Diddy's Little Helpers

Why hip-hop ghostwriting is an art now, and an actually respectable one

 I believe the industry as a whole needs certain events to happen to sustain it and keep it alive. . . . You need Dre albums, you need Eminem albums, you need 50 albums, you need big artists. . . . —Jay-Z, to the Associated Press in June

So now even J-Hova will occasionally allude to Hip-Hop's Imminent Demise, though he prescribes cultural CPR through fourth-quarter sales events, which may explain why he's the one with a net worth rivaling Diddy's. Jay's Kingdom Come will of course eclipse it, but surely Diddy's own 2006 record, Press Play, was an event. So why was he left off Jay's list of "big artists"?

If you have to take a piss real bad, the feeling of just the release is something that truly can't be explained. It's almost as good as sex. —Diddy, viral video

Be thankful he only writes checks.
photo: AFP/Getty Images
Be thankful he only writes checks.

Because that golden simile isn't wordplay an audience would pay to hear. Brash branding is Diddy's true art. Everyone knows he outsources the real wordsmithery to MCs like Skillz and Nas, right? Diddy's blithe dismissal of the issue— "Don't worry if I write rhymes/I write checks"—on "Bad Boy for Life" became shorthand for the perversion of hip-hop by commerce. Dilated Peoples' Evidence issued this rejoinder: "Don't worry if I write checks/I write rhymes." To a contemporary audience that conflates skill with SoundScans, though, that's tantamount to an admission of inept poverty. Furthermore, many of the rhymes that made it possible for Evidence to imagine making a living within hip-hop culture were themselves subject to murky authorship.

It wasn't like, "How much you gonna pay me?" or none of that. I just threw the book on the table and said, "Use whichever one you want." —Grandmaster Caz, in Yes Yes Y'all

The Sugarhill Gang's 1979 cash-in rush to the studio produced hip-hop's first gold record, "Rapper's Delight." But that urgency also allegedly compelled Gang member Big Bank Hank to crib rhymes from his friend Grandmaster Caz, a more accomplished MC. If so, he was an artless appropriator: "I'm the C-A-S-A/The N-O-V-A/And the rest is F-L-Y," Hank rhymes on the track, more or less announcing, "Hi! My name is . . . Caz."

While it would be a stretch to label Caz an unwitting victim, subsequent commercial successes could be flagged as more openly ghostwritten: Kurtis Blow's "Christmas Rappin' " was penned by a pair of Billboard writers. Those journalists share credit on other tracks in Blow's catalog: singles like "The Breaks," "Ego Trip," and "Basketball." No doubt the latter helped pave the way for Shaquille O'Neal's ghostwritten rap recital.

Profit motive and ghostwriting went hand in hand in the ensuing decades, temporarily propping up hacks like Vanilla Ice. But it also propped up actual talent. West Coast rapper Del tha Funkee Homosapien's work across the ghostwriting aisle with cousin Ice Cube "was basically how I started to learn how the music business functioned," Del told the Voice. Cube wrote verses for other N.W.A. members and songs like "Boyz N the Hood" (which made Eazy-E, Diddy's antecedent in awkward mogul rap, famous). Cube eventually split because the money wasn't right, but he and Del also helped each other write songs for their respective solo ventures. Del imagines "Cube wrote stuff for me just 'cause it was fun"—probably safe to assume Cube didn't get rich off Del's "Dr. Bombay." Del, in turn, is credited with writing on Cube tracks like "Jackin' for Beats" and Yo-Yo's "Ain't Nobody Better." Writing for extended family, blood and artistic, was common, in fact: Big Daddy Kane laced his Juice Crew mates, like Biz Markie with "Vapors" and Roxanne Shanté with "Have a Nice Day."

Check the credits/S. Carter, ghostwriter —Jay-Z, "Ride or Die"

As far as hip-hop is concerned, ghostwriter is a catchall term that encompasses varying shades of anonymity: The silent pens might sign confidentiality clauses, appear obliquely in the liner notes, or discuss their participation freely. Whether a writer is responsible for entire verses from scratch or actively collaborating with the recitalist line by line, a ghostwriter's presence opens the artist up to ridicule. Del describes a typical reaction: " 'Aww, you didn't write that?' It's kind of a travesty." That attitude would seem to have made Skillz's threat to air out his client list in 2000 a canny debt-collection ploy (the initially released version of "Ghostwriter" savaged his codependent employers but bleeped out their names). Yet in the same breath, Del goes on to say, "It really matters to us. But . . . the average person, they're not trippin' off who wrote it—if it don't sound good to them, it don't matter if the queen of England wrote it. Who cares? It's trash."

The average listener isn't scouring liner notes, much less holding any artist to Diamond D's self-sufficient credo: "Write my own rhymes/Produce my own shit." Yet databases found at ascap.com/ace extend rap-nerd stat-counting beyond mere SoundScans—without the hassle of buying the album itself. If your favorite cash-strapped lyricist peddles verses to beefing kiddie rappers, moonlighting executives, and basketball players, aren't those lines worth a read, if not a listen? Sure, you already knew Nas and Skillz wrote for Will Smith, but did you scramble to download Willennium's "Uuhhh" because Lynn Lonnie Rashid (a/k/a Common) showed up in its ASCAP entry?

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