GHOSTFACE KILLAH. PHOTO BY HADAS
Ghostface Killah (né Dennis Coles), of the legendary Wu-Tang Clan, is sitting backstage in Reykjavik, Iceland. He has just headlined the after-party for the Reykjavik Fashion Festival, a series of straight-faced runway shows putting Arctic sensibilities on display.
Almost 20 years ago, he and the rest of Wu-Tang emerged from Staten Island housing projects and earned widespread respect by maintaining a healthy mix of serious social commentary, comic absurdism, and a brilliantly manic style. Over the last ten years, Ghost has been one of the most prolific former members of Wu-Tang, sticking to his swerving lyrical style rather than the dance-floor anthems that have come to dominate popular hip hop today. He put out Apollo Kids on Def Jam last year, and is now working on a collaboration with D-Block records, entitled Wu-Block.
Sipping on a box of apple juice, Ghost is gentle and thoughtful, and he kindly disarms waves of advances from drunken fans. More than once, he extends the time slotted for this interview, eager to say more.
VINCENT BEVINS: Why are you in Iceland?
DENNIS COLES: I'm in Iceland to come and to conquer some land, you know what I mean? I came to do these shows. I've never been here before, so I agreed to it, to do these shows and see the people. Give them a good show, let them hear me, let get them to see me and feel me and touch me. Keep it moving.
BEVINS: Do you think it's a little weird that you're headlining an Icelandic fashion event?
COLES: No, it's not weird, I do things like that. I mean, it's good. There's a lot of things going on, and people wanna get out and see different things. Hopefully some came out to come see me.
BEVINS: Quite a few did. Did you go to the show?
COLES: The fashion show?
COLES: Yeah, I was there. I've never really been to a fashion show. This is the first one I've really seen, at least this type of fashion show. I seen one in New York like 15 years ago, but this is the most recent one I ever seen. It was cool. It was different.
BEVINS: Did you like it?
COLES: Yeah. Well, I liked it because it was different to see them come down the runway, and it was real dark—like all black, black eyeliner on, and the music was real dark, like a scary movie. I'd never seen that before.
BEVINS: Are you into fashion?
COLES: Check my jacket out! You think I'm not into fashion? Yeah, I'm into fashion.
BEVINS: Of course. When you were starting out, did you ever think you would be playing an Iceland fashion week?
COLES: No way. Hell no. I knew I was gonna make it, but I didn't know when or how.
BEVINS: Well, at this point, I think it's safe to say you're a legend. And maybe one of the reasons is that you were involved when hip-hop was dangerous. But maybe it isn't anymore. Is hip no longer dangerous, and is that a problem?
COLES: It might be a problem for us, the ones that like a certain type of music, but for other people, they don't even really care, because they don't know.
BEVINS: They don't know what?
COLES: They don't know about the real music that it was from before. Nas, Mobb Deep, Biggie. But for us, we got to get back in there and try to make that, and to try to make our way a little bit.
BEVINS: So who do you like right now? Who is doing something good or interesting in hip-hop?
COLES: Really, nobody.
BEVINS: Who comes close?
COLES: Uh, there's nothing out there, I can't even tell you who's coming close.
BEVINS: So tell me about this new album you're working on. What are you trying to do with it?
COLES: I'm trying to go as much gangsta as I could on this one.
BEVINS: Is there some kind of contradiction between being gangsta and sitting backstage with Icelandic models?
COLES: Nah, you can be whatever you want. You don't physically gotta be a gangsta, where you just killing something. You can be a gangsta in your frame of mind. If you know how to get money, that's your gangsta. You get money. You don't gotta be a gangsta everywhere like, "Yo, I'm trying to threaten you," or anything like that.
BEVINS: You definitely seem nice right now. So, would you agree that music on the radio now isn't really what you'd call gangsta?
COLES: Nah man, it's for little kids.
BEVINS: [laughs] Well yeah, I guess even Justin Bieber has hip-hop, right?
COLES: Right. So, we're older, we expect something different. There's no message or nothing. There's no nothing. Look: When Wu-Tang came we was dropping bombs, like, you know, a bomb atomically, like Socrates. We had messages. There was something behind it. Like Nas, Mobb Deep, Biggie, Tupac.
BEVINS: I mean I've been using this word dangerous, but Wu-Tang was socially explosive, right? It reverberated throughout culture. Is there a chance that something like this could happen again?
COLES: I can't promise you that, because everybody's not in that frame of mind. Times change. When Wu-Tang came, Wu-Tang was for that era, right there. When Dre had it in the West Coast, it was for that time. Biggie and them, it was for that time.
It's a whole different time now, we're trying to get it back there, but everyone's mind, even within Wu-Tang, might not be on that. It was a lot easier for us then, because we were just on the streets. Now we got families and babies, we thinking about a lot of shit. I had more fun then than I have now.
BEVINS: Is this here fun?
COLES: Yeah, I guess, but I mean, I've been doing this forever. It's not new to me. In '93, it was new to me.
If we get the right lyrics, the right slang, everything, Wu-Tang as a whole, we could do it, if everybody is like that. But as far as everybody else trying to get and do it, nope. In New York, they don't even play New York music, they play a lot of South music. You can't get played in your own hometown, they gonna play all the South people.
BEVINS: Is the new album, then, for a different time?
COLES: Wu-Block is more street. It's just street, that's all. We in crack spots, we in everything, we just street. That's it. You want a gangsta album? They gangsta. We gangsta. I used to get money and hustle and do it in the streets. We just mix it together, make a nice street album for the summertime.
When you got yellow on, I want to have a different color. You want Reebok, I want Nike. I always been like that. You try to be different.
BEVINS: Would you wear what you saw on the runway today?
COLES: Nah, I wear what fits Ghostface; I'm not gonna wear anything that makes me look strange.
BEVINS: What's inspiring you to write music now?
COLES: Just life. But nobody's making music that inspires me go back to the house and write. And maybe they're saying that about me too. Because you know, I haven't been getting airplay and stuff like that. It is it what it is. But I'm on my deen now, hard.
BEVINS: You're on your deen?
COLES: I'm on my deen, I'm on my grizzly.
BEVINS: Oh, okay, I'm also on my deen. What's deen? D-e-a-n?
COLES: D-e-a-n? Nah. D-e-e-n, or however the hell you wanna spell it. It means you're on point, I'm on point, I'm on my job. I know what I gotta do now, and my job is to write my ass off till I can't write no more. But now, it's a new Ghostface.
BEVINS: So how has time changed the way you view music?
COLES: The way I view music hasn't changed. But, I used to be into a lot of shit. Going to strip clubs, with my friends every day, yo yo yo, laughing and giggling, fucking people up.
BEVINS: [laughs] Yeah, fucking people up.
COLES: And we don't do that anymore! You chill, you don't do that shit no more. And some of my friends that did that shit is locked up. Things change. Nothing ever stays the same, yo. You ain't never gonna stay 25 or 30 or 40. You always gonna change. Every day you change. We're speaking right now, and our faces are changing and we don't even know it.
BEVINS: What will you be doing in 10 years?
COLES: I can't tell you right now, but it's gonna be positive. I'm too spiritual.
BEVINS: Too spiritual?
COLES: I'm so spiritual.
BEVINS: What does that mean?
COLES: I'm spiritual! You know what spiritual means! Me and God has a good relationship. I'm in tune with the universe, the sun, moon, and stars. I'm in tune with the jinns that are all around us.