Ghostface: Best Rapper Ever?

Ghostface.jpg
This is clearly one amazing rapper

Ghostface + Cappadonna + Theodore Unit + Tru Life + Swollen Members + RA the Rugged Man
BB King Blues Club
October 9, 2005

Here's something I hadn't experienced before: the legendary New York rap show in all its glory. I've heard about these things, read about these things, heard tapes of these things for years: the Latin Quarter, Doug E. Fresh beatboxing against Biz Markie, KRS-One throwing the fat guy from PM Dawn off the stage. Cold, hard purism at work, artists and crowd protecting their music as their territory, absolutely unforgiving of subpar rap music, existing completely in the moment. Five years ago, I was listening to Bobbito's radio show, headphones on, holding the antenna so it would come in almost clearly, when Bobbito played this tape from a Big Daddy Kane birthday party, guys like Biz Markie and Busta Rhymes and "big Jay-Z" (rapping so fast I didn't believe it was really him at first) freestyling for like twenty minutes. I've been to a few rap shows in this city, but I've never seen anything like that. New York rap shows are supposed to happen in glitzy and overcrowded nightclubs, packed with hardass dudes who boo the opening acts when they need to be booed. The stage is supposed to be overrun with hangers-on. Rappers are supposed to leap onstage for cameo appearances. Headliners' sets are supposed to go on for longer than twenty minutes. I've seen newly-signed guys jumping onstage for ten minutes in front of crowds of industry leeches. I've seen white backpack guys rapping in front of white backpack guys. I've seen Marques Houston invite Mike Jones to the stage at the Scream Tour. I've seen Bun B at a hipster dance party. But I'd never seen the legendary New York rap show, and I'd come to accept the idea that I never would.

Maybe it shouldn't be surprising that Ghostface would be the guy to bring the archetypal New York show into 2005. He's old, old enough to talk about soul music and have grown kids. He's been around for a long time. He's the only guy left in the Wu-Tang Clan still making albums that I need to buy the day they drop. (Other Wu guys are making good music, but it's mostly not stuff that I feel the need to run out and cop right away.) He's still got his Def Jam contract, and now he's got Jay's assurance that his next album will get a marketing budget. He's got the eternal love of rap's backpack-dork contingent, a demographic he's spent the past year wooing (Wu-ing?), showing up on the Prefuse 73 and Danger Doom albums with guest verses so vein-popping visceral that they immediately overshadowed everything else on those albums. He's got working relationships with half the rappers in New York. And still, my friends and I were wondering whether we'd be lucky enough to get 45 minutes out of him, wondering whether he'd give us any of his classics or whether he'd just give us the surly, obligatory fifteen-minute new-joints set that most rappers seem to think is perfectly acceptable. We shouldn't have worried.

"Put the blue light on, man!" Ghost yelled about halfway through his marathon hour-and-a-half set at BB King's. While the light washed over the stage, he sang along (badly) to the Delfonics' "La La (Means I Love You)," telling the crowd, "I love this music. They don't make music like this no more. I was born in 1970; my mother and father used to fuck on this music." And: "I would rather write on this music than hip-hop." And: "Man, put the blue light back on. Do your fucking job." Later, he introduced his son: "Nigga came out my dick." (All paraphrased; I lost my pen.) Ghostface's son was probably 17 or 18, but he looked older. He rapped a cappella, starting out his verse shaky and nervous, gaining confidence as he went on.

So: Ghostface was born in 1970. He's old enough to have a son old enough to rap and not embarrass himself onstage. Now that I think about it, it's not impossible that Ghostface is a grandfather. His music has always been steeped in dusky old soul, horns and strings and pianos, force and emotion and pain. He's a grown man who isn't afraid to cry, and that's a lot of what's kept him interesting and relevant as the Wu-Tang Clan gradually lost its mystique. Ghostface was once the most mysterious member of a mysterious collective, hiding his face behind a mask, spitting cluttered lines of blistering free-association. He's not that anymore. We know what he looks like, and his lyrics are clearer and less abstract than they've ever been (though he still says some crazy weird shit). But he hasn't become any less interesting as his craggy yelp has become familiar. He's comfortable onstage, darting in and out of his small army of hypemen, bob-and-weave dancing as he raps, always smiling. He's managed to transition into the rap-elder-statesman role without any of the embarrassing nostalgia tours or desperate grabs at relevance that the term implies. He ran though classic after classic on Sunday night ("Ice Cream," "Daytona 500," "Apollo Kids"), but it never felt like he was running through the motions. It felt like he was happy to be there, happy to be doing this stuff in front of all these people after all these years, like he was giving us exactly what he wanted because it was exactly what he wanted, too. He kept his set going until the venue told him to stop.

Raekwon wasn't there, but a few familiar faces made cameos: Masta Killa, GZA. Pete Rock danced next to Ghost to zero fanfare on the new single "Be Easy." But other than Ghost's ridiculously great set, the big story of the night was the re-emergence of Cappadonna. Cappa split from the Wu a while back over financial stuff, and he's spent the past couple of years driving an unlicensed cab in Baltimore and going insane. Even before that, he always seemed like a hanger-on, the guy who won the lottery and got to rap clumsily tangled verses on the second wave of Wu-Tang albums. So it was a surprise when he came to the stage before Ghostface, and it was even more of a surprise when he fucking ripped it, towering over all the other guys onstage and screaming through his older tracks. He ran out into the crowd, and came back to stage without his sunglasses: "You made me break my shades. How dare you?" Whenever Ghostface's set hit a technical snag or paused for even a second, he'd pipe up again, roaring out amazing and probably unplanned a cappella freestyles ("loyal to the Clan, but I want my check") or shouting in Arabic. He was a man possessed, and stuff like that doesn't really happen onstage ever.

Another thing I don't see often: a crowd unafraid to voice disapproval with shitty opening acts. Scary new Def Jam signee Tru Life got some cheers, as did Ghostface's mostly-OK Theodore Unit crew, though one Theodore guy did give us a hilariously shitty freestyle about sitcom characters (Geoffrey got tired of being a butler, decided to be a hustler, that sort of thing). RA the Rugged Man's blustery proselytizing ("And another thing: get off Down South's dick!") found a tepid response, though his applause lines ("I don't want fans who don't know who G Rap is") had their intended effect. But the crowd greeted Canadian backpack jokers Swollen Members and California barker Planet Asia (Sean Fennessey: "He reminds me of the guys who Em eats in 8 Mile") with deafening boos, practically chasing them off the stage. "I'm a fan, too," one Swollen Member pleaded, hopelessly. If this crowd would come out to every New York rap show, maybe I wouldn't have to sit through I Self Divine ever again.

Voice review: Elizabeth Mendez Berry on Ghostface's The Pretty Toney Album


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