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New Album, Rap Beef, Writing a Memoir

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It’s been a busy week for Ghostface Killah. He just dropped Set the Tone: Guns & Roses, a 19-track project that’s his first since 2019’s Ghostface Killahs. Within the same week, he released Rise of a Killah, a memoir published by Martin’s Press. Between fulfilling the obligations of dropping a new project and a new memoir, the iconic MC found time for an early-evening Zoom session. He is in a good mood while reclining in a seat, occasionally showing off the inimitable phrasing that’s made him one of hip-hop’s most beloved figures. If you’re not familiar with his Staten Island-tinged vernacular displayed in 12 solo projects and several group albums, then you might not get what he means when he laments that these days in hip-hop, “a lot of stuff be regular darts.” I quickly realized that in our interview, like throughout his catalog, the gems manifest if you let him go long enough. 

That colorful imagination is on display on various junctures of Ghostface’s new project, which he says is an amalgamation of an R&B album he was ideating with “harder” rap songs that he recorded for his base of hardcore hip-hop heads. The R&B highlight of the project is the smooth, Bundy and Greg G.S.-produced “Plan B,” which feels like a modern take on the Nineties R&B he would often jump on remixes for — despite a lithe-yet-polarizing hook by singer Harl3y. Elsewhere, he lets the bars fly on “Pair of Hammers,” with Method Man; “Skate Odyssey,” with Raekwon and October London; and “Scar Tissue,” with Nas, which he says was conceived while the Queens rapper and Ghostface’s Wu-Tang Clan were on a 70-plus-date, two-leg New York State of Mind tour alongside Busta Rhymes and then De La Soul. 

Ghostface says the project was gradually crafted over that period — while he was also making Supreme Clientele II, the sequel to his free-associative classic that he says is “75 to 80 percent” done. Ghostface took the penultimate moment of Set the Tone to announce that Supreme Clientele II was coming, deeming it Indiana Tone and the Temple of Goons. “I think, with that right there, we going to stamp hip-hop from what my generation know it is, know it to be, and put the nail in the coffin with that,” he promises. “I don’t think there might ever be one of those kind of records [again].”

And while he’s been hard at work on his own music, he’s also been developing his Yapp City Records label. “Yapp means we’re here to take it,” he explains. “When you yap something, you took something. We yapping everything. We’re yapping every fucking thing that we see when we come pushing through, B. We’re here to take over.” As one of the Wu-Tang Clan’s most recognizable figures, he’s already had experience taking over the world with a group of peers. And 30 years later, Ghostface is looking to do it again. He spoke to Rolling Stone about Set the Tone, his Rise of a Killah memoir, and his opinion on the state of rap (including beef).

Your last album was in 2019. Have you been working on this specific project since that point?
No, it came about, like, a year ago. But I got joints that’s on there that’s old joints. I was planning on doing an R&B album first. So that’s why you hear a couple of R&B tracks on there. But then I said, “No, I can’t do that. My fans will be mad at me trying to do all this shit.” And then I said, “Let’s start with a couple of hard joints.” Started to get more hard joints, [and] I weighed the R&B joints on it because it was supposed to be two sides: Guns and Roses. Roses was the [R&B] side, Guns was the [rap] side. But it took a while because I’ve been on tour. We did 70 tour dates and the Vegas residency and all that shit. 

How did it feel being back with your brothers for the first time in a while, touring the world? 
It’s a blessing, bro. It’s fun to get to work with your brothers. We’re older now. A lot of mood swings and shit like that though. But that’s what you get as you get older and you realize this is a job, bro. You got to handle your business.

How do you gauge potential fan feedback versus doing what you feel inspired to do artistically? How do you balance the two?
I do what I feel is right. I just know I didn’t have a real Ghostface album to myself in a long time. So that’s why I was like, “No, I can’t do an R&B album.” I said, “You know what, I got to give it to the fans that knew me for what I came in for. And keep a couple of female tracks on there that the females know me for, too.” 

How fun is it to still be sparring with Raekwon and Method Man years later?
My brothers always sharpen my sword. Meth came in on the record, he bodied it. I did my parts and I sent it to him, and he came back with the monster body over my shit. And I’m like, “Oh, shit.” But that’s how it goes. You send a nigga a track, you make sure you do what you do. And then he going to study you. In rap, when you send a nigga your track and he comes back, what you had sent to him with his shit, it’s almost like boxing. You throw a jab, and that nigga calculates your jab and catch you. He’s a good counter puncher, too. [And] I know I’m a very good counterpuncher.

To keep that boxing analogy going, what kind of fight do you prefer? When you’re in the studio with the artist, writing along with them? Or this era where you’re sending stuff or getting stuff sent to you?
I don’t really like to write with artists in there unless we going back-to-back. I like to focus. And sometimes, yo, it all might not even come out that time [you’re in the studio]. A lot of times, I come back to the rhyme, do eight bars, leave it alone, don’t touch it. Or I might try to get it out the way. If I do get out the way, I could come back to the studio and [be like], “No, scratch that,” and then come with something else. That happens a lot, because what you feeling at that time. You don’t know if that will be [what you feel should be on the finished product]. Sometimes, you do know. A lot of times, you might’ve went home and said, “Yo, I should have started this way,” and catch a whole new vibe with a whole new rhyme and want to lay that down.

How did “Scar Tissue,” with Nas, come together?
I did “Scar Tissue” by myself. But then when I was shooting the video, the director of that video, he’s like, “Yo, I hear Nas on that.” And Nas is Mass Appeal. I’m basically signed to him. So it was a reach out, and he took care of it.

That was your first collaboration since 1995. How close had you previously come to collaborating?
We talked about it on the road. And it wasn’t about this collaboration right here, it was about something else. It just so happened to come about [on this project].

What keeps you motivated to rap in 2024?
I don’t listen to rap that much. But certain beats that I like, that I know that I could demo for me and my demographic, that’s what keeps me. I don’t listen to radio. I’m outside moving around, doing what I do.  I get a lot of beats from new [producers] that’s fire, that give me that old feel like I had back in the days. So I choose them over a lot of the brand-name producers. A lot of the brand-name producers is trying to keep up with the Joneses out here, and it don’t match me. 

Has there ever been an instance where an artist reached out to you and you might not have gotten back to them at the time, but then they get lit and you realize, “Oh, they hit me up a while ago!”
Yeah, Westside Gunn gave me a CD one time at a show, but it was a fly CD though. I think he had a Gucci apron on. I didn’t get to play it on the bus and shit. But, it stuck out to me though. He was like, “Yo, this is my shit.” I remembered that because, when he came out, I was like, “Oh, that was him on that CD.” 

Can you speak to how far along Supreme Clientele II is?
It’s not too far off. We’re probably like, 75 to 80 percent done. But it’s been sitting in the closet for a minute. It’s vintage, but it sounds spanking new when you catch it. I think with that right there, we going to stamp hip-hop from what my generation know it is, know it to be, and just put the nail in the coffin with that. I don’t think there might ever be one of those kinds of records [again].

How long have you been working on it?
I got tracks on it [that are] 16, 17 years old. It’s like that. I kept it in the safe for a while. Every track is jewelry. It’s rare pieces of art. 

The first Supreme Clientele had a very distinct, abstract lyricism that I really appreciated, songs like “Nutmeg” or “Mighty Healthy.” Do you feel like you’re going to be back in that lyrical chamber for this one? Or is it going to be a different approach?
I plan on doing a song like that. I didn’t want to get stuck in that world because a lot of people took it almost like, “Yo, what the hell is he talking about?” not knowing that was just a style that I used. But I think I’m going to throw one of those on it like that. It wasn’t nothing in me at that time because it was just words I put together that did it. But I felt I could go back into that bag and lay one out.

How do you think your craft has improved the most over the years?
I learned how to do hooks. I know what should be where [in a song] nowadays. Back then, I didn’t understand it. I just had RZA record me, and I took it from right there. I didn’t know what I wanted. I know what I want now. Even those sprinkles I might add in there, they’re co-produced. [I’ll be like], “Yo, put that in there. Let’s try this.” I take risks more. And [it’s about] basically taking your time. Don’t ever have a deadline. You don’t never want a deadline, ’cause once you got the deadline, if your [music] ain’t the way you want it to be, you going to have to hand the album in. That happened to me on my first album. After that, I never wanted a deadline. I didn’t get to make Ironman the way I wanted to make Ironman.

What did you do to help refine that process of making hooks?
I never was a hook dude. Now, I know how to layer my voice, even three times, four times. DMX told me, “If you want your record sounding mad big.…” Like how he be doing his hooks, he said he six-time [stacked] his hooks. So, I’m like, “Oh, OK. That was the thing.” And he was another guy that taught me, “Yo, you ain’t got to force it in the studio. You don’t got to lay a whole rap out. You could come back and do it again when you come back in the studio.” I was never a studio rapper. I come in, I like to have my shit written already, and then go lay it down. Nowadays I’m getting more comfortable with writing in there like I did in the beginning and stuff like that. But by myself, though, not with a bunch of niggas in there. I don’t like a bunch of people in the studio, because that’s my work.

Regardless if we’re doing a song together or nothing. Because now you’ve got me in there thinking that I’ve got to hurry up now, and do good because you might be faster than me and lay your shit down. I’m not here to compete with that. I’m just here to make music at my own leisure.

How often do you bring sample ideas to producers?
I don’t bring them to the producer unless I’ve got something, and that’s not too [often]. My engineer, he makes beats, so I might send him something I hear and be like, “Yo, hold that for a skit, or hold that.…”  Or, “I need to make a beat out of that. Hold that.” But bringing them to other producers and stuff like that, no, I let them do what they do. Now, if I’m going to add on and be like, “Yo, I think this might sound good with that,” or whatever after they sent me the beat, then that’s different, though. 

How’d the idea for your memoir come together?
My manager hit me one time and he was like, “Yo, you want to do this book,” right after U-God did his. I wasn’t really with it at first. He had to talk me into it and was like, “Yo, it’s mad easy though. All you’ve got to do is.…” And I thought about it, and I did it. And I went and sat with the writer over the phone for hours and knocked it out.

Was it challenging?
Yeah. He got his moments. But that’s why you’ve got to keep getting on the phone with him. [There are] new things you remember. You don’t get it all out in one day. It ain’t just me telling him my story, he’s asking me questions that lead to me telling me my story.

How do you feel about the art of storytelling in rap nowadays? 
I don’t hear niggas doing storytelling no more, man. There might be Nas. You might still got [Slick] Rick out there doing it … Raekwon, [GZA]. A lot of stuff be regular darts, regular raps. Everything with this new generation is about clubs. A lot of pussy getting thrown around and shit. It ain’t like with MC Lyte. Even when Lil’ Kim did it, she was gangsta with it. She was a rapper’s rapper. She was Erica Cane with it. But the Lauryn Hills of this shit [are] gone. Even the Foxys and shit like that, like a lag came over it. But all this other “lick my ass,” “my butthole brown” shit, it’s like … it’s too much. 

But I guess time changes. Because we was rhyming about [raps] “smoking woola’s at 16.” Now you’ve got these niggas [and] pills is off the meat rack with the lean and shit. But at least we had substance in our music. Everything is the same now. We’re the type of niggas that can rhyme about an eyeball falling out your face, and having the police pick it up and put it in a plastic bag. These niggas can’t do that. 

But what I do notice about these kids is a lot of melodies, too. I like my little nigga, Lil Baby, and A Boogie Wit Tha Hoodie and all that. Melodies is good for the kids; you’re singing a lullaby to them, they go off the melody, and they like it. Barney had a melody like [sings] “I love you.…” When these kids came with the melodies, it changed the game. I like some of that shit. But sometimes you got all these other motherfuckers biting niggas and all of y’all sound the same. Why you got to sound like him? Why do you got to sound like Lil Baby? Why you got to sound like this nigga? Why you ain’t just doing your own shit?

How do you feel about the notion that hip-hop beef is shifting from who is the better rapper into allegations and mudslinging, and that it’s getting a little dark?
It’s really personal, I guess, with them two. Long as nobody get killed. Me, I don’t like it because where I come from beef is on sight. It’s deadly. And we’re not going to let off of it. We’re going to keep the pressure on your motherfucking neck, and that’s it. I don’t know about this new beef and shit like that. But it is getting [to be] more allegations of shit and who got more money and that type of shit. My type of beef rap is like slugs on your daughter or whatever the case may be. Like, “Yo, you better sleep on a motherfucking Teflon pillow, nigga.” Teflon-pillow beef. 

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Some people is saying it’s good for the culture. But I respect the old-school beef that was for the culture because it taught you how to write. It taught you how to use that pen. Niggas wasn’t talking about allegations and all of the other shit. I don’t know if Drake is a street nigga. I just seen him on Degrassi and shit. I don’t know if he was out there in the trenches really swinging that hammer. Maybe he could have been, you can’t judge a book by its cover. To some people, it might look like “What the fuck is this nigga doing beefing and saying all that” and whatever the case may be. I don’t know. But me personally, I just wish this shit would stop, because, God forbid, somebody might want to get tough and kill one of these niggas. When these rappers come up dead then what y’all going to say? That’s why I hate the media. I hate a lot of DJs that be trying to get in and be like, “Yo, you got to respond in 24 hours.” And when they don’t have Kendrick Lamar respond back [say], “He pussy, and this, that, and the third.” 

But when one of these motherfuckers get laid down, then y’all can hear the radio next day on some [in calm, solemn voice] “Black on Black shit got to stop. We’re losing too many of us.” Nigga, you was the fucking referee! Fuck is wrong with you man?! All these little outlets, podcast, media niggas is nothing but the referees amping all this shit up, man. I talk about it every fucking day. “Oh, this guy got this much to respond. Oh, this one did that.” Amping the whole shit up. But, yo, soon as a nigga come up dead flat [in same calm, solemn voice], “I don’t know what’s happening to hip-hop. We’re the worst genre. Oh, the culture.” With that sad voice on the radio, sounding stupid as a fuck. You contributed to the whole shit, nigga. That’s why I’m like, “Yo, y’all niggas ain’t really ready for nothing like that. Keep that same energy when a nigga get dead.” That’s all I’m going to say. That shit piss me off, man. Word. 

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