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Ghostface Killah: The Balladeer

photographer Alexei Hay

May 2013: Today, on Ghostface Killah's 43rd birthday, we take a look back at his 2006 FADER #37 cover story, which coincided with the release of his album, Fishscale.


April 2006: All Ghostface Killah can count on is god and the beat. All listeners can count on is him.

The Slick Rick-style medallions the size of salad plates, the four finger ring of a cursive “Ghost” spelled out in diamonds, the flashy playboy bathrobes, the giant gold eagle he used to rock on his wrist—Ghostface doesn’t floss like that anymore. When he descends from his hotel room in a utilitarian outfit of jeans, a backwards bright red baseball hat, Nikes the color of Elmer’s glue, and one T-shirt layered over another long-sleeve joint, the only flourishes are a white hand towel hanging out of his back pocket and another draped over his shoulder. Hell, Ghost doesn’t even put “Killah” at the end of his name that much these days.

Ghostface is in Los Angeles for the third part of a four day California trip doing radio interviews, retail walk-thrus and club runs in preparation for his fifth solo album, Fishscale. The underlying message of the mission is this: play my songs, put me in rotation, promote my record, support my music, help me sell millions…thank you. Fishscale is Ghostface’s second album for Def Jam and his first during the Jay-Z administration. It also comes ten years after his solo debut Iron Man and nine since the Wu-Tang Clan’s double-stuffed Forever—one of the most anticipated albums of the ’90s. Things are different now, a fact that Ghostface is well aware of. At today’s first stop during an interview for the syndicated Wake Up Show he tells host King Tech, “A lot has changed. The music changed. The streets changed. Even the minds of the people changed.”

But it wasn’t always like this. Back in 1993, the Wu-Tang Clan, a collection of nine MCs from Staten Island’s Park Hill and Stapleton projects, were hip-hop’s most promising talent pool. Though Ghostface Killah murdered the first verse with a glock burst on the first song from the group’s debut Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), he didn’t really begin cultivating his own persona until Raekwon’s 1995 solo project Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…, where Ghost appeared as Tony Starks, the impatient wingman to the always scheming Rae. Over time Ghost developed into a fly psychedelic bully who moved easily between street corners and luxury suites, boasting on Iron Man’s “Daytona 500” of “forever pissing out the window on turnpikes” before dropping the concept of slapboxing with Jesus just a few bars later. Over time he proved himself to be a gifted comedian who didn’t just nail punchlines to prove that he was a clever wordsmith. Instead he became an absurd situationist who pictured himself “at the opera, Queen Elizabeth rubbing my leg, had ketchup on her dress from a Whopper.”

Yet what most differentiated Ghost from not just his Wu compatriots, but from other rappers in general, was an honesty that could manifest itself as intense vulnerability. He wasn’t made of armor and couldn’t catch bullets in his teeth. On the Wu-Tang’s “I Can’t Go To Sleep” he started crying on the track as he told of raped black women and babies with flies on their faces. While most of the Clan now hover at a space just above the underground, Ghost released all his follow-ups—Supreme Clientele, Bulletproof Wallets and The Pretty Toney Album—on major labels and a more complex figure has emerged. He admits that not every deal went down right, that girls dog him just as much he dogs them out, that he is going bald on top, that he mourns the death of another MC because he was a leader and a human not just “the greatest rapper of all time,” that he worries if he is still relevant.

After the brief pre-recorded Wake Up Show pit stop, Ghostface gets in the backseat of a rented SUV and heads towards two radio stations in Oxnard, the apparent hip-hop mecca of Ventura County, for more on-air interviews and digital photo opportunities. In person Ghostface is gracious and reserved, only getting animated when something female and under thirty passes through his sight lines. For the duration of the hour long ride Ghost listens to his own heavily-guarded, unmastered copy of Fishscale. Two months until its release date, it’s not quite done yet. Among other things, he still needs Method Man and the GZA to join the rest of the Clan and lay down their verses for “Wu Joint”. While Raekwon appears on several songs—as Ghost will reciprocate for the upcoming Only Built 4 Cuban Linx 2—this is his second consecutive album without beats from Wu-Tang production architect RZA or any of his pupils. Of this situation Ghostface says, “Listen, I’m a grown man. I can get beats from Tom and Jerry if I want to. You ain’t always got to have a Wu beat or this and that and the third. I’m exploring right now. I’m growing.”

Two obvious talking points for Fishscale are Ghost’s relationship with his new boss Jay-Z, and the record’s roster of indie hip-hop hero producers that includes MF Doom, Pete Rock and the recently departed J Dilla. I question him about both and don’t get very far with either. He says he met with Jay-Z briefly before he started recording and explains Hova’s response once he turned most of it in as such: “He went through it, he respected it, and that’s what it was.” When I ask him about the making of the Dilla-produced “Whip You With A Strap”—where Ghost fondly remembers his beatings-filled childhood—and whether he had specifically requested a track to reminisce over, Ghost dashes any illusions of in-the-lab Marvel Team-Up, explaining, “First of all, I never met J Dilla. I got it from my man Plain Pat who’s my A&R at Def Jam. His job is to find the artists beats. He brought me the CD. One day I happened to sit down and go through songs and I found that beat on there.”

When Ghostface first began publicly talking about Fishscale he promised it’d be a return to “that cocaine shit,” referencing the subgenre of drug rap that he and Raekwon redefined with Cuban Linx. On that album they detailed a modern mobster lifestyle built on Pyrex and politicking—over a decade later people are still imitating it. After street single “Be Easy”, the second track from Fishscale to make the rounds to DJs and on the internet was the bopping funk of “Kilo”, a song built around a sample from a 1970s educational record about the metric system where a clueless chorus of backup signers chirp, All around the world today the kilo is the measure/ A kilo is one thousand grams, easy to remember. On it Ghost and Raekwon reunite to let listeners know they’re still cooking, packing, selling—even sniffing—the raw. The track ends with Rae furiously calling off the names of a crayon box full of colored crack vials: red tops, blue tops, green tops, yellow tops, purple tops, beige tops…

While “Kilo” reestablishes Ghost’s mastery of this realm, he warns others of recycling its played out trappings. “I don’t want to hear everybody doing this or doing that or how many kids they’ve done killed. Ain’t nobody killing shit, G,” he says. “Why you ain’t locked up? Is you a snitch nigga? I watch Forensic Files on Court TV almost every night and them niggas be solving the craziest murders in fucking life, and you’re still a killer walking the streets?” Taking his own advice, Fishscale illuminates other aspects of the dealer lifestyle with Ghost often not looking like the biggest don on the block, much less the country. “Crackspot” finds Tony spilling the frosted flakes and causing a late night ruckus with a bunch of dope fiends as they watch a Honeymooners marathon together, and on the self-produced “Big Girl” he hijacks an R&B oldies staple by the Stylistics for a tale of getting coked out at the club with a pair of young chicks with burnt nose hairs. In the first half, Ghost puts his mack down hard and transparently, asking the two “if they buff helmets.” While other rappers, or even Ghost in earlier years, would probably have finished the story by getting filthy with both ladies at the same time, the song instead takes an unexpected turn as Ghost gets parental. Declaring himself a “father figure,” he counsels the two to put down the white, to get married, maybe become librarians—a decision that would leave him alone, another creepy older dude with a long finger nail posted up at the bar. The meaning of Ghostface’s rhymes are often obscured by his out-of-nowhere references and a peculiar wordplay that some have mislabeled as gibberish.

While he rode this style hard on Supreme Clientele, it appears again on Fishscale in the heavy metal “Clips Of Doom”, starting with some jive talk about lamping in “a ’80s drop, old school Mercedes with a brand new baby glock right from a lady’s sock” before reaching the second verse where he unfurls the fury of That’s when the block was like wallpaper/ Love sticking niggas like crazy glue/ Blackouts happened/ God forbid don’t be around/ Bag lady’ll merk you and be let off in the next town/ She struck two times/ Get caught, good luck, blood/ It ain’t no Heinz/ Throw a hockey puck hole in the back of your spine/ She put two cutter mirrors in replace for your eyes/ So when the cops look they see theyselves/ They all gonna die.

Often the narrative of Ghost’s street tales are harder to follow than surreal visions like “Underwater” where a mermaid with Halle Berry hair takes him on a deep sea adventure to find pirate treasure, Sponge Bob in a Bentley and a lost Muslim city. I used to think Ghost’s vocabulary and detail-heavy style was a way to throw off imitators, the lyrical equivalent to the old school legend of Afrika Bambaataa submerging his records in the bathtub to peel off their labels—the sharks won’t bite if they didn’t know what they were eating. But as I try to engage Ghost on the whys of his writing process it becomes apparent that he doesn’t have a deeper personal reasoning behind many of his choices. And if he does, he doesn’t want to go into it. “I’m versatile, so however the beat makes me go on it, that’s just what it do,” Ghost deflects. “You know how when people be killing motherfuckers they be like, ‘The devil made me do it?’ It’s like, the beat made me do it.” Though he does allow, “My mind is crazy, you know what I mean? It’s crazy, G. But it’s all good though.”

One decision Ghost will expound on though is his choice to stop smoking weed two and a half years ago and its effect on Fishscale. Though he says that getting high used to compel him to write rhymes, he now has to motivate himself to perfect his craft. Still, he believes the benefits on his mental and physical state are worth it. “It had me forgetting too much and it was making me lazy,” he says. “You’ve got to fuck around and chill when you hit around like 30, because all them toxins that’s in your body from that shit. And a lot of us ain’t active. I don’t be playing basketball and all that shit. That’s why niggas be coming up with cancer and this and that. You’ve got to let them toxins out. They cause diseases.”

A recurring motif of Ghostface music is an indulgence in nostalgia, often talking about ’88—his beloved era of Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, Biz Markie and Slick Rick. In interviews Ghostface has also started mentioning ’94, the time of Cuban Linx that he considers his prime. After I bungle a question about what period of his life he misses the most—to which Ghost first looks at me like he has no idea what I’m talking about, then tells me so—I ask where he’d like to see himself in ten years. “I want to see myself as being the king of this, the king of music, man, and everything I lay my hands on,” he says. “I want to see myself ten years from now about to start something real big—a movement, a righteous movement. Regardless if it’s saving the children or whatever, I just want to give myself to God crazily. I’m not saying turn into a reverend and all that, but show Him, Thank you for everything you’ve done for me. At the same time, still doing what I do, ’cause I know I can still write music. But this time it’s going to be grown man music. Fuck all that slinging crack shit. I got to write music for the world.”

It’s already been documented that part of the reason Jay-Z attained his king status is that he established the career path most young rappers now want to follow: flood the streets with a quality product, build a demand, diversify your revenue streams, then dip out and get a position telling other people what to do before anyone can say you fell off. So these days, hearing Ghost’s vision of himself after over 20 years in the game—where fulfilling a higher purpose and still dominating rap are priorities—is uncommon, if not unheard of.

Following his retirement from making albums in 2003, Jay released Fade To Black, a film based around his “farewell” concert at Madison Square Garden. It was a performance that aspired for professionalism and showmanship, but Jay-Z’s need to keep cool prevented any real drama from unfolding besides two handfuls of guest appearances. Last year Ghost attached his name to Put It On The Line, an album that was originally intended as a solo project for Trife Da God, a member of Ghost’s own Theodore Unit. Included in the package was a DVD of a Ghostface show from that October at BB Kings in New York City. The footage illustrates why there are very few hip-hop concert films: there are too many guys onstage, too many of them are holding microphones and Ghostface has to constantly yell just to be heard over the music. But midway through the set he reaches “Holla” from The Pretty Toney Album, a song that is basically him commandeering the microphone at the karaoke bar as the Delphonics’ “La La Means I Love You” plays. Bathed in blue light and backed by his whole crew howling the chorus along with him, the scene becomes briefly, chaotically, perfect. And Ghostface sweats buckets.

Ghostface Killah: The Balladeer