process. The failure of Dew Doo Man no doubt left Simmons stewing, closing off any opportunities with Def Jam or RAL. Even Tommy Boy, who had experience with all four members, declined to pick them up. Eazy-E expressed an interest in bringing them into the Ruthless fold, but the terms were deemed unfavorable. In the end they went with the U.K.-based Gee Street, which had a stateside arrangement with Island Records. The label had done well in the U.S. with P.M. Dawn and Stereo MCs, and were working at that time with the group New Kingdom as well. It may not have looked like the optimal fit with the roster, but Gravediggaz weren’t in a position to turn down the deal.
Invariably, when discussing 6 Feet Deep, one is bound to reach for or otherwise stumble over the word “horrorcore.” Though many now associate the term with gaudily painted faces and an artificially colored rainbow of Faygo sodas being guzzled by white Midwesterners, the subgenre’s origins are decidedly Black. Detroit rapper Esham generally receives credit for releasing the genre’s first album, 1990’s Boomin’ Words from Hell. His subsequent projects like 1993’s KKKill The Fetus and his group Natas’ Life After Death were pioneering records in horrorcore, as was the Insane Clown Posse’s debut Carnival of Carnage, which features a handful of his beats.
Beyond the Motor City’s burgeoning pre-Juggalo scene, other horror rap practitioners cropped up across America. Memphis had DJ Paul and Lord Infamous, two blood brothers whose mixtapes regularly and graphically dealt with grim subject matter. Starting with 1992’s Portrait of a Serial Killa, their Serial Killers duo provided the archetype for what would eventually become Three 6 Mafia, whose mid-’90s albums like Mystic Stylez became horrorcore classics. Concurrently, local rappers like Homicide were building the sound on mixtapes helmed by producers Juicy J and DJ Squeeky. Out in Los Angeles, Insane Poetry leaned heavily on gory themes and overt cinematic shocks with their 1992 full-length Grim Reality and its single “How Ya Gonna Reason With A Psycho,” with lyrics that literally likened listening to their music to watching a horror movie. Down in Houston, Ganksta NIP was similarly explicit about his grisly influences on 1992’s The South Park Psycho and its worthwhile follow-ups.
Of all these, though, the most well-known horror rappers prior to Gravediggaz were, undeniably, the Geto Boys. They incorporated dark themes into numerous records, exemplified by 1991’s iconic We Can’t Be Stopped. (Ganksta NIP claims to have written the album cut “Chuckie” for rapper Bushwick Bill.) Though the Houston group may not have seen themselves representing horrorcore at that moment, the enduring single “Mind Playing Tricks On Me,” in particular, gave the sound its true national breakout hit, topping Billboard’s Hot Rap Songs and very nearly cracking the Hot 100’s top-20 tier.
Regardless of their respective levels of fame or infamy, all of the artists cited above unquestionably laid the groundwork for a group like Gravediggaz and an album like 6 Feet Deep. The idea of “resurrecting the mentally dead” (terminology known to those who’ve read The Autobiography of Malcolm X) became an intrinsic part of the Gravediggaz ethos — and one repeated by RZA on some of his other projects. Nonetheless, the concept had already been incorporated into Ganksta NIP’s 1993 album Psychic Thoughts for Rap-A-Lot Records, both spelled out and photographically depicted on its cover. (In fairness, hip-hop crew Poor Righteous Teachers’ adopted the phrase, along with other aspects of the Five Percenters’ lexicon, with 1990’s “Time to Say Peace.”) All three Gravediggaz lyricists — The Gatekeeper (Frukwan), The Grym Reaper (Poetic) and The RZArector — benefitted from those who came before them in one capacity or another, assuredly not oblivious to at least some of these records.
That said, the ways in which the vocal trio put their own signature spins on horror rap contributes heavily to the quality and reputation of 6 Feet Deep. Poetic’s frenetic, pitchy delivery on “Nowhere to Run, Nowhere to Hide” and the absolutely brilliant “Constant Elevation” instantly endears the listener to him. His morbid sense of humor comes through on “Here Comes the Gravediggaz” and elsewhere, but he treads that line well and avoids the trap of macabre self-parody. Frukwan establishes himself as the album’s deadliest lyricist early on, weaving horror references and sinister slams into rugged rhymes on “Constant Elevation” and “1-800 Suicide.” Though he’s relegated to the final verse on the hip-hop courtroom teleplay “Diary of a Madman,” he’s got the best one of the bunch. The RZA, of course, conjures up some stunning moments, owning the “Bang Your Head” refrain and its ferocious opening verse.
Apart from his oft-barked bars, RZA’s presence here naturally infuses some Shaolin DNA into 6 Feet Deep. He’s credited on the beats for “Graveyard Chamber” and the title track, and also brought in guest rappers Dreddy Kruger, Killah Priest and Shabazz the Disciple. (With the aid of others in the Wu’s concentric circles, he would take a bigger role on the production of the album’s 1997 follow-up The Pick, the Sickle and the Shovel, most of which Paul is demonstrably absent on.) The use of all in together on the doom-laden “Blood Brothers” is understandable, given that its inception and creation predated the Wu-Tang Clan’s debut, and the underlying P.E.A.C.E. acronym of “Constant Elevation” became part of RZA’s verbal dart repertoire. Even “Bang Your Head” links with language from U-God’s verse on “Da Mystery of Chessboxin'.”
Meanwhile, The Undertaker (Paul) as producer seemed to revel not just in orchestrating the fantastical lyrical and musical darkness, but in the execution of his quasi-diabolical real world means. Much like the titular antihero of The Phantom of the Opera, his role on 6 Feet Deep was to weaponize it against and bury those in the industry who dared to scorn him. The album’s very title marks a subversive nod to his part in De La Soul’s 3 Feet High And Rising, maybe more than the group’s own De La Soul Is Dead, and arguably comments on his own metaphorical career death. Not quite so subtle is the narration at the end of the skit “360 Questions,” bluntly asking, “Who killed Tommy’s boy?” right as it seamlessly segues into “1-800-Suicide.”
Paul’s brazenness continues on the outro for “Nowhere to Run, Nowhere to Hide,” during which he preemptively lambasted “the A&R who couldn’t understand the product” in an invective-laden rant that purports to speak for all of the former Tommy Boy acts in the group. He even sampled his own catalog on “Defective Trip (Trippin’),” bridging the gaps between its narcotized verses with a bit of De La Soul’s “Plug Tunin’.” While he would later reconcile with Tommy Boy, starting with the 1997 reissue of his WordSound Recordings album Psychoanalysis: What Is It?, points were made.
Paul was prescient to take swings and potshots at his erstwhile industry partners with 6 Feet Deep and its singles, especially seeing how some appeared to respond to him mounting a comeback without them. Not long after the album’s release came U.S.A. by Flatinerz, Def Jam’s shamelessly named entry in the horror rap dash. Were that not egregious enough, the group was led by Russell Simmons’ own nephew Jamel, aka Redrum, which on paper is about as villainous as any comic book baddie dynasty. Released earlier that year, their single “Live Evil” did well enough, but the album flopped and the label put the group out of its misery until its indie return some two decades later.
Part of why 6 Feet Deep continues to be hailed and viewed so favorably after all these years goes beyond its actual contents and instead in how it was marketed and branded. The horrorcore narrative certainly wasn’t hurt by “1-800-Suicide” appearing in Demon Knight, a 1995 feature film spin-off of HBO’s EC Comics anthology series Tales from the Crypt. Positioning Gravediggaz next to Megadeth and Pantera on the movie’s heavy metal soundtrack exposed the group to an audience that otherwise may not have heard of their album, let alone purchased it. While certainly not the first attempt to market hip-hop to a hard rock audience, it provides a useful data point toward how we ended up with the predominantly working class white male Juggalo subculture adopting horrorcore as its preferred listening.
Further placements were made on the soundtracks to two other mid-1990s fright fests, cult indie The Fear (“Here Come The Gravediggaz”) and Tales from the Hood (6 Feet Deep outtake “From the Dark Side”). Both movies leaned heavily on hip-hop, the former proving a horrorcore favorite with songs by Esham, Insane Clown Posse and Flatlinerz, among others. The latter film, with its relatively bigger budget and executive producer Spike Lee’s imprimatur, placed the group alongside non-horrorcore acts, including the Wu-Tang Clan and South Central Cartel’s Havoc & Prodeje (not to be confused with Queensbridge’s Mobb Deep). Coming full circle, in 1996 they appeared alongside rockers Filter and Korn on The Crow: City of Angels with the song “Tonite Is a Special Nite (Kaos Mass Confusion Mix),” a version of which first appeared on trip-hop artist Tricky’s The Hell EP a year earlier.
While all of these big-screen moments likely provided desirable licensing fees and additional promotion for 6 Feet Deep, it simultaneously hammered home this idea of Gravediggaz as a novelty act as opposed to the multifaceted conceptual art-as-revenge project it actually is. As evidenced by Paul’s next releases apart from the group, it remains a tonally singular record in a broader discography. The idea of zombifying his creative impulse runs counter to both the ambitious vision displayed on the album, as well as where his career went next. Even after The Pick, the Sickle and the Shovel, which deserves its own set of liner notes for just how different a record it was, Frukwan and Poetic kept Gravediggaz going without RZA’s oversight, as was their right. But for Paul, repeating himself was never in the cards. That’s just not how hip-hop icons roll.
Born, raised and still living in New York City, Gary Suarez writes about music and culture for a variety of publications. Since 1999, his work has appeared in various outlets including Forbes, High Times, Rolling Stone, Vice and Vulture, among others. In 2020, he founded the independent hip-hop newsletter and podcast, Cabbages.
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