An unrivaled classic, Supreme Clientele marked a seismic rupture with rap tradition. It’s Tony Starks, invulnerable and silvery, casting stream-of-consciousness hexes from a general who survived hell.
In the fall of 1997, Ghostface Killah decamped to West Africa. His diabetes had become cataclysmic: dizziness, blurred vision, bloodshot eyes, and concussive headaches. He hadn’t quit drinking, which didn’t help; nor did the joints laced with angel dust he still smoked from time to time.
Even before the diagnosis, he convinced himself of his impending demise, fearing cancer, though more likely AIDS. When medical professionals finally tested his blood sugar it was 500 mg/dl. Anything above 550 is considered fatal.
Wary of Western medicine, Ghostface flew to Benin to be treated by a bush doctor in a remote village several hours outside of Cotonou, the nation’s most populous city. Running water was non-existent. The inhabitants lived in mud huts and slept on the floor. When the RZA showed up to meet Ghostface, he saw his bandmate materialize in a dashiki, full beard, and unkempt hair puffed out. RZA had brought Kung Fu flicks—specifically Blade of Fury—which they watched alone as honored guests, the tribe’s children looking on in awe of them and the village’s only TV.
The spiritual nucleus of Supreme Clientele spawns from that pilgrimage. That’s where Tony Starks wrote “Nutmeg” and several other album tracks in a purge of voodoo spirits, occidental poisons, and crazy visions. It’s a masterpiece of comic absurdity and cosmic exorcisms, existential paradox and mathematic precision.
In an attempt to save his life, he seeks out a medicine man in his ancestral homeland and achieves esoteric and sobering realizations about existence. Sans beats, the Wallabee Champ scrawls countless transmissions snatched from the thundering din in his head. It’s as if Muhammad returned from the cave of Hira to prophesize revelations of seasoned giraffe ribs, Scooby Snacks, dancing with the most sexually vibrant member of the Golden Girls, and how his dick made a magazine cover (“count how many veins on it”).
About two years later, a fully clothed Starks actually made the cover of The Source and explained the knowledge self-obtained in Africa.
“Fuck all this Tommy Hilfiger, Polo…all this shit…they don’t give a fuck about none of that over there. Everything is the same,” Ghostface said. “But over here, everybody wanna be better than the next one…They might be fucked up, money-wise, but trust me, them muthafuckas is happy, man. Them niggas in harmony ‘cause they got each other.”
Mind you, Pretty Toney delivers this soliloquy while smoking a Newport in a suite at the Waldorf Astoria in Midtown, Manhattan, wearing an ankle-length, royal blue robe with a custom-embroidered “W” on the back. The entire time he’s enraged that “BET Rap City” isn’t playing the video for “Apollo Kids”—the one where he’s swaddled in mink coats and eating a golden ice cream cone.
This is Ghost, naturally ridiculous, the supreme smart dumb cat, the genius who embodies the innate contradictions of late American capitalism, gobbling Chinese herbs and getting acupuncture during the day and smoking dust and dodging bullets at night, capable of staggering misogyny and deep reverence towards women. He is both yin and yang, not just from song to song, but syllable to syllable.
He continues about his Africa trip:
“You see them kids that’s on TV? With flies on they face…I don’t like to see that. There’s no reason in this world with all this money that we got, for those babies to be over there with…big stomachs and shit like that,” Ghost adds. “I’m one of them niggas that’ll bring them into their muthafuckin’ family, I don’t give a fuck if it’s ten of them. I’ll get them.”
If Ghost ever adopted ten sub-Saharan kids, it was never mentioned on Couples Therapy. Other interviews followed in which he spoke of lofty plans to recruit Oprah Winfrey and Magic Johnson to help him build a school for the indigent children of Benin. And while his follow-through was shaky, his sincerity was unmatched. He also had a good excuse, considering the grave legal turmoil shadowing him during the recording of Supreme Clientele.
Parole Kids Live Rapunzel
The District Attorney threatened Dennis Coles with “five to 15” if he didn’t cop a plea to attempted robbery charges stemming from an incident outside of the Palladium back in 1995. While parked at the venue, someone slashed Ghost’s tires and a brawl ensued between Starks and his crew against the Palladium attendants. One valet claimed that Ghost tried to rob him. None of this ends well.
As his attorney negotiated for better terms, blue and red lights flashed once again. This time, a friend named Dupree Lane got pulled over as Ghost trailed in a caravan behind. Using “disorderly conduct” as the pretext to search Ghost’s car, cops found a .357 Magnum loaded with hollow-point bullets hidden behind the glove compartment. Ironman was wearing a bulletproof vest—another felony charge.
Throughout this entire period, the NYPD and F.B.I. attempted to launch a RICO case against the Wu, who they branded a “major criminal organization.” It’s bizarre to weigh these accusations in the wake of Method Man starring in network sitcoms, the RZA bong-bonging all over Californication, and Ghostface doing full-length collaborations with Canadian jazz prodigies scarcely old enough to sip Alizé. But just consider the abridged list of alleged criminology: illegal gunrunning, weapons possession, homicide, carjackings, and a bi-coastal drug ring. They attempted to pin the murders of two drug dealers on a hit ordered by RZA and Raekwon. According to the Bureau, Wu-Tang Records was little more than a front for laundering money, which ostensibly explains why RZA kept releasing Wu-Syndicate and Sunz of Man albums.
Even before Ghost copped a plea to rot on Rikers Island for four months, Supreme Clientele’s plotline already felt like Martin Scorsese directing Shaft in Africa. As for the incarceration, it’s difficult to gauge its impact beyond the obvious delays. In the press cycle leading up to Supreme Clientele’s release in February of 2000, Starks attempted to downplay its severity.
One MTV interview describes it as a disguised blessing that allowed him to further refine the record. In Stress Magazine, he contextualizes it as a cruel but mundane reality that many young American black men are forced to endure. The liner notes dedicate a section to "my niggas in the Belly": Big Un, Ready Red, Mushy Mush, General, Wah aka Freedom, Born, Shaquel Dueprey Allah from the O Building, and Peace Lord.
Most revealing was a SPIN interview, where he explained its physical ramifications—the times the prison guards refused to give him a proper dose of insulin, causing extreme vertigo and sickness.
“I hold on to times when I had to struggle,” Ghost said. “That’s the science of going through hell and having to come out right—because everybody gots to go through hell to come out right.”
Rather than script a conventional narrative about this purgatory, Ghost focuses on the fractured chaos of the world that led him to the pen. On “Buck 50,” he pauses mid-seduction to tell a woman to “check the grays on the side of my waves/I grew those on Rikers Island/Stressed out, balled up in the cage.” In the next breath, he shouts out Clyde Drexler’s hops, Biggie’s Versace’s, Zulu Nation in the ’80s, and how quickly his back got chiseled after two weeks in the gym. Then he quotes Mary Poppins and eats grouper in Cancun. You’re dealing with Supreme Clientele.
This Rap Is Like Ziti
It was supposed to be called Ironman. Instead, the RZA insisted that Ghost bestow that name on his debut album because everyone already knew him as Tony Starks. It just made more sense, marketing-wise. So Ironman dominated the fall of late ’96, the last of that royal flush of solo classics leading up to Wu-Tang Forever. It clocked over 800,000 CDs and tapes and debuted at No. 2 on the charts. RZA was probably right.
But if you re-listen to Ironman, it’s dark and wounded, the opposite of bulletproof steel. “Wildflower” and “Marvel” are scorched-earth breakup songs, all salted wounds and fresh infection. The plaintive “All That I Got is You” transforms the claustrophobic nightmare of the Staten Island projects into a gorgeous hymn about how a mother’s love conquers all. Ghost was still so heavy in the streets that he accidentally led the Delfonics into a shootout on a recording session gone awry. On the cover, Raekwon and Cappadonna receive co-billing, lending it the feel of an Only Built 4 Cuban Linx sequel more than a radical break from the Wu cosmology.
By Woodstock ‘99, critics and fans wondered if Wu-Tang were washed. Hindsight remembers it as a classic, but most reviews indicted the bloat and filler of 1997’s Wu-Tang Forever. A biblical flood ruined RZA’s studio, waterlogging hundreds of beats and hastening his baptism into Bobby Digital. Method Man and GZA’s follow-up albums disappointed everyone without a “W” tattooed on their clavicle, while Raekwon dropped the biggest No. 2 brick since Sam Bowie. The dollar bins of America were strangled with Shaq’s first record, Toad the Wet Sprocket, and innumerable Wu-Tang C-Listers sworn to omertà in exchange for a release date and two True Master beats.
Into the void Ghostface swaggered, inhaling breakbeats of hell, hitting mics like Ted Koppel, cham-punching Mase, and slapping crooked reverends so hard condoms, dice, and dope fell out of their pockets; sticking up rappers for their chains on New Year’s Eve in Cali and divulging no names; sprinkling snow inside the Optimo and sipping Remy Martin on diamonds. Supreme Clientele is Ironman. It’s invulnerable and silvery, the stream-of-consciousness hexes from a general who survived hell. A shade short of 30, Ghostface had been shot three times, survived multiple stints on Rikers Island, a debilitating battle with diabetes, and mourned the loss of two brothers with muscular dystrophy to become chromatic myth. He’d made religious pilgrimages to the motherland, slept on mud floors and hospital gurneys, prison cots, and silk sheets in $1,000-a-night hotel rooms. Now he was being tasked to save the Wu-Tang Clan.
To understand Supreme Clientele is to be humbled by epistemological limitations. You can see, feel, and taste it, but it can only be decrypted to a point. It’s a psychedelic record moored in reality. The ‘90s didn’t really end on 9/11; the ashes got incinerated with the smoke of RZA’s honey-dipped spliff.
Practically nothing is known about its recording process. In NYC, Starks demolished mics at the Hit Factory, Track, Quad Studios and the Wu’s own 36 Chambers compound in midtown. A trip to Miami yielded “Ghost Deini.” Out of a thousand beats, Ghost selected barely over a dozen. They mostly came from RZA, Mathematics, Inspectah Deck, Carlos “6 July” Broady of The Hitman, and Juju from The Beatnuts. All were logical picks if you’re trying to construct a great New York rap album circa 2000.
Out of a sped-up Solomon Burke loop came “Apollo Kids,” courtesy of Hassan of the UMCs, Staten Island’s first major rap crew. His discogs page shows nothing after Supreme Clientele. A semi-anonymous producer named Carlos Bess furnished his biggest hit “Cherchez La Ghost,” a cocaine opera about Tommy Mottola getting dumped, where U-God brags about busting through condoms and drinking mediocre lime rum. These are the things you can’t account for.
Consider that the beat for “Nutmeg” came from Ghost’s barber, Arthur, who cut hair on Staten Island. Somehow, the only major production credit of Black Moes-Art’s career is one of the hardest beats in history, a clean fade sliced from a forgotten 12” originally cut by Eddie Holman, the falsetto behind “(Hey There) Lonely Girl.” It sounds like he made it for a Saturday morning cartoon about the overcrowded projects of Alpha Centauri where everyone’s hands are semi-automatics; the only currency is angel dust, and the high priest cuts hair in a plutonium suit.
The common denominator was the RZA. He assembled and mixed them, adding uniform layers of grime and radioactivity, bizarre alarms and a dense twisted paranoia. It’s soul music transmogrified into gleaming metal, a tank covered in diamonds. The instrumentals sound like they’re ranting right back at Ghost, who sounds like he’s dripping blood onto the mic stand. As Chris Rock said about those cadaverous scratches on “Stroke of Death,” it makes you want to stab your babysitter.
Supreme Clientele established the template for what Kanye did later on Yeezus. Assemble an arsenal of heat and desecrate it to your personal satisfaction. It’s no coincidence. In Kanye West in the Studio, West claims, “I feel like I got my whole style from Ghostface…my whole mentality about hip-hop.” He later explains that many of the soul-chops that wound up on The Blueprint were originally intended for Ghostface until Jay Z heard them.
A few years ago, Mathematics laid out how it all happened. The RZA protégé never really topped “Mighty Healthy,” the original first single that Kanye lifted for “New God Flow.” It evokes a rare twinkling evil, like some velvet afterlife where you are condemned to sip Ginger Ale and watch Kung Fu movies for eternity. “That whole time period, [Ghostface] had a glow about him,” Mathematics said to HipHopDX. “That was how that whole Supreme Clientele came about. It was because of that glow.”
Maybe that’s the most appropriate metaphor for this album. Ghost had the sort of nuclear phosphorescence that people use to explain what they can’t explain. He rapped like he was a sacred vessel for ancient spirits with a preternatural ardor for Teddy Pendergrass. Ghost says it himself, these are “graveyard spells.” Fog your goggles.
Crushed Out Heavenly
On Supreme Clientele, Ghostface does nothing short of revolutionize the English language. Words like tidal waves drown you as you gulp for air, just trying to tread water and interpret what was said four bars ago. Ears twitch, you catch the aroma of Kansas fried chicken as it whips past, the grievous ululations of mothers mourning their dead sons. It’s like a Weegee photograph of the late Giuliani era, but simultaneously a proto-Adult Swim hallucination where Apollo Kids lounge on gilded thrones, sipping wine coolers in King Tut hats.
“The knowledge is how it sounds,” he said to The Source. “See we funny niggas. I’m a give you a little jewel. A lot of funny niggas know how to rap. The slang that we be saying G, it could mean whatever at that time. We say everything. ‘Lobsterhead.’ Come on man. If a nigga fit that type of category, then he a lobsterhead. It’s just that—slang. It’s real, but it’s what it means at that time.”
If hip-hop’s original rule was the Wild Style, Supreme Clientele shatters every precept while still respecting the foundation. There are scratches, breakbeats, and the (mostly) good-natured insanity to be the greatest. It’s the wildest style, rap stretched to silly putty lengths, as far as you can go without falling off the edge of the needle. There’s the DNA of Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, Biz Markie, Rammellzee, Slick Rick, Ultramagnetic MCs and Kool Keith, but this marked a seismic rupture with tradition. It was art-rap made for the asphalt—the closest that hip-hop ever came to Ulysses, and not only because Joyce described the “snotgreen sea” and Ghost conjured a “booger-green Pacer.” Both Joyce and Ghost understand that basic idea that a “man of genius makes no mistakes. His errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery.”
At times, Supreme Clientele accidentally channels Raymond Chandler translating A Season in Hell. At others, the dirty nasal bark summons Donald Goines on DMT or Lewis Carroll in the slithy toves of Stapleton, where the ambulance don’t come. Ghost intuitively realized what André Breton claimed was the definition of surrealism: the chance meeting on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella. How else to categorize the man who arranged the combination of words, “Dicking down Oprah, jump rope/David Dinkins/Watch the black mayor of D.C. hit the mocha.”
You could spend all day deciphering “Malcolm,” with its snippet of Malcolm X condemning the “corrupt, vicious, and hypocritical system that has castrated the black man.” The description of an anonymous phantom as the one “that cut his wrists, talkin’ bout the cuffs did it/He bantamweight, frontin’ majorly/Eyes like Sammy Davis Jr.” He divines the phrase, “Dream merchant tucked in the cloud,” fingers Pamela Lee, and dares someone to make him “catch a Kennedy.” One skit chronicles the travails of a crackhead named after a World War I President. Another mercilessly threatens 50 Cent. For whatever reason, he finishes “Stroke of Death” by bellowing, “White man scream, SWIM STARKS SHARKS!”
Left off the album was a twisted soul death ballad alternately called “In the Rain,” “Wise,” or “In the Rain (Wise).” Ghost claimed that he wrote it stoned on the beach in Florida during a torrential downpour upon learning that one of his best friends had been murdered. The more he wrote, the more the storm thrashed until it ceased four or five hours later; then he stood up with tears in his eyes, noticed a pyramid in the sand, walked around it three times, uttered an “All praises due Allah” incantation, and returned home. He apparently laid it down in Detroit with The Dramatics, the Detroit Orchestra, and Motown guitarist Dennis Coffey. I only know this from the liner notes of the album that I purchased in 2000. The actual song was not on my CD. The tracklist is completely wrong too. In this parallel universe, it makes perfect sense.
Through this warped and sinistral way, Supreme Clientele is about love. Ironman unmasked a scorned Lothario simultaneously trying to establish himself as an elite rapper like Raekwon, Method Man, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, and GZA. It’s a competitive record with something to prove. But here Ghost sounds like he just fucking loves rapping. And he loves children in Africa. And he loves ’70s and ’80s New York. And he loves 2Pac and Biggie and Malcolm and Marvin Gaye and anyone who stood for something. He loves mink coats, cognac, baked ziti, and Allah. He’s extraordinarily pro-black, not because he’s anti-anyone else, but because he profoundly loves his people for their soul, strength, and common heritage.
He loves his crew, who roll deep alongside him: from Trife on the outro of "One" to Superb popping up everywhere, to the posse cuts "We Made It", "Buck 50" and "Wu Banga 101.” It’s Ghost’s show, but the experience of recording it doesn’t sound solitary. He loves them so deeply because he’s acutely aware of how quickly this mirage can vanish. On “We Made It,” Starks celebrates another victory by just a thin thread of electric current. Before 2000 ends, one of its guest rappers, Chip Banks became a chalk outline memory in Harlem, murdered over a small cash dispute, barely 30 years old. Eight children left behind. It’s one more reminder that this was his life’s work—not merely something great made in a crazy period, but the only way that period could have ended.
There’s an old Ghostface quote where he simplifies rap to the most basic prerequisite: get “some official beats and say fly shit over them.” Even if that was all that he did on Supreme Clientele, it would still be a classic. But what makes it transformational are those minor details. The almost tossed-off aside where the vivid laser eye guy spits, “West Brighton pool now I’m into iron duels.” It’s a name-check of the neighborhood spot where he used to swim, a sad glint of far-off nostalgia as he considers who might be lurking the next time he steps outside.
This is the duality that remains constant, the fluid superhero transformation as Starks shifts from retina-searing brightness to black and white grit, comic absurdity to adolescent remembrance, revelations spoken through rap. It’s the testament of a mortal god, hoping to save the world, hoping to free himself.