I vividly remember the very first time I experienced the prolific poet known as the Ghostface Killah.
It was the “Protect Ya Neck” video, circa ’92, and it officially announced a sea change in the hip-hop scene, a full-on departure into a gritty realm, dominated by a hybrid of Shaolin lore, street culture and intricate wordplay.
The swarm of talented MCs in one group, spare video and guitar lick laden track was a marvel in and of itself, but one of the obvious standouts of the entire endeavor was a tall, silk skully-rocking MC, who moved out of the mob mid-way through and assassinated his verse with a high, damn near falsetto tone and frenetic delivery.
I immediately, and deeply, fell in lyrical love with Ghost aka Dennis Coles, which has lasted to this day, from his solo debut “Iron Man” all the way up to “Apollo Kids” and beyond. His imprint on the industry is undeniable.
Just listen to vocal doppelganger Action Bronson or read the satirical, and hilarious Big Ghostfase blog, during which a mystery man who has nailed the Killah’s lexicon denounces “soft” MCs and asks more of today’s simplistic rappers and their all-too complacent fans.
So when I found out the man otherwise known as Dennis Coles was coming to Chicago, along with Wu-Block partner Sheek Louch, for a concert at the Shrine in Chicago’s South Loop, I knew we had to talk. And I didn’t care that it was my day off or that I had to wait an hour for him to materialize.
And when I showed up at the hotel lobby where he was staying, old-school Lisa Frank-esque notebook in hand, I didn’t care that the apparently mercurial Ghost was a little tired from travel, anxious about sound check and searching for his deejay all at the same time.
Nope, I simply leveraged a little Wu wisdom and the help of the ever-patient and resourceful Shrine publicist, Briahna Gatlin, to get the respected lyricist to compress all six-foot-two-inches of himself onto a teeny lobby couch for an interview. Then, this happened.
JET: So Ghost, it’s so great to meet you. I have loved your music since I first heard the Wu-Tang back in ’the early 90s.
Ghostface: That’s what’s up. (slapping hands with me) Yeah, yeah.
JET: But now, I want to see what you know about JET.
Ghostface: Oh yeah, I been reading JET from the way back.
JET: Great! Well, we have a series of questions we ask our celebrity friends, so I want to ask a few.
Ghostface: Okay, that’s cool.
JET: What is your earliest memory of JET?
Ghostface: Y’all had them bad chicks in there. Beauty of the Week. Bow! Right there in the middle.
JET: Is that the first feature you flip to?
Ghostface: Yeah, but also the cover. Depends on who is on there. I might go right to that.
JET: Okay, another JET-powered question. What is the best career advice you’ve ever been given?
Ghostface: (pauses) Save your money, man. Somebody tried to tell me that. In this career, things come and go so quick. You don’t take heed of it when it first comes in. Years down the line, you see that you done run through so much money. You partied and shit. You went and got fly. Then you realize you gotta be more careful.
JET: So, you shouldn’t throw your cash in the air like they do in those popular rap videos?
Ghostface: (scoffs) Yeah, let them go ahead and throw it. Just aim some of it over here.
JET: (laughs) Okay, next question from our special list. What figure from Black history would you want to speak to if you could, and what would you talk to them about?
Ghostface: Was Jesus Black? (laughs) Nah, you don’t have to answer that. I’m a say Harriet Tubman or Nat Turner. Just to see what it was like. For her, what motivated her to build that underground railroad…to free those slaves. What willed her? And Nat Turner, he ain’t take no shit. I respect the man. I mean, that’s a good question. There are a few people. Muhammad Ali, I wanna talk to him back when he turned Muslim. And he stood up for his beliefs when they tried to make him join the military. He said eff you, put me in jail and that…that’s probably what helped make him one of the greatest boxers of all time. He was used to it…having to struggle and overcome. He ain’t care about what people thought. Martin Luther King too…to see what his insights were. And Malcolm X, oh yeah, he was rough with those crackas. (laughs)
JET: That’s a good list.
Ghostface: Yeah, yeah. Got a few people to talk to.
JET: Last JET question, if you could only be remembered for one thing…just one, what would it be?
Ghostface: (pauses, strokes chin) Besides being a good person, I’d like to be remembered as a spiritual dude. I’m a Muslim, so I believe in God here and the hereafter. With music, it is what it is….but the way I feel for poor people, animals, I see things on a different scale. I strongly believe that what goes around comes around. The more good you do, you’re gaining credit. Your good scale better outweigh your bad. That’s why I believe in helping people, like feeding a bum on the street. Or man, even the birds. I feed them too. I care about people, about animals. You see I come from the streets, you don’t get to talk about that in the music, but that’s who I really am.
JET: Wow, well, that’s really cool. I truly thought your music would be your legacy, but I respect that. That’s certainly a side of you that we don’t always get to learn about even though you’re such a great storyteller. Speaking of that, you’ve done everything from movies to TV and you’ve even had an action figure, what is your next platform as an artist?
Ghostface Killah: Man, back when I did “All I Got Is You” with Mary J. Blige, I wrote a screenplay. I never finished it. I also worked on a movie script, “Criminology,” kinda like “Menace II Society” and “Dead Presidents.” This is something the Hughes Brothers gotta get involved with.
JET: Do you think we’ll see them onstage or the big screen anytime soon?
Ghostface Killah: I believe I will do it, but everything is in God’s time, not your time. If it’s not for you, you won’t get it. God’s like, “If I give it to you now, it could hurt you.” I had to learn to understand that. It’s just like you go to a store and see the sneakers you want, but they’re never in your size. Okay, good…if they don’t fit, I can’t get that. You don’t need that. Move on.
JET: Man, I would keep going to the different stores if they had the sneakers, well, let’s say boots I wanted, but not in my size. So all this time, I should have just given up? Those boots were not for me?
Ghostface: Naw, boo, them boots weren’t for you. (laughs)
JET: Lesson learned. Alright, I’ve always wanted to know this. You’re known for being one of the top lyricists in the game. Who is your favorite? And no Wu-Tang allowed. And I’d say you, but you can’t say you.
Ghostface: I wouldn’t say me, ma. (laughs) But I don’t have a favorite lyricist. Different times, I have different people I would name. I go back to Big Daddy Kane, Rakim, and KRS One. I go to Kool G. Rap. As time went on, I’d say Nas became one of my favorites. And you said I can’t say this, but in Wu-Tang, the Genius is my favorite. He ain’t no dumbfounded (n-word).
JET: I used to feel like and still do, I suppose, that there is a lack of respect for rappers in their 30s and 40s. It’s almost a forced rap retirement. Can there be a rap Rolling Stones, rocking the stage in their 70s?
Ghostface: I don’t know. Look at Wu-Tang . We’re coming up on our 20th anniversary, and we’re not even putting out bomb ass music, at least not as a whole. But overseas, we tour like a motherfucker. On a rap level, we’re one of the few groups like that. Maybe the only one. And we got 12 year olds coming to the shows, so that respect and love for us, it’s like it starts over again. We got fans with tattoos of the W on them…Our shit is engraved. I met this guy, who pulled down his pants and he had the ODB’s face on his thigh. You don’t see many cats out here today inspiring that. Our fans die with the W.