Ghostwriting In Hip-Hop:
“The truth is I never think of any subject as taboo.” Though, the statement may hold some weight, there are just some things that you cannot do in certain societies. You don’t wear hats inside a church(unless you’re the pope), you don’t cross the mound in baseball as the hitting team, and certainly, you do not take lyrics that you have not written in hip-hop. In all seriousness, ghostwriting has been one of the hottest discussions in the genre for decades, and it has especially blossomed again with the recent accusations by Meek Mill, that artist Drake, did not write his own material. So, this raises a serious question: does it matter if hip-hop artists use ghostwriters?
Since hip-hop’s creation in the 1970’s, there have been steep rules and elements to the culture that have been ingrained since its creation. Ghostwriting is one of those rules that has been sacred. In all honesty, ghost writing adheres to rap more than it does to hip-hop(a common misconception that they are the same thing). Hip-hop is compiled of 4 essential elements. DJing, Breakdancing, Graffiti and MCing. Now, the confusing portion is that MCing during its earliest days were handled by DJs. They would chant provocative statements to rile up parties. After a certain point, DJ’s outsourced the MCing(which stands for Master of Ceremony) to what we would today, call rappers. The rappers would rhyme words and flow with the beat to further excite the crowd and take the music to the next level. Even during these early stages, authenticity was taken seriously. “It was of the utmost urgency and important, if you called yourself a true MC in the early days, then you had to be able to write rhymes, you had to be able to rock a crowd, you had to be able to eliminate your opponent,” said hip-hop pioneer, Grandmaster Caz.
The very first known ghostwriter is Grandmaster Caz, or better known as Casanova Fly. His friend and manager, Big Bank Hank was approached by Sylvia Robinson who represented Sugar Hill Productions at the time for a record deal. Hank agreed, but short of lyrics, he had to ‘borrow’ lyrics from Casanova Fly to deliver hip hop’s first commercial hit “Rapper’s Delight”.
“Check it out, I’m the C-A-S-A, the N-O-V-A / And the rest is F-L-Y / You see I go by the code of the doctor of the mix / And these reasons I’ll tell you why / You see, I’m six foot one, and I’m loads of fun.”
“He was so much not an MC, he didn’t even know enough to change the words around to spell his own name…He just copied it word for word – he said: “I’m six foot one” – he’s not, I’m six foot one. Everything in the rhyme describes me. I’m unwittingly Hip Hop’s first ghostwriter.” This effectively made Casanova a ghostwriter of some sort, but unlike many others, the lyrics were used without his consent. There it was, ghostwriting was ingrained in hip-hop’s very first appearance in the limelight.
It’s no surprise that hip-hop, especially rap culture has become so stingy on the account of lyrical authenticity. With black culture so closely connected with hip-hop culture, we can see the progression that black culture has taken over the years, at least from a musical perspective. Several aspects of Black music have been emphasized and driven by their struggles to incorporate into American society, mainly due to the country’s harsh racial history. Blacks became pioneers in the arts, mainly music. Creating the blues from folk and church music, trickling its way to rock n roll, funk, jazz and soul. Each art form was an expression of where race relations stood in their respective era. Today, Black music resides in hip-hop and rap. The lyrics have become the most personalized among all of it’s predecessors. Hip-hop has even become black culture’s leading political voice. Thus, why it is so important to write your own lyrics
The issue with traditions, as most things in life, is that they change. Cultures must adapt to political and technological advancements, and with hip-hop gaining so much traction on a international scale, it may have become inevitable to stop its progression into becoming less adherent to its founding culture and ethical expectations, to being drowned by the rules of commerce. Rapper, Ice Cube had the following to say on the matter “…I don’t think it ever mattered in record making. You know, when you’re talking about making a record, I don’t think people care what it takes for you to make a good record, just make sure it’s good. You know so, I think, you know making a record is like building a house, cause no one really expects one person to just do it. It’s a team effort. So, now as far as being a B-Boy, as far as being a hip-hop head, far as you know, respecting the essence and the nature, you know, to me you get extra points if you write your own lyrics.” Music on a commercial scale has always been about producing marketable singles, faces and albums. To expect hip-hop to avoid this trajectory could be seen as naive. Ice Cube is credited as one of the greatest lyricists and most well respected rappers to hold a microphone. His stance that record making is an area that is acceptable does not mean he appreciates and respects ghostwriting. Countering his own point, Cube lashes back at ghostwriting on of his track, Spittin’ Pollaseeds “F–k a ghostwriter, sittin’ in the back/ Of the studio tryin’ to write a n—a rap/ It’s the muppet show, most n—as need A&R/ To tell ’em how to f–k a ho/ Ice Cube, true emcee/ Write everything I say, even back in the day.” Ice Cube captures himself in an awkward situation, priding himself on writing his own lyrics, and at the same time dismantling artists that do not. The awkward part, is that he was well known to write for several of his NWA group members, namely Eazy E and Dr.Dre. .Based off these statements, it is ok to create records by any means, but their is a consequence to be felt within the hip-hop community. So, if it is seen to be unethical to use ghostwriters, where are the guidelines for those individuals who sell their lyrics?
Looking at well known ghost writers such as Smoke DZA and Skyzoo, they commented on the impact of ghostwriting in hip-hop. “In this day in age, yeah. It was probably taboo before, but now it’s like a lot of artists, I don’t wanna say born over night. A lot of them, you know, their pen game isn’t where it’s supposed to be…a lot of people need help.” To them, ghostwriting has become a consistent stream of income, and though they may not respect the artists they sell their lyrics to, they have contributed to this era of premature and lacklustre artistry. They do write their own material, and put out their own music, ghostwriting has become quite the lucrative business. According to a report from Forbes. Ghostwriters are paid between $10,000-20,000 upfront for anonymous contributions. So, it can be understood why talented lyricists would rather sell their material to a more popular artist for cash and potentially royalties for a song that could be a seasonal anthem. Especially, when considering how harsh the music industry can be. Musician, Wyclef Jean, once stated that “You had to be more than talented to make it”, competing in such a cutthroat business, a lot of artists see their opportunity as sink of swim.
Now that we are aware that ghostwriting has heavily infiltrated hip-hop, another aspect that needs to be investigated is, where we must draw the line on ghostwriting? Some of hip-hop’s most prestigious artists have been questioned and criticized for alleged use of alternate writers. One in particular is Nas, who has been linked to Jay Electronica’s pen several times. “Dude, you know who’s my ghost writers? My friends, people I meet on the street, things I read. I hear people say something, and I get something from that. I could just be having a conversation with people I just met that evening, somebody will say something and spark something in me. So, I get it from everybody,” he said. In this case, do we consider outside contributions at all to be ghostwriting? For Nas, admitting to having external influences, some of which are people close to him, vindicate the removal of credibility from his illustrious career? Well, no individual is without their influences, and everyone is entitled to gather as much knowledge from the environment around them, but the gray area in distinction of where ghostwriting begins makes it difficult to classify.
What about in terms of a group mate writing to improve the work of his partner? This was the case for the legendary rap duo, Mobb Deep. Havoc, claimed that prior to the release of their critically acclaimed album, The Infamous, that he wrote a large portion of Prodigy’s lyrics. “Yeah, when we first started, I used to write for him and everything like that. Then he just became a beast on The Infamous album.” Little criticism was felt on their part. The mere drawing of the line where ghost writing, and mere influence begins has not yet been defined. Especially in hip-hop, where it is seen as as one of the largest crimes to commit.
The seriousness of ghostwriting seems to have diminished over the years. Actually, as terrible as it seemed, it has never been cracked down upon in mainstream hip-hop. You may never hear artists criticize other artists for the use of other writers for their music. The most impactful and recent of these criticisms comes from rapper Kendrick Lamar, on his track King Kunta “I can dig rapping, but a rapper with a ghost writer/What the fuck happened?/(Oh no) I swore I wouldn’t tell/But most of you share bars like you got the bottom bunk in a two man cell.” These lyrics were rumored to be aimed at Drake, not his first accusation of using ghostwriters. The frustrating part of this matter, is that it does not seem to matter.Creativity of the music does not matter on a mainstream scale, merely making financial gains has seemed to dominate the conversation in hip-hop. As long as you classify that you are making money, or more money than the other individual criticizing you, victory is almost certainly to be felt on your side. How you came to earn those riches is almost irrelevant in today’s hip-hop scene.
Even from one of the most lyrical artists in hip-hop, Lupe Fiasco, who has claimed he has no issue with artists taking lyrics from other writers. “…ghost writing or borrowing lines or taking suggestions from the room has always been in rap, and will always be in rap. It is nothing to go crazy over, or be offended about unless you’re somebody who postures him or herself on the importance of authenticity, and tries to portray that quality to your fans or the public at large.” Not surprising, Lupe has been known to write for other artists, not necessarily what many would consider ghostwriting, as he is credited for his work. An example of this is his contributions to Kanye West’s Yeezus album, where he was credited for writing “Black Skinhead”. We receive another respectable artist claiming their neutrality on the issue of using other writers. It seems that Lupe, who has had his issues with fans,may have caved in to pressure, administering the use of ghostwriters to avoid further scrutiny, aside from his political rants he has be ridiculed for in past years. Nonetheless, his track record of writing for other artists earns him enough credibility to have his opinion respected.
We might consider that the ghostwriting of certain songs may mean more than others. Puff Daddy, P Diddy or whatever he goes by today, is known to use lyrics he did not write. This shouldn’t surprise anyone, as he flaunts the idea that he does not write his own lyrics, which can be heard on his record “Bad Boys” where he stated “Don’t worry if I write rhymes, I write checks” What may shock you, is that he did not even write his own lyrics for the song “I’ll Be Missing You”. A song aimed at the memory of his deceased friend, The Notorious B.I.G, who was gunned down during a stint in Los Angeles. It may come off as unusual or even nonchalant, like it was business as usual. Several individuals have compared this issue to having someone else write your eulogy for your friends funeral, and it does not seem that far off a comparison. The lack of concern on the matter, especially in this cause should raise alarms for hip-hop fans. If you are not held accountable for writing something for the death of a loved one close to you, where are the standards held at? Many may make the argument that Diddy could not write a song as beautiful, therefore he needed assistance to get his views across. If one cannot paint, why would they express their views on a matter by having someone else paint a portrait for them, and have myself merely present it as if it were my own work. So, does ghostwriting mean more in certain scenarios, especially when the issue within that very track is a personal matter, or does it not matter when it comes to making hits?
Overall, it seems that the majority of hip-hop artists and rappers have conceited to the idea of ghostwriting. Though, it was once ridiculed hip-hop has gradually allowed for these sins to transpire. The gradual fall from grace can be associated with the heavy commercialization of hip-hop. Nonetheless, we cannot be too displeased on the matter of progress, as the art has not been lost. Artists such as Kendrick Lamar still abide by the rules of the early days of hip hop, where lyrics were written and meant something to the rapper who spewed them. On the other hand, the eventual loss of the art of the rapping, casts a dark shadow on the future of hip hop in favor of American style efficiency of business. Hip-hop center stage in the mainstream has stolen the hearts of artists and is now filled with a constant hunger for money and stardom. And so it seems the old unspoken rules of hip hop have been replaced by the smug face of Benjamin Franklin.