With no lack of talent among the squillion members and affiliates of the Wu-Tang Clan, the most important rap group of the ‘90s, and to this day still one of the most original movements in hip-hop, Dennis Coles aka Ghostface Killah has received acclaim as the most creative and successful MC of the whole damn crew. He held down his masked self on the Wu’s debut in 1993, and was the first rapper to cry on tape for the group’s overblown second album, a double CD that almost killed the hype thanks to the group’s commitment to the chorus and hook-free MC-based old school style. Ghostface’s first record, Ironman, was relatively slept on (compared to Method Man’s Tical), but his supporting role on Raekwon’s debut, Only Built for Cuban Linx, assured that his status as a master storyteller would be acknowledged. Rae and Ghostface were so well-suited as a duo that nostalgia for those “good ol’ days, good ol’ days” has kept Rae’s fans waiting for a sequel (due next month), while propelling Ghostface into the spotlight. His second record, Supreme Clientele, is considered one of the greatest rap records ever made, influencing everyone from Kanye West to MF Doom.
While most critics suggest that Ghostface is the strongest member of the Wu today, the writing was on the wall during that tough period when the underappreciated Bulletproof Wallets came out. Despite the lack of attention to that album, he had the respect of the industry. Enough so that he left his label Epic for the greatest hip-hop label on earth: Def Jam. And while the rest of the Wu was suffering from a lack of interest even while the albums remained strong, Ghostface was somehow gaining a major second wind. In 2004, he released The Pretty Toney Album, his second masterpiece, a record with so much energy and flavor that it stands as a true classic. Ghostface just released his fifth album, Fishcale, and if anyone thought Ghost’s creativity was at its peak with Pretty Toney, one listen will confirm what his true fans have known all along: Ghostface Killah is the best MC in America.
You have like 16 albums coming out this soon, right? You’ve got your solo record, and the thing with MF Doom…
Yeah. It’s a bunch of stuff coming. Yup.
When do you want to have the MF Doom collaboration out?
It’s like, whenever. Fuck, they can shop it back to back. You know, it just goes out there.
What was it like doing that with Doom?
It was cool. I mean, Doom makes real good beats. I did a lot, like five-six songs for him. That was real nice there.
You know that your fans have been wanting to hear that collaboration for a while now.
Doom got a lot of underground fans who are real loyal to him, and they been waiting for a real Metal Face meets Ghostface.
What’s the situation in rap right now? Are you happy with the scene the way things are?
You know, rap is rap. Everything takes time. Things change for whatever reason. I think it’ll evolve into something else. Right now, the South got it. They doing real good with it right now. They getting paid off of it, and they on top. But that’s gonna calm down. And maybe it’ll come right back to where it originated from. Because I guess it already hit everywhere else inside the US. From the West Coast, to the Midwest and Master P’s area and all that stuff. It’s still cool though.
The South has a completely different lyrical style. The kind of lyrics you write, taking your time, coming up with original lines, is a lot different. Do feel you represent a different style from the guys who are talking about changing lanes and drinking the drank and making money? No offense to the South, but it’s kind of the same story over and over again, and you’re always change it up a bit.
I mean, I’m an artist, you know what I mean? I’m a real poet. When I write music I like to do different things. I don’t like to stay on one subject. I like to change my flow, go here and here, just to test it. I’m not saying everything I do comes out right. That’s just what I like to do. But that’s just what it is right now. A lot of people like the South stuff. Hip-hop is universal so you cannot just say one thing is wack.
I agree. It’s just with your tracks I want to listen to them three-four times in a row just to understand all the things you’re saying in your rhymes. I don’t know, whenever I go into Wendy’s now I think of that line you came up with for the track “The Drummer” off the first 718 mixtape: “When Biggie died, they came out with Biggie fries.”
Right. They did.
Yeah, I know. You think that really was a tribute to him?
I don’t know. But when he passed away, they did come out with Biggie fries .
I thought that was maybe the best tribute you could have written.
Right. That was crazy right there. But you know we miss him like that, though.
Do you spend a lot of time writing, do you work on your lyrics a lot, or how much is it freestyle?
I don’t write as much as I used to. I’m not really that settled, Jack. When I’m just comfortable and can really sit down and write all day, then I will do that. Right now I’m just too busy running around doing this, doing that. I write when I have to write. Instead of just doing it when I want to do it.
So what do you do? Do you go into the studio and just start rapping after hearing the tracks? What’s the way you do it these days?
You know, I go to the crib, you know what I mean, and I put the box on, and put the CD in. You know what I mean, just right there. I don’t write that much in the studio. I don’t like to feel like I’m rushing. Sometimes with me, I’m a slow writer. I don’t write as fast as everybody else.
But it shows. Your words are carefully chosen.
Yeah, sometimes. It depends on the state of mind I’m in. Sometimes I might overthink it. And other times I really did think about a lot of stuff. Yeah so, it shows. Everything do come out, like, banging banging. It’s like back in the day, playing basketball. Sometimes your jump shot is on, sometimes it’s off.
And either way, you just keep doing it.
What are you looking for in beats these days? You’re still really loving the samples?
Yeah, I love samples. I like fly samples. I like even music that’s just music. That sounds real clear and loud and just sounds chunky. I love music like that. I love a lot of old school. Real real real old old old samples that just sound real fly. I love those. They been the best to me.
Do you sometimes wish you were from that time? Or do you just like using the music from back then?
Sometimes I wish I was. And been a singer rather than a rapper. Sometimes I’d rather have been a live singer from back then, getting busy.
Do you come from a musical family?
My mother does sing like that. She never made no records or nothing like that. But she used to have them old, old records and have little parties at the house and play that. And from me growing up, that’s what I always loved. Lot of kids nowadays, they parents don’t play that type of music. They listen to the radio, but they don’t really know the soul. They might not even understand the music I make. And if they do, the soul is in them, but it might not have been brought out of them, you know what I mean?
How old were you when you started rapping?
I really started writing down rhymes when I was fifteen. Back in ‘85, yeah. But I loved rap before that. I never really wrote nothing but I might rap a little off the top of my head, but I was little then.
Is that when you started to hang out with the rest of the guys from the Wu-Tang Clan?
This was before that. We probably met up around ‘87, ‘88. But then in ‘92, that’s when we all came together for real.
I remember. Those were big days for hip-hop. Wu-Tang really changed things. But still a newer track like “Run”, from Pretty Toney, is just as important a track for you.
That describes what goes on in the hood, though. You gotta run. You see if it’s the cops, or handling people nowadays, sometimes you gotta be out—before niggas come and claim something on you, or shoot you in the back. You gotta bounce on them and shit, especially if you’re dirty. You can’t be around, you gotta just bounce.
Do you feel a responsibility to give advice to people who are going through what you’ve been through.
These are streets right here, man. Especially coming from the hood. And being raised in the streets. I watch out for everything, you know what I mean, and shit like that. Me being in the streets made me the person who I am right now. In a way, I’m kinda glad I went through what I went through. ‘Cause I see things from a 360-degree angle, not just one angle. I had a chance to be around thugs and street people, and the corporate side of things. And other countries and other cities. I look at everything as it really is, not just what it appears to be. And I’m thankful for me going through what I had to go through. I probably wouldn’t have met the dudes I met. My staying power would have been a lot different. My flow would have been a lot different. For every action there’s a reaction. But for the people out there, just hold your head up, and keep your eyes open. Have faith in whatever you do, and have faith in God first. Always put God first. Always kick it with him. Whether it’s praying or having a talk with him.
Were you always religious?
I always loved God. I had my times when it felt like: “Yo, what’s going on, is it really real?” But the other side of me was always like, there’s a creator who’s inside everything. And I had to submit. You gotta submit to the will of God. He’s the creator. He gave you life. With His power, He said, “Let it be,” and it was. In very few words. He didn’t have to explain it to nobody or nothing. You always going to have to bow down. That’s what we gotta do nowadays. We leave him out of our minds, and we wake up in the morning without even giving praise, and going to bed at night without even giving praise. We the ones wrecking apart ourselves. He allows you to wake up. And he got a death date for you, too. We gotta stop being like we don’t know what’s going on. So blind to the fact. We should be more conscious of the creator. Just because I got to eat today, I fed myself, but that had to come from somewhere. I never forget those little things. You can cross the street and not get hit by a bus or a car, but you ain’t the one who did it. It’s like yo: It was angels who was protecting you. You made it across the street, or had a safe flight or whatever whatever. What I’m trying to say, it’s not you. Whatever you do, you live his talent. This shit is a God-given talent. But look at that. Sounds silly, but naw, nigga, it’s GOD-GIVEN TALENT. You feel me? I look into the depths of things. My eye is open to a lot of things. That’s Ghostface, that’s the person I am right now. I think people need to be more conscious of their surroundings and their beings and their thinking, know what I mean?
I’ve heard you do a bit of humanitarian work in Africa. Are you still doing that?
Yeah, I send money out there every month to feed the babies. Make sure they eat every month. That’s just me doing my time. I’m a servant for God. That’s my duty. He gave me life. If I can’t do nothing for Him in return, I’m a sucker then. Not worth even being born if I’m not respecting my creator. I don’t do that then I’m not respecting even the power that gave me the money to go out and do what I do. It’s not about me. If it was about me, I could care less. It’s my family and the people that surround me, G. And that’s what I’m here for. Everything else above that is just gravy.
Sometimes with the language in rap music, people might think it was ungodlike. What do you think drives the language in rap music?
Music right now is like the devil. Everything you hear inside there is negative.
But you have to be part of that negativity.
Yeah, to go ahead and make some money, and try to sell some of the fucking records and feed your babies. Because once you start acting like you coming with something real real shit ... look, I know what I’m doing. I can write the most dangerous song, and ask God for forgiveness. Because I don’t really want to do that, but that’s how I got to survive right now.
It’s also representing a reality for many people.
Right. I been through what I been through. A lot of niggas talk that gun shit, but niggas ain’t out there doing that. Because you know what? If you was still selling a bunch of drugs and doing that, you would have been got locked up, nigga. A lot of niggas who was doing that, are in jail. Or they smart about it. It still goes down in the hood. Niggas still getting money, but it ain’t like what it used to be back in the eighties when I was getting money.
The game changed, G. More cops ... after Guliani, when he came in, he smashed a lot of shit up. That’s how it is right now. That’s why niggas got to go out of state to get their money.
You’re not living in Staten Island anymore?
Naw, I live wherever I leave my hat. I really don’t got a home. I live on the streets, man.
I remember seeing you in the Scarface DVD documentary, and it looked like you were in Miami when they filmed that.
Yeah, I think I was.
You still have a place down there?
Yeah. Still out there. I’m everywhere, you know what I mean. I could be in the garbage. Word. Sometimes you gotta go back there and struggle. I’m a servant, you know. I work for the hereafter. This world right here don’t mean nothing to me.
You’ve got a lot to do in this world before you leave.
Of course. So that’s what I’m working for. This is just a trial. People don’t really understand that this is not really the real world. This is the imitation world. This is the illusional world. This world determines how you gonna live in the hereafter. After God take your life. As much shit as you done did here, foul shit, that’s gonna be held against you in the court of law on the judgement day.
What are you most trying to avoid in this life then?
The devil, man. Just try to walk a straight path. God knows the heart of all people. Even if you can’t do what you feel, you’re still accountable as if you did it, because that was your intentions. If you could just stay away from negative things, and walk the straight path, and try to please Him as much as you can by trying to take care of people who don’t have, feeding them, giving them food and shelter. Praying every day. He loves things like that. And not falling victim. So if I could just do that, and take care of my health: I’m good. Yeah, I’m good. Take care of my kids. I say, “God give me whatever you got to give me. Let me be your servant. Use me as a tool.” So that’s where my mind is at. As opposed to ‘95 when I was out there beating a lot of rappers up and punching them in they faces. Time had to change. You can’t always get stuck in that thing, because I know if I kept going in that route, I could have got seriously hurt.
Rap is not always a game, really.
Of course. Niggas get killed. And once somebody fears you, they’re liable to do anything to you. You might do something to somebody, it might be two years and it comes right back on you, but you done forgot where it came from and what you had did. I didn’t want to wind up dead, or in jail, and stuff like that. Plus I’m a grown man. How long you going to keep doing the shit you doing and you’re a grown man with kids? It’s like come on, nigga, you can’t do that no more.
You feel like you’ve grown up a lot?
Because of my beliefs, man, and my faith. I can’t stay a kid forever. I can hang around them. But I got responsibilities. I can’t do what you do. I gotta do what I do. If I had no responsibilities and I was young, aight, then I could move a different way, like when I was 25 or 23 and all the other shit like that. I can’t do that. Those years are left and gone. And that’s it.
But when you’re on a track, you’re ageless. How do you keep up that creative energy while your life changes?
I keep around me a lot of young people. You must. That’s the only thing that’s going to keep your sword sharp. You must go back, because the power is in them. You gotta go ahead and listen to them and hear how they coming, and that’s what keeps my youth.
That’s why you’re hanging out with Trife and the rest of the Thedore Unit.
I gotta do that. They’re my reflection. They’re my youth. I gotta go back and look at them. I must look at them and learn from them. Who says that I can’t learn from them? Like father, like son. It’s like, yo, the same shit. That’s what keeps you out there. I don’t want to become an old-school rapper, where it’s like: “Oh, shit, he lost his flow completely.” Some other rappers I know, it was like they was nice, it was mega-nice back then. But I want to still be the greatest rapper today.
What’s happening with your biography? I heard there was going to be a biography of you called Iron Man.
I don’t even know. I heard about that. Right now I know as much as you know.
And what about the movie? I heard you were making a movie.
Yeah, that’s still in process. We should maybe start filming at the end of this year.
You’re writing screenplays.
Yeah, you know. It’s another way to stay creative.
Before I let you go, I really want to know where you got that crazy gold eagle you wear on your arm sometimes?
That was a bird right there. That was a crazy eagle I had somebody make for me. It’s a bangle. A really big big bangle. I’m into big bangles. I always like big chunky jewelry. That’s my character. I like big chains and all the other stuff like that.
It’s a great piece.
Thank you so much, G.
// Notes from the Road
"We’re coming to see HEALTH for the experience, for the kind of intense musical attack that leaves one needing a stiff drink...READ the article