“To be continued…” [Ghostface Killah’s “Shakey Dog”]

May 22nd, 2012 Posted by david brothers

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.

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“Metaphors will keep me out the projects”

November 16th, 2010 Posted by david brothers

Somebody asked me why I quit reading Amazing Spider-Man last week. I thought about doing a post detailing what I liked and didn’t like, but who cares? Why spend time on something that isn’t working for me? Instead, there is this, which, if you look at it sideways, maybe kinda relates.

My love of rap is directly related to my love of stories, but I’ll come back around to that.

I’ve been reading since I was a kid. I partially learned how to read by looking for my name in the credits of movies, which I would invariably watch all the way to the end. Comic books provided another useful resource, as the dialogue tended to be very simplistic and childish while the word choices were bombastic.

In other words, it wasn’t hard to understand the sentences, but you’d still have to look things up, particularly when you’re too young to figure out context. I remember Claremont/Lee-era X-Men being a treasure trove of new words. I know for a fact I learned “vernacular,” “deadpan,” and “kinetic” from those books. Poring over a stack of well-read comics, some freshly traded from friends, and having to ask someone how to say “Adirondacks” (where X-Force lived) is one of those things that sticks out in my memory.

Years later, I got a library card and was old enough to go there on my own. You could check out, what, five or eight books? Something like that. Enough to pack a backpack with. I’d burn through them and come back the next weekend for a reload. This would’ve been around 1995 or 1996.

In that same stretch of time, I started actually listening to rap. I knew the popular songs, and I knew that Method Man was kinda cool, and I really liked Tupac, OutKast, and Goodie MOb, but I didn’t really hear what they were saying. I couldn’t tell you anything about it, other than that it sounded cool. It was just something that came on the radio. And my mom controlled the radio, so that meant it was gonna be all R&B, all the time.

(Half a memory: Jay-Z’s “Ain’t No Nigga” dropped in 96, and it ran around my school like a brushfire. Tons of pretty little brown girls singing, “Ain’t no nigga like the one I got!” while the boys grunted, “No one can uh you bet-ter!” We couldn’t curse in school, you see.)

Jay-Z’s “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)” hit in 1998 like an atom bomb. It decimated the airwaves, and my memory may be faulty, but I think the only song that I remember even touching it was OutKast’s “Rosa Parks.” “Hard Knock Life” was huge, and as a result, I heard the song at least a dozen times a week. That bassline is still absurd.

Eventually I started paying attention to the lyrics, and suddenly rap started looking a lot more attractive. There were stories here, people playing roles and creating their own myths. On top of that, there was wordplay, the sort of wordplay you simply didn’t see in R&B or movies. The meaning of words changed based on inflection, position in the bar, or even just because. Flow mattered, and one thing Jay has in spades is flow.

I had an after school job at this point, and one of the guys I worked with was this white dude who was super into underground hip-hop. He introduced me to a site called UGHH, which was full of indie acts and Real Media files at the time. That’s where I discovered Bad Meets Evil, bka Eminem & Royce da 5’9″, and a gang of other groups. At this point, the floodgates were opened wide and I was lost forever. Company Flow, Big L (who I discovered overseas when Rawkus released The Big Picture), Big Pun, Ras Kass, Kane, G Rap, Chino XL–whoever it was, as long as they could spit, I was there.

The kind of rap I’m still the most attracted to is built around the lyrics. Clever turns of phrase, complex wordplay, tongue twisters, double entendres, or even just kicking phrases with three or four meanings are what gets my motor going. Language is immensely powerful, and rap is all about bending language to your will. What you are talking about isn’t half as important as how you say it and the words you choose to express it. A simple chase scene (“The cops came, so I ran”) can become something that puts you right into the scene, and a sad love song (which would be rendered with earnest literalism in R&B, most likely) can turn into a sad first-person story.

Flow is crucial. Evidence once said that “emcees without a voice should write a book.” Any idiot can tell stories. Some idiots even make major cash and fame doing it, and good on them for being able to parlay mediocrity into a living wage. The people who matter–and I’m not just talking about rap here–the ones that stick out in your memory, are the ones that do something different or new. Pick your poison–Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Grant Morrison, Kurosawa, William Gibson, James Ellroy, Scorcese, Michael Mann, Quentin Tarantino. All of these guys either do something new or synthesize something old into something that’s almost entirely new. All of these guys have a voice.

Consider Big Pun dropping this bit of brilliance into an otherwise normal verse: “Dead in the middle of Little Italy, little did we know that we riddled some middleman who didn’t do diddily.”

Or Biggie Smalls going rapid-fire: “Motherfucker better duck quick, cause/ me and my dogs love to buck shit/ Fuck the luck shit, strictly aim/ No aspirations to quit the game/ Spit yo’ game, talk yo’ shit/ Grab yo’ gat, call yo’ click/ Squeeze yo’ clip, hit the right one/ Pass that weed, I got to light one/ All them niggas, I got to fight one/ All them hoes, I got to like one/ Our situation is a tight one/ Whatcha gonna do, fight or run?/ Seems to me that you’ll take B/ Bone and Big, nigga, die slowly/ I’ma tell you like a nigga told me/ Cash Rule Everything Around Me/ Shit, lyrically, niggas can’t see me.”

Or Bun B murdering Jay-Z on “Big Pimpin'” to the point where Jay had to step his game up on the video version: Now, these motherfuckers know we carry mo’ heat than a little bit/ We don’t pull it out over little shit/ And if you catch a lick when I spit, then it won’t be a little hit/ Go read a book you illiterate son of a bitch and step up yo’ vocab/ Don’t be surprised if yo’ hoe step out with me/ and you see us comin down on yo’ slab/ Livin ghetto fab-ulous, so mad, you just can’t take it/ But nigga if you hate now/ then you wait while I get yo’ bitch butt-naked, just break it”

Or Eminem on “Kill You,” after he made his first mil: “It’s like a jungle sometimes, it makes me wonder/ Why I keep on duckin’ under the bed when I hear thunder/ ’cause I ain’t crazy, I say shit that’s crazy to crazy people/ To make ’em believe I’m crazy so they can relate to me/ And maybe believe in Shady, so they can be evil baby/ I like that!/ I’m only as crazy as people made me”

Or Fabolous mixing the Superman mythos with a stutter-step flow on Lil Mo’s “Superwoman”: “Be whipped? I might/ ’cause usually with my chips I’m tight/ But the only green I keep from you is kryptonite/ The way that blue and red suit fits your hips so right/ I be like duh-duh-duh-duh, duh-duh-duh-duh-duh DAMN”

Or any of the times when Ghostface has built an impressively visceral mood and setting using nothing but free association rhymes, new slang, and nonsense (“Hold up, we at the opera/ Queen Elizabeth rub on my leg/ Had ketchup on her dress from a Whopper/ Chunky ass necklace/ Must be her birthstone”), or when Luda has turned simple nursery rhyme-level lyrics into something that gets you heated just off charisma, or when Black Thought’s impressive technical skill knocks your socks off when you stop to think about his effortless rhymes. Young Jeezy isn’t lyrical, but he’s clever enough that I keep coming back for more. He’s like a supernova of charisma and black superhero music.

This sort of thing is why I listen to rap. It’s why I read books, it’s why I consume comics, and watch movies. It’s probably even why I made a conscious decision to become a writer. The stories and wordplay are what works for me, and if I can’t chew on something for a while, or if it’s just emulating something old, or if it’s just going through the motions, or if it’s just the same old, same old, it’s worthless.

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Tokyo Tribes: From Shaolin to Tokyo

August 7th, 2010 Posted by david brothers

Well, here’s something I never knew about.

Santa Inoue’s Tokyo Tribes is in the same kind of lane as Samurai Champloo, though it’s a rap and Japanese culture mash-up that takes place in the modern day, rather than a hazy past. I picked up the first volume years ago and liked it well enough, but didn’t pick up the rest, for some reason. Lots of references to Anthony Hamilton in that book, too, which I dug. Inoue’s not hopping on a cheap bandwagon.

Anyway, DJ Muro produced the entirely too expensive import soundtrack CD, and this song here, which I’ve had on a Ghostface Killah compilation for a couple years but never listened to, is on that soundtrack. It was weird to hear Ghostface shouting out “Musashi no kuni” and Trife talking about Tokyo Tribes. But, you know, hip-hop is worldwide.

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4l! is only built for cuban linx

September 9th, 2009 Posted by david brothers

This is a big week for rap. Jay-Z’s The Blueprint 3 drops this week, but the album of the week for me, the big deal, is Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… Pt II.

The first Cuban Linx, the legendary Purple Tape, is one of the best albums to come out of the Wu-Tang Clan, and one of the best rap albums, period. It took crack rap and kicked it over onto its ear, redefining it for a generation. The Clipse, Young Jeezy, and even Jay-Z have been working from Raekwon’s blueprint, which is itself borrowed more from Godfather and Hong Kong action flicks than from Scarface.

Cuban Linx II leaked last week, as usual, and I copped it. For me, it’s album of the year contender. It’s only real competition, I’m thinking, is Mos Def’s The Ecstatic and maybe Heltah Skeltah’s D.I.R.T. (Da Incredible Rap Team), though that last one is purely personal taste. OBC4L2 is exactly what I’d been missing: hardbody New York rap of the grimiest variety. The producers come through with a lot of RZA-style, or maybe post-RZA, production, including J Dilla on the incredible House of Flying Daggers joint with Ghostface, Deck, and Meth. New Wu is a Rae/Ghost/Meth cut that bangs, too. It’s a classic Wu cut, like Ice Cream or 4th Chamber. We even get some Detox-era Dr. Dre on a Busta Rhymes feature, and every single guest star goes in. Ghostface is on seven of the twenty-two tracks, another nod to the classic Purple Tape. RAGU: Rae And Ghost United.

And really, that’s what this record is: it’s a Wu-Tang album. Not a collection of songs, not a gang of singles and a bunch of filler. It’s an album. There was thought put into the sequence. Opening the album with a Poppa Wu introduction and ending it with Kiss the Ring is the sort of thing that means something. Poppa Wu is classic, and Kiss the Ring is kind of like Jay-Z’s Blueprint 3: a victory lap.

The difference between Rae and Jay, though, is that Rae won the race. Jay’s just talking like he did.

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Ghostface Killah’s Cell Block Z

August 6th, 2009 Posted by david brothers

Well, hello, Tony Starks! Ghostface Killah – Cell Block Z.

To his fans, Cole Dennis is a heavyweight contender with a devastating right hook. To a city being held hostage to chaos and terror, Dennis has a grit and charisma that make him the shining hope for justice–until he is arrested for a brutal murder. Framed for a crime he did not commit, he finds himself captive in a foreboding high-tech superprison whose masters secretly conspire to turn inmates into tomorrow’s most terrifying bioweapons–with Cole Dennis as the intended prize specimen. But Dennis is nobody’s lab rat. Reborn as a towering engine of destruction, Dennis will prepare for the fight of his life. He will rename himself Ghostface Killah. And his cry of righteous rage will echo beyond the cold steel walls of Cell Block Z.

I need to get in touch with somebody at Hachette asap. This is right up my alley.


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