It’s somewhat puzzling that Ghostface Killah hasn’t found a second career in film. Unless you count a brief scene-stealing cameo in the original “Iron Man” (criminally excluded from the final cut but viewable on the Internet), Wu-Tang’s most charismatic and quotable clansman hasn’t followed the path of many considerably less talented rappers in making the transition to movies.
But on record, it’s a different story. Ghostface has cultivated an assortment of alter-egos, or roles, over the years, from flashy playboy Pretty Toney (“The Pretty Toney Album”) to ruthless crime boss Tony Starks (“Fishscale” and “Ironman”) to Ghostdini, a self-anointed “wizard of poetry” who raps sweet nothings to his pregnant wife and unborn child on his eponymous R&B-flavored album from 2009. Each is essentially a different shade of one established personality, like switching the actor who plays James Bond. When working with Ghostface, you aren’t just getting a couple verses — you are casting a character.
So when producer/composer Adrian Younge was approached by Wu-Tang chieftain RZA and his Soul Temple Records co-owner Bob Perry about recording an album with Ghostface, he didn’t start with music or lyrics. Instead, he wrote a script called “Twelve Reasons to Die.”
“The job is to get the complexities out of the way earlier and create a foundation to inspire,” says Younge, who will be performing with Ghostface and his band Venice Dawn as part of the “Twelve Reasons to Die” tour this Thursday at the Wilbur. “In putting the story together, I tried to think of what a character like Tony Starks would be like back then, and then provide Ghost with the foundation for him to build upon.”
Younge’s story casts Ghostface as Tony Starks, a black Italian mobster in the 1960s who begins the story as an enforcer in the De Luca crime family. When he ignites a mob war by attempting to separate from the De Lucas, he is killed — his body melted down into 12 vinyl records, to be exact — only to be reborn as the vengeance-seeking Ghostface Killah. Whereas RZA colored the Wu-Tang’s early albums with the poorly dubbed dialogue and chop-socky sound effects from his beloved kung-fu flicks, Younge and his band Venice Dawn draw from a different kind of B-movie: the giallo, a stylized and gruesome brand of Italian horror/crime film from the early 1970s that served as a platform for noted composers like Ennio Morricone to experiment with elements of psych-rock, soul, and funk.
“The cinematography and the art direction of those movies led to or created a certain type of music based on American soul,” says Younge, who scored the film “Black Dynamite.” “A lot of European composers were asked by the producers to make a soundtrack that sounded like American blaxploitation music, so you have classically trained musicians trying to re-create American funk in this cinematic style. And the way they did it was very interesting and unique. That sound is something that absolutely inspired a lot of the original RZA production.”
Younge recorded the tracks with his band in the same manner that he would score a soundtrack, with each instrumental specifically tailored to advance the story along when paired with Ghostface’s lyrics, which were recorded separately due to scheduling conflicts. And yes, RZA’s spirit can be felt in the gritty soundscape of stalking bass lines, tightly snapping snares, and distorted guitars, made entirely on vintage equipment (“I don’t know how to record any other way,” says Younge with a hint of pride).
But just as a great title song does not make a great Bond movie, the strong soundtrack of “Twelve Reasons to Die” would be wasted without a stellar performance from its leading man in a well-worn role he’s played for years. As the gangster Tony Starks, he exposes his fatal flaw by falling into the clutches of a treacherous femme fatale (another recurring stock character from the Ghostface catalog), praising her in adoring tones as someone who “would hide my guns in the house and lie to the task force.” By the time he’s been resurrected on “Revenge Is Sweet,” his flow becomes more rushed and emphatic with the gleeful violence he now wreaks on his enemies, claiming “my Tennessee goons will nail [you] to a cross.”
“I just looked at it as a piece of work,” says Ghostface. “It depends on what it calls for. This was Adrian’s idea, not mine. He wanted certain things done to every track. If it’s somebody else’s project, and it says play this character and I’m comfortable, then I’ll do it. I heard the tracks, they were right up my alley. I just wanted to tackle that [stuff].”
“There’s a way to do it where he’s a character in 1993, or in 1982, or in 1967,” says Younge of his take on the Ghostface character. “You have to act like you’re in a movie: What does the world look like? What kind of girls is he talking to? What kind of cars is he driving? You think of how the character would react in different settings, and then that determines how music would reflect that perspective.”Martín Caballero can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @_el_caballero.