The Making of Ghostface Killah and Adrian Younge’s “Twelve Reasons to Die”
Tony Starks, Ghostface Killah’s alter-ego, makes its official return in Twelve Reasons to Die. Composed entirely by Black Dynamite producer Adrian Younge, the album is an intricate storyline set in 1960s Italy, in which Starks fights against a crime organization, falls in love with the kingpin’s daughter, and seeks revenge when he is murdered. While Ghost is well known for concept-driven projects, Twelve Reasons marks the first time a cohesive script is followed for a cinematic experience.
And fans are thrilled. The latest release, “Rise of the Black Suits" produced by Apollo Brown, is truly a telling effort that’s a great addition to Ghostface’s repertoire.
Before Twelve Reasons to Die releases on April 16, XXL spoke with the makers behind the project. Ghostface, Younge, RZA, and General Manager for Soul Temple Records Bob Perry articulated on the album’s creation process. Find out about Younge’s inspiration from vintage European soundtracks, Ghostface stepping out of his creative box, and RZA’s favorite cut from the album. —Eric Diep (@E_Diep), with additional reporting by Jaeki Cho (@JaekiCho)
Adrian Younge: Bob [Perry, Soul Temple Records’ GM] hit me up—almost a year ago or pretty much close to a year ago. He asked me if I wanted to get on an album with the Wu-Tang. This is me after finishing up the Black Dynamite soundtrack. So he kind of had this eye towards me and what I did, which is kind of old hip-hop sentiment sort of thing. When he asked me to do it, I was pretty flattered. ‘Shit, hell yeah I am down to do that.’ I didn’t really take it that serious. I kept on doing my thing and he hit me up. He’s like, ‘Dude, what’s up? Are you down to do this shit?’ I was like, ‘You really want to do it?’ [He says] ‘Yeah!' I’m like, ‘Alright.’
So I said if we are going to do this, we have to figure out some sort of concept behind this record. Anytime I do something, I always have to have something for the people that’s different. I always ask myself, ‘Why should anybody give a fuck?’ 'Why should anybody give a fuck about whoever you are doing an album with?’ What are you going to do to try and make this different? So I said to Bob, ‘We got to figure out something for the story.’ Let’s make an album around this story. It’ll be more important.
Preceding that, he had said let’s do this Ghostface thing. First, it was more of a macro. Let’s figure out some Wu-Tang type of collaboration. [It was] based on the fact that a lot of my production has always been geared towards that Wu-Tang type sound, that 36 Chambers type sound. Even a little deeper, stuff like RZA would sample. It was actually geared towards that. Nostalgically, we take it right back to that time. So, he said, ‘Let’s do it with Ghost.’ That’s when I said, ‘Let’s figure out the story.’ You know, Ghost is really cinematic and I make cinematic music, it could be something special.
We figured out the concept. I basically came up with the idea. I talked to my boy C.E. Garcia that’s in my band, Venice Dawn. Talked to Bob. Talked to Andrew Kelley [ A&R & Producer for Soul Temple Records]. And we just got a foundation and we just started building on top of that foundation.
Ghostface Killah: The album was a quick album—you know? They called me to do something and I did it. I’m like a hitman when it comes to music. So it’s like, you give it to me and tell me how you want the track murdered, I come, I murder it. Tell me what gun to use and it’s a wrap. It’s my project, but the project was more presented to me of how they wanted me to do shit. I don’t really know who the fuck was on it and shit like that until they told me.
RZA as the Executive Producer:
RZA: I don't wanna call myself the mastermind of the project. When somebody's producing an album like Adrian, you know somebody that has the talent to do it, and I'm coming on it as an executive producer. The executive producer makes executive decisions but being a producer and a musician myself and a guy that has a lot of respect from other musicians and producers. My talents can be used towards good advice.
I just wanna say this, after doing a film and seeing how my producers would work with me. They kinda have a certain kind of experience that would push my needle to the left or the right just based on logistics, based on experience and based on the format of what a good piece of product is. 36 Chambers--we can all agree is a classic piece of product. Adrian is striving to make a classic piece of product here, him and Ghostface. So I'm very good at arranging and giving good ideas. I'm adding on to what I think they already have, something very unique here. The reason I'm executive producing is because I'm impressed by the talent that came together behind the project.
The Creative Process:
Younge: I started writing music because it takes place in Italy. My background in music is really hip-hop, but it is more European soundtrack-y, psychedelic hip-hop soundtrack type stuff. So obviously, I wanted to skew my shit a little towards that. I started making music that was very dark and Italian. Ennio Morricone meets David Axelrod type stuff like real cinematic compositions with hard beats and a funky bassline. When I was writing it, in my head I was like, ‘Well, this can go with this story. This can go with that story.’ In two weeks, I wrote. I mean, Bob he kicked my ass. He said, ‘I need this by this time.’
I wrote the foundation for those 12 songs in two weeks. I was never able to work that quick. But the thing is when you have inspiration, it just kind of falls out. So in two weeks, I sent him roughly 12 tracks. For those tracks, I wrote a script out. I was like, ‘Ok, this is the Ghostface theme. This part must talk about this. This must talk about that.’ I gave it to Bob. Bob looked at the script and gave his touches to it. They sent it to Ghost. Ghost came back and personally exceeded my expectations.
Perry: Also, Ghost twisted it up. We sent him the script. ‘Ok, here’s the concept. These are the points that you needed to touch for each record.’ It wasn’t like … we didn’t tell him, you know, say exactly this. It was more like, ‘Ok, here is the broad strokes of the story. Song one should be about the come up. Song two should be about being the man. Song three should feel like being disconnected. Song four you are at war. Song five you fall in love.’ So we are very broad, but somehow with his engineer, some of the tracks got twisted up. In other words, we had imagine that it was gonna be this song. You know, song one became song eight. Beat one became song eight. Once we got everything back from Ghost, we had to figure out how to manipulate in such a way that it holds the story. It’s kind of like a collaboration, but it’s not a collaboration between two people sitting around a typewriter saying, ‘Hey let’s do this.’ It’s almost like a long distance romance. [Laughs]
Ghostface Killah: We started with a few tracks first, working on the direction and which way to go, and we started just getting more good and more good, and then we just wound up doing 12 records and came up with Tweleve Reasons to Die, with a theme behind it. Basically, I get involved with the mafia and making money, then I start fuckin’ one of their bitches, and they don’t like that shit. They fuck around and kill me, but before they kill me, we’re going to war and all this other shit. So they got me, killed me, threw me into a pot of vinyl and melted me down, and now every time someone plays that record, someone gets killed off—you know what I mean? That’s it. It’s so different. The world is going crazy for the shit. It’s something that I never really did before, but I’m good for writing stories and going into shit.
The Narrative Concept:
Perry: I made tons of records over the years. I always had a vision of doing a concept album in rap. I can never find a rapper that was willing to commit to it. So this was sort of a way for me to get out my ambition of doing a record that typically you would have in rock or something. Back in the day—The Who—or whatever that’ll make an album. It was about one concept. Tommy or something like that. Hawaiian pinball player. The whole fucking album. I wanted to bring that into rap because it’s like the perfect art form for it because lyrics are talking.
Younge: And who better than Ghost?
Perry: This is much more of a different thing where it is actually almost like an opera. You have this story that continues through the whole thing. It is not something where you are like … you can kind of sit down and listen to any of the songs. ‘Yeah, that’s a cool song, but when you listen to the whole thing—Ok, I get it.’
Younge: To add on what he is saying, it is an opera. When we perform, it is like theater. I am wearing like a monk suit and taking it off and wearing a fucking tailored priest outfit on. It’s on some straight theatrical shit.
RZA: I put my acting hat on for [narrating the skits]. The cool thing about it is that the idea of this record is a pure concept album and is being kept within the boundaries of the concept. [There are] a lot of records that I've made like this actually. I think I can think of Prince Paul with his Handsome Boy Modeling School. You can think of some of the records that I put out. But I don't think you could pull 20 hip-hop albums out of 1000 that's really a concept album. So to even start with a record like this, it's not a soundtrack to a movie. It's a soundtrack within itself that a movie could potentially be made after it. So that creative ability alone attracted me to the project. Knowing that there's a guy out there, a young brotha comin' up in the music industry, who's thinking like how a young RZA used to think actually. I wanna make a movie but you can only listen to it. That's what this is.
Younge: [Bob Perry and Andrew Kelley] would sit down. They understand these lyrics more than I even fucking understand these lyrics. It’s on some science shit for them. They said, ‘Dude, we need this here.’ They are really the guards of the narrative. What’s he saying right here is if there is a little gap right here from song six to song seven from Ghost. ‘Ok—Masta Killa, you gotta connect that shit.’ That was really a big part of their job as far as piecing and streamlining everything together.
On Why the Track With Cappadonna Is Memorable:
RZA: [“The Center of Attraction”] reminds me. There actually hasn't been a Ghostface song like that. The subject matter is totally original but far as the flow and spirit of going back and forth like that and the energy of it since a song that was written about 15 years ago called "260.” Ghostface and Raekwon did a song called "260" that they're both going back and for about robbin' a drug spot. The way the energy of the song is, you just fuckin' drive, as you hear it you just start driving faster and faster, you feel the adrenaline. Him and Cappadonna verse on that song, for me, was one of the highlights of the record as well. It made me really like these niggas was using their mind power and lyrical skill to fuckin' paint a cool picture.
The Album's Audience:
Younge: I think it's very crossover. Someone who loves Portishead would love this. Somebody who doesn’t like rap would like this. Somebody that likes rap would like this. It’s like all over the board. As far as me versus Ghostface, Ghostface has the regular hip-hop fan and the intelligent music connoisseur-type fan. I am predominantly a instrumentalist. Generally speaking, if you are an instrumentalist that doesn't do electronic music, you are catering towards more the record collector. This brings those old record collectors and The Wu fans and the people that like Portishead and other psychedelic rock records all together. It’s something that merges the quintessential music listeners. Someone that cares about music being clever. It’s not something to dance to. It’s something if its playing in the background, you are not gonna continue what you are doing. You are gonna stop and listen to the story.
Perfecting The Album's Sound:
RZA: To be honest with you, sometimes I'm superbly accurate, laser beam sharp but sometimes I also let the natural flow go. But in this particular case, it's important for Adrian to have this flawless. I think we got a good piece of product. I think the fans who get it is gonna enjoy it. It's gonna be worth the price of the mission, as you said. In order for it to be flawless I wanna do whatever I can to help out. But he has to be so satisfied that he put out a piece of product as a producer that continues his criteria and it raises the bar for him.
Like look at Ghostface. Ghostface already got flawless material out there. But Adrian is building his catalog. So this is very important for him to make sure that this next step is a strong foundation step and he's doing it. I got a lot of faith in him. I'm actually talking to Adrian about working together on a song for the Wu album. That's how much faith I have on his sound, his creativity.