In the world of hip-hop, becoming a recognizable figure to the general public is an achievement most artists aspire to achieve. Rather than play the back, rappers often seek fame along with the money. But then there is the rare breed that shuns the limelight, and sometimes create alternate identities, don masks and costumes to protect their anonymity.
Wu-Tang Clan member Ghostface Killah, who turned in one of the more celebrated performances on the crew’s debut album, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), falls into the latter category. The Staten Island rep, who wore a stocking mask in early Wu-Tang Clan videos to conceal his identity due to issues with the law, would eventually reveal himself to the world after clearing his name and changed the rap game alongside fellow Wu member Raekwon on The Chef’s debut album, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx. Released in 1995, and LP was almost instantly hailed as a classic, OB4CL raised Ghostface’s profile — with the streets clamoring for him to drop his own debut.
Wu-Tang and Ghostface Killah would oblige, unleashing his debut album, Ironman, in fall of 1996. Featuring production exclusively from RZA, sans the True Master produced “Fish,” Ironman features appearances from various Wu-Tang members — most notably Raekwon and newcomer Cappadonna — who served as co-stars of sorts, even appearing alongside Ghostface on the album cover.
Led by the Mary J. Blige assisted single, “All That I Got Is You,” as well as fan favorites like “Camay” and “Daytona 500,” despite a lack of commercial singles, Ironman went on to become classic album. It debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200, and ultimately achieving platinum status.
Originally unheralded in comparison to some of his fellow Wu-Tang members, Ghostface Killah would become the most consistent member of the supergroup following up Ironman with classics like Supreme Clientele and Fishscale — in addition to noteworthy releases like Bulletproof Wallets, The Pretty Toney Album, and Big Doe Rehab. But the foundation for his improbable run was built on Ironman, and remains as one of his signature albums — and among the best debuts of the mid-’90s.
In addition to the actual lyrics, another highlight of Ironman is the masterful production, courtesy of RZA, who was in his prime and seasoned as a producer by the time he she started on the album. Samples of vintage Kung-Fu flicks were a staple of Wu-Tang Clan releases like 36 Chambers and Liquid Swords. RZA would instead build the beats on Ironman around excerpts from the ’70s cult-classic film The Education of Sonny Carson. The decision would be a clever one and helped give Ironman an aura and theme of its own — separate to that of his Wu brethren. The album also saw RZA mining the catalogs of soul legends like Al Green, Teddy Pendergrass, Jimmy Ruffin, and The Jackson 5 to create the backdrops for Ghostface Killah’s vivid storytelling and random musings.
Although you’d be hard pressed to find a wack beat on Ironman, there are a few particular tracks that stand a cut above the rest and have aged into some of the greatest RZA productions of all-time. In celebration of Ironman’s 20th anniversary, and RZA’s uncanny production prowess, we ranked the most memorable beats on GFK’s cherished debut.
Where does your favorite beat stack up?
After the original close-out cut on Ironman, The Soul Controller,” was extricated from the tracklist due to sample clearance issues, “Marvel,” would take its place. With no samples included, it is the rare RZA or Wu-Tang cut that doesn’t contain the remnants of dust gleaned from flipping a record from yesteryear, and is also one of the least sonically enticing cuts on Ironman, hence its ranking at the bottom of the barrel of the album’s instrumentals.
“260,” which makes use of the dialogue excerpts from the film The Education of Sonny Carson that was leftover after the making of the Ironman intro cut, “Iron Maiden, is one of the more pedestrian production efforts on the part of RZA from Ghostface’s debut. Doing his bidding with a sample of Al Green’s “You Ought to Be with Me,” RZA tosses out a beat that is effective — albeit a bit underwhelming in the grand scope.
14. After The Smoke Clears
“After the Smoke Is Clear” one of the last tracks on Ironman. It contains a sample of “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted” by Jimmy Ruffin, and is among the haziest salvos on the album. Featuring the signature vocal samples of wails implemented throughout, “After The Smoke Clears” is perfect for lighting one up in the midst of kicking and retaining knowledge of the Wu..
“Wildflower” is among Ghostface’s most entertaining soliloquy’s, but the actual beat in itself is a serviceable offering in its own right. Aside from the opening interlude, excerpts lifted from the film J.D.’s Revenge, “Wildflower” is pretty much a bland affair when compared to RZA’s more focused work.
12. Assassination Day
“Assassination Day,” which makes good use of the “there’s no coke!” scene from the 1995 film The Usual Suspects, as well as an excerpt from “Crying Freeman,” eschews any bells and whistles, with RZA hooking up a simple loop for his Wu-Tang brethren to sharpen their respective techniques over.
11. All That I Got Is You
The lead-single from Ironman, “All That I Got Is You,” contains a sample of “Maybe Tomorrow” by The Jackson 5, which RZA simply loops up and matches with poignant excerpts from The Education of Sonny Carson, giving Ghostface the first of his many emotionally endearing records. While there’s not much to marvel at concerning the sums of its parts, they say that perfection is often found in simplicity, and the beat to “All That I Got Is You” may not have all of the fixings, but is without flaw and is instantly associated with Ghostface Killah, ubiquity of The Jackson 5 loop aside.
10. Faster Blades
“When you on the corner and shit, you just gotta be on some hands down shit, you know what I mean?” asks Raekwon before opening his verse on “The Faster Blade,” his lone solo turn on Ironman. Produced by RZA, the track contains a sample “Can’t Go No Further and Do No Better” by The Persuaders — over which The Chef gets surgical — serving up vibes reminiscent of those found on his own debut, 1995’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx.
9. Poisonous Darts
“Poisonous Darts” contains dialogue excerpts from the 1975 Joseph Kuo film Mystery of Chessboxing, particularly elements from the Training scene that takes place 1:16:53 mark of the flick. Dropping different sound effects, including punches, kicks, grunts, and the like throughout the track, RZA once again takes his love for Kung Fu, infuses it into his production, and comes away with another classic to add to his extensive catalog of bangers.
“Love was never born to say goodbye,” croons the Teddy Pendergrass sample lifted from his 1980 song, “Can’t We Try” for the Ironman tune “Camay.” Elements of Southside Movement’s “Iv’e Been Watching You” also gets thrown into the mix, and when matched with jazzy piano keys and bass, makes for a refined number perfect for Raekwon, Cappadonna, and Ghostface to spit sweet nothings into the ears of desirable women.
7. Motherless Child
“Sometimes I feel like a motherless child,” starts as a haunting part on the Ironman cut, “Motherless Child,” a gloomy salvo that is pretty much straightforward in approach. Powered by drum kicks and snares, samples of O.V. Wright’s “Motherless Child” and “A Fool Can’t See The Light,” as well as the solemn humming from the singer’s 1977 release, “Into Something (I Can’t Shake Loose),” the RZA’s take reworking of the original “Motherless Child” makes for one of the superior offerings on Ironman — from a production standpoint..
6. Iron Maiden
As the opening selection on Ironman, “Iron Maiden” sets the tone for the whole album, starting with its beat, which conflates Al Green with The Education of Sonny Carson, the end product being an unforgettable intro cut that’s among the finest from the first round of Wu-Tang solo releases.
Samples of “Gotta Find a New World” and “Strong as Death (Sweet as Love)” by Al Green, as well as dialogue from the classic gang-fight scene in The Education of Sonny Carson are employed by the RZA, who concocts a frantic, yet indelible soundbed for GFK and The Chef to cook over.
5. Box In Hand
“Box In Hand” is track from Ironman that is deceptively infectious and is sure to become a favorite after numerous spins of the album. While RZA concocted the bulk of this number without the usage of any samples (that we’re aware of), The Force M.D.’s interpolation of the Jackson Five’s “Never Can Say Goodbye,” as well as remnants of Blue Raspberry’s vocals from Method Man’s 1994 single, “Release Yo Delf” scattered throughout, contribute to “Box In Hand” add to the ambiance.
4. Winter Warz
Ironman is dominated by tracks tailor-made for the glum of the colder months of the year, but the actual song designated for that period is one of his more lively affairs. “Winter Warz,” produced by RZA, contains a sample of “I Think I’d Do It” by Z.Z. Hill, as well as sped up drums lifted from Mazel’s 1979 cut, “Midnight Theme.” Cappadonna’s enthralling guest verse may be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of “Winter Warz,” and while that may be justified, the song’s actual beat is not far down the list.
“Change Is Gonna Come” by Otis Redding, and dialogue from the film Crying Freeman make up the template for “Fish,” arguably the most musically rich beats on the entire Ironman album. Drums lifted from the Amazing Rhythmic Aces’s “A Jackass Gets His Oates,” are surrounded with layers of instrumentation and other wrinkles, resulting in one of the more recognizable tracks in Ghostface’s catalog.
2. Black Jesus
“Black Jesus” is preceded by a short sermon from Papa Wu kicking knowledge on the origins of man, and while his words are certainly sure to stick with you and are some of the most powerful dialogue on Ironman, the true magic comes when you’re hit by the sample of The Blackbyrds’ 1975 track “Riot,” lifted from the Cornbread, Earl and Me soundtrack. Also containing elements of Tom Jones’ “Looking Out My Window,” “Black Jesus,” with its tambourines and thumping kicks and snares, is an enthralling soundbed from Ironman that stands a cut above much of the material on the album.
1. Daytona 500
After being pleasantly surprised by the vocal stylistics of the Force M.D.’s, listeners are suddenly bombarded with a chopped up sample of Bob James’ “Nautilus,” which serves as the backbone of the beat on the Ironman standout, “Daytona 500.” Produced by RZA, the track’s rollicking guitar licks, impromptu DJ scratches, and penchant for the beat falling from underneath the lyrics mid-flow, “Daytona 500” takes poll position in the race for the best instrumental on Ghostface’s debut.