The secret ghostwriters of Hip Hop
- 6 August 2014
- From the section Magazine
The practice of ghostwriting is one of rap's biggest taboos, and yet many of its greatest hits were ghostwritten. So who are Hip Hop's ghostwriters and what place do they have in a style of music built on speaking from the heart?
In most genres of music, including Soul, R&B and Pop, being a songwriter is a legitimate career, but in Hip Hop, writing for another rapper has long been something to hide.
It was Chuck D from Public Enemy who described rap as "CNN for black people." Emerging from the poverty and deprivation of New York's South Bronx neighbourhood in the 1970s, rap gave the voiceless a voice. Because of this, rappers have a unique reputation to uphold. They have to be authentic, telling stories about their own individual worlds. They have to "keep it real".
"We expect it to be personal, we expect it to be from the heart and straight from that individual's experience," says Underground UK rapper Jehst. Others put it more strongly. "It's a travesty, anybody who calls themselves an MC and doesn't write their rhyme - no way you can even stand in the same room as an MC if you don't write your rhyme, plain & simple," says Grandmaster Caz, born Curtis Fisher, who made his name as Casanova Fly in legendary MC battles during the 1970s.
Teenagers like Grandmaster Caz held street parties, each with their own sound system, in which MCs (Masters of Ceremonies) tried to out-do each other to impress. "We were going for glory, we were trying to be superheroes," says Grandmaster Caz.
"It was of the utmost urgency and importancy, if you called yourself a true MC in the early days, then you had to be able to write rhymes, you had to be able to rock a crowd, you had to be able to eliminate your opponent."
Despite this, he became most famous for a song he did not perform.
The story goes back to when he was part of the group Mighty Force, managed by his friend Big Bank Hank, real name Henry Jackson. Big Bank Hank had borrowed money from his parents to improve the group's sound system, and was paying back the loan with a job in a pizza shop. One day, while he was singing along to one of Casanova Fly's tapes at the pizza shop, in walked the legendary Sylvia Robinson, from the influential Sugar Hill Records label. She was forming a new group and asked Big Bank Hank to audition for her there and then. This should have been his cue to say he managed one of the best MCs in the Bronx - but he didn't. "He just took the lyrics that were on the tape," says Grandmaster Caz. "They loved it and they made him part of the group on the spot."
The song in question was Rapper's Delight, which became the genre's first commercial hit, bringing Hip Hop - then a largely counter-culture movement - out of the ghetto and into the mainstream. Big Bank Hank's use of Casanova Fly's lines is obvious from the lyrics, which will be familiar to many:
Check it out, I'm the C-A-S-A, the N-O-V-A / And the rest is F-L-Y / You see I go by the code of the doctor of the mix / And these reasons I'll tell you why / You see, I'm six foot one, and I'm loads of fun.
"He was so much not an MC, he didn't even know enough to change the words around to spell his own name," says Grandmaster Caz. "He just copied it word for word - he said: "I'm six foot one" - he's not, I'm six foot one. Everything in the rhyme describes me. I'm unwittingly Hip Hop's first ghostwriter."
Perhaps the speed of events overtook Big Bank Hank, but for Grandmaster Caz, it still rankles. "I was part of one of the most important records of all time, and that should be acknowledged," he says.
As part of the Mighty Force group, perhaps Big Bank Hank did feel ownership over some of the lyrics. In the 1999 documentary The Hip Hop Years, Big Bank Hank said he understood Grandmaster Caz's frustration. "I can understand why he would say that and I have nothing but love for him," he says. "Because he didn't move to that magnitude and because I couldn't bring him in. But some of the stuff was done together and I just transposed it over."
Kathy Iandoli, music editor for the website Hip Hop DX, says ghostwriting in rap can be "anything from shouting a word or two in the studio, to legitimately writing a whole song" and it's this murky area that creates tension and rumours - who really wrote that lyric? In the early days, the only thing at stake was a rapper's street credibility, but as Hip Hop gained more currency there was a fortune to be made.
One of the best-known ghetto-to-riches stories is that of Christopher "Biggie Smalls" Wallace, aka the Notorious B.I.G. He grew up in Brooklyn, New York where he was out selling drugs from the age of twelve. Hip Hop changed his life.
Now my whole crew is loungin' celebrating every day / no more public housing / thinking back on my one room shack / now my Mom pimps a Ac' with minks on her back. [Ac' is short for Acura, a luxury line of cars made by Honda.]
The multi-millionaire rapper and entrepreneur Jay Z (Shawn Carter) has also rapped about how he chose music over drug-dealing. Just know I chose my own fate / I drove by the fork in the road and went straight. Instead of hustling drugs, he used his business skills to sell music - Bricks to billboards, grams to Grammys.
And big money inevitably changed more than just the suits in the so-called "shiny-suit" era of the mid-90s. "When the tax bracket shifted for the Hip Hop artist, everything changed," says Iandoli. "It was an open conversation that certain acts didn't write their own rhymes but they were making the hits."
In his 2001 song Bad Boy For Life, the Hip Hop mogul Sean "Diddy" Combs boasts "Don't worry if I write rhymes, I write cheques" - thereby celebrating his money-making over his skills as a rapper.
One of the biggest hits of all time, I'll Be Missing You - Comb's Grammy-award-winning ode to his friend Biggie Smalls - was the work of the ghostwriter Sauce Money. He grew up as Todd Gaither in Brooklyn's projects alongside Jay Z, who inspired him to start writing. After Biggie Smalls was shot in 1997, the hip hop world was in mourning, and Biggie's good friend and label-mate Combs - then known as Puff Daddy - was looking for someone to help him write a tribute. Jay Z felt too raw to do it himself so he put Combs in touch with Sauce Money, who had lost his mother a few years earlier and channelled his emotions into the lyrics.
Sauce Money remembers when Combs first heard the song. "He was blown away because it was everything he wanted to say," he says. "It's almost like being an actor - I became him, and once I became him I knew what he would want to say to Big in remembrance."
Iandoli remembers that the release of the record polarised opinion. "As much of a monster hit as it was, I think it also was controversial because Diddy didn't write it," she says. "It was almost like having someone write a eulogy for when your best friend passed away. The hip hop purist would look at that and say, you really couldn't write that song? But when you can't write a song, you can't write a song."
Sauce Money wasn't invited to the Grammy awards, but the record made his name, and he was well paid. "It branded me as an A-List ghostwriter," he says. "I was lucky enough to get my money and my publishing." But not everybody gets such a good deal.
The need for invisibility means that ghostwriters aren't always listed on the album credits or given royalties, and instead are often paid one-off fees for their work. Iandoli suggests that because of this, it's difficult to know exactly how much ghostwriting goes on. "A lot of deals are being struck under the table. Publishing credits with certain artists are not being handed out because of the street credibility," she says. "But I think because so many artists are so wealthy, when they know there's a hit they'll pass hundreds of thousands or tens of thousands. That kind of exchange of money without the proper documentation is what exists nowadays."
In 2012 one of the most highly regarded lyricists in Hip Hop - Nas - was accused of using other people help write his rhymes. Nas denied the allegations in a radio interview. "You know who's my ghostwriters? My friends, people I meet on the street… somebody will say something that sparks something in me so I get it from everybody," he said on Power 106 FM.
But according to the BBC's DJ Semtex collaboration is not only something that artists do all the time, it's actually a good thing. "If by the end of the session you've only written 50% of the track, is that a bad thing? It's you being smart as an MC, it's you constructing other people's opinions, getting their contributions and turning it into a banger," he says.
Hip hop glossary
- Spit - to rhyme or rap
- Swag - a person's level of charisma or bravado and sense of style
- Battle - two rappers competing to eliminate each other using only the strength or wit of their rhymes, the outcome decided by the audience
- Flow - an important element of a rapper's identity, it refers to the rhythm a rapper uses when rhyming
Certainly, collaborations with ghostwriters can be fruitful and allow rappers to flex a different kind of muscle.
Hailing from the infamous Corona neighbourhood in Queens, Nathanial Wilson, better known as Kool G Rap, became famous for his violent lyrics depicting the reality of the criminal underworlds of the late 1980s. His songs have often been heavily misogynistic - the track Hey Mister describes a violent attack on a lying girlfriend: She started coppin' a plea but I ain't really tryin' to hear her / I snatched her by her hand, bashed her face up in the mirror.
This makes it hard to believe that Kool G Rap was a ghostwriter for the female rapper Roxanne Shante and the all-female Hip Hop group Salt-N-Pepa. The track he wrote for them, Chick on the Side, tells the story of a cheating boyfriend from a female perspective: I finally caught on to your little game / Your lying and denying is a cryin' shame / You took me for granted, this is the end, dammit / You're playing the field like you're some (love bandit)
Blogger and label-owner Frank Miller says it's not unusual for established acts to look to younger talent in order to help them stay relevant and ahead of the game.
When artists are under pressure to pump out the hits, they often need a team around them - including writers - he says. "Once you're on a mainstream stage and you're such a money-generating entity, art isn't the focus, it becomes business and product," he says. "You want the best minds you can afford all in the same room and bouncing ideas off each other, and the avatar representing all that hard work is the artist."
Miller says the young writer benefits by getting a foothold in the industry. But on balance it's the established acts that get most out of the relationship.
"There are artists that have been around for 20 or 30 years now that are running out of gas, and they see some new talent and they are like: I have the resources and you have the talent, let's put it together and keep me limping along," he says. "It's a shame it has to be that way, that young artists coming with new music that connects to their generation have to go through these old gatekeepers to have that platform."
But then not everyone can make it as a performer. "Not everyone is equipped to be a lyricist, not everyone is equipped to be a vocalist," as Chuck D has put it.
Kool G Rap says that at the early stage in his career when he worked with Salt-N-Pepa he was just happy to have the chance to realise his talent as a writer.
And he respects those who are able to convincingly spit [rap] other people's lyrics. "I can't take away from the artists that deliver lyrics from other writers, he says. "I can't knock it because it still takes a certain type of person to deliver that."
Iandoli agrees. "When it comes to the quintessential hip hop artist, that person has to have a combination of lyrics and skill and swag and charisma. That's ideal, that's Jay Z. Artists like that are one in a million."
Miller suggests ghostwriting is becoming less of a taboo, but it's still a concealed industry, which leaves it open to exploitation. It's fine when people are being credited for their work, he says, "but when the real talent is being hidden in the broom closet while the performer is out there entertaining guests at the house party, that's a little shady."
Some mainstream rappers hang on to the tradition of writing their own lyrics. When Nicki Minaj picked up her prize for Best Female Hip Hop Artist at this year's Black Entertainment TV awards she said: "When you hear Nicki Minaj spit, Nicki Minaj wrote it… I'm still one of the only MC's that's out here spitting metaphors and making you think." She ended with the hope that authenticity would continue to be honoured.
But Hip Hop has moved on so much that even though the legacy of honest, raw writing is still a selling point, the reality is very different.