Ghostface Killah’s Gift to Hip Hop
When it dropped in February of 2000, Ghostface Killah’s Supreme Clientele helped pave the way for modern hip-hop.
By Charlie Wooley, University of California at San Diego
The early nineties’ hip-hop scene saw an incredible diversification of styles.
While many acts of the seventies and eighties relied on either funk-based party music or conscious jazz rap, the nineties ushered in an unprecedented explosion of hardcore hip-hop.
Political and often violent lyricism had made a few acts—such as NWA and Public Enemy—popular in the late 80s, but they were among the outliers. At the turn of the decade however, a unique brand of hardcore hip-hop began to form in New York—Mafioso rap.
New York acts such as Kool G Rap, Nas and the Wu-Tang Clan established Mafioso rap by focusing on themes of hedonism and violence, drawing large inspiration from the recent influx of Mobster movies, such as Scarface and King of New York.
In contrast to their mellower Native Tongues contemporaries, Mafioso acts focused on their struggles in the inner city, rebelling against the upbeat image created by early funk and jazz-based groups of the previous decade. Rather than taking an academic approach, they embraced their harsh style of life in the cities, telling tales of crime and violence.
Many took it to the next level, exaggerating their circumstances and even portraying themselves as mob bosses or nefarious villains. Similar to those of the punk and outlaw country movements, hardcore hip-hop groups branched off to create their own form of rebellious music.
In late 1993, the Wu-Tang Clan released their debut, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), which shocked listeners nationwide with their gritty hardcore approach to hip-hop, popularizing the new movement in New York.
For most of the mid-nineties, the Wu-Tang remained vigilant, as a constant stream of critically acclaimed solo releases, such as Liquid Swords, Only Build 4 Cuban Linx and Return to the 36 Chambers boosted their reputation and popularity. Gritty, lo-fi styled production paired with nostalgic soul samples and an incredibly diverse set of performers kept the Wu-Tang in the spotlight and atop the music charts for most of the decade.
However, a string of relatively disappointing solo releases, the end of RZA’s “five year plan” and a Southern hip-hop explosion in the early 2000s faded the Wu Tang Clan ever so slightly into the background. Golden Arms Redemption revealed U-God as a mediocre MC, Inspectah Deck’s original debut was destroyed in a flood and Wu Tang Forever was somewhat of a letdown for fans. What seemed an unstoppable empire began to slowly tumble.
At the turn of the century however, Ghostface Killah refined his gangster image, releasing Supreme Clientele, which both boosted the group’s popularity and altered the path of popular hip-hop.
In contrast to his grimy Mafioso debut, Ironman, Supreme Clientele was a sleeker, more soulful approach to hip-hop. In Ironman, Ghostface played the role of a common street soldier. Supreme Clientele, however, sees Ghostface transition into a more suave, charismatic performer.
Although he was far from the only rapper to do so, Ghostface’s utilization of smooth soul samples on Supreme Clientele was instrumental in kick-starting a new trend in production. Despite his incredible consistency over the past two decades, Supreme Clientele still stands as one of his finest accomplishments.
The album kicks off with “Nutmeg,” a soulful, slang-drenched track sampling Eddie Holman’s “It’s Over.” Off-kilter rhythms give the song a unique feel, which Ghostface claims was inspired from his recent trip to Africa. Lyrically, most of the song is purposefully dense and borderline nonsensical, as Ghostface includes as much New York slang as possible. In this way, he pushes the boundaries of typical lyricism, adding an absurdist element to hip-hop.
That’s not to say it’s a novel idea—just recently, Camp Lo’s Uptown Saturday Night became a cult hit thanks to its incorporation of disco-era slang. However, the combination of an unusual beat, bizarre wordplay and an unprecedented level of charisma made “Nutmeg” the first of his many absurdist hits.
Throughout “Nutmeg,” Ghost strings together a wide variety of pop culture references to make for a surprisingly entertaining listen. Even as he makes obscure Dolly Dick references and compares himself to Golden Girls character Blanche Devereaux, listeners hang on to each word.
RZA, the Wu-Tang’s leader, only adds to the song’s charm, adding a spectacularly grimy verse as the song comes to a close. Although more serious hip-hop listeners and local New Yorkers might pick up on more of Ghost’s analogies and jargons, it’s an entertaining listen for anyone interested in a unique style of storytelling.
The follow up, “One,” is arguably the finest moment of Ghost’s sophomore effort. In his typical rapid-fire, stream of consciousness approach, Ghost provides us with some of his best lyrics at this point of his career.
In verse two he boasts, “Sour mash served in every glass on the Wally Bash/Sun splash, autograph blessings with your name slashed/Back draft, four-pounders screaming with the pearly ash,” showing off his incredible internal rhyming skills. As the song continues, he merely adds to this dizzying display of lyricism.
Throughout the song, Ghostface frequently bounces back and forth between topics, giving listeners raunchy, action-packed vignettes of his life in Staten Island. While lesser MCs would struggle with such a style, Ghostface manages to utilize his rapid-fire style to portray an atmosphere of chaos. In this way, Ghostface essentially employs fast-cutting film scenes to create his own surrealist work of film.
On the hook, he harps about the dangers of life in his neighborhood, even referencing teachings of the Five Percent Nation (“Fast from the hog, y’all, and grow up”), something not uncommon in his time. While The Sweet Inspirations’ “You Roam When You Don’t Get Home” spins in the background, Ghost exits the stage with an air of mystery. While his cryptic lyrics can be a bit confusing at first, they encourage repeat listens, which can lead to a more fulfilling listening experience.
On “Saturday Nite,” Ghostface tells a story of FBI harassment, regarding the ongoing investigations regarding the Wu-Tang. In a brief minute and forty seconds, Ghostface proves his slick storytelling skills can convey emotion at a more concise rate—jam-packing an incredible amount of imagery into such a narrow time span. At a more historical level, it’s intriguing to hear the relationship between the Wu Tang and the FBI.
While the story might have seemed ridiculous or exaggerated at the time, its been revealed that the FBI had an eighty-page file on their wildest member, O.D.B, hinting towards a larger and more in-depth investigation. So while this particular encounter may not have actually occurred, it’s certainly not improbable.
Later, Ghostface reunites with Raekwon, the man with whom he’d collaborated on the nearly flawless Only Built 4 Cuban Linx in 1995. “Apollo Kids” served as the album’s lead single, drawing in audiences who’d enjoyed their previous collaborations.
Their chemistry is apparent from the start, as the two effortlessly trade bars, complimenting each other’s styles perfectly. As usual, Ghostface has some absolutely bizarre lyrics, as he harps “Crawl up in the bed with grandma/Beneath your La-Z-Boy, where you hid your knife.” On the chorus he continues to claim, “This rap is like ziti, facing me real TV/Crash at high speeds, strawberry kiwi,” which continues the absurdity.
As the song comes to a close, Raekwon adds his own slang-slathered verse, telling a brief tale of robbery—“Pose for the stand-off, mad timid/Hoping that the gun fall, guessing like lottery balls, yo.” While it may be a bit different than their previous collaborations, it’s still a fantastic collaboration between two of hip-hops finest storytellers in their primes.
Another of the album’s many standouts is “Mighty Healthy,” a spectacular blend of the new and old. Interestingly, Ghostface rhymes over the introduction to “Wish That I Could Talk to You,” a lighthearted funk/soul piece by The Sylvers. However, the sample is looped in a way that gives a song an eerie atmosphere, thanks in part to its Middle Eastern musical flair.
He reminds listeners of his persona, claiming “Both hands clusty, chilling with my man Rusty/Low down, blew the burner off kinda dusty” and “Hit mics like Ted Koppel, rifle expert/Let off the Eiffel, burn a flag in your grass, spiteful/Ringleader set it off, rap Derek Jeter.”
On the chorus he harps “When we hug these mics we get busy/Come and have a good time with G-O-D,” furthering his Mafioso persona. In usual RZA style, the song comes to a close with an obscure martial arts sample, discussing the importance of breath control—a crucial, perhaps overlooked skill as an MC. Even though he’s done boasting, the sample does so for him, insulting his competition’s most fundamental skills. Despite his refined image, he can still be as ruthless as ever.
Despite Ghostface’s spectacular talent as an MC, what truly makes Supreme Clientele influential is the impeccable beat selection. While many of his Wu-Tang contemporaries remained on the Mafioso trend, Ghostface eased back, opting to appeal to a broader audience with a more soulful sound.
Instead of incorporating his distinctive lo-fi influenced sound, RZA cleans up the beats on Supreme Clientele, resulting in a more charming atmosphere.
Production wise, Supreme Clientele meets listeners at a perfect middle ground—rough enough for fans of more hardcore styles, yet uplifting enough for fans of more conscious hip-hop.
In the same vein as Jay Z’s Blueprint, Supreme Clientele sees a transition toward a more mainstream approach, without selling out or abandoning the Mafioso elements. Although it wasn’t the first album to do so, Supreme Clientele’s utilization of high-energy soul samples hinted at a change in the hip-hop world, which would soon emerge with newcomers such as Kanye West, Just Blaze and 9th Wonder.
Since the release of Supreme Clientele, the landscape of hip-hop has changed significantly. While his technical skill as an MC has stood the test of time, many of Ghost’s misogynistic, homophobic and violent lyrics will suffer criticism due to recent cultural changes. It’s true that hip-hop has a long history of braggadocio, more so than some other genres. In that way, his lyricism is a product of its times.
However, as hip-hop’s relationship with the Mafioso lifestyle has begun to erode in the past decade, certain elements could be reevaluated. Thus, Supreme Clientele is not without its flaws. However, Ghostface’s willingness to eagerly adapt to newer fans, in both production and some elements of lyricism made Supreme Clientele a classic, which is among the finest hip-hop albums of the 2000s.