The Outing of Drake: Ghostwriting Is As Old As Hip-Hop
Controversy erupted this week when rapper Meek Mill accused Drake of hiring ghostwriters for his raps, but from The Sugarhill Gang to Dr. Dre, rappers have been using ghostwriters since day one.
The Meek Mill vs. Drake “beef” has once again stirred one of hip-hop’s most reliable hornet’s nests—accusations of ghostwriting. Nothing gets artists, fans, and media in an uproar faster than someone declaring that a beloved rapper doesn’t write his own rhymes. Twitter almost exploded four years ago when it was alleged that the legendary Nas didn’t write every word of his Untitled album.
During a Twitter rant earlier this week, Meek alleged that Drake doesn’t write his own raps, including their track “R.I.C.O.” off Meek's recent album. “Stop comparing drake to me too.... He don’t write his own raps! That’s why he ain’t tweet my album because we found out!” Meek tweeted. “He ain’t even write that verse on my album and if I woulda knew I woulda took it off my album..... I don’t trick my fans! Lol.”
Funkmaster Flex then released a “guide track” for Drake’s “10 Bands” (it was subsequently taken down) and Noah “40” Shebib took to Twitter to defend the rapper he’s been collaborating with for years as fans called Drake a “fake” and the insults began to fly. Drake’s response? “I signed up for greatness. This comes with it,” he wrote on Instagram. The entire situation spawned a reliably pretentious and rambling “open letter” from Lupe Fiasco (of course), who explained that ghostwriting is not new and that commercial radio is to blame for wherever you think hip-hop is in 2015.
“Modern Radio and the commercial realm of music has injured rap,” he wrote via Instagram. “It set up ambiguous rules and systems for success that don’t take into consideration the quality and skill of the rappers craft. It redefined rap as just being a beat driven hook with some words in between and an entire generation has surrendered to chasing the format instead of chasing the art form. While mastering any format should be the pursuit of any self-respecting rapper including the commercial format it must be kept clear that it is just one of many formats and that you should strive to master all of them.”
Lupe is correct in that ghostwriting is something that has always existed in hip-hop. Almost from the very beginning of hip-hop records being made.
The first hit hip-hop song was ghostwritten. “Rapper’s Delight” was the first hip-hop tune to chart and it briefly made The Sugarhill Gang stars. But Big Bank Hank, Wonder Mike and Master Gee were just three guys recruited to record rhymes that had been written by Grandmaster Caz of the Cold Crush Brothers. In that moment, they not only became pioneers for rap music hitting the pop charts—they became pioneers in rappers becoming famous for songs written by other emcees.
“The Message” is on the short list of greatest hip-hop songs ever made, but it was written by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five as a group. The song only featured rhymes by session musician Duke Bootee and Melle Mel of the Furious Five. The other members of the group mimed along to Bootee’s verses in the video.
The Beastie Boys’ “Slow and Low” was actually ghostwritten by Run-DMC—who themselves weren’t above reciting someone else’s rhymes. LL Cool J ghostwrote “Can You Rock It Like This” from their platinum-selling second album King of Rock, and their 1993 track “Hit ‘Em Hard” (which was produced by Kay Gee of Naughty By Nature) features raps that sound suspiciously like Naughty By Nature’s frontman and resident rhyme animal, Treach. Fans also believed Treach wrote raps for his bandmate, Vin Rock, and for his cousin, Queen Latifah (“Latifah’s Had It Up To Here.”)
For almost 25 years, there have been whispers that DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince’s classic hit single “Summertime” featured verses that were actually written by Rakim. Jeff, for his part, dismissed the speculation as totally false, and explained the confusion to the Village Voice in 2011. “Will was always very hyper and I told him, ‘Bring it back. Vibe with it,’‘ Townes said. ‘And when he did that, everyone was like, ‘Wow. He sounds like Rakim.’ From the first day we played the record for people, they thought it was Rakim. When we first released it, everyone was like, ‘Did you hear that new song that Rakim did?’” But Will Smith did use ghostwriters later in his career, namely Nas—who wrote verses for Big Willie Style-era Smith on songs like ”Miami” and the infamous “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It.”
Wu-Tang Clan’s Method Man has confirmed that a lot of his late bandmate Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s solo debut was written by Clan members RZA and GZA. Salt-N-Pepa are among hip-hop’s most commercially successful acts, but it’s been stated that superproducer Hurby “Luv Bug” Azor wrote the majority of the raps for the group. And in one instance, they had a more celebrated name behind the pen: Kool G Rap. The lispy-voiced wordsmith from Queens is said to have written “Chick On the Side” for the girls way back in 1986 before he became famous—and one of the most notoriously misogynistic figures in hip-hop.
Similarly, it’s unclear how much of Lil Kim’s popular 1996 debut album Hard Core featured her own rhymes and how much of it featured those written by her late mentor, the Notorious B.I.G. But when a “guide track” surfaced of Biggie doing the rhymes from her anthemic “Queen Bitch,” it gave credence to critics who had speculated that Kimmy wasn’t exactly the creator of her persona and wasn’t the person originally coming up with those raunchy rhymes.
Dr. Dre is one of hip-hop’s most celebrated producers, but it’s fairly well-known that he’s not a guy who wrote his rhymes whenever he left the booth and grabbed the microphone. Most of his early Ruthless material was written by the D.O.C. and Ice Cube—and when Dre left Ruthless to forge Death Row, the D.O.C.’s rhymes also made up the bulk of Dre’s verses on The Chronic. And his 2001 album featured raps written by Jay-Z. Dre’s also had verses penned by Rakim, Eminem, and Royce Da 5’9—so one thing you can’t accuse him of is bad taste in writers. Interestingly, from 1992 to 1995, Dre engaged in a highly-publicized beef with his former N.W.A. bandmate Eazy E. Dre dropped the scathing Eazy diss “Dre Day,” and Eazy responded with “Real Muthaphuckkin Gs”—a song that featured Eazy verses written by assorted Ruthless Records artists. So in essence, one of hip-hop’s most famous verbal wars was waged by two guys who both needed ghostwriters to do battle.
Like Dre, Diddy is an iconic hip-hop figure who’s never been accused of being a microphone fiend. When he’s stepped out front to drop his own mealy-mouthed verses, Sean Combs has typically had someone penning rhymes for him. His blockbuster No Way Out album featured verses from Ma$e and the Notorious B.I.G.—who penned Diddy’s famous verse on “Victory,” among others—and later on, Diddy recruited guys like Fabolous, The Game, T.I., and a very noticeable Pharoah Monche to write verses on Press Play.
More recently, Kanye West was accused by his former G.O.O.D. Music rapper Consequence of hiring a team of uncredited ghostwriters for his albums. And West’s recent single, “All Day,” contained as many as 20 credited songwriters on the track, including Kendrick Lamar. The controversy surrounding Drake and Meek Mill will probably be dead within a week. Meek has apologized to his girlfriend Nicki Minaj at a concert in Virginia for disrespecting her buddy and labelmate, and ghostwriting accusations have never stopped fans from being fans. But it’s past time for us to be a little more realistic about this—especially in an age where artists churn out a seemingly endless string of albums, standalone singles, mixtape tracks, and guest appearances. The sheer bulk of material alone suggests that somebody has to be using ghostwriters. It’s naïve to think otherwise. So, unless you think your favorite rapper never utters an original verse, spare us the faux outrage. And don’t get so riled up about Drizzy’s ghostbustin’.