Rhyme Pays: Hip Hop's Value Of Writing, Freestyling And Lyricism
If fewer people buy the product, maybe Hip Hop's philosophy of telling emcees to aspire to lyrical greatness no longer matches up with the realities of our economy.
The issue of Nas possibly having ghostwriters on at least four tracks on his untitled 2008 album spawned so much discussion in various Hip Hop circles that I thought it warranted a two-part editorial. In part one of this series, we looked at ghostwriting and how it specifically factored in with Hip Hop's premium on an artificial construct of authenticity and people’s preconceived notions about Nas, stic.man of dead prez and Jay Electronica. But as I mentioned in part one, ghostwriting has literally been happening since the inception of what is widely regarded as the first commercial Hip Hop song—“Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugarhill Gang. Here, I want to look at the cultural and associated monetary value we place upon lyrics—written, ghostwritten and freestyled.
Hip Hop seems to be one of the few genres where we expect the performing artist to come up with lyrics by themselves. In turn, fans clutch their collective pearls and act as if some high treason against Hip Hop culture has been committed when they learn that a rapper such as Nas may have had some help penning some or all of their rhymes. It’s as if no one knew about Big Bank Hank and Grandmaster Caz, or Big Daddy Kane pushing the pen for Roxanne Shanté. It’s more or less common knowledge that Dr. Dre probably hasn’t written an original rhyme since Eazy-E was rocking a jheri curl under his Los Angeles Kings fitted. And, as much as we revere the legendary Eazy-E, he was known to spit quite a few ghostwritten rhymes himself.
But it’s bigger than just the singular act of ghostwriting. It seems to be an issue of value. For decades, we were verbally telling established and aspiring emcees that freestyling and writing their own rhymes held a certain inherent value within Hip Hop culture. At the same time, with the purchasing power of our wallets, we reinforced that idea. Emcees that placed a premium on the cultural value of lyricism (both in written rhymes and via impromptu freestyles) were often rewarded with recording contracts, lucrative battle opportunities and sometimes increased album sales. I think that the majority of Hip Hop fans and artists still continue to put this emphasis on lyrics despite a paradigm shift that no longer provides financial incentives for valuing lyricism.
“The game’s fucked up / Niggas beats is bangin’ / Nigga your hooks did it / Your lyrics didn’t / Your gangsta look did it / So I would write it / If y’all could get it / Being intricate / Will get you wood critic / On the Internet / They like you should spit it / I’m like you should buy it / Nigga that’s good business…” –Jay-Z, “The Prelude.”
As the average reader of this site probably knows, today there is much less of a financial incentive associated with being a mainstream artist on a major record label. Without getting into the boring business of rattling off album sales statistics, suffice it to say people buy a lot less music today than they did in Hip Hop’s Golden Era. According to David Goldman of CNN Money, statistical reports from the Recording Industry Association of America show total revenue from domestic music sales and licensing dropped from $14.6 billion in 1999 to $6.3 billion in 2009. And it should also be noted that the genres of Country and Hip Hop/R&B saw the sharpest declines. There are far too many factors to account for such a dramatic drop, but I use the stats to point out that there’s just generally less money in the industry.
Less people may be legally purchasing physical copies of music, but that doesn’t necessarily mean less people are attempting to make careers in Hip Hop. So if we briefly set the stats to the side and look at things on an anecdotal level, there are more aspiring and established emcees fighting for a smaller share of profits. In theory, the set of values ingrained in Hip Hop still implies that emcees who value lyricism have a better shot to rise within the genre’s pecking order and at least have a chance to be commercially successful. To me, that’s what made what we called the Golden Era such a revered time among Hip Hop fans. An artist like Ras Kass could philosophically buy into that ethos of valuing lyricism and also be financially rewarded by seeing at least modest commercial success. Both Rasassination and Soul On Ice appeared on Billboard magazine’s Top 200 albums chart. The same could be said of any number of artists that placed a premium on lyrics including Redman, Geto Boys and Twista. But, today, if fewer customers are buying the product, I don’t think our philosophy of telling emcees to aspire to lyrical greatness matches up with the economy. What are the financial incentives for a rapper to put a premium on lyrical ability?
The Time Cost Of Ghostwriting
“Don’t worry if I write rhymes / I write checks…” –Diddy, “Bad Boy For Life.”
We’ve already established that some of Hip Hop’s biggest names have been involved in ghostwriting in some capacity. But something interesting happens when you look at arguably the two most blatant users of ghostwritten rhymes—Sean Combs and Dr. Dre.
Dr. Dre and Sean Combs probably haven’t written their own rhymes since the Reagan Administration. And, it’s a safe bet that the last thing either of them completely wrote wasn’t earth shattering. But neither Combs nor Dre are particularly valuable only as emcees. The roots of N.W.A. are connected to nearly every West Coast emcee to some degree—not to mention 50 Cent and Eminem’s Aftermath ties. From World Class Wreckin’ Cru to Kendrick Lamar, a good portion of how we view Hip Hop on the Left Coast has ties to Dr. Dre. And between overseeing Aftermath and his Beats Electronics imprint, Forbes estimates Dre’s net worth to be upwards of $270 million. I think given Dr. Dre’s cultural impact, him writing his own rhymes is akin to Bill Gates mowing his own lawn. Sure he could do it, buy why the fuck should he? What’s the incentive of investing that time cost in writing a three minute song when he could be signing or developing other artists? Which one is more valuble to Hip Hop culture? Despite his cheesecake antics, I feel the same way about Combs. Nevermind the $550 million net worth powered by Ciroc and Sean John. Puff is the direct link between the New Jack Swing of Teddy Riley’s era and the Uptown aesthetic connected to Jodeci, Heavy D and Mary J. Blige. And that’s without mentioning Notorious B.I.G.
I would argue that to someone in a CEO position such as Dre or Puff, unsigned, emcees with a knack for writing but no marketability or charisma are like the day laborers outside a local Home Depot. There’s no shortage of them, and they’re relatively cheap. Why would Dre or Puff spend hours honing their middling writing talents when they could be off hawking Sean Jean or Beats Electronics? Dre and Puff are the two rare examples where writing one’s own rhymes is a horrible business decision. It’s more cost effective to either sub-contract the writing to someone like Jay-Z or Sauce Money or outright sign someone like Mark Curry or Hitman and let them serve in a ghostwriting capacity.
Different Degrees Of Ghostwriting
While it at least seems that Puff and Dre only use ghostwriters, how is our perception changed by an iconic artist’s use of ghostwriters? How famous do you have to be and how often do you have to use ghostwriters before it detracts from your overall body of work as an emcee?
“People don’t know this, but my father wrote rhymes for several of Run-D.M.C.’s records, like “Thirty Days” and “You’re Blind,” wrote Russell Simmons in his memoir, Life And Def. “To me, my father was a better poet than Run and a huge influence on him as a lyricist…”
In turn, Run wrote part of Kurtis Blow’s “Christmas Rappin’” while Simmons was managing Kurtis Blow. Do we look at Run, Kurtis Blow and DMC less as pioneers or anything less than legendary because of this? There are an innumerable amount of these stories including Nas, Jay-Z, Snoop Dogg, Big Daddy Kane, The Beastie Boys and many others. Some are common knowledge and others are like Hip Hop urban legends. To me, there just seems to be an unrealistic all or nothing mentality that is applied to Hip Hop like no other genre. Most people looked at the liner notes of “Still D.R.E.” the day 2001 came out. We saw S. Carter in the credits, knew Jay-Z wasn’t rapping on the song, and instantly connected the dots. Yet despite this, artists like Skillz, or Jermaine Dupri will probably always be viewed differently based upon the stigma associated with ghostwriting. If you want to argue the semantical differences between a unaccredited ghostwriter and a contributor that gets publishing rights and royalties, I won’t stop you.
Rhyme Pays, But Freestyles Don’t
“Understand I could get money with my eyes closed / Lost some of my hottest verses down in Cabo / So if you find a Blackberry with the sidescroll / Sell that mothafucka to any rapper that I know / ‘Cause they need it much more than I ever will…” –Drake, “Say What’s Real.”
Just so we’re clear, a traditional freestyle is defined as an impromptu, unrehearsed rhyme, created on the spot. Yet lately, you see so many pre-written, smartphone verses being billed as “freestyles,” that we’ve resorted to praising rappers for doing what should be a part of their job description—freestyling. I make the above statement with the caveat that some emcees are much better at writing than freestyling and vice versa. For what it’s worth, I’ve never heard GZA freestyle. Ever. There have been at least two GZA visits to “The Wake Up Show” that I know of. And both respectively yielded verses from “Mic Trippin’” and “Living In The World Today.” Neither Sway or King Tech had an issue with this, and for the “Mic Trippin’” freestyle, Masta Killa even supplied in-studio ad-libs. Everyone involved knew they were hearing a pre-written verse. This is obviously just anecdotal evidence, but from then on I knew not to expect a GZA freestyle. It doesn’t mean I like Liquid Swords any less, it just set a different expectation. And I assumed GZA either didn’t like or wasn’t particularly good at freestyling on the spot.
But generally, artists like GZA were the exception to the rule. Nowadays the definition of a freestyle seems to have morphed. Daily, rappers pass pre-written rhymes over other emcee’s tracks as “freestyles.” To me, these so-called freestyles are mixed and mastered interpolations of other emcee’s songs that cash in on the sampled artist’s popularity and/or beat selecting prowess. But the very foundation of Hip Hop is built upon sampling previously made songs and turning them into something new and inventive. So where do we draw the line? I think there’s a huge difference between turning a looped sample into a new, original song versus just going into the studio and throwing bars over someone else’s instrumental. And reading a rhyme you typed into your smartphone over someone else’s beat uses an entirely different skill set than spontaneously crafting lines on the spot. But those are only my subjective opinions, and popular trends suggest I’m in the minority.
As the Drake quote from “Say What’s Real” demonstrates, Drizzy ushered in the era of the smartphone freestyle. I make a lot of what I feel are justified criticisms of Drake on this site, but the phone freestyle won’t be one of them. Taken at just face value, what’s the difference between GZA giving a DJ a known album song instead of a freestyle versus Drake giving a DJ an unfinished song from his phone? Neither fit the traditional definition of a freestyle. Yet it’s safe to say we view GZA in a much different light than Drake. I sure as hell do, and my only real defense is the sentimental attachment I have to Wu-Tang Clan and personal preference. Ultimately, if we’re viewing them in a vacuum, strictly on the basis of their freestyling (or lack thereof), what’s the difference?
I clearly have an emotional attachment to Hip Hop’s Golden Era. I love the fact that Tony Touch still throws in his freestyle bars during “Toca Tuesdays.” Even if Tony’s internal rhyme patterns aren’t intricate, it takes me back to The Piece Maker and Touch’s “Diaz Brothers” collaborations with Doo-Wop. In 20 years, maybe the traditional definition of a freestyle will be obsolete. As someone that came of age when freestyling was still an essential part of an emcee’s resume, I’m still trying to figure out if that’s a good or a bad thing. If the critical praise associated with a quality freestyle doesn’t provide at least a small hope of increased album sales, what incentive does an emcee have to excel at freestyling? From a financial standpoint, the only people gaining from radio station freestyles are the people that own the rights to the YouTube videos.
Lyricism And Hip Hop’s True Values
“Things are getting critical / The way cats biting is despicable / Pitiful unoriginal / Damn it’s miserable / I’m a businessman / I ain’t tryin’ to be lyrical…” –Cam’ron, “Let Me Know”
So how is our perception of ghostwriting and maybe even redefining what a freestyle is connected to the news of Nas possibly getting a lot of assistance on his 2008 album? I think they’re all tangential issues related to how we value raw lyrical ability. Is there a relationship between the intrinsic value of good, original lyrics and the potential monetary value of those lyrics? As listeners, we say that we put a premium on lyricism. But each year, new emcees attempt to build careers solely on being first-rate lyricists, and many of them are relegated to a niche audience. The traditional rules of Golden Era, sample-based, boom-bap Hip Hop dictated that crafting quality lyrics needed to be part of an emcee’s skill set. But there’s clearly been a paradigm shift. Can we still preach the importance of being lyrical when Waka Flocka Flame says, “I’m not into being lyrical” and goes on to reach the Billboard chart six times with at least one certified gold single to boot? I’m not pointing that out to demonize Waka Flocka Flame or cast “socially conscious,” super lyrical, backpack Rap as the savior of Hip Hop. Most people would probably disagree with me, but I think Hip Hop needs Waka Flocka Flame as much as it needs Pharoahe Monch. I feel like that opinion doesn’t imply that they’re equals either—because to me they’re most certainly not. The current climate means there’s less of a correlation between critical acclaim and commercial success. Being renowned in one’s field and financial profit aren’t guaranteed to go hand in hand. But in Hip Hop they currently seem to almost be mutually exclusive.
The things Hip Hop’s silent majority of listeners claim to place value on such as lyricism and freestyling have changed. Or at least the financial rewards for valuing such things have decreased. Sometimes we see it demonstrated all in one song—look at “3 Kings” by Rick Ross, Dr. Dre and Jay-Z. In one song we have what was surely a ghostwritten Dr. Dre verse that doubles as a Beats Electronics ad by admonishing, “You should listen to this beat through my headphones!” Then there’s the matter of Jay-Z, who usually never freestyles, continuing an at least semi-plausible narrative that he knocks out album quality verses in one take. He even cracks himself up by taking a thinly veiled shot at imprisoned Diplomat affiliate Max B by rhyming, “Stunting to the Max / I’m so wavy,” only to tell Khaled not to worry about keeping his rhyme. After all, it’s just a freestyle. And that doesn’t even begin to address Ross. The correctional officer-turned rapper is derided all across the Internet and in print magazines for supposedly not being authentic. But all he does is ride it to a number one debut with God Forgives, I Don’t. Just for good measure, the reformed crack kingpin that Ross swiped his name from may end up as the person paying in this scenario.
So what do we really value as Hip Hop fans? Because it appears that not being lyrical, not freestyle or not even buying into Hip Hop’s artificial construct of authenticity can still result in financial and sometimes critical success. As with any polarizing debate, there isn’t any real absolute truth and we probably end up with more questions than answers. But one concrete takeaway will always be the constant element of change. And Hip Hop is definitely changing.
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.