Ghostface Killah, your rapper’s favorite rapper and a self-described “wizard of poetry,” is one of hip-hop’s most prolific artists — he’s released nearly a dozen solo albums since his 1996 debut, Ironman, not to mention his work with the Wu-Tang Clan, which released their long-awaited new album, A Better Tomorrow, last week. This week, Ghostface drops 36 Seasons, a concept album on which the rapper’s alter ego, Tony Starks, gets killed by a crooked cop (played by AZ) but brought back to life to exact vengeance. We spoke with Ghostface about how the album came together, his writing process, and his plans for the sequel to his masterpiece, Supreme Clientele.
This is your third album in the past two years. How quickly did 36 Seasons come together?
It only took 11 days. What it was, a team of people came together and they asked if I wanted to do the project. Bob Perry [co-owner of Soul Temple Records, the label that released Ghostface Killah’s Twelve Reasons to Die] and his team reached out, explained it to me, and then sent me the script they wanted. It was easy for me. They provided the direction, all I had to do was follow a concept, and one thing just led to the next. It’s like doing a hit. Someone pays you to do a hit, and they tell you how they want the hit done. I just took care of it.
Was this album easier since you had a blueprint?
It was kind of easy, but you have to be careful. You don’t want to make it too complicated where it gets really deep, but it could just be summed up in a few words. You have to feel how the song might need to be done.
Since you already had the blueprint, what was the writing process like?
I just sat down at the table and thought. If you look at the album, it’s about a comeback. I go to jail, and when I come back, my friend is now a cop, but at the same time, he’s fucking my girl without me knowing. He convinces me to go ahead and take out this one dude who is running all the drugs. And these are things that you have to use your mind and draw up. It’s like a Martin Scorsese film — I am imagining how I want the film to go. I want to get real deep into the story like a movie, and it’s almost like in my mind, I’m watching the movie. I never went to jail for 36 seasons, I never knew someone like that, but I just had to follow the guidelines.
Is that how you typically write, to think of the song, or the album, as a film?
My process is once I know what I got, I just set it off. I don’t know what I want to say until I am listening to the beat, but it’s always important that I make sure that first line is right. Whatever line I get, especially of theme albums, I try to go off for that. I will write maybe six to eight bars and then pick the best that fits right on the music, and then use that. Sometimes you think you have it, but you don’t.
Was this something you’ve always done?
The importance of the first line? I learned this back in the day. It’s almost like boxing. The first couple of rounds, you should be getting your weight up. Maybe in the sixth or seventh round, you can coast a little, but to make it to 12, you have to come out heavy — unless you went crazy for 10 rounds, and then coast the next 2 rounds. I look at lines like rounds.
Your career has been built on songs with very descriptive lyrics. “Shakey Dog” or your verse on “Impossible,” they feel like short stories.
It all goes back to thinking my rhymes are like a movie. On certain beats I have to make the lyrics descriptive. Even if I drop the juice near the fridge, I have to say that so people know what I am doing. I never planned this to be my technique — I was just rhyming to rhyme, and I had stories. As time went on, things just happen. My first story was “Can It All Be So Simple” with Raekwon, and then my song with Mary J. Blige, “All I Got Is You.” It’s a picture you paint on the track. It’s like, wow, I’ve had people crying — they told me they cried listening to my songs. From there on, I felt like I needed to write stories, but only on certain beats.
You mentioned not all beats, just certain ones. When and how do you decide?
A beat can touch and move me, and if it can grab me and make me want to rhyme off top, then I’ll go ahead. I can’t get busy on every track. You might think you can get busy, but the rhyme will not come out. It’s like having a bitch. You are so anxious to fuck her, so you might not fuck her right. You’re so anxious that you cum too quickly. That’s how it is sometimes with music. You wanted her so bad, but as soon as you got it, your brain wasn’t clicking like that. If I can’t catch it right there, I have to come back, either days later or a week. I’ve had rhymes that took me a month to finish.
I read you gave up smoking weed. When was that?
Around the time of The Pretty Toney Album ; it was the worst time for me.
Did giving up weed make it harder to write?
It could be a mind thing with weed. It used to help a lot. To be a real MC, with my technique, is tricky, so when I was smoking, the weed would open up closed doors. I would hear music and be like, “Oh shit, this sounds good.” In a sense of catching that first line and how you want the rest of the verse to go, weed might have been a good one for that, but I just started getting sick a lot. I started saying I don’t need it anymore. When you have a sober mind, you can put things where they need to be, but the music sounds better on weed. I am almost second-guessing myself. You are a little more creative and might be able to catch a few better lines than when sober. If I was smoking, I would hear someone catch a beat, but I might have a few more juicy lines. My brain works different than other people’s brains — my mind has always been the total opposite of others.
Albums like Supreme Clientele, Ironman, and even Ghostdini are considered classics. Is that something you are aware of when you are recording them?
I don’t really look at the importance of it, at the time. I just look at it as work, and I’m not analyzing them as you are. Once you are in the middle of it, you don’t recognize the power until you step away from it.
With Ghostdini, which was an R&B-influenced album, it is such a stark departure from what you were doing up until that point.
Yeah, but I wasn’t scared to do that album anyway. I’ve always wanted to do an R&B album. I am a huge fan of R&B. I love R. Kelly and want to be the person every chick gets with, and Ghostdini is one of the best albums I ever did. The album wasn’t promoted out there, though. Def Jam just dropped it and left it alone, and that was the last hurrah with me on Def Jam. I thought if they could promote that album, that shit was fire.
You left Def Jam in 2012, so what is your creative freedom like now?
I have a lot more of it. I’m one of those guys in the NBA that can get triple doubles every day. I cover topics that people go through every day. I’ve got my street cred, I covered a lot of that ground. I’ve got the criminal to napsackers to some women. When I did Fishscale, a lot of napsackers came and hopped on that. I touched a lot of females with my R&B, even if it wasn’t promoted, and I have that earlier shit that had the streets.
Since debuting in 1993 with Enter the Wu-Tang, how do you feel you’ve progressed?
I don’t know if I am getting any greater, or if I am mellowing out. I’ll never be the same as I was back then, and I could fall off at any time. At least I try to stay consistent with every album I do. But I consider myself a wizard of poetry.
What is the status of the sequel to Supreme Clientele? Is that coming out soon?
I still have to finish off Supreme Clientele II, but it is like 85 to 90 percent done. I can’t wait to release that — I’ve been doing theme albums, and that is great, but I think it is time for people to know what they love me for. They love me for stories. With Supreme Clientele II, I am going to get how I felt back then when I was doing street shit, but it’ll also be mixed with a little bit of today. The only things I need on that is the correct skits, and to figure out the lineup. Everything on the album is important, from songs 1 through 12 or whatever, and the lineup has to mesh and fit well. I could have a bunch of hits on an album, but if the album isn’t meshing, people could fast-forward. I didn’t have to deal with the lineup of 36 Seasons because it was a story, so I couldn’t change it and just left that to the team, but with Supreme Clientele II, I might have to go through several different lineups just to get the right one.
Are you also working on anything else right now?
We’re making a Twelve Reasons to Die II, and that will maybe come out in March. Some of the stuff that will be coming out — the Supreme Clientele follow-up, the Twelve Reasons to Die II — it was finished months ago. I still go to the studio here and there, but my focus is on wrapping up what is about to drop, and what me and Raekwon got. He is doing an album. Then I’ll go back to the drawing board and see what is next.
AZ plays the cop in 36 Seasons, and he recently said he believed rappers nowadays are focused less on the lyricism and more on the brands. You have voiced your displeasure with the rise of Southern trap music, do you agree with AZ? Or do you feel like this generation’s music is meant for them?
I think AZ is correct. But what I rapped and listened to, and what the kids do nowadays, it is two different musics. What they are doing is what they are doing. When you study the music, you have to dumb yourself right down for certain music. When you get my Supreme Clientele, it is straight bars. It’s not like the kids nowadays are not as smart — or maybe I could say they aren’t as smart — but it doesn’t take them time to think. They are just making music for right now, and not music that is going to last forever. You can go into an archive, grab some Biggie or Nas, and just zone out listening. You are hearing the stories and what they are saying, but the attention span for the new generation is short. They don’t think. If you have a conversation with kids on the street, they can’t use one big word.
To stay relevant, do you have to dumb yourself down then?
You have to know when to turn it on. When I do a trap music track, I don’t get too complicated, because they don’t want to hear that shit. You got to get dumb with them. They have a dumb hook and aren’t saying anything on that hook. When Nas and AZ send you a track, you know it is serious business. Same with Styles P and Jadakiss, then it is serious business. But when you get a trap music track, you know it’s time to dumb it down.