“Shakey Dog,” from Ghostface Killah’s 2006 album Fishscale, tells the story of two veteran stick-up dudes, Tony Starks and Frank, driving to a stash house, entering it and having a shootout in pursuit of the spoils. The story is very light on plot – the previous sentence just summarized the entire plot – but it overflows with details, from the S. Dots on Ghost’s feet, to the smell of fried fish from Harlem and spliffs saturating the car, to the size of Frank’s hoody, to the backstory of an old woman pushing a shopping cart. Way before they even enter the stash house, we can feel the wintry New York City air and the tension that’s making Frank stutter like a nervous dog.
And these guys aren’t amateurs. When they pull up to the block, the stash house’s first line of defense does nothing because they don’t get paid enough to deal with men of Frank and Tony’s caliber. They’re not about that life. But still, Frank is shaking in his goose-down coat. This job has lots of liabilities. “Jackson 5-0,” cops on foot, might come. The cab driver might speed off if things start to look sour. They might not make it back to the Marriott. Through it all Tony is talking tough, blunted into a state of cool confidence, but when his stomach growls after smelling the plantains, steak and rice on the other side of that stash house door, it’s clear that he’s got the shakes too.
Ghostface weaves this tapestry of images effortlessly. Not only is he participating in the story as Tony, speaking in first-person, but he’s also rising and receding with the instrumental, which samples “Love is Blue” by Johnny Johnson, and oscillates between frantic horns and dramatic, pained wails. It’s a juggling act few would attempt and even fewer would complete without failing.
But what really sells the story is not the story itself, but Ghost’s storytelling, the way he delivers the details. “Push the fuckin’ seat up,” he yells with irritation after mentioning that Tony is in the backseat with a stiff leg. “I’m on the floor like ‘holy shit!’ ” he shouts with strangely exhilarated surprise after the stick-up takes an unexpected turn. When he tells the backstory of the 77 year-old lady with the shopping cart and the shotgun inside of that shopping cart, his typically whiny, ambulating voice, briefly becomes respectful, because she’s not someone to be taken lightly. These granular details are what initially stand out, but it’s Ghost’s voice that really brings them to life. For Ghost, merely providing the details isn’t enough. He uses his voice to add dimensions to each description, shading in each image, simultaneously providing and justifying his excessive attention to sights, sounds and smells. Just like your neighborhood barbershop sophist, who always talks more than he listens, Ghost uses every available opportunity to convince the listener that what he’s saying matters. No large breast, no nervous stutter, no stomach growl, is left behind.
A lot of authors try to make their stories more vivid post hoc, paving over gaps and ambiguities in their work in an interview or an afterword or a sequel, but Ghost makes his mark in media res. His directing itself serves as director’s commentary. For Ghostface, everything about this story is big and important and awing, so that’s how he presents it, refusing to allow even the tartar sauce on his shoes to be overlooked.
This insistence on every detail being relevant deviates from the classical definition of epic, where the sheer events of the story indicate the story’s importance. That kind of epic is what you’ll find in a fantasy or fairy tale, where simply seeing a giant or a blind man allegedly elevates the story to epic proportions. That’s not a dismissal of fantasy, but when it comes to storytelling “Shakey Dog” earns its stripes precisely because it doesn’t merely walk us through a museum of certain highly-valued, pre-packaged icons, like “impossible tasks that must be done” and wise blind men. “Shakey Dog” makes it clear why each exhibit deserves our attention.
Of course, every story shouldn’t be in Ghostface Killah High-Definition©. That’s what leads to the dry world-building of some fantasy and sci-fi stories or the misguided search for the “true” person behind RiFF RAFF. Sometimes readymade, easily understood symbols work just fine. Even Ghostface himself could learn from that; some of his songs are vivid to a fault. Ultimately, the need for details really depends on the story being told. For “Shakey Dog,” Ghostface knew what was necessary and he delivered, flawlessly, epically.
Because we live in a world with things like like Epic Meal Time and epicfails.com, it might feel disrespectful to call “Shakey Dog” an epic. With all the other words out there, at first glance epic feels like a George Foreman grill, rarely useful and easy to live without. But that’s precisely why “Shakey Dog” has to be considered epic. It takes a cheapened word, blows off the dust and crud, and shows its real value. 2007’s Epic Movie may have fallen flat on its face, but its heart was in the right place. Epicness is much more than symphonic movie scores, hour-long battles and men standing on mountaintops. It’s Ghostface Killah, paying $60 plus the toll to take a cab from Staten Island to Harlem, and wreaking havoc in a crowded apartment, all for the cash, coke and the crack.
To Be Continued, by David Brothers
Take Me Back: Ghostface’s Ghosts, by Steven Shaviro.