Too Poetic

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Anthony Berkeley (Too Poetic), rapper and producer: born 1966; married; died Los Angeles 15 July 2001.

"You've got two choices: either dig your own grave or be a grave-digger" was the motto adopted in 1994 by the New York rap group Gravediggaz.

After their dark, ground-breaking début album had been certified gold in the United States, the Gravediggaz were dubbed a "hip-hop supergroup". But when the producer and Stetsasonic DJ Prince Paul (né Paul Huston) took up the moniker Undertaker and joined forces with his former Stetsasonic colleague Fruitkwan (Arnold Hamilton, renamed the Gatekeeper), Prince Rakeem (Robert Diggs, aka RZARector or RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan) and Too Poetic (Anthony Berkeley, also masquerading as The Grym Reaper), the four were anything but stars. Rather, they all felt they'd been ripped off by the music industry and they wanted to tell the world.

"We had all come out of bad record deals with Tommy Boy. We'd all had our little death sentence on that label and we'd been out of the game for a while. We didn't even feel alive in music any more," Too Poetic later told Hip-Hop Connection magazine. "We had to dig ourselves out and then look at the situation on the streets where people were mentally dead."

Too Poetic knew all about the streets. Born Anthony Berkeley in 1966, he grew up in New York and got involved in the rap scene, forming the Brothers Grym with his brother (Grym was an acronym for Ghetto Repaired Young Mind).

By 1989, Berkeley had adopted the pseudonym Too Poetic and issued an extended 12-inch containing various versions of "Poetical Terror" and "God Make Me Funky" through Tom Silverman's label Tommy Boy. Plaudits came aplenty but royalties were less easy to get hold of and Berkeley found himself homeless. So he jumped at the chance to join Gravediggaz and vent his feelings under the guise of ghoulish raps.

Building on the template of their early single "Diary of a Madman" –the video for which was banned by MTV because of its gruesome nature – the group issued its début album, entitled Six Feet Deep, on the Gee Street label in 1994. This proved something of a departure for East Coast rap. Hip-hop artists had often rhymed about their likely death but no one had quite capitalised on the rich imagery of Whodini's "The Haunted House of Rock" or Lovebug Starski's "Amityville (The House on the Hill)".

Incorporating morbid dialogue between tracks like "1-800 Suicide", "Graveyard Chamber" and "Deathtrap", Gravediggaz were dubbed "horror-core" by fans and critics alike. The four members weren't amused. Too Poetic said, "We didn't say we was hardcore, we didn't say we was 'horror-core'. That was a title put on us. People tried to fantasise and glorify it." His forte seemed to be conjuring up apocalyptic scenarios and delivering those warnings to the human race in a spooky voice.

The Hell EP was recorded in early 1995 with the British trip-hop pioneer Tricky and, credited as Tricky vs Gravediggaz, reached No 12 in the UK. Gravediggaz subsequently toured the US with the Wu-Tang Clan. "In some situations, stress makes you perform to a higher level. When you're among 12 MCs that you know are good, you want to be able to shine," explained Too Poetic. Unfortunately, RZA's production commitments slowed Gravediggaz down and their follow-up album, The Pick, The Sickle and the Shovel, came out in late 1997. Still concerned with the state of the planet, Too Poetic dominated tracks such as "Repentance Day", and the singles "The Night the Earth Cried" and "Unexplained" made the British Top Fifty in 1998.

"Like Marvin Gaye and Otis Redding, my own original musical influences, I like to consider myself as a sound painter," declared Too Poetic:

The real situation is people are fucking up with the depletion of the ozone layer

and killing off certain animals. You've got to understand the way the universe is, it's the domino principle.

In April 1999, Too Poetic collapsed in the studio; he was diagnosed with colon cancer. He moved to California and tried various treatments. Despite the side-effects of chemotherapy, he managed to complete work on solo recordings and the third Gravediggaz album, scheduled for release later this month and entitled Nightmare in A Minor.

Pierre Perrone