Ever since Meek Mill exposed Drake for using ‘ghostwriters’ some 2 years ago now, the rapper from Philly energized a debate about ghostwriting in hip-hop culture that has refused to go away.
Nigerian hip-hop legend eLDee is the latest to offer his opinion on the matter. Seemingly siding with #TeamYoungMoney, he applauded Drake and Nicki for surrounding themselves with ‘smart’ teams and for putting together better, well-rounded records than their opponents. eLDee weighed in with the following tweets:
Drake Vs Meek
Nicki Vs Remy
Go 2 school, or surround urself with smart people who did. Could be the difference between winning & losing.
— eLDee (@eLDeeTheDon) March 11, 2017
At the height of their respective battles, Drake and Nicki responded with “Back to Back” and “No Frauds” – 2 well-thought out songs that could also double as radio singles, rather than the built-for-purpose diss records done by their opponents that didn’t have the same legs.
When he was questioned on the fact that both Drake and Nicki have been accused of using ghostwriters to write some of their music, eLDee responded that it didn’t take anything away from their craft. When he was quizzed further, the founder of the now defunct hip-hop group Trybesmen doubled down on this stance.
@eLDeeTheDon using a writer is an option. 'Ghost writing' is basically doing that without crediting the writer and acting like it's you
— Upcoming Big Boy (@LordVino) March 12, 2017
@eLDeeTheDon the concept of GHOST is the issue. Nobody has a problem with people having writers. Ghost writing is basically telling us lies
— Upcoming Big Boy (@LordVino) March 12, 2017
There is a difference between a credited songwriter and a ghostwriter, we explored the difference in this article. One is generally understood to have contributed or even to have been instrumental in creating the music and gets their just due in terms of credits and royalties, while the other contributes anonymously and is usually paid off for their contribution or, worst still, is not even paid at all, hence the term ”ghost”.
Hip-hop has always had ghostwriters, the dark art may date back to the late 70’s even. According to Grandmaster Caz, (one of hip-hop’s early players) Big Bank Hank of the Sugarhill Gang stole a full verse from him and used it without his permission or credits. Hank used that verse on the gang’s breakout hit “Rapper’s Delight”, even lifting Caz’ line where he referenced his alter-ego Casnova – “I’m the C-A-S-N the O-V-A and the rest is F-L-Y.”
Watch Caz’ interview explaining how it happened:
Ghostwriting carried on in the 80’s and 90’s as well, Ice Cube penned Eazy E’s breakout single “Boyz N Da Hood” as well as many other joints for the late NWA member. Several years after that, legends such as Nas and Jay-Z wrote records for fellow legends like Will Smith, Diddy and Dr. Dre. Even though the songs were written by someone else, the rappers still had to come correct on the record, a point that eLDee was trying to make.
If its ok to ghostwrite in every single genre of music, it should be ok in hiphop. Delivery is still very crucial. https://t.co/uc7EN2LR6J
— eLDee (@eLDeeTheDon) March 12, 2017
My brother that’s an unrealistic rule. EVERYBODY that has ever claimed to be number 1 gets help, don’t believe the hype. https://t.co/DhafOP7n7a
— eLDee (@eLDeeTheDon) March 13, 2017
This is where it gets interesting. Hip-hop is like every other form of music – writing a song, any song, is usually a collaborative process and the bigger an artist is, and the more the label behind that artist wants a song to perform, the more hands they’ll get involved in the process of creation.
But hip-hop is also unlike many other forms of music in that there is an unrealistically high expectancy of ‘realness’ when you rap. Now, when a rapper crosses over to the pop lane, like Nicki and Drake have, they aren’t beholden to those expectations as much. However, whenever they return to their hip-hop constituency, they often find that the trade off for mainstream acceptance, by way of songwriters, is often a loss of respect in the hip-hop community.
Whereas pop music and R&B and other forms of mainstream music embrace songwriting as a necessity to consistently churning out hit music, it still remains abominable in hip-hop. Often times, when a rapper acknowledges that they’ve received help in writing, they separate parts of the song that they received help with – I received help with the chorus, but the verses are all mine – is a popular concession.
The root cause of this is that hip-hop is seen as being more than just music, it’s a lifestyle. When Rick Ross said he sold kilos of cocaine, we fell for his story until he was unearthed as a corrections officer. When Snoop Dogg came out as a gang banger from Long Beach, we immediately worked out that those blue handkerchiefs in his jean pockets weren’t for wiping his face. In a similar way that when Chance raps about his love for God and his other experiences with drugs, it would be a total let down if word came out tomorrow that someone else was writing the Chicago MC’s touching stories on his behalf. Not even a Grammy award will bring back Chance’s credibility if that happens.
Except where explicitly stated otherwise, a rap song is usually assumed to be an audio autobiography of sorts and the rhymes on it are wholly experiential. Employing a writer, credited or uncredited, therefore makes a rapper a third person narrator and puts a question mark over the authenticity of their story in the eyes of purists. This, in turn, creates the problematic need by every rapper to be seen to have written their ‘own’ rhymes and forces contributors, especially those without influence, to accept the role of ghostwriters.
History tells us that the legacy of rappers who are known to have used ghostwriters is tainted and their stock as MC’s isn’t as high as those who aren’t known to have used a hidden pen. Let’s revisit our earlier list for instance, Big Bank Hank died in 2014 but the question mark over his legacy as an MC still lives on till this day. Eazy-E’s status as a legend is less in doubt, somehow he has become the one MC who kept both his ghostwriter and his respect, but even at that, if there’s one chink in Eazy’s armor, it’s the fact that he ghostwriter. Ice Cube, the man who famously wrote for him, echoed the sentiments of many purists when he said this:
As far as a purist in hip-hop? I’m not a fan of it, I respect rappers more when they write their own lyrics. But as far as making a song, anybody can put a song together. It don’t matter how it come together. All that matters is what’s coming out the speaker.
Although, having said that, Eazy and Ice Cube didn’t have the warmest relationship when Eazy was alive, so take his words with “No Vaseline” and a pinch of salt.
With the rest though, there’s a reason why Will Smith rarely appears in most top 5 MC lists and why Dre’s musical legacy is chiefly spoken of as a member of a successful crew, as a producer and as an executive, rather than as a renowned MC. As for Diddy, the man has already told us not to worry if he writes rhymes because he writes checks, and in doing so, has excused himself from any future conversations about his greatness on the microphone, regardless of his success as a rapper.
The writer of a hip-hop record is important because the culture made it so, and when the writer and the MC are two different people, then the MC’s respect simply cannot remain in tact. However, that doesn’t take anything away from whether the MC is good with their delivery specifically or whether that MC is an exciting performer or even a dope song maker, but it would be unfair to others to place him or her in the same class of MC’s who are the total package and do it all.
There has to be clear distinction between the top MC’s and the rest of the pack and a discography full of commercially successful records is a very important criteria but success should compliment the skill-level of an MC and not be seen as an acceptable replacement.