Why Is Ghostwriting Rap’s Dirty Little Secret?

07.10.07 10 years ago 37 Comments

If you made the claim that Diddy has enlisted a gaggle of ghostwriters to pen his catalog, you wouldn’t have to do much convincing of the average fan. Sean Combs has never claimed to be a rapper but has released rap albums under his name to some appreciation. It’s also been presumed that kid rappers like Bow Wow and femcees like Lil Kim have used writers to create records while they offered a public image to support those words.

But after a Smoking Session with Pharoahe Monch, it becomes ever clearer that collaborative writing is as commonplace in hip hop music as it is in other forms. Then again, one of the cornerstones of the genre is the individual voice. The emcee has long been part of hip hop’s complex, feeding off the DJ’s breaks or the producer’s instrumental but in terms of perception, emcees have gained recognition for reinventing standards and shifting the focus to a single powerful voice. Whether it’s their use of metaphor, their conjunctive ad-libs, or their tonality, emcees bring the listener into the layers of a song and drive much of its mood consequently.

HHNLive.com released a list of song credits linking various artists to the writers who may have actually written the songs or part of them. Many of the named artists (Diddy, Bow Wow) would never turn a head, and knowledgeable observers know that D.O.C. was the engine behind early Ice Cube and N.W.A. records. There is always some speculation, however, when bringing up the issue of guest writers. Where in rhythm and blues or rock and roll, writers and producers can openly attribute hits to their peers, in hip hop the authenticity factor makes this a more difficult proposition. Emcees have to be as real as they come, with both street cred and songwriting ability from jump. Of course, since hip hop is a part of the entertainment world, the marriage of image and reality can be equivocal.

No one’s questioning how real or fake Tank or Jaheim is for instance, so if they hire R. Kelly to write a hit record, it’s just another day at the record label. Diane Warren is one of the record industry’s most prolific songwriters but it would be unusual for Mariah Carey’s followers or Whitney Houston’s fans to challenge them for allowing Warren to write ballads for them.

Now that we find out that Biggie’s verses are alleged to have been collaborations with Mase, it’s a whole new kettle of fish. We have (unfairly) assumed that the cherished artists in the hip hop legacy rank differently than any other musician, a shameful error any way you spin it. Jadakiss, on the other side of the coin, has written for a variety of artists in different scenarios, same thing for Jay-Z.

By those unspoken standards, we often assume the ghostwriter is the emcee who can’t cut it on his own. Jay and Jada are far from that. Skillz (or Mad Skillz if you’re feeling official) once supported that theory with a song called “Ghostwriter” in which he refuses to name artists he’s written for, but who we assume are important by the hints he surrounds the lyrics with. The writer has gained a mystique in hip hop by remaining in the background and being somehow bound to secrecy until an investigative eye peruses the liner notes.

We have all been guilty of accepting rap music at face value when there’s often much more going on. I don’t care if Lord Finesse wrote some verses for Big L or vice versa or if Lil Wayne is helping Juelz update his sound. It speaks to awareness among artists about what pleases the listeners. The creative process takes many forms. Any writer at a newspaper or heavily circulated magazine will tell you the same: before any of the work is final, many pairs of eyes will examine it, change the wording, make it crisper and polish it for it to be the best possible piece. It’s a relief to know that some songs follow the same logic.

Granted, there’s no one saying Illmatic – the Holy Grail of sorts – was modified by outside pens but would that tamper with our views of it? Give credit where it is due but do not expect full disclosure from record labels or the artists themselves when it concerns making a memorable record.

Oh and…anyone know if it’s true that Sauce Money wrote for Jay-Z? I’m dying over here.

Ed. Note, September 2014: Please note that the source article is no longer available via the host site. As such, we’ve made a change on “Biggie’s verses were collaborations with Mase” to indicate that this information was once reported in 2007. We’ve contacted Bad Boy Records but have not received a response at this time.

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