Why Ghostwriting Is Good For Rap

 The views expressed inside this editorial aren’t necessarily the views of AllHipHop.com or its employees. I will never forget the experience of being invited in the Fall of 1995, by Nas to visit him while he was recording tracks (in November at Sony Music Studios) for his highly anticipated album, It Was Written. We had […]

 The views expressed inside this editorial aren’t necessarily the views of AllHipHop.com or its employees.

I will never forget the experience of being invited in the Fall of 1995, by Nas to visit him while he was recording tracks (in November at Sony Music Studios) for his highly anticipated album, It Was Written.

We had been building for over a year since I had interviewed him for The Final Call newspaper, with me visiting him several times at his place in Long Island, first, and then Queens. When we got together it was always to discuss two subjects – his music career (the many avenues he could take in marketing himself after his first album) and the knowledge of self (we watched tapes of Minister Farrakhan and the Honorable Elijah Muhammad and discussed the Lessons). I was honored to have been a guest – meeting his then companion, Carmen (who always was so kind to me), and even his beautiful baby daughter Destiny when she was only 4 days old.

So while I would not claim to be a close friend of Nas, I can say for a nearly 18-month period we had a very Brotherly and always sober interaction (even if he did light it up a lot – smile).

That rapport and respectful interaction, and the way in which I met him, allowed me to have very serious discussions with him and which earned enough of his trust to the point that when I presented a couple of ideas regarding producers or artists I thought he should work with, or entrepreneurs he could do business deals with, he allowed me to make outreach to those camps on his behalf. It was a very informal but forward-looking relationship which I continue to look back on fondly. He was a star then and despite many ups, downs, twists and turns he is now a legend, one of to best to ever do it, an artist I continue to admire and support to this day.

On that cold November day I was excited to have the chance to sit in a toasty studio room and watch Nas, and the late Producer Stretch (who was murdered right around this time) go to work. The track they were working on was ‘Silent Murder,’ (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QQmPCJY3mA8) which would end up included on limited editions of It Was Written.

Several minutes after I arrived, Nas came out of the booth and sat with me. I had two gifts for him – a couple of books, which I gave him and which he immediately went through. One was called What They Never Told You In History Class by Indus Khamit Kush. After he went through them for a minute, Nas told me, ‘I got something in here for you, check this out.’

Nas then went back in the booth and continued to lay down lyrics, as I listened closely.

I noted Nas’ line, in the second verse: ‘They say the arms of Nicky Barnes would be enough to blast/ A lot of rich n—-s failed and started pumping gas/ Was it the mind of CIA that bumped off Malik Shabazz?/ F—k what they teach in class I’m a teach the mass.’

Nas gave me a knowing nod and smile. What he had done remained understood and unspoken. Although I had nothing to do with writing his lyrics, they were responsive to what I just showed him and on the level of the material we had been building about for the last couple of years – reflected in the two books I gave him as gifts.


When people complain about the state of lyrics in rap music today and even ask me why I think it has been so long since more mature, socially relevant, and conscious lyrics were common place, along with the usual industry and radio politics 101 I run down, I have a standard statement, ‘Not enough ghost-writing in the game.’

And when I say ghostwriting I don’t mean just bringing in a talented kid off the block who can be exploited every time you are too weeded out or lazy to write rhymes on your own, like you should.

No, what I mean by the statement, ‘Not enough ghost-writing in the game,’ is not that rappers should no longer write their own rhymes, but rather, more of them need to open up the creative process of song-writing to input from others – whether fellow artists, educators, or marketing advisers – which would allow their minds to expand, and with it, their lyrical content and audience.

At an early stage in my life as an entrepreneur in the music business, I realized that most of us in Hip-Hop culture mistakenly equate individuality with originality. In a certain sense they can be the same thing but in another they have nothing to do with one another. An artist who works alone or without input from others is demonstrating individuality (‘I write my own rhymes, yo!’) but the result is not necessarily anything ‘original’ or different. On the other hand, an artist could co-write a song with a ghostwriter that we will never know of, and talk the concept over with a team of advisers, and even get phrases and whole sentences from non-artists to weave into the flow; while they would not be demonstrating individuality, the result could be a hot song that is clearly original and not like anything out there.

The desire to do your own thing, and never be labeled as a ‘biter’ has been a motivational creative force in Hip-Hop (I will always have a soft spot in my heart for Raekwon and Ghostface Killah’s classic and hilarious skit ‘Shark N—s Biters’ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hM8kQ-kn4Ow). But today, it has now become a religion almost to itself, with cats worshipping at the altar of supposedly ‘not being told what to do,’ and not accepting help from others.

The idea that many of us still believe that we ‘follow no man,’ while everything we do – from how we think, eat, and talk – is obviously shaped or inherited by others has actually become harmful, stifling innovation and limited growth of Hip Hop as music, a culture, and industry.

Many aspiring artists and entrepreneurs ask me, ‘Ced, what books can you recommend for me to read to get an understanding the business side of the game?’ (or something like that) Well, of course, first, I suggest my own, The Entrepreneurial Secret To Starting A Business (http://theEsecret.com/). And then I offer three other titles, one of which is To Be Loved by Motown Records founder, Berry Gordy

What struck me about To Be Loved was the role of the songwriting team of Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland more commonly known as Holland Dozier and Holland or simply ‘HDH.’ It was almost unbelievable how much influence HDH had on not just the sound of the Motown artists but their lyrical content. Without their formula of writing, arranging and producing the songs for and with the Motown greats, not only would that label have not been the success it was, but I don’t believe the solo careers of Marvin Gaye, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross would have been possible without the foundational sound and process this group perfected.

Unfortunately Hip-Hop has never experienced anything like this because the culture only tolerates collaboration (and too narrowly defines it as two rappers separately working together on the same song) while it celebrates individuality.The result is that the Hip-Hop artist is expected to carry a responsibility that virtually no other genre experiences – a single individual has to write all of their material.

Just look at Michael Jackson. He was certainly capable of writing his own material, but would it have been as good as the stuff he created with the help of songwriter Rod Temperton and composer-arranger-producer Quincy Jones?

This is one of the main points I stressed in what I wrote of how incredible an artist like Beanie Sigel could be if a unique team of writers, researchers, and producers could be put together by a master song arranger like 50 Cent (https://staging.allhiphop.com/stories/editorial/archive/2009/11/24/22040490.aspx),

Again, Beanie Sigel can write his own material – and great stuff (he actually would be a great ‘ghost-writer’ for others).

But just imagine how much broader, risky, relevant, and topical his material could be if he had a creative team around him who could bring him concepts, information, and drafter material.

Not to mention that at a time when everyone is struggling to find additional ways to make money, song-writing could hold the key to multiple streams of income, for rappers considered washed up, in terms of sound and image (they could now boost their publishing income) and ambitious artists who just don’t have the ‘look’ or image necessary to be big (you know the old saying – ‘you have a great face for radio!’)

An industry friend of mine put it like this:

“Music publishers would be able to find more people who can write but, aren’t ‘rappers’ and could generate lots of income from their intellectual property. This opens the game up for old and new players to be able to eat off of the table. Writers (some of whom may currently be in the world of fiction and non-fiction writing, even poetry) and artist managers would be able to make a living from grooming or helping rappers who can write, and by being a bridge that can bring outside authors into the rap game. This could be a great way for struggling writers to support themselves. As it stands now, a dude who can write but, can’t rap is a guy looking for a job. They have something to offer though. What the book publishing world is rejecting, the music industry might find value in. Many people – artists, producers, managers, and labels – would be able to profit off of this overlooked talent pool.”

Anyone who thinks the money isn’t there for today’s song writers needs to check the income statements of Ne-Yo and Sean Garret last decade.

What I envision for Hip-Hop artists is not just the R&B experience with song-writing but also the speech-writing experience of world leaders and politicians. The world of business, politics and religion is dominated by leaders who have speeches drafted or written for them.

I know it well because I have either provided research, drafted or written entire speeches for these kinds of leaders. It is rare to find one like say former Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney, whom I have advised, who research, draft, and write well over 95% of their own speeches. It is normal, acceptable, and expected that a leader will have others responsible for this kind of work.

The arrangement works because it is understood that these leaders are often too busy, too limited in world experience, and not technically skilled enough to come up with the right words for the right setting – with the right tone. The culture and circles they move in value collaboration on public presentations (can anyone imagine President Obama writing all of his own speeches, or Donald Trump, or Oprah Winfrey just to ‘keep it real’ or better yet, ‘to follow no man’?) But perhaps more importantly what these leaders have is a desire to reach new audiences. And again, this is another area where rap artists struggle because of the extreme and limited definition of originality as individuality. It causes them to want to only rap for one kind of audience or one segment of the Hip-Hop market (whether ‘street,’ ‘the ladies,’ ‘the South,’ ‘the conscious,’ ‘the clubs,’ ‘the back-pack n—-s’ etc…).

Unfortunately an important form of success accepted in almost any other business (more people outside of your core audience buying your product) can be defined as failure in rap, so artists don’t permit themselves to allow others to help them grow creatively.

It seems to me, that perhaps, rap music is the only genre, culture, and industry that has this kind of discomfort toward growth.

[To be fair, I know this is not only limited to rap – as numerous corporations have cringed when those outside of their core market started to buy their sneakers, boots and beverages.]

Even Jay-Z, in 1999, had to justify his success, shrewd marketing, and growing audience, with an entire song, check ‘Come and Get Me,’ (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tCVnjBJZ3To) ‘I made it so you could say Marcy and it was all good/ I ain’t cross over, I brought the suburbs to the ‘hood/ Made ‘em relate to your struggle/Told ‘em bout your hustle/ Went on MTV with do rags, I made them love you/You know normally them people wouldn’t be f—-n wit you/Til I made them understand why you do what you do/ I expected to hear ‘Jay if it wasn’t for you…’/But instead all I hear is buzzin’ in your crew.’/How ya’ll scheming trying to get accustomed to my moves/ So y’all can take my mouth, stake out my house/ But I got pride I’m a n—a first/ I gotta c### back and pull a trigger first/ That’s how Jigga work/ The funny thing – I represent y’all every time I spit a verse/ And that’s the s—t that hurts/ But hey, I got my mind right, got my 9 right here/ So when y’all feel that the time is right/ I got shots to give…

Yeah, success can be hazardous to your rap career. But nothing kills like failure.

The current mentality will have to change if today’s artists expect to see tomorrow.

The days of talent just lingering on, nursing an entire career on the same audience, with the stale lyrical content are ending, thanks to the rise of the Internet and mp3, population changes, and serious current events which make the old flow and marketing plan obsolete.

Here, we must recognize the boldness of one so many love to hate – Puffy – a man ahead of his time – who ten years ago retained song and ghostwriters like Sauce Money to boost his own rap career. Or better yet, Dr. Dre who has been utilizing songwriters for over 20 years. How many of us forgot or never knew that Jay-Z ‘ghostwrote’ “Still D.R.E.” for him (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=erbraZmuwmI)?

Ten and twenty years later, an entire industry could learn something from these examples.

Here’s to 2010 and a revolution in ‘ghostwriting.’

Cedric Muhammad is a business consultant, political strategist, and monetary economist. He is author of the book, The Entrepreneurial Secret: To Starting a Business Without A Bank Loan, Collateral Or Revenue (http://theEsecret.com/). He is a former GM of Wu-Tang Management and currently a Member of the African Union’s First Congress of African Economists. His Hip-Hoppreneur ™ column can be read each week exclusively at AllHipHip.com. Cedric can be contacted via e-mail at: cedric(at)cmcap.com