On the fifteenth anniversary of "Fishscale," Ghostface Killah reflects on his creative process, the art of storytelling, connecting with MF DOOM, and the death of the album as we know it.
Anyone who has lived with the work of Ghostface Killah knows that his mind doesn't work like his fellow emcees. It's made evident through his penmanship, the product of a methodical and patient process. Sometimes a verse might take hours to complete. Unsurprising, given the sheer volume of detail and imagery present within his writing. Even a mundane detail can be invigorated with life, a periphery character fleshed out with an immersive backstory. It's part of why he's been at the center of so many classic albums -- and one such project has officially turned the corner on year fifteen.
Ghostface Killah released Fishscale on March 28th, 2006, to a hip-hop landscape utterly alien in comparison to that of today. The production lineup reads like a who's who of legendary beatmakers, including but not exclusive to Just Blaze, MF DOOM (under his pseudonym Metal Fingers), J Dilla, and Pete Rock. Longtime collaborator Raekwon held it down on five of the album's tracks; not quite on the same level as Ironman, but his presence was felt nonetheless. Still, Fishscale was and remains Ghostface Killah's show. An odyssey through the kaleidoscopic mind of a storytelling auteur, prone to stream-of-consciousness but never to rambling.
A few days prior to Fishscale's anniversary, and shortly after his Verzuz battle with Raekwon, I had the chance to speak with Ghostface Killah about the project, his creative process, and much more. Our conversation has been transcribed below, edited for clarity.
Salvador Espinoza Courtesy of Distrolord.com
The interview took place on ZOOM. Ghostface Killah was present, as was his associate Shawn Wigz.
HNHH: What's up Ghost? How are you doing?
Ghostface Killah: Everything is good. I can’t complain. Bunch of interviews, bunch of interviews.
Congrats on the Verzuz battle. I was checking that out, it was a crazy night.
Yeah, it was crazy though. It was cool.
How did it feel to go up against your longtime collaborator Raekwon?
It felt fun. We both know each other, so we know what kind of guns both of us are holding. People took it as a battle -- I took it as 'you play your best 20 joints and I play a couple of my top 20.' That was it.
How do you narrow down that setlist?
Just looking at the records you got. A lot of them are well-known ones. And then after you get past those, you got to study - and then be like OK, should this one go or should this one go? And you got a couple of the guys in the room and you ask them which song they would pick next. When you're doing that, it's hard, a little bit.
Obviously, you and Rae have made so many classics together. Did it take you back to those days working on the Wu-Tang albums -- that hyper-competitive atmosphere?
A little bit. My main focus was like, I'm coming here to have fun, but there's gonna be like a million people watching you.
Definitely. I guess it must've differed from those studio sessions, then. You've talked about your writing process in the past, how you'd be a bit more methodical and really take your time to perfect your verse.
For the most part, when it’s something that's so dear to me, I have to sit on it. I go step by step, looking over it. I'm better at it now and I try not to overthink it like I used to. If I really wanna make it good, I make like three eight bars first and then pick the best one out of the three.
Was writing at a slower pace something that a lot of the Wu members did or are you one of the exceptions?
I’m the slowest out of everybody. Me and Genius are the slow ones.
So were there ever any tracks that you feel like you missed out on?
Yeah! I missed out on like a thousand of those things. [Laughs] I missed out on crazy tracks because I didn't want to be rushing nothing. If anybody knows me it’s like I don't be moving too-too-too-too fast. I always take my time. I don’t know why God made me like this. I take my time with everything I do. Even when I’m in the bathroom, my girl's screaming like YO! People down there waiting for me. It’s like I'm just - I'm just slow. Everything I do is really really slow.
I missed out on crazy tracks because I didn't want to be rushing nothing. If anybody knows me it’s like I don't be moving too-too-too-too fast. I always take my time. I don’t know why God made me like this. I take my time with everything I do. Even when I’m in the bathroom, my girl's screaming like YO! People down there waiting for me. It’s like I'm just - I'm just slow. Everything I do is really really slow.
It shows in your writing -- in a good way -- that you are very methodical. Something I really appreciate about your lyricism is the amount of detail that goes into it. Sometimes you can listen to a song and it’s like watching a movie unfold. You have every sense going. You got the sounds, the smells -- I can tell that you put a lot of thought into that.
Right. That's what I be trying to paint for the people. I can do abstract, that’s cool too. But I feel better going into detail.
Who were some of your early influences when you were first starting to write?
Slick Rick, Rakim, [Big Daddy] Kane. When I first started to write -- the Fat Boys, Mantronix, Run DMC. A Lot of the music that was done in the eighties. All the great rappers like KRS-One, Divine Sound, rappers that this generation probably never heard of. Casanova Rud, Super Lover Cee. Steady B's Bring The Beat Back. I get all that from them.
Steven Ferdman/Getty Image
One thing about Wu-Tang Clan -- there was always this sense of mythology. I remember when I first started to discover your music when I was a kid, it was like a pantheon. Each one of you guys had a different style that you had to unpack and unfold. Was that something you guys were conscious of when you were first starting out as young rappers in the crew?
Nah. We just knew that we all had a gift, and that we was nice. I don’t know if anyone else looked into it, but I didn't. I just looked at it like lemme just go in here and try to hold my weight against a bunch of great MCs. It was dangerous. Being in there you either going to fail or you're going to step up. I basically tried to fight my way to where I’m at right now. I used everybody else's style. I took something from Rae, I took something from RZA, I took something from Meth, Genius, Dirty. I combined all that shit into one.
Was it hard to transition from a collaborative crew album to doing that solo album where it’s all on you? Writing all those lyrics, arranging the tracklist, and so-on?
Nah, matter a fact, it helped me. When I did the Raekwon album and we sat in there trying to find out what the order should be, we played every record. We was like were going to start off like thisand then we’re gonna go into it like this. I learned to do whatever felt good. So if this record comes behind this one and it feels good, and we tried all the other records and this is the one that stuck out -- okay, then that’s number one. What's coming after that, does it feel good? OK, that’s number two. We put the songs against each other -- all of them. We might say save this one for the last record or this one can be in the middle. Other than that, we played every record against each other just to get the right list, so that people don’t fast forward songs on your album.
It sounds like you're an artist that appreciates listening to an album as one cohesive whole.
At this moment, a hairless cat crawls onto Wigz, prompting him to call out to Ghostface "look, your boy is here!" Upon seeing the cat, Ghost's face falls.
Ghost: That motherfucker jumped on my back one day. I don't play with that cat.
How did you feel about that?
How did I feel about that? Man, I was mad as a motherfucker. I was mad and scared at the same time. [Laughs] But yo, he jumped off the wall to my back. It was like a trick. I didn't expect that.
I feel like that's something that would happen in one of your tracks.
Oh yeah! What's that record on Fishscale that I did?
The 'bullshit pit!'
Yeah, that one! "Shakey Dog."
I think that might be my favorite Ghostface track.
It was definitely something -- cause the cat jumped off the wall onto my back, it had me wildin'. It was crazy. I was scared.
Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic/Getty Images
It's funny that you mention that, because I really wanted to ask you specifically about your approach to writing "Shakey Dog." You walk us through every detail from start to finish. How on earth did you manage to bring that together? What was your process?
When I'm going into regular story mode, it takes a lot of thinking about how you want it to sound, how to put your words together. You wanna make it seem like the person that's listening to it can see it too. But I don't really think about that much, about what other people are on, because I gotta focus on what I'm trying to say. So, I'm thinking about what could possibly happen in this predicament right here. It can be a murder. It can be a robbery. It could be a vacation. I'm trying to picture whatever the situation is in my mind and what can possibly go on in that day or that time right there. I don't think about what other people are gonna think about. I'm trying to put all this together, then we'll see if you can see my mind.
Definitely. With a story like that, are you developing characters as you go?
Yeah, it depends on what it calls for because I don't have a plan.
Something I noticed about that song and a lot of storytelling tracks that you have, is that it has that cinematic quality but rather than you being this omniscient narrator, you're right in the middle of it. You're giving listeners a raw and direct view into what you're saying.
It's basically just well-rounded. I might bring some humor to it and mix it up with stuff like that where it's like oh you can see this fat dude eating all the cake or he dropped the cake in the midst of everything going on around him. Fat dude dropped his cake and then this and that and it'll just keep going.
Sometimes there's even darker humor too. I'm thinking of the song "Gihad" with Raekwon. It's funny, but dark as hell.
Oh, yeah. Something About Mary. Yeah, I forgot about it, we said something like that though. I think a T bone steak from Ruth's Chris and all that.
That's what I mean about all those details. They leap off the page and make the story so much more immersive.
Yeah, it just comes, man. It just comes.
Are those your favorite type of tracks to write, the stories?
For the most part. I mean, it's like 60/40. But, when you hearing it back with the stories, you appreciate it more.
It might be 60/40. Yeah.
That's a good ratio. When you listen to today's music, how important do you feel vocabulary is for an MC, and do you think that's something that goes unappreciated these days?
Yeah, it gets lost. It gets lost because everything is so simple now. It's like I think a lot of these MCs don't sit down and really think and plan everything out. Words mean a lot. These little kids nowadays, they just talk about their jewelry and their cars. They talk about women like crazy, like a dog. And that's all they got, really. They don't really got no other substance. Nothing else, it's over.
It's definitely a different era.
Because you know why it's like that? They came up in a digital era right here, where it's so easy. You don't got to have a great song to blow up no more. You don't need a "Cash Rules Everything Around Me" and what it takes to think and do that. You could be the silliest man on the block and get rich off your silliness. It wasn't like that before. It's too easy for them.
We have some albums from the 90s, from the 2000s. These albums are going to endure -- they still do. They've defined what classic hip hop is. And I wonder in 20 years from now, which albums will be considered classics.
I don't think there's gonna be a lot, because these kids got a short attention span and they don't care about classics. So it's like, you might have a good record, but they ain't gonna to be like, yo, that was a classic album, like a Cuban Linx or a Wu-Tang or Nas or Biggie album. They're not looking at your body of work. So your classic that you got is gone. But they don't even think to make classics. They think for right now, in the club. You might get a Kendrick, somebody that might be trying to come close to a classic. Or a J-Cole to come closer. But all the rest of the other stuff is just showing you the attention span of human beings right now -- the new generation.
These kids got a short attention span and they don't care about classics. So it's like, you might have a good record, but they ain't gonna to be like, yo, that was a classic album, like a Cuban Linx or a Wu-Tang or Nas or Biggie album. They're not looking at your body of work. So your classic that you got is gone. But they don't even think to make classics. They think for right now, in the club. You might get a Kendrick, somebody that might be trying to come close to a classic. Or a J-Cole to come closer. But all the rest of the other stuff is just showing you the attention span of human beings right now -- the new generation.
Dustin Finkelstein/Getty Image
It's a shame too, because I don't want to see the album fall to the wayside. You know, I want artists to keep making those albums you can put on from start to finish and get more value out of.
I think that's over. Even if somebody comes up with it right now, that's one out of millions of rappers. Everything just coming out too fast. Like I could drop something tomorrow and then it's over in a couple of days. So it ain't sitting on you like the old albums. You get your Wu-Tang album back in 93', it might have lasted you a whole year. You know what I mean? Like, oh, snap, this is my shit right here. It last you the whole year until somebody else drop. It's not It's not like that no more.
No, it's crazy. I guess the switch to streaming must have had a big effect on that too. Because you know, when people bought CDs, they had no choice but to put that in the Discman and live with it . You listened to the whole album because you paid 20 bucks for it. You might as well discover everything you can. But now if I want to listen to one of your records, I could just go on Tidal right now and listen to any of them with a few clicks.
Yeah, man. So that's where the future is at right now. That's where the attention of the people is at right now. Right now we live in a young world, that's really ignorant to the truth, to the realness of this culture, and just the way of life period. Because the way of life that we're living in right now, it's scary, it's spooky. These kids, they different. They're not the same kids that I grew up with. When I was 20, I was thinking like a 50-year-old-man. At least a 40-year-old man. These kids think they think younger. They thinking younger. They don't care about nothing -- they rather have a Gucci belt on with no money in their pocket. Living with they moms and disrespecting everything. They don't even hold the door for their mother, still getting high in front of their mother while she got packages, and they don't even ask her to bring the bags upstairs. Cursing in front of their mother. It's like it's all disrespect. We live in a world of disrespect right now, where The Devil is totally winning. It's just negativity.
Do you optimistic at all about the way things can shift and switch? Or do you feel it's just going nowhere fast.
It's going down. Down, down, down, down, down. It's like Yo, ain't nothing gonna get better on from here. You could raise your family how you want to raise them but as far as you thinking there's gonna be a change? No. In history or life, I don't think there ever been a change for the better. It always got worse and worse as we grow and age. So we're looking at people in our generation, and where we at right now? Listen, man you got people right now that got robots as they girls. You got these rappers wearing spandex. Rappers killing each other is at an all-time high. You got countries fighting other countries over this and that. I just looked on the news, there were just 10 people that just got shot at a supermarket in Colorado. Back in the days, it wasn't taking place like that. None of these mass shooters was doing that shit. None of them.
We lived through the 90s, cool. It was nice. It's getting worse. And people don't seem to really realize that shit. Really, really, really really, really worse. I don't give a fuck. I'm looking at Three's Company. You got Janet and Chrissy in it, but they wasn't doing girl on girl. Janet and Chrissy. They wasn't over there like that. They weren't hoeing it in front of Jack. Jack was trying to flirt, but TV was limited on showing it. Now you look at TV, you see guy-on-guy, girl-on-girl. It's out there. You could be in a car with your daughter. And they play a fucking condom commercial on how to get your meat bigger! I mean, it's like three o'clock. The fuck is wrong with y'all? We got kids in the car coming from school. It's like you don't even wait to four o'clock in the morning to put that on. So it's getting worse. It's not getting better. It's getting worse.
Well, hopefully some music can endure and help to dull the pain a little bit. I mean, we're approaching the 15 year anniversary of Fishscale. Congratulations on that. Having an album that's still worth celebrating is a big accomplishment.
Oh shit, wow. I didn’t even know that. When is that? What month?
March 28, 2006.
That's like in a couple of more days, like five more days.
Seeing as the album has had time to live within the public consciousness for fifteen years, I wanted to ask you about a few specific songs. One that jumped out when I was listening to it most recently was "Underwater," produced by MF Doom. The stream of consciousness writing -- you're mixing this religious imagery with this surreal aquatic imagery. And I felt it was a very profound track. I was just curious about your own thoughts on that one, how you put that one together?
It just took my mind underwater, just seeing everything, almost like the Titanic. It was a life underwater, with the Djinns and other spirits under there. Because everything worships God, from the ants to the fish, everything that God has created, they worship. I guess humans are the last beings that step forward in worship and give God all praises. But the sun gives praise, the trees give praise, the stars. Even the earth, the planet gives praise. But underwater, there's a life under there too, that we don't even really know about. You can't see it, but you can be seen. Because everything is not meant to be seen. You know an atom is there, but you can't see an atom. You know a germ is there, but you can't really see it until you really put the microscope to it -- but it still exists in the air.
So when I was underwater, I'm seeing it all. I'm seeing everything under the sun, like all those creatures I was saying in it, because I really can't remember. Then I made it a little bit comical you know, like referencing the Titanic and SpongeBob, this and that and the third. I tried to make it where everything was about underwater, and the way DOOM's beat came on, you heard the water splash. So that's why I called it "Underwater," because it took me there.
Did you work closely with DOOM, not only on that song, but on Fishscale in general?
No, he just dropped off the beats. He just sent beats and I picked him out. I did my own writing but Doom was never there when I laid it down or did this and did that.
I feel like you could still feel his influence on the track, even if it's on a subtle level. That surreal and abstract imagery, he's big on that.
When I was on Project Rev, with Korn, Snoop, Linkin Park, all these guys. Yeah, I was on the Project Revolution tour with them. So I came across a CD that said Metal Fingers on it. And I never knew who Metal Fingers was. I ain't know Doom was Metal Fingers. So I think I might have told my manager like Yo, find this dude Metal Fingers and it winded up being MF Doom. He had beats that I liked to fuck with and that's how it all came about. We reached out, called him, it was him. I was like oh snap. He came down to the studio and dropped off some beats, we started talking and stuff like that. That was the beginning.
I came across a CD that said Metal Fingers on it. And I never knew who Metal Fingers was. I ain't know Doom was Metal Fingers. So I think I might have told my manager like Yo, find this dude Metal Fingers and it winded up being MF Doom. He had beats that I liked to fuck with and that's how it all came about. We reached out, called him, it was him. I was like oh snap. He came down to the studio and dropped off some beats, we started talking and stuff like that. That was the beginning.
What a twist of fate. Finding a beat tape and then discovering it's MF Doom -- that must have been a pleasant surprise.
Yeah, it was Metal Fingers. He had a lot of nice sounds.
Circling back to the storytelling elements -- you're clearly one of rap's great storytellers. I think everyone who knows hip hop would agree with that. At that table of great storytellers, who do you think is sitting at that table with you?
You got Genius. You got Slick Rick genius. Raekwon know how to paint a picture too. You got Nas, Nas can paint pictures. I mean, that's who's coming to my mind right now. Snoop Dogg had a few pictures. "Murder Was The Case They Gave Me." He painted a couple of pictures right there. Yeah, I really can't really think of too many rappers that were like that.
Roberto Ricciuti/Redferns/Getty Images
You mentioned Rae, too. I mean, that goes without saying. You guys have done and achieved so much, especially now after this Verzuz, which felt like a celebration of everything you guys have built so far. What does it mean to have such a close collaborator? What is the dynamic like, either when you're just kicking it or working together on something?
We get in there we listen to the beat, whatever beat we pick out. And whoever gets the first line, it's like oh, shit, yo, you gotta say this. And they might be like, that's it we going back and forth. Like usually, when we writing together, we like heaven and hell -- we go back and forth. We start building from one line. We exchange thoughts, we share thoughts. Yo, yo, nah, nah, nah. What about if you say this? If there's no reaction then we keep thinking. We take our time. We might be like, yo, we got eight bars. Let's go lay down that eight to go see how it sounds or whatever. Or we just finished up sixteen and just go lay the sixteen or the twelve and then connect the dots from there.
It's a process. We just be in there and just seeing how we see it. And I might come to him like, yo, you know what, add this chick in there. She was mean, a chick that carry like two guns, two crispy gold guns on her. You know what I mean? So he might be like, Oh, yeah, bet! Yo, that sounds good. Right? Just start putting it together so at least we get a clear picture. I did one with him on Supreme Clientele 2, I set it off like I was about to blow trial inside the courts. I was in the courts with him. I don't know if he plays the judge. I think he might have been the judge a little bit -- they tried to convict me of whatever, I didn't get it all the way there yet. I had my lawyer in there. The people was in there. Judge was banging his gavel. It sounds dope. We just gotta finish it up. Nobody ever did a rhyme about being in the courtroom.
It sounds very original. You mentioned giving him that one image of the girl with the two guns and how he would just go from there. It shows that you guys are really on a similar wavelength.
Yeah, you could do anything with it. You could be like, yo, the chick could OD in the bathroom. Like oh snap, off some real good shit that she was smoking or sniffing. You might gotta hide her body because you don't want to think that you did you know? It's anywhere you can go with it. Just use your mind bro. That's the gift the Most High gave us, to be able to paint those pictures like that.
Thank you so much for taking the time. It's been a pleasure.
I appreciate that, man.