Rappers get to tell more detailed stories. They have a higher wordcount. They can fit War & Peace into 16 bars where other genres only have room for a fairy tale. And no rap artist takes more advantage of this fact than Wu Tang Clan’s Ghostface Killah, aka Ironman, aka Tony Stark, aka Pretty Tony, aka Ghostdini, as gifted a wordsmith and storyteller as has ever been seen in all of hip-hop.
Take “Shakey Dog,” off 2006’s masterful Fishscale. In it, Ghost is all bluster, rapping in double time about robbing a stash house, all the while doing that could-break-out-sobbing-or-yelling-at-any-moment thing he does so goddamn well. The short track—from planning the heist, executing the heist, and the heist going wrong—is filled with impossibly vivid color: goons eating T-bone steaks with caramelized onions, fried plantains, and rice while sitting on the couch watching Sanford & Son; guard dogs; a Spanish-speaking “big titty bitch” weighing out drugs; shots fired; aliases used. Dude can paint a picture.
Which is why Ghost’s new project, Twelve Reasons to Die, from concept to execution, is so perfect. It’s a cinematic tale, a movie as album. Twelve Reasons‘ co-writer and director, to extend the metaphor, is Adrian Younge, whose production work is steeped in the same kind of vintage soul sounds Ghost has made his name wheezing over for more than two decades.
“My whole studio is all analog,” explains Adrian Younge, dipped in mostly Polo gear and nestled on a leather couch in a Williamsburg chop shop. “All old mics, old bass, all that shit. I approach music like a hip-hop producer that was producing in the 1960s.” Everything in Younge’s studio predates 1976. For this reason, and the crisp, funky, needle-to-the-record pop of Younge’s past productions, the two seemed like natural collaborators.
“I’m a soul baby,” says Ghost, backstage at The Late Show with Jimmy Fallon. (The emcee performed a track off Twelve Reasons, “I Declare War,” earlier this month.) “I come from that era. I was born in 1970 so that type of music is just in me. That old shit, that fly shit . . . it sticks with you. I can do all genres but I like that chamber best.”
The aesthetic dovetail Younge and Ghost share is why Bob Perry introduced the pair. Perry is partners with Wu Tang figurehead RZA in Soul Temple Records, which released the album. RZA also served as a Grand Poohba of sorts on Twelve Ways. His past productions have certainly influenced Younge’s own style, and on this album in particular, he offered notes and advice where applicable. But it was mostly the result of Ghost and Younge, actor and director.
Twelve Reasons is crime saga. Younge wrote the script. “It’s an Italian crime story from the late 1960s starring Anthony Starks. Starks is part of an Italian mob called the Twelve DeLucas. Because he’s black, he can’t rise above a certain rank. So he starts his own criminal faction against them, and they go to war.”
A very detailed setup ensues in which Tony is betrayed by a woman he’s fallen in love, leading him into the waiting arms of the DeLucas, who kill him by dropping him in a vat of vinyl. Twelve records are then made out of this vinyl as souvenirs of his death. Whenever one of the DeLucas plays one of the records, the spirit of Tony emerges and kills them. “It’s a transformation from Anthony Starks to the Ghostface Killah,” Younge says. “Thing is Ghost completely exceeded my expectations.”
RZA agrees. “Ghost did his thing,” he says while picking at a plate of rice, beans, and plantains in studio. “There were topics and guidelines, but Ghost expanded the story with his own creativity. But you have this guy, Adrian Younge, who has studied soul music and studied me as a producer and was able to catch the meaning of my albums. Like, for instance, to me, Cuban Linx [Wu Tang’s Raekwon’s solo album] was a movie. [GZA’s album] Liquid Swords was an audio movie. This was the proper way to approach making music. And Adrian is a student of that.”
Younge must’ve studied until his eyes bled because the chords he uses emote the same feelings a lot of RZA’s earlier works did. “I would step in on occasion and make slight adjustments,” says RZA. “But I was careful to not overshadow Adrian’s choices and allow it to be a reflection of his creativity.”
Younge’s creativity offered Ghost a platform.
“It was easy because Adrian Younge, he had a real clear idea of how the concept should go,” Ghost says. “I just had to play the hit man and murder the tracks he sent me. He gave me some direction, you know, the foundation was already laid out so it was just about execution. And the foundation that was laid out is important to me. That record needle popping and the dusty vintage becomes more [precious] as we get further away from that time period. That’s why Adrian deserves mad credit for re-creating that.”
“When I’m creating music I always ask myself, ‘Why should someone care about this with the thousands of kids making music nowadays?'” Younge says, tweaking knobs and pushing buttons on the mixing console as Twelve track “Enemies All Around Me” bumps from the monitors. “Once I thought of the script and the details in the script, I knew that people would care. And I hope I’m right.”
Twelve Reasons to Die is out now