Joel Biswas never had Baked Alaskan.
Ghostface Killah. Tony Starks. Pretty Tony. Ghostdeini. Iron Man. Dennis Coles came into the game with a stocking on his face. It was his booming voice announcing the arrival of the Wu-Tang Clan on Enter the 36 Chambers. He didn’t just rap on Only Built for Cuban Linx as much as co-star on one of the most vividly cinematic albums in the history of rap. He saved the Wu Tang on at least two occasions and became its most enduring figure in the process. He pushed slang to its surreal free associative extreme , but also became one of the genre’s finest storytellers. And his peak lasted more than a decade.
The last few years have been a mixed blessing for Ghost fans. On the one hand he’s productive, averaging about an album a year since 2010. He has pursued projects that, at least on paper, seem like intriguing choices—exploring live production from an eclectic cast of sidemen including Adrian Younge and BADBADNOTGOOD. He’s appeared alongside fellow grandmasters like Kool G Rap and AZ as well as Danny Brown and Elzhi. But much of this work feels less than the sum of its parts.
For the first time, his writing and delivery sounds depleted. His flow and metaphors lumber where they used to float, and the live tracks often leave him nowhere to hide. Too frequently, it feels like he’s doing a Cappadonna impression in the service of ponderous narratives with limited replay value.
Then all of a sudden Action Bronson went and blurted out “Ghostface ain’t even rapping like this no more,” in an interview and inadvertently gave voice to what we all knew but dared not say: That maybe Action Bronson, whose cadence, imagery, and larger than life persona are all unmistakably inspired by Ghostface, was actually giving us that raw fishscale we so desperately craved from Tony himself. That maybe some of those recent projects could have stayed in the oven a bit longer. That maybe the revolving cast of musical collaborators wasn’t bringing out the best in Tony Starks. That maybe if 12 Reasons to Die wasn’t that hot the first time around…
This off-the-cuff remark soon mutated into full blown social media beef over questions of originality and style. And while it isn’t exactly Nas vs. Jay Z, it might just represent an opportunity for Ghostface. After all, Nas only remembered that he was in fact the same guy who made Illmatic after Jay Z tore him a new one. Wherever you stand on Ghostface’s recent work, it is clear that his music could use a proverbial shot in the arm. Could getting called out by his greatest admirer be it?
Ghost being Ghost, it was impossible not to be buoyed by his video riposte to Action. He sounded livelier in the ten-minute clip than he has in quite some time on record, threatening to set Bronson’s beard on fire over a Teddy Pendergrass soundtrack. So for the good of hip-hop, let’s hope he’s in the studio right now right now writing a 200 bar freestyle about all the things he’s going to feed Bronson after he’s sewed his asshole shut.
Until that drops on SoundCloud, let’s celebrate Ghostface Killah’s staggering contribution to the game with Ghostface: The Killah Tapes: 20 Essential Rarities from Pretty Tony’s vast back catalogue that are some of the most inspired Ghostface moments you’ve never heard. Just ask Action Bronson.
1. “Flowers (Original Mix)” featuring Method Man, Raekwon, and Superb
Bulletproof Wallets is the reason that Ghostface left Epic and headed to Def Jam—some of the best tracks and samples didn’t make the final version of an album that ranks today as a misfire – especially following the seminal Supreme Clientele.
Nevertheless, Ghost still managed to do what he did so often in the late 90’s and early 2000’s—bring back the Wu-Tang sound at a time when the Clan was scattered and unproductive – and never more so than on “Flowers” featured here with the focused rhymes of Rae and Meth over the original uncleared sample.
2. “The Sun” featuring Raekwon and Slick Rick
A classic left off the approved version of Bulletproof Wallets that still appeared on album track list—underlining just how much of a fiasco the making of this album truly was. Who makes the call to delete a Slick Rick feature? A sparkling horn loop sees a lysergic Ghost, Rae, and Slick Rick wax lyrical about why everybody loves the sunshine. Ghost has rarely sounded so unguarded and joyful.
3. “Tony’s Money”
A fiery Pretty Tony tears up pretenders on a verse deleted from De La Soul’s The Grind Date with ad libs at the beginning that clearly allude to the controversy around why it didn’t happen… Pretty Tony shoulda got his dough.
4. “The Watch” featuring Raekwon
Another Bulletproof Wallets-era gem in which Ghostface angrily questions why he’s “the most slept on” only to be mocked to brilliant effect by his iced-out watch voiced by Raekwon—an absolute highlight among Rae-Ghost tag teams and a reminder that Ghost is hilarious.
5. “Tony Montana” featuring Cormega
Most slept-on Ghostface verse of all time? Ghost pulls out a Big Pun-like machine-gun flow and lets rip, stealing the song outright from Cormega in the process.
6. “Victory Laps” featuring MF DOOM
From Supreme Clientele onwards, Ghost has been a generous collaborator which is why his almost mythically hyped collaboration with MF DOOM Doomstarks really should have yielded more than just an EP. “Victory Laps” is tantalizing reminder of the potent chemistry of their fleeting association. You cats owe us a full-length.
7. “The Roosevelts” featuring Raekwon and Trife Da God
Ghostface was going from strength to strength in 2003 and formed his own crew, the Theodore Unit. The decision to do so when you’re already part of the Wu dynasty might have appeared questionable at the time, but the Theodore Unit (Solomon Childs, Trife, and Shawn Wigs) were a fantastic foil for Ghost and entertaining rappers in their own right. Some of their best material was featured on the legendary series of J-Love mixtapes. Trife would become a standout MC of the crew and here he joins Rae and Ghost for a Wu-Gambino crime narrative in the style of OB4CL. Over the course of the Theodore Unit mixtapes, Ghost, and Trife would become a potent duo even without Rae.
8. “Five Deadly Venoms” featuring Kool G Rap and Big Daddy Kane
Ghostface makes a claim for the crown in the company of the older gods with a Juice Crew mini-reunion. He wastes no time in flexing his lyrical muscles: “Who wanna feel the fire from me, fuckin with the don / Just save the Ying Yang for Lil’ Jon kid, it’s on!”
9. “The Dodgers” featuring Styles P and Trife
Off the classic Mick Boogie Fish n Chips tape, it’s a rare chance to hear Ghost over Premier instrumental and the result does not disappoint: “I’m not a sex symbol, gangsta or activist / I just bubble like acid in a glass of Cris”
10. “Fire” featuring Trife Da God and J-Love
At his best Ghost finds consistently great beats regardless of budget. Here’s another Theodore Unit gem from the J-Love series showcasing the one-two punch of Ghost and Trife with the kind of quotable verse that Ghost produced with so consistently in this era: “The hot stepper crushing you n*ggas like hot pepper / 40 Cal squeezing, n*gga my heat is a block pressure.” J-Love didn’t stand a chance.
11. “Full Metal Jacket” featuring J-Love, Shawn Wigs, Meyhem Lauren, and Trife Da God
Another standout Theodore Unit-era posse cut over a Jefferson Airplane loop worthy of Rza or Muggs—from the quality run of J-Love mixtape material.
12. “Ghost is back”
At a stage in his career when most MC’s were running out of steam, Ghostface’s Theodore Unit-era culminated in the late period classic Fishscale—making a trifecta of classics in his oeuvre after Iron Man and Supreme Clientele. At this point, Ghost was so productive that in addition the wealth of Theodore Unit releases and mixtape features, there was still enough material for an official album epilogue released later the same year called More Fish. Ghost immediately puts paid to any notion that these tracks might be left-overs that didn’t make cut and lets rip over the “Juice” instrumental with guns that “weigh more than Gerald Levert.”
13. “Stolen Script”
A classic piece of Tony Starks storytelling that didn’t appear on Fishscale with Ghost getting all Robert Altman on us. Over a noirish MF Doom backdrop, the story goes from Colombia to Queens to Hollywood and back revealing an intricate storyline every bit as good as “Shaky Dog.”
14. “The Odd Couple” featuring Cappadonna
Supreme Clientele-era gem when Tony’s wordplay first reached new peaks of baroque surrealism, featuring a standout appearance from Cappadonna who exploded into rap’s consciousness on Ghost’s debut Iron Man. Together they showcase their memorable chemistry and create a worthy successor to “Daytona 500” and “Winter Warz.”
15. “Charlie Brown (remix)”
One of the most celebrated Ghostface rarities of all time sees Ghost spitting double time over house track “Hot Music” by Soho. Only Ghost could try to save hip hop in such an unconventional setting and make it sound so perfectly natural.
16. “Clipse of Doom (Wallabee Champ Remix)” featuring Trife Da God
To say that “Clipse of Doom” is the lyrical highlight of Fishscale is a big claim. After all, Ghost’s writing would never be as vivid, versatile and consistent as it was on that album—a staggering achievement some 13 years into his career. But it’s true and it’s down to that third verse. When Ghost threatens to write “a thousand bar verse that rhyme with E” during that climactic sequence, he is so deep in the zone that you don’t doubt for an instant that he might actually do it. This moody remix lets the full lyrical virtuosity come the fore.
17. “Guerilla Hood”
The opener off of Ghost’s first Theodore mixtape sees him at most charismatic over that kind of soul loop he loves so well, signalling the beginning of his imperial phase. “F*ck up a rapper on the regular/ blow his f*ckin hands of his cellular / It’s Don Mattingly, Don Baylor, Don King or Don anything / A monster silverback gorilla Pa / though I sleep outside the bing.”
18. “88 Freestyle” featuring Trife Da God
Another rare opportunity to hear Ghost over a classic break, in this case Big Daddy Kane’s “Set it Off.” He gives the original a run for its money showcasing a double-time flow that he rarely employed on albums.
19. “The drummer” featuring Method Man, Trife Da God, and Streetlife
A 36 Chambers-style posse cut from the 718 mixtape sees Ghost coming through in “the sky blue kulfi, smashing groupies.” So raw and dusty it sounds like it could have been recorded in a project stairwell. Amidst all the banter with Meth, Ghost takes a moment to ruefully observe, “When Biggie died, they came out with Biggie fries.”
20. “New God Flow” featuring Kanye West and Pusha T
Even Kanye had to recognize the genius of Tony Starks, powering the highlight off of 2010’s Cruel Summer with a Ghost sample from Mighty Healthy. Naturally, the man had to come through and bless it in person.