Ghostface Killah’s Ironman Showcased A Rap Superhero & The Man Behind The Mask (Video)
Twenty years ago tomorrow (October 29, 1996), Ghostface Killah released a seminal solo debut album in the form of Ironman. To that point, four Wu-Tang Clansmen (GZA, Method Man, O.D.B., and Raekwon) had all stepped to the front with solo efforts, spreading their creative darts across Rap’s board. As the flagship act signed to RZA’s Razor Sharp imprint through Epic/Sony, Killah waited patiently for his turn to strike. For much of 1996, the “W” was in the lab mapping Wu-Tang Forever, plotting the expansion of their enterprise. G.F.K. would be the only Wu member to drop during that calendar. He had a rare clear runway for landing during one of Rap’s most pivotal years. It was a transitional period for the Clan too, a time when Ghost’ could still get an entire plate of RZA beats from his mentor and brother-in-law, and go for broke in the booth—seemingly free from label pressures or commercial expectations. Whether that feat was achieved because of Starks signing to Razor Sharp, or it was a testament to the visionary bond between the band-mates, it yielded cohesive product that played like uncut dope on a 14 karat gold plated spoon.
Just as Rae’ had set-up Starks with the purple tape, Ghost’ looked out for his fledgling affiliates like U-God, Masta Killa, and the apparent closest MC to the original nine: Cappadonna. “Bein’ on [Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… set me up for this album—even though they wanted Rae’ at that time. This time, [the industry is] calling for me,” Ghostface Killah told Rap City‘s Joe Clair in a pizza parlor upon the LP’s release. He was seated with Raekwon, Masta Killa, Poppa Wu, and others. “It’s my [record] deal though, but it’s our album. We do it together.” Although Killah dropped verses on just half of 1993’s classic Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), he was in a generous spirit for his own set. Only four songs feature solely G.F.K. verses. Some, including the Rae-helmed “The Faster Blade” skip Starks raps entirely. Instead, the irritable MC made his LP an ensemble, capturing the cliquish atmosphere of a super-group that otherwise may have seemed scattered during a nearly four-year hiatus. With 15 fresh RZA creations, seven of nine Wu members accounted for (GZA and Ol’ Dirty Bastard sat back), this was as close as Heads could get to some Wu Wear to bundle your ears in 9-6. Rae’ and Cap’ were even on the cover, further telling the public that this was a family affair. Six weeks after Tupac died, popular Rap was sounding incredibly theatrical and polished. Ironman was a mutiny on the ferry, steering the music back to the rugged lands of Shaolin.
In whole, Ironman sucks its teeth and then spits at the feet of convention. Ghostface is not even the first MC to bust a verse on his debut LP. Almost immediately, the once veiled member of the Clan seems to care less about pushing his brand. The first single, “All That I Got Is You” released a year and a half after M-E-T-H’s “I’ll Be There For You.” Both featuring the lush vocals of Mary J. Blige, the similarly titled songs each build themselves on Motown Soul (Tami Terrell & Marvin Gaye and Jackson 5, chronologically). Whereas Mef’ serenaded his wiz, Ghost’ honored his mother. The song was not a tale of hopeful romance, but one of survival. Arguably more gushing than ‘Pac’s “Dear Mama,” this record had Ghost’ profess, “Mommy, I love you” in the mean-mug era. A product of roach-filled Stapleton project houses and many siblings, this MC did not need to state why he was the way he was. Even with the sweet sample and Mary’s melody, Heads were given honest images of eye-crust, wet bedding, and coat-hanger TV antennas. ‘Face was raw—and his lyrics were vivid even with a gruff delivery. He’d always been so in feature roles and group settings, but this MC’s writing was so hyper-specific and heartfelt, it was somewhere between Kool Keith and Rakim. The lint, fish, and sweat of “Paid In Full” intersected with the quirky intricacies of Critical Beatdown.
Ghostface had (and has) an effortless whimsicality in his rhymes. On “Black Jesus” (a track built around a Blackbyrds sample from Cornbread, Earl & Me), he rhymed, “It’s like the pennant, seminar’s the play-off / Start the day off like Cochran got OJ off / The specialist who eyeballed the mistress necklace / Perpetuous, this curly head kid’s treacherous.” In four bars, Ghostface connects a crude-but-clever line about masturbation to the just-ended O.J. Simpson trial, and keeps the courtroom metaphor to remind the listeners that he’s still not above the trife life. On “Poisonous Darts,” the lyricist rapper reinforces Wu’s most popularized message. “Now who, don’t believe that cash must rule? / I don’t eat meat, I slap blood out of Purdue / Keep a wireless mic, mics on strike the session / Is over, I file this and glow like fluorescent.” There, Ghost’ fragments his bars to take the verse in several different directions through coded linguistics that sound great beside each other—as he finds the flyest way possible to let listeners know the verse is complete.
Although Ghost’ could be vulnerable, sensitive, and fearlessly honest, he also was a brute force in Hip-Hop. More menacing than O.D.B., more cantankerous than Sticky Fingaz, second single “Daytona 500” embodied this mentality. Speaking with Rap City‘s Joe Clair in ’96 during the LP campaign, G.F.K. said of the track, “What it really was was to throw these MCs back in place, or whateva’, [and] let ’em know that [Wu-Tang Clan MCs are] still champs, and we can still do what we do, ’cause nothin’ was released from Wu in a while. So we just had to take ’em through it.” The song was built around a park jams-certified Bob James break-beat, and featured fellow Staten Islanders the Force M.D.’s to open up the song. Ghost’ found cool in what was not popping in the mainstream. As Hip-Hop was finding chart-topping positions through channeling Pop, G.F.K. went back to his own childhood and cultural experiences to defy trend forecasts and just be himself. He always had the spirit of competition, and the album is filled with subliminal shots at peers the same way Big Daddy Kane and Rakim spoke to one another through rhymes, even if nobody knew. Whereas O.D.B. and Meth’ had the fanfare, and GZA won over purists, Killah wanted his post at the top of the Rap pack.
“Winter Warz” (released in January of 1996 care of the Don’t Be A Menace To South Central While Drinking Your Juice In The Hood soundtrack) was this LP’s Rap exhibit possé cut. Since the beginning, in terms of popularity, U-God and Masta Killa had been the apparent eighth and ninth batters in the Wu lineup. Ghost’ rallied them, along with pinch-hitter Cappadonna for a song that assaulted the eardrums. Cap’ in particular shined on this stacked rhyme arsenal the way a young Kool G Rap shined on “The Symphony.” In both cases, the rhymes nearly go off the reels—as RZA makes a beat so simple yet effective that it remains an album-cut classic. Ghost’ was making the debut album that he clearly had been chiseling in his mind since the late ’80s—through out of town runs, up north trips, and all those cold, lonely nights when the MC was literally starving. The whole Razor Sharp album plays like an intoxicated dream—something that had manifested itself since the ’70s, and been distorted by hardship, pain, and lots of indulgence.
Sonically, Ghost’ seemed to want something different out of RZA. In 1995, Ol’ Dirty, Rae’, and GZA all had their own corners of the RZArector basement of sound. However, Ironman had more of a distinct quality. This LP lacked the icy sparseness of “the Purple Tape,” the paranoid synth effects of Liquid Swords, or the precise groove chops of Return To The 36. Ghost’s album sounded like elements of the 1970s R&B were injected with break-beats. “If you listen to the beats, my album out of all the [Wu-Tang Clan solo] albums, it’s like mine is more [soulful],” he told Rap City. “‘Cause you got the Force [M.D.’s], you got Delfonics, you got the Teddy Pendergrass hook inside ‘Camay,’ it’s like it’s more soulist [sic] inside of it. That’s my feel—my ear right there. Those are the beats that I chose, ’cause that’s me right there. I been used to that growin’ up—gettin’ kicked out the living-room when my Old Earth used to [play] Delfonics [and] Stylistics. I was small, but it was inside me [then]. That’s what makes me the man I am today, to just g’head and just write the rhymes like that.” Even though there was nothing overlapping in the deliveries of Dennis Coles and the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s Soul groups he loved, there was an honesty—and a complete emotional spectrum. Ghost’ wrote about infuriating heartbreak, about passionate sex, about a mother’s love—it just so happened that he did it in his own vernacular. To match that edginess, RZA chopped down and reinterpreted the very records that influenced the giant. Al Green, Otis Redding, Z.Z. Hill, Teddy, Jimmy Ruffin, and others were the ingredients—even if not front-and-center. There was melody, but the RZA way. Those parts of 36 that tapped into Volt/Stax Records Soul (see: “Tearz” or “C.R.E.A.M.”) were brought into the ’70s for G.F.K. This was Teddy Pendergrass—meets—DJ Teddy Ted.
In the grand scheme, Ghostface Killah is an Ironman within Hip-Hop. Twenty-plus years later, the MC has proven it, in the ’90s, 2000s, and during the present decade. Very arguably, he is Wu-Tang’s most consistent member in terms of solo albums. In 1996, he set the bar high for himself, and added new dimension to the sound and presentation of the crew. This LP showed why a nine-MC collective was possible, and that the solo missions of those artists were never redundant. Moreover, a dozen years before Drake, Ghost’ showed that there was nothing soft about being in-your-feelings, and that writing about loving and losing could be more tangible to many than the tired road of Rap sexcapades. This LP manifested its purist B-Boy backbone into a greater journey of perseverance, passion, and originality. In three years, Ghostface Killah went from a veiled microphone avenger in the clique to the MC that people felt they knew on the deepest level. Ironman made it possible, with heroic rhyme qualities, and a flawed human behind the mask.