Ghostface Killah
By: Brian Berger | Categories: HiLo Heroes, Hip Hop, Music

“Catch me at the flicks, Apollo rap Frederick Douglass,” advised GHOSTFACE KILLAH (born 1970), the single most inventive MC of the last two decades. That lyric, from, “Ghost Deini,” is mythos and the man — Dennis Coles, from Stapleton, Staten Island — both. It wasn’t always thus. Emerging with the Wu Tang Clan in 1992-93, Ghostface seemed a quirky enigma. His collaborations with Raekwon on The Odyssey of crime rap, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx (1995) and its sibling, Ghostface’s own Iron Man (1996), changed everything. While his style was utterly unique, Ghostface’s brilliant sense of narrative, slang and characterization clearly flowed from a tradition that includes Chester Himes, Langston Hughes, Gil-Scott Heron and Slick Rick. Each of his four subsequent solo albums from Supreme Clientele (2000) through Fishscale (2007) has some claim to being his “best.” Since then, while Ghostface’s inspiration remained urgent, by December 2010’s Apollo Kids, inspired fans like writer and filmmaker Dallas Penn (see “Starkology,” below) were doing more promotion than his erstwhile record label, Def Jam. Yet poetry — and protest — triumph:

Holiday season is here and I’m vexed
Who the fuck made Christmas up?
I’m fucking broke, it ain’t making no sense
Newports are $7.50, a box of Huggies is off the meat rack
She’s back, thirty days, she relapsed
Our troops need to leave Iraq
And rap niggaz need to go on strike so we can get more cash

HIP HOP ON HILOBROW: HERC YOUR ENTHUSIASM series (25 posts about old-school hip hop) | DJ Kool Herc | Gil Scott-Heron | Slick Rick | Darryl “D.M.C.” McDaniels | Afrika Bambaataa | Biz Markie | U-God | Slug | Adam Yauch | Ghostface Killah | DJ Run | Flavor Flav | Scott La Rock | GZA | Schoolly D | Aesop Rock | Terminator X | Notorious B.I.G. | Melle Mel | Rick Rubin | Rakim | Ol’ Dirty Bastard | Madlib | Talib Kweli | Danger Mouse | Kool Moe Dee | Chuck D | Dizzee Rascal | RZA | Cee-Lo Green | Best Ever Clean Hip Hop

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On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: William Moulton Marston.

READ MORE about members of the Reconstructionist generation (1964-73).

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Brian Berger is a historian, journalist and poet. He was coeditor, with Marshall Berman, of New York Calling: From Blackout to Bloomberg.