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Wednesday, Dec 3 1997
The Pick, the Sickle and the Shovel
(Gee Street)

The plan was simple: Ally two talented but unsigned hip-hop veterans (Poetic and Frukwan) with an underground renaissance man on the verge of stardom (the RZA, on holiday from Wu-Tang Clan) and the legendary producer who orchestrated the dawn and the sunset of De La Soul's D.A.I.S.Y. Age (Prince Paul) to create the definitive b-boy meditation on ghetto-induced psychosocial deviance.

The product of their collaboration, 6 Feet Deep, released in 1994 under the group name Gravediggaz, was startling, but off the mark. As an unknown collective, they surprised critics and hip-hop fans with their sophisticated blend of aggressive beats, melodically bleak hooks on the verge of loopiness, and wailing, raw-mouthed vocals. Their music and agitated scenarios about the absurdly violent acts of lunatics gave the short-lived and unlamented shock-hop phenomenon popularized by Cypress Hill, Onyx, and Chino XL a resonance that had been sorely missed.

Until the Gravediggaz stepped into the arena, the fledgling genre differed from hardcore rap only in its articulation of street-tough posturing. "Not only are we hard as hell," proclaimed the movers and shakers of the movement, "we're downright stir-crazy." Taking it a step further, Prince Paul, the RZA, Poetic, and Frukwan perceived the urban landscape that had produced them as a kind of gothic wasteland, ripe with grotesque imagery. But their grim vision did not catch on the way they had hoped it would. Only a full-fledged gothic hip-hop scene could have made a connection with 6 Feet Deep.

Undaunted, the band persevered, broadening its sound by joining with Tricky to record the Hell on Earth EP and a side for The Crow, Part 2 soundtrack. Gravediggaz were looking for the means to exhume themselves permanently from shock hop's shallow grave without completely abandoning the spooky shtick that had made their debut so intriguing.

Leave that to the RZA. Revered as the production mastermind behind the Wu-Tang Clan, his influence has impacted East Coast hardcore the way Dr. Dre once dominated West Coast gangsta. Always the concept man, the RZA (or the Rzarector if you prefer his Gravediggaz alias) deserves almost all the credit for crucially redefining Gravediggaz's motivations: The band is now posed as a quartet of dark crusaders dedicated to raising the mentally dead from their spiritual graves. The idea, expressed succinctly through lyric and music on the new disc The Pick, the Sickle and the Shovel, is present as well on 6 Feet Deep. But the difference between the two is creative intensity.

It's as if the RZA gave fellow rappers Poetic and Frukwan a sedative and sent Prince Paul to the Bermuda Triangle on furlough. Gone is the one-foot-over-the-abyss aesthetic so prevalent on the first album's brightest tracks. On arrangements like "Constant Elevation," "Defective Trip (Trippin')," and "6 Feet Deep," Poetic and Frukwan pushed each other to perform their lyrics as fiendishly as possible, using all manner of vocal and rhythmic oddities -- octave jumping, overtly stylized stuttering, heavy breathing, howling, and whining -- to convince the listener of their mental deterioration. That style is gone. On The Pick, it's not how you say it, it's what you say.

On "Unexplained," a bluesy arrangement with a full horn-line and 808 drum punch, Poetic and Frukwan herald themselves as wise men, sent to explain the unexplainable, with metaphorically sophisticated rap prose delivered in an easy-to-follow, no-nonsense style. It's an RZA-endorsed approach (see his solo number "Twelve Jewelz") that's beat-friendly and easier to memorize and infinitely more participatory. And on "The Night the Earth Cried," easily the album's most haunting arrangement, Poetic radiates a pensive pessimism, no doubt consumed by the work ahead: "Trying to be godly is hard especially/ In poverty's back yard the violence is taking over." If only the ideas were fresh.

6 Feet Deep too has its share of mediocre lyrics: "Critics say, 'Go to hell,' I say 'Yeah'/ 'Stupid muthafuckas I'm already here.' " But while it remains committed to embodying macabre deviance through lyrics and vocals, The Pick, the Sickle and the Shovel is content to project the same baroque ideas through a lens of deadpan intensity, which puts lead vocalists Frukwan and Poetic on a short leash tethered to Wu-Mansion.

Prince Paul is still billed as a member of the group, although he is only credited with two tracks. And the RZA has managed to surgically remove all of the flourishes that were distinctly Paul's. Gone is the quirky edge that he brought to the first album on songs like "Nowhere to Run, Nowhere to Hide" and "1-800 Suicide." In its place are sparse-sounding Wu-Tang originals and RZA-influenced numbers produced by Frukwan and Poetic. And it is hard not to appreciate what Gravediggaz have become under RZA's expert supervision; I frankly prefer his work here to the laborious Wu-Tang Forever. The problem is, it's even harder to let go of what Gravediggaz were originally: a scrappy group of hip-hop misfits, looking to make a statement for the fun of it.

-- Victor Haseman

Slim Moon
Won't You Dance With This Man?
(Kill Rock Stars)

Academics contend that the spoken word you get in the hipster cafes and on the poetry-slam circuit is less art than talk. They say the words rarely hold up on the written page and yield little profundity under critical analysis. While it's true that the verbal musings of contemporary poet-performers like Danny Weizmann, Beth Lisick, or Slim Moon don't compare in linguistic density, imagistic complexity, or painstakingly crafted ambiguity to the canonized works of William Blake, T.S. Eliot, or Dylan Thomas, they succeed on the most essential level: communication.

Won't You Dance With This Man?, the debut CD from 30-year-old Montana mountain boy Slim Moon (who now lives in Olympia, Wash.), clearly articulates the worries, wonders, and preoccupations of his generation, from alienation to "The Hip Thing," obsessive drinking to compulsive concertgoing. But he doesn't pretend to be anyone's spokesman: He says the disc merely represents "some of my little po-ems that I wrote, and uh, you know ... um, I hope you like it, or whatever."

Moon lays out verses with a natural poet's sense of rhyme, rhythm, and nuance. He speaks with the unpretentious candor of a convincing storyteller. He can be quick-witted and silly, kind of sweet and kind of sad at the same time, surprisingly sly with a jaunty turn of phrase, and very funny. Like many of today's best speaker/writers, much of Moon's material stems from often vivid observations of his everyday experiences at the coffee shop, on the bus, in the bar. These portraits of mundanity range in value. "Counting Up" is an inventive and Sesame Street-like enumeration (1-2-3) of events when an innocent-looking girl on a bus weirds out a group of loud rockers by sweetly confessing "I'm really into Satan." "The Sign, the Symbol and the Signifier" is a pointless and parodic list of dookie euphemisms that leads into a catalog of chain-smoking and household chores.

Moon's best ideas come in the form of absurd or metaphorical quasi-fairy tales, often delivered with a restless bop phrasing like Jack Kerouac. "The Black" tells a bleak story, presumably set in a post-adolescent wasteland, where "We drown our sorrow in lust and drugs," and "We lie a lot/ We learn to live with our lies/ We tend to repeat ourselves/ We tend to repeat ourselves/ We tend ...." And like that of many of his peers, Moon's shtick flirts with common stand-up: "Wages of Sin" skews the old Christian paradigm by daring to ask, "Do they withhold part of the wages of sin for tax purposes?"

Slim Moon's a talker, but he actually manages to say something most of the time. And in this age of meaningless info glut, that's a poetic art as valid as any of T.S. Eliot's footnotes.

-- Sam Prestianni

Bobby Brown

Nine years ago, Bobby Brown, until then known only as a singer with the teeny-bopper vocal quintet New Edition, transformed his career with "Don't Be Cruel" and "My Prerogative," two songs that combined the rambunctious rhythms of hip hop with the debonair style of R&B. It was a powerful merger and spoke loudly to -- and for -- a generation who saw no need to split their cultural allegiances between the poles of straightforward black middle-class upward-mobility rules and I'ma-do-zactly-what-I-fuckin'-wanna b-boy rebellion.

Brown was not alone in creating this appealing union of musical styles and social sensibilities. Singers like Johnny Kemp and Keith Sweat as well as producers Teddy Riley (who worked with Brown) and the team of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis also mined what music critic (and now screenwriter) Barry Michael Cooper called new jack swing. Together, they created an early blueprint for Puff Daddy, Dr. Dre, and many of today's top producers.

But in the ensuing years, Brown has struggled to find anything remotely like that powerful groove. His follow-up recordings have offered only a standard rehash of his solo debut. To the surprise of almost everyone in the R&B/hip-hop community, he married Whitney Houston. (Or rather, we were all surprised that Houston married him.) However, tabloid newspapers and gossip columns have printed rumors of domestic abuse; and, he has had frequent run-ins with the police for various instances of disorderly conduct. His recording career all but ground to a halt with the 1996 New Edition reunion. The album, Home Again, was a dreadful exercise in artistic exhaustion and one of the worst recordings of '96, but it sold well in response to their tour and nostalgia from those who danced to "Candy Girl" at their high school proms.

Houston's intro to Forever vaguely implies that her husband is overcoming certain troubles by recasting "Nobody Does It Better" into a tribute to her husband. Brown's recent past is swept under the rug: Forever is a 48-minute exercise in denial. Although there is likely a market for rebellious young adults who suddenly grow up as they near da big three-oh, Brown is intent on justifying his arrogance and making hollow claims to pre-eminence. He doesn't seem to understand that the attitude of a 21-year-old is real cool in a 21-year-old, but real pathetic in a 30-year-old. Musically, he tries to revive the sound that propelled his late-'80s hits, but it sounds dated, rather than retro. Despite the overwrought passion that his grainy tenor brings to the material, Brown's unwillingness to at least address his public image makes this comeback sound vacuous where it should be gallant, and deceitful where it should be candid.

-- Martin Johnson


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