The Damon Albarn Appreciation Society is a series of twenty focused observations, conversations, and thoughts about music. This is the nineteenth. I wanted to write about storytelling rap, and then I wanted to write about Ghostface Killah’s “Shakey Dog” and “Run,” and then I wanted to write about Ghostface’s style, and then I just decided to pick apart “Shakey Dog” to see what I came up with. Hopefully it’s not just me explaining the song.
Minutes from previous meetings of the Society: The Beatles – “Eleanor Rigby”, Tupac – Makaveli, Blur – 13 (with Graeme McMillan), Blur – Think Tank (with Graeme McMillan), Black Thought x Rakim: “Hip-Hop, you the love of my life”, Wu-Tang Clan – Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), On why I buy vinyl sometimes, on songs about places, Mellowhype’s Blackendwhite, a general post on punk, a snapshot of what I’m listening to, on Black Thought blacking out on “75 Bars”, how I got into The Roots, on Betty Wright and strong songs, on screw music, on Goodie MOb’s “The Experience”, on blvck gxds and recurring ideas, on Killer Mike and political rap
Here’s the first eight bars of Ghostface Killah’s “Shakey Dog” off that Fishscale album. This would be half a verse in any other song:
Yo, making moves back and forth uptown
60 dollars plus toll is the cab fee
Wintertime bubble goose, goose, clouds of smoke
Music blastin’ and the Arab V blunted
Whip smelling like fish from 125th
Throwin’ ketchup on my fries, hitting baseball spliffs
Back seat with my leg all stiff
Push the fuckin’ seat up, tartar sauce on my S Dot kicks
It’s about nothing. It’s about riding in a cab, heading to Harlem, wearing a bubble goose ’cause it’s cold, smoking huge blunts, and how the cab smells like fish. This is the musical equivalent of a novelist writing about seventy-five whole pages about what Jane Eyre had for breakfast, the weird crick in her neck that won’t go away, and how she’s absolutely nuts peanut butter-covered celery before getting down to whatever it was Jane Eyre is actually about. It sets the stage, sure, but it’s not what you traditionally think of as something that a song is about.
But this is Ghost’s greatest strength. This is why he wins over most (95%, if not higher) other rappers. He’s the number one dude in rap at building a mood (save for fight music, where Lil Jon holds the crown, but that’s a special exception). Most rappers just go in from jump, hitting you with punchline after punchline about lyrical spherical miracles and how they pitch cracks kick raps and run traps. It’s direct and to the point, almost to a fault. I love Pusha T, but I know that he’s just going to get elbows deep into whatever song he’s on as soon as his verse starts, whether he’s telling a story or just talking about coke.
But Ghost will set the stage with an establishing shot, pan around to something irrelevant but interesting, and then get to the point when he feels like it. And even then, the point will be obfuscated and enhanced with dense language, new slang, and astute observations that you didn’t expect to see. I feel like Ghost is just like your uncle who has nothing but shaggy dog tales in his repertoire. They’re well-told, yeah, but dang, man, there’s so many extraneous details off in those stories. But when you set it to music, and when you give Ghost a chance to tell a story, you get something way more magical than Ghost’s rhymes seem on paper.
More “Shakey Dog”:
Made my usual gun check, safety off, come on, Frank
The moment is here, take your fuckin’ hood off and tell the driver to stay put
Fuck them niggas on the block, they shook, most of them won’t look
They frontin’, they no crooks and fuck up they own jux
Look out for Jackson 5-0 cause they on foot
Straight ahead is the doorway, see that lady with the shopping cart?
She keep a shottie cocked in the hallway
“Damn, she look pretty old Ghost,” she work for Kevin, she ’bout seventy seven
She paid her dues when she smoked his brother in law at his boss’s wedding
Flew to Venezuela quickly when the big fed stepped in
This is where the song starts to coalesce into a shape. It’s explicit storytelling, Tony Starks talking directly to us and relating what he said to Frank and did on this specific day. It’s part-conversation, part-story. And look, Ghost is keeping up the extra details that build this up into something more than just a heist song. The wannabe corner boys are no threat, but the beat cops might be. The old lady with the shotgun is one of my favorite images, because Ghost hints at this whole history. She shot somebody up at a wedding? She fled to Venezuela, but came back to New York? And now she runs security at a stash spot? I want a song about her, man.
This is the spot, yo son, your burner cocked?
These fuckin’ maricons on the couch watchin’ Sanford and Son
Passin’ they rum, fried plantains and rice
Big round onions on a T-bone steak, my stomach growling, yo I want some
Anybody else, this would’ve gone down differently. They would’ve kicked in the door, waving the .44, and have ‘em screaming “Poppa don’t hit me no more.” But Ghost takes another detour. He takes the Cuban guys from faceless goons to people with actual personalities and he turns himself from a stick-up kid to something else. When he said “My stomach growling, yo, I want some” is the exact point I went from digging the song to loving it.
It’s such a beautiful little detail that I can’t help but love it. Sean Witzke and Brandon Graham, two people I love to talk stories with, have talked a lot about how important it is to see people eating and using the bathroom in action movies, and really fiction in general. (Sean on Brandon and BG on eating, turns out I got it from Sean who got it from Brandon) I didn’t realize it before they said so, but they’re absolutely right. It’s something that grounds characters and lets in to their minds and lives more than just watching Rambo tear through eighty thousand dudes does. It humanizes them, even if they’re larger than life, and it does it without sacrificing any of their potency. Ghostface pausing to talk about how hungry he is has the exact same effect. It’s like — “Whoa! Okay, one, he’s painted a picture of a delicious meal, and also, he’s a regular person.”
Off came the latch, Frank pushed me into the door
The door flew open, dude had his mouth open
Frozen, stood still with his heat bulgin’
Told him “Freeze! Lay the fuck down and enjoy the moment”
Frank snatched his gat, slapped him, asked him
“Where’s the cash, coke and the crack? Get to smoking you fast”
His wife stood up speakin’ in Spanish, big titty bitch holdin’ the cannon
Ran in the kitchen, threw a shot, the kick in the four fifth
Broke the bone in her wrist and she dropped the heat
“Give up the coke!” But the bitch wouldn’t listen
I’m on the floor like holy shit! Watchin my man Frank get busy
He zoned out, finished off my man’s wiz
They let the pitbull out, big head Bruno with the little shark’s teeth chargin’
Foamin’ out the mouth, I’m scared
Frank screamin’, blowin’ shots in the air
Missin’ his target off the Frigidare, it grazed my ear
Killed that bullshit pit, ran to the bathroom butt first
And this is where the song would start under anyone else’s pen. Now that we’ve had two minutes and forty-five seconds of introductions in a song that lasts three minutes forty-five, Ghost is getting down to the nitty-gritty. It’s exactly how a heist isn’t supposed to go, but Ghost makes it both weird and incredibly detailed. You can see Cuban the guy’s wife wrecking her wrist ’cause of her .45 while talking Spanish. You know what a squat, ugly, vicious-looking pitbull sprinting across the floor looks like, but Ghost saying that it’s a “big head Bruno” changes the game. I doubt if he’s referring to the dog from Bosko cartoons, but “big head Bruno” is definitely something to spark a mental image. A dog that’s more head than body, shark’s teeth sitting there like potential energy, foam around the mouth… it works.
The craziest part, though, is “I’m on the floor like holy shit!” That’s another one of those touches that makes me love Ghostface and his music. He’s an observer, far from impartial, but even he can’t believe how crazy the day’s going. He’s half-impressed and half-horrified, going by his voice, because Frank is getting busy, but yo… things are crazy.
But the illest part of the entire song is this bit from the very end, after Frank has killed everybody but one guy and then gets killed himself:
To be continued…
It’s the perfect ending, because Ghost is in trouble deep, his connect’s house is a mess, and there’s no way he’s getting away scot-free.
“Shakey Dog” feels like a sprint. There’s no hook. Ghost only varies his voice a couple times, and he doesn’t do it to indicate someone else’s voice. He just does it to indicate distance (like when he’s talking through the door) or his own mood (“My stomach growling”). The conversations don’t break up the rhythm of the story at all. They’re just part of the same mass, that same sprint to “to be continued” and a quick fade. It’s exhausting because it’s so exciting.
Even the music makes it feel like a sprint. A cat named Lewis Parker produced it, and the primary sample is from The Dells’s “I Can Sing A Rainbow/Love Is Blue” (which Blu fans will definitely recognize from Below the Heavens). It’s soulful, but fast-paced, and the stretched out vocal sample (“I” stretched to the point of breaking, looped twice or thrice) builds tension before the distorted “Now I’m without you baby” drops in.
“Shakey Dog” is a genuinely undeniable headnodder. The music sets you up, and then Ghost hits you with a juggernaut flow and you’re lost. It’s an incredibly dense song, and even though only maybe a full sixty seconds are action, it’s still one of my most favorite storytelling joints.
I love all types of rap, from crack to trap to country to crunk to stoner to emo, but storytelling rap is probably my favorite. There’s something about bending a skill that’s usually used to kick clever metaphors and rapid-fire rhymes toward telling a story from start to finish. It enhances a simple or stupid story into something magical like “Shakey Dog.”
“Shakey Dog” is as real to me as Goodfellas or Four Brothers. Maybe even more so, since I built the world of “Shakey Dog” myself, instead of watching someone else act it out. Ghost throws some many details into the story that you can’t help but see it as real life when you watch it. The stairs are wooden and brown, Ghost is on the carpeted part of the apartment while the wife is firing her .45 while standing on linoleum in the kitchen, bullet holes in the white, old-fashioned fridge… the bathroom’s bright white before it turns red.
That’s why I love Ghostface’s style so much, and why I love storytelling rap. It builds up this incredibly vivid picture in your head and then it’s gone. It’s a taste of another world before it fades out. Even the title, “Shakey Dog” — it’s because Frank is acting like one of those annoying little shaky dogs before the jux goes down. But the e makes it seem like a name, rather than just an adjective. There’s flavor there, something to chew on.
When Ghost is on point, he’s giving you more than just a hot song. He’s giving you all these ideas and lines and images that stick to your ribs. Listen to Ghostface.