Ghostface Killah Compares Himself To Martin Scorsese. Here’s Why (Food For Thought Interview)
Speaking about his upcoming eleventh solo album, Ghostface Killah is in his glory. The Staten Island MC is spirited, especially on the subjects of 1980s Rap and 1990s cinema. The day his 36 Seasons was publicly premiered in a full-length NPR Music stream, Ghost speaks to Ambrosia For Heads, and practically downplays the effort of an album that is arguably eclipsing hardcore fans’ excitement surrounding Wu-Tang Clan’s own sixth album, A Better Tomorrow. In his to-the-point way, G.F.K. takes credit for being a lyrical mercenary on his first foray with Tommy Boy Records, and little else.
Narratives and imagery come easy to Dennis Coles, who playfully imagines his own verses in the days where he’ll be flashin’ AARP cards instead of iron. Guarded at first, Ghost’ is a strong listener, who likes to incorporate humor into his conversations, much like his verses. He’s big on metaphor, innuendo, and the kind of barbershop riffing that’s made him a timeless voice of reason and originality in the Hip-Hop genre he loves. Like the LP he is releasing, Ghostface Killah is so impassioned, sincere, and unadulterated that whether it’s a storyline (in the case of an album) or schtick (in the case of speaking with a near stranger), it’s all real. In Ghostface Killah’s verbalized thoughts are his essence, and in an era of synthetic substitutions, he is a dependable constant.
Ambrosia For Heads: I remember the last time you and I spoke, in 2006, and you went into great detail on Slick Rick’s influence on you. 36 Seasons is a story. I love that there are elements like the constant reminder of “nine years” that are parts of the story in most songs; this feels like an audio book. To what extent did you map this out, and blueprint it as a story? For me, the listener, it feels like a lot of work to make it so cinematic.
Ghostface Killah: Right. I mean, I did [36 Seasons] kind of quick, you know what I mean? The rest of the team just put the work together. It’s like they sent me to do a hit. If you give me a contract and tell me you want a person killed, and you want it done this [specific] way, I’ll just do whatever you say. That’s basically what happened. It was presented to me, to do this thing. “On this track, do this thing right here. Then, on this track, I want you to do this. And do this. Do this. And do this. Talk about all these situations.” And that’s basically what I did. I [answered the requests], and then I gave it back to the [Tommy Boy Records] team. They got the rest of the brothers on there to go do what they had to do. And that was it; we just put this puzzle together.
Ambrosia For Heads: Salute to you then, and everybody else who worked on 36 Seasons, because it sounds like something that was really masterminded like that.
Ghostface Killah: Yeah, yeah! Definitely. It was masterminded like that. For this album right here, it was a theme. So it was kinda more easier for me, you know? Because, I have direction. So when I got direction, it’s like, okay, I know where I want to go. Like I tell people, I’m like a Martin Scorsese. I want you to see this picture, but I want you to see it like how I see it. Now, now, now, now—I didn’t go like 32 bars and 40 bars, so I had to just get my story off so the other guys could get on it, with my 16 bars, 20 bars, you know what I mean? So every thing could fit. So I don’t gotta dog the whole track. That’s what it was, more than anything, they were trying to squish it down to make it whateva, whateva, whateva, nahmean? And that’s just what I did.
And the beats was on point, so that helped me out a lot too. It adds a lot—the beats. If you’ve got some fucked up beats, then it’s like, “Damn, how you really want to go with this shit?” The beat is the shit that gives you the feel. My whole career, everything I ever wrote that was a story, really, the beat made me do it. Whatever you heard, “All That I Got Is You,” whatever, the beat made me do that story. And that’s what it be. That’s what it is.
Ambrosia For Heads: Speaking of the beats, listening to The Revelations’ tracks, it sounds like a live album in many places. Is this something you might take on the road?
Ghostface Killah: The show? The songs? The album? Umm, I mean, it could. It could do that because it’s [cohesive]. I mean, but to go on the road…if I was to go on the road with it, I wouldn’t really want to go on stage and just have a microphone with it, and being the guy who was just rhymin’. Nah. You would have to make it like a play for me. Everything would have to be like a play; I wouldn’t want to just come up there and just [perform traditionally]—unless I wanted to just get money. But I would rather give it to the people like, “Oh shit, this is like a real movie, on stage. This one did this and that one just did that.” And you’ve got intermissions where you know what? We’re just livin’ it out for like 60 minutes. You know what I mean? So, you definitely could, definitely could.
Ambrosia For Heads: You mentioned how the beats send you in directions. I know it’s just one track, “Blood In The Streets,” but you and I are both big fans of ’80s and ’90s Hip-Hop. That said, what is it like to get a track in with 45 King?
Ghostface Killah: Oh yeah, man! It’s like, yo, I respect all legends, man. That’s what got me [into the culture]. They play a part in Hip-Hop. If it wasn’t for the legends and the ones that was doin’ it, we probably wouldn’t be where we are right now, at this stage of the game. I was glad to see my ones supplyin’ the—even Sugarhill Gang, [Grandmaster] Melle Mel, [Grandmaster] Flash & The Furious Five, I’m so blessed to get a chance to see those guys, and shake hands with those guys, and to tell ’em “thank you”—even down to Rakim, and KRS-One, and Big Daddy Kane and them, because that’s who made me the person that I am right now: goin’ through that. I thank God that I had the chance to experience the ’70s, all through the ’80s Hip-Hop music. You know what I mean? That gave birth to me. That gave me the whole insight on how I wanna rhyme.
So for 45 King to go and put the track up there like that, it’s like, yo, that just added on to my legacy. You know what I mean? It’s like, “Yo, he had a track on this dope album and shit.” So it’s like, you know what, it’s all good. It’s a blessing, yo.
Ambrosia For Heads: Early on, you said that you sent this back and the folks behind 36 Seasons added the other components. So with that said, you didn’t record with two other legends, AZ, Kool G Rap, and the other guys? It reminded me of an ensemble cast, like in your career, being a “costar” on Raekwon’s Purple Tape…
Ghostface Killah: I sent my verses in. I guess [the guests] might have heard [my verses], I’m not sure. They might heard my verse or verses, and then worked off of that. But I’m quite sure they did. Because the way it meshes, and the way [their verses] responded back to me. In order for the movie to go right, they had to hear it.
Ambrosia For Heads: One of those guests is Shawn Wigs. I was a huge fan of Theodore Unit 718 album 10 years ago. Of all of your own artists, Shawn’s still with you, even though he’s not always involved with your projects. Your own career took a while to get started, into Enter The 36 Chambers: Wu-Tang. Is that type of patience something that you try to instill in your guys to be successful?
Ghostface Killah: I mean, yeah. It’s like, when the time is right, the time is right. If the time is not right, then, you know what, [wait it out]. That said, I’ve still got a few of my guys. [Shawn Wigs] is one of my loved ones. We still bug out and laugh. If I’m in the studio, he might come through. It’s like, “Hey, you know what? Go do this.” Whatever, go get your voice on it or whatever.” It ain’t nothin’ givin’ a brother a part or whatever, just makin’ a play. “Play that part,” and that’s it, keep it movin’. He’s one of the good brothers to me, right there, and stuff like that.
Yeah, we started out with Theodore Unit. Families grow, a lot of things don’t last forever, you know what I mean? Whether it’s the dream, friendship, or ideas, or whatever it may be, but at the end of the day, I took some brothers where they had to go, ’til the Most High said, “Okay, that’s it, right there.” You know me, I’m spiritual. These are relationships. Like when you deal with a female—I was tellin’ this chick today, “You know what? Not everybody is meant to be married. I might not can’t do a 75-year anniversary, or a 50-year anniversary. Sometimes, some people are meant to take up space in your life just for a [finite] period of time.” You know what I mean? So I understand that, and that’s how it goes with everything. I don’t care if you have a pair of sneakers, you’re not gonna have that pair of sneakers for the rest of your life like that, ’cause after you dogged them out, you’re gonna have to fuck around and get a new pair.
Ambrosia For Heads: Coming off of last year’s Twelve Reasons To Die, and this album’s early reception, you’ve done some amazing stuff lately. You had the TV show, and a lot going on. At this point in the game, over 20 years, is there anything you want to do that you haven’t achieved?
Ghostface Killah: I mean, yeah! I don’t really know what it is, but I know there’s something else, bigger than Rap, that I must do before [I retire]. I’m gonna rap ’til…if I’m gonna rap, I’m not gonna be on the road. If I’ma be on the road, I might do some [Las] Vegas stuff for 20 years straight [chuckling] on some Celine Dion shit. Because I got stories like that. Like you said, 36 Seasons or Twelve Reasons To Die, I got stories—I could take that shit on the road. Nahmean? That’s there already. But as you get older, you get older. You start…there’s problems. Like Marvin Gaye, he was on some “mercy, mercy” shit in “What’s Going On” and all that. I’m one of those guys, that’s gonna have to tell a story one day for us as a nation.
All that party shit, it’s all cool. But you have to get serious. Be true, at the same time. There’s too much going on. You’ve got our people gettin’ shot, cops killin’ Blacks for nothin’, healthcare ain’t this, that, and the third—we gettin’ older now. It’s like, you got a lot of females comin’ up with cancer. I gotta tell these stories as I get older; I can’t be tellin’ stories like “C.R.E.A.M.” and all that other shit like I’m sellin’ two-for-five’s, ’cause I’m not really doin’ that. ‘Cause if I got a cane, a lot of people can identify with that—the cane, or false teeth, or medication, ’cause we have problems. In the world, we’re not gettin’ no younger—we’re gettin’ older. So my generation that know me from Rap music, they’re gonna grow with me. I’m gonna be havin’ to talk to them people too—but maybe doin’ it in a fly way. I might be talkin’ about my cane, but my cane just might be iced out. You know what I mean? I’m just enjoying the ride right now. I’m payin’ tickets, but at the same time, droppin’ jewels.
I don’t care if I got false teeth, I’m gonna rap about that. ‘Cause other people got false teeth too. Yo, there’s gonna be so much ground that I have to cover. A lot of people like, “Yo, I’m gonna stop rappin’ at 50, or 40, or 30.” Then yo, you don’t really love it. That’s why it was hard for Bernard Hopkins to leave the ring. He’s 50 years old, but he believe he can really do it! But yo, this Rap is not boxing! Nahmean? I’m not gettin’ punched in my head all day when it’s slowing me down and I gotta whatchamacallit. All I gotta do is keep an open mind, stay writing, and look at the music to get the sceneries. I might gotta go to Costa Rica or somewhere in the hills of Africa to catch one, like Marvin Gaye had to go to Europe where he did the [Midnight Love] album. If he wouldn’t have went there, he might not have caught that vision, you understand what I’m sayin’? So these are the things, in my lifetime, that I’ma have to do, or whateva, whateva, whateva, yeah. I wanna do another R&B album, I wanna do an album about strictly God and things of that nature, “This is what it should be. This is how it is to me.” I just wanna cover ground, B. I’ma continue to be the best that I can be, and God willing, if he goes ahead and gives me long life where I can use my hands and my brain. If I live to be an old man, I’m gonna have so many tales about bein’ an old man, even if ya dick don’t get up. [Laughs] I’ma let that out. That’s just me, man. So I don’t really know what’s the next big, big, thing, but it just comes as it comes. I don’t want to know. Let me take the challenge. Once you know, it throws everything off balance.
Ambrosia For Heads: My final question is an easy, quick one for you. Since you mention Marty Scorsese, and I’m glad you did, and I agree with it. But I have to ask you the question all Scorsese Heads ask each other: Casino or Goodfellas?
Ghostface Killah: Wow. Hmmm! Mmmm. Yo, you know what? I can’t even tell you. Yo, that’s like you askin’ me “Al Pacino or [Robert] DeNiro?” It’s like they both ill, man. I don’t know, maybe Goodfellas, maybe. I don’t know. [Laughs] I do love Casino too, though! That’s a hard one. I shouldn’t even answer that, you know what I mean?
Jake Paine is a veteran music industry professional. Prior to 2008-2012′s post as HipHopDX’s Editor-in-Chief, Paine was AllHipHop’s Features Editor from 2002 to 2007. He has also written for Forbes, XXL, The Source, Mass Appeal, among others. He currently resides in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.