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Ghostwriting & Hip-Hop

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Yesterday I was having a discussion about whether or not Dr. Dre can be considered a rapper. The discussion quickly digressed into the topic of ghostwriting. For those that don’t know, here’s a definition of a ghostwriter — ‘One who writes for and gives credit of authorship to another’. The practice of ghostwriting in hip-hop has always carried a certain stigma. That is to say that no self-respecting MC would be caught dead reciting rhymes written by someone else. Yet we know the practice takes place. Jay-Z once told Vibe magazine that “I get paid a lot of money to not tell you who I write for.” It’s widely known that Dr. Dre’s lyrics have been written by The D.O.C., Ice Cube, Snoop, Jay-Z, Eminem, etc. I’m pretty sure Puffy doesn’t write all (any?) of his own lyrics. Da Brat has written for Jermaine Dupri. (no comment!) And didn’t Nas write some stuff for Will Smith one of Will’s latest albums? Who knows how many other examples are out there. This raises several questions for me.

  • Why aren’t singers and musicians held to the same standard as rappers? Musicians aren’t chastised if they play music that they didn’t compose. Great singers aren’t ridiculed for singing the words of someone else.

  • Would it be better if the liner notes explicitly said ‘written by XYZ’, instead of trying to be stealth about it? (For that matter, does the average person even read the liner notes?)

  • Is writing your own lyrics an essential part of being a true MC? Is that part of what differentiates an MC from a rapper?

  • Will the stigma ever go away?

Update: Here’s an article describing the differences between rappers and MCs/Emcees. Here’s a snippet:

Rappers make rap records and are in the game for the sole purpose of monetary gain and fame. They have no love for the microphone or hip-hop, which consists of 4 elements – D.J.ing, Emceeing, Graffiti and Break Dancing!!! … If both were to get on the mic at a jam out side and the d.j. is playing breakbeats , the m.c. will tear the rapper ass up because he is in his domain his arena and he will not only rock rhymes he will rock the party; showcase the d.j. with no gimmicks no hype man, no dancers just him and his gift of gab. The rapper will say some good rhymes that is probably in record form, meaning it will be 16 or 24 bars and will feel very uncomfortable up there by himself, no dancers, no security and no hype man and to top it off if the record skips he,the rapper will stop and look at the d.j. or search for the soundman. The m.c. will stutter back on track… Last but not least m.c.s roll with other m.c.s, rappers roll with body guards and entourages and stay stuck in v.i.p. rooms.

(Originally posted on Move the Crowd)

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About Trader Mike

  • Why aren’t singers and musicians held to the same standard as rappers? Musicians aren’t chastised if they play music that they didn’t compose. Great singers aren’t ridiculed for singing the words of someone else.

    I think you answered your own question, but I’ll reiterate: the words are all rappers have. If they’re lifting their words off someone else, they’ve got nothing of any artistic value to offer. Where musicians have their instruments as proof of their abilities and can therefore reshape someone else’s song, all a rapper has are the very words he speaks. What kind of cred and skill do you have if your one talent is simply reduced to reciting someone else’s words?

  • Yes the lyrics are (should be) very important. But there is more to being a good rapper than just the lyrical content. Intonation, syncopation, being able to ‘ride’ a beat, etc. It’s not like they are just talking over a beat. It’s hard to duplicate the delivery of the likes of KRS-ONE, Eminem, Rakim, Busta Rhymes, Biggie, etc.

  • Aaron

    You actually answered question 1 with point 2.
    Would it be better if the liner notes explicitly said ‘written by XYZ’, instead of trying to be stealth about it? (For that matter, does the average person even read the liner notes?)

    When a non-rap musician sings someone else’s song, the authorship is clearly noted in the liner notes. And yeah, I suspect the average person reads ’em. I certainly do, and I think the lack of liner notes is a big negative in respect to music downloading.
    I think it’s often something that a musician wants advertised – “This person is a great songwriter, and I hope I can do their song justice.”
    Although that doesn’t explain Diane Warren.

  • This description of MCs vs rappers notably has pretty much nothing to do with MUSIC. There doesn’t seem to be any discernable difference based on this description betweent the actual sounds or tunes created by these two described types. The difference seems to be that MCs are apparently cool, and rappers have cooties.

  • Al,

    That is true to an extent. But in general, the music will be quite different. Rappers tend to make the type of music that is more likely to cross-over. It’ll probably be blended with R&B, and the lyrical content will be ‘watered down’ accordingly. (trying to get p-a-i-d) MCs tend to stick to more of an underground sound. But it is possible for eiterh type of person to make either type of music. Like I said in a comment on my site, it’s hard for me to quantify the difference btwn MCs and rappers. But like what’s often said about porn, I know it when I see it.

  • I’m not sure how much the idea of “watering down” the hardcore for sales really applies in the world of rap. Seems like the biggest acts are mostly the hardest, baddest dudes around. A certain kind of “authenticity” seems to be exactly what audiences are paying for.

    Can’t see how Eminem or Dre could be considered to have “watered down” lyrical content.

    I suppose there’s Puffy on the other side.

  • Good point Al. But some of those ‘hard, bad’ dudes are posers, or as 50 Cent says ‘Wankstas’ (p.k.a. studio gangstas). And again, they’re not being themselves and just doing that style of rap for the money. (but hey, we all have to eat)

    You used the word ‘authenticity’, and I think you hit the nail on the head. The people that are ‘keeping it real’ get respect. The posers don’t.

  • “Authenticity” in art is a highly suspect idea with me. Mostly art is a fiction to start with, a refraction of reality. By authenticity logic, only autobiographical songs written by the singer/rapper would be truly “legitimate.”

    A lot of the time, this authentic gangsta crap seems to be just a substitute for authentic SONGS. 50 Cent is no doubt an authentic thug, but he doesn’t have anything resembling a real song. If he had the SONGS, I wouldn’t care if he was class valedictorian at a New England prep school.

    Johnny Cash has never actually killed anyone, nor particularly been violent at all. Yet no one dismisses the “Folsom Prison Blues” or “Delia’s Gone” as lacking authenticity. The real authenticity is in the song and the record.

    I also doubt that wankstas and studio gangstas are in it for the money any more than real authentic criminals. Is 50 Cent any less interested in getting paid than Dre or Puffy?

  • Authenticity has always been important to a good portion of the hip-hop community. Which is why rappers try to hide the fact that they’re not writing their own lyrics, IMO.

    I think all rappers/MCs want to get paid. The difference is what will they do to achieve that end. Change their style? Team up with pop artists? Make a ‘blingy’ video and wear shiny suits?

  • shane

    Anyone know how to break into the ghostwriting business?

  • w

    the major reason R&B and music composers aren’t held in the same standards as hip hop is simple.Hip hop is not as difficult to perform as singing and composing music. anybody can rap when a rapper raps it is normally about material things and who is the best mc. Therefore, once he or she gets the mic they are liable to criticism. That being said, a rapper is going to get “Hammered”, (no pun intended),if he or she can’t whole their own in the rap game. On the other hand, nobody cares if Beyonce don’t write her own music because she would sing it very well.If you was to walk out your house and ask people to compose a song and sing you might not find one who could do this. It is all about appearance and talent. Dr. Dre,Timberland,Master P, and P. Diddy brings the most important element to their field and that is complimenting weaknessess with business strengths. Anybody can apply that to any field. As a fan, and not looking at it from a business perspective, I hate phony rappers but, hey, they know how to work the system. You decide.Peace.

  • Chuck D’z

    thats what i hate about the industry, all the bull**** see as a musician myself, i make my own beats, write my own lyrics, spit my own vocals, and sound engineer my own tracks. everyone now a dayz is all put together and dont get me wrong, thers alot of great SOUNDING music but no one seems to be authentic anymore. the photoshoots and music videos are all rented, you see these people with nice things when they cant afford and/or dont have any of that kind of stuff, u see these people with great looking models and they dont even know these people. the media is so screwed up with the things they act to be but are not. its all entertainment, and what you would call watered down, how does someone authentic make it big in the industry without haveing there producer or label make them out to be someone else? what is it going to take to bring REAL people to the plate? this i dont think you can answer, but i appreciate you reading and taking the time, for this i thank you

  • blaze8621

    what good… i was surfing the internet and saw your link… i know that you have more important things to worry about, but im a lyricist from nj. I’ve been told that I make hot songs. but rather then lookin for a deal, im more interested in becoming a ghost writer… so if you have any free time, can you let me know how i would go about getting started on a ghostwriting career? if not, then thanks anyway for taking the time to read this.

  • Simple Answer: vocal ABILITY is to vocalist as Rap SKILL is to rap artist/MC.

    Vocalist arent expected to write everything as long as their sound is authentic. (remember Milli Vanilli?) Rapper/ MC’s are expected to write everything because THAT IS their authenticity.

    To see an example of a real artist/ producer/ vocalist and graphic designer.


  • RAW

    you guys talk about some interesting subjects.I definately learned something just now.I feel much more encouraged about persuing a music career. just wish the process was easier for people with real skill and respect for the art. It seems like the more talented you are the harder it is to get a chance to do what you really love and enjoy. The ones who dont deserve it get in and out so quickly. piece!

  • i personally do not feel what your saying about the difference between a rapper and an emcee. i dont believe a rappers soul purpose is to gain fame and fortune. i rap mc whatever you want to call it. I write my own song. word for word they are all original, but i calss myself as a rapper rather den an mc. tgo me an mc is someone who does more towards the live p.a’s and a rapper is someone who records more and releases more tracks. to someone they might turn round and say an mc can bury a rapper but word for word and line for line the rapper will bury an mc becoz he is doin the harder task of pushin his message through a song on c.d radio however so people are more den likely to listen to it and hear everything word for word, but an mc has got the advantage of jus babblin on the microphone and no1 cares coz at live shows more den likely the crowd are wasted and are not concerned with what you have to say, you could stand on stage and sing teletubbies and the crowd wud move to it. and to say that they have more passion is absaloute bull!!! i know for a fact i got more passion then 99.9% of artist out there rappers or mc’s!!!! fly by my myspace and you will see http://www.myspace.com/stormp1

  • To Storm P, i dont mean no disrespect or knock wat u sayin (& for the record, i get your point) but i would call u an MC, ur not jus a rapper. Im not sayin my ways right & urs wrong but, to me, a rapper makes records & releases album etc but an MC can do ALL of it, rock a party, makes tunes/albums etc. if u get wat im sayin.

    Im an MC, shhucks i even called my latest CD “The M.C.” cos this topic is important to me too. Im a fan first.

    I break it down in KRS-One’s words “An MC can be classed as a rapper, but a rapper can NEVER be classed as an MC.”

    For example, I wud say peeps like Nas/Common/Jadakiss are MC’s & Diddy/50Cent/Kanye are rappers.

    An MC is sum1 who makes tunes with SUBSTANCE!! which is wat i feel is missin from hip-hop nowadays, & use witty wordplay that can be thought-provokin in sum kinda way, even if its jus how they put the words together.. but anyway a rapper is jus someone who can not branch out in his wordplay, jus recycled the same old lines/tunes in a diff way or summat like that…

    Wish we could get back to lyrics being as important as the sales are now…


  • Young RDA

    i personally think:be a rapper and no a MC is not bad either.i think its bad the ghostwriting.if you are a MC or A rapper dont matter the big thing is if you write your own lyrics

    sorry for my bad english im argentinian

  • onita vanasselberg

    do you really wanna know what’s on my mind I feel the whole world already knows but I don’t get credit

  • ENTREPRENUER temporarily do it all
    head of corporation majors in REALIZM. a REalist Idealist
    imaginitive creative writer. voice and speech sound ignite create FIRE .
    arts and craft they kno.. i model ACT also will never fall flat. like im destined to get a high stock no cut CRAP so cut the CROPS im a harvest annually AMOUNT alot

    i can write it all give me the proper details theres nothing i cant accertain

    i MC lyrically rap POETRY use ma voice so 2 speak


  • kylef22

    “In da Club” Andre Young, Mike Elizondo

    ^thats who wrote 50ts song in da club, infact 50 dident write 1 song on his get rich or die trying album

  • Phil

    my guess as to why ghostwriting isn’t accepted in hip hop is because of the origins of many of these rappers. because i’m sure that these MCs were battling each other back in the day, and if you diss someone with something that you didn’t write then… what the fuck does that mean?

    anyway, that’s my take on it

  • BenjyFranco

    I know I’m late but for the record, when checking the liner notes for songwriting credits, make sure you know who wrote what. For example, when it says “written by Nasir Jones and Samuel Barnes”, it’s not clear that Nas wrote the lyrics and Samuel Barnes wrote the music. Not all producers are song-lyricists but still receive songwriting credit for the music they’ve created on the keyboard, guitar, etc.; so, in essence, they “wrote” the song as well.

  • Jesse Samson

    Ghost writing is a much needed service in the music industry whether its Hip-Hop, country, rock, singer-song writer or whatever the case may be. No single artist has a strong hand in EVERY aspect of music. Some artists are great at writing lyrics, others only music, and again others only concepts. All three of those are equally important in music. Its understandable that this service is looked down upon by some, but it should be understood that in the professional world of music, every aspect of the finished product needs to be 100 percent slick all the way down to mixing and mastering. That being said, there are some great ghost writers out there but the successful corporatization of ghost writing is quite rare. I have heard of a few. http://www.Phantomsong.com being one of them.

  • AndrewHogan

    I can write awesome rap songs I have been doing it for the past fifteen years I’m one of the best and my songs I write are very versatile I’m a huge assert and would be very good in doing so I promise give me a chence and I will prove it to you.

    [Personal contact details deleted by Comments Editor]