Having emerged onto the scene in the early nineties as a member of the Wu-Tang Clan, Ghostface Killah came of age as an emcee in the midst of the golden era. Surrounded by some of hip-hop’s best lyricists — not only those present within his crew, but Nas, Biggie, Mobb Deep, and Jay-Z were all actively rising — the art of crafting a consistently strong album was among the most important artistic goals. There’s a reason our hip-hop legends remain admired to this day, and much of it comes down to the longevity of their classic bodies of work. Yet with the music of today arriving at a breakneck pace, it’s become difficult to keep a project in steady rotation long enough to develop any real attachment. Between that, and the argument that the music itself has been designed for short-term gain, it’s not uncommon to see many of the game’s OG’s speak of the “album” with fondness often reserved for the deceased.
Earlier this month Wu-Tang Clan co-founder Ghostface Killah walked through his tenure as one of the greatest rappers of all time. The 50-year-old, born Dennis Coles, famously of Staten Island, is a brilliant storyteller capable of weaving suspenseful narratives as intense as anything on Snowfall or The Wire, a writer of love songs whose best cuts deserve mention among geniuses of the form, and, whenever he feels like it, a gifted absurdist able to use words to dazzle and confound joyfully and effortlessly. The plan for the conversation was to revisit works like Ironman, Supreme Clientele, The Pretty Toney Album, Fishscale, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), and Wu-Tang Forever, identifying the songs Ghost felt that he crushed and a few he maybe regretted not crushing — this in celebration of “Blue and Cream,” his new Sonos Radio HD show where listeners get insight into the hip-hop and fashion icon’s favorite music across genres and time — but the veteran quickly pointed out that it’s not so easy to remember lines you concocted over 20 years ago, even the verses his fans have committed to memory and spent many years attempting to crack. So, we torched the playbook and had a freewheeling chat about style, space, spirituality, and rap’s past and present. Ghost has a way with words.
Favorite Ghostface song
I don’t really have a favorite song that I made. I got so many records. I did a lot of other new features for people that I really, really like. But, as far as verses, one of the strongest ones I ever did is “Impossible” off [1997’s] Wu-Tang Forever album. [See: “He pointed to the charm on his neck / With his last bit of energy left, told me to rock it with respect / I opened it, seen the god holdin’ his kids / Photogenic, tears just burst out my wig.”]
Favorite Ghostface guest feature
It’s a lot if you look at the catalog. I got a joint with me and my man, Harley; that’s [on] an album that I created that I didn’t even put out yet. Black Thought and Flee Lord got nice verses out of me. It’s things all over the place, like the Kanye West remix, “New God Flow.” I got records I forgot I did.
I got reminded when I was doing the Verzuz against Raekwon [last
month], when we had to pick out 20 songs to see what I was going to play against his songs. My DJ was playing mad, mad, mad, mad records. We had to go through a few albums, and I’m like, Oh, I forgot about that. That’s hard when you ask an artist that been in the game for 27 years. I don’t remember probably 80 percent of them, because I just do them and I leave it alone. I’m the type of artist that doesn’t even listen to my own albums after a while when I put them out. I leave them alone. I don’t even know when the last time I heard [my 1996 solo debut] Ironman or [2000 sophomore solo album] Supreme Clientele. It’s been years. I don’t sit back and listen to my music. I did it, you know what I mean? Because I’ve got a thing with me where it’s like … I know I could’ve done better. And that bothers me to hear: Damn, I could have had just sent in 12 records on this, but I was told to put 20 or 16 records on it. It just bothers me.
The only words that I might just get through, might be an R&B record I did called The Wizard of Poetry . All my other albums, besides the one I got right now that’s coming with [Harley], I really don’t listen to them.
The thing you’re most proud of about Ghostdini: Wizard of Poetry
The writing. I’m a pure writer, so when I write, I like to write, like, a Scorsese. I like to paint pictures. When I write, a lot of the time, it’s like books or movies. I get very descriptive. That’s my main element in rap besides the abstract stuff. I’d rather take the movie route or paint-the-picture route before I give you a bunch of street raps.
Most memorable acting role
I was scared to death when I did [2010’s] When in Rome. A lot of people were in there [Kristen Bell, Josh Duhamel], and I’d never really been around a lot of people trying to get into a part [the role of a DJ]. I had to do it over and over and over and over and over and over because I kept messing up lines. It was a line where they had me say [“Our host and curator Beth Martin is getting engaged?”], and I kept fucking up. At that time, I wasn’t used to saying “curator” and stuff like that. Never really heard of it back then. People were waiting for me because I had to stop the music, and they just looking at me, and when I say my line, but I kept messing it up in front of a hundred people. It was like that commercial where somebody’s like, “Yo! Time for a Snickers.” It was one of those.
Favorite colorways for Clarks Wallabees, as the self-proclaimed Wallabee Champ
I’m a colorful dude, so I like yellows and reds and stuff like that. When it comes to Clarks, you gotta have a crispy pair, an all-suede crispy pair. You can’t really, really, really go wrong, just as long as the sole is gummy. A gummy sole. Don’t give me a black sole. You can’t go wrong with color with Clarks because whatever you got on when you put them on, they look funky on you. Especially the new ones now. The old ones were made in Taiwan and China. They didn’t fit right. That’s why I stopped playing with them for a minute. Then my man [Felippe Santos a.k.a. SYC] came in. He made them over, on the real, with ostrich and alligator skin. He fixed the gummy sole to be like the softness that the Yeezys got. Other than that, it’s a dark blue, a nice navy blue, or a nice red. A watermelon or a Chevy red might stand out. It depends on what’s your color, and what stands out on you. I know blue stands out on me. Red stands out.
But I don’t wear brown. When I throw on brown clothes, something always happens. I don’t care if it’s a Cleveland Browns T-shirt, something is bound to happen. I don’t even feel right wearing brown, I’d rather skip to black. If I did a video with brown on, I didn’t even look right. Every time I wear brown, I always get into a fight. I broke my ankles in brown Wallabees. It’s too many things that be showing me, You know what? That’s not me. So I leave it alone.
In life, [listen to] every sign that’s thrown at you, every voice. We ignore the signs of life, and that’s why we end up in jail, paralyzed, dead. It’s situations that could have been avoided, but we were too naïve to read the signs and take time and pay attention. We’re caught up in our lower desires, our animal ways, and what’s going on in the world that’s not going to mean anything after we’re finished. All this glitter and other shit don’t mean anything. I don’t give a fuck how much money you got, how much jewelry you got. If you get sick, it doesn’t mean anything. You can’t fix it, and you can’t take it with you.
The inspiration behind Supreme Clientele
When I was rhyming on “Nutmeg” and “One” on Supreme Clientele, I made a style that I couldn’t even tell what it was. I just wanted to use some words that sounded good with each other and everybody’s trying to decipher what I mean when, really, I don’t even know what it means because I had no beat. [See: “Scooby snack Jurassic plastic gas booby trap/ Ten years working for me, you wanna tab shit?”] But something said, Make a record. Write a verse real quick just putting words together, whether they mean something or not. Just put them together. That’s what I did with “Nutmeg” and “One.” But it was “Nutmeg” that set it off.
Standout memory of a rapper you influenced
I didn’t know who MF DOOM was at first. I got a CD during the  Projekt Rev tour with Linkin Park. I put it in, and he had a lot of sounds that I like. So I told Mike, my manager, “Yo, find this dude right here. The Metal Fingers.” It turned out to be MF DOOM. From there, we got together. He came down to the studio and played mad beats. We in there vibing. One thing just led to the next, and he did a bunch of tracks for me. And then we started working on our own stuff, and that was it. I bumped into him a few times out in Europe. One day we were on the plane sitting next to each other, and he said, “You know I got the abstract style from you.” I’m like, “Oh, word?” He’s like, “Yeah, yeah. That’s on the low, though. I got that from you.” When he told me that, it brought me back to “Nutmeg” because everybody was trying to decipher. DOOM came after that, and he had fat beats. He put all that together, and he was in his own lane.
New music that excites you most
I don’t discriminate, but I like what I like. I even like a few young guys that are out there right now. People get it twisted, like, “Oh, this new rap generation is garbage.” But you know what? You gotta have the ear to understand what’s going on. Some of them really got talent. You might not be able to understand that talent because that’s not the era you come from, but being an artist, you gotta be willing to listen to everything. It took me a while to start to understand these kids and their sound. I had to ask some of my young guys, “Yo, is that hot?” Now that I understand it better, I know DaBaby and the Lil Babys, the Drakes, the A$AP Rocky, and all these other guys like Bobby Shmurda. You gotta really get into it. The Pop Smokes. Rest in peace. The Quavos, the Migos. It’s different, but you got to find their wave, and there’s something nice in that.
I’m not saying everybody’s like that, though, because [some of it does] all sound the same. But those little guys, sound the same because they’re not thinking of new shit. In the ’90s, Biggie, Nas, and Mobb Deep, and them, even though we were all from New York, everybody had their own wave. I ain’t sound like Nas. Nas ain’t sound like us. Mobb Deep sounded like Mobb Deep. Biggie sounded like Biggie. Now, when you put [some of] these guys together, they sound a lot alike. I’m not putting them down, but musically, everybody’s riding the next man’s wave. That’s why I respect Kendrick and J. Cole because they in their own lane.
I’m all for these young Black kids getting money and doing what they do, but musically, I think that becoming a rapper now, you should know the history, know now who the Spoonie Gees and Sugarhill Gangs were, the Wu-Tangs and the Biggies, all that. Grand Puba, all these guys. You need to know these people. You gotta add to that. We got bodies of work. Mobb Deep, Nas, Wu-Tang, Jay-Z, we got bodies of work. These days, you might hear one record and don’t even care about the rest of the album. The only reason you heard that record is because it’s the single, and it’s what was hot. But, where’s your body? How many bodies did you get? It’s not gonna work later on in the future when you trying to tour and n- – – – remember one record, but you can’t do a whole show. To these guys, you Screech. Screeches on everything. Like my man Jim Jones said, “It’s not about talent.” It’s about coming up with a gimmick and going viral. Then you’re a star. It’s a money thing, bro.
This interview has been edited, condensed for clarity and general good English.