wax Poetics
Photo by Thomas Dagg.

The Champ

In an arena where MCs seldom have extended careers, Wu-Tang’s Ghostface Killah has increasingly improved through two decades after his 1996 solo debut, Ironman. His use of cryptic slang and gift for spinning complex tales leaves an unmatched legacy—one that’s still growing.

published online
Originally published in Issue 61
By David Ma

See this rap shit? 
Came at a time that 
was accurate. 
Twenty years later, 
I mastered it.

–“In tha Park” (2010)

“Turn these fuckin’ lights down, turn them shits down,” says Ghostface, irritated and snarling, presumably at the guy manning stage lights. “Shit’s blinding a nigga’s eyeballs.” 

Born Dennis Coles but known to the world as Ghostface Killah, aka Tony Starks, he grabs a water bottle as the stage dims. The dialogue intro from “The Champ” begins: “This guy is a bulldozer with a wrecking ball attached. He’ll leave a ring around your eye and tread marks on your back. He’s an animal. He’s hungry. You ain’t been hungry since Supreme Clientele,” it says. It’s a fitting encore choice, especially since “The Champ” (off 2006’s Fishscale) directly critiques Ghost’s previous outings in what was perceived as diminishing skills and vigor.

Wiping his brow, tossing the handkerchief onto a pile of rumpled, sweat-soaked towels, Ghost dives in, obliterating the track with uncanny verbal ballistics: “Who wanna battle the Don? I’m James Bond in the Octagon with two razors...” he says, over a Melvin Bliss sample that’s never sounded as menacing before or since. 

Still hyped yet breathing heavy as the song ends, he raises a fist. “Yo, thanks for lovin’ me through the years, means a lot to nigga. Peace!” he says and heads out, as management, security, and entourage immediately orbit his path. His voice and distinctiveness can be so thrilling, so electric, that you forget Ghost is now in his mid-forties.

A couple days later by phone, we reconnect to debrief. “I fuckin’ pray to God I don’t lose the gifts He’s given me. You can lose it, nah mean? I’ve seen it. I’ve seen my friends lose it,” says Ghost en route to Australia. “I just don’t have any C raps, you know? They’re all A-pluses, sometimes an A-minus here or there,” he laughs. “But I see and hear things different than other people, for real. It takes more time to do what I do. I love what I do. A lot MCs just take that shit for granted, but I haven’t stopped feeling this way since the ’90s, you know?”

Not including group efforts, Ghost is now twelve studio albums deep. With an opulent catalog that’s both aging well and standing strong, Ghost has emerged as Wu-Tang’s doyen of rap. He admits: “I don’t really look back too deep on all that shit, but when I do, I appreciate it. It’s like if Kobe or LeBron came out and only scored like ten points, nah mean? No one wants that. My career has all-star moments, lots of highlights, you know? Crossovers, dunks, some behind-the-backs.”

This year, his oeuvre grew by two more projects, both within months of each other. The first album was the narrative-driven 36 Seasons with Ghost as its vigilante protagonist along with AZ, Pharoahe Monch, and Kool G Rap as co-stars. The Revelations, a Brooklyn-based band/production team provided perfectly moody backdrops for Ghost to navigate over. “It’s a like a movie. G Rap plays a drug lord and AZ plays a cop. It’s a full-out story, you know? I wrote it like it was a movie script,” he says, calling it a “masterpiece” and adding that it’s one of best projects he’s ever been a part of.

Sour Soul, the other new release at the time of this writing, is couched in live instrumentation anchored by Toronto-based jazz trio BadBadNotGood, who was immensely proud to work with the esteemed Tony Starks. “His ability to go from clever, lyrical, or funny, to super serious all in one verse hooked us,” BBNG keyboardist Matthew Tavares says exuberantly. “He’s one of the most consistent entertainers of the last twenty years.” Indeed, not many rappers reach a second or third act in their career, but Ghost thrives due to his otherworldliness and a writing acumen noticed by many.

Photo by Thomas Dagg.
Photo by Thomas Dagg.

My pen’s illmatic, 
plush robes drag 
across the floor, 
gun hand is sore 
from choppin’ the raw.

–“Return of the Theodore Unit” (2007)

MF DOOM, producer/MC and longtime creative, points out Ghost’s pen skills, likening him to American poet and writer Charles Bukowski. In an interview with Nerdtorious.com, said DOOM: “Ghost comes with some shit you don’t expect. He makes things relatable by being vivid and honest and real. His stories are just so damn interesting. Like Bukowski, he’s one of those dudes that just has a natural knack for this. It’s like he speaks in color.”

“C’mon, dog, we already know I can write,” says Ghost, loudly with hubris. It’s understandable, but for someone so seemingly extroverted, it’s his private moments that yield results. In fact, he insists on working solo, at least at the start anyways. “I sit by myself with a pen and paper. And quietness, nah mean? I need shit to be still. I like to sit with a CD of beats or sit right in front of a speaker and write to it. Depending where I’m at, sometimes I’ll record some shit on the spot into a mic. Sometimes, I use the headphones as my mic.”

His knack for imagery and storytelling, at this point, has provided a template for younger MCs. From Earl Sweatshirt (of Odd Future) to Action Bronson (whose delivery has at times been called derivative), to so many newcomers, all have cited Ghost as profoundly impactful. “These young dudes know about my story raps, and that’s cool, that’s respect, that’s love.” 

This progeny of storytelling is something Ghost is proud to forge onward, he says. “My hero? It’s all about Slick Rick for me. He’s the Ruler. Don’t get me wrong, I love [Big Daddy] Kane, and [Kool] G Rap, and Rakim. I really love Shan and KRS too, you know? But dog, Rick was the freshest of all that shit. He had flavor too. He’s the only one that told stories in different voices and had all those visuals. I’ve always liked hearing stories in rap.”

Tangentially, the handle “Ghostface” was also lifted from one of his favorite stories, a 1979 kung-fu flick called Mystery of Chessboxing. He describes the movie as “an all-timer,” explaining: “It’s the one with the old dude on the cover with a white beard. People in it fronted on this character because he was out for revenge, but dude wasn’t really a master yet. They killed his family and shit. So he left for twenty years and came back and caught revenge on all of ’em. I loved it. The character’s name was the Ghost Faced Killer, so I took it as my identity.”

The film also inspired Wu-Tang’s “Da Mystery of Chessboxin’ ” on 36 Chambers, the track where ODB famously introduces “the Ghostface Killah.” “Because, back then, we was watching karate flicks, we’d get high and sometimes act shit out. Walking down the block, you’d karate chop your brother real quick, strike a pose,” he laughs. “I put a lot of those elements into my own songs.” 

Mystery of Chessboxing’s presence looms large on Ghost’s Twelve Reasons to Die, a 2013 concept album told over cinematic production provided by composer/producer Adrian Younge. While Younge’s camp crafted the story’s outline—a revenge tale bound with cartoonish gore, disguises, and plot twists—by taking influence from classic Italian horror films, Ghost, in contrast, returned to his favorite Hong Kong flick for his own lyrical inspiration. It’s also a prime instance of Ghost artfully reconstituting ideas into fully realized recordings—one of these occurrences was, of course, his 1996 debut, Ironman.

I sit by myself with a pen and paper. And quietness, nah mean? I need shit to be still.
Photo by Thomas Dagg.
Photo by Thomas Dagg.

Last night I wrote three rhymes. 
I woke up to see the sun shine. 

–“The Sun” (2001)

After the success of Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx—where Ghost was featured on the majority of songs—anticipation for Ironman only heightened. The fact that its predecessor, GZA’s Liquid Swords, was considered an instant masterwork only added to the heavy tension. Amid this blur of success, Ghost got a phone call that proved life altering, and urgent. “I had been to doctors the week before, and the doctor called with some test results saying I had diabetes. Dog, it was rough, you know? I mean, I was only twenty-something then,” he recalls solemnly. “All kinds of other shit was going on too, like my best friend got locked up. Everything started to change. I had to live different, you know? That’s why the album’s like that. It’s dark-sounding.”

He continues: “I remember hearing the beat for ‘All That I Got Is You’ in Iowa, because RZA rented a spot out there. The weather was real cold and shit. And we’d sit and just go through all these RZA joints. He had ’em all in a box, ’cause we was still going off of tapes then. So I’d put on a tape and I’d go off by myself.” Ironman would go on to debut at number two on the Billboard charts, selling over 100,000 units in its first week, eventually going gold. Despite the warm response, Ghost, to this day, doesn’t consider it a proper debut. “Everything calmed down, and I sat and re-listened to it and was mad disappointed. Lyrically, it just isn’t there for me; I’m better than that shit,” he says. It continued to sell nonetheless and achieved platinum status by the Recording Industry Association of America in early 2004. 

The creative process, in this case, was also a learning one, says Ghost: “The other thing was that I was always on a deadline around then. I had to write and write, and keep writing. Fuck all that. That’s why I no longer have deadlines, you know? When it comes, it comes.” It wasn’t until 2000, four years after Ironman and perhaps in part due to a lack of deadline, that Supreme Clientele came out. Even with limited RZA involvement, it’s a cohesive listen, featuring transitional skits and Ghost at his most unhinged and fiery (“Lyin’ with the snakes, tongue kissin’ cobras...” off “Malcolm”) and at points even nostalgic (“Those were the days, made faces, school plays...” off “Child’s Play”).

“I was in a better place, nah mean? Happier. So that was just the vibe. Whatever I’m doing at that time in my life comes into the studio all the way into the booth with me. There’s some darkness, but it’s not throughout the whole record,” he says, adding that this was how he’d imagine his debut to sound like. “The skits on here were nice decorations, nah mean? It’s like you buy a house, but eventually you wanna put some paintings up. It was also the order of the music. Sequencing is important, and a lot of niggas don’t really do it. This record is like a twelve-round fight, dog. If you think it stumbles in the seventh, it’ll come out in the ninth round swingin’. I changed this album around like twelve fucking times, dog. Just to get the mood right and shit.” In an interview with Rolling Stone, comedian Chris Rock said Supreme Clientele “will go down as the last great Wu-Tang album. ‘Stroke of Death’ is so gangster,” he said, “it makes you wanna stab your babysitter.”

Clientele set a new precedent which future works were measured against. Despite this, the new millennium began with Ghost adding romance and R&B on next two albums, Bulletproof Wallets (2001) and The Pretty Toney Album (2004). “I wasn’t too happy with Bulletproof, because RZA forgot to clear some samples on there and shit became a real distraction for me and everyone around,” he says. “But I liked Pretty Toney. It had smooth verses on there, nah mean? Maybe cats don’t like that romance shit, but there’s some good shit on there.” Its cover has Ghost onstage wearing an enormous medallion that dangles almost to his waistline. “Yeah, [Slick] Rick gave that to me before I hit the stage that day. It’s an honor when your hero does something like that.”

Photo by Thomas Dagg.
Photo by Thomas Dagg.
Everything calmed down, and I sat and re-listened to Ironman and was mad disappointed. Lyrically, it just isn't there for me; I'm better than that shit.

The specialist who eyeballed the mistress’s necklace.
Perpetuous, this curly-head kid’s treacherous. 

–“Black Jesus” (1996)

Two thousand six marked ten years since Ironman, and his next release, Fishscale, was to follow. With the tepid response to his previous departures still prevalent, this was promoted as back-to-basics rap—spastic rhymes over boom-bap and bass licks; more humor and attitude with minimal hooks—perfect for listeners put off by recent thematic changes. Fishscale delivered and is now a watershed moment, at once a return-to-form and display of maturation. Picture a 2015 Jay Z delivering dense cadences as if it were Reasonable Doubt. Ghostface returned in top form, famished and eager to awe with explosiveness not seen in years. 

The success of Fishscale, according to Ghost, was in part due to a rolled-ankle and broken leg: “That was the first time in my life where I had no choice but to sit and create. We was on vacation and I slipped on some ice. Broke my leg. Ice be slippery as fuck. So I couldn’t leave the house, you know? I sat and just wrote by myself. Fucked up my ankle too, so that was it, nah mean?” If his next release, More Fish, sounds similarly inspired as Fishscale, it’s because it was from the same sessions: “Def Jam wanted another record for the fourth quarter, so I just dropped what we had already recorded. That was on some contract shit, nah mean? It just proves to me I was really focused then.”

Ghost would go on to average an album a year for the remainder of the decade; Big Doe Rehab in 2007, Ghostdini: Wizard of Poetry in Emerald City in 2009, and Apollo Kids in 2010. All three relied on throbbing soul samples and break loops as its foundational sound—Ghostdini was the lone exception, with more vocals and love-themed songs. “So I took off my paisley pajamas I got from St. Thomas / Yo, I love you so much, so let me pay homage / And if you do, yo, I promise never break a promise,” he says on the track “Forever.”

“I’m an artist; you have to keep growing like a baby does, nah mean? There were those incredibly long verses on Wu-Tang Forever that I like. Clientele is just me killin’ shit, nah mean? I like ‘Shakey Dog’ from Fishscale too. I appreciate a lot of it; but I’m on to the next, always. I ain’t one of those niggas who just lay flat all the time.”

Chocolate, light-skinned, meet Mr. Excitement. 
Got my D.D.L. on me, that’s my dick-’em-down license.
–“Supa GFK” (2007) 

“I know so many niggas that haven’t been as fortunate, you know? Now I know I got skills, nah mean? But I’ve been truly blessed in many ways too,” he says, speaking rather effusively. “I get to keep doing this. I get to keep my niggas around me and be fucking creative for older cats and new ones too. Dirty said, ‘Wu-Tang is for the children.’ And he’s right.”

ODB passed in 2004 and never got to see Ghost run away from the pack. The two were close and Ghost keeps it that way through memories rich with joie de vivre. “Dirty the best. I learned a lot of shit from him. We did a lot of dumb shit together. He was just a different breed. Even within Wu, he was a different breed. He was the loudest nigga. You know how crazy shit sometimes cross your mind, but then you might be embarrassed actually doing it? Dirty that nigga who did it. And he wasn’t being fake either.”

“One night, we’re in Philly, and it was like three o’clock in the morning, we was on tour. And this nigga came back to the room with fifty fucking women! They didn’t even all fit,” says Ghost, laughing loudly as never before during our interview. “And he’d be walking around telling and asking niggas, ‘I got that pussy. You good? You good? Pussy’s waitin’, you good?’ The power he had with women was incredible; the nigga never got smacked! He’d be rude too, walking up and be like, ‘I swear on my mother, I’ll fuck you right now,’ and bitches be flattered! If I did it, they’d hit me with their purse.” Ghost stops, seemingly contemplative, and posits: “Lots of memories when I think of Dirty. Lots of memories in my career. Lots of memories in this life so far, man.”

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