Is Writing Your Own Lyrics a Decaying Component of Hip Hop?

Image by Marco Lombardo

Ghostwriting is an issue that gained a lot of attention in 2016 – a topic that was fueled by the beef between Drake and Meek Mill. Meek Mill put Drake on the spot, accusing him of not writing his own music. This “secret” was far from tight-lipped and publications jumped all over it; headlines all over the internet featured the story for what seemed like ages. These accusations gained even more clout when Funkmaster Flex played a reference track for Drake’s “10 Bands” on the radio. 

This created countless arguments between hip-hop heads as this is quite a divisive topic. It has been reported by BBC radio station 1Xtra that as much as 40% of rap lyrics are ghostwritten.

Where has authenticity gone?

Hip-hop purists would say that this is a major no-no but many other fans of the genre aren’t too bothered about it. Just as long as the final product is to their liking. Hip-hop originator Grandmaster Caz definitely belongs to the former group. “… 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 opponents.”

Kendrick Lamar definitely belongs to the former group too.  He mocked ghostwriting on “King Kunta”, off the critically acclaimed To Pimp A Butterly, “I can dig rappin’/ But a rapper with a ghostwriter? What the f–k happened? Oh no! I swore I wouldn’t tell/ But most of y’all sharing bars like you got the bottom bunk in a two-man cell. Drake doesn’t agree. “It’s just, music at times can be a collaborative process, you know? Who came up with this, who came up with that — for me, it’s like, I know that it takes me to execute every single thing that I’ve done up until this point. And I’m not ashamed.”

The fact that a lot of hip-hop consists of skill-boasting on the mic, the usage of an uncredited ghostwriter is, pardon my French, fake as fuck. How and when did ghostwriting become prevalent in hip-hop? Let’s go back in time and investigate.

Ghostwriting is far from a new phenomenon in the industry. This goes back as far as 1979 – Sugarhill Gang’s 1939 hit “Rapper’s Delight” reportedly had lyrics written by Grandmaster Caz without even being included in the credits. Another fact that many might not know is that Nas wrote Will Smith’s classic track “Getting Jiggy With It” way back in 1997. A fun track like that ghostwritten is excusable. However, when a track like “Missing you” by Puff Daddy (a track dedicated to the late Biggie) is written by someone else, it loses all credibility.  A track dedicated to his dead homie, ghostwritten by Royce Da 5’9’’? Awkward to say the least.

Rap started to gain popularity in the 80’s, as it diversified into a more complex form, as more sophisticated techniques were developed including scratching and electronic recording. This gave way to new hip hop styles and sub-genres.

Shh don’t tell

As hip hop gained popularity, so did the business of ghostwriting. Although most people already know that ghostwriting exists, it is still quite a secretive process. In an interview with Complex, Nickelus F admitted to writing at least a full verse for Drake but was not too keen on mentioning which track it was. All that’s known is that it is a well-known song but he didn’t even want to give away which project it was on.

This secrecy is nothing new. California based rapper MF Grimm wrote for Dr. Dre when Death Row Records was still called Future Shock – and claims that everything was off the books. Even the legendary record “Still Dre’’ was written by Jay Z, a surprise to many people.

It even went so far when MTV sat down with a ghostwriter who goes by the name of Aaron in order to protect his identity. He claimed that even when the credits include a ghostwriter, it is still a secretive process as there are countless credited names on each track, including the producers, the samples used, etc. ”…you’re still a ghost if your name is in the credits … It’s still hidden, it’s still tucked away, that person isn’t doing interviews running around saying,’ I wrote this and I wrote that’”.

This isn’t to say that performers who use ghostwriters don’t have a way with words. In John Seabrook’s book The Song Machine: Inside The Hit Factory, Drake discusses moving to LA at the age of 19 with his friend and producer Noah ”40” Shebib to ghostwrite for Dr.Dre and Aftermath. The Toronto native claimed that “It was most some of the most strenuous militant shit I’ve ever done. But no usable songs came out of it. When I think of how he worked us, it’s no wonder he didn’t get anything out of it. It was just writers in a room churning product all day long”. Although a final product never came to fruition, Drake was reportedly paid $10,000 for his efforts. This happened 12 years ago, but was only reported last year.

In an interview with Vibe, Jay Z has said that he is “paid a lot of money to not tell you who [he writes for]. In most genres of music like Soul, R&b, and Pop, ghostwriting is a legitimate career – but it has always been a secretive issue in hip-hop.

Why?

It’s quite interesting, actually. Rappers are supposed to know how to do two things: write and rap. As mentioned earlier, rappers love gloating on the mic, so admitting to the use of a ghostwriter displays a lack of credibility. Rappers do not want to admit to using ghostwriters; they want protect their image and authenticity.

Ghostwriting has become a massive business in the hip hop scene. According to Aaron on the MTV interview, it really depends how much an artist can get paid on a track he or she has ghostwritten, but writing a major hit can leave a writer comfortable for life. “Artists” make a living off ghostwriting, while the performers they write for make a living off their writing. Opinions really differ on the topic, however it is clear to see that ghostwriting is here to stay and will probably become even more prominent in the future. Imagine a future where all hip hop songs are ghostwritten? What a scary thought.

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