Although the Gravediggaz started off as a Prince Paul side project and not as a Wu-Tang affiliate as many folks erroneously believe, it certainly didn't take long for one member of the quartet, The RZA, to assume control: the group's (classic) debut, 6 Feet Deep (or N---amortis if you're reading this overseas) features a bunch of cameos from Wu b- and c-teamers, along with several instrumentals that have far more Prince Rakeem influence than Prince Paul's. Hell, there's even a song called "Graveyard Chamber" on that motherfucker. Add to that the fact that The RZA and his production cronies essentially took over the group's second effort, The Pick, The Sickle and The Shovel, pushing Paul out in the process, and it's easy to forget just how ridiculous and satirical the Gravediggaz were originally conceived to be.
The Rzarector jumped ship shortly after the second album, having lost interest in working with a group that he didn't originally form, apparently. (Rumors persist that he has since put together an updated roster for the Gravediggaz, but there really hasn't been anything that has materialized in the past few years, so who the fuck knows if anything will ever come of this.) Prince Paul was already kind of bored after 6 Feet Deep's release, and being pushed out during the making of the follow-up probably didn't help matters (although, it must be noted, Prince Paul and The RZA are still friends to this day, so it's most likely not a Prince Paul / The Automator-type of situation). This whittled the group down to a duo: Frukwan (The Gatekeeper) and Too Poetic (The Grym Reaper), who persevered and tried to keep the group's name alive within our chosen genre.
Nightmare In A-Minor, the group's final album, was released independently, roughly five weeks after Poetic lost his battle with colon cancer. His diagnosis informed quite a few of his bars on the album, adding a level of depth that most hip hop albums simply cannot reach. The Grym Reaper was actually facing down with the Grim Reaper at the time of its recording, which, unfortunately, made their group name more inappropriate than incidental.
Poetic and Frukwan kept the Gravediggaz house in order as best as they could, calling upon a handful of outside collaborators for assistance when needed, including a few Wu-Tang contacts they had made during The RZA's tenure. Prince Paul stopped by to give his blessing, his original brainchild having gained a life of its own, but, unsurprisingly, The RZA was "too busy" (his publicist's words, I'm almost certain) to contribute to Nightmare In A-Minor. This did nothing to dissuade Frukwan and Poetic, though: the duo handle the majority of the production themselves, having picked up many tips from the two former members of the crew who also happened to be music producers.
Nightmare In A-Minor was released in at least two iterations. My write-up today is for the original version, released in 2001 by Echo International, that features twenty-one tracks and a different cover than what appears above: the re-release, possibly with some actual time taken to make sure the liner notes were written out correctly (the original take has the feel of a rushed bootleg with no marketing budget), dropped one year later with two of those tracks mysteriously missing.
1. INTRO (MIKE CHECK) (FEAT. PRINCE PAUL)
Prince Paul was no longer an official Gravedigga at the time Nightmare In A-Minor was recorded, but at least he came through on the rap album intro. Which is much more than The RZA managed. But I'm sure nobody's bitter or anything.
2. FALSE THINGS MUST PERISH (FEAT. PRODIGAL SUNN)
Things start off promisingly enough with “False Things Must Perish”, a Poetic-produced grower-not-a-shower that sounds like a leftover from The Pick, The Sickle and The Shovel, right down to the guest verse from Sunz Of Man's Prodigal Sunn that slides in so easily that it's easy to mistake him to be a part of the group. The actual Gravediggaz shine as well: Frukwan rips through the opening verse while Poetic uses his coherent-Ol' Dirty Bastard-esque flow to impress the listener. Horrorcore has, of course, long since been abandoned: these Gravediggaz prefer polluting your mind with knowledge and wisdom, as opposed to polluting lakes and dumspters with dead bodies. The RZA isn't even missed all that much, this was that good. I believe this was actually released as a single, too, or at least I think that's what that promotional CD I have for this track was for.
3. BURN BABY BURN
While “False Things Must Perish” sounded like a Wu-Tang Clan song, or at least one from a Wu-affiliate, “Burn Baby Burn” is an entirely different animal, with True Master's dope-as-fuck instrumental assaulting the shit out of your speakers. Frukwan and Poetic are also on some vintage Gravediggaz shit, with their verses treading the same type of waters they've been known for, but doing it well. However, you have to hear Poetic's second verse, where he describes dealing with his cancer diagnosis and treatments with such clarity that it could legitimately scare you. Maybe I mentioned that whole “horrorcore has...been abandoned” thing prematurely.
4. KILLIN' FIELDS
I used to think this song was boring back in 2001, but today is a different story. That's right, I actually think that “Killin' Fields” is worse now than it ever was. Nothing has really changed: the Diamond Track beat is repetitive and annoying, and the verses, although technically interesting, are delivered in such an apathetic manner, you can practically hear Poetic and Frukwan rolling their eyes in disgust. Frukwan's hook is also pretty corny, and the fact that it's spoken in such a straightforward manner isn't really helping. Also, Method Man had already released a song called “Killin' Fields” (on Tical 2000: Judgement Day back in 1998), so there's that. Next!
5. ZIG ZAG CHAMBER
Another subpar entry. Frukwan's beat is better suited to being the music that newsmagazine programs use to lead the viewer into a commercial than it is for a rap song, but Poetic and Frukwan use it to rhyme over anyway, forcing themselves to sound unnaturally fast in order to keep up with it. This shit is just dull: there's very little of the Gravediggaz spark to be found on “Zig Zag Chamber”, which is unfortunate, as it is a Wu-Tang Clan-related song with the word “chamber” in its title and, therefore, is supposed to be good. But it's really fucking not. Oh well.
6. GUARD YA SHRINE
A one-verse wonder from Poetic, complete with its own chorus, that ultimately goes nowhere. His self-produced beat is at least interesting enough, but he fails to capitalize on it, instead treating it as a measly vehicle for spitting random threats (most of which are suggestions to guard your shrine, naturally) and talking in circles around the audience. It's almost as though the remaining Gravediggaz felt that the absence of The RZA was so detrimental to the cause that they both decided to flow just like him, and as we all know, The RZA doesn't really make that much sense most of the time. Bleh.
7. END OF DA WORLD
Poetic's instrumental is simple, but decent: at least this sounds like something actual rappers might one day steal for a mixtape “remix”. But neither man is convincing in their newfound roles as conscious artists. I'm sure neither man assumed that the transition would be easy, but jumping from pseudo-horrorcore-but-not-really-horrorcore-more-like-satire-at-the-music-industry's-expense to telling the listener to open their third eye and shit requires more than just a few songs to get used to. Neither man sounds terrible, but neither man is saying all that much anyway.
8. TODAY'S MATHEMATICS
I'm sorry, but it's really difficult to look past Poetic's beat, which is half okay and half really fucking awful, thanks to the sort-of scratching sound effect that makes it sound like a drunken frog was trapped in the booth during the recording process. It reminded me of The RZA's “Digi Electronics”, except terrible. I'm sure there was an actual song here (I have it on good authority that there were three separate verses and everything), but I can't bring myself to remember any of it.
9. CURRENT EVENTS
I actually kind of liked Frukwan's elementary beat: the drums were a bit different than what rappers tend to gravitate toward. The Gatekeeper and the Grym Reaper also deliver decent verses that aren't too bogged down in self-seriousness. The hook is overly wordy and almost kills the momentum, but all in all, this wasn't bad. It also contains Poetic's line, “Fuck a horrorcore / I bring holy war”, which was at least interesting enough for me to transcribe, I guess.
10. LAST MAN STANDING
An unnecessary interlude.
11. RUNNIN' GAME
Although the hook was stupid (and repeated far more times than we needed to hear), this was actually pretty good. Not quite a return to form, but entertaining anyway. Frukwan and Poetic both sound like they each drank about nineteen cups of coffee apiece, as they come across as more alert and focused than at any other point on Nightmare In A-Minor. Frukwan's beat doesn't start off promisingly, but once his first verse begins, there's another layer added to the instrumental that sells the listener on its need to exist. About damn time there was another good song on this project.
I'm starting to remember why I never really listened to Nightmare In A-Minor after 2001: it's waaaaaaaay too fucking long with no real incentive given to push through. Tracks such as “Bloodshed” merely reinforce just how much this project shouldn't exist in the first place, at least in its current form: the duo clearly only released this as a Gravediggaz project due to the instant name-brand recognition, but with a quick tweak to some of the lyrics, this could have been a simple collaborative effort and not a dead horse being beaten repeatedly while The RZA barely glanced in the general direction. Nightmare In A-Minor actually has the distinction of knocking the crew's previous two efforts down a few pegs. Groan.
13. WANNA BREAK
Features a silly-as-shit hook that is beneath what the Gravediggaz tend to traffic in. Frukwan's instrumental was an okay attempt at switching up the group's sound in order to possibly attract a new audience, but I don't really think that there are many Gravediggaz fans out there whose gateway drug of choice was Nightmare In A-Minor. The Gatekeeper and the Grym Reaper spit their boasts and threats capably, but “Wanna Break” isn't intriguing enough to be interesting, and it isn't stupid enough to be ignorant. It lives in a gray area that only exists within our chosen genre for artists who have no clue what they're trying to accomplish.
14. MAN ONLY FEARS (FEAT. SHOGUN ASSASSON)
Works a bit better than some of the preceding tracks thanks to the presence of a guest star, Killarmy's Shogun Assasson, who helps offset and inform the verses from our hosts. True Master's beat is simple but effective enough, and all three verses sound perfect for the posse cut “Man Only Fears” wishes it would be when it grew up, even though its parents would prefer to do something with a bit more stability, such as medical or law school, because there's always going to be a need for doctors and lawyers, and this posse cut thing is just a fad anyway.
15. EAST COAST – WEST COAST (SKIT)
16. REST IN DA EAST
Frukwan's beat is a bit more minimalist than what I'm used to hearing for a Gravediggaz song, so that was a nice touch. Aside from that, though, this was a pretty straightforward anti-travelogue for the eastern part of New York City, one where both of our hosts pile on the threats and passive-aggression in an attempt to show the listener that they are, too, serious about fucking you up. There was an interesting line on here from Frukwan where he describes people “wear[ing] blood like cologne”, but otherwise, this was fairly sterile.
17. GOD VS. DEVIL
Frukwan's final beat of the evening beat sounds like something Kool Keith would have produced for himself in the first part of the millennium, which is to say it sounds okay but incomplete. “God Vs. Devil” is a Gatekeeper solo shot that is surprisingly dominated by an extended dialogue sample that either does or does not tie into the overall theme of the song, depending on if you're still listening along with the write-up at this point (everyone does that, right?). His verse is also cut off at the end, so this may not have originally been intended as a Frukwan solo, but I guess that beats the alternative, fading the track out while his verse clearly still played on? I don't know.
18. BETTA WAKE UP
The mandatory “the listener is obviously living a sheltered existence and it's clearly a rapper's responsibility to help them open their eyes to the injustices of the world” song, which, you know, is more than a little bit condescending to the audience. “Betta Wake Up”? Really? That's the title you went with? Anyway, stepping off of my soapbox, it's easy to hear that this song is merely okay, but a bit dull to actually listen to. Poetic's beat doesn't help: if you're telling someone that they are missing out on everything that is going on in the world in favor of their bubble, shouldn't you use a beat that commands their full attention? Anyone? Bueller?
19. NIGHTMARE IN A-MINOR (FEAT. 4TH DISCIPLE & BERETTA 9)
The Gravediggaz buried their title track at the end of this project, which was probably the right call: “Nightmare In A-Minor” is weird. The actual rapping is alright: the duo is joined by Killarmy's Beretta 9 and, strangely, producer 4th Disciple, who did not produce this song (that credit goes to True Master). But Frukwan's singing throughout, initially just for the hook but eventually growing to take over the rest of the track, stops this shit dead in its tracks. Yes, they tried something different, but nobody told the Gravediggaz that they needed to.
20. UNIVERSAL SHOUT OUTS
Poetic takes the lead on this shout-out track scored by his own hand. It's too bad, because the beat was pretty interesting, but I was okay with this merely being shout-outs because Poetic passed shortly after handing out all of this praise. We'll never know how I would have felt about this had he not passed on, but I have a feeling that my opinion would have remained consistent.
21. DA CRAZIES
An unnecessary outro, especially after the previous track that filled the same void.
(The 2002 re-release does not include the songs "Betta Wake Up" and "Current Events".)
FINAL THOUGHTS: Nightmare In A-Minor is, sadly, a final entry in a series that may cause listeners to reevaluate its predecessors in a new light. The rhymes of Frukwan and the late Poetic are decent enough, but neither man ever really had the star quality or charisma required to carry a project, which is why the first two Gravediggaz albums worked as well as they did: when the burden is shared with others, it's easier to overlook flaws. So you can imagine how well Nightmare In A-Minor works when you put the two most average emcees in the group together for an entire project. Still, some of the tracks on here work, especially "Burn Baby Burn", which is, quite frankly, fucking terrifying. Without the input of Paul or RZA, though, the actual music falters more often than not, and with nothing concrete to grab on to, the messages of The Gatekeeper and The Grym Reaper will fall on deaf ears. Interesting as a curiosity, but for sheer entertainment value, you'll have to look elsewhere. Sorry.
BUY OR BURN? Gravediggaz diehards will already have Nightmare In A-Minor in their collections, as will Wu stans, most likely. That said, I really cannot recommend that anyone pick this album up unless they happen to already be familiar with the faux-horrorcore and quasi-religious psychobabble the quartet drummed up for their first two outings. However, the tracks listed below are worth at least the one listen.
BEST TRACKS: "Burn Baby Burn"; "False Things Must Perish"
There's a little more on the Gravediggaz to be found by clicking here.