Wed 9 Jul 2014
As The Arches and Numbers prepare to welcome back our favourite Wu-Tang Clan MC, Ghostface Killah, we present a list of five awesome facts about the rapper born Dennis Coles, and sometimes known as Tony Starks, Ghostdini, or Pretty Toney. Prepare for a crash course in Wu-history as we run down five of our favourite Ghostface stories, and share some tracks from his 20-year career in hip-hop.
1. Ghostface Killah took his name from a character in the kung-fu epic, Mystery of Chessboxing (aka Ninja Checkmate)
When he chose the name Ghostface Killah in the early 1990s, the masked killer known only as ‘Ghostface’ from Wes Craven’s 1991 movie Scream was fresh in the public’s mind. But although he too wore a mask in the early Wu years, Coles in fact took the name from a character in a 1979 kung-fu movie directed by Joseph Kuo, and originally released under the name Mystery of Chessboxing (the film was also acknowledged as an influence by Wu Tang’s de facto leader the RZA, in the track Da Mystery Of Chessboxin’, from 36 Chambers: Enter The Wu-Tang). In the film, evil ninja master the Ghost Face Killer (played by Mark Long) has returned to seek revenge on the teachers who wronged him. His Five Points fighting style is nearly imposssible to defeat. Something of a villain, Long’s character faces off against the young hero Ah Pao in the scene below.
2. His last album was also a comic book
On the 2013 album Twelve Reasons To Die, which saw Coles work with producer Adrian Younge to deliver a narrative-driven concept album about a hitman called Tony Starks. Set in a mythical 1960s Italy, the album was accopmapnied by a 6-issue comic book series, illustrated by Jim Mahfood (Tank Girl), Paolo Rivera (Daredevil), Ramon Perez (Wolverine & The X-Men), Riley Rossmo (Bedlam), Tim Seeley (Hack/Slash), and Kyle Strahm (Haunt) among others. Conceived by Younge, and woven into verse form by Coles, the story combined both supernatural elements and a Mafia-inspired crime thriller plot to stunning effect. The album, fully orchestrated by Younge and his musical collaborators, was inspired by early RZA productions and Ennio Morricone. “Every beat makes you tell a story. If it feels sunny, or it feels rainy – or if it feels like somebody got murdered – I know where to go with it, to take you down that road,” Coles told The Guardian in a 2013 interview. Although his rhymes were used to create the comic series’ plot, he confesses in the same interview: “I wasn’t really a deep-rooted comic-book dude… I grew up around my cousin who had plenty fucking comic books… Thor, Nova, Daredevil – shit like that.”
3. Ghostface is a practising Muslim, and has been spiritually-minded from the start
For all the hyper-colour violence and raw storytelling in his lyrics, Coles has always had a spiritual side. In a 2013 interview with Canadian site Montreality, he discusses his religious views and somewhat recent conversion to Islam. But his spiritual beliefs were already formed, or beginning to form, in the early 90s when the Wu were breaking through. Watch a rare interview below, filmed in 1996, to hear Coles discuss his spiritual practices at the time, inspired somewhat by the kung-fu movies the Clan loved so much. “What I’m into it for is the meditation, learning how to control your breathing, and stuff like that – trying to get to know your self. Your inner self,” says Coles. “It deals with discipline, it deals with patience.” He discusses his path to becoming a Muslim in a bit more detail in a FACT interview from 2013.
4. The classic Illmatic by Nas inspired him to work even harder on his rhymes
Although he is now widely lauded as one of the most vivid and inspiring storytellers in rap music, it took a while for Coles’ debut as Ghostface Killah, 1996′s Ironman, to be acknowledged as a classic in its own right. He arguably received more attention on the basis of his verses on Raekwon’s 1995 album Only Built For Cuban Linx. But it is easy to forget just how much high-quality hip-hop was coming out of New York City in the early to mid-90s, and Coles was quick to acknowledge the impact of the 1994 classic Illmatic, the breakthrough album by Nas, in an interview with rap blog Hip-Hop DX. “When I used to listen to Nas back in the days, it was like, ‘Oh shit! He murdered that.’ That forced me to get my pen game up,” he says. “The whole Illmatic album forced you to go ahead and do shit.” His love for the work of Nas, and earlier rap icons such as Slick Rick, Rakim and Melle Mel, not to mention the still classic solo debuts of his fellow Wu members such as GZA, eventually inspired his work on Ironman, which is now regarded as an all-time classic Wu album.
5. Ghostface loves to collaborate with leftfield artists
While there is certainly no shortage of tracks from his nearly 20-year career in hip-hop on which Coles collaborate with mainstream artists or other Wu members, he has always had an eye for leftfield and alternative producers, rappers and bands. These occasional collaborations have often turned out to be true gems, not least his recent collaboration with Canadian jazz trio BadBadNotGood and Danny Brown on the track Six Degrees, and his verse on Flume’s Space Cadet, also featuring Autre Ne Veut (below). The latter, which featured a psychedelic animated video, was a minor classic, and even saw Coles reimagined as an animated rapper. Over the years, Ghostface has collaborated with English singer-songwriter Josh Osho, Mobb Deep, Prefuse 73 and El-P, and J Dilla and MF Doom. His long-planned collaborative album with MF Doom is reportedly still in the works, and may surface this year along with Supreme Clientele 2, the sequel to his 1996 album.