The Anniversary

Supreme Clientele Turns 20

“I don’t know how y’all see it, but when it come to the children, Wu-Tang is for the children.” This was Ol’ Dirty Bastard, resplendent in maroon, half-coherent. It was 1998, possibly the last year when anything interesting happened at the Grammy Awards. Shawn Colvin had just been announced the winner of the Song Of The Year statuette. She did a little dance on her way to the stage, and then she stopped in her tracks, confused, not sure what to do next. Erykah Badu and Wyclef Jean, the award’s two presenters, didn’t know what to do either. Nobody knew. So they let Dirty just keep talking.

Dirty had more to say: “We teach the children. Puffy is good, but Wu-Tang is the best. I want y’all to know that this is ODB, and I love you all. Peace.” A frantic-looking white man in a tuxedo then ushered the Dirt Dog off the stage. Shawn Colvin looked around for a couple of seconds, giggled, and said, “I’m confused now.” When she finished her speech, the camera panned over to Kelsey Grammer, the evening’s host. “I’d like to thank the gentleman from Wu-Tang for that clarification,” he smirked.

Shawn Colvin wasn’t the only one confused that night. Ol’ Dirty Bastard was confused, too. That was his whole point. The 1998 Grammys were supposed to belong to the Wu-Tang Clan because 1997 was supposed to belong to the Wu-Tang Clan. They had just finished up their strange and unprecedented solo-album run, five different artists putting out incredible RZA-produced records on different labels, before reassembling for the massive blockbuster double album Wu-Tang Forever. That album, filler and all, was huge, but something else was even bigger. Ol’ Dirty Bastard had not counted on Puff Daddy emerging from the wake of Biggie Smalls’ murder to absolutely dominate pop music, finally moving New York rap to the center of the cultural universe. Wu-Tang were now a sideshow. Their narrative had gotten all fucked up.

The problems had already started. You can’t have a successful nine-man rap crew without dealing with a few problems along the way. Wu-Tang had formed, miraculously, out of a few different squabbling Staten Island cliques a few years before. Even more miraculously, they’d succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, pitting labels against each other and developing a comic-book cosmology that made them every white teenage stoner’s favorite rap crew. But some had succeeded more than others. Method Man, for one, had become a pop star. Some of his comrades were still struggling.

There were other issues. The FBI was investigating Wu-Tang as a criminal organization. A flood had destroyed RZA’s studio, annihilating many of the beats that he had made during his most creative period. GZA, Method Man, and (especially) Raekwon had all put out messy and inconsistent sophomore albums. C-list Wu-Tang affiliates were putting up major-label bricks full of turgid blustery yelling all over the place, and America’s white stoner teenagers were starting to learn that they couldn’t just keep throwing their camp-counselor and Sandwich-Artist paychecks at anything with the W logo on it.

By early 2000, Wu-Tang was an empire in decline, a chaotic mass of feuding clans and unrealized plans. And then Ghostface Killah came through, eating seasoned giraffe ribs and dicking down Oprah and inviting all of us to walk with him like Dorothy. At the dawn of a new decade, Ghost internalized and channeled all that Wu-Tang chaos into a true masterpiece of American abstract art. That was Supreme Clientele.

Ghostface Killah started writing Supreme Clientele in a dirt-floor hut in Benin. After his diabetes had gotten so bad that it had almost killed him, Ghost left for West Africa, working with bush doctors because he didn’t trust modern medicine. For months, Ghost lived in a tiny village with no running water, writing words to no music. His thoughts grew feverish, psychedelic. Benin is where Ghost came up with the lyrics to the Supreme Clientele opener “Nutmeg,” a song so dense and distorted that it sounded like random bursts of language. It wasn’t. Ghost was just going deeply internal, finding strange ways to talk about things that were all too familiar to him.

So. “Chop the O, sprinkle a little snow inside a Optimo/ Swing the John McEnroe, rap rock ‘n’ roll”: Ghost is smoking a cocaine-laced cigar and maybe also playing tennis. “Portfolio, looking fancy in the pantry/ My man got bigger dimes son, your shit is scampy”: Ghost is rich and luxurious and not very impressed with this particular weed dealer’s selection. “See Ghost lamping in the throne with King Tut hat”: Ghost is lamping in the throne with the King Tut hat.

On “Nutmeg,” Ghost is sometimes telling old street stories, but they’re coming out jangled, refracted, distorted: “I’m bout it, bout it/ ‘Lord forgive me,’ Miss Sally shouted/ Tracy got shot in the face/ My house was overcrowded.” And sometimes, he’s just clearly playing with the way word sounds can rain down on a track: “Olsive compulsive lies, flyers with my name on it/ Dick made the cover, now count how many veins on it/ Scooby snack, jurassic plastic gats, booby trap.” (Also, he calls himself “the vivid laser-eye guy,” which I love so much.)

But Supreme Clientele wasn’t just a tough guy’s vision quest. It was a product of struggle and uncertainty and anxiety. When Ghost returned to New York, he and RZA went to work, remixing and reworking beats from other producers — from Wu-Tang standby True Master, from Beatnuts jester Juju, from Ghost’s barber — to fit the album’s urgent hard-chop aesthetic. Halfway through recording, Ghost served out a four-month robbery sentence at Riker’s Island, a product of a nightclub brawl from years earlier. More charges were pending while they finished the LP. Ghost talks about his incarceration on Supreme Clientele, but he finds the strangest ways that he can possibly do it: “Hit the gym for two weeks, my back all chiseled/ Elbows unique/ Now meet the new me.”

There were street rivalries to deal with, too. One of the skits on Supreme Clientele, “Clyde Smith,” is just three minutes of Raekwon talking through a voice-distorter, issuing snarled threats to the young Queens rapper 50 Cent. (50 had released the mixtape track “How To Rob,” and plenty of the rappers that 50 named, Wu-Tang included, were not amused.) On “Ghost Deini,” Ghost even tells a story of visiting 50’s stomping grounds and robbing rappers that he finds there. But Ghost ain’t saying no names, and he lays out the narrative with bracing crime-novelist minimalism: “Hot night, Jamaica/ Came through in a booger-green ’68 Pacer.”

Years later, when the surviving Wu-Tang members were getting back together for their first tour since Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s death, my Village Voice editor assigned me to write a Wu-Tang feature, and I tried to interview as many members of the group as possible. It was challenging. I’d written a dumb little snarky blog piece about the reunion, and I guess it had been passed around within the group. This was when I was just starting in this game, when it was only just occurring to me that the people I was writing about might read what I’d written. The members who I’d made fun of wouldn’t talk to me. The ones who I hadn’t made fun of were cool with it. (U-God: “You just be glad you didn’t say my name!”)

I chased a Ghost interview for weeks, finally waiting around at the “Back Like That” video shoot for four hours so I could get 10 minutes with him. (Dave 1 from Chromeo was there, too, waiting to talk to Ghost for Vice. I think he got more time than I did.) While I was waiting around, I fell into conversation with one guy whose name I didn’t recognize but who seemed to know everything about me. After some very friendly small talk, he laid it out for me: “We need a good article.” Pleasantly, he informed me that he didn’t want to have to send anyone to my apartment in Brooklyn to fuck me up. But he was also conciliatory: “If we like your article, hey! Maybe we send a girl to your place! Get your dick sucked!” Months later, going through the Supreme Clientele liner notes for the millionth time, I noticed that guy’s name. He was one of the many, many voices on the album — skit voices, not rapping voices. That’s who was around when Ghost made Supreme Clientele.

So Supreme Clientele is a strange and unique beast of an album. It’s vivid and surreal and writerly, but it’s also hard as hell, delivered with a whole lot of pent-up urgency and ferocity. It’s art from the center of the storm. Consider “Apollo Kids.” As the neck-jerk Solomon Burke sample kicks in, Ghost fumes at any and all adversaries: “All y’all fake motherfuckers up in the joint! Stealing my light!” But then, when he starts rapping, he’s twisting up glorious linguistic Möbius strips: “Yo, check these up-top murderers/ Snowy in the bezel as the cloud merges.” This rap was like ziti, and Ghost was about to throw hair on your back. A dream merchant tucked in the cloud, he stayed splurging. This was the single.

The album is full of moments like this. Ghost goes on unmoored linguistic benders. His pure verbiage is confounding and beautiful in equal measure: “Starks with the Parcheesi face, measly paced, old face/ Ghostface!/ Jump out the window for a little taste,” “Hit mics like Ted Koppel, rifle expert/ Let off the Eiffel, burn a flag in your grass, spiteful,” “Suede kufi wrap, undercover dentist/ Rhymes is made of garlic, never in the target when the narcs hit.”

Sometimes, Ghost is telling money-life tall tales that go beyond the aspirational and into the ridiculous: “We at the opera/ Queen Elizabeth rub on my leg/ Had ketchup on her dress from a Whopper.” Sometimes, he unravels intricate stories in language so layered that he can’t possibly expect us to follow: “Nice like Van Halen, seen him at the Tunnel with his skin peeling/ Did two days, thought he was jailing/ You get close, look at his hands/ That’s the same kid that cut his wrists, talking ’bout the cuffs did it/ He bantamweight, fronting majorly, eyes like Sammy Davis, Jr./ Rounded off with a fade, G, he sport the Bob Hope classics.” Try to catch up and feel yourself drifting off into space.

Many of our best rappers seem to operate on free-flowing stream-of-consciousness levels: peak DOOM, peak Wayne, peak Thug. With those rappers, part of the fun is attempting to follow those frantically forking brain-stems, trying to figure out how they got from one place to another. With Ghost on Supreme Clientele, forget it. You can’t do it. All you can do is step back and marvel at the elegance of this thing that you cannot hope to understand. I can’t find it online now, but around the time the album came out, Ghost did an interview with The Source or XXL, attempting to explain that he could not explain his lyrics. Ghost even used abstract art as his comparison-point. Paraphrasing here: You might look at a painting and have no idea what it’s supposed to be. But the motherfucker who painted it? He knows.

And yet one of the most remarkable things about Supreme Clientele is that it works. It’s Jeep music. Ghost was never an art-rapper. The Aesop Rocks of the world adopted Ghost as a patron saint, and he was a kindred spirit to them in some ways. But he brought a chaos and a charisma that always separated him from the underground rappers who could never be his peers. Supreme Clientele still worked as hard, vital New York rap music. You could throw it on next to Mobb Deep’s Murda Muzik or MOP’s Warriorz, and it would slide right in. You could play “Cherchez La Ghost” at a party or in a club. And released in the midst of what seemed like a Wu-Tang free fall, Supreme Clientele was a word-of-mouth hit. Radio, MTV, and BET all largely ignored the album, and it didn’t really have anything that seemed intended to entice those institutions anyway. It still debuted in the top 10 and quickly went gold.

In some ways, this was the glorious Wild Bunch ending for the Wu-Tang era. A lot of great Wu-affiliated music came out in the years after Supreme Clientele — much of it from Ghost himself — but nothing blew up, and nothing approached that intensity level again. Within a few years, Wu were a nostalgia act, a living reminder of a wilder time. Ghost has been talking about making a Supreme Clientele 2 for years now. I hope he does. It could be great. But it won’t be Supreme Clientele.

Nothing else could ever be Supreme Clientele. It’s a freaked-out brain-bent opus, a kaleidoscopic bullet-spray. If you believed in destiny, you might think that the entire rise and fall of the Wu-Tang Clan was laid out just so, specifically to produce an album this singular and brilliant. It’s the Uncut Gems black opal — a work of opaque and unfathomable beauty that reflects stress and violence right back at you. I don’t know how y’all see it, but when it come to the children, Supreme Clientele is for the children.