The best tracks from Tony Starks’ legendary discography.
Picking highlights from Ghostface Killah’s career is like selecting your favourite stars in a night sky, or definitively listing the best Shaw Brothers’ movies. An album like Supreme Clientele – which celebrates its 20th anniversary this weekend – is not to be picked apart. The only debate surrounding it should be what colour the frame will be when placing its cover in the MoMA.
In honour of that anniversary, we’ve selected 20 of the best tracks from Tony Starks’ career. Don’t consider this a definitive list of his greatest works. Such definitives are outside the boundaries of reason. Instead, the following tracks are simply an attempt at providing an abridged guide to the career of a rapper who first exploded out of Staten Island as the masked warlock of The Wu-Tang Clan’s heavy arsenal.
To kids who considered themselves disciples in the early days because they rocked Wu Wear, Ghost was often mistaken as merely one of nine. But over the years, he’s cultivated his own solo aesthetic. To put it simply, there’s as much a Ghostface Killah style as there is a Wu-Tang style, and it involves stratospheric heights in lyricism, album-making and straight incredible rapping.
As we celebrate this milestone in the life of Supreme Clientele, it feels only right that we consider Ghost’s indomitable legacy. Presented chronologically, these songs underline one eternal truth: Shaolin’s finest has crafted a body of work for rap scholars, mad scientists and yet-to-be-born b-boys to treasure for the rest of time. Read on for the full list and listen back to Ghost’s best moments in the playlist below.
Daytona 500 featuring Raekwon, Cappadonna & Force MDsIronman (1996)
RZA’s kaleidoscopic cut-and-paste collage of samples, deep record scratches, R&B vocals courtesy of Force MDs, and old Wu loops – ODB screaming “Ghost! Face! Killahhhh!” was too iconic not to bring back for Starks’ debut album – congeal into a street rap masterwork. Ghostface is joined by two of his most trusted confrères in Raekwon and Cappadonna, the trio spitting looping-swooping rhymes like a sai in a martial arts master’s hand. The collective brilliance of this track encapsulates the first generation Clan inventiveness that threatened to spark a new Wu world order.
All That I Got Is You featuring Mary J BligeIronman (1996)
In ’96, The Wu-Tang Clan was at the peak of its power and RZA’s five-year plan to send his warriors into the world as individual ronin was in full swing. Method Man, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Raekwon and GZA had already put albums on the board and, as next in line, Ghostface was poised to fully enter MTV consciousness. Yet rather than aim for chart supremacy with his first solo single, from debut LP Ironman, he delivered a heart-swelling autobiographical chronicle, and dedicated it to his mother and “all the families that went through the struggle”.
All That I Got Is You describes Ghost’s childhood in harrowing detail: 15 family members sharing a three-bedroom apartment, roaches in the cereal box, carrying notes from his mother to neighbours asking if they could spare some food. The damp strings add to the plaintive atmosphere, while Mary J Blige’s second most famous Wu collaboration adds a suitably wistful hook. Almost two-and-a-half decades later, the song remains the most important piece in understanding where Dennis Coles came from.
Nutmeg featuring RZASupreme Clientele (2000)
Ghostface penned the lyrics to Nutmeg during an exodus to Benin as he sought relief from the desperate symptoms of diabetes. Most of the details of his journey were never recorded and will become lost in time, but we can deduce from presented evidence that sections of his already warped mind were unlocked on the excursion.
Nutmeg is one of the most dizzying displays of wordplay ever committed to wax. Crazy references are stacked on crazy references – wrap your head around “Scotty Wotty copped it to me, big microphone hippie/ Hit Poughkeepsie, crispy chicken, verbs, throw up a stone, Richie”. And if the urbane swagger of the Eddie Holman-sampling production isn’t enough to turn it into an East Coast anthem – the beat is credited to the elusive Black Moes-Art, who is said to be Ghost’s barber – Ghost ends the whole thing shouting out Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, The Bronx, Long Island and New Jersey to the melody of Bill Withers’ Ain’t No Sunshine (“Shaolin, I know, I know, I know, I know”). Magic.
Apollo Kids featuring RaekwonSupreme Clientele (2000)
“Since the face been revealed, game got real.” So says Ghostface on Apollo Kids, referencing his decision a few years earlier to pull off the mask he sported in the early days of the Clan. You can call this track a true stepping into the light. The video sees Ghost symbolically removing a mask from his features, allowing him to stunt to camera in an ostentatious red robe, looking every bit a rap superstar. Producer Haas G’s swollen strings offer a perfect foil as Starks has fun, bragging about lying on the witness stand and the discount he gets on sneakers while revealing his affinity for the Nation of Islam by referencing Supreme Mathematics. You might not understand every bar but when Ghost says, “This rap is like ziti,” you know that’s a good thing.
We Made It featuring Superb, Hell Razah and Chip BanksSupreme Clientele (2000)
Ghost has rapped over a lot of gritty instrumentals in his time but the sumptuous orchestration on We Made It is smooth nectar for toasting the good times. Ghost invites friends to join him in the celebration: Superb opens his verse by popping champagne. Hell Razah rhymes “De Niro” with Mortal Kombat’s “Sub Zero” before comparing the crew to Jesus and the apostles (no specifics on who is Christ). Chip Banks sounds happy to be there (“See.. see.. see, see me I roll with Ghost”), while Starks describes both rubbing shoulders with the glitterati and being swarmed by groupies at The Mirage. Supreme Clientele is a sometimes stern epic, but We Made It is a crew rap classic that soothes the tension.
The Wu-Tang Clan – I Can’t Go to SleepThe W (2000)
All self-respecting rap producers own a copy of Isaac Hayes’s album Hot Buttered Soul. Hell, his gritty funk version of Dionne Warwick’s Walk on By will continue to be sampled by crate-digging beatmakers until this planet crashes into the sun. RZA’s trick with the familiar garment was to make very few alterations to those sumptuous horns, nasty guitar licks and slithering grooves.
Hayes himself even makes an appearance on the chorus – and features in the video – but it’s Ghostface who is the star of this Wu-Tang cut. Sounding like a touched medium channelling external spirits, Tony Starks contorts his voice into a cracked, desperate yearn before collapsing into the orchestration as it reaches a huge crescendo. By the time RZA floats in to deliver a second verse, it’s a wrap.
The Hilton featuring RaekwonBulletproof Wallets (2001)
A Hilton hotel serves as the backdrop as Ghostface and Raekwon take the lead roles in this gangster flick on wax. Spitting over a Mafioso rap string section that evokes memories of The Notorious B.I.G.’s Somebody Gotta Die, the pair describe a violent setup, even rapping their dialogue back and forth: “Yo, what the fuck happened?” asks a startled Rae. “It was a setup to get wet up,” replies Ghost, blood on his white leather outfit. The Hilton encapsulates the chemistry between the two salty comrades that has been a cornerstone of Clan mythology for decades now.
Beat the ClockThe Pretty Toney Album (2004)
Rappers conversing with themselves had been done before – Biggie’s Gimme the Loot, obviously – but on Beat the Clock, Ghostface sounds like a man in a heated argument with his own ID. Over producer Minnesota’s swollen strings and funky Blaxploitation grooves, he tunes his voice to two different speeds and attitudes, selling the illusion of a frantic back-and-forth. It’s all the more impressive when you consider the relentless energy of the beat, which would offer a serious test for any rapper to bring under control in a single rap style, let alone two. But Ghost matches its intensity, making things even harder for himself by veering into a sarcastic impression of a soul artist on the lines, “Shoot ‘em up, bang, bang, through me baby/ Lovely lady, fuck the spades, drive the kid crazy.” It takes supernatural chops to make all this madness work.
Be This WayThe Pretty Toney Album (2004)
A lot of New York rap post-Jay-Z’s The Blueprint deployed the same style of production built on highly prominent soul samples. Ghost leaned on the sound as well as anyone. Be This Way features Billy Stewart’s Chess Records classic We’ll Always Be Together and the rapper transforms the cut into a solidarity anthem for anyone trying to hustle their way out of their neighbourhood. Ghost calls for societal change, lest struggle always be a part of local life; his message of positivity is assisted by Stewart’s impassioned voice, which floats through the mix like the presence of a guardian angel.
Shakey DogFishscale (2006)
Shakey Dog is one of rap’s great saga-spinners at the peak of his storytelling prowess. It connects Ghost to fiction fabulists Mann, Mamet and Martin Scorsese. But even those three masters of the craft would struggle to cram this much minutiae in less than four minutes. Over a dramatic sample of The Dells’ I Can Sing a Rainbow/Love Is Blue, Ghost serves as writer, director and star in a New York tale of a botched robbery filled with three-dimensional characters, flashes of humour and wild plot developments.
Bringing his audience along for the ride, Ghost and an accomplice, Frank, plot to rob some local drug dealers. The detail is so rich, you share Ghost’s hunger when he longs for the food he spies on other people’s plates: “These fuckin’ maricons on the couch watchin’ Sanford and Son/ Passin’ they rum, fried plantains and rice/ Big round onions on a T-bone steak, my stomach growling/ Yo I want some.” But things go wrong when Frank’s trigger finger gets itchy: “I’m on the floor like, “Holy shit!”, watchin’ my man Frank get busy/ He zoned out, finished off my man’s wiz.” The final bar is simply, “To be continued”. The master storyteller signs off with his audience still hanging on every word.
9 Milli Bros featuring The Wu-Tang ClanFishscale (2006)
If nothing else, Ghost’s stone-cold classic album Fishscale gifted us one of the last great Wu-Tang Clan tracks. Ol’ Dirty Bastard may have passed away and RZA’s contribution might be taken from his solo track Fast Cars, but the group’s chemistry remains untarnished. MF Doom’s beat – mined from his Special Herbs archives – manages to feel both claustrophobic and raucous as the Clan pass the mic to one another like a hot potato.
ODB screams, “Brooklyn zoo!” as Raekwon sips Cognac; Meth pays homage to Shaolin by dropping his home zip code while U-God declares, “The rat pack is back from the island of Stat”. On his own album, Ghost slips back into his role as a Wu soldier: one cog in a powerful machine, sounding completely at home.
Beauty JacksonFishscale (2006)
J Dilla snatches a sultry spoken word section from The Three Degrees’ Maybe that sets the scene: “Standing at the bus stop I heard a voice behind me saying, ‘Hi, baby’”. Inspired by the producer’s prompting, Ghost steps to a woman in the street, introduces himself, lights her cigarette and suggests the two get together over some red wine. It’s Dilla’s smoky beat – which appeared on his postmodernist production masterpiece Donuts under the title Hi – that builds the stifling romantic tension. So when Ghost describes the woman in front of him in detail – her perfume scent, her slow jam voice, the mark on her right cheek – it’s easy to understand why the orchestration led him to picture an equally intoxicating beauty.
Be Easy featuring Trife Da GodFishscale (2006)
Be Easy is the song I throw on at parties when it’s time to listen to Ghostface Killah. It’s a jump-around classic and his most blockbuster single. Legendary producer Pete Rock syncs up some horn stabs to put the button on his boom-bap, evoking the spirit of classic New York singles like Craig Mack’s Flava In Ya Ear and Nas’ Made You Look. Then there’s the killer hook, turning the track into an unforgettable chant-along, hype-you-up classic: “Get word to the DJ, tell ‘em Staten Island’s in the house, put the record on replay”.
Alex (Stolen Script)More Fish (2006)
Behind the boards or alongside him in the booth, MF Doom has always unlocked new areas of Ghost’s creativity. It’s one of the reasons why their long-touted joint project Swift & Changeable is one of the great unmade rap albums. On Alex (Stolen Script), the supervillain twists the lush orchestral sounds of Henry Mancini’s First Job – from the movie The Thief Who Came to Dinner – into his trademark Saturday morning cartoon-esque dramatics. Over one continuous verse, Ghost tells the strange story of the screenwriter whose idea for a Ray Charles movie is stolen from him. All rappers drop references to movies but leave it to Ghost to deliver a narrative that takes you into the seedy side of Hollywood.
You Know I'm No Good with Amy WinehouseMore Fish (2006)
Amy Winehouse’s You Know I’m No Good was a saga of infidelity – a gripping depiction of the internal strife that only this thing we call love can cause. It’s a modern UK soul classic, one of the greatest works from one of the most iconic singers to sashay out of London. Anyone taking up the role as the man in this thorny tale needed to do it right.
There’s an edition of the song with a single Ghost verse bolted on to the original, but the More Fish version sees the rapper take front and centre, bringing his own deft touch to the story: “Let me ride with you, talk about your mistakes/ You cheated yourself but these are the breaks,” he fires back at Winehouse. Ghost’s flow finds the perfect pocket, riding Mark Ronson’s jackknifing boom-bap drums and up-tempo horns with gusto, ensuring that while the lyrics tell the story of a fracturing romance, the song’s pleasing pop vibrations aren’t compromised.
Supa GFKThe Big Doe Rehab (2007)
Forget sampling, Ghostface has a habit of rapping over unaltered oldies. See: the Dawn Penn-jacking No No No, or Holla, which features an old The Delphonics’ groove, to name just two examples. On Supa GFK, Starks spits over Johnny Guitar Watson’s infectious uptempo soul number Superman Lover, taking the original’s theme to brag about his own loverman potency. There are silly metaphors for sex involving various breakfast food, promises to “twist a chick like a Rubik’s cube”, and a confident assertion that ladies “wanna see me and my rhinestone drawers”. Turns out, Ghost’s mind is no more in sync with the norm when he’s horny.
The Wu-Tang Clan – The Heart Gently Weeps8 Diagrams
George Harrison invaded Ghostface thoughts. Such was his affinity for The Beatles’ While My Guitar Gently Weeps, he flipped a gentle keyboard version of its familiar melody into solo oddity Black Cream (sometimes found online under the title Guitar). It’s a lovely cut, if a little lean. But Ghost couldn’t let the tune go.
Harrison’s composition must have tugged at his heels, begging to be turned into a more full-bodied rap song. The final form of Ghost’s obsession was The Heart Gently Weeps, from the Wu’s criminally underrated album, 8 Diagrams. The song is beefed up in every way imaginable: RZA’s extra production adds layers over extra instruments, the Red Hot Chilli Peppers’ John Frusciante brings his own axe work and it’s none other than Erykah Badu who now coos the chorus. Even Harrison’s son Dhani adds some acoustic guitar into the rich mix.
Raekwon and Method Man drop solid verses but the star is Ghost, who describes a violent run-in in a grocery store with his trademark detail. The result is an art piece of street raps and lush orchestration that connect past and present better than any Beatles-jacking rap track before or since.
2getha BabyApollo Kids
A single from what can reasonably be described as the final flickers of Ghost’s golden period, 2getha Baby offers high-energy flows, ostentatious braggadocio, chopped-up soul and references to everything from Jimmy Neutron to the movie Precious (hey, it was 2010). Starks spits over horns and percussion that sledgehammer like a militant drum beat before a tweaked soul sample releases the building tension. It’s a harsh environment but Ghost turns the whole thing into a simple song about loving women, albeit with some grim details too – “Where I don’t stop drinkin’ and I can’t stand sober,” he admits, “In the morning when I wake up I get up just to ill.” This is Ghost’s genius alchemised. A reminder that at his peak, nobody made rap this blistering sound this easy.
Tone’s Rap with BADBADNOTGOODSour Soul (2015)
For the stoned grooves of Tone’s Rap, from joint album Sour Soul, Canadian jazz group BADBADNOTGOOD asked Ghost to replicate his lurching flow from I Can’t Go to Sleep. The result: one of Starks’ best latter-day joints. Tone’s Rap sounds like it should soundtrack a decaying urban backdrop at 3am, when too much bourbon has dimmed the bright lights. Over slow drums and blurry guitar licks, Ghost takes up the role of a neighbourhood hustler, unduly obsessed with the lint on his ostentatious robes. “Pimpin’ ain’t easy but it sure is fun,” he declares. Big Daddy Kane would approve.
Dean Van Nguyen is the author of Iron Age: The Art of Ghostface Killah