Gravediggaz: Apocalypse (Maybe/Now) That (llBe/Is) The (Day/Hour) When We (Die/Live)

(Editor’s Afterword: This Space Age Bachelor interview with Gravediggaz member Poetic, a.k.a the Grym Reaper, occurred on November 5th/1997. The transcript for the interview which corresponds with this interview is here. Sadly, Poetic was diagnosed with colon cancer less than two years after this interview. He lived two and a half years beyond the three months the doctors gave him. The heartbreaking track “One Life,” with Poetic in a guest spot on a Last Emperor track, and the horrific “Burn Baby Burn”, a track on the Gravediggaz’ final album Nightmare in A-Minor, tell the story of Poetic’s fight with cancer. The wise words Poetic spoke to me in this interview, and the positivity and realness of the Gravediggaz’ record The Pick, The Sickle, and The Shovel, have stuck with me through the years years. This was definitely one of the more important conversations I’ve had in my life.  Rest in peace, Poetic.)

You can listen to the interview here or read the transcript here:

Around every corner, doom peeks its head out.  Stories abound about leaking nuclear waste plants, increasing ethnic and religious wars and tension, about the new trend towards mercenaries, about oil companies like Shell developing units that resemble the armed forces of nations, about how such and such resource is going to run out by such and such time, about decreasing male fertility, etc., etc..  There’s a head full of shit to deal with.  The greatest horror movie ever known plays itself out again and again on television.  If I had kids, I wouldn’t be blocking out the nudity, the violence, I’d probably be blocking out The Learning Channel, A & E, CNN, and the Weather Network.  These channels are scaring the hell out of me with their visions of clear cut, treeless mountain ranges, oil fields burning up, natural and unnatural catastrophes, exposed plutonium that’s going to be lounging for the next 23,000 years.

The clock reads 3:33, and then 3:36, 3:39, 3:40, and finally 3:50.

The clock ticks, treating minutes like seconds.  My foot’s pulsing.  What the hell’s going on?  I couldn’t be losing my mind now, could I?  I turn on the radio to stabilize myself, get up, and get a drink of water.  The next morning I wake up, and get on the horn with Poetic from Gravediggaz — an ally of anyone who believes in astrology, suffers from genius in the middle of the night, apocalypse anxiety, and other yet-to-be-named mental conditions.

Scorpio Rising

Picture the scene—the Rza doing most of the producing, and 12 core MC’s, plus the guest MC’s all trying to outperform each other.  Recorded side by side in L.A.’s Ameraycan Studios, There’s hardly a wasted word spread between the Wu-Tang Clan’s Forever and the Gravediggaz’s The Pick, The Sickle, and the Shovel, combining for about 180 minutes of music.   Each member seems to have a way with words, and the stakes rise higher with each album.   Apparently, if there’s anything that starts arguments, it’s which MC gets which beat.  In “Pit of Snakes” on the latest Gravediggaz album, someone shouts out, “Why waste the track, you know I’m better than all that!”

Poetic, aka the Grym Reaper and one of the four corners of the Gravediggaz, describes the atmosphere: “In some situations stress makes you perform to a higher performance level, a higher degree, you know what I’m saying.  When you’re scared, you got some shit to you.  When you’re relaxing, it’s different.  When you’re amongst twelve MC’s that you know are good, you want to be able to shine. You want to make sure that out of these twelve, I’ve got to be the one, you know, fuck that, I’m not settling for being one out of twelve.  And if everybody, all twelve of those write to that same level, then everybody’ll be on point.  You understand what I’m saying?”

The Rza, otherwise known as the Abbott amongst other names, is the common denominator shared by the Wu-Tang Clan and the Gravediggaz, who otherwise should be distinguished from one another.  Keeping up with the productions of the Rza through the middle nineties has grown to be something like a full-time occupation.  Being into the Wu-Tang Clan is like being into comic books or role playing games.  Once you’re into it, it’s like joining some sort of strange club misunderstood by outsiders.  Die hard fans can talk with great excitement for hours on end about the intricacies of each album, and test each other on which rapper is on which part, and what the words actually mean.  If these songs were treated like literature, as perhaps they very well could be, the footnotes needed would probably equal those of Milton’s Paradise Lost.  The content thickens with each subsequent album, and when you’ve finally half-understood one album, the next one comes out.  Since 1993’s Enter The Wu-Tang, Rza-produced solo efforts have come from Method Man, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Raekwon, Genius/GZA, and Ghost Face Killah.

The astonishing success of the solo efforts was to be consolidated by the Wu-reunion with the double-LP opus that is Forever.  But you might be forgiven if you were left a little disappointed by Forever.  Personally, as an obsessive fan, I had nothing to complain about.  From a more objective standpoint, however, it might be said that nine MC’s plus guests trying to get onto the album made it an over-crowded affair.  For all its achievements, it might have benefitted from more breathing space, and it doesn’t sound like Rza really lets the reins loose on most of the productions.  The standout tracks are nonetheless breathtaking.  Critics of the Rza would do well to hear the instrumental version of “Triumph” just to appreciate the sophistication of the production.  It’s a deep, evolving work that takes hip-hop into symphonic realms.  It doesn’t sound like Bacharach, but it’s the hip-hop equivalent.  Unfortunately, next to it, several of the other productions sound half-developed.  As a group effort, “A Better Tomorrow” is most impressive, fully realizing the strength of having so many MC’s through it’s amazing chorus.

The Rza himself only called Forever an eight out of ten album in a subsequent interview, so if Forever did not leave you entirely satisfied, then you’d do well to look towards the Gravediggaz’s The Pick, The Sickle, and the Shovel.  It is the poorer cousin, but it’s a looser limbed, more relaxed album that is easier to find a way through.  Given the Rza’s rise and rise, the underwhelming circumstances of the Gravediggaz’s formation seem absurd now.  The Gravediggaz emerged as a hip-hop unit, when Prince Paul, out on his own after working on early De La Soul records and feeling unwanted in the hip-hop world and wasting away, got in touch with three MCs in similar positions.  The Poetic lyric on the first track on the Gravediggaz’ 1994 debut, “Constant Elevation,” probably summed things up:

“Some hate the image that I must portray, Critics say go to hell,’ I go, Yeah?  Stupid motherfucker, I’m already there.”  Thus, Prince Paul united with the Rza, Frukwahn da Gatekeeper, like Prince Paul, formerly of Stetsasonic, and the Grym Reaper, formerly known as Too Poetic.  (Keeping track of names in the Wu-Tang Clan and the Gravediggaz is like keeping track of names in Russian novels, where everyone seems to go by three or four names, so excuse me if at some point I confuse names.)  Somehow, the Gravediggaz debut, Six Feet Deep, passed by relatively overlooked, while managing to gain a loyal and hardcore following amongst those who actually got to hear it.  Simple minds associated the Gravediggaz with the horrorcore movement of rap music, and few looked into the album’s deeper symbolism and strange spaces.

Probably attributable to the strange mind of Prince Paul (look no further than some of the strange skits on his recently rereleased solo album, Psychoanalysis), Six Feet Deep reached a few creepy moments of epic proportions, while much of the humour went overlooked.  Take the classic “1-800 Suicide” with its smooth soulful backing beat, while lyrics like, “Maybe you’re a bastard child, you think, Mom and Dad are white, Maybe you’re Sicilian, But you hate lasagna and the pizzaman, You’re singing the blues about the rough life you’ve got, You don’t want to live anymore, I guess you’re ready for the graveyard tour,” which segues into the life moves pretty fast, if you don’t look around once in a while, you might miss it’ spoken word sample from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.  The general lunacy prevails on “Diary of a Madman” and its graphic tales of homicide over wailing theremin melodies: “Refusing to die, Visions of hell tormented my face, So I chewed my fucking arm off, And made my escape.” But the other, more positive side of the record, like “Blood Brothers” with its themes of brotherhood, loyalty, and respect—so familar to fans of the Wu-Tang Clan and Hong Kong movies—was largely overlooked.

“Be Fabulous Raise the Dead Crowd up like Lazarus”

The idea at the back of the Gravediggaz was lost on virtually everyone but themselves.  “As long as you’ve got mentally dead people, living in the mental grave, you need somebody to dig that grave up and bring them back to life.  There’s no chance for the physically dead, but there is a chance for the mentally dead, so we’re going to come and resurrect them.”  These are the words that the Rza opens “Twelve Jewels” on the Gravediggaz’s second album, The Pick, The Sick, and The Shovel.  On the album’s intro, Frukwahn says, “You’ve got two choices.  Either dig your own grave, or be a gravedigger.  You’ve got to dig yourself in order to dig the grave, you know what I’m saying.”  The group’s most oft-repeated slogan is positive energy activates constant elevation.’

It is this positive side that must be emphasized on The Pick, The Sick, and The Shovel.  In contrast to the horror, the violence, the contradictions of so many Wu-Tang Clan songs, the Gravediggaz second effort is like a light shining against darkness, illuminating a road to a better way of life.  In these days of self-help books and motivational tapes, the Gravediggaz is the real thing, because unlike the self-help garbage, the Gravediggaz try to understand the forces, the contradictions, the struggles that can define or break a man, or a woman.  Tracks like “Dangerous Mindz” represent the modern ghetto, like Dickens could do for 18th Century England or Dostoevsky for 19th Century Russia.  It’s about the intelligent ghetto mind trapped.  A young mind has so much energy, and it needs an outlet.  It’s like the line in James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues,” when Sonny says, “All this misery, and hatred, and love, it’s a wonder it doesn’t blow the avenue apart.”  When there’s nowhere else for it to go, it will blow the avenue apart.   Says Poetic:

“They like little soldiers out here, and you might judge them on the superficial, and say, Ah, that’s fucked up,’ just like you judge the brothers on the street, hustling and whatever, and you say, Ah, that’s fucked up.’   Not in all cases, but there’s enough cases, where the economics of the situation—they have their grandmothers or their moms at home, and they’re just struggling to make things work, to make ends meet when the ends don’t reach, you know what I’m saying?  And wuzzes putting themselves through college, when they’ve got two kids who just don’t want to be on welfare, and the man who got them pregnant is gone— boom boom!  And then you find all these other brothers who can criticize people—whether it’s guys or girls—they can criticize them, but not offer them an alternative.  Anybody can point, and say, Yeah, that’s fucked up what you’re doing.’  So offer me something else.  Offer me an alternate lifestyle.  Offer me a job or something, so I won’t have to do this, and I can still maintain and support myself.  People that come home with records, and stuff.  They’ve got the fucking server and the energy, and they want to work—I mean, genuinely hard workers, but once they see that little have you ever been convicted’ shit, then that’s all she wrote.  And then society wants to say you didn’t try hard enough—this, that, and the third.  And then brothers go back to doing what they’re doing, and they get caught up in the same cycle, cause they’re not allowed to break the cycle.  You know what I’m saying?  And I think in hip-hop—there’s a stigma, that you’ve got to be so hardcore, and you don’t show no emotion, and you don’t show no fear.  Otherwise, people will think you’re weak, or look at it as a weakness on the street.  Nobody wants to exploit themselves that way.  But after that hard rock gets off the street, and go home, he might pick up a baby, and that whole facade just break down.  He’s there playing with the baby, talking to the baby, and laughing, and giggling—you know, something you would not believe, if you were on the street looking at him.”

Nowhere To Run, Nowhere To Hide

The Pick, The Sickle, and The Shovel forms the latest installment in a subset of black music that does not have many entries anymore.  Contrary to the posturing, the self-reflexivity, and the rabid materialism that infiltrates so many American hip-hop/rap albums, this Gravediggaz record sounds like the updated rap version of 70s social commentary records, like the O’Jays 1975 album, Survival, or Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On.   These are records that remain personal, that exist for the sake of good music and not for political purposes, but nevertheless face square on, and perceptively, the problems of the day.  And many of the problems remain the same.  This is America we’re talking about.  It’s not Sweden, not Canada, not Africa.  This is the country that kicked the Native Indians off their land (Canada did this, too, but at least we are continually trying to make retribution), and then followed it up with the slave trade.  This is the country that had doctors give black men in the 1930s syphilis without telling them, just to see its untreated effects.  This is the country that today spends more on the military in a year than it does on education and all other research combined.  They’ll spend 30 billion on just one F-15 strike bomber, while their own citizens starve.  It’s all in the name of self-defense, but really what happens is the US build the weapons, sell them to other countries, then claim that the other countries have equal weapons, and thus justify the building of better, more expensive weapons, and so the cycle continues from here to eternity.

In “Rich Get Richer,” the O’Jays sang, “I want to talk about the rich and the super rich, and the poor and the super poor, The people who live on the hill don’t have time for the ghettos … There’s only 16 families that control this whole world.”  It’s the sort of conspiratorial language that the Wu-Tang Clan and the Gravediggaz have carried onto a whole new level.   One of my favorite lines on The Pick, The Sick, and The Shovel is the one that Poetic wistfully begins with on “The Night The Earth Cried”: “I want a queen on every continent, so I can escape the government.”  I asked Poetic about the lyric: “I’m speaking on the world powers that be.  I want to be able to be self-sufficient enough to be able to escape.  Now whether that’s a reality or a fantasy—that’s in the mind of those that listen, in each individual.  It’s also saying that I want to be able to go anywhere on this planet, and have a place.  You see what I mean?  And know that I fit in, and that I have someone there who loves me.  Whether it’s somebody meaning people, whether it’s somebody meaning a government that thinks the same way I do, whatever the situation — as long as it allows me to be me.  That’s escaping from the government, the worldwide, the world powers.”

It probably is a fantasy.  But it’s something that has to be thought about.  Maybe it’s just paranoia, but these days I feel like you have to be versatile.  You have to learn to behave like a ghost, so you can slide through the enemy lines.  They wander, they wander, they wander here, there, and everywhere.

The Rza-directed video for “The Night The Earth Cried” goes from the samurai-movie setting you’d find in movies like Chinese Ghost Story or Deadly Melody to an Amistad-styled slave ship revolt.  The song itself is something like a ballad as beautiful loping pianos roll around, and near the end the Rza’s trademark sped-up, whining string section.  Poetic raps, “Society gotta be reminded of my diary, Cause tragically I carry thee the misery of centuries, Sent to me.”  Have you ever laid awake at night, and felt the earth cry?  In the middle of the night, where there’s no one you can phone, nowhere you can go, nothing to do but stare into the blackness of your room.  And into the heart of darkness we go …

One of the darkest, most suffocating tracks I’ve ever heard was the pair of tracks Tricky did with the Gravediggaz on his 1995 Hell EP.  “Psychosis” with Tricky and Poetic trading off vocals (when I initially wrote about this in issue #7, I carelessly credited Poetic’s lines to the Rza) about religious doubt, environmental catastrophe, and general madness.   Poetic does everything short of dismissing the track now, referring to it as just a few people having fun and screwing around in the studio, and someone deciding to make a song out of it.   On this day, we approach things from a saner, more balanced plane of thought.  There’s been decisions made in the past that have pushed us beyond the point of return, beyond the limits.  I look ahead, and I shudder.   Says Poetic, “Irreparable, you know what I’m saying.  That’s why I make the statement — if you can’t change the wind, and you can’t change the seas, then change the sail.  It’s like some people work forever trying to push the wind back, going Ah ooh, I’m going to stop this wind.’  Imagine standing in a hurricane going, Oooh, I’m going to stop this wind.’  Imagine being in a tidal wave, going Oooh, I’m going to stop this wave.’  No!  You’ve got to use it to your advantage.  The momentum of the wave and the wind can take you halfway across the world if you’ve got the right sail.  You’ve got to navigate it.

“You know the real situation is when people are fucking with the depletion of the ozone layer, and killing off certain animals, and certain — you’ve got to understand the way the universe is.  It’s the Domino principle.  The little thing that you least suspect is of any consequence is of consequence.  And we all are linked together.”

There’s three Poetic productions on The Pick, The Sickle, and The Shovel.  In fact, two of them, “Unexplained” and “Repentance Day,” are amongst the album’s highlights.  Opening with the pealing of bells and going into shifting orchestrated beats, “Repentance Day” takes you to a point, where it’s impossible to separate madness, laughter, and tragedy.  This is the state-of-the union address on the eve of destruction.  The humour lies in lines like “Aliens with hair like Rastifarians,” “Red October causing fish to grow arms, legs, tits, and double heads, mutating the eggs as the radiation spreads over the water beds” and “There won’t be no escaping from the North to the South, when you run ten paces and your face is falling off.”  Okay, maybe it’s not funny.  In one section, Poetic raps, “Through the blackness, I saw John the Baptist, On the Atlas, Holding the masters to my soul under his arm, But long before I even known him, Twenty-three elders each wrote me a psalm, and placed them within my mode of neurons, It contained the approximate date of the apocalypse deposited in scripts of twentieth century prophets, The clock ticks, tick-tick …”  Like so much of Wu-Tang’s Forever, apocalypse anxiety seeps into every groove, and the music moves with urgency and importance.

The Universe Is Yours

But the next song, “Hidden Emotions,” leads to a contradiction of sorts.  The track contains a skit, in which a dad talks to his newborn baby in the hospital, and he speaks to the kid, “I ain’t never gonna let nothing happen to you.  You ain’t never gotta go through the shit I went through—hustling and struggling.”  It’s one of many moments of extreme tenderness and hope on this record.   But but but … what about the apocalypse?  Hell is so close at hand.  How can we reconcile hope and love with what could quickly turn into the darkest days of time?

“I tell you what I think,” says Poetic.  “I think that a lot of people follow Revelations, right?  And in following Revelations— Revelations makes a lot of startling predictions, but Revelations is not even set in stone.  It tells you that if the people on this planet keep pursuing a certain course, then boom! — the end result will be as follows.  But it wasn’t set in stone.  It’s not saying, Ah fuck it, it’s going to end anyways, so let’s just fuck it up more.’  Cause by getting that attitude, you go into the prediction.  You go into being the cause of that prediction in the first place.  You understand what I’m saying?   So, when people talk about the end of the world, I’ve never read nobody’s Bible where it said the end of Planet Earth.  I heard them say the end of the world,’ but do you know what the world consists of?  The world consists of the people that are in it, and the laws that govern it.”

I suppose if you’re going to change anything, if you want to have some kind of positive influence, to be a force for good, it all starts with the self.  This is what “Hidden Emotions” is all about—inner turmoil, the struggle to improve the self, and the contradictory impulses that can destroy a man.  Every decision you make is going to affect something else.  In one moment of “Hidden Emotions,” someone contemplates the death of their father: “Am I ready for revenge, That depends on how my future look in the bins, Is my life worth losing, my seed, my wife, getting my life snatched for making wrong right.”  If you’ve got a future, then you’re going to do everything you can not to risk it.  The root of crime lies in the loss of hope, in being surrounded by walls, in feeling helpless and cornered.

Like Dostoevsky at the end of Brothers Karamazov, in “Never Gonna Come Back,” the Gravediggaz make the realization that one positive memory can balance a whole lifetime of misery.  It is finding the positive in the negative, the light in the dark, hope in the face of despair, and courage in the face of terror, in which the great themes of this album lie. Like the O’Jays’ “What Am I Waiting For,” this has a She’s never gonna come back refrain, but this time around the reason is that she’s dead.  Amidst this tale of woe, lyrics like “positive memories outshine my depression” rise to the surface and captivates in a near-pop song that has a core filled with despair.  In a perverse form of consolation, at least she didn’t have to take the mark of the beast.’              How to deal with this balance, I don’t know?  A big part of me wants to grow old, to have a family, to quietly retire, and maybe grow old and grey with a girl.  If not for myself, then I at least want this fate for the ones I love.  But simultaneously part of me is perversely attracted to the disintegration of the world.  It’s that part of me that is thrilled to hear Curtis Mayfield’s “Right On For The Darkness” or the Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black.”  It might be true that we need conflict, that we love the adrenaline rush of crisis decisions, and the chance to overcome.  Faced with boredom or bombings, the choice isn’t easily made.  But ultimately, I confess to caring about the future.  Which way things will go, I don’t know.  I believe the greatest tragedies ever known are yet to come, but I believe the greatest joys are also yet to come.

“If I’m blessed, I’m going to meet you on the other side, But for now I gotta slide through physical mine fields, Miserable is how my mind feels knowing there’s know time to heal, Shit is real, Another black mole in the hole, God rest your soul has you travel back home.”

– “She’s Never Gonna Come Back”

(Poetic and Frukwahn and the Rza are all currently working on solo albums.  Along with the rerelease of Psychoanalysis, Prince Paul has a movie coming out called A Prince Amongst Thieves.)

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