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An Anti-Elitist Guide to Loving Ghostface Killah

Understanding one of hip-hop's most singular, creative and original voices for nearly two decades now.

Last week, Yoh dared to publicly admit he hadn't ever really listened to Ghostface Killah and, just as he predicted, the Hip-Hop Head Rules Enforcement Committee jumped on him like bears on that crazy guy who thought he could be friends with bears. And they weren't wrong; it's true, if you want to know the past, present and future of hip-hop you have to know about Ghost. Instead, it was their approach that was wrong. If someone has never eaten at that awesome taco spot, you don't shove tortillas down their throat while screaming, "You better love this!!!!!" You say, "Get in the car right now, I'm buying you some fucking delicious carne asada."

And when you do that, when the core of the conversation is about sharing your love for great tacos instead of anger and condescension (YOU'VE NEVER EATEN AT LA TAQUERIA!?!), a funny thing happens. That person not only actually checks out La Taqueria instead of continuing to eat at Taco Bell and then lying about it because they don't want to get yelled at, your passion becomes contagious. They're more likely to love La Taqueria too and bring in their friends, and then those people bring in their friends, and then La Taqueria can't ever really die. 

So in that spirit, Yoh and I are trading off. I'm going to teach him about Ghostface, and he's going to teach me about Gucci Mane. To be clear, because I can already hear the Enforcement Committee sharpening their knives, Yoh isn't some hardcore Gucci fan, his collection is filled with far more College Dropout than Trap House. But since Yoh was born and raised in Atlanta and I understand so little about Gucci's impact on the South and hip-hop, I'm seizing the opportunity to get schooled by a native. Think about it like a rap exchange student program; traveling to new places, meeting new people, new knowledge can only be a good thing. And with that lengthy introduction out of the way, onto the wonderful world of Dennis Coles/Ghostface Killah/Ghost/Ghost Deini/Ironman/Pretty Toney/Tony Starks/Starky Love/The Wallabee Champ/My Personal Favorite Rapper of All-Time.

Ghost's legacy can't be understood outside of the Wu-Tang Clan, but breaking down the world of the Clan is an epic piece in itself. So this doesn't turn into a dissertation, I'll just say that when Wu-Tang first hit they devastated the hip-hop establishment. They were ghetto genius revolutionaries, the original no-fucks-given crew, and Ghost was an essential part of the squad. It was alongside his Staten Island brethren that he really developed his eccentric style, he was the perfect middle ground between Method Man's raw violence and RZA's esoteric musings (check out his insane verse below). And speaking of his brethren, Raekwon's classic OB4CL album should really be listed on Ghost's discography as well, he appears on nearly every track on the album, but I don't want to overwhelm newcomers. Let's focus on Ghost's solo work. 

Like all of the early solo albums for the Wu, Ghost's '96 debut, Ironman, was produced entirely by RZA, which places it firmly within the same sonic space as Wu-Tang, but Ghost's narrative-heavy style really established his own world and announced that he was a force to be reckoned. From there he would really master his abstract-street rhymes on his next album, 2000's Supreme Clientele, kind of lose his way a little with his next two projects, Bulletproof Wallets and The Pretty Toney Album, and then come back stronger than ever with my personal favorite, 2006's Fishscale. I would consider that the first half of his career, and in the second half, particularly over the last few years, he's really diverged from the beaten path, diving into jazz-laced passion projects and comic-book style concept albums. In summation, while he's had his moments in the spotlight, Ghost has never really sold a ton of albums or had radio hits. He's always been a rapper's rapper, the member of Wu-Tang's who not only put out the most consistent solo work but truly broke artistic ground completely outside RZA's reach.

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Ironman vs. Supreme Clientele is one of those classic hip-hop head debates, but this is all homework so far, facts, history. That history is valuable, but you could easily never listen to a Ghost song in your life, recite that paragraph above and avoid getting yelled at. But if we just stopped there that'd be a shame; I need to convince you to taste the tacos, not just know they exist. So here's why I love Ghostface Killah. 

In my heart of hearts I'm a weirdo. I've always been drawn towards the strange, the eccentric, the anti-mainstream. But I also hate being weird for the sake of being weird, and that's why Ghostface Killah is my spirit animal. No rapper has ever managed to be so simultaneously strange and completely unfuckwithable. Ghost can rock orange fur hats and rap about swimming with mermaids, but even at his most off-kilter there's always a sense of menace. To make a comparison the younger crowd might be able to connect to, Action Bronson bristles when he's compared to Ghost, and I see why. It's not like Action is jacking Ghost's style, but they are both that rare breed of rapper who seems like they'd the best time ever to hang out with, until someone makes the wrong move and ends up knocked out (Ghost can do both this and this like Action can do both this and this).

It's as a writer though I'm a lover of words and that's where Ghost has truly emerged as my hero. It'd be too simple to say he's an excellent storyteller, he is, but he's an excellent story teller because of his attention to detail. He doesn't just say that he's running from the police, he says, "My belt's in the crib on the floor by my two-way / Now I'm try'nna hold my hammer up, and my pants too." He doesn't say he shot a man, he says, "It was him, the cornerstore near the buttered rolls / The shit dropped when I gave him two stomach holes / One to the face, he fell sideways / I was up close, so part of his nose was stuck to my padres." It may be cliched to say, but those aren't raps, those are movie scenes. You're right there with him, seeing what he sees, feeling what he feels, smelling what he smells. It's not just a robbery, there's not just a guard dog, that dog is "Big head Bruno with the little shark's teeth."

In fact, "Shakey Dog" might be the perfect Ghost track. The storytelling, the sense of humor, the violence, the detail, everything that Ghost is as an emcee is in that song. And while you're listening to it, look out for the small moments, because it's the small moments that Ghostface fans live and die by. The man's ad-libs alone are more interesting than most rapper's albums. When he screams at Fabolous that he "dived out the window on some Jim Carrey shit"? I don't even really know what that means, but it's amazing. When he ends the XXX sex jam "Stapleton Sex" by forgetting that he doesn't smoke cigarettes? Brilliant. When he calls girls in the club as "Dru Hill bitches, specialists"? That could only have come from the mind of one man, Ghostface Killah. 

And ultimately, beyond all the talk about history and impact, that's why you should listen to the man, because he's been one of hip-hop's most singular, creative and original voices for nearly two decades now. I can't promise that you'll love him, Ghost is certainly not for everyone. But I can promise that his music is worth your time, not because you have to listen to him, not because you should listen to him, but because he makes some pretty fucking delicious tacos. And you like delicious tacos, don't you? 

Related: An Anti-Elitist Guide to Gucci Mane 

Nathan S. is the managing editor of DJBooth and a hip-hop writer. His beard is awesome. This is his Twitter. Illustration by Viktoria Chulok Estonia.



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