Music consumers readily accept that the singer of a catchy pop song may not have written it. But they may not know that this practice extends to other seemingly more authentic musical genres like hip-hop, which Chuck D of Public Enemy famously referred to as CNN for black people. "We hold rappers to a different standard than pop singers," says Chuck Creekmur, co-founder of AllHipHop.com. "With hip-hop we want to have that personal connection. We want them to tell us how they feel."
"Most artists are not going to want to make it known that they didn't write their own lyrics"—Rapper and songwriter Kel Spencer
With such high expectations for our rap idols to "keep it real," it makes sense that some try to hide the fact that they aren't writing their own lyrics. To do so, they can hire ghostwriters to pen their tunes. Ghostwriters are usually rappers themselves who write lyrics for other performers without getting songwriting creditalthough they often get paid. Even some of the most respected names in the biz have composed other rappers' rhymes: Nas co-wrote several tracks off Will Smith's mega-selling Big Willie Style (including "Just Cruisin'"), the gritty Pharoahe Monch wrote for Diddy's album Just Press Play, and Jay-Z has written several of Dr. Dre's raps (including, notably, "Still D.R.E.").
Why would a rapper spend so much of his heart and soul writing lyrics for a top-40 record he'll never get credit for? "Sometimes, it's just such a good deal that you can't turn it away," says Skillz, a respected hip-hop hired hand whose song "Ghostwriter" includes bleeped-out names of rappers he's written for. (Lyrics to a live, uncensored version are available online and name-drop Mase, Foxy Brown, and Diddy, among others.) As Skillz points out, if you're a struggling MC, and Will Smith comes to you with his checkbook, it's hard to say no.
Ghostwriting is also a good way to collect street cred. While the practice is not widely discussed by the general public, a ghostwriter who has a strong reputation with well-respected producers may be able to secure future, credited projects through those contacts. After writing verses for Diddy ("Shake Ya Tailfeather") and ghostwriting for Smith and Dre, Smitty signed with Clive Davis's J Records and will soon be releasing a debut album featuring in-demand producers Timbaland and Kanye West. (Diddy, Smith, and Dr. Dre didn't respond to Gelf's inquiries for this article).
"Rap moguls are a business, and they need to oversee the product as it comes off the assembly line, as opposed to doing a lot of the grinding themselves."Hip-hop historian Davey DMany in the community also view ghostwriting as a further opportunity for artistic expression. "I just found it as another outlet to be creative," Kel Spencer, who co-wrote such Will Smith hits as "Switch," says. "I don't look at it as being undervalued. I'm not ghostwriting to get famous; I'm doing it to attach myself to a project I like."
Skillz adds, "I like to put myself in a different mindset and step out of the box I'm in." And like any field of entertainment where image is involved, writing behind the scenes is a far more dependable career path than being in the spotlight. "I'm not gonna be rapping when I'm 40," Skillz says, "but I can still be writing songs 'til I'm 80."
But for many rappers out there, ghostwriting is considered a last resort to turn to only after the MC has failed as a performerwhether it's due to a lack of charisma, bad luck, or, in the case of former N.W.A. ghostwriter D.O.C., a vocal-cord injury. "A lot of rappers don't catch a break," Creekmur says. "They never had the opportunity to make it, and are forced to ghostwrite."
Beyond the question of "who's writing for whom" is the writing process itself, which varies by artist. According to Smitty and Spencer, most of their projects are completely collaborative. "[Will Smith] will record a song and have me pick it apart," Spencer says, "asking me what it needs for radio." Of course, statements about mega-moguls working with writers on projects should be taken with a grain of salt. Folks like Dr. Dre and Will Smith want to receive songwriting credit so as to maintain artistic credibility, and their songwriters want to continue to get paid large sums of money to work with such legends. Therefore, it is in the best interest of both parties to say that the process is collaborative, even when it's not.
The rules of ghostwriting compensation are remarkably inconsistent. Some contracts involve a simple lump sum upfront, while others may also include a cut of record sales. Akil from Jurassic 5, who has never ghostwritten himself but knows people in the industry who have, says that the compensation need not be spelled out in contract, nor money-based at all. "It may be benefits, material objects, or just being down with somebody," he says. Even elite ghostwriters cap out at $60,000 to $70,000 for a songa pretty penny, but a mere fraction of what many songs make in profits.
Royce's ghostwriting also bring to light another ethical question: Should rappers hire writers for songs that are inherently personal to the artist? Royce wrote the bulk of Dr. Dre's "The Message," which dealt with the murder of Dre's brother, and Sauce Money wrote much of "I'll Be Missing You," a tribute to Puff Daddy's late friend Notorious B.I.G. (That song, incidentally, sold over three million copies; Sauce Money received $1,000 for his efforts.) The rappers interviewed do not seem particularly troubled by these events. "Diddy was a part of ["I'll Be Missing You"], but of course he'll bring in top-notch writers to make it perfect," Smitty says. Jurassic 5's Akil says that the ends usually justify the means: "If you deliver it, and the point comes across, and I feel that emotion, then the job was done."
Related in Gelf
Related on the Web
Hastings Cameron writes about rap ghostwriting in the Village Voice. Also, check out Drew Ricketts' article on Hip-Hop News Live and Jason Fleurant's piece in Nobody Smiling, in which he describes ghostwriting as "Lyrical Steroids."