(Razor Sharp/Epic) 2000
Last month marked the tenth anniversary of Supreme Clientele by Ghostface Killah, a landmark hip-hop record and #5 on my list of the best albums from 2000-2009.
“I’m the inventor, ’86 rhyming at the center, debut, ’93 LP, told you to enter”
Arriving in stores on January 25, 2000, Supreme Clientele was Ghostface’s second album, and the seventh Wu-Tang related project released in as many months. The majority of these albums were very weak, especially compared to earlier solo projects like Liquid Swords and Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, and the once untouchable Wu brand was starting to fade a bit. But unlike the releases that preceded it, Supreme Clientele garnered universal acclaim, leading some to hail it as Wu-Tang’s “millennial rebirth.” It wouldn’t prove to be the return of the Wu though, but rather the arrival of Ghost as a brilliant solo artist with a voice all his own, who over the next decade would prove to be the Clan’s finest member and one of the great emcees of all time.
I could write about turn of the century hip-hop for days on end. I fell in love with the genre in the mid-’90s, and purchased just about every notable release for over a decade after. It was a great time to be a hip-hop fan, with artists like Company Flow, Mos Def and Talib Kweli, Big L, MF Doom, and Eminem, the underground rap scene was thriving and if you were lucky enough to live in the New York City area, you got your weekly dose of hip-hop every Thursday night from 1-5am listening to (and taping) the Stretch & Bobbito radio show on Columbia University’s 89.9 WKCR FM. It was on this show that I first heard “Mighty Healthy.”
“hit mikes like Ted Koppel”
Ghostface had always been known as a skilled lyricist, but on “Mighty Healthy” he truly painted a picture, unleashing two of the dopest verses of his career over a tense, atmospheric beat that was as much underground as it was Wu, an accurate indicator of what was to come. After that initial buzz many months passed with the album’s release date not set, and when it finally was, it was pushed back several times, a notoriously bad sign in the industry. But random Ghostface cuts, many of which wound up on the album in one form or another, would steadily pop up on mixtapes increasing fans’ curiosity.
Mixtapes were different back then. The underground scene was largely based around 12” vinyl singles with two or three songs by an artist, rather than full-length LPs, so DJs would compile 20 or 30 different tracks and put them out as double cassettes. I purchased one of these mixes, Truck Jewls’ Shiny Knuggets (pictured below) in 1999 because it included a new track, “Apollo Kids,” which was rumored and later confirmed to be Supreme Clientele’s lead single.
“this rap is like ziti, facing me real TV, crash at high speeds, strawberry kiwi”
My initial thought was, “what in god’s name are they talking about?” and to some extent that’s still what I’m thinking ten years later. Since the beginning, Ghostface and Raekwon have often, but not always, used an unorthodox style they call “throwing darts.” To the uninitiated it can sound like utter nonsense. A “dart” refers to a phrase or sentence fragment that while incomplete, still congers a distinct visual image. These “darts,” strung together by the rhymes, are fired off in rapid succession. Ghost and Rae often rap in this style as a tandem, and while they have done it to great effect many times, “Apollo Kids” is perhaps the greatest example.
While Ghostface may have mastered the art of throwing darts on Supreme Clientele (“Nutmeg”, “The Grain”), the album was not defined by this unique lyrical style, but rather by a more rounded attack. He mastered multiple styles and even developed one of his own, showcasing versatility previously unseen on any Wu solo effort. On the superb crime capers “Saturday Nite”, “Ghost Deini”, and “Malcolm,” it was clear that his storytelling skills had progressed to being some of the best in the game. This evolution was also shown on the schoolyard nostalgia throwback “Child’s Play” and club track “Cherchez La Ghost,” which was even a minor hit, ironic since it sounds nothing like the rest of the album. On “Cherchez” and the triumphant “We Made It,” he even managed to breathe new life into the tired “baller” style. The most remarkable progression though, was the development of his emotionally-tinged conversational flow, a style that has since become his trademark, and which he employed to full effect on “One” and “Stay True,” injecting a level of feeling uncommon in hip-hop, especially from a gangster rapper, which he clearly is.
“we don’t drink wine, if you don’t bring me some #@!$ Cognac, I’ll kill you”
This quote doesn’t even come from Ghost, it’s by Superb on “Ghost Deini,” but it serves as an excellent example of a confounding aspect of Ghost’s personality that has had fans and critics scratching their heads for years. Is Ghostface funny? Clearly he is, but is it his intention to be? There are times when he is obviously making a joke, but often he is dead serious. There was a famous incident during the promotional tour for the album where Ghost was a guest on BET’s Rap City with Big Tigger. In an altercation reminiscent of the movie Goodfellas, Tigger called Ghost a “funny dude.” He took extreme offense to the comment and berated Tigger, who looked extremely uncomfortable. It has since been claimed that the whole thing was scripted, and very likely was, but to this day there are still web forum threads where people who saw it refuse to believe it was a hoax.
I’ve already mentioned 12 of the album’s tracks as highlights, a veritable feast of memorable cuts, but there’s more. The icing on the cake is not one, but two, amazing Wu-Tang posse cuts (“Buck 50”, “Wu Banga 101”) where Ghost still manages to steal the show despite strong verses from fellow rap legends like GZA, Method Man, and Redman. The only other song on the album I haven’t mentioned is “Stroke of Death,” which was a late inclusion after the track list was shuffled multiple times due to bootlegging. It’s unfortunate that it made the cut though, because it has just about the worst beat in the history of rap music. You know that horrible sound a turntable makes when someone who doesn’t know how to scratch jokingly scratches a record? It’s basically that on repeat for 2 minutes. It is full on assault on your senses. You could seriously torture terrorists with this beat.
Many classic albums have one bad cut, and on Supreme Clientele, “Stroke of Death” is that cut. Oddly, “Stroke” was such a late inclusion its not even listed on the back on the CD. The album’s skits, which range from average to unlistenable, don’t appear on the list either. It’s too bad all the garbage left off the case wasn’t left off the CD itself, or else I might be sitting here arguing that this was the greatest hip-hop record of all time. In that argument, “Stroke” may be forgivable, but the skits do pose a bit of a problem.
You’d be hard pressed to find a genre where minimalism and purism are as closely intertwined as they are in hip-hop. Before De La Soul’s 3 Feet High & Rising (1989), putting interstitial content on an album was largely unheard of, but by the late ‘90s, skits like “Woodrow the Basehead” and “Clyde Smith” were commonplace and had become synonymous with the bloated excess of mainstream rap typified by artists like Puff Daddy. Now Ghostface is not an artist you would associate with excess, in fact the opposite is true, but it is this fixation, and “Stroke of Death” to an extent, that sinks Supreme Clientele in the greatest hip-hop album of all time argument.
Many argue that Nas’s 1994 debut Illmatic is the greatest hip-hop album of all time, and not coincidentally, it is the defining album of hip-hop purism. Illmatic does have more to offer than just minimalism though. Nas’s lyrical prowess was simply astonishing, and years after I still found myself discovering hidden meaning in his rhymes. But, I would argue that Ghostface’s lyrical assault on Supreme Clientele is just as good if not better. One could also argue that Ghost has a leg up in originality as his emotionally erratic style is entirely of his own invention, whereas Nas’ style on Illmatic has always drawn comparisons to Rakim and Kool G Rap. However, there are aspects of Ghost’s style that were actually influenced by Nas. At the end of the day, I would not argue that Ghostface Killah is the greatest rapper of all time, but Supreme Clientele certainly put him in the conversation.
Normally after one goes on and on about one of the greatest albums ever made they conclude by talking about its importance and influence. But in this case I can’t do that, because hip-hop music of the past decade, while it had its highlights, was pretty bad in comparison to the two decades that preceded it, especially in terms of lyricism, and rather than being a signal of great music to come, Supreme Clientele was one of the last dying breaths of a once great musical art form. Lyrically complex rap music was fairly common in the mid-‘90s, but in this decade it was considered “high art.” Look no further than the notoriously pretentious Pitchfork, who put Ghostface at #11 on their top albums of the decade. For context, consider that their best of the 1990’s list put Ready to Die, Illmatic, and Enter the Wu-Tang, at #32, #33, and #36. While their coverage of the genre is laughable, it is still not as laughable as Rolling Stone, who failed to put Supreme Clientele in the Top 100 of the decade. Trust me, I read it three times just to make sure.
If there is an optimistic spin to put on all of this, it’s that Ghost is still around and making great music. Last year’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx II, which he was heavily featured on, was the best hip-hop LP released in several years, and now he has a new group album with Raekwon and Method Man (Wu-Massacre) due out later this year. Now I doubt there is a roots revolution coming to hip-hop any time soon, but a lot of the genre’s greatest artists are only in their late thirties or early forties and are still doper than 90% of the popular rappers out there today. I look at the way indie rock has flourished over the last five years, and wonder if it isn’t possible for a niche market to develop around quality hip-hop like it did in the late 1990’s. I wouldn’t count on it, but if such a movement is possible, Ghostface Killah could certainly lead the charge.