Ghostface Killah always has a story to tell
“Ghostface, catch the blast of a hype verse/my glock bursts, leave in a hearse, I did worse/I come rough, tough like an elephant tusk/Ya head rush, fly like Egyptian musk”. That’s the first dart thrown on Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), the most hardcore hip-hop album ever made. 20 years later, it still glows. And amongst the nine rap superheroes in the dangerously wild, explosively charismatic Staten Island (a.k.a Shaolin) collective, Ghostface Killah has always pushed his way to the front with an unhinged flow and his razor sharp, cinematic wordplay.
“When we did 36 Chambers, our energy was crazy man”, he reminisces. Crack is in conversation with Ghostface Killah in his London hotel room. He’s laid horizontal on the bed, grazing a family size bag of pretzels, seemingly unfazed by the mob of journalists, camera crew and PR crowded around him, eagerly hanging off his every word. “Once we had all the Clan in the studio like that, I looked around thinking ‘I know ya’ll going to be something one day’. I knew it already, before the music was even out, because I trusted in my brothers. And the way you heard Deck, Rae, Meth, GZA and them niggas spittin on shit … it was just like ‘Oh my god yo, this is it!’ And wasn’t just the rhymers we had there, we had our friends in there, and some of them ain’t even here with us today.”
Ghostface Killah, real name Dennis Coles, was born in 1970. Under the guidance of a single mother, he grew up among a great number of siblings, two of whom suffered from muscular dystrophy, in a crammed apartment in the Stapleton projects. He served his first prison sentence at the age of 15. At some point in the mid 80s, Ghostface became inseparable from Robert Diggs, aka RZA, then known among the local hip-hop scene as Rakeem. Along with RZA’s cousins GZA and Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Park Hill residents Method Man, U-God, Inspectah Deck and Raekwon The Chef (and, eventually, Brooklyn’s Masta Killa), Ghostface Killah was recruited to form Diggs’ insanely ambitious project: the Wu-Tang Clan. Not only would they go on to cause a seismic shift within hip-hop, but their logo would permanently embed itself in the minds of an entire generation.
The fact that RZA managed to pull together a crew of such intense personalities is incredible. Ghostface and Raekwon, who would later develop styles so compatible you’d swear they were bound together telepathically, initially ran with opposing street teams, and according to RZA, both attended their first meeting equipped with firearms. Accounts of the early days describe Ghostface as a permanently drunk, coke sniffing ‘dust head’ (his own term), a fearless brawler who was prone to feuds and especially unpopular with nightclub staff. But right from the start, the Wu were students of the Nation of Islam offshoot The Five Percent Nation, and Ghostface tells us how embracing God has positively influenced him in recent years.“It’s always been there, but I just got more deep in my spirituality as the years progressed. I started coming more into myself, know what I’m saying? I’ve become wiser, more humble, that’s how it goes.”
Tonight, Ghost is playing a show at London’s 100 Club, but he’s doing the press rounds to promote his new project Twelve Reasons To Die, a collaborative concept album with the LA producer and composer Adrian Younge. According to Ghost, Younge is quite the ventriloquist. “For this project right here, I followed his direction. So once you know the character, you put yourself in that mode, and then it’s like ‘boom!’, you gotta throw your elbows around now”, he says. On Twelve Reasons, Ghostface once again goes by the name Tony Starks, an alias borrowed from Marvel Comics’ Iron Man series. Twelve Reasons is set in Italy during the 60s. Starks is an employee of the DeLuca mafia organisation, but his unquenchable ambition and reckless vigilantism puts him on the family’s hit list. And as if it couldn’t get any worse, he falls hopelessly in love with the kingpin’s daughter. A loyal friend (played by part-time Clan member and former cab driver Cappadonna) tries to warn him that it’s a set up: “You think God sent her? Nah, it’s the devil instead, they got plans for you Tone, they want you dead, dead, dead!”, he cries. Starks gets wacked, his killers melt his remains and then press it into vinyl. When that record is played, Tony Starks returns to the world as a revenge hungry phantom – the Ghostface Killah – which turns out to be seriously bad fucking news for the DeLucas.
Younge’s analogue soundtrack blends influences from 70s soul, the Italian film composer Ennio Morricone and RZA, who’s credited as the executive producer. Running parallel to the release of Twelve Reasons is an album that Younge recorded with William Hart of The Delphonics, an old-school unit of soul singers. The Delphonics’ discography has always been a fountain of inspiration for sample hungry rap producers (Ghost himself rhymed over one of their tracks on Hush and the group sang backing vocals on his first album), and after hearing his mother play soul music at her parties through his bedroom wall, Ghost has been infatuated with the genre since childhood. So it’s no wonder that he speaks about Younge’s work with such admiration. “He’s like a scientist with what he does. Those tracks The Delphonics used to have? He makes ‘em just like that. He don’t record nothing digital, all reel-to-reel tape, like the old musicians used to do. I went to his house, he’s got all that old shit which makes it sound nice n’ raw like that, not too clean. To have all that onstage was something I’d always wanted, but it just so happened that this was the right project for it. And this shit is nice man, because you can sew shit together, you can fuck around with it, nah mean? You can be like ‘yo, mix this together’, ‘speed it up’, ‘make the strings go higher’, ‘make that shit sound theatrical’. It kills the DJ completely.” By this point in the interview, Ghost has sat up. He’s throwing his arms around like a composer, visibly excited by his own words.
Mafia culture has always been a crucial ingredient in Wu-Tang Clan’s lyricism and aesthetics. Along with the Kung-Fu flicks the group devoured in Staten Island’s seedy 24-hour cinemas, the Clan drew inspiration from crime movies, manipulating the mob’s strategies and codes of morality and applying them to their own manifesto. When Crack brings up this subject with Ghost, he warms to it immediately. “I respect the organised crime characters because they keep their shit together. With movies like The Godfather, there’s those with the loyalty to the family and there’s the killers, the hitmen. I like the hitmen, those who be coming to get the job done and shit, y’know what I mean? But they surrounded by people who want to take them down. They got the snitch, the motherfucker who talk too much. You got knuckleheads who wanna run around, doing wild shit and fuck your whole shit up, causing too much exposure and bringin’ it onto the motherfuckin’ family.”
When the Wu-Tang Clan were growing up, their native Staten Island was ruled by the Gambino family, then the most powerful Mafia organisation in America. With their Wu-Gambino alter egos (Rae as Lou Diamonds, RZA as Bobby Steels, Masta Killa goes by Noodles etc), Ghostface and Raekwon – the group’s chief criminologists – spearheaded the Mafioso rap revival, which became a mid-90s sensation that directly influenced Biggie, AZ, Nas and Jay-Z’s debut Reasonable Doubt. But although RZA claims to have personally exchanged gestures of respect with members of the Gambino organisation, Ghost is quick to draw the distinction between artistic fantasy and his reality. “I’ve never been part of no big Mafia organisation who get their hands dirty like that. My life ain’t based round no mafia shit, my shit is based around that Ghostface shit – whatever I did in my past, and what I intend to do in my future. But for my lifestyle, you gotta watch who you be around, just like the Mafia. You can’t let everyone into your circle. You gotta look out for the snitches, the rats, in real life. And without loyalty between your brothers man, your whole empire crumbles.’
Wu-Tang manifested their Mafioso formula on Raekwon’s ’95 debut Only Built 4 Cuban Linx. The set-up consisted of RZA directing Rae as the lead role, and Ghostface (who features on 15 of the album’s 18 tracks on as well as the cover), confidently bagged the award for Best Supporting Actor. Loosely based on the storyline of John Woo’s crime flick The Killer, Rae and Ghost play ruthless but spiritually enlightened hustlers determined to acquire enough currency – just another quarter million – to elevate them from the streets. And as the duo scheme and rob their way through the record, they trade rhymes built of disjointed anecdotes and packed with local slang, delivered in the real time speed of an adrenaline-fuelled crack house stick-up. Their voices are set against RZA’s beats – crunchy, lo-fi drum sequences, rugged bass and dusty piano loops that you could imagine echoing down a projects hallway in the summer’s sweltering heat. It’s a masterpiece.
“After the first Wu-Tang album, me and Rae got busy on Cuban Linx straight away. Cause we like the same thing – street shit. So we moved together. It might have been summer in ’94. It was hot”, Ghost recalls. ‘We went to Barbados first to work on it, but we got kicked out.” Hang on a second – Ghostface Killah and Raekwon got thrown out of Barbados? “Yeah man. I’d wanted to go there because I’d seen the brochure and I was like ‘Yo, this shit look nice!’ But it was just weird over there man. I think the British run that shit over there”, he says, in an unnervingly accusational tone. “The maids who worked in the hotel – I mean, they was black – but they was just rattin’ on us for no reason. They said we were making too much noise. And then we had our fatigues on, they said we couldn’t even wear fatigues! Like how come you can’t wear fatigues in Barbados?! They just kept fucking with us, they wanted us out of there … I remember now, it was the Royal Pavilion, those are the ones who kicked us out. But that was the best thing they could have done to us, because we went straight to Miami and that’s where we got it in, then RZA recorded us right after.”
Of the whole Clan, Ghostface Killah has enjoyed one of the most fruitful solo careers. The Cuban Linx recipe was followed up in ‘96 with GFK’s classic debut Ironman, albeit with added emotional vulnerability, Five Percent Nation philosophy and blaxploitation samples. He broke a Wu-Tang curse by maintaining the quality of his debut album with his sophomore, 2000’s luxurious sounding Supreme Clientele, which remains one of the most significant Wu records outside of their ’93-’97 ‘Five Year Plan’ era, when RZA had full artistic control. As for his post-millennium output, Ghostface has had his peaks (2006’s solid Fishscale) and troughs (the poorly-selling Bulletproof Wallets), but never sounded lethargic. Along with Twelve Reasons, he wants this to be the year that two of his long awaited projects see the light of day: Supreme Clientele’s sequel Blue and Cream and his collaborative full length with DOOM.
Due to Ghost’s hectic, haphazard schedule, our interview gets cut short. But we’ve got just a few more burning questions for him, and fortunately, he agrees to follow up our conversation with a phone call the next day. There’s a forthcoming biopic of the late Ol’ Dirty Bastard in the works, in which Michael K. Williams (who you’ll know as Omar Little in The Wire) has been cast to portray him. Does it have his blessing? “I mean, personally, I’ve got nothing to do with it. That’s on his Moms. So I guess whatever she says is what she says. But I don’t know what’s going on with it, I can’t say if they’re doing it right”, comes his cautious response.
And what about the next Wu-Tang Clan album? Last year, RZA unveiled a mission statement: to reunite the entire group in the studio for one last time, in celebration of their 20th anniversary. Since then, various members have waded in with conflicting accounts. So can RZA really orchestrate harmony within the Clan once again? The promotion of 8 Diagrams, the group’s last official album, was sabotaged by Ghost, Raekwon and Inspectah Deck, who took offence to RZA’s decision to experiment with mellower, leftfield sounds. Their triumphant Coachella performance suggests that the anniversary has strengthened their sense of brotherhood, but when we ask Ghostface about the project, it seems like tension is already boiling over the record’s working title, A Better Tomorrow. “RZA put that out there without asking us. We had a talk about that a couple of days ago. Some of the brothers disagreed with it. We already got a song on Wu-Tang Forever called A Better Tomorrow, nah mean? So right now, it’s up in the air. I don’t really know what the name is going to be, but it’s got to be something like Illmatic, something real spicy sounding for the fans, so when they hear it they’re like ‘Oh shit!” And in terms of the record’s production, Ghostface seems – for now at least – ready to accept RZA’s insistence on creative dictatorship. “It’s in his head, see what he pulls up. I mean, I heard a couple of beats, and they was real nice. But right now, we gotta just let him see through his vision, then we make our opinions.”
So whether or not RZA, GZA, Masta Killa, U-God, Meth, Deck, Ghostface and Raekwon The Chef can put aside their differences to band together and cook up another album remains to be seen. But over the course of the 20 years since 36 Chambers dropped, they’ve survived internal feuds, legal battles, imprisonments and the death of a founding member. Their solidarity seems indestructible, their connection is that deep. So bitter disses might get thrown around, the album plans could be scrapped or postponed, but the wounds will eventually heal. And you can rest assured that, at some point, the Wu-Tang Clan will gravitate back towards the same stage.