by: Michael Shields
A true classic gets a makeover……
It’s rare that a hip-hop track will incite the sort of emotion I experienced the first time I heard Ghostface Killah’s “All That I Got is You”. Hip-hop usually gets me fired up, stimulates my to heart to race and my head to nod. Sometimes, it compels me to think through the artist’s use of profound lyrics. But it is infrequent when I am moved deeply, nearing the point of tears. That is precisely what this track did to me.
Thinking back I can’t recall anyone else in the genre really dropping a ballad like ‘All That I got is You” ((I guess we could call Tribe’s “Electric Relaxation” a ballad of sorts, “Silent Treatment” by the Roots maybe, or possibly LL’s “Around the Way Girl”. I can think of a few others – none with the impact of “All That I Got is You.”)), a track which is an ode to Ghostface’s mother, recounting in surprising detail his life in the projects growing up. What amazes me to this day about this track is the vulnerability Ghostface displayed. I never imagined that such a hard motherfucker was capable of such a soft song. Couple all this with a heartbreaking hook by Mary J. Blige and you have the makings of an all time classic song – on an all time classic album entitled Ironman.
I have argument in my wheelhouse I profess from time to time, and mostly when under the influence: Ghostface is one of the greatest MC’s of all-time. Although I usually keep this bold idea to myself, I truly believe it. I will spare you my argument as if you are in agreeance with this you do not require any convincing. And if Ghost isn’t your flavor you will never be behind this sort of proclamation. The fact of the matter is if you don’t get chills the moment the beat drops on “After the Smoke is Clear”, or if “Winter Warz” doesn’t make you feel fully alive, we are not always going to see eye to eye when it comes to hip-hop.
What makes Ghostface so special? Well Ghostface, from the birth of the incomparable Wu-Tang Clan unto a series of impressive and successful solo efforts, has perfected a stream of consciousness flow that also exhibits his extraordinary technical precision. It’s a full on assault, an attack on your senses. Ghostface’s powerful brand of hip-hop relentlessly pounds rhymes into your head without mercy, with bone crushing stanzas and a ruthless attitude. You have to keep up, or you will get left behind ((Maybe this isn’t the time but I find this humorous – Ghost on Drake: “Nigga need to be wearin a pillowcase. You cut the nigga open n you gon get feathers flying around the room n shit.”)).
Ghostface excels at the art of storytelling-rap that takes you on a ride. Listening to Ghostface is a visceral experience. And what’s more, the man is clever enough to lace his distinct machine-gun flow with a language that is all his own. It’s a remarkably unique style, that many to this day try to imitate with minimal success.
The hip-hop classic Ironman was released October 29, 1996. It was produced principally by The Rza ((Mitchell Diggs, Oli Grant, and D. Coles executive produced the album.)) and features a lofty range of samples – from blaxploitation films of the 60’s and 70’s to classic soul albums ((The Rza is well known for his “Bruce Lee meets Gladys Knight sound”)). Although a solo album per se, Ironman features many contributions from fellow Wu-tang alums/legends, most notably Raekwon and Cappadonna who share the album cover with Ghostface in both face and name ((Raekwon appears on 13 of the 17 tracks.)). Ironman debuted at number 2 on the Billboard Top 100 charts, and on February 9, 2004 it was triumphantly certified Platinum!
The album begins with an audio clip from the film The Education of Sonny Carson in which a 13 year old Sonny is displaying audacious courage against a gang of older kids ((“Just me and you, motherfucker, just me and you. I put trademarks around your fuckin’ eye”)). Eventually young Sonny is rewarded for his bold behavior with an invitation to the gang. It is hard to not look at this opening sequence as a metaphor for the album. Ghostface, like a young Sonny Carson on the come up, was making a statement with Ironman. He had arrived as a solo artist and was demanding that all of us pay attention. Ghostface was brazenly letting the world know he had matured into a formidable force ready for the spotlight with the release of Ironman.
After the clip of Sonny standing up to the world….the beat drops, as if thrown off a skyscraper. You know you are in for it immediately. “Iron Maiden” sets the tone for the album, and we are not let off the hook until the waning moments of “Marvel”.
The mood of the album changes at the drop of a hat ((In his book The Tao of Wu producer RZA points out that Ghostface’s voice sounds noticeably different on Ironman than previous Wu-Tang releases. This is because Ironman was released following a flood that destroyed the basement studio in which those recordings were made. RZA had set up individual microphone preamps and compressors for each member, which were destroyed in the flood. Thus, the vocals on Ironman had to be recorded in a different studio with different equipment and settings, which slightly altered their sound.)). Rza’s beats are largely built on samples of early-70s soul such as the Jackson 5 and Delfonics, who make a guest appearance on “After the Smoke Is Clear” ((On “260” Al Green’s “You Oughta Be With Me” brilliantly, creates an aching ironic counterpoint to a killer tale of brutal street justice.)) but Rza also utilizes gospel choruses and piano vamps to layer the tracks, depthening the overall listening experience. Ironman is a wild ride, a bi-polar juggernaut that leaves you exasperated, doubled over with your hands on your knees trying to catch your breath, yet immediately wanting to run the entire album back again.
Ironman is a true classic, and it is finally getting that distinguished treatment it deserves. Get On Down ((A visit to the ‘Get on Down’ website is worth your time. Not only can you buy the Ironman reissue, but they also have a tribute to Ghostface interviews of past, and a great article about what Ironman did for hip hop in 1996.)), the Boston label behind box set reissues of classics from Gza, Raekwon ((I tried to obtain the deluxe reissue of The Purple Tape to no avail – it sold out right quick.)), and Nas, has given Ghostface’s masterpiece the same respect. Ironman will be released as a “Premium Collection: Gold Edition” CD box set, in a limited edition of 2,000 copies. It features the remastered album on a 24k “audiophile gold disc” CD housed in a “cherrywood trophy box” with a plaque, accompanied by a 48-page hardcover book and a puzzle made out of the original artwork. There is something so very special about respect given – when that respect is due. And, why wait until a legend passes before we celebrate their seminal works, as is so often the case? Ghostface is a true hip-hop luminary, and there is no time like the present to celebrate the genius, and the impact of Ironman.
Moving forward, I would be ecstatic if this same treatment was awarded to another Ghostface classic, Supreme Clientele; another album worthy of this brand of flattery. “Nahmeans?”