Rapper(s) of the Decade is a mixtape series curated by myself that will span 2010. In theory, each month I'll be dedicating a mixtape to the 12 Rappers and Groups I felt proved most instrumental in shaping the last decade in Hip Hop in no particular order. May's installment belongs to The Ghost.
Download: Original Stylin
The History of Hip Hop is littered with iconic, game changing couplets. Sadly, I fear one in danger of slipping through the cracks is “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious/Docialiexpilisticfragicalisuper/ Cancun, catch me in the room eating Grouper.” That gem comes courtesy of Stapleton’s own Dennis Coles AKA The Ghostface Killah, AKA Ironman, AKA Tony Stark, AKA Pretty Toney AKA Ghostdini the Great. It comes out of nowhere at the conclusion of his coked up verse on “Buck 50”, a posse cut off his 2000 classic Supreme Clientele and it can be interpreted as many things: A middle finger, a mission statement, a Declaration of Independence, a fucking dope line. But first, let’s see how he got there.
The Wu-Tang Clan came out of nowhere. If you want to take all the fun out of it you can combine Kool G Rap’s street oriented tough talk with De La Soul’s walls of verbiage and you won’t be far off, but it doesn’t account for Rza’s soul massacres, the mystic universe of chess and Kung Fu that they seemed to inhabit from the beginning rather than create as they went along, the perfect jigsaw puzzle formation of nine completely unique, off the wall styles that formed like Voltron to make perfect bizarre sense. In a crew so wildly diverse it was easy to miss Ghostface, a masked, enigmatic MC who took his moniker from the bad guy in Mystery of Chessboxing. His contributions to 36 Chambers are sparse, and amidst Meth and ODB’s energy, the Gza’s deadly calm and the Rza’s speech impediment one can’t be blamed for taking it for granted.
But Ghost was unmistakably Wu and proud of his crew, their innovation and irreproducible original style. He looked around New York’s mid 90s landscape and didn’t find the same spirit of trailblazing everywhere. The angry young man on “Shark Niggas (Biters)” was pissed off at the Notorious B.I.G. for putting a baby on his album cover as Nas did on Illmatic. There were others who couldn’t help but be influenced by The 36 Chambers' raw cool and casually dropped Wu slang, what Stark perceived as treading on their aesthetic. Prince Raheem becomes the Rza, the Genius becomes Gza, so how the fuck did a rapper named Jay-Z, a young Brooklyn cat with Harlem swag whose Crack Rap was so brand heavy it read like a J. Peterman catalogue, get to Jigga? Of course these things can’t be helped. There is no stopping trend, the industry has always been and will always be filled with young, anxious artists and their A&Rs looking for a sound, a style, a song that could launch, make or redeem their careers. Perhaps faced with this dilemma, the man with no face chose to willfully fashion a style so insane, so unique that no one could possibly attempt to replicate it. Something that could only be the product of a single, deranged mind.
To this day Ironman stands as my favorite Wu-Tang solo. It’s at once more tight and cohesive than Only Built 4 Cuban Linx and more vibrant than the morose Liquid Swords. Throughout that album its author practices the same dense, impressionistic, slang heavy spit that the Wu excels at from Gza on down. Yet it was his one concession, a Jackson 5 flip with Mary J. Blige on the hook that introduced him to mainstream, and for good reason. “All That I Got Is You” stands as one of the most beautiful hard luck narratives ever written. Listening to it now gives you the same sensation one may be struck by looking at a straightforward yet stunning Jackson Pollock landscape, a reminder of the old adage that to break the rules you must know them intimately.
From 1996 on things only got worse. Biggie died and what followed in New York made one nostalgic for the days when the biggest issue to quibble over was album cover aesthetic. His hypeman Puff took over the city and with his reign came a rote insistence on hedonistic bottle popping. Rap traded in Shaolin’s hoodies and Clarks for gators and shiny suits. Ghost did an attempted robbery bid in 1999 and when he got out he released Supreme Clientele. And with that effort took us into the modern era.
The album was produced and overseen by Rza and a slow but fascinating symbiotic relationship revealed itself. Ironman was soul heavy for the Wu, and not in that same grimy subversion that was so effective and prevalent throughout 36 Chambers and the subsequent solo efforts. It’s as if, as Ghost went further left with his style, the Rza and his producers became more faithful to their source material (“One”, “Malcolm”, “Apollo Kids”, “Mighty Healthy”) and this works in grounding Ghost’s madcap slanguage in something round and catchy the listener can enjoy, opens up the material for multiple listens in which the small points, sneaky descriptors and hidden pleasures in Ghost’s prose can be unearthed. And Supreme Clientele is chock full of said moments. Ghost's verses are far wilder, filled with free association and wild emotive outbursts that follow their own perverse, ingenious logic all delivered in his dead pan sneer no matter how absurd.
But Supreme Clientele was only the first salvo in what would be a decade long, extraordinarily prolific campaign against conventionality. Ghost began to experiment with topicality. On (and on the cutting room floor) the even more soulful Bulletproof Wallets finds an increasingly playful and melodic Ghost making songs about the sun and a fairytale forest. Seemingly unsatisfied with simply toying with language, Tony goes conceptual, but taking the very notion of the concept song and getting as weird as humanly possible with his themes and stories. On The Pretty Toney Album (his first release through Def Jam) he’s experimenting heavily with skit, something Stark never took for granted but here turns into mini thematic songs that are some of the albums' best moments. On its very best, “Holla” he eschews sampling altogether and simply raps over the Delfonics’ “La La (Means I Love You)”.
The latter half of the decade saw Ghost return to the street, coming back to Earth from his universe of thai-sticks and Vietnam soul. The efforts include Fishscale, More Fish, 718, (his area code in Staten Island) a strong friends-and-family group project with the Theodore Unit, and Put It On The Line, a collaboration with Theodore Unit member and fellow Shaolin native Trife Da God.
On these projects Ghost comes up against the limits of off kilter flow, random reference and irreverence. Over time, formlessness becomes a kind of formula, randomness finds its own order. There's also burnout to consider when taking a look at the sheer breadth of his output. It’s an issue one can find plaguing the later work of both Cam’ron and Lil Wayne, the two other legs of the Post Modern Wordplay trinity that captivated Hip Hop throughout the decade. On songs like “Underwater” the air of fresh excitement, the feeling of immediacy, like you’re in the studio with Ghost as he pulls detail from a cloud of haze spontaneously, is gone. There’s a premeditation, a kind of ceiling hit and while his product, including The Big Doe Rehab is consistently solid, and without context, great on its own merits, something vitally important is missing.
Every time a young nutty/fun MC provokes a critical cock massage over a weird car color punchline or mentions tilapia, Ghost should get a check. One could argue in the interest of originality no rapper has successfully traveled further off the beaten path than The Ghostface Killah. The metamorphosis was complete on 8 Diagrams. The masked man playing a supporting role is gone, and in his all too brief, scene stealing appearances Stark sucks all the air out of the room, the album now plays as a waiting game for his next verse.
Dennis Coles appropriately closed out his ridiculous decade with Ghostdini: Wizard of Poetry in Emerald City, switching it up yet again and making his idea of a grownup R&B album. It’s full of explicit Too Much Information regarding what he enjoys in bed, a ton of laugh out loud, gross out moments. It’s really bizarre, it’s really good, and it doesn’t sound like anything I’ve ever heard before or will ever hear again.
1. Shark Niggas (Biters) Only Built 4 Cuban Linx (1995)
2. Alex (Stolen Script) More Fish (2006)
3. My Guitar Pretty Toney (The Lost Tracks) (2004)
4. Shakey Dog Fishscale (2006)
5. Keisha's House (Skit) The Pretty Toney Album (2004)
6. Buck 50 (ft. Cappadonna, Method Man, Masta Killah & Redman) Supreme Clientele (2000)
7. The Forest Bulletproof Wallets (2001)
8. Stapleton Sex Ghostdini: Wizard of Poetry in Emerald City (2009)
9. Pretty Toney Pretty Toney (The Lost Tracks) (2004)
10. Penitentiary Only Built 4 Cuban Linx 2 (2009)
11. Guerilla Hood 718 (2004)
12. Strawberries & Cream (ft. Inspectah Deck, Allah Real & Rza) The Problem (2005)
13. Josephine (ft. Trife Da God & The Willie Cottrell Band) More Fish (2006)
14. Evil Deeds (ft. Rza & Havoc) Wu-Tang: Chamber Music (2009)
15. Whip You With a Strap Fishscale (2006)
16. Take It Back 8 Diagrams (2007)
17. Guest House (ft. Fabolous) Ghostdini: Wizard of Poetry In Emerald City (2009)
18. Save Me Dear (Beatles Remix) Enter The Magical Mystery Chambers (2010)
19. Last Night (Skit) The Pretty Tony Album (2004)
20. Hollow Bones The W (2000)
21. Yolanda's House (ft. Raekwon & Method Man) The Big Doe Rehab (2007)
22. Malcolm Supreme Clientele (2000)
23. Holla The Pretty Toney Album (2004)