STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Now, let's catch up next with the rapper Ghostface Killah, a founding member the Wu-Tang Clan. Over a 20-year career, he's brought a singular personality and a soulful style to rap. His latest project is a collaboration with a film composer on a concept album, that has inspired a comic book and a theatrical stage show.
NPR's Frannie Kelley has the story.
FRANNIE KELLY, BYLINE: Ghostface Killah is a storyteller.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IMPOSSIBLE")
KELLY: He's a romantic, in his own way.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SAVE ME DEAR")
KELLY: Who's not afraid to be emotional.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL I GOT IS YOU")
KELLY: Ghostface was born Dennis Coles on Staten Island, New York City. At the age of 42, he can look back on a career that's seen him co-found one of the most respected groups in hip-hop history and release equally successful solo work. He's toured the world several times over but he's not done yet.
: I'm just, right now, glad to be a part of anything. You know, I been here for so long. But I don't feel old. I'm not going nowhere. I'm still talented. This is what I do. And I do it well.
KELLY: What he's doing now is a concept album about an Italian gangster betrayed, murdered and resurrected as a black superhero bent on revenge.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I DECLARE WAR")
KELLY: This was not his idea. That came from Bob Perry. He's worked in the music industry for decades, distributing records and doing A&R for hip-hop artists, which is basically matchmaking rappers and producers. He'd always wanted to make a concept album and he wanted to hear more live instrumentation in rap.
He scoured the internet until he heard Adrian Younge, who had a studio full of antique instruments.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT'S ME")
BOB PERRY: This is the guy I can make my rock opera with, you know?
KELLY: Perry called Younge. Told him he wanted him to make an album with Ghostface. Younge says they were both thinking big.
ADRIAN YOUNGE: We created this whole crime thriller thing that takes place in the late '60s, which I don't want to give away the story, because obviously it's like a movie. We look at this as like a real movie.
KELLY: In your head, onstage and on the page, Perry took their idea to comic book writer Matt Rosenberg, who began work on a version of their saga in his medium. And Ghostface began writing from plot points that Younge and Perry sent him.
PERRY: We just kind of gave him broad instructions. Song One is about his rise to power. Song Two is about being the man. Song Three is about getting crossed, going to war, falling in love. And he took it from there.
: Just whatever you give me it's like a hit man. You know what I mean? It's what I get paid for.
KELLY: He's just being modest. Younge describes what Ghostface brought to the table.
YOUNGE: He's a kind of rapper that is theatrical and cinematic. He's very savvy in the type of production he chooses and how he approaches the production.
KELLY: Ghostface has his methods.
: Beats to me is like women. You see a chick that's like, oh, man. That's how I do it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CENTER OF ATTRACTION")
KELLY: When Adrian Younge sent Ghostface his music, the rapper realized they had something in common.
: We love old records. We got old souls. He got a old soul. I got a old soul. You know what I mean? And we love those kind of records.
KELLY: Ghostface has been incorporating the raw '60s soul sound into his songs since his first album, "Ironman" featured the lead singer of the Delfonics, who's also on this new one.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ENEMIES")
KELLY: Ghostface, Younge and their band are touring the new album in a stage show that acts out Ghostface's detailed storytelling and the cinematic style of Younge, who's composed for films. Younge says it involves masks, long red robes and a giant book from which Ghostface reads one song.
YOUNGE: It's different but it works. I don't know how he does it...
YOUNGE: ... but it always works.
KELLY: This is the part that Ghostface sounds most excited about.
: I would always want to do a Ghostface show, like, to make it look like a play. And each track is just like you just sliding in, to make it look theatrical like a cinema.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RUN")
KELLY: The stage show, like the album, tries to create something new. They're pairing old lyrics with original music, throwing fresh verses on top of sounds made on 50-year-old instruments. The point is to do something Ghostface has done in the past: Push hip-hop forward.
Frannie Kelley, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RUN")
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