Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Erik Myers ’15, a recent alum, interviewed Ghostface Killah when he performed at Worthstock last May.
“Well,” began Killah, sitting down sweaty, after the performance: “you set up already?” The sharpness of his accent was coming out of his words before I’d even started the interview. “You rollin’? Yeah? That’s the fastest shit ever.”
They say revolution starts as an idea, a language, a sign, in other words, that resistance is power. On Sunday, May 3, a mild crowd of students at a small liberal arts college in southeastern Pennsylvania got into such a state as to begin chanting “Wu-Tang Clan ain’t nuthin’ to fuck with!” over and over, with W’s raised above their heads as though the Bush administration had never tarnished the alphabet. BAD BAD NOT GOOD, a Canadian band comprised of young angel-headed hipsters, had just enabled the Wu-Tang beats with flavors only a live band can taste. There were Public Safety measures and student-run sound-techs; there were recent alums and community members. Headline Worthstock act and founding Wu-Tang Clan member, Ghostface Killah, had ensured the chorus with that of his coarse Staten Island portraiture. It was incredible, and it didn’t make sense.
“So you mean to tell me I’m the creator of all this right here?” Ghostface had asked Master Wu twenty years ago in “Black Jesus,” off the hugely successful Ironman CD. Success, like fame, celebrity, or even acceptance to Swarthmore College, doesn’t always make sense.
“I don’t got no college degree,” Ghostface recently stated on a radio interview. “I ain’t finished high school. I’m grateful to be where I am.” Here he was, an instrument of the college now, legitimized by one of the most selective institutions of higher education in the country, almost ornamentally installed, without SAT scores or any GPA, and moreover: getting paid to press ‘play’. “I read about these places in my text book, in school: now I’m there, and they know me.”
“Who are you?” asked several Swarthmore students invariably. I had proposed they ask Ghostface a question. I guess the phenomenon didn’t necessarily make sense to them, either: “Can I smoke you out?” asked others. “Favorite Miley Cyrus album?” Where I saw the Staten Island ‘hood, and the Hip Hop that had grown up there, along with the Ghostface that had put his name on it, most Swatties saw a question mark.
“Burn somethin’, kid,” Raekwon the Chef, another Wu-Tang member, had suggested a second earlier in “Black Jesus.” “You the creator of all this,” replied Master Wu to Ghostface, “Regardless the womb or what,/ It’s got to be.”
“It was tough times,” said Ghostface to me, “comin’ up in the ‘hood. You know, family struggles and stuff like that. Majority of people in the Projects. A lot of what I spit today comes out of some of my music. One of my first spillin’ my guts out was on a track called ‘All I Got is You,’ Mary J. Blige. If you want to look at my life and know what I’m about, you can just go right there to that record right there, and show you my youth right there, you know what I mean?”
“We was goin’ back to the parks,” reminisced Ghostface in the radio interview. His accent has something that seems so distinctly and unconsciously New York to it, like how my New Yorker Earth (“Earth” means “Mother” in the Supreme Alphabet that litters the Wu-Tang ouevre) says coffee. It’s something so shamelessly regional that I immediately become jealous every time I hear it. You just can’t hear where I’m from in something so intimate as a cup of “cawfee” or the “pahwk” where I played.
“You remember when Hip Hop started?” reminded Ghostface, “in the parks?” It was a phenomenon, not just a when and a where. And there we all were together in Worth Courtyard, trees in full bloom, not necessarily a “park” in any “Shaolin” (Staten Island) or “Mecca” (Brooklyn) sense, those pressure cookers of race and politics that gave birth to Hip Hop; but a “courtyard” in one of the most expensive suburbs in Philly, where Hip Hop had, for better or for worse, ended up, if not died and gone to Heaven. Parks were an escape from the Projects, like regional accents and a brevity of wit — Hip Hop itself — was increasingly an escape from the monotony of Reading Week, for me and a 60% white student body at a 60k a year institution.
“Wu-Tang?” said Kanye West. “Me and my friends talk about this all the time. We think Wu-Tang had one of the biggest impacts as far as a movement. From slang to style of dress, skits, the samples.”
Cue the aforementioned “Black Jesus,” samples of some melodious praises, a sneeze of hallelujah inter-spliced with the Master Wu’s theological phrases. There was the Ghostface and the authenticity branded onto him by the legend of the Wu-Tang that had inspired a generation of Hip Hop with ideas, languages-within-languages, images of resistance, of novelty, and of identity, if not the real thing. “Hit me,” intervened Raekwon, ready: “hit me, hit me, hit me.”
The technology of authenticity lies deep in the words or “swords” of the Wu-Tang Clan, from the thousands of sound systems that were purchased over the years to project their incredible sounds, to the RZA produced beats and Kung Fu movie-samples that provided the context and quirky cinematics of a multifaceted poetry. Like the reality of the still oppressed Projects from “Mecca” to “C-Mecca” (Chicago), this technology of a self, a living breathing text comprised of allegory and out-of-context imagery, was censored and labeled when its CDs went on sale: “PARENTAL ADVISORY: EXPLICIT CONTENT.” God forbid the children catch a glimpse of the truth.
“Now all pay tribute to this entity
A spark that surges through the undergrowth
Overwhelming the populace from the entry”
A college, my college, one that prides itself more and more each day on being apolitical, was paying for Ghostface to spit songs and to speak a language through the blossoms and ears of a generation that was censored from, but all the more intrigued by, the Wu-Tang, a slang whose origins in the 60’s had enshrined the Black Man as God and the Black Mother as Earth. Like most of human history, it was beautifully ironic and serene.
“What does Wu-Tang Clan mean?” asked the host of the Yo! MTV Rap show in 1993, at a time when bands like Nirvana were obscuring and reinventing the poetics of rock with absurd groans, deep in Swarthmore’s Olde Club venue. The VHS technology on which the Wu-Tang were recorded was showing its age too — as was the Ghostface Killah that was recorded on it, with a name and a mask on, twenty years younger: a young black Muslim man, with Type 1 Diabetes no less, and with a distinct ability to “spit” and perform his on-stage personas of Ghostface and the Wu-Tang Clan as much his life and success was becoming increasingly indistinguishable from the performance of Ghostface and the Wu-Tang Clan.
“Basically,” explained GZA the Genius, “the Wu is the Way, the Tang is the Slang, and the Clan represents the Family. Wu-Tang also represents the sword-style of rhyming, being that we’re all lyrical or verbal assassins, we are all fully aware that the tongue is symbolic to the sword. In motion it produces wind.”
The Wu-Tang were conscious of the fact that their discourse was violent for the silent majority of Americans. Coast to coast, Hip Hop was demonized as the antithesis of everything white and pure. It still is in some places, like reparations, demonized. But that antithesis, like a banned substance, or a legend, couldn’t help but succeed so long as it functioned as a living, breathing identity and a culture for a bunch of kids out of Staten Island Projects and a bunch of kids playing beer pong at Swarthmore College on a Sunday. Its art transcended its heroes.
“This is the training that’s gonna be given to you by the Wu
Brothers and sisters
The revolution, the revolution will be televised, televised, televised
It’s time to rise, and take our place so we can inherit the universe
The planet Earth belongs to God”
“Wu-Tang is for the children,” said founding-member ODB on-stage at the Grammies in ’98, a decade before Kanye, after the Clan lost Best Rap Album of the Year.
“If people really get into the lyrics” continued GZA, “people will get a clearer picture. It’s like readin’ a book — so just stop trying to just classify the guns, and the cars, and the Projects, and the violence, and everything that’s negative. And understand that we are people that’s trying to escape something: that’s why we have these lyrics.”
“She fell and then lightly touched his jaw, kissed him,
Rubbed his hair, turned around the ambulance was there,
Plus the blue coats, Officer Lough, took it as a joke,
Weeks ago he strip-searched the God and gave him back his coke.”
There was something understood by both of us but not said when I probed Ghostface for a quote on what exactly’s “going on” (my ridiculously obtuse words) in America right now. I don’t even need to mention it here (unless you really are as closed off from your nation’s neighborhoods as your rhymes seem sometimes). You’ve only had to look at the News, like a Wu-Tang phrase, to sum up a year in so many words:
“Right now, it’s time for a change in America,” Ghost said to me. “A lot of people are not aware of what’s goin’ on in America, you know what I mean? They’re just livin’ just to live. I’m lookin’ at the future. I’m lookin’ at the children, the grandchildren, and all that stuff like that. Right now, it’s time for a message, it’s time for a serious message, like how Marvin Gaye used to come out, you know: ‘Mercy, Mercy, Me.’ So we need that.”
Metaphor, allegory, the overlapping of texts and pop-personalities can be seen tangled like extension cords, sputtering sparks and alter-egos like Tony Stark’s (Ironman, Ghostface Killah’s alter-ego) electric hearts; swords heard deep in the sounds that rebound and retreat off the cinema and the pop-culture that abound, into signs and streets they at once frame and nurture. Rhyme and local origins are as much power for the Wu-Tang as sound-bits and verse-long summaries of entire decades and generations.
“However I master the trick just like Nixon
Causing terror, quick damage your whole era
Hardrocks is locked the fuck up or found shot
P.L.O. style, hazardous cause I wreck this dangerous
I blow spots like Waco Texas.”
It’s like they’re lighting up bits of something else, civilizations, and not necessarily words. “What do you have to see to a bunch of privileged white kids at a liberal arts college in Pennsylvania?” I asked Ghostface.
“People is people, man. Everyone got a head and shoulders on ‘em. If you want it, you can go get it. You what I mean? That’s what it is. Drive. Determination. Patience.”
It was my first interview, and I was growing impatient, not with Ghostface, but with who I was. Maybe Ghostface, you know, and Hip Hop itself, were both looking straight through me like they sometimes tend to look straight through America’s transparent self-righteousness, like a sin; providing a beat and a sample of its truth, combining it with the deadly thrust of a spiritual blemish, if we were to ever look in the mirror and the stage they’ve performed on, for decades now.
“I just want to become more righteous, man,” said Ghostface. “That’s it.”
“I just hope when it’s all over, said and done: yo, when I got to stand in front of God for Him to judge me for my sins, I want my right scale to overweigh my bad scale. You understand what I’m sayin’?”
Someone on my Facebook News Feed had published a Daily Beast article titled “Too Many White Hip Hop Fans Don’t Give a Shit About Black People,” almost in direct response to the kid trying to get an interview with a Wu-Tang member. Did we care more about the performative value of form than the content of origin?
“I want to continue to feed the people. You know that guy on TV? ‘For five cents a day’? Just do good for the people. And teach, and spread the word. To take over, and you know, rekindle what some of the Prophets were sayin’. You know what I mean? Just give it to ‘em. This was this. This was that. Everybody’s not perfect. I’m not perfect. But, you know what, the Word is out there.”
In the beginning there was the Word. That “5-Percenter” language-within-a-language empowers and steeps the Wu-Tang vocabulary in an intimate locality and a textual neighborhood that bears few precedents in music, let alone culture. Language was technology for the Nation of Islam offshoot, its “Nation of Gods and Earths,” and the Supreme Alphabet, in Harlem and throughout America. Words and acronyms, the alphabet itself, were clothing, layers, VHS cassette tapes, and images beyond and through which life could be pursued, communities, like Hip Hop in the parks and Ghostface at Worthstock.
“The Word is out there,” repeated Ghostface, as I looked around, self-conscious. I wondered how far back the gesture of his humble head-shake, like my seemingly meaningless article, had gone in human history. The brim of his hat was sweaty, but he was chill. “But if I can add on and shit, then let me add on, and let someone else carry the flame, and just do what it do.”
The cool and perhaps even horrifying fact is that there are so many entry points, perhaps even infinite portals, historical or otherwise, into Ghostface Killah’s performance on Sunday. They require different perspectives, hand-gestures, trainings, initiations, and motivations. This was merely one of them. The tragedy is that most of those doorways and perceptions of the idea will be solely the 45 minute performance he gave us, not that oh-so-American question mark of which he was at once an answer and a disquieting, resolute head-shake.
“DOOM got all my music. We’re just waiting for him to put it out. I don’t know when he’s going to get it out. I heard he’s going to put it out, maybe Halloween.”
“It’s like the man didn’t know what to ask,” laughed Ghostface, as I let go of the pause button. “Thinks he had a few too many beers.”
Featured image courtesy of vignette2.wikia.nocookie.net.