Ghostface Killah Says "Illmatic" Made Him "Step His Pen Game Up"
Exclusive: Ghostface Killah recalls his formative years and how battles with the Wu-Tang Clan and other peers in Hip Hop have influenced him.
When Ghostface Killah was 13, he discovered that he had been struggling. More than that, he discovered that his family had been struggling. His father was absent. Two of his brothers suffered from muscular dystrophy. They were in wheelchairs. He helped them as much as he could as the oldest sibling in the home. When they needed assistance, he was there. When they went to the bathroom, he helped to pick them up, lifting them from their wheelchairs and then lifting them back into their chairs when they were finished. With 12 other relatives in the apartment, Ghost found peace through music despite some of these struggles.
Within those walls, he was inspired by the sounds he heard. The man the Rap world knows as Ghostface Killah grew up Dennis Coles, being influenced by Soul, hearing classics at parties before having to leave the living room where smoke and laughter filled the air. It was there that he heard legends blasting through speakers, stirring his young music-loving mind.
“I remember being inspired by the greats,” he says, thinking back to his early days in that apartment with his family, reminiscing about his introduction to the beauty of music. “New Birth, Bloodstone singin’, ‘Natural High,’ The Stylistics’ ‘Blue Magic’ and all that. All the greats…you know what I’m sayin? That was first before anything. I remember being a little dude having to leave the living room when there were a lot of people involved. They were drinkin’ and smokin’. That was my first whatchamacallit, when I was small.”
When Ghost speaks of his first “whatchamacallit” with music, he’s speaking about his first memory of lyrics and instrumentation. Eventually, young Coles found an outlet in his own words, in his own music. He grabbed a pen and put it to paper, crafting modest rhymes of a youth before improving his skill set with time.
“It was simple,” he admits. “It wasn’t really that powerful. Everything was real large at that time, though. It was all good, because I graduated from there. I went to the next one and went to the next one. I never stopped after that. I just kept goin’ and goin’.”
While he found solace in music, he still had struggles to overcome. Soon, stealing and robbing landed him in prison. Only in his mid-teens, Ghost was incarcerated. That’s when he discovered that he had to make a difference in his own life before he could influence the Hip Hop world. He may or may not have known this then, but he eventually grew out of that struggle to leave an imprint on the culture.
Ghostface Killah Recalls Battling Wu-Tang Clan Members
After his release from jail, Ghost joined RZA, GZA, Method Man, Raekwon, Inspectah Deck, U-God and Ol’ Dirty Bastard to form the now iconic Wu-Tang Clan. Together, they made a difference in the Rap world, garnering critical praise for Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), the group’s celebrated debut album in November 1993. The album was a resounding dose of Staten Island flavor and Ghostface’s voice was the first one heard on the project. Twenty years later, many still refer to 36 Chambers as an essential piece of the Hip Hop puzzle, an album that is often cited as one of the greatest releases in the genre’s history.
Going back though, it’s always important to remember that this isn’t merely a legendary group for Ghostface Killah. With fans, the thought of Wu may bring up thoughts of classic songs, performances or music videos featuring bees. But for Ghost, the thought of Wu relays back memories of friendships he had when he was younger, good times he can recall with joy. Ask him about Wu-Tang’s early days and you can nearly sense a smile form in his tone.
“When the Wu first started, it was fresh to us,” he says, gearing up for a show two decades after the group’s first release. “You had all the members. It was all different characters. It was a tight unit, and everybody was hilarious.”
Imagine a young Wu-Tang riding around the nation on tour. Envision the ruckus. Picture the environment on the road. Ask Ghost to do the same, and he’ll explain that the ruckus was present, but there were also plenty of jokes thrown around and plenty of fun times too.
“Niggas is funny mothafuckas, yo,” Ghost added. “A lot of those times, we were just laughin’ and snappin’.” He recalls jokes so great that he’d dare any crew to challenge the Wu. “If anybody wanna to snap against Wu-Tang Clan, man, you’re gonna be in for some shit. Meth, Rae U-God and even RZA, niggas is funny mothafuckas.”
In fact, the snaps were a part of the group before they even formed. As Ghost explained, several members of the group were involved in a Battle Rap event prior to becoming friends or group mates. At the event, they had to square off against each other and battle. A drug dealer put money up for the winning emcee. Guys decided to join on their own accord, never knowing how much closer they’d become after that evening.
“Me, Cappadonna, Rae, RZA, Meth, Genius [GZA], Ol’ Dirty and U-God, I remember one time we battled each other before we was Wu-Tang Clan,” Ghost shares, reminding himself of their battle at a New York nightclub. “Cap had fucked around and won the money, because he said the drug dealer’s name that had put the money up for the Rap battle. He had his name in the rhyme, and the crowd just went fuckin’ bananas when Cap said the dude’s name! He stepped off with the money though. But I never knew that one day we would become those members from Staten Island, that we’d be in one group…it was definitely crazy. It was really, really crazy.”
He understands those days are gone, however. “You’ll never get it back, though. With Ol’ Dirty Bastard [gone], you’ll never get those days back.” Still, the group made headlines this year when they promised to have ODB on stage with them via virtual performance. So this year, Ghost will rejoin his Wu brethren for a series of shows (and snaps, perhaps). Their most talked about shows will likely be those Rock the Bells summer nights where the Wu will feature virtual performances of ODB. It may not be the same as it was, but it’s certainly an evolution and a change which has kept Wu-Tang in front of adoring fans and headlines. With this news, clothing deals and movie projects lined up to tell their story, the legend of the Wu continues after 20 years and it’s proving to be strong in 2013.
Ghostface Killah Shares Inspiration Behind “Twelve Reasons To Die”
As the legend of the Wu continues, the legend of Ghostface also evolves. Twenty years ago, he introduced us to a “masked” emcee as we caught “the blast of a hype verse.” Today, Ghostface remains a strong presence in the genre’s conversation. Recently, he teamed up with Adrian Younge to release the critically acclaimed Twelve Reasons To Die album. Yes, 20 years later, he’s still leaving his mark on the culture.
Speaking about his latest release, Ghost explains that he found it easy to create an album with Younge because of the instrumentation that was provided.
“When I first heard the beats that [Adrian Younge] gave me to write, it was straight up my alley. That’s where inspiration came from. It came from there. It came from the beats. It’s almost like how RZA does his music, but it was being played live. You understand what I’m sayin’? That’s what it was. So, when I heard it, it just took me back to those times [working with RZA], and I was like, ‘Oh shit…okay! These are those types of beats that I’m usually ill with and glidin’ on, that I glide on and shit.’ That was it. I just did what I had to do.”
And while it’s apparent that Ghost did what he had to, they had to do it all without meeting face-to-face. The two never found enough time to really meet and work together, according to Ghost.
“I was movin’ around too much,” he says nonchalantly. “I just did what I had to do and kept going [on tour] through all these other places.”
In an interview with HipHopDX, Younge shared how this was a bit challenging, making him even wonder if Ghost had heard the whole album at one point.
“I hadn’t spoken with Ghost,” Younge noted. “All we did was correspond via e-mail and all that stuff, because I just gave him a script. [At one point] I didn’t know if he’d heard the whole album. But, in speaking with his manager, he was tripping out about it, and he said Ghost is tripping out about it too.”
Face-to-face or not, together, they created an album that stands as a testament to the fact that Ghost continues to be inspired, much like the child who was kicked out of lively parties in his home at an early age. Long after crafting those “simple” rhymes he started with, he’s still impressing listeners with his words. As HipHopDX’s Edwin Ortiz expressed in a review of the album, “his lyrical disposition is as focused as it ever was.” Twenty years later, he’s still focused, inspired and inspiring.
Ghostface Killah On Comic Books & Tony Starks/Iron Man Nicknames
Perhaps part of his longevity comes from constant reinvention. Over the years, Ghostface Killah has been known by several names. Among those, “Wally Champ,” “Pretty Toney,” “Sun God” and “Ghostdini” have been some of the more common pseudonyms he’s taken. However, his best-known nicknames might just be “Iron Man” and “Tony Starks.” This has created an aura of comic book mystique surrounding Ghost’s work. He’s even said that he’s hoped to make his own comic book one day—a dream he’s gotten to accomplish.
“That is something that I always wanted to do,” Ghost recently said, talking about Twelve Reasons To Die. “But I just didn’t know who to go with to help me do it.”
Twelve Reasons To Die was yet another reinvention, because it allowed Ghost to tell the story of Tony Starks in a comic book by the same name. The comic book, penned by Matthew Rosenberg and Patrick Kindlon, is now tied to the album’s content.
“It’s crazy,” Ghost has said, as we reported in early May. “It’s beautiful.”
But speaking with HipHopDX for this interview, Ghost explained that his nickname didn’t actually come from comic books at all. In fact, he shared a different take on comics altogether.
“I’m not a big comic book fan,” he acknowledged before explaining the story behind his Tony Starks nickname. “One of my cousins had mad comic books. There were characters I liked. I liked The Thing. I liked Thor. But they were just comic books. You know? But the name Tony Starks came into play…everybody thought it was that, but it was just that me and Rae was choppin’ one time. I had this shirt and we was slang masters. Our slang was just off the meat rack. So, once I put that shirt on, I just came with Tony Starks. The shirt made me say somethin’ like, ‘This shirt is Tony Starks right here.’ So, since everything became so much Tony Starks, Iron Man was right there because they’re the same thing. So, that’s what it was. It wasn’t like, ‘Oh shit!’ Like, I was just a comic book fanatic, and then I just took my name and ran with it. Nah, it wasn’t like that.”
Regardless of the origin, comic books have become a quintessential element in his work. Perhaps a perfect example comes with the storytelling on Twelve Reasons To Die. His lyrics are as vivid as they’ve ever been, explaining the story of the comic with the creative and twisted perspective fans have grown accustomed to hearing from Ghost’s rhymes. Zig-zagging through the story, Ghost shows that his rhymes are far from simple.
From the start, explaining Starks’ vengeful disposition (“Revenge / All I see is blood in my eyes / Like the rise of your worst nightmare come alive…”) to his remorseful thoughts (My lost niggas, I miss them / This new power and wisdom / Got me thinkin’ / I’ve made a whole lot of bad decisions…”), Ghostface channels emotions while weaving through a concept album with a sharp sword and an eye for detail. That sense of storytelling may not come from comic books, but it was definitely influenced by other emcees.
How Rakim, Slick Rick & Nas’ “Illmatic” Influenced Ghostface Killah
While known as one of the best storytellers in Hip Hop by many, Ghost is quick to give love to other rhymers.
“You got Rakim’s ‘Follow the Leader.’ You’ve got Slick Rick’s ‘Hey Young World.’ You’ve got Melle Mel’s ‘The Message.’ You’ve got your handful out there. Those stories of those artists I just named, they’re greats,” he says. However, Ghost is also quick to say he was more inspired by Adrian Younge’s beats than any emcee’s rhymes for Twelve Reasons To Die.
“I just love good music,” he explains. “Good music inspires me to write. If I hear a beat and it’s bangin’, I want to go grab a pen and a piece of paper. I could feel me catching lines in my head. Good music with ill beats or whatever it might be, somethin’ real funky, that inspires me to do what I do.”
Ghost continues, saying he hasn’t found too much inspiration from younger emcees today, so he relied on Younge’s production for Twelve Reasons. However, he did recall being influenced by Nas’s Illmatic when it was released in 1994.
“When I used to listen to Nas back in the days, it was like, ‘Oh shit! He murdered that.’ That forced me to get my pen game up and like, ‘How can I try to catch it how this nigga’s catchin’ it?’ It’s just things like that. You know?”
When asked to elaborate, Ghost explained how much Illmatic meant to him and how much it influenced his rhymes on future projects.
“The whole fuckin’ Illmatic album! The whole Illmatic album forced you to go ahead and do shit,” Ghostface added. “You know, you jump on [1995’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx...] after, and you fuck around like, ‘Oh shit!’ You just try to throw your darts around. It was inspiration. He dropped that second album [1996’s It Was Written]. That shit was murder too…things of that nature.”
Aside from Nas, Ghost also found inspiration within his crew, looking at Wu-Tang Clan members for “darts” he could be inspired by.
“The Genius [GZA] had a nice one on me with his first album, [1995’s] Liquid Swords. It was just…everything was dart masters! The Clan…niggas had it. Everything was just like, it was nothin’ but ill rhymes comin’. Nobody, I don’t care who it is in the game at the time. Back then, nobody could’ve never came in and fucked with us. Nobody.”
Much like others have inspired him, Ghost has inspired a generation of rhyme writers. This has certainly not been an easy journey, as shown through those obstacles he faced in a poverty-stricken apartment building or the responsibilities bestowed upon him at a young age, or the jail stint through his teens. But it has all created a strong emcee, one that is still showing resilience today. In order to understand Ghost’s current perseverance and strength, it is vital to understand his early struggles. RZA once wrote about a story that perhaps illustrates this strength quite well.
“I remember a concert at the Harlem Armory in uptown Manhattan,” he shared in The Wu-Tang Manual. “The knights of The Wu were there to perform with other Rap crews when a fight broke out. People were fighting onstage, backstage, everywhere. It was just one of those days, when the whole place is fighting. People are swinging and kicking. Coca-Cola cans are flying fast as bullets, hitting people in the head. It was chaos. In the center of it, you see one man. There he is. Pants down to his knees. Two guys on one arm. Two guys on another arm. Two guys on his legs. He’s throwing arms, pushing through—he’s just unstoppable. Ghostface. He was like The Thing. Just throwing niggas!”
To some extent, the Rap game has been similar for Ghost, a fight full of chaos. In the center of it, one man with many names and many styles, showing his strength and perseverance despite obstacles he’s faced with his group, against his group or as a solo artist. As RZA explained in The Manual, “Ghostface is super strong. He was back then and he still is.” The struggle built that strength and through 20 years of experience, hardship and triumph, the Ghostface Killah has continued to show that strength. The saga continues.