One of the many acronyms for Wu-Tang Clan is “Witty Unpredictable Talent And Natural Game.” Ghostface Killah, who turns 50 today, personifies that mantra. Even as one-ninth of a group full of indelible personalities, the man born Dennis Coles is an outlier.
He wore a mask during the crew’s initial run (while on the run from “doin’ dirt”), and fulfilled fan intrigue as the first verse we heard on the Clan’s iconic 36 Chambers album:
Ghostface catch the blast of a hype verse
My Glock burst, leave in a hearse, I did worse
From that gripping couplet, he was off to the races on crafting a catalog full of cinematic stories, trials of love and loss, and bafflingly brilliant nonsequiturs like “elbows unique now meet the new me” from Supreme Clientele’s “Buck 50.” In a genre full of rappers embracing their inner comic book character, Ghostface Killah, AKA Tony Starks, is a one-of-one. From RZA’s Wu-Tang Manual recollection of him warding off four men wrapped around his arms during a ‘90’s concert fight to his wardrobe of flowing robes, two-tone wallabees and iconic jewelry pieces, he’s inimitable — even to a genre of underground MCs baring his sonic DNA.
The Wu-Tang Clan’s unlikely conception is underscored by the Wu-Tang: An American Saga’s revelation that he and his partner-in-rhyme Raekwon (of Park Hill projects) were once enemies at opposite sides of a drug beef during the tumultuous ‘80s and early ‘90s. Wu-Tang founder RZA has said that the two initially met to make music with guns drawn, but tensions cooled as Rae and Ghost realized how much they had in common.
Hip-hop heads every day should rejoice that they did, as they’re undoubtedly a top-tier duo in hip-hop history. Ghost showed out all over 36 Chambers, but it was as the “guest star” on the iconic Only Built 4 Cuban Linx where he began to find his voice. The album is revered as a soulful suite of Shaolin Scarface narratives cloaked in cryptic slang and five-percenter ideology that’s intentionally exclusive (hence the title). On “Criminology,” he tore through RZA’s churning drums with an action-packed battle verse “trapped by sounds, locked behind loops / throwing n****s off airplanes ’cause cash rules.” On “Rainy Dayz,” he weaved a histrionic lamentation of the drug trade, noting, “Waiting on these royalties takes too long / It’s like waiting on babies, it makes me want to slay thee.”
He showed more of his artistry on his blaxploitation-scored Ironman project, specifically on “All That I Got Is You” with Mary J. Blige, one of rap’s most heartfelt moments. Over sentimental strings, he culled through the struggles his mother and two brothers had growing in detail, pondering, “Sometimes I look up at the stars and analyze the sky / And ask myself was I meant to be here, why?” That vulnerability was a stark contrast to the impenetrable figure he portrayed on previous records. “Wildflower” was a similarly new chamber, where he called out an unfaithful lover over a twangy RZA production, letting her know, “I’m the first n**** that had you watching flicks by DeNiro.” Those highlights of those two projects were the springboard for the Ghostface sound, with ‘70s/’80s soul and relentless breakbeats serving as the backdrop for his unrivaled parlance and unforgettable stories like Wu-Tang Forever’s “Impossible,” where he perfectly captured the fear of a friend’s impending doom during a frantic verse. By the time Wu-Tang had become a worldwide sensation in the late ‘90s, Ghost was a key player.
There’s a hoard of amazing musicians who don’t replicate their magic outside the booth — but that’s not Ghostface. There’s a reason he’s played himself in 12 TV shows and movies throughout the years — including a stint on VH1’s Couples Therapy. His magnetism doesn’t just lie in his truck jewelry and colorful, draping robes that defined his turn-of-the-millennium aesthetic. He’s one of the game’s best interviews, delivering raw truths in a manner that’s quintessentially New York and usually hilarious. While most MCs long to assert their realness in front of every recording device (to their detriment), he hilariously griped to Hip-Hop Connection in 2009 that, “I ain’t shot nobody in like.. since the early 90’s, man.” And his six-minute takedown of Action Bronson’s appropriation of his style over Teddy Pendergrass’ “Be For Real” is one of the most classic moments of the 2010s.
His personality shone through most impressively on Supreme Clientele, his 2000 treatise in rap linguistics. Ghost fought off hip-hop’s universal “everyone’s saying the same things” criticism as literally as he could, interweaving words and phrases that no one before or after had even fathomed. Supreme Clientele is a warm, technicolor universe of crime tales and surreal fragments like “Duncan Hines monument cakes,” “Swing the John McEnroe, rap rock’n’roll,” and “Starks with the Parcheesi face, measly paced, old face Ghostface,” that form his distinctive mosaic of a bygone New York. Even for a gifted lyricist, it was a lightning-in-a-bottle moment.
But the great music didn’t stop. Ghost is one of the game’s most consistent, prolific acts, dropping 19 solo and collaborative projects in the 2000s alone. Work like the R&B-exploring Ghostdini: Wizard Of Poetry In Emerald City and Twelve Reasons To Die showed veteran acts the balance of evolution and placating core fans years before 40-year-old rappers were the norm. Twelve Reasons To Die with Adrian Yonge joins the 2005 Put It On The Line and 2012 Wu-Block projects, with Trife Da God and Sheek Louch respectively, as collaboration albums early to a trend that now runs the underground. The specific brand of lavish crime rap that he forged with Raekwon are in the sonic DNA of everyone from Westside Gunn to Rick Ross to Pusha T, who declared “to all of my young n****s, I am your Ghost and your Rae” on 2018’s “These Are The Games We Play” from Daytona.
In 2008, after disappointing sales of his Big Doe Rehab album, Ghost warned fans, “you gon’ make me leave the game” if they kept illegally downloading his music. The artists who reflect his impact clearly appreciated him, but fans didn’t at the time. Perhaps now, as Ghost crosses the half-century mark, is as good a chance as any for fans new and old to celebrate his legacy as an influential MC, fashion icon, and beacon of hip-hop’s golden era.