Happy 20th Anniversary to Gravediggaz’ The Pick, the Sickle and the Shovel, originally released October 14, 1997.
The timeline of the first Gravediggaz album, 1994's Six Feet Deep, is often remembered out of sync. Consisting of Prince Paul, RZA, Poetic and Frukwan, the group's debut was released just after RZA hit big with Wu-Tang Clan. The Gravediggaz were subsequently billed as a super group, but that was a stretch since most members hadn’t yet attained much in the way of superiority. Prince Paul was already a certified rap legend by this point, and RZA was well on the way. The other two emcees had some ground to make up, however. Poetic hadn’t made a lot of noise as a solo artist or with his group Brothers Grym. Frukwan was a member of Stetsasonic but wasn't well known.
The reason they weren't that “super” has to do with the skewed timeline. Six Feet Deep was actually conceived before Wu-Tang, at a time when all members of the Gravediggaz were in a career dip and frustrated by label bullshit. Prince Paul was feeling unappreciated, RZA's dubious early career as Prince Rakeem had gone south, Stetsasonic had fallen apart, and Poetic had been dropped from his label.
They regrouped as Gravediggaz and created Six Feet Deep as a collective “fuck you” to the industry, timed well enough to catch the wave of hype around RZA's new crew of geniuses from Staten Island. It was aggressive, gory and controversial, and helped create the rap sub-genre of horrorcore.
By the release of their second album, 1997’s The Pick, the Sickle and the Shovel, things had changed. The shock tactics and horror imagery had largely been replaced by songs about religion, science, politics, history and culture. Crucially, Prince Paul was also missing. His face appears on the artwork, but his contribution to the album is nearly non-existent.
To no longer have the guidance of a mentor and master producer like Prince Paul had a noticeable impact on the product. RZA also took a big step back from producing, creating only two tracks on his own and three others as co-producer. Production was handled instead by Poetic and members of RZA’s in-house Wu-Tang beat making stable, namely True Master and 4th Disciple. Competent and talented musicians as they are, neither could match the standard of RZA and Prince Paul.
The result was that The Pick, the Sickle and the Shovel almost got lost in the sea of releases by Wu-Tang affiliated groups that flooded the market in the mid to late ‘90s, but luckily there’s still enough that’s unique about the production here to make it stand out. It certainly demands to be held in higher regard than other Wu-Tang “family” albums from the same period, including those produced by the same players, such as Killarmy’s Silent Weapons for Quiet Wars (1997) or The Last Shall Be First (1998) by Sunz of Man.
The real merits of The Pick, the Sickle and the Shovel lie in the words. Although RZA had handed production duties to others he was still heavily involved lyrically, and finally able to flex his mic skills a lot more than on Wu-Tang projects.
If there was ever a Mount Rushmore for the four greatest emcees in the Wu-Tang Clan, RZA’s face wouldn’t be on it. On The Pick, the Sickle and the Shovel, however, away from the clan and the pressures of sole production responsibilities, he shines brighter than ever before. His flow is still awkward and clumsy at times, tripping over words by trying to pack too many of them into every bar, but he sounds focused and energized on songs like “Dangerous Mindz,” “Pit of Snakes” and “Twelve Jewels.” The latter is a solo track that allows RZA to get complex on a whole new scale, and while he may arguably be talking a lot of nonsense, he certainly knows how to preach and sell a good story.
Poetic and Frukwan also rap better here than on Six Feet Deep, taking advantage of the extra room for creativity now that they no longer had to play up the horror theme as much.
Gravediggaz would never make another album under the original line-up. Prince Paul and RZA lost their passion for the group after The Pick, the Sickle and the Shovel, understandably deciding to focus their energies elsewhere. Frukwan and Poetic kept the name going until tragedy stuck in 2001 when Poetic lost his battle with cancer at just 36 years of age.
There have been “official” and unofficial Gravediggaz albums released since the ‘90s, mostly featuring lukewarm offcuts that probably should have been left in the vaults. The subject matter also tends to lean back towards the horrorcore style of their debut album, which is a bit ironic. Gravediggaz may have helped start the sub-genre and inspire everyone from Necro and Jedi Mind Tricks to DMX and Eminem, yet the style had become dated and corny by the time these later Gravediggaz collections surfaced.
Twenty years on from The Pick, the Sickle and the Shovel, Gravediggaz are becoming a mere footnote in the careers of hip-hop legends Prince Paul and RZA. It’s a shame, because their run throughout the ‘90s gave us a lot of innovative music, and the group deserves to be remembered as more than just a quirky side project.