Ghostface Killah - Biography
The case could be made that hip-hop has never seen an artist who so efficiently fused gritty street imagery with such an esoteric sensibility as Ghostface Killah. While Ghostface Killah is known as one of the founding members of the legendary Wu-Tang Clan, he has also established himself as a respected solo artist. Considering his prolific (not to mention highly acclaimed) streak of albums, steady touring and even an action figure made in his image, Ghostface Killah has arguably replaced RZA and Method Man as the Wu-Tang Clan’s most recognizable member.
Born Dennis Coles on Staten Island on May 9, 1970, Ghostface played a pivotal role in the formation of the Wu-Tang Clan in the early 1990s. Taking his stage-name from the main villain in the 1979 kung-fu film The Mystery of Chessboxing, Ghostface Killah’s debut came on the Wu-Tang Clan’s heavily kung-fu influenced Enter the Wu-Tang, 36 Chambers (1993 Loud). Despite several now-canonized verses on the record, Ghostface Killah’s presence within the clan remained somewhat subtle and mysterious to the public, even masking his face with a stocking in a photo featured within the album’s liner notes. The face of Ghost became increasingly more visible on fellow Wu-Tang member Raekwon’s ground-breaking solo album, Only Built For Cuban Lynx (1995 Loud), which featured Ghostface Killah on fifteen out of the album’s eighteen tracks.
One track in particular, “Shark N****s” has Ghostface and Raekwon taking verbal shots at Brooklyn rapper The Notorious B.I.G. for his use of a baby’s image on his album cover, a theme which they felt he blatantly copied from Queens-based rapper, Nas. The Notorious B.I.G. responded to the pair’s criticism on his song “Kick In The Door.” This feud soon diminished and Ghostface Killah has since paid tribute to the late Notorious B.I.G.’s legacy on numerous songs.
Ghostface Killah also contributed songs to the soundtracks for the movies Sunset Park and Don’t Be A Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood (1996). Both songs were included on Ghostface Killah’s debut solo-album, Ironman (1996 Epic). The album raised eyebrows throughout the underground and craned necks in the mainstream, debuting at number two on the pop charts. Straying away from Wu-Tang Clan’s trademark kung-fu-film sampling, Iron Man snuggly wrapped itself in Blaxploitation film samples and 70's soul music, with production handled primarily by the Wu-Tang Clan’s in-house producer, RZA. The release of this album would also see the beginning of Ghostface's Iron Man (Marvel Comics) alias, which he continues to use to this day. Ghostface Killah’s, now famous, chaotic yet precise rhyme delivery, is featured on singles “Daytona 500” and “All That I Got Is You.”
Ghostface Killah bypassed any sort of sophomore slump with his second album, the highly praised Supreme Clientele (2000 Epic), which snagged remarkably stellar reviews from many well-known publications such as Rolling Stone, The Source and New Music Express. Vibe even named Supreme Clientele the tenth best rap album of all time. Supreme Clientele was laced with metaphors pertaining to everything from martial arts references to boxing to posh gastronomy, further expanding Ghostface Killah’s complex hip-hop legacy. The Staten Island rapper took his vivid narratives to another level on songs like “Apollo Kids”, “Buck 50” and "Cherchez LaGhost."
Ghostface Killah further built his reputation as one of hip-hop’s most profound and emotional lyricists on the Wu-Tang Clan’s third studio-album The W (2000 Loud). Ghostface Killah’s raw emotion can be heard especially well on the Isaac Hayes-assisted “I Can’t Go To Sleep,” where the seething rapper graphically describes, and subsequently berates the injustices Africans have faced in the world. It has even been claimed that Ghostface Killah wasn’t afraid to weep during the recording of his gut-wrenching verse.
Ghostface was not able to replicate the success of Supreme Clientele on his follow-up, Bulletproof Wallets (2001 Epic). The album was met with disappointing sales reviews. Subsequently, hostility arose between the Wu-Tang member and his record label Epic, which he then left.
In 2003, Ghostface Killah signed with hip-hop heavyweight label, Def Jam Records and temporarily removed the “Killah” from his stage-name. The newly named Ghostface released his Def Jam debut The Pretty Toney Album (Def Jam) in 2004. Unlike his previous release, this album was met with critical praise and was included on many end of year “best of” lists. Similar to Bulletproof Wallets, The Pretty Toney Album expressed Ghostface’s fondness for 70’s-era soul music, especially on songs like “Holla,” which is essentially Ghostface rapping over a Delfonics classic. However, perhaps unlike the former, The Pretty Toney Album was able to find equilibrium between the soul and the street, thematically speaking. The Pretty Toney Album also featured the single “Tush,” a sexually-charged romp which featured Missy Elliot. The track received a decent amount of radio airplay as well as spins in the clubs. In addition to Missy Elliot, the album featured collaborations with other New York-based rappers such as Jadakiss and Styles P. And, while RZA contributes his production to a pair of songs, the rest of the Wu-Tang Clan is completely absent from the album.
Ghostface kept busy after The Pretty Toney Album, by working on several projects outside of the immediate Wu-Tang Clan family. Mainly, Ghostface assembled Theodore Unit (short for The Open Door Unit) a group of his protégé’s, Trife Da God, Shawn Wigs, Sun God, Cappadonna and of course, Ghostface himself. The crew released 718 (2004 Sure Shot) as a tribute to the Staten Island area code that the group calls home. Ghostface and fellow Theodore Unit member Trife Da God then released a collaboration Put It On The Line (2005 Starks Enterprises). Theodore Unit continues to tour and collaborate with Ghostface to this day.
In 2006, Ghostface released his fifth studio album, Fishscale (Def Jam). Perhaps assisted by the Ne-Yo blessed single “Back Like That,” the album reached number four on the pop charts, making it the best selling Ghostface solo album since Ironman. And cleverly cocaine-themed anthems such as “Kilo” and “Shakey Dog,” got nods of approval from critics and Wu-Tang loyalists alike. Aside from promoting Ghostface’s Theodore Unit, the prestige of the album also helped re-ignite the hype surrounding the recently dormant Wu-Tang Clan, as Fishscale contained a collaboration with each member of the original Wu-Tang lineup, including a posthumous verse from Ol’ Dirty Bastard.
However, while the Wu-Tang Clan was present lyrically, Fishscale is the first Ghostface album that does not feature any production from RZA. Instead, a diverse cast of studio wizards handled the production, from A-list producers like Just Blaze and Diddy, to underground greats like MF Doom, Pete Rock and the late J Dilla. Later that year, Ghostface released a sequel of sorts to Fishscale, titled More Fish (2006 Def Jam). Musically, More Fish was of the same nature as Fishscale, but it extended its collaborative efforts further by featuring duets with the likes of Kanye West, Amy Winehouse, Redman, Mark Ronson and others. More Fish may also be Ghostface Killah’s most successful dabble in soul music, as evidenced by tracks such as “Gotta Hold On” and “Josephine,” both of which reveal a more vulnerable side of the Staten Island rapper.
In late 2007, Ghostface released Big Doe Rehab (2007 Def Jam). The sales of Big Doe Rehab were disappointing and Ghostface publicly voiced his resentment of the fans illegally downloaded the album rather than purchasing it. The release of Big Doe Rehab coincided with the Wu-Tang Clan’s fifth album, 8 Diagrams (2007 Universal). The two albums were slated to be released on the same day, ultimately 8 Diagrams yielded to Ghostface’s solo album. Although Ghostface appeared on 8 Diagrams, he openly expressed his disapproval of RZA's experimental production path.
Ghostface’s distinct breed of powerful, emotive hip-hop has garnered him cult status. Album after album, Ghostface continually drops unadulterated music where sentimental soul duels to find validity within nihilistic realities.