Twenty years ago, the Wu-Tang Clan found themselves at a crossroad. The collective out of Staten Island that spurred the resurgence of New York City hip-hop with their 1993 debut, Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers, and planted their flag atop the mountaintop again with their sophomore LP, Wu-Tang Forever, was on the brink of watching their dynasty crumble right before their eyes. Upon inking their deal with Loud Records as a group, the contract included a clause that allowed each individual member to release solo albums on competing labels. These groundbreaking terms resulted in a succession of classic albums from Wu, including Method Man’s Tical, Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version, Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…, GZA’s Liquid Swords, and Ghostface Killah’s Ironman, all of which were released within a two-year span. The commercial success of these albums establishing each member as individual stars, as well as Wu-Tang Forever‘s international acclaim, brought Wu-Mania to unprecedented heights, bringing RZA’s five-year plan for supremacy to completion.
However, following Wu-Tang Forever, their hot streak began to simmer, as the second wave of solo albums from the crew brought back diminishing returns, commercially and otherwise. While RZA (Bobby Digital in Stereo), Inspectah Deck (Uncontrolled Substance), and U-God (Golden Arms Redemption) all unleashed their solo debuts, those releases, as well as sophomore efforts from Method Man (Tical 2000: Judgement Day), Raekwon (Immobilarity), GZA (Beneath the Surface) and Ol’ Dirty Bastard (Nigga Please), were given underwhelming reviews and deemed disappointing in comparison to their previous work. And with a new class of stars like Jay-Z, DMX, Master P, Ja Rule, The Hot Boys and others backed by burgeoning movements of their own, the Wu’s reign was threatened to end prematurely, their time as the undisputed top dogs in rap having passed them by. As whispers about the Wu’s ability to return to form began to become a real question in rap circles, Ghostface Killah silenced that noise with his sophomore release, Supreme Clientele, an album that ushered the Wu sound into the new millennium and established him as one of the most captivating wordsmiths of all time.
Co-starring on Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… and earning a platinum plaque off the strength of his own 1996 solo debut, Ironman, Ghostface Killah had become a budding star. Initially donning a ski mask during live performances while on the run from the law, the Stapleton Projects native was a capable emcee, as evidenced by his appearances on 36 Chambers, but rough around the edges and seemingly lacked the commercial appeal of groupmates like Method Man, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Raekwon and Inspectah Deck. However, Ironman, which included the Mary J. Blige-assisted hit single “All That I Got is You,” as well as the fan favorites “Daytona 500,” “Winter Warz” and “Camay,” was hailed as a quality body of work, peaking at No. 2 on the Billboard 200. The following year, in the wake of Ironman‘s release, Ghostface Killah, a lifelong diabetic, made a trek to West Africa to seek out alternative healing methods to help cope with his bouts with high blood pressure.
In addition to the organic treatments he received, Ghostface, who was joined by RZA during his stay, also gained inspiration from the culture of Benin, where happiness was a way of life, in spite of the impoverished conditions its natives were subjected to. Years later, the rapper would touch on how his visit to Africa left a lasting impact, altering his view of the world around him and giving him a sense of spiritual clarity. “F**k all this Tommy Hilfiger, Polo…all this sh*t…they don’t give a f**k about none of that over there. Everything is the same,” he said. “But over here, everybody wanna be better than the next one…They might be f**ked up, money-wise, but trust me, them muthaf**kas is happy, man. Them ni**as in harmony ‘cause they got each other.” Upon his return stateside, GFK arrived with the lyrics for “Nutmeg,” the first song written for his then-untitled sophomore album, as well several other songs that ultimately wound up on the album. However, in the midst of this burst of creativity, more pressing matters, of the legal variety, awaited him at home.
Charged with robbery, stemming from a 1995 incident outside of Manhattan nightclub Palladium, during which a valet attendant was allegedly assaulted and robbed of $3,000, Ghostface was facing the possibility of a prison sentence of five to fifteen years if convicted. Making matters worse, in December 1997, he was arrested in Harlem for weapons possession and wearing a bulletproof vest after being stopped by police for a traffic violation. Continuing to record amid the drama, Ghostface spent much of 1998 hunkering down in the studio recording material for Supreme Clientele, with a tentative release date slated for early in the following year. “Mighty Healthy,” the first song liberated in support of Supreme Clientele, hit radio soon after, with the Mathematics-produced cut serving as a slice of the zany brand of rap GFK would be delivering soon enough. However, Ghostface’s decision to take a plea deal in the 1995 robbery case in February 1999 resulted in the rapper receiving a sentence of six months in prison and five years probation, delaying the album indefinitely.
Released in May, after serving four months of his sentence, GFK got back to work, putting the finishing touches on the album in various studios in New York and Miami. RZA., who had taken a backseat in terms of his contribution to the production on Wu albums post-Wu-Tang Forever, worked closely alongside Ghostface in curating the sound and direction of the album, overseeing the mixing process and adding additional wrinkles to tracks supplied by other boardsmen. This proved to be a major selling point, as RZA’s absence from Immobilarity, Raekwon’s anticipated follow-up to Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…, was duly noted and attributed to the album’s failure to live up to its predecessor. With RZA in the fold and Ghostface as creatively invigorated as ever, Supreme Clientele was gearing up to be a seismic undertaking, with Ghostface positioned as the unlikely hero tasked with saving the day and restoring the rap world’s faith in the power of the Wu.
On February 8, 2000, after a year’s worth of anticipation, Supreme Clientele, the first Wu-Tang release of the new millennium, hit shelves. Executive produced by RZA and Ghostface Killah, the album includes tracks from a mix of producers, including known commodities like Carlos Broady, JuJu, Mathematics, and Inspectah Deck, as well as relative newcomers Black Moes-Art, The Blaquesmiths, Carlos Bess, Choo the Specializt, and Hassan. Appearances by Wu members Cappadonna, GZA, Masta Killa, Method Man, Raekwon, Redman, RZA, and U-God, as well as affiliates Redman, Solomon Childs, Chip Banks, Hell Razah, and Lord Superb helped add additional flavor to the proceedings.
Supreme Clientele begins with an intro sampling audio from the Marvel Super Heroes cartoon, which leads into dialogue lifted from the “Iron Man Theme” by Jack Urbont, a contrast from Ironman, which saw RZA incorporating samples from the blaxploitation film Education of Sonny Carson to compliment Ghost’s rhyme spills. Known for his unconventional brand of lyricism, GFK stretched the limits of listeners’ imaginations out of the gate with “Nutmeg,” the first song on the album and one that finds the rapper stringing random words together with no regard for coherency.
“Scientific, my hand kissed it,” he raps, before littering the Black Moes-Art produced track with enough slang and non sequiturs to make E-40 blush. Powered by an interpolation of “Ain’t No Sunshine” by Bill Withers, the track is the perfect theme for a ghetto superhero tasked with demolishing sucker emcees with futuristic flows and kicking truth to the young black youth. Joined by RZA, who makes the first of multiple appearances on the project with a visceral verse of his own, Ghostface Killah marks his return with a big splash via “Nutmeg,” one of the most inventive rap songs to come out of the Wu-Tang camp. After touching the sky, Tony Starks levels back to earth on “One,” produced by Juju of the Beatnuts, who builds a drum loop atop elements lifted from “You Roam When You Don’t Get It At Home,” by The Sweet Inspirations.” Rhyming “Ayo, the Devil planted fear inside the black babies/Fifty cent sodas in the hood, they going crazy,” Ghost’s observations of poverty and despair in the black community are sprinkled in between carefree stanzas, a reminder that for all of the colorful couplets, knowledge always reigns supreme in his chamber.
Touching on his constant run-ins with the law on “Saturday Nite,” Pretty Tone goes rogue on “Ghost Deini,” which accounts for one of the most sobering salvos on the tracklist. Written in Miami, on the beach during a torrential downpour, “Ghost Deini” finds its host passing down jewels while raging against the machine, proclaiming, “It’s me against housing” atop a murky backdrop, courtesy of The Blaquesmiths. In addition to GFK’s recollection of high-stakes jewelry heists, “Ghost Deini” is notable for guest star Superb’s endearing performance, which finds the American Cream Team member mourning a fallen comrade and attempting to make sense of the madness of the world around him during a drunken rage. Raekwon doesn’t join Ghostface for the whole ride this time around, but makes good use of his airtime on “Apollo Kids,” the first of The Chef’s pair of contributions to Supreme Clientele. Produced by Haas G of the U.M.C.’s, “Apollo Kids” finds Tony Starks comparing his rhyme style to baked ziti and scraping more food for thought on the plate to enhance our sonic palette. The second single released from the album was a moderate hit, peaking at No. 32 on Billboard’s Hot Rap Singles chart, and is notable for its accompanying video, which see Ghostface rocking mink coats and barking rhymes while eating a golden ice cream cone in all his splendor.
Dialogue from Kung-Fu flick Shaolin Rescuers sets the tone for “Mighty Healthy,” a standout offering that reasserts Ghostface and his fellow Wu Gambinos’ dominance over the rap landscape. Boasting “The world can’t touch Ghost, purple tape, Rae co-host” and anointing himself as the rap game’s version of New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, his mettle under pressure in the face of doubter’s of his crew’s staying power is unwavering, as evidenced by his virtuoso performance on this Mathematics-produced outing. Supreme Clientele finds Ghostface flying solo on more occasions than not, but the moments that do include costars double as some of the most riveting moments on the album. The tension between Bad Boy Records and Wu-Tang now in the distant past, Hitman Carlos “6 July” Broady constructs a soulful composition in “We Made It,” which features Superb, Hell Razah of Sunz of Man, and Chip Banks, who passed away shortly after the album’s release. Future Theodore Unit rapper Solomon Childs pops up for an impressive appearance alongside Ghost and RZA on “Stroke of Death,” a brain-melting cut that constitutes as cosmic slop at its finest. However, the most potent collaborative efforts on the tracklist find the Wally Champ locking in his Wu brethren, as Method Man, Redman and Capadonna collide on the raucous number “Buck 50,” and “Wu Banga 101,” which pairs him with GZA, Raekwon, Cappadonna and Masta Killa.
As engaging a storyteller as any artist next to Slick Rick, Ghostface Killah spins plenty a tale on Supreme Clientele, the most lucid being “Malcolm.” Produced by Choo, the song, which begins with dialogue from Malcolm X’s “After the Bombing” speech plastered atop a sample hijacked from “Going In Circles” by Isaac Hayes, blurs the lines between fiction and reality and touches on an alleged incident between Ghostface Killah’s entourage and Ma$e, which reportedly left the Harlem World rapper with a broken jaw, during the second verse. Painting a vivid picture of the scene in painstaking detail, GFK brushes with broad strokes, the outcome being a cinematic offering that leaves you doubling back for more and covering your tracks any tidbits missed. In an era where contrived club bangers were standard fare, Ghostface throws his hat into the ring, albeit orgnaically, with “Cherchez La Ghost,” a catchy mid-tempo ditty that reworks the ’70s hit “Cherchez La Femme” by Dr Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band. Featuring U-God, who delivers one of the most popular performances of his career, “Cherchez La Ghost” saw Pretty Toney beckoning the ladies to the dance-floor and was a breakout single, peaking at No. 3 on the Hot Rap Songs chart, his best showing as a soloist at that point in time.
In the wake of its release, Supreme Clientele garnered stellar reviews, with fans, critics, and even fellow rappers pegging it as a resurrection of sorts for the Wu-Tang Clan. Peaking at No. 7 on the Billboard 200 with 134,000 copies sold in its first week, Supreme Clientele was certified gold within two months of its release, further cementing Ghostface as one of the most consistently viable members of the Wu. Method Man, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Raekwon and RZA were initially predicted to lead the Wu-Tang Clan to the promised land, however, Ghostface Killah put the crew from Shaolin on his back at a time when many had begun to count them out, a feat that afforded him a newfound level of cache and respect as one of the leaders of the Wu in the eyes of the people. Controversy surrounding the album’s creation occurred in 2004, when Superb claimed to have written Supreme Clientele in its entirety, which Ghostface Killah vehemently denied.
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“‘Perb (Superb) is Rae’s (Raekwon) man,” Ghost later explained in an interview with Rhapsody Music. “He been in the studio a few times while we’re doing shit. He ain’t write shit. All ‘Perb contributed was a couple of lines that you could put in the air. When we write, we all do that. ‘Say this one right here” or “Put this one right here.’ We all catch lines with each other ’cause you in the studio. You got niggas around you that write. Even if he did write a verse, he could never make an album of mine. He couldn’t make an album, you feel me? I made Supreme Clientele what it is. Those are my stories, based around what they’re based upon. It’s me. I can’t see what songs ‘Perb wrote. He ain’t write ‘Mighty Healthy’ or ‘One’ or ‘Apollo Kids’ or ‘Cherchez LaGhost’ or ‘Saturday Nite’ or ‘Malcolm.’” While Superb has never backed down from those claims, Ghostface’s output following the release of Supreme Clientele, which includes close to a dozen solo studio albums and multiple collaborative albums, and the quality his music has sustained casts a heavy cloud of doubt over the validity of those allegations.
Ghostface Killah went on to release multiple albums that are considered classics in their own right, but Supreme Clientele remains the crown jewel of his solo career and one of the most brilliant rap releases of all time. Influencing the likes of Kanye West, who initially honed in on his sample-driven sound in hopes of working with GFK after hearing his work on the album. While those tracks ultimately wound up in the hands of Jay-Z and were included on The Blueprint and elsewhere, Kanye’s affinity for Ghostface and Supreme Clientele is well-known, with Yeezy sampling “Mighty Healthy” in 2012 on his song “New God Flow,” which included an appearance by GFK himself. Even more recently, Griselda/Shady Records rapper Westside Gunn has sung the album’s praises, titling his own 2018 mixtape Supreme Blientele in honor of the original. With 20 years having passed since it first touched down, Supreme Clientele‘s place among the holy grail of rap albums is secure as ever and serves as a friendly reminder that while ebbs and flows come and go, the Wu-Tang Clan is indeed forever.