Diddy’s Little Helpers


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

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 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?

Which brings us to Diddy. On Press Play, he turns to Jayceon Taylor (a/k/a the Game) for West Coast signifiers, though nary an Eazy-E namecheck emerges among the recycled rhymes of “We Gon’ Make It.” Of course, Diddy knows delegation. When Dr. Dre split from Ruthless Records, Eazy wallowed in bitterness. Diddy’s feelings when Biggie Smalls died, as articulated by Sauce Money, were Grammy-winning.

On a lot of the other records, to be honest, I didn’t do a whole lot of writing. On this one . . . I exposed myself with everybody’s most sensitive subject, and that’s the subject of love. —Diddy, to People

Such a confessional spin on Press Play‘s conception warrants a Clio, if not a Grammy. Ripping a few pages from Chuck D and scandal-plagued politicians, he apologized to purists for past transgressions and made saccharine pledges to be authentic now. Diddy neutralized ghostwriting’s shame and stigma by affecting complete openness, magnanimously letting prospective writers bask in his reflected glory: Common was honored to work with Diddy on a heartfelt record about his (that is, Diddy’s) father.

Prospective writers’ identities generated guest-list hype well ahead of the official track listing’s release—for example, Roots mastermind Questlove told XXL that Black Thought was on board for three tracks. Diddy sponged off this credibility, but he also elevated them from assembly- line workers to collaborators. What was that about Chuck D? He’s a busy man too—Public Enemy’s Rebirth of a Nation was written and produced by Paris. Could Paris become the Linda Perry to a disillusioned pop rapper’s Pink? Could we hear Bow Wow talking openly about shopping for political verses the way he’d rave about beat selection?

This is the man who provided more jobs for blacks than armed services. —Diddy, as written by Pharoahe Monch, on “The Future”

Of course, we were hustled a bit. Among the writerly ringers who materialize in the
Press Play
liner notes: T.I. (“Wanna Move”) and Royce da 5’9″ (“Tell Me”). Hangers-on like Da Band’s Ness see credit. Leroy Watson and Jacoby White—a/k/a Bad Boy apprentices Aasim and Jody Breeze—show up more frequently, though their precise roles are unclear: Watson is credited with “vocal arrangement for Diddy” throughout. Seems like a euphemism for “copy editor and flow aerobics instructor.”

Knowing they weren’t collecting an anonymous paycheck, did the writers feel the urge to leave calling cards that ring out as sharply as “Ether” from Diddy’s mouth? Did Nas imagine himself several hundred millions richer—I am the honorable Diddy—claiming the heart of the city? So it’s Diddy who knows a “chick from Watts with Bad Boy tatted on her breast,” huh? Did writing “We Gon’ Make It” allow the Game to work through angst lingering from his debut album The Documentary‘s own contested authorship?

Pharoahe Monch (Thanks for the New Perspective) — Press Play liner-note shout-out

Comparing Diddy’s flow to Jay-Z’s is as fair as comparing Jay-Z’s jump shot to, say, Jordan’s. Yet on Press Play‘s most compelling tracks, “The Future” and “Hold Up,” hearing Diddy grind out a fair Monch facsimile rap is like watching Jay leap from his courtside seats into a Nets game: “Shit, he’s kinda hustling, playing D, and passing all right.” Those highlights present Puff as both patron and apprentice: a latter-day Medici who happily colored between Pharoahe-Monch-as-Michelangelo’s lines, eventually purchasing the work for home-gallery display. Jay-Z borrowing flows for more than a few bars? Unseemly laziness. Diddy, a hundred-millionaire marathoner, straining to emulate a lifelong asthmatic? Absolute reverence.

So Puff, which Monch track hooked you? Even if it was “Simon Says,” thanks for giving him some shine. Oh, and about “If I Was Diddy,” that Termanology track that just dropped. He auditioning for some work? Did I miss something in the liners?