It Was Written: Nas, Ghostwriting And The Ideal Of Sole Authorship
Your opinion of what Nas represents both as a lyricist and within the context of Hip Hop culture undoubtedly shapes how you view news of stic.man and Jay Electronica allegedly ghostwriting for him.
Hip Hop has at least in part always bought in to an artificial construct of authenticity. So it’s interesting to me that allegations and/or revelations of Jay Electronica and stic.man of dead prez ghostwriting parts of Nas’ untitled 2008 album have caused a minor uproar. This seems to fly in the face of a widely accepted opinion that Hip Hop’s top-tier emcees never get or need any writing help. And that’s why I call the opinion an artificial construct. After all, Hip Hop’s first commercial hit was based upon ghostwriting.
“After [“Big Bank”] Hank Jackson dazzled Sylvia Robinson in the backseat of her son’s now famous Oldsmobile, he went in his own mind from bouncer and manager of the Cold Crush Brothers to potential superstar,” offers Steven Daly of Vanity Fair. “Slight problem: he might be able to mimic rapping, but he could not write rhymes. So it was that freshly anointed Big Bank Hank effected what many view as one of the great rock ‘n’ roll swindles. He approached Cold Crush member Grandmaster Caz and asked if he might borrow his lyric book for a studio date in Jersey. Caz, to his ultimate regret, was happy to oblige. ‘I didn’t lend much credence to the thing at all,’ says Caz. ‘I’m thinking, if somebody wants to use you, it can’t be that serious anyway…they’re dealing with a guy who doesn’t know his ass from his elbow as far as hip-hop or rhyming is concerned.’”
Of course, the allegations against Nas carry larger implications both for him and our artificial construct of authenticity, because most of us believe that Nas represents the very opposite of Caz’ description of Hank. And the allegations come from some very credible sources—FWMJ of RappersIKnow.com and the highly accomplished Dream Hampton, whose previous credits include Jay-Z’s Decoded. FWMJ cites a phone call with Jay Electronica while the former was employed by WQHT “Hot” 97.1 FM. And Hampton says she’s heard identical stic.man verses firsthand while listening to reference tracks from the album in question. Of course, the whole discussion began about Harry Belafonte, and rabid fans chose to focus only on the Nas/ghostwriting angle. But when have Twitter-birthed controversies ever been concerned with staying on the subject? Anyway, depending on how you view Nas and the issue of ghostwriting in Hip Hop, this could be some damning evidence…right?
Fact Versus Perception
“No idea’s original / There’s nothing new under the sun / It’s never what you do / But how it’s done…” –Nas, “No Idea’s Original.”
I think there’s a pretty significant gap between what the general public knows about ghostwriting and how we perceive the sometimes-collaborative process of crafting Hip Hop songs. As it concerns Nas, here’s what we know for sure about his work with stic.man and Jay Electronica. Both artists are listed in the album’s official production credits—Electronica is listed as the sole producer of “Queens Get The Money,” while stic.man is credited for “We’re Not Alone,” “Untitled,” and “Sly Fox.” While he denies ever having an outright ghostwriter, Nas has more or less corroborated stic.man’s claims of being open to collaboration while writing.
“He actually reached out to M1 and asked—I dont even think he knew who did our beats,” stic.man told HipHopDX in 2008. “M1 hit me and said that Nas wanted us to come to the studio and hang out, write, produce, whatever, do some collab work. But he wasn’t real specific on what he wanted us to do, so I assumed he wanted us to rap on something. Just cause that’s what people usually use our brand for, because of what we have to say. So I went out to L.A. with my pad, ready to rap my ass off with one of my favorite emcees [laughs]. He was totally like, ‘Yo, I want y’all to produce this. Do y’all have any idea how you could develop this particular thought? I want to get at Fox News, got any beats for that?’ I found out over a few days that he wasn’t really interested in us rapping or being featured, but he wanted a sound and he wanted some help in conceptualizing his ideas.”
And that’s where things get murky. As the name implies, ghostwriters are often unaccredited. And there’s a grey area between rappers bouncing ideas off of each other as opposed to just hand delivering a verse for another artist to rhyme verbatim as Sean Combs by his own admission often does. One of the reasons this story is causing such a stir is because Hampton and FWMJ are totally credible sources. I personally believe both of their accounts, and neither gains anything by making this up. Most of us have never heard and never will hear the aforementioned reference tracks or the call with Jay Electronica. And honestly, even if I heard them, I don’t like the album any more or less. Even the most objective narrative is framed in some way, shape or form. That’s no slight against FWMJ or Hampton. It’s just the nature of anything you hear secondhand. To me, that’s the part of this whole thing that’s most interesting. The thought of Nas being at worst a recipient of ghostwritten rhymes or at best, a somewhat passive collaborator strikes a nerve for two main reasons. First, many Nas fans have an unrealistic ideal of what he should represent as an emcee. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that as long as such people are honest enough with themselves to admit having that ideal. But your personal opinion of what Nas represents both as a pound-for-pound lyricist and within the greater context of Hip Hop music and culture will undoubtedly shape how you view this week’s allegations/revelations. Second, a lot of people don’t really understand how the music industry works—a fact that is exacerbated by Hip Hop's premium on this artificial construct of authenticity.
The Contradiction Of Nasty Nas And Escobar
“Now the main thing / That boggles my brain / Be all the bottles of pain / I iced the chain and all the followers came / They tried to throw me off track / But I caught that / They thought I lost that / But I’m continuing to make more stacks / Halftime, New York State of Mind / It Was Written was hittin’…” –Nas, “Ecsobar ‘97”
I think Nas will always be judged based upon his five-mic debut, Illmatic. In one sense, Nas has at times used this to his benefit by reconnecting with producers and themes associated with Illmatic when fans that idealize him feel he’s strayed too far from the path. Getting a Large Professor beat or naming an entire album Stillmatic (as in still Illmatic) is a great way to shut up fans for justifiably criticizing songs like “Oochie Wally” and “You Owe Me.” When people start saying Nas has lost it, he can not so subtly remind them, “Hey, I was that dude who made Illmatic! See, Large Professor and I still have amazing chemistry.” But having what many critics agree is a classic album is both a gift and a curse. Such lofty expectations leave little room for experimentation or growth. Some fans (an abbreviation of the word fanatics, by the way) act as if every emcee can or wants to spend their life attempting to continually strike that perfect balance between critical acclaim and commercial appeal by annually shitting out a five-mic album like some Hip Hop golden goose.
In most circles, Nas is regarded as “conscious” and “a thinking man’s rapper.” I have no doubt that those are singular elements of Nas’ multi-dimensional personality. I just don’t expect him to showcase them all the time. So a coaster like Nastradamus only disappointed me in the sense that I couldn’t get my 10 bucks back. As long as the beats and rhymes were on point, I never felt the need to choose between a mainstream offering like “Nas Is Coming” or something more thought provoking like “Black Girl Lost.” But where do those labels of social consciousness and depth come from? None of the songs on Illmatic were exclusively devoted to being socially aware. References to Marcus Garvey, oppression and the industrial prison complex were made. But blunts and 40 ounces were also consumed, and bitches got fucked. Often. Interestingly enough, some people view It Was Written as a commercial departure from Illmatic. Yet “Black Girl Lost,” “I Gave You Power,” “The Message” and to a lesser extent “If I Ruled The World” overtly addressed the themes of perceived black sexuality, the Madonna/Whore Complex, black on black crime, gun control laws and systematic poverty. It’s an interesting contradiction of which Nas seems well aware.
“I'm totally contradictory,” Nas told XXL magazine in 2007. “I was gonna make a song on this album called “Mr. Contradiction.” ‘Cause in essence, it means I’m human. There’s not one person in the world that’s not a living, walking contradiction. It’s kind of crazy that people say that. I think they’re being harsh. What they’re trying to say is worse than what the meaning is. They haven’t been anywhere. They haven’t walked in any real shoes. So it’s just naysayers and hecklers...‘Cause James Brown could say, ‘Say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud’ and then talk about hot pants on another song. Or you know, Marvin could say ‘Let's get it on,’ talk about freakish pleasures, whatever you want, but also talk about the world. That makes you whole. People are so caught up with the gimmick artists, so they believing what’s fake. And really, it’s sad. They’d rather watch the actor who makes every record the same, every image the same, and that’s cool. I don’t get involved with that. Say what you want—I love being a contradiction. I might get that shit tattooed on me.”
I think some fans still had an idealized standard of what to expect from Nas in 2008, despite the fact that he was either incapable or uninterested in fully returning to Illmatic form. Based on the pre-album hype, some probably hoped Nigger would be full of introspective tracks such as “Black Girl Lost” or “I Can.” While Nas either couldn’t or wouldn’t make militant social commentary his full focus in 2008, both dead.prez and Jay Electronica could. If “My World (Nas Salute)” was any indication, Jay Electronica also knew the intricacies of Nas’ rhyme cadence and which type of production suited him best. Both Jay Electronica and stic.man also cite Nas as an early influence. So if Nas’ popularity was waning among the part of his fan base that expected strictly social commentary from him—a fair expectation given the way Nas hyped up the Nigger album—why not solicit stic.man and Jay Electronica’s services for a creative boost?
Part of the answer to that question lies in a fundamental misunderstanding by many Hip Hop fans of how the music industry works. Artists collaborate with writers all the time. It’s no big secret. It’s the gathering and sharing of ideas. And I think Nas was executing that gathering and sharing of ideas with Jay Electronica and stic.man. For some reason, Hip Hop presents a somewhat false ideal of sole authorship as being more authentic. And this also spills over into the definition of a producer too. In other genres, a producer can write and arrange music and lyrics. In Hip Hop, for some reason, it’s often limited to just being a beat maker. Of course, part of how you feel about Nas’ collaborative writing process also lies in your ability to view Nas as both a brand and an emcee.
“This ain’t 50 / This ain’t Jigga / This ain’t Diddy / This ain’t pretty / Pain power pussy and pistols / Lyrically / No one hold none near me / Hear me / Kids cheer me / Like the count of Monte Cristo / Steady poundin’ / Soundin’ like G / Without the lisp though / My big bro / Told me plain and simple / Nas do not look back / Watch where you took rap / No book bags or trucker hats / Just army jacks / And diamonds that’s flashin’…” –Nas, “Disciple.”
In 2008, Jay Electronica hadn’t so much as sniffed the pop charts. Meanwhile, for all of their much-deserved critical acclaim, dead.prez have three brief entries there. Let’s Get Free peaked at the number 73 spot on Billboard magazine’s Hot 100 albums chart, where it spent 10 weeks. Other offerings such as RBG: Revolutionary But Gangsta and Turn Off The Radio: The Mixtape, Volume 2 made a smaller impact. None of which is to say you should judge an artist strictly based upon their commercial success. I would argue that commercial success is probably one of the worst ways to judge an artist. Plus we have the collective co-signs of Jay-Z, Erykah Badu and Steve Rifkind to lend credibility to both Jay Electronica and dead.prez’s immense talents.
I’m mentioning the commercial success because I’d make the argument that Nas—holder of five number one debut albums at the time the album in question dropped—has much more of a reach than dead.prez and Jay Electronica combined. Let’s take the ghostwriting allegations to the extreme and say Jay Electronica and dead.prez wrote all of the four songs in question in their entirety. I don’t have any way to prove that, but let’s just put it out there for argument’s sake. All of the artists involved were compensated and at least partially credited for their contributions. And as stic.man’s quotes show, they were happy participants in such an arrangement. To me it’s like the age-old question about a tree falling in the forest. Do the themes on the album have a greater impact coming from Nas or from dead.prez and Jay Electronica?
By 2008, dead.prez were desperately trying to shake the stigma of being seen only as “conscious emcees” and political agitators. They performed those two tasks so well on both RBG and Let’s Get Free that some people refused to see them in any other light. How much would a song like “Sly Fox” have gone toward changing that perception? Similarly, with a track like “My World (Nas Salute)” already under his belt, couldn’t “Queens Get The Money” have done more to stigmatize Jay Electronica as a Nas clone than it would to paint him as a skilled collaborator, producer and writer?
The way I see it, everybody won. For those with an ideal of what Nas should be as an emcee, Jay Electronica and stic.man helped Nas cater to that notion. Additionally, Jay Electronica got a check from Island/Def Jam and a notch on his belt as an aspiring triple threat. And for those that slept on dead.prez’s solo works, the three stic.man-produced tracks showcased the versatility they had previously displayed while working with Erykah Badu and others. To me, the only way this week’s revelations from FWMJ and Dream Hampton had a sad ending was if you held Nas up to some unrealistic standard as being the walking manifestation of “socially conscious” Hip Hop. And I realize I say this even though Nas sometimes paints himself as such. I can’t knock that opinion, but based upon his catalogue as a whole, he was bound to disappoint you and fail to live up to that expectation sooner or later. And hey, if this is only the first time, then one disappointment in an 18-year career ain’t so bad.
Some of Hip Hop’s biggest names have participated in ghostwriting in some capacity—including Nas’ under the table work with Will Smith on “Gettin’ Jiggy With It.” Given that, and how casually every artist mentions ghostwriting and unaccredited writing collaborations, why aren’t we questioning what lyricism, authenticity and sole authorship mean as Hip Hop listeners today?
Omar Burgess is a Long Beach, California native who has contributed to various magazines, newspapers and has been an editor at HipHopDX since 2008. Follow him on Twitter @FourFingerRings.