Words By Jesse H.
Sometimes albums come out that put a soundtrack to your mindset at a certain point in your life. From note one, it’s a disc that feels right at home in your headphones.
There are also albums that when they drop, can define or reshape the sound of a whole city.
Hearing an album that fits one of these types is rare, but when an album qualifies for both, and still has a density that merits repeated spins, its like finding a stray twenty dollar bill in your winter coat pocket from last season.
Being only 20, most of my experience with discs that fit both categories has been retrospective. I’ve read page after page on every classic album imaginable, but there’s nothing like buying one of those discs the day it comes out and having it set off a revolution in the inner linings of your ear drum on first listen. The last album that I remember pulling me in so dramatically on first listen was Ghostface’s Fishscale. While there were a lot of factors as to why the music hit me so hard, the bottom line was that it sounded so damn unlike anything I’d heard before, even Toney’s previous catalogue (which is armor plated in its own right).
I was visiting New York for the first time in my life, and the day before the album was released, I was riding on a coach bus from D.C. to NYC with a handful of people from my high school who I didn’t know very well.
That day, arriving in NY, we drove straight to Times Square. After soaking in the sheer mass of the advertising effort for a few minutes, I booked my way to the Virgin Records Superstore, slammed an Andrew Jackson on the counter and walked out a happy customer. Taking out the blue disc with the fishnet painted lightly on it (does anyone else appreciate disc art anymore?), I pressed play and after laughing through the “Return of Clyde Smith,” was hit forcefully in the brain by the first few vocal squeals of “Shakey Dog,” Then the horns kicked in. Damn. It was like a kick to the synapse. I could have listened to this album through a tin can and a wire and it would have sounded like a masterpiece. Driving around and seeing the city for the first time while listening to that album was one of the best audio/visual moments of my life. For me, and probably for the rest of my life, the sound of New York City is defined by Fishscale (Imagine seeing the Empire State Building for the first time while “The Champ” graces your ear canals simultaneouslyâ€¦ pretty mind blowing stuff).
This album was the East Coast: aggressive, big sounding tracks that stood tall and were decorated extravagantly with Ghost’s wild, vivid, piercing lyrics. His stories were a new level of description for Hip Hop, his swagger was untouchable, and his style was soaking the speakers.
Fishscale is just an album of exceptions, in more than one way. Not only did the album establish a new sound that was unheard of on records released at the same time (an essential for any classic), it established a new style of rhyming for not only Ghostface, but for the rest of Hip Hop, in terms of details in a story.
What really sets the album apart though, is that Fishscale went deeper than any other classic I had heard, and it still surprises me on each listen. It took me about three full listens before I picked up on the broken hand motif (mentioned in “Shakey Dog,” “R.A.G.U.” and “Clipse of Doom”).
It took even more digging to pick up that the album is actually quite conceptual, more than it probably gets credit for. Clocking in at exactly one hour (honestly, if you have it, check on your iTunes, 24 items, one hour exactly), it’s like an episode of “24” for hustlers.
Here’s the itinerary:
“The Return of Clyde Smith”- Waking up in the morning. The groggy, deep voice is like that weird transition between the last few seconds of a dream and eating breakfast.
“Shakey Dog”- An early morning drug deal gone horribly wrong.
“Kilo”- An escape back to the crack spot to do some bagging with an accomplice.
“The Champ”- A hustler’s triumphant mid-morning romp through the city streets. The musical translation of the feeling that you get when you are untouchable, that the law doesn’t apply to you, or as Ghost puts it “James Bond in an Octagon.”
“9 Milli Bros.”- A lunchtime meeting with the entire squad, where everyone’s impressing everybody else with stories, jokes, talk of their new guns, etc.
“Beauty Jackson”- Ghost’s story for the group, a tale of an extravagant pursuit for the number of a mystical woman.
“Columbus Exchange/ Crack Spot”- A vivid description of an afternoon visit to the crack spot.
“R.A.G.U.”- a tense, terse meeting between two accomplices, who, despite having respect for each other, are divided over their feelings on a person they’ve both dealt with.
“Bad Mouth Kid”- sets up the scene as a visit to the hustler’s girl’s place. A sharp exchange of dialogue between Ghost and the bad-mouthed kid who isn’t his son.
“Whip You With a Strap”- Ghost’s explanation and justification for why he gave his girl’s son a nice whipping, as well as an afternoon daydream.
“Back Like That”- Perhaps a fight with the mother of the “bad mouth kid,” Ghost pulls out all the stops in letting one of his chicks know that, being of “don status,” he will not accept her infidelity.
“Be Easy”- A “get over the girl” visit to a club that’s pumping out Pete Rock throwbacks.
“Clipse of Doom”- A song that represents a fight that broke out in the club. Perhaps with a person involved in the “Shakey Dog” situation (hence the reference to the broken wrist), or perhaps with the alternative male from “Back Like That.”
“Jellyfish”- After a fight that was decidedly won by Ghost, Ghost returns to the club, and picks up a girl. She must be a special lady.
“Dogs of War”- A dinner time gathering of Ghost and his other crew, where they break bread and throw war stories over the hash-stained tablecloth.
“Barbershop”- A last minute visit to the barber, who Ghost has a bit of a history with.
“Big Girl”- A woozy late night visit to a brothel type setting where Ghost plays “daddy,” encouraging the girls to kick the coke habit.
“Underwater”- Not heeding his own advice, the hustler gets blown to the point of hallucination. How else do you explain “Spongebob in a Bentley Coupe?”
“Momma”- A final appreciative prayer/call to mom right before crashing into bed. Even hustlers have a sensitive side.
“Three Bricks”- A midnight dream in which a dead pal is resurrected to hustle alongside the two accomplices from “R.A.G.U.”
I guess you could say Ghost makes the most of his New York minutes.