Since 2015, Big Ghost Ltd. has been setting the great American metropolises and their underground stories to music. Here is a look back at the atypical journey of a producer who lets his music speak for him.
Note of the editor : This is a translated version of our article Big Ghost Ltd. – Symphonies post-mortem, originally written in french.
Richard Porter is not quite old enough to understand it. Yet he was born in an America at war. In the turn of the 70s, the military troops are getting bogged down in Vietnam, a new president arrives in the White House. But most of all, the dope that is pouring through the streets of New York and a lot of cities that are said to be overwhelmed by this new plague. On June 18, 1971, Richard is not yet six years old and his life has already changed course. The battlefields multiplied and the Pacific front is no longer the only concern of the government in power. Nixon makes the announcement: from today, the conflict is also internal to the borders of Uncle Sam. Reality abruptly catches up with the images sometimes perceived on the other side of the cathode ray tubes. It simply takes another envelope, since in Harlem as well, just a stone’s throw away from the apartment Richard shares with his mother addicted to synthetic substances and his two siblings, a war in the primary sense of the term is being waged. It is the beginning of the war on drugs, the paranoia on every street corner and its cortege of victims, but also the starting point of the mafia obsessions of Big Ghost Ltd.
Not yet over eight-teen but already in prison, Richard has just paid the price for the operations initiated earlier by the Nixon Administration, and extended by Reagan – and his wife Nancy – in the 1980s. All of this doesn’t matter to him. From fake hash sold to bourgeois thrill-seekers to hard drugs that he quickly sells in large quantities, he has his first taste of the dirty money and the immediate pleasure that the printed faces of Benjamin Franklin and Ulysses S. Grant gave him. Barely free, he is already in search of « more ». More money, more women, more respect, and above all more drugs, which is supposed to bring him all three. After all, it’s well known: « Dope boys get all the bitches ». With Alpo and Azie, his new partners, Richard becomes Rich, the nickname that quickly accompanies the hundreds of thousands of dollars brewed in every corner of Harlem. At the age of 20, he has everything he ever dreamed of: money, women and respect. In 2002, he and his band were treated to a film that traumatized an entire generation of rappers from New York to France: Paid In Full, named after the album by Eric B. and Rakim released on July 7, 1987. Except that Rich will not be there to see it. He will have survived the successive blows of the Nixon and Reagan administrations, but not at the mercy of enemies – nor allies, since in his case it was Alpo Martinez, his partner in crime, who was convicted of his murder. The zip of a body bag in January 1990 closes the existence of this controversial Harlem figure, whose bloody legacy, elevated to a model of entrepreneurship in countless rap songs over the past 30 years, still survives.
« It is by diving into the meanders of an abyssal sound that the silhouette is glimpsed. »
A New York heritage that Big Ghost Ltd., the enigmatic producer of the Big Apple’s underground scene since 2015, is trying to unravel under the slightest seam. Every measure, every sound loop of this obscure character is devoted to it, or almost. A character about whom we know very little except a few interviews scattered on the Internet and a civil name: Robert Ramirez. It is thus elsewhere than on Wikipedia that we must look for the keys to reading the character. In his repeated collaborations with MCs in New York State, first of all. In influences drawn as much from the soul of the 70s and 80s as from the hypnotic guitars of psychedelic rock, then. Also, in the New York of the golden age, the Q-Tip, Wu-Tang Clan and Mobb Deep from which he claims to be, as well as classical painters from whom he likes to borrow the style as soon as he thickens the features of the rappers he collaborates with. Finally, in the incessant cinematographic references to mafia stories, to Carlos Lehder, to James Joseph « Whitey » Bulger, and above all, to Richard « Rich » Porter, as it was the case on the 2015 EP Griselda Ghost, his first effort behind the machines alongside the Griselda clique.
It is thus by plunging into the meanders of an abyssal sound that the silhouette is glimpsed, between the bricks yellowed by piss in the cut-throat alleys of Buffalo and the luxurious residences of South American barons. A silhouette that perhaps emerges on the side of New York, probably in the late 1970s, although it could be perilous to evoke the biographical elements that mark the path of a ghost. But one thing is certain, this shape with moving contours bears a name whose echo resonates with fright on the cavernous walls of the New York underground: Big Ghost Ltd., which became difficult to ignore in 2021 as he repeated, for the past 6 years, the incursions into the production credits of albums labeled « neo boom-bap ». Let’s take a look back in words, but also in samples, on the atypical journey of a producer who lets his music speak for him.
« Hotline Bling was 2015’s Fight the Power. It was a sign of the times. And the times are bad fucking corny. »
Big Ghost would thus be a pure product of the agglomeration of the Big Apple, and a major figure of a scene that is said to be underground, which is imported by the millions of listeners devoted to Westside Gunn, Benny the Butcher and The Machine, companions of the group Griselda. « Would » because, once again, the biographical elements are missing, and it is not by reading words, but rather a profusion of loops of abrasive samples that the ghost is to be comprehended.
But let’s start with words, however, since he himself typed thousands of them on his computer keyboard, long before he embarked on a career behind the machines of recording studios, or in his case, of what seems to be a laboratory of experiments with impassable walls. So in the early 2010’s he is a mythical character who expresses himself hidden in the anonymity of HTML pages woven on his personal blog: Big Ghost Chronicles. He talks about rappers he considers too soft, a little, about Drake, a lot. And globally about any individual with a speech without relief, not corrosive enough, or at least too corny to represent a musical genre that would be destined to stain woven cashmere tops and republican crop tops. Underneath the sarcasm of a schoolboy appearance hiding a character with a sharp ear and chronicles that quickly became viral, as much capable of calling 6 God a » human croissant « , as of developing an authentic, referenced, critical and nervy vision on the rap of those years – » Hotline Bling was 2015’s Fight the Power. It was a sign of the times. And the times are bad fucking corny. « To the point of creating a first amalgam: rumor has it that Big Ghost is in fact a rapper, too. And not the least, since it would be no more and no less than Ghostface Killah, the iconic MC of the Wu-Tang Clan, whose blogger monkeys the mocking phrasing throughout his articles. A rumor that is gaining momentum as the name « Big Ghost » spreads behind the scenes and in the comments section of the 2dopeboyz.com website, on which he was particularly active during the period.
« No, Ghostface Killah is not the Ghost of the Big Ghost Chronicles website. »
In 2011, after Big Ghost ranked him fourth in the « Top ten softest rappers in the game » (which saw Drake occupy both third and first place), Wiz Khalifa responded publicly. According to him, there is no doubt as to the identity of the Ghost: his name is indeed Killah. And the latter would be little more than a « corny individual » trying to capture the rays of a fleeting light, which since the golden age years would no longer illuminate him, or at least not enough. Killah then answers firmly to the accusation: no, he is not the Ghost of the Big Ghost Chronicles website. The company in charge of the legal management of the Wu-Tang group follows him, initiating a procedure to temporarily close the controversial website. Anyway, when he returned to the servers some time later, the spotlights were indeed focused on Ghost – the blogger this time. The silhouette of the ghost now appears more clearly. But is he what we think we see? For the first time, he shatters certainties, since it’s time for him to begin his transformation, and to put his ear to the service of the « cause », of rap roughly classified in the « purist » category, which he will defend from now on, tired of words, with sounds. Griselda, Vic Spencer, Hus KingPin, and even Ghostface Killah will all be rapping under the guidance of the man who, behind the swollen humor, actually hid production talents that he now sees fit to reveal to listeners. Griselda Ghost, released in 2015, is his first act. The times are no longer corny.
« What the fuck did you marinate this steak in ? No, no, no, family secret, mmm »
Introduced to the Buffalo clique through Camoflauge Monk, contacted at the time on Twitter, Big Ghost swims in 2015 in the midst of a paradox: one foot firmly anchored on the Internet’s network, the other one that has just exploded the doors of the real world for the first time. An in-between state from which he will never really come out. Without even meeting them physically, he has just delivered to Griselda a first batch of instrumentals, some of which, with « Empire » in mind, have nothing fictitious about them. Quite the contrary, since they mark the birth certificate, or at least the affirmation of the Buffalo’s stamped sound, although inspired without restraint by the villainous stories wrapped a few hundred miles away in loops of compact samples, in the wake of the work of Roc Marciano and other DJ Muggs. And if Big Ghost could, at the time, have yielded to the sirens of advertisers who proposed to him to develop strategies to promote their brands, he, as a good ghost that he is, is not exempt from claustrophobia. So why intensify his investments when he can multiply the works? « Let me put this foot on your neck for the next while as far as this music shit« , he says in an interview at the time. From then on, any notion of concession disappears from Big Ghost’s artistic path. Some established producers, like an Alchemist or a Madlib today, can afford it. He hasn’t proven much so far, but he already knows it: like them, he will choose the artists he works with, and rarely the opposite (« Artists who wanna produce themselves do not need Big Ghost Ltd » he told us by email). And each time, it will be his style which will mark the album. One does not unveil like that a secret family recipe.
Conceived in isolation, religiously kept secret at first, the music of Big Ghost does not fail to be exported, through samples and compositions, outside the tenuous borders of Buffalo and the New York upstate. Starting with Griselda Ghost, the producer’s sound gradually crosses the walls until it lands in Chicago, in the hands of Vic Spencer as in 2016 on The Ghost of Living, before returning to the hands of Hus Kingpin (Cocaïne Beach, 2017), CRIMEAPPLE (Aguardiente, 2018), ANKHLEJOHN (Van Ghost, 2018), Ghostface Killah (The Lost Tapes, 2018), and even K.A.A.N in 2020 on All Praise Is Due. Except that these constant comings and goings between the great American metropolises, between Chicago, Washington and New York in particular, are often accompanied, in the credits of the different albums, by a strange mention: « All instrumentation by the infamous Hector Puente Colon Jr & The Santiago Men’s Basketball Philharmonic Orchestra”. These relentless obsessions could not be the work of one man alone. The ghost is truly elusive: they were in fact, from the beginning, several people. Big Ghost is indeed Robert Ramirez, the conductor, but in his shadow was the « Ltd. », which they told us was a « conglomeration of entities sent here from planets beyond to give the good people some dope ass music » and of which his childhood friend, Hector Puente Colon Jr. was a member. Big Ghost wasn’t so lonely after all. Doubts about his identity would almost be dispelled: it is his own vision, supported by an obscure conglomerate of craftsmen, that seems to be expressed in the albums of this underground scene, from Griselda to K.A.A.N. His transformation is now complete.
In any case, and like the music he proposes, drugs, inserted in all American underground networks since the 1970s in particular, also kill. So each time, the same stories come back in the lyrics of the rappers he directs, even in those of the young generation of Rochester MCs, with Rigz & Mooch in mind. Those of a total violence that the spitters tell sometimes modestly, sometimes exalted without ever promoting it totally. The musical landscape is unsurprisingly made up of emaciated beats and austere melodies that give pride of place to soul samples, fertile ground for the description of ungrateful life experiences, between the gunshots and the walls that crumble in the abandoned alleys of Brooklyn, Harlem, Queensbridge, but also Capitol Hill and even Los Angeles, as when Hus Kingpin tried to retrace the path of white powder in Venice Beach in the 1980s. In short, chemically pure coke rap.
There it is for the main component of the musical skeleton of Big Ghost. But to sum it up in this way would be to omit the eclecticism that his music abounds with once the varnish has been altered, or the first puffs of crack sucked in. On The Ghost of Albizu released in 2020 with UFO Fev, for example, where the brilliantly executed brass instruments from « SPIT » suddenly stop, giving way to a flashy piano and a few synthetic tablecloths, before the dance starts again. Through successive small touches and a bit like an impressionist painter, Big Ghost infuses his sound imprint with references drawn here and there, as in Puerto Rico, which he represents on the cover of The Ghost of Albizu, or in Colombia, whose typical brandy gave its name to Aguardiente by CRIMEAPPLE. More instrumental and elegant, the producer’s music also reveals his taste for subtle arrangements, breaking somewhat with the tradition of fleshy beat loops of the school he comes from. His own tracks, as on Carpe Noctem, become dynamic, organized in sections in the manner of the great composers, with particular care given to transitions – the passage » Fake My Death » – » Paper Plane Lords » is enough to convince us. The ambiences alternate, the sampled genres also (soul, jazz, classical music, hard rock…). But in a general way, and whatever the origin, Big Ghost twists the styles to adapt them to his own and his MC’s one. This is the case on ANKHLEJOHN’s « The Potato Eaters », where the producer whips up the dissonant keyboard that accompanies soul singer Gloria Ann Taylor’s « World That’s Not Real », to recreate an atmosphere exactly opposite to the original work on the light prism. At the end of the night… the night again, as in the dirty streets of the metropolises he tries to describe, where the sun never remains present for very long, except in negative in the shadows it casts on the walls.
« I just hope muthafuckas realize that I represent the cause »
Thus, Big Ghost does not only design sounds. He almost seeks to exhibit them in art galleries, although he instinctively rejects all the celebrity these rooms might bring upon him. In each album, aesthetic visions borrowed from cinema, painting or history collide, accompanied by a sound design made of the sounds of unloading machine guns and mafia guys talking about the meaning of the life they lead, trying to find some in the bundles clumsily piled up on a corner of a table. « The idea is to create monumental pieces« , he once confided. Then ambiences and sequencing become essential, as if the mental images triggered in the listener count at least as much as the frequencies that impress the ear. Robert Ramirez becomes at the same time scriptwriter, producer, artistic director, and director (« I am involved in every single aspect of putting the album together »). The rappers themselves become the actors of his film, and would almost seem to interrupt their personal progress to serve his own, so much he strikes each album with his misty presence. So what is greater in the works of Big Ghost than Big Ghost himself ?
« This is pure grimy NY hip-hop in its purest form »
Perhaps not much except the « cause » he represents and which led him to undertake his various mutations, from blogger to producer/painter/art director, and which still animates his music years later. In the 1990s, Big Ghost already claimed to be able to improvise 30 minutes of bars on his own productions, which we can imagine obviously shaped in a New York neighborhood with his sidekick Hector Puente Colon Jr. More than two decades later, we can still find the residue of Big L, Organized Konfusion or DJ Ogee in his influences, as when he borrows from the latter the loop of « Metal Thangz » from Street Smartz to recreate the smell of gunpowder that lines Hus Kingpin’s « Coke Casa ». This forgotten monument of New York underground rap, which will also land at Gang Starr or Rakim for « When I B On Tha Mic », Big Ghost ensures its transmission, prolonging its memory traces by adapting it to the smoky coke rap of the 2010’s and its more modern and muffled textures. « This is pure grimy NY hip-hop in its purest form, » he likes to recall in interviews, as if it were the umpteenth time he had to say he belonged to the movement.
However, as when he proposes to revisit Jay-Z’s Black Album with his own productions, he does not refrain from also drawing from the 2000’s one. Any influence is good to take as long as it is a pretext to stage his own vision, openly against the mainstream trends of the industry in which he has been advancing in disguise, and this since the first lines published on Big Ghost Chronicles. He is finally a patient, surrounded, meticulous craftsman with a rigorous vision, not inclined to compromise but not dropped by « novelty » either, taking advantage of the boom-bap revival wave to give himself a first youth. Like the gunpowder that arrived in the United States several decades ago, he entered music through the back door, making underground networks his playground in the manner of the Richard Porter and « Whitey » Bulger he loves so much. The difference is that at home, the American dream takes a dystopian turn and calls for the Revolution, as when he mobilizes, on The Ghost of Albizu, the figure of Don Pedro Albizu Campos, a lawyer and politician sentenced to 26 years in prison for trying to overthrow the American government in Puerto Rico in the twentieth century. Systematically interwoven throughout his diffuse career, from the Big Ghost Chronicles to his numerous albums, it is all these obsessions that end up drawing the portrait of this character filled with mystery, and of the conglomerate that accompanies him. No need, however, to ask him for his recipe. « No, no, no, family secret, » he will surely answer.
Find our playlist dedicated to Big Ghost LTD on Spotify.