Ghostwriting in Hip-Hop: The Controversy

Ghostwriting in hip-hop is certainly a controversial, heated topic, as reflected in recent events (the Drake & Meek Mill ghostwriting feud). As founder and chief lyricist of HipHopGhostwriters.com, I obviously have a stake in one side of this debate. My bias notwithstanding, I do not see ghostwriting as being ethically improper.

When artists seek the services of a ghostwriter, they typically have a fairly good idea of what they are hoping to accomplish with a project. Often, they describe in great detail the themes, language, and specific content they hope to emphasize. The ghostwriter “simply” constructs the customer’s ideas into rhyme form. Artists are still behind the message if not the specific words in the song. Many tracks undergo revisions and these revisions again take the artists’ words and ideas into account. Still further, artists may then embellish the track while in the studio, with their own unique flow, emphasis, and ideas. Although the words may have been ghostwritten, the project is a collaboration, designed to bring out each artist’s strengths.

Most musicians have talent, but most are not a jack of all trades. Elton John, for example, is a brilliant piano player, singer, and melodist. However, the majority of his lyrics are written by Bernie Taupin, yet that is not frowned upon. Elton John is respected as a great musician (does anyone really respect him less because lyrics aren’t his forte?). In the hip-hop world, artists and fans should be more accepting of the fact that not every artist can do it all. Some produce beats, some write the rhymes, others spit the rhymes. Perhaps it is even more impressive if an artist writes his or her own lyrics, but is it unimpressive or shameful if they use a ghostwriter? I believe not.

Ghostwriting in hip-hop is not a new phenomenon. Back in the early days of hip-hop, Big Daddy Kane ghostwrote for Biz Markie; Nas ghostwrote for Will Smith; Jay-Z ghostwrote for Foxy Brown. Today, the majority of mainstream rappers still use ghostwriters. Ghostwriting has not evolved, yet hip-hop has evolved substantially. Most mainstream artists rap about drugs, money, and sex. In the ’80s and ’90s hip-hop was more positive. More emcees talked about struggle and advancement in society. Hip-hop was more real back then. I’m not saying drugs, money, and sex are not real, but I am saying that making music glorifying and objectifying such topics in no way benefits society. Perhaps the real concern worth raising is with the content of lyrics, rather than with the author.