Rewriting The Rules: A Roundtable Discussion On Ghostwriting In Rap
Nicki Minaj's comments about ghostwriting resurrected an age old debate, but the way some emcees and writers feel about writing for others may surprise you. It shouldn't.
I just don’t like ghostwriting. It is for the simple fact that I like my stories and music to reflect truth. As a fan of the Last Poets—whom I consider the forefathers of modern emceeing—I feel the practice of ghostwriting dilutes an emcee’s message. I always felt the purpose of an emcee was to be the voice of many and talk about what was going on in their community. When I first began writing this piece, I assumed anyone with a general knowledge or appreciation of Hip Hop music and culture felt the same. I originally had a preconceived idea about authenticity and the value of writing your own lyrics. Hip Hop is a communicative language, and I think it should be used to tell your truth about yourself and your environment. I think emcees have a responsibility for the platform that they have been given.
I learned many artists don’t mind ghostwriting and that it’s no big deal to them. I did find some common ground in Killer Mike, when he offered his opinion on the subject in his August, 2013 interview with HipHopDX by saying, “Rap is predicated upon [the concept of], ‘I am telling the truth about my life and my environment.’ So as long as rappers are presenting a rap in that way, they are going to be expected to be a writer of their lives and environment. It is that simple and not hard or overly complex. As long as the stance is, ‘Nigga, I’m real,’ then it is expected for them to be the authors. That’s it.”
The topic of ghostwriting has gained new legs off the strength of Nicki Minaj sending subliminal shots at Iggy Azalea and other emcees during Sunday’s BET Awards. Undoubtedly, when the conversation regarding ghostwriting comes up, the point of how one defines what exactly ghostwriting is should be addressed first. For me, the definition of ghostwriting is when an artist hires an outside lyricist or emcee, has them write an entire song, pays them an upfront fee and gives them no credit on the album liner notes or on the writing and publishing side. If an artist is given credit on the song or shares in the writing and publishing, to me that’s just collaboration.
What you’ll find below is a spectrum of opinions from various artists on the subject of ghostwriting. It’s important to note that people who draw the majority of their income from writing rhymes—either for themselves or others—have no problem with the concept of ghostwriting. After having done all this research and hearing all the views of the wide spectrum of artists that challenged my viewpoint, I haven’t changed how I feel about the subject. I feel if you are lucky enough to be given a large platform to speak to people, then you have an unwritten contract with your audience to speak your truth and elevate them. Otherwise, to me you’re not Hip Hop; you are simply in the entertainment realm or performing Pop music.
What’s Your Personal Experience With Ghostwriting?
Biz Markie: Big Daddy Kane helped me out with the last verse of “Nobody Beats The Biz,” and I would help him out with his beats for his album. It was like one hand washes the other. I told him everything to do.
Cool V: We would be in the studio creating stuff, and Biz would have the direction where he wanted the record to go. Kane was nice with the pen, so at the time Biz was putting all us on. He came with the beats, so he’d be like, “I wanna do something in this style,” and Kane would help him do it. Kane never gave Biz no style, and Kane never gave Biz no rhymes out his head where he was just like, “Yo, take that.” No, it wasn’t like that!
Scoe: When I got into ghostwriting, [it] was really through Kurupt. I had to do a lot of ghostwriting by myself where really I was writing for Warren G. I wrote for Puffy. I had wrote for all kinds of people. I was already into ghostwriting. The opportunity really came to me when I was just trying to transition, and I didn't feel like putting an album out anymore. So it was something for me to do in between doing my shows that could still make big money. That’s what I was doing with ghostwriting. But when Kurupt put me with Dre, that just solidified it. That happened about two, three years ago...around 2010.
Alley Boy: With Atlantic, I felt like they would never push what I wanted them to push. I’d be like, “I don’t want to do no song like that.” They might feed me songs from writers and shit, and I’d be like, “Man, that shit wack as fuck. That ain’t no project stuff, and that ain’t no Trap beat.” I’m like, “If it ain’t that, then I’m like, ‘Fuck no.’” But then I just started moving around more, and I started opening up to the shit. I started bending a little bit for them, and they start bending a little bit for me, and then we can reach up in the middle. It’s good. Like right now we been working good. My A&Rs and shit, we go hard together now.
Are There Different Types Of Ghostwriters?
Money B: That’s the whole idea behind ghostwriting: you are writing and no one knows it, therefore you are a ghost. I actually think that’s the definition of it—to not be able or willing disclose that you are are the actual writer. Nowadays, you have a lot of ghostwriters and Hip Hop is becoming like R&B, which is not a terrible thing. It’s only bad when the artist performing claims the ghostwritten song is theirs. This is the issue I have a problem with.
Lil Debbie: Am I there to creatively direct, and will I sit with someone for seven, eight, nine, 10 hours? Yes. Definitely. It’s never just one person working on it. And I hate every white, female artist sitting there fronting—completely fronting—that they wrote their own shit. So many people do it! People’s favorite songs that are on the radio right now are ghostwritten. Period. I don’t see what’s wrong with it. It’s done a lot, and the media is just so blind to it. They think one artist can do everything. There is not enough hours in the fucking day for artist to do everything you think they’re doing. That’s just the way it is. I’m just not gonna be the artist that lies.
Eskeerdo: The process depends. If you’re in with the artist, you both are collaborating on some ideas, you might not even write on the record. You might just be there for energy purposes...for direction. That has a lot to do with the creation of a record too. Or if you’re in the submitting process, you might have a hook and you might have a track with a hook on it and go like, “Oh, I heard Meek [Mill] was looking for some records...cool.” That’s how it happened with “Mayback Curtains.” I was working with Big Sean and he said, “Yo, I think this shit would be tight for Meek.” So we went over to Meek’s studio, played it for Meek, and then Meek took it from there. And then, John Legend jumped on the hook. Nas jumped on it, and [Rick] Ross jumped on it. And that’s a perfect scenario for how it just comes about—a day in the life of me. So if I’m not in with the artist, I’m constantly shopping music to these artists.
Killer Mike: I’m usually writing a record that’s not a radio record, so for me, it’s heartfelt and is based upon some type of emotion. When I write that record, I want to make sure I’m best representing that artist. Now if I just bring that person that record, and that’s not who they are, I don’t like those records as much. I don’t appreciate them as much, because I feel like a person undeserving got a great song. I feel like a person who really doesn’t live or convey those words has a song that has been wasted. And that’s where I take contention. But if you got a Top 40 hit, and I wrote or someone else wrote it, I’m not mad at that, ‘cause I understand we’re in an age where, “This is rapping and Hip Hop,” and there is songwriting for commercially driven artists.
Ghost Stories: Debunking Common Myths About Ghostwriting
Read enough about ghostwriting, and you find yourself in a position of debunking myths about the subject. Up until recently, it was widely assumed Nas wrote Will Smith's track “Getting Jiggy Wit It.” Nas set the record straight, in his April, 2014 Reddit AMA session stating, “Alright, let’s clear this up once and for all. I hung out with Will in the studio. And watched him write it. It was a fun studio session, and I said a line or two or three to him. It wasn’t that serious. Will Smith wrote that song. But seriously, I watched him have fun making that record on his own, and Will is a true emcee.” You can further confirm Nas’ comments when performing an ASCAP repertory search for the writers of “Getting Jiggy Wit It,” as many names are listed but not Nas government name (Nasir bin Olu Dara Jones). Nas has been on both sides of ghostwriting accusations, with claims that both dead prez and Jay Electronica penned portions of his lyrics for his 2008 album, Untitled. dead prez member stic.man shut down the accusations in a 2012 interview with HipHopDX.
“The co-writing, idea sharing, production that I was able to do was truly an honor for me,” stic.man explained. “To be in the booth with Nas and see how he just oozed style and sharpness, for me, it invigorated my craft. Certainly he doesn’t need a ghostwriter, but for him to appreciate what I do enough to share some ideas and to have the opportunity to do that, that’s brotherhood.”
There’s also a few infamous claims by Jay Z, which Jay himself helped spread. On 1998’s “Ride Or Die,” Jay bragged, “S. Carter, ghostwriter / And for the right price, I can even make your shit tighter.” Turns out he was correct. By now, it’s common knowledge Jay wrote some of Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg’s “Still D.R.E.” He’s listed in the song’s credits but doesn’t actually appear on the song. There’s also another set of rhymes Jay penned which are a bit more, shall we say, animated.
“We did a licensing deal for Jay to ghostwrite lyrics for the Bugs Bunny character for the Space Jam soundtrack,” Combat Jack revealed in a 2012 interview with Joe La Puma. “Warner Brothers took some time in getting Jay’s fee to him. Damon [Dash] used to pressure the shit out of me to pressure the shit out of Warner Brothers. He used to complain that Jay didn’t care how slow it took for industry money to come because he was accustomed to how fast drug money came in. Dame used to say how much Jay, as his artist would stress him out for money...”
Believe it or not, ghostwriting is even a debated issue within the Battle Rap circuit.
“The thing about ghostwriting for somebody is even though you might be dope as a muthafucka as a battler, if they find out you ghostwrote for somebody else they may not like you no more,” Bigg K said in an interview wit BattleRap.com. “Which is gay because you’re still dope. They shouldn’t be mad at you. They should be mad at the dude that paid you. But that’s just how fans work. If you knew how many of your favorite battlers say shit that didn’t even come from them, you might not like the people you like, bro. Some people’s favorite rappers don’t even write all of their rhymes, bro. So you shouldn’t get crucified in fuckin’ Battle Rap for it when some of the favorite songs you listen to, they ain’t write that shit. I don’t believe ghostwriting should occur in Hip Hop, period. It’s not ghostwriting when you’re a singer. You have the voice or somebody writes you the song. You have the voice for the song. But as far as somebody writing you a verse in Hip Hop—why are you even special enough to be a star if you ain’t even writing your own lyrics?”
In August of 2005, Ma$e made claims of originating some of Big L’s more memorable lines saying, “Big L brought me on the scene and I used to rhyme with him...when they used to do records. God bless the dead; they would never put me on the records. But all of the hot lines he was saying—and even in his grave I gotta tell this—those were my lines. I used to say those lines in the park, and they would put them out in song.”
Pete Rock, who was also a friend of the late Big L, was more skeptical about Ma$e’s claims.
“I don’t know about that, I can’t buy that,” Pete replied, while talking exclusively with HipHopDX. “I don’t think so. Big L; that’s my man. I used to pick him up and he used to come off the head, so that’s definitely not true.”
New Views On The Decades-Old Practice Of Ghostwriting
What does this all mean? Have we transitioned into a time where monetary gains become more important than artistic integrity? Technically, ghostwriting is nothing new. It’s openly known Grandmaster Caz had his original lyrics to “Rappers Delight” stolen by Sugarhill Gang. It could be a case of us being in the Internet age and finally having access to information from artists on the matter. Or maybe the media has been feeding us a myth about what really goes on behind the scenes of our favorite songs.
My intent with this article is to try and begin a debate with the hopes of bringing the modern emcee back to the source of what I feel is the original intent of their jobs—community poets and the voice of many. The opening lines from the Last Poets’ song “Hands Off” can best summarize my views and frustration on this subject:
“Tell me not that I’m a dreamer for the things I feel and see / Or that nothing can be accomplished from the things I wish to be / Tell me not that I’m fanatic for the things I feel inside / They are flowers of oppression, born of a pain I cannot hide.”
Maxwell Benson Is Winnipeg, Canada native and founder of Maxwell Benson Entertainment Ltd. His full-service entertainment company specializes in photography, journalism, animation, music production, film scoring, and tour booking. Follow him on all social media @maxwellinfo.