Ghostface Killah needs no introduction.
The Wu Tang member is in a small circle of living legends in hip-hop that are still active and creating at a high level. At the ripe age of 42, Ghostface this year releases a new album, Twelve Reasons To Die. The project, helmed by Black Dynamite producer / multi-instrumentalist Adrian Younge, marries the rugged and intricate imagery we come to expect from a Ghostface narrative with the cold drama of Ennio Morricone. During a recent stop on the Twelve Reasons tour, I got a chance to sit with Ghost and have a conversation about the new album, his creative process, ageing in hip-hop and the role of Islam in his life.
Thank you to Andrew Lojero and Fulton 55.
How did 12 Reasons To Die originate? did you already know about Black Dynamite?
I heard shit about Black Dynamite but I didn’t really know what it was. How the album came about, Bob Perry hooked up with my manager and they spoke about RZA being behind some project or whatever the case may be with this guy named Adrian Younge. To make a long story short, we committed to do it. They sent me five tracks to do but it wasn’t supposed to be an album at first… until I gave them the songs, they heard them and then they wanted to create an album. When I talked to Adrian, he said that’s what he wanted to do from jump street.
What was your reaction when you heard Adrian Younge’s music?
It was straight up my alley. It was like things I would have rhymed to a while ago, even still right now. It was like, ‘oh shit!’ to hear somebody like that, because they don’t make those no more, they don’t just go in like that. It was easy to complete.
Was it Adrian’s idea to have the whole storyline to the project?
That was his idea. When they sent me the beats, they sent me a description of how they wanted me to flow over the beats, like ‘talk about this girl, you love this girl.’ I had to follow suit.
This stage show is a bit more theatrical and ambitious than most rap shows and the tour schedule seems pretty serious, what made you decide for this?
I mean, this is work. This is what I do. We entertainers. You gotta go entertain. This is what the job calls for, to stay relevant and keep your name alive. You have a project, you have to work. What’s the use of just dropping an album and not milking that cow? You have to do all this shit.
Based on the two songs that have leaked from 12 Reasons, it sounds like your pen game is particularly sharp on this one. I’ve read in a few interviews that you’re more sober now at this stage of your career and I’m wondering what your writing process is like now compared to what it was 20 years ago?
The writing process now is me being more focused. I was focused then but I was doing a lot of drugs then and drinking every fuckin night, so it was that. which was cool, it was like whatever whatever whatever but I slowed down. The process is basically the same but back then I had more fun, it was more free. It was just fun.
You didn’t think about it as much?
You didn’t really think about it as much, it was just more fun being around your friends. My best friend is doing 25 to life and things of that nature. Things change over a period of time. Friends that you was with back then, they’re not with you now. I’m not just talking about my best friend that’s doing 25, I’m talking about people that was around you in general that made that part of that era fun. Now it’s like, I’m still getting it in. The game changed, the game is different now. You gotta really be careful, you gotta be aware of what’s going on, what you doing, what you writing and shit like that. I mighta been more witty and conscious of the different flows a little bit more back then because of the weed … you know, it opens up the closed door. So it’s like, when you’re on drugs different rhythms and different shit just come to you like that. It just comes to you like that and you just gravitate to it like that.
At the same time though, I’m sure at this stage experience is a particular kind of teacher.
Of course! Now being sober, you just think, you know what I mean? It may take more of a second to get it across but you get it across and you get it across well because there’s nothing coming in and trying to rip that thought away. You’re just more focused now.
Right. They both work hand in hand. Sometimes I miss smoking weed.
How is your motivation different as an artist, now that you’ve been in it 20 years plus?
My motivation is even more now than back then. Back then it was like ‘ok I’m doing it, it’s whatever whatever whatever’, because you’re young! You don’t really look at the full circle. You just in it. Now you can be on the outside standing in, you focused, you know what it is, you’ve been through so much shit it’s hard to miss shit. Now you know what to fix, you know what to do and what not to do. So if i gotta work double and twice as hard as what I did before, because I didn’t do it, I’m doing it now! So my motivation is up to par.
Back in the day, did you have a vision for yourself at this stage in your career and if so, what was it?
I just knew I was going to be something one day. I knew that, I seent it. I seen myself onstage. I felt it back in the ’80s, maybe around like ’87-’88 I felt that shit and it came in ’93. I seen myself onstage and this is what it is now.
I think we’re at an interesting time in hip-hop. It’s turning 40 something and we have cats like yourself that are decades into it and are still creating at a high level. How do you view aging in hip-hop?
Hip-hop is not going nowhere, it’s never gonna go nowhere. Jay[-Z], even though he got a lot of money, he ain’t never gonna stop. He’ll be 50 and still be rhyming. You just gonna do it just to do it but it’s gonna be a whole new other thing when it’s that age. I tell a nigga, even when I’m 70 i’m still gonna write rhymes. you got the Delfonics, you got my man William, he still write music, he still sing! So it’s like muthafuckas is 50 and they still tour! You think you ain’t gonna write music? You got fuckin’ Elton John and them niggas still recording but you gonna stop recording because that’s what you think you’re supposed to do when you get to a certain age? No, when you got a certain love for something, you love that thing.
All that’s gonna change is I’m probably not gonna talk about crack and drugs and all that no more. I gotta talk about what I’m doing at 50! Shit, when you 70 you talk about your mothafuckin’ cane and you talk about your fuckin’ … you might be sick with cancer or you might know somebody who got it. You talk about those situations because the people around you, that grew up with you, are gonna have those things. False teeth, all that shit. You have to talk about that and that’s what’s gonna keep you relevant. They’re gonna grow with you. Since you 70 now you got your friends that’s 70 and they wanna hear that. Just things of the world, there might be a time when an era might come in when you might have to get on some Marvin Gaye shit and just talk about like, what’s going on.
Yo man, it’s getting deep out here. By the time I’m 70 the microchips might already be in, well, the micro chips is already in but you never know, everybody might have to start getting it. It’s gonna be a lot of shit going on and you gotta sing about these things. Times is going to have to change. you get older and you start singing about your love, your life. Damn, this is my wife. My kids, you start saying shit how you miss them and how you never got to be around them all them other years when you was doing this and that and the third.
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You have grown kids now right?
Yeah I got grown kids. You start talking about things that mean something because you’re getting older now. You’re not talking about, ‘yo I’m in front of the building with five cracks in my pocket’ at 70. You’re not gonna talk about that.
Sometimes I wonder if hip-hop stunted its own growth in a way. You have cats on the radio that are grown men that are making songs for children basically.
It’s just that people have to follow a certain suit to be heard. These little niggas are coming in and doing what they do. When I was little I came in at 23 so now you got these guys coming in at 23 and 20 but that’s what it is. Shit always evolves to something else, nothing always stays the same. People gotta learn how to accept that. This music shit, yeah it’s they time to have that. So what you could do is stay doing what you coin but sometimes you gotta put them little niggas under your wing, you know what I mean, like ‘c’mere, gimme a hook nigga’, to keep you there. Do shit with them, because they look up to you too, don’t just push them out the way. Before they was on, there was no South shit like it is now, it was all East Coast shit. Alotta them mothafuckas love you. do what you gotta do for them, that’s the youth! That’s the youngs! Still do what you do tho, and do it well so when it’s time to go on that basketball court with them niggas, you gotta show them who’s boss. When I say that basketball court, I mean that track, you know what I mean, or that stage. Alotta people follow. The people are so simple-minded, you gotta water certain shit down, make a radio hit. Now you in the club. When you start talking that shit we were talking about back in the days like ‘C.R.E.A.M.’ and all that, it’s not gonna get played like that.
You came from an era where you had to invest money into your product, you had to press that 12″, you had to meet people, you had pass it off to people and now things can get done behind a computer and get today’s version of that effect. As someone who comes from that era, that now is probably an era we can’t go back to, how do you feel about it?
I don’t even think about that shit no more. It is what it is. What you gonna do? Really, tell me what you’re gonna do? You gonna protest or something? You can’t do shit man. You gotta do what you do and stay in the race. Don’t sit here and talk about what these other niggas is doing. They do what they do to try and make it happen. It’s a whole new sound. It’s everywhere. Back then you had Mobb Deep, you had Nas, you had me and Rae and Wu Tang, we all like the same sound. West Coast had Snoop, Dre, E-40, it’s a whole different sound. Now you got all types of genres of shit. It’s a whole fuckin’ mix of shit. Do you, like I said, and do it well. As long as you can write good and you got good beats, you’ll be all right. You still got muthafuckas out there that recognize real shit. It’s just gotta be heard – if you can be heard, you’ll be all right.
I respect you as one of the most vivid writers in hip-hop. You say things like ‘happiness in globs’ and reference specific things like ‘soccer mom’ – where does that creativity and inspiration come from?
It comes from the most high. It comes from God man, there is no other place where it comes from. I love good music, I love being around people that know how to rhyme because it keeps me on my toes. It keeps me like, okay, don’t get lazy with your mind, open your mind up and say something. say something that mothafuckas will be like ‘oh shit, yo,’ you know what I mean? I’m still into that. when you can still think like that and lay it down like that, you’ll be a nice MC. Inspiration is straight the talent which God has given me, God-talent. I pray for him to keep my mind open and that’s it. Don’t close it on me yet, I’m not finished, I still got a story to tell.
is there anything else you haven’t touched yet in your career that you’re looking forward to trying? Is there anything you haven’t done yet that you’ve always wanted to do?
Yeah, I wanna rhyme about God, I wanna do a God album, a positive album so the kids and everybody will understand what’s going on. I want to tell what’s going on through my eyes. I don’t wanna give too many of my ideas away because people just be taking them. Feed the poor people, feed the animals, that’s one of the main reasons I’m here. God put me here to teach people and to lead people to his direction. I’m not a Christian, I’m a Muslim but God is one. I just believe in the most high. I know what my duty is.
So whatever path people might take to the most high, as long as they go there…
All channels of water, all the waters lead in one direction and that’s direction to the most high. I keep saying the most high because I don’t want to intimidate anybody or have people feeling like I’m telling them to follow my God. There’s only one God It’s what I feel, if that’s what you feel it’s whatever whatever whatever. My job is to make them aware, to say something to turn they mind to that right direction.
What turned your mind to that? there must have been a point where you turned towards that direction yourself.
I’ve always been into Islam. I got alotta questions and I got a lot of my questions answered through Islam. when I look at history and I look at all the prophets, I love them all from Moses, Noah, Jesus, Abraham, Solomon, David, Job, Ezekiel, John the Baptist, Jona, all of them. I love them all because they all served a purpose. It’s like the stories I heard on all them prophets, I was fascinated by it. Wow!
From a young age?
Not even from a young age, I learnt about that later on in life. I went to the mosque one day and it came to me like, this is where I belong. I left out of that and I felt clean, I felt clean. I didn’t know how to pray like the muslims but I prayed in my heart like how I regularly would pray and did the same movements they did but when I left out of there, I felt clean, clean! I done been to church, I done been to other places and I never felt like the way I felt like when I went there. I’m a spiritual brother, I follow the signs so if that made me feel clean leaving outta there, God is clean right?
Alright then. That’s what made me know I belonged there. I had to follow that sign there. I was always into Islam, not a muslim, but I was always into it. I studied muslim lessons. When I got in that mosque, it was different you know what I mean. That was it. That’s how I know that I belong there.
And that was the path for you.
That was my path for me, exactly.
Twelve Reasons to Die is available to stream here.