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It seems ever since Odd Future started to blow up in 2010, every person who feels the need to share their opinion on rap music has all of a sudden felt it pertinent to mention that they’ve “been down,” “loved,” and/or “grew up” on ’90s horrorcore perfectionists Gravediggaz. Irritating as such namedrops are, it’s at least good that the Prince Paul/RZA project has very recently been getting its propers. Most known for their 1994 cult classic debut 6 Feet Deep (released overseas as its original title Niggamortis) the record did show the perfect meeting point between the two legendary producers, as well as rappers Frukwan (of Paul’s landmark original group Stetasonic) and the late Poetic in rap’s best horror-themed outing to date. But despite the album’s fairly recent recognition, Poetic is often absent from conversations regarding great rap artists who are unfortunately no longer with us.
Poetic, born Anthony Ian Berkeley in Trinidad, was the son of a minister who grew up on Long Island. He began his rap career in the late-80s as Too Poetic in a local group called the Brothers GRYM with his real-life brothers rapper Brainstorm and producer E Sharp. While they did manage to create a buzz, Brainstorm made the not all that uncommon choice to abruptly quit rapping, leaving Poetic to reset his sights on a solo career. Fortunately, he found himself on Tommy Boy and put out the sleeper hit single “God Made Me Funky.”
“God Made Me Funky” stood out within the late ’80s soundscape for many reasons. Hip-hop historian Kevin Beacham has cited how Poetic had “so much style and charisma, plus his knack for weaving words together was a true testament to his name,” something made abundantly clear when placing the “God Made Me Funky” in the proper context. While hip-hop was in the earlier stages of beginning to explode worldwide, rap music in New York was still hyper-localized. Long Island had two of the most distinct and powerful voices in rap, Rakim and Chuck D, leaving ’89 to be filled with countless imitators and emulators. Poetic went noticeably left-field of these trends, carving out his own niche with an unflinching unique voice which won over listeners coast-to-coast.
Sadly, this success was short-lived as Poetic soon found himself homeless until longtime friend and supporter Prince Paul offered him a slot in his emerging Gravediggaz supergroup. With all the various flows and unorthodox approaches in his arsenal, Poetic was a perfect fit. Rechristening himself Grym Reaper, his presence on the Gravediggaz releases added an ominous aura of unpredictability, something that complimented RZA and Paul’s additions perfectly. The ghastly themes of the group weren’t something foreign to Poetic, which lead to an early encounter with fellow Long Island rapper and horror movie fanatic R.A. the Rugged Man.
“We hung in the same circles,” R.A. remembers, “and we just started spitting bars at each other. I had my demo with Jive and everyone was like ‘he has horror movie references, he’s the horror movie kid’ so it was almost a little competitive, but as we was going at it, we just became cool and just rhymed and rhymed and rhymed.”
See also: The RZA You Didn’t Know Existed
While their first album 6 Feet Deep largely reveled in the macabre, their 1997 follow-up The Pick, The Sickle and The Shovel focused more on the philosophical side of death and exploring the morality of mortality. Around this time, RZA and Paul both left the group, turning Gravediggaz into a duo. Poetic’s life took a tragic turn in May of 1999 when he collapsed in his home studio. Immediately taken to the hospital, doctors discovered he had an advanced stage of colon cancer. While the medical bills piled up, the cancer didn’t hinder Poetic’s dedication to hip-hop as he continued to record, including working on the third Gravediggaz album Nightmare in A Minor as well as several guest appearances. Poetic had also begun recording a solo album under his new moniker “Tony Titanium,” named for both the titanium valve implanted in his chest as well as the strengths of his will to live.
If Poetic made one absolutely staggering contribution to hip-hop, it’s his collaboration with Last Emperor on “One Life.” Supposedly the final verse he ever recorded, Poetic raps about the night he discovered he had cancer and the struggles that followed with a raw vulnerability that’s truly rare in any genre. The wavering timbre of his voice mixed with the utter fearlessness of his flow results in quite possibly the realest verse ever committed to wax. The type of record that remains as awe-inspiring years later as its release, it’s bold tackling of the reality of an impending death is absolutely without peer.
Poetic ultimately succumbed to the disease on July 15th, 2001. Since his death, and the recent waves of shocking rappers allowing the horrorcore stigma to subside, his work with Gravediggaz and beyond has been elevated from cult favorite. One of rap’s boldest voices until the day he died, Poetic’s rightfully remember as the absolute master of his own style, something all MCs strive for. God made Poetic funky, and Poetic made you never forget that.