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The Ghostface Killah Rises Again

Adrian Younge (left) and Ghostface onstage at the Seattle stop of their tour last week.
Erich Donaldson
Adrian Younge (left) and Ghostface onstage at the Seattle stop of their tour last week.

Ghostface Killah is a compulsive storyteller. His fiction is painterly, and he delivers it in a headlong rush. On "Impossible," from the 1997 album Wu-Tang Forever, he rhymed, "He pointed to the charm on his neck / With his last bit of energy left, told me rock it with respect / I opened it, seen the God holdin' his kids / Photogenic, tears just burst out my wig." He's a romantic, in his own way, and never stoic.

The images in all his songs are this vivid, sometimes to the point of distraction. He describes scenes with such detail he might have a back story for each verse. He prefers to work with members and affiliates of the groundbreaking and influential Wu-Tang Clan, which he co-founded. "Not everybody can tell a really good story," he says. "They veterans." As is he. For 20 years he's been playing unreliable narrators and characters who second-guess themselves. Yelling, going for broke whenever he's in front of a microphone. Ol' Dirty Bastard may have had no father to his style, but it's Ghostface who's still the same guy we met back in 1993.

His latest project contains all the preoccupations we already know him for — ziti, women, soul music, Wallys, campfire horror, injustice — but in some ways there's even more going on than usual. Twelve Reasons To Die is also a collaboration with a film composer on a concept album that's inspired a comic book and a theatrical stage show.

Born Dennis Coles on Staten Island, New York City, he can now, at the age of 42, look back on a career that's seen him play an integral part in one of the most respected groups in hip-hop history and release equally successful solo work. He's toured the world several times over, but he's not done yet.

"I'm just, right now, glad to be a part of anything," says Ghostface. "Yo, I been here for so long. You know what I mean? But I don't feel old; I'm not going nowhere. I'm still talented. This is what I do. And I do it well."

What he's doing now is a concept album about an Italian gangster betrayed, murdered and resurrected as a black superhero bent on revenge.

This was not his idea. That came from Bob Perry. He's worked in the music industry for decades, distributing records and doing A&R for hip-hop artists like Mobb Deep and the Alchemist, which is basically matchmaking rappers and producers. He'd always wanted to make a concept album, and he wanted to hear more live instrumentation in rap.

He scoured the Internet until he heard Adrian Younge, who had a studio full of antique instruments. "This is the guy I can make that — you know, my rock opera with."

Perry called Younge and told him he wanted him to make an album with Ghostface. Younge says they were both thinking big. "We created this whole crime thriller thing that takes place in the late '60s," he says. "I don't want to give away the story because it's like a movie — we look at this like a real movie."

And they figured — if the story they dreamed up is so visual, why not tell it that way, too? Perry took their idea to comic book writer Matt Rosenberg, who began work on a version of their saga in his medium. Younge and Perry sent him plot points, and Ghostface began fleshing out the role they'd cast him in.

"We just kind of gave him broad instructions," says Perry. "Song 1 is about his rise to power. Song 2 is about being the man. Song 3 is about getting crossed, going to war, falling in love. And he took it from there."

Ghostface says he had no problem working like that. "Just whatever you give me — it's like a hit man. You know, it's what I get paid for."

He's just being modest. Younge describes what Ghostface brought to the table: "He's a kind of rapper that's theatrical and cinematic. He's very savvy in the type of production he chooses, and how he approaches the production."

Ghostface has his methods. "Basically, whatever really sounds good to me. Beats to me is like women. You see a chick that's like, 'Oooh, man.' I don't know how everybody else does it, but that's how I do it," he says. "I got a good ear for music. If it feel good to me, then, a lot of times, it's gonna feel good to you."

When Younge sent Ghostface the music he wrote for their project, the rapper realized they had something in common. "We love old records. We got old souls," he says. "And we love those kind of records."

Ghostface has been incorporating the raw '60s soul sound into his songs since before he had a record deal. "I had a lot of soul," he says. "I rhymed over the words. I been rhyming over — in the '80s, I rhymed over The Temptations. You know what I mean? Over it."

When the Wu-Tang Clan was in its infancy, when Ghost and his compatriots were rhyming in staircases, banging on the walls to make a beat — even on the group's debut album — Ghostface hadn't yet found his voice. "They was more nicer than I was," he says. "I picked up from each, from Dirty, from Deck, to Rae, Tical — incorporated that into myself."

His affinity for soul music became his signature. "I grew to be more nice," he says. He asked the lead singer of The Delfonics, a group from the '60s he listened to growing up, to perform on his solo debut, 1996's Ironman.

And on his fourth album, he went even further. He took an old Delfonics hit, "La La (Means I Love You)," and gave it the Temptations treatment.

"Ghostface literally rapped over the entire track. Not the instrumental, the entire track," says Younge, talking about a song named "Holla." "It's different, but it works. I don't know how he does it, but it always works."

Ghostface, Younge and their band are touring Twelve Reasons to Die, in a production that acts out Ghostface's detailed storytelling and the cinematic style of Younge, who has composed for films. It involves masks, long red robes and a giant book from which Ghostface reads one song. They deftly transition between the new high-concept tracks, Wu-Tang party rockers and Ghost's best-loved work from a two-decade run — "Mighty Healthy," "Daytona 500," "4th Chamber," "Run" — rearranging, reintroducing and knitting together soul music and hip-hop, in real time.

This is the part that Ghostface sounds most excited about. "I would always want to do a Ghostface show, like, to make it look like plays," he says. "Each track is you just sliding in. Just make it theatrical — like a cinema."

The stage show, like the album, tries to create something new. They're pairing old lyrics with original music, throwing fresh verses on top of sounds made on 50-year old instruments. The point is to do something Ghostface has done in the past — push hip-hop forward.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Frannie Kelley is co-host of the Microphone Check podcast with Ali Shaheed Muhammad.