20/20 Vision: Ghostface Killah — Supreme Clientele

For the final piece in Son Raw's incredible retrospective essay series, he takes on the Tony Starks masterpiece.
By    January 19, 2021

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Son Raw is the inventor, 86’ rhyming at the center.

This piece will not try to convince you that Supreme Clientele is one of the greatest rap albums of all time. Or at least, that’s not why I’m writing it.

First, if you’re reading this, you already know. There are a few foundational principles that form the intellectual bedrock of this stie: Don’t Come to L.A., Listen to more Jazz, music and counterculture is a tool of resistance against the encroaching evil of capitalism, and Ironman is invincible, his remarkable armor is supreme. Second, it’s been done: our editor has written the definitive review and a contributor to this site has written an entire book on Ghostface. I cannot imagine any circumstance where you, the reader, aren’t aware of just how great Supreme Clientele is beyond just being too young, and if that’s the case – stop reading this and go listen to one of the greatest works in the history of hip-hop. You can come back later. 

Instead, for this final, and slightly belated installment of 20/20 Vision, I want to dive into why Supreme Clientele is so important to hip-hop history, beyond just being a great listen: the doors it opened, the traditions it carried on, and the distant eras in music it draws on, links and inspires. While it didn’t receive the mainstream critical adulation of a Nation of Millions, Low End Theory or Illmatic, nor the overwhelming pop culture recognition of Stankonia, Get Rich or Die Trying or The Carter III, there’s an argument to be made that with Supreme Clientele, Ghostface Killah kept hope alive for a rap lineage that was very much at risk of disappearing at the turn of the millennium. Through his hyper-stylized writing, rugged yet smooth sample choices, and free associative aesthetic, Ghostface Killah ensured a very specific strain of hip-hop remained vital, and we’re only now beginning to see how his creative choices have redefined underground emceeing.

But before we cover all of that, first, we’ve gotta go back.


Hip-hop at the turn of the millennium was at the edge of a precipice. The genre had always moved fast, with disco emceeing giving way to electro, giving way to Def Jam-style drum machines, Juice Crew-powered fast rap, and Native Tongues style sampledelia. This breakneck stylistic accelerationism birthed countless new styles, but by the late 90s, some of the genre’s most vocal fans weren’t happy with hip-hop’s recent evolution — particularly the genre’s turn towards commercially successful formats.

First, there was Bad Boy, a target of backpacker ire but nevertheless given an occasional pass on account of Biggie’s rhymes Puff’s production savvy. When DMX and the Ruff Ryders supplanted them, however, for the underground, the cure was often worse than the disease, as shiny suits and samples gave way to keyboard beats and simpler, more accessible lyrics taking advantage of rap’s newfound status as pop culture. Next thing you know, New York wasn’t rap’s end all and be all, with mainstream acts emerging not only from the coasts but also New Orleans, Atlanta, Miami, Houston, Memphis and Virginia. To be clear, this was a good thing: the rise of regional scenes expanded rap’s possibilities and kept things from going stale, a very real possibility given the reactionary backpackers that opposed any divergence from basic boom-bap.

For New York rappers elevated to star status during the hardcore era however, the pushback was severe: dusty beats and 5% lingo was out of fashion, and you had to adapt or go indie. Few beyond Fat Joe adapted.

It’s against this backdrop that, while suffering from chronic diabetes and facing a momentum derailing stretch on Riker’s Island, that Ghostface Killah wrote his magnum opus: the grimiest, grittiest, most intense slab of New York spit ever invoiced to a major label. At a time when hip-hop itself was completing its transition from a Black sub-culture to mainstream American pop culture, Ghost carried on tradition, transcribing the secrets of dope emceeing onto the record like a medieval monk preserving the classics of Greek antiquity after the fall of Rome. If rap’s mainstream was to expand and transform beyond the New York art form of old, Ghost would remind us just what it was rap was abandoning in its search for novelty and record sales.

There were of course, antecedents. Camp Lo’s Blaxploitation vocab over Ski’s mid tempo soul had pointed the way forward. The-then ultra-underground Operation Doomsday probably hadn’t made its way to Ghost’s ears yet, but it vibrated with the same energy. Most importantly, Ghostface had begun honing in on a new rhyme style after Ironman. While GZA, ODB and Method Man came into the game fully formed, it took Ghostface a minute to find his style. His rhymes on 36 Chambers land like haymakers to the head: he’s loud and boisterous, uttering threats in an exaggerated New Yawk accent belying his outer borough origins. By Cuban Linx and Ironman however, he’d gone from a thuggish bruiser to a dusted poet, introducing abstractions and double meanings at every turn, making the average listener put in work while thrilling initiates who marveled at his linguistic labyrinths. Playing off Rae and Cappadonna, he was equal part cryptic Mafioso and emotional prophet on a journey of 5% discovery. 

That was just the beginning however: after Ironman however, Ghost began flying without a safety net. His Wu-Tang Forever verses are already as dusted and spaced out as RZA and Co.’s production, and he soon doubled down on this energy, writing rhymes as initially inscrutable as contemporary graffiti, but whose meanings similarly came into focus with closer attention. From Bobby Digital’s Holocaust, where non sequiturs about Tyson biting Holyfield’s ear hit listeners like shrapnel, to Windpipe off the Belly soundtrack where he exorcised his Riker’s Island demons “first day out” style, Ghost abandoned linear narratives for an altogether more fractured style. Officially, this stylistic shift came as a result of a trip to Benin for spiritual and medical rejuvenation, with Ghostface inspired to overcome any language barriers through sheer emotion.

Unofficially, disturbing reports (callously played up for laughs) hint at drug abuse as a coping mechanism for poor mental health, family tragedy, medical complications, and legal issues. I’d argue for a much simpler answer: Ghostface Killah is a great writer, and all of these inputs, good and bad, shaped his work at the time: the drugs, the stress, the bid, the trip abroad, the diabetes, the pain and the joy. All of this seeped into Ghost’s writing, both thematically and stylistically. 

But great rhymes alone don’t make for great albums. This was the era of Can-i-Bus, where a bad ear and the wrong A&R could doom a project, no matter how many rewinds your freestyles got. Worse, Wu-Tang in particular was suffering from creative exhaustion. This isn’t the place for me to advocate for Method Man’s Tical 2000 (good if you skip the skits), GZA’s Beneath The Surface (good, full stop), RZA’s Bobby Digital (eh…) or Inspectah Deck and U-God’s debuts (pass), suffice to say fans viewed the Clan as in decline. Most tragically, Ghost’s original partner Raekwon had just dropped a career-derailing dud in Immobilarity, despite being as on point lyrically as ever. 

Ghost had his work cut out for him if he was to deliver a classic, but if anyone was positioned to make a great Wu-Tang album at that time, it was Tony Starks. An under-discussed facet of Ghostface’s career is his extensive executive producer credits across albums including 36 Chambers, Only Built For Cuban Linx, Ironman, Wu-Tang Forever, The Pillage, and Supreme Clientele. Sure, this was the era where rap records gave out exec producer credits like candy on Halloween while the A&R dept. did the heavy lifting, but RZA aside, no other Wu-Tang rhymer got their government name affixed to that title.

With that in mind, Supreme Clientele shouldn’t only have been highly anticipated for being a rare second generation Wu project overseen by RZA, but also for being the return of RZA and Ghostface as a team. This is particularly relevant given that RZA’s efforts were mostly concentrated on mixing, and producing skits to tie the album together: he only has beats on four real songs. The rest of the album came courtesy of Wu affiliates, Ghost’s Barber, one of Puffy’s Hitmen, a Beatnut, a UMC and the break beat producer who made the record Meth flipped for Tical. On paper, this should have been a disaster, no different from any other post-Forever Wu cashgrab, but the album is so lovingly overseen, mixed and produced by Ghost and RZA, that it easily transcends the piecemeal origins of its beats to become one unified whole. It also expands on Ghost’s own signature sound, using with the soulful edge teased out on Ironman as a starting point and then running with it.

To be certain, Wu-Tang and RZA had always trafficked in classic soul samples from the jump, but tracks like “Nutmeg” and “Apollo Kids” weren’t just flips, they were bold proclamations and obvious callbacks to the late ’70s. Elsewhere, “The Grain” and “Buck 50” repurposed classic block party anthems straight out of Ultimate Beats and Breaks, layering symbolism and nostalgia from more eras into the mix. Even when classic Wu discordance sunk in – and no Wu-Tang banger is iller or more discordant than “Stroke of Death” – the foundation remained explicitly rooted in classic soul.

It’s that collage of samples that’s the key to understanding Supreme Clientele, particularly for new listeners struggling to get a grasp on Ghost’s wildstyle vocab. Whereas Ironman narrated the hero’s journey from unenlightened violence to 5%er knowledge of self, Supreme Clientele is part memoir, part confessional, and part séance with the ancestors. The oldest known sample on Supreme Clientele is a shard of piano from Duke Ellington and John Coltrane’s “My Little Brown Book,” recorded just 2 years before the Malcolm X speech it follows on “Malcolm.” That same track is principally built around a sped up Isaac Hayes sample, shifting its string section from lush 70s elegance to film noir style paranoia, all while Ghost uses the beat as a backdrop to recount a couple of confrontations, most famously one that played a large part in ending Ma$e’s rap career.

So when the hell does this song take place? Is the listener meant to imagine Ghost taking the place of a pre-Civil Rights-era Detroit Red? As a Blaxploitation anti-hero cleaning the streets as per the chorus? Is verse 1 about an incident during Ghost’s drug dealing days, and if so, how does all this connect to the obviously contemporary story from verse 2? The answer is all of the above, and Ghostface stretches and compresses time this way over and over again across Supreme Clientele. 80s B-Boy anthems recycling 60s soul breaks are themselves reimagined with an added layer of dust and darkness, new songs are interrupted to bring you one of the illest verses of all time (Canadian edition only), and the tracklisting doesn’t make no kind of sense.

In an era where Shawn Carter bragged about bringing the suburbs to the hood, Ghost was bringing the past into the present, and creating a new future.

Supreme Clientele is simultaneously about Black history and contemporary conditions, colliding inspiration from Ghost’s trip to Africa, RZA’s movie collection, classic soul records, childhood and teenage memories, and the stresses and frustrations that came with being the world’s most dramatic avenger in the late 90s. It was a defiant rebuttal against keyboard beats, double time tempos, pop choruses and commercial compromise. It sold well and did even better critically, so much so that it earned Ghostface another 5 or so years of mainstream relevance. It even played a significant role in shifting the sound of rap for a few years, with both Just Blaze and Kanye West admitting that the soul samples they flipped for Jay-Z’s Blueprint were directly inspired by or even meant for Ghostface.

What it didn’t do, was change rap’s overarching trajectory: the music industry was contracting, B-Boys were aging into adulthood, and a mix of demographic shifts among new listeners and creative exhaustion among older Gods was ensuring that the next generation of mainstream rap would move away from cryptic lyricism and decaying samples in favor of new cadences and digital beats. Supreme Clientele would go down as a last stand instead of the start of something new. Or would it?


This is where current events interrupt my carefully crafted narrative. I am writing this 11 days after the announcement of MF DOOM’s untimely passing, and it’s hard to consider Ghostface’s mid-2000s run without also pondering the work of his closest stylistic analog and contemporary. Though they briefly collaborated to excellent results on Ghostface’s Fishscale and More Fish and once again on DOOM’s Born Like This, DOOMSTARKS is mostly remembered for the missed opportunity that was Swift and Changeable, their massively hyped, never released collaborative album. The expectations surrounding that record were monumental not only because both emcees were at the top of their game in an era where their lane in Hip Hop was viewed as in decline, but because they tapped into such similar chambers.

Both wore masks at different points in their careers, drew on early ’70s Marvel animated series’ and obscure genre cinema, wrote rhymes that appealed to nerds and street cats alike, and featured oddball production choices heavy on a combination of dissonance and soulfulness. They were the people’s champs, the GOATS for people who refused to move on with the times and accept that any new rap that mattered had to feature 808s and southern drawls. \

(Cam’ron was the third, far more commercially successful part of that triptych, but that’s another story. Sean Price’s comeback picked up where they left off.)

Yet none escape the ravages of time. Though both Ghost and DOOM remain beloved for their classics, few would argue that their best work happened in the last decade. Furthermore, it’s not like trap softened its grip on rap. On the contrary, it has proven remarkably resilient, shifting from Jeezy’s street motivation, to Gucci Mane’s absurdist punchlines, to Future’s blues to Young Thug’s crooning and beyond. Last I checked, it was basically pop punk.

And yet against all odds, in 2021, Supreme Clientele looms more prominently than ever in Hip Hop, a guiding light for an entirely new generation of emcees. First, there was Roc Marciano. Half a generation younger, he spent the 00s in exile after a Flipmode Squad Run that saw him work with Rae and Ghost, only to return with Marcberg, using the embers of Cuban Linx era Rae and Supreme Clientele-era Ghost to light a whole new fire under New York rap’s ass. Around the same time, Action Bronson was controversially accused of biting Ghost, a lazy comparison that mostly served to prove how few interesting emcees New York produced 05-10, and how few critics knew a Beatnuts descendent when they heard one.

A more welcome tribute came via Griselda’s Westside Gunn, whose high pitched yelp crossed Ghost’s bruiser phase with Migos style-adlibs, and whose Supreme Blientele canonized Ghost just as Young Thug did Lil Wayne. And the deeper you dig, the stronger the influence gets: there’s just no imagining Mach-Hommy’s discursive bars or billy woods’ soundclash of historical and contemporary references without Supreme Clientele. Even on a mainstream level, Kanye West had to circle back around to “Mighty Healthy” not once but twice for “New God Flow” and “No More Parties in LA,” such is the power of Ghost at his most liberated. I’m sure Divine Force appreciates the publishing.

It’s frustrating that Supreme Clientele is unlikely to be fully appreciated in Dennis Coles’ lifetime. It doesn’t serve the purpose of cultural gatekeepers in the same way as a record like Illmatic or To Pimp A Butterfly, albums that can serve as short hands for specific eras in Black culture. It was abstract art long before #art was a hashtag, the sort of album beloved by obsessives and other artists, only to befuddle uninitiates and those seeking light entertainment – though the “Cherchez La Ghost” video is always a crowd pleaser. Ghostface himself seems humbled and grateful for the album’s continued relevance and love, teasing a sequel yet never fully committing to it as a legacy artist.

That’s understandable: it’s not exactly the sort of alchemy you can conjure up with Adrian Younge via email, and Ghost has never been beholden to it quite like how his partner Raekwon is to Cuban Linx. Still, an Instagram post from this October promises it’s coming soon.

What’s certain, is that Supreme Clientele holds a privileged place in the history of hip-hop music. It connects the old and the new, serving as an instruction manual for a new generation of musicians and listeners seeking a window into a New York City that for the most part, no longer exists. Populated by 5%ers, stick up kids, B-Boys, dealers, rap stars and beyond, it flies the flag for a culture that major label interests and American capitalism tried to erase in favor of the easy and the marketable, but that nevertheless resists, persists and even thrives today, in the shadows of the pop edifice built upon its innovations. It’s at once eldritch and futuristic, transporting listeners to a fading past while refracting into a myriad of possible futures. It’s the most streetwise album in a record nerd’s collection with the grimiest pop hit ever to chart on BET. It could never happen again, but remains eternal. It’s Supercalifragalisticexpialidocious, but also dociousaliexpifragalisticcalisuper. 

Cancun, catch it in your room, eating grouper.

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