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With all due respect to the homie Paul Wall, on the reals, Ghostface has always been, and continues to be, the people’s champ. For 13 years, Wu-Tang’s masked avenger, born Dennis Coles in 1970, has been tickling the fancy of rap fans round the world with his vivid storytelling, unpredictable references and emphatic, even dire, flow. Unfortunately, in order to sell more than a couple hundred thousand units, you gotta enchant more than just rap fans—and that’s something Ghost’s stellar catalog of solo material (’96’s Ironman, 2000’s Supreme Clientele, ’01’s Bulletproof Wallets and ’04’s The Pretty Toney Album) has repeatedly failed to do. In fact, he’s moved fewer units with each release. However, thanks to his loyal core audience, and high regard among his peers, in a situation where a less credible artist would lose their spot on Def Jam’s roster, for Ghost, opportunity abounds. 2006 promises the release of his fifth LP, Fishscale, as well as a still-untitled EP with underground superhero MF Doom—and possibly even the highly anticipated sequel to Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…, his devoutly revered 1995 collaboration with Wu-Tang rhyme partner Raekwon. (Though Ghost says the latter two projects are both in their infancy.) Ghostface caught up with XXL this winter to discuss his desire to win in ’06, writer’s block and how the Clan will definitely, maybe, reunite for another album. Possibly.

How long did it take you to realize your last album was a bust?
I knew right off the bat. It took but one week. And then we had a couple of niggas that was hating in the Def Jam building. Like my man Kevin Liles [company president at the time].

Really? How was he hating?
It’s like he wouldn’t respect our goals, and it was like he made one smart [comment] about, “I’m not the one who signed you.” [Former Def Jam CEO Lyor Cohen did.] You could read between what niggas be saying and shit. Like, Oh all right, that’s how you really, really feel and shit.

Were you frustrated?
I mean, of course. Who wouldn’t be? You get frustrated because it’s like, Damn, I done took a year and some change out my time just to go ahead to try and build this shit, going through a writer’s block, wasting studio time, smoking weed, forgetting every fuckin’ thing I done fuckin’ wrote down, didn’t know what the fuck to do, too tired to go to the fuckin’ studio, sitting in the studio not doin’ nothing ’cause you can’t think of shit. Like, yo. And for it not to do nothing? You’re muthafuckin’ right, G. You start thinking that it’s you. What am I doing wrong? Am I making the wrong records? No, I can’t be, because it’s like, Yo, a lot of niggas love what I do. So to be going through it four times consecutively… Something just don’t seem right. So, yeah, a nigga was frustrated. Because now it’s like, Damn, you done did that and you sell 68,000 fuckin’ units the first week. You look at your SoundScan like, Come on. What the fuck is this shit?

Are you looking at this new album to boost your career?
[I’m looking at it to] put me back in the game, B! It’s like I’m in the game and shit. But it’s like, you know, I been had a lot of bad luck with record companies. I gave [Sony] like three bombs. They couldn’t do nothing with it. Those three bombs worked out my credibility, where people respect me. I came to Def Jam, gave them a nice album. It made a lot of headlines, but there was nothing behind it. I’m like, What the fuck is going to happen next? I’m already at the bottom of the barrel. I got a lot of talent in me that, maybe, if I was being exposed more, a lot more people would hear my album and feel like, Yo, this nigga write from the heart. It ain’t just something from the brain, trying to make something work. Nah, this nigga took dedication even putting the order together. I’m just here to sell some records and let Hov and LA Reid know like, Yo, I’m still that nigga.

Are things better for you at Def Jam since Jay-Z took over? What’s your relationship with him like?
Me and Hov is… We real cool. He gonna look me at my face and talk to me on some real-nigga-to-real-nigga. Not one nigga taking a thousand phone calls in front of my face, puffing on a big cigar and acting like he hearing me but he ain’t hearing me. There’s no pride there. If I bring my album to him and I be like, Yo, so what you need me to do, son? We are working together to help fix this, to make this something that we can move some units on. Ain’t no, Yo, nigga. I’m my own man. Come on, son. This nigga done run it. I follow in the footsteps of vets, regardless if they younger than me or older than me.

ghostface2.jpg So the new album is called Fishscale. Sounds pretty self-explanatory. Is it a concept record, or is that just a title?
I had to go back a little bit and take these niggas on some real live black shit. You know, moving back in on the cocaine shit, because it seems like nowadays niggas is respecting a lot of that bullshit, that white-white. You know: cold drugs, sex, and money and all that. You know what I mean? That’s what’s moving right now, so I had to go back in on some real Tony Starks shit—paint a few pictures and shit.

Does it frustrate you as an artist to try and cater to the market?

Yeah. You know, the game is funny, because you never know which way to go with these people nowadays. So one minute they like this, next minute, they like that. So you know, trying to keep up with muthafuckas and shit, it’s like, Yo, if you want to go in here, I can go in there and ball on that. So I just said, Fuck it. I’m just gonna go with this Fishscale shit, paint my pictures and keep it moving.

Read the rest of this feature in the May 2006 issue of XXL (#80).

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