Gravediggaz – ‘Niggamortis’ – Round 6: Rob’s choice

My brother took care of the hip-hop in our house which gave me sporadic access to some amazing music but leaves me with a pretty superficial and now at least 15 years out of date exposure. I still clutch several favourites dearly and follow some names when I can.

Gravediggaz combine the talents of RZA from Wu Tang Clan, Frukwan and Prince Paul from Stetsasonic and Poetic, an unattached New York rapper who has since passed away. His untimely death adds yet further frisson to ‘Niggamortis’, released in 1994, an album about death and horror in which he plays The Grym Reaper, alongside The Undertaker, The Gate Keeper and the RZArector.

It’s notable for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it sounds great. Spooky and atmospheric but always banging, the slasher-movie sound effects are never allowed to overwhelm the cracking beats.

Secondly, it’s a good concept brilliantly realised. Branded ‘Horrorcore’ on release, there’s very little that’s gratuitous in here apart from some of the more lurid imagery. Instead ‘Niggamortis’ is firmly in the George A Romero school. Gravediggaz portray the abandoned urban underclass as ‘the mental dead’ and cast them in a wild zombie flick, taking the opportunity to lay on the gore, but never at the expense of the underlying message of dead-life in the urban wasteland.

Frukwan explained that the group was “digging graves of the mentally dead, and it stood for resurrecting the mentally dead from their state of unawareness and ignorance”. It’s a bleak but blackly funny album and ultimately, I think, empowering.

It’s interesting to listen back to ‘Niggamortis’ at a time when Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All are gaining such attention/notoriety. Both outfits sounds pretty amazing at their best, but whilst the Gravediggaz were certainly a little shocking at the time, they seem less so now, and their schlock horror approach was always intended to drive the message home. You can’t honestly say the same for OFWGKTA at this stage.

Finally, let’s say hats off to Poetic. his performance as the Grym Reaper is daringly unhinged and always worth revisiting. In several verses he sounds like Captain Beefheart’s younger brother (which hopefully will appeal to Tom) and I think the good Captain would have approved. Here’s hoping they’re duetting together somewhere up there or, if you take the Gravediggaz line, somewhere 6 Feet Under.

Tom Listened: My brother liked The Rockingbirds! He didn’t cater to my hip hop needs and I have held a dim and admittedly prejudicial view of the genre ever since I listened to Straight Outa Compton by NWA – a nasty and aggressive record that was being regarded as a joke (and a particularly tasteless one at that) by my listening partners. Straight Outa Compton left such a lingering aftertaste that I have pretty much dismissed hip hop ever since. Listening to Niggamortis (the name doesn’t really do it for me), opened my eyes a little. I was still squinting, but through the slits I recognised a sound that was more complex, musical and interesting than I was expecting. I found the lyrics hard to take and the vocal delivery, whilst no doubt accomplished, was too ‘in your face’ for my tastes (I didn’t really get the Beefheart thing) but this album has made me think about my dismissive attitude and I have subsequently purchased Nation of Millions and Fear of a Black Planet (although I have yet to listen to them). I am glad Rob subjected me to this – DRC, not only there for the pleasant things in life!

Nick listened: I’ve gone through so many phases with hip hop; loving De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest at 11 years old, Public Enemy and Wu-Tang at 17, Outkast and Missy at 24, dabbling in Jay-Z and Nas’ power struggles and Def Jux’s aesthetic along the way, loving Kanye’s second LP, hating his latest, and basically feeling divorced from the genre (if you can call it a genre anymore; like ‘rock’ it’s now so big that the term is pretty much meaningless) for the last 5 years or so. Partly it’s because I’ve got less and less interest in the lyrics of new music as I get older, and partly it’s because I suspect my tastes are ossifying and I’m feeling less compulsion to keep up with what’s cutting edge or popular. I also think mixtape and download culture has moved hip hop away from the way I consume music, too; the genre has evolved its methods of production and distribution and I’ve stayed still. I’ve never knowingly listened to Lil Wayne. I’ve barely listened to Odd Future.

Anyway, enough about me. In 1997 or so the idea of Prince Paul and The RZA making an album together was right up my street, but for some reason I never got around to buying Niggamortis, even though I always meant to. Maybe it was the gothic / horror imagery? It took me until my 20s to appreciate George A Romero, after all. Listening to it finally at DRC I thoroughly enjoyed the sound of it, especially the way I could pick certain loops or beats out as being RZA-like or Prince-Paul-like, and I could totally embrace the lyrics being analogies for the way that black underclasses are made to feel by society (particularly poignant having been watching a lot of The Wire lately), but I didn’t really feel it, if that makes any sense? Maybe it was discussing it while we were listening to it that was the problem, so that I couldn’t really take in the words. Maybe hip hop just needs longer to soak into my consciousness these days. I think I’ll ask Rob if I can borrow it. I think I’ll revisit 36 Chambers and those Ghostface solo albums.

And the rapper who guests on that Ghostface song whose name I couldn’t remember? Jadakiss! Just came back to me.

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