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Hip-hop language

Ghost like Swayze: the use of ‘ghost’ in hip-hop

As we rolled on, I seen the patrol on creep, so we got ghost.

—“Alwayz into Somethin’” , from N.W.A.’s Efil4zaggin (1991)

For me, this lyric represents one of the great potentials of hip-hop. An otherwise unremarkable sentiment, when channelled through the mind and mouth of a deft MC, can become something poetic and memorable. Take the N.W.A. lyric above, for example. Translated into everyday English, it would read something like: “As we drove, I saw the police, so we left.”  The cryptic storytelling and twists of language, though, those are what make the lyric worthwhile. How much more evocative is ‘we got ghost’ than ‘we left’? For any hip-hop song, no matter how nod-worthy the beat, creative wordplay in the lyrics is what keeps me coming back.

The first time I encountered ghost in this context, it was completely unfamiliar to me, and I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it.  For one thing, the syntax is bizarre. Although it’s a noun, ghost is deployed here with ‘to get’ in a construction that normally takes an adjective; think of the familiar phrases ‘to get lost’ or ‘to get drunk’. Dropping a noun in there isn’t ungrammatical, but it’s by no means everyday, and that left me scratching my head.

Sussing out the meaning was no picnic either. ‘To get ghost’ doesn’t make a lot of sense on the surface, and none of the major dictionaries offers any sense of the noun that really describes what’s going on here. Gleaning what I could from context, I figured our narrator (in this case, Dr. Dre), having spotted the ‘the patrol on creep’, feels threatened and wants to split. What does that have to do with ghosts though? Good question. My best guess was that ghosts can disappear (right?). Considering this ability to vanish, ‘to get ghost’ must mean something like ‘to leave’.

They’re checkin’ my code

For those of you who spin the occasional hip-hop record, I suspect this comprehension narrative is all too familiar. Cracking an intelligent cipher requires a good ear, persistence, and, dare I say, not a little smarts. When the rhyme depends on new slang too, decoding it can be all the more difficult. That cryptography is part of the fun, though, and once you’ve nailed down a new slang term, doors do open. Understanding other hip-hop music starts to get easier, and as a result, the art’s more enjoyable.

At least that’s how it worked for me and ghost. When I finally came to grips with the N.W.A. line, ghosts started leaping out to me in other artists’ rhymes too. Ultimately, I realized that the term crops up all over the rap map. For the last 20 years, it’s enjoyed steady, substantial currency in hip-hop and occurred in a variety of contexts and constructions. Here’s a brief survey.

To go ghost:

Yo, president, wanna see Hardcore go ghost?

—  “Livin’ in a Zoo”, from Public Enemy’s Muse Sick-n-Hour Mess Age (1994)

 [Here, Chuck D antagonizes the POTUS, asking if he’d like to see rap music bite the big one.]

 To turn ghost:

Rappers turn ghost like Casper,
‘Cause battlin’ me, you’d only meet your fate.

— “Float”, from Big Daddy Kane’s Prince of Darkness (1991)

 [The prospect of stepping to a master like Big Daddy Kane is enough to make other MCs disappear, just like everyone’s favourite friendly ghost.]

To make (someone) ghost:

Choking on your own words, should’ve watched the grammar you spoke
One last final approach, make your whole family ghost

Kool G Rap on “I am”, from G. Dep’s Child of the Ghetto (2001)

 [In a rap battle, Kool G Rap will not only destroy you, he’ll x-out your people too.]

The first one to bust

For the historical lexicographers and word nerds in the house, I scouted high and low to find the first example of ghost being used in this way. In hip-hop terms, 1991 isn’t exactly recent, so I didn’t have high hopes for finding any usages older than N.W.A.’s “Alwayz into Somethin’”. As it happened, though, one pioneering MC did get there before Dr. Dre, and his name was Heavy D. Rapping as a featured artist on a New Jack Swing track by the R&B group Guy, he rhymes:

 So here’s the news: I’m ghost. I’m outta here, long gone.

—  “Do Me Right”, from Guy’s The Future (1990)

D’s usage here, specifically ‘be’ + ‘ghost’ (“I’m ghost”), turns out to be the most common I found. It shows up in the lyrics of Nas, 50 Cent, Gang Starr, Redman, Eminem, Raekwon, Big L, and dozens more. Even Childish Gambino dropped it into “Heartbeat” on last year’s Camp.

Didn’t you say something about Swayze?

Rewind back to 1992, not too long after ghost’s grand entrance into the rap game, and you’ll find the first footprint of another classic hip-hop coinage. And if there’s any truth to the legend, one story cannot be told without the other. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you: Swayze.

Wait a minute… Swayze? Like Patrick?

Straight up. In the wake of ghost’s explosion onto the scene, a few of hip-hop’s more inventive MCs pushed the slang a step further, riffing on its association with the (then recently popular) film Ghost, which starred, you guessed it, Patrick Swayze. Check out this nugget from Long Island legends EPMD:

But now I’m Swayze, ghost, the rap host,
Who rip shows, from coast to coast.

— “It’s Going Down”, from Business Never Personal (1992)

A clever turn, isn’t it? Ghost means ‘gone’, and Swayze was in Ghost, so now, by extension, Swayze seems to mean ‘gone’ too.

I got a story to tell

As regards who dropped Swayze first and when, I’m not absolutely sure, but I’ve conducted a bit of research and arrived at a theory. The term was cooked up by the Hit Squad, a short-lived, but very successful collective of NYC-area hip-hop acts in the early 90s. In hip-hop songs released before 1992, there’s no sign of Swayze (being used in this way) anywhere, but in that year, it appears on three different Hit Squad albums. The first was Das EFX’s Dead Serious (check “Brooklyn to T-Neck”), put out in April. Then EPMD followed shortly thereafter in July with Business Never Personal, which boasts Swayze in four of its eleven tracks (“Boon Dox”, “Crossover”, “Play the Next Man”, & “It’s Going Down”).  Last, Redman rounded out the Hit Squad year in September by releasing his Whut? Thee Album, on which you can hear Swayze in “A Day of Sooperman Lover”.

With the Hit Squad boys leading the charge in 1992, Swayze jumped off like mad and spread through the rest of hip-hop in no time. By the end of the decade, it had featured in verses from nearly every big name in the biz, and MCs are still using it in their lyrics today. These are a few of my favorites:

One from Method Man off his debut:

I’m sick, insane, crazy, driving Miss Daisy
Out her  f***in’ mind.  Now I got mine, I’m Swayze.

— “Bring the pain”, from Tical (1994)

 [Method Man is certifiable; he’s even making old ladies nuts. But now that he’s got what he came for, he’s gone.]

Here’s another, this one from 2Pac:

And my C.O. is a lady, and I’m thinkin’ maybe
Me and her can hook up a scheme to be Swayze,
Cause she keep on callin’ me Baby.

—  “When I Get Free II”, from R U Still Down? (a1996)

[If anyone could Don Juan his way out of jail, it’s 2Pac.  Note his use of ‘Baby’ here, underscoring Swayze with a reference to the main character in his film Dirty Dancing.]

And here’s couplet from the MC whose voice I hear in my head when I think about the term, the Notorious B.I.G.:

That’s why I bust back, it don’t faze me,
When he drop, take his Glock, and I’m Swayze.

—  in “Runnin’ (Dying to Live)”, from Tupac: Resurrection (a1997)

[Biggie will battle you; he’s not scared. When he prevails, to the victor belong the spoils. Then he’s out.]

There’s also the occasional double-whammy, coupling ghost & Swayze just like EPMD did back in the day. Size up this one from Fabolous:

I’mma get Swayze, you can get ghost.

—   “Round & Round”, from Real Talk (2004)

[I’m gonna split. You should too.]

In memory of. . .

It’s a curious thing, an actor’s surname evolving into a piece of slang like that, and kind of remarkable that it’s endured for so many years. Even now that Mr. Swayze’s no longer with us, having lost his battle with pancreatic cancer in 2009, his namesake term lives on and is going strong in hip-hop today. Just last year it showed up in a rhyme from Eminem, part of his Bad Meets Evil collaboration with Royce Da 5’9”.  It’s with that lyric that I’ll leave you today:

Life’s crazy, so I live it to the fullest ’til I’m Swayze.

—   “Fast Lane”, from Hell: the Sequel (2011)

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