|© The Wu-Tang Corp.- 2004-06-09
After years of critical acclaim, Ghost has become the Wu-Tang Clan's saving grace, but as time passes, can Toney Starks keep the historical importance of the Clan alive?
Late November 2003. The electric sign outside New York City's Madison Square Garden is flashing "An Evening With Jay-Z Tonight - Soul Out!". Inside the arena, Hip-Hop fans give off enough energy to heat a thousand saunas. To quote a certain rapper's skit, "It felt hot at night." Something was about to go down. And not just the fight that jumped off right before Jay took the stage. Little did those in the stands known that in addition to bidding Jiggaman farewell that night, they would actually be meeting a new champion. Not actually new. Maybe more like unexpected. The story of Toney Starks, aka Ghostface Killah, now known simply as Ghostface, making a cameo at one of the biggest shows of the year was the stuff miracles are made of. With the Wu-Tang Clan's 10-year anniversary about to come and go virtually uncelebrated, Ghost made his move. A few months earlier, he was recording in Miami when local DJ Tom LaRock got his hands on Beyonce's melodically blissful but unreleased "Summertime" record, chopped up the ProTools and slid it to him to jump on. (Ghost later says "I always record in Florida, because it's a better vibe. I recorded Cuban Linx out in Florida, so you know it gives me some nice albums".) Much like 50 Cent's B.I.G. collabo, the streets got ahold of the unauthorized remix and demanded airplay. Before long, the song was a radio smash. As a result, the reigning King of New York (who allegedly shut Sean Paul down from performing with Beyonce at the MTV Music Awards) had allowed the Staten Islander to rock the crowd with his girl while we was offstage changing clothes. It seemed that while Kanye West was kickin' "Jesus Walks" from outside the arena, Ghost was walking on water. People cheered and sang along as the gruffly bearded Wu-Tang member with dinner-plate-sized medallions hanging below his waistline paced back and forth onstage. After his verse, a Ghost, in a black, rhinestone-studded-out bathrobe, leaned back and let out a bright Kool-Aid smile. Even years after the Wu's monumental entrance into the rap game, he could still move the crowd with the best of them. The warm reception Ghost received that night meant not only had he joined his acting and rapping Clansman Method Man as a Def Jam label-mate but also as an artist capable of making the rough transition from underground king to mainstream heavyweight contender. But before he can snatch the championship belt, he has to break the mold. He must reintroduce himself to today's Chingy/J-Kwon generation and convince a significant amount of them to buy his fourth gospel, The Pretty Toney Album. Ghostface is aware that to many of today's rap fans, his intentity is almost as unknown as he once wanted it to be. When the Wu first debuted back in '93, he used to rock a stsocking cap over his face and willingly played the background. Somehow the tables have turned, though, and now he's the Clan's powerhouse. But even as his street anthem "Run" with Jadakiss tears up the mixtape scene and the Missy-assisted "Tush" creeps up the charts, the fate of his career, his Clan's relevancy and the future of the Hip-Hop generation hang in the balance, Ironman says he overstands the importance of working harder than ever in order to reach the people.
ROAD TO RICHES:
Ghost's mission is to convert the Hip-Hop populance, but it won't be easy. So just a couple of months after the Madison Square Garden performance, he hit the road, bringing along his team of newcomers, Theodore Unit, the most notable member being his new protege Trife (Superb is currently incarcerated, but hopes to be released sometime next year.) Despite years of touring and proving himself to be the Wu's most consistent member by releasing three critically acclaimed albums, Ironman, Supreme Clientele and Bulletproof Wallets, on Epic Records, Ghost has yet to earn a platinum plaque of his own (Though Ironman came close with 854,000 units sold). When asked, the Wally kingpin blames his lackluster sales and eventual departure from the label on lack of promotion. "Them niggas known I put the work in." Ghost blurts, as his dark-tinted SUV dips through traffic on the southside of Chicago. "And it was like, for a nigga not to be able to sell no records? And I'm a made nigga. But (they) couldn't move a nigga's package. So they was like, 'Yo, I'm sorry, son, we fucked up. You could do what you want to do.' So you know, I got let go. I got out of that situation." Sadly, Epic had proved ineffective at marketing other street artists as well, many of whom eventually went on to do better things. After his sophomore Sports, Drugs and Entertainment failed to go gold, Cam'Ron left Epic for Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam, turned his Dip Set into a movement and quickly went platinum. Ghost too decided to move on. He called Lyor Cohen and told him he needed a new home. Cohen invited Ghost up to his office and in a matter of weeks, the paperwork was done. "I always wanted to be on that team anyway," Ghost admits "I was a free agent a year ago. They gave me the ball now. It's like Def Jam just signed A. Rod." On his worst days, Ghostface is a god among men in the rap arena. His unwillingness to conform to industry standards has put him up there with other Hip-Hop icons who may not always be seen but make a lasting impression. So with the strength of one of the music industry's most proven marketing behind him, Starks hoped to achieve that coveted platinum success that had always eluded him. "I just wanted a place where my music counted" he says "You know Def Jam, they make stars. They ain't gonna make me, but them niggas could take the wackest nigga and turn him into something." But there have been some drastic changes internally at Def Jam since Ghost joined the team. Lyor Cohen left for Warner Bros. and was replaced by Arista exec L.A. Reid, who's better known for his concentration on R&B music. Once again, Ghost found himself in the midst of label turmoil right around the release of an album. "I don't know how it's gonna be now with the new nigga in the building.", he says "Everybody is like kinda shaky right now with a new boss in there" (First week sales of Ghost's Def Jam debut, at 68,680 didn't exactly mark the dramatic improvement he'd hoped for) "I don't give a fuck if it was on Shithead Records," he jokes as he hops out of the backseat for a special dinner and listening session where DJs from all over the Chi-town area are waiting to score freestyle exclusives and build one-on-one with the great Ghost-Dini. "If them niggas could take me somewhere far, where I could get the rewards for what the fuck I've done as far as selling records, I'm gonna sign to Shithead Records."
Some say Ghostface doesn't make sense when he raps, going so far to call his rhymes about ziti and strawberry kiwi gibberish. But any die-hard fan would be quick to correct those sorry "bowling-ball heads" who've become so addicted to simpleton rap that they're no longer trained to listen and think at the same time. Even if some of his lyrics often go misunderstood, the emotion is what ultimately gives Ghost his appeal. He explains, "In Hip-Hop, in order to be a real MC you gotta really know how to maneuver. You gotta know how to make a nigga cry sometime. You gotta make a nigga really feel the pain. You also gotta make a nigga laugh." Indeed, The Pretty Toney Album CD runs the gamut of emotions. Showing his old soul, it's truly a healthy throwback tot the golden era of Hip-Hop - the true essence of the late '80's, a classic period when urban legends like Slick Rick, Kool G Rap and Rakim reigned supreme. Its powerful production, innovative sample use, various rhyme flows and diverse topics, all sprinkled with Ghost's eccentric vocabulary, make the disc a certified banger. Clearly, switching label homes hasn't cause Ghost to miss a beat. But something is definetly missing. While there a number of cameos on Toney (Missy, Jacki-O, Jadakiss, etc.) there aren't any Clansmen appearances. Which has lead some to question if there's truth to the rumors of dissension among the ranks of the Shaolin monks. But Ghostface chalks it up to rotuine family drama. "I mean, niggas is doing what niggas do," he explains "But it's like 'Yo, people look up to us, so we can't let the money go to our heads and take us away from how we cam in, on some Enter the 36 shit.' " At one time, the members of the 9- or 10-man (depending on who you ask) collective seemed inseparable. But disturbing reports of Wu members speaking negatively about the Clan on the radio quickly lead today's extremely sensitive audience to believe news of a possible break up. Even Ghost was said to have called Method Man "Hollywood" in an interview. According to Meth, that's all hype generated by shady journalists and radio hosts running with hearsay and innuendo. "If Ghost says I'm Hollywood", Meth Jokes "then it must be true." Ghost does admit that unity within the Clan will have to improve before the fans get to hear another Wu-Tang album. "Everybody gotta be there. From me, U-God, Masta Killa, Genius, even Dirty, you know what I mean? Deck, RZA, Rae, Cappa if he here, you know what I mean? EVERYBODY." he says "I believe we gonna come through cause my niggas ain't stupid. It's just a bunch of shit in niggas ways right now, where it's like more money, more problems. You bring up more family, more mortgages. And then you have to try to hold yourself down. Sometimes shit will pull you apart from your focus." RZA echoes the sentiments, revealing that a Wu-Tang album is in the works and should be out in early 2005. RZA also urges fans to stay tuned to WuTangCorp.Com, as the Abbott's still got a few tricks up his sleeve. "I've been talking to Ghost and Raekwon about doing another Cuban Linx. I think the fans deserve another Cuban Linx. I think the fans deserve another Wu-Tang Clan album, too. After that I think we did our job, nah'mean?" Still, a whole Ghost album without even a hook from Raekwon? That's like yin without the yang. After all, it was the undeniable chemistry between Wu's Batman and Robin that made some of Wu's material so classic. "Rae came and laid a verse down." Starks says of his Co-D. "But he was suppose to come and fix it.". As his release date drew closer, Ghost had to make a difficult decision. "If Rae don't come to fix his verse, then it's like, I'm gonna have to go to a plan B." He said a month before he had to turn in his album. "I'm not saying that I don't need nobody, but it's like, Wu ain't gotta feature on my album every time. I might want Tom, Dick and Harry to get on it." Still, the media is vicious and journalists tend to harp on any potential conflict or drama. But it doesn't look like there'll be a VH-1 Behind the Music on Wu-Tang any time soon. To the Wu, all this back-and-forth is really just petty. Ghost dismisses all of it. "We just acting stupid right now."
THE RULER'S BACK
Late April 2004. Ghost triumphantly takes the stage wearing a bright-red long-sleeve thermal with matching du-rag under a white terry-cloth robe with "Toney Starks" emblazoned on the back. Unlike last time at the Garden, this is undeniably his show. Even as the light drizzle begins to turn into an unforgiving downpour, the droves of fans waiting patiently on line (which wraps almost all the way around the block) to get into New York's Roseland Ballroom are undeterred. It's Ghostface's first New York performance since his album dropped a week ago and with Rakim billed as a special invited guest, this is one show not to be missed. Evidently, album sales don't paint an accurate picture of his popularity. Although the God Rakim is arrested and detained before he even got a chance to move the crowd, Ghost is still joined by some other special guests waiting backstage, including Slick Rick who not only shares Ghost's flamboyant fashion sense but his struggle for relevance in today's Hip-Hop world as well. Shining like the truck gold chains around his neck. Ghost runs through his set of classic material, building momentum. Then, to the ultimate delight of the crowd, members of the Wu start coming out, one by one. First, Cappadonna and RZA appear to greet the thousands of loyal fans. Next, Raekwon joins his A-alike to perform, EPMD-reunion-style. And Masta Killa, Papa Wu and lastly, O.D.B. (who receives shrill screams for a verse of "Shimmy Shimmy Ya") follow. The only ones missing are U-God and Meth (who confirms he would've been there if he hadn't been in L.A. shooting his new TV show). Still, the overall feeling of unified Wu-Tang Clan was there. Those in the crowd who remember the beautiful chaos of the Wu's early, early shows as well as the newbies drawn in off the strength of "Run" and "Tush" seem equally entertained. It becomes clear Ghost is worthy of wearing the championship belt. But if it's based more on popularity than good music, he doesn't need or want it. "Today's MCs don't know who made the first rap record" Ghost says "In the '80's, you got KRS, Rakim, Kane and all that shit... The fly era! The glorious days are gone on some "Can it Be" shit" And in this new era, Ghost has his work cut out for him. "It's a new generation of rap. A lot of these little niggas don't know me. They might have heard of me, but you know they don't know me like how older niggas know me," he says, sucking his teeth in disbelief. "It's like niggas don't know the history."
Words by Gotti for the Source. Typed up by CNO Evil