Rap Rebirth Blog Hip-hop ghostwriting and lyricism


Ghostwriting vs Rapping

People often ask me if I record music personally. The answer is no. I'm purely a writer. I was thinking about this question today and it got me thinking about the different skill sets rapping and ghostwriting require.

Rappers must be performers. Their instrument is their vocal cords. Intonation, breath control, pitch, annunciation and rhythm must all be finely honed. And of the intangible quality of "mic presence" must be there as well. The best rappers change their voice to match their content or the audience they want to reach. Rappers must also embody a persona. Whether they want to be or not, they embody a brand that has certain consistencies (even if those consistencies include contradiction). The best rappers are in touch with what drives them and can clearly articulate it on a record. For mainstream rappers there's also the public persona which involves media personality, fashion, and choice of music videos. Rappers who write for themselves must also be lyricists, though this is not always a necessity.

Ghostwriters are lyricists first and foremost. They must be masters of the written word. Rhythm is a necessity too because what they write ultimately has to fit a beat. A ghostwriter must also be a passable vocalist because many clients require reference tracks. There are two less mentioned skills ghostwriters must possess as well. Those are empathy and versatility. Unlike a rapper, a ghostwriter must be able to deeply understand the artistic intent of their client. They must be sensitive to that person's experiences, style and world view. They must then be able to take that information and embody it. Versatility is required if a writer wants to work for a variety of clients and customize their lyrics in a personal way.

Of course many ghostwriters rap and many rappers ghostwrite. The line between the two often blur. Artists like Rhymefest, Skillz and Kel Spencer have been able to do both because their unique mixture of rapping and ghostwriting skills. The same is true of more mainstream acts like Nas, Jay-Z, J. Cole, and T.I. Regardless the distinction is still there.


The Genius of Notorious BIG

"Excuse me, flows just go through me / Like trees to branches / Cliffs to avalanches / It's the praying mantis"

"The What" by Notorious BIG

There was something special about Biggie. Twelve years after his last recorded content, his songs still sound fresh and up to date. He had a quality that's hard to pin down and tangibly define.

He was lyrical. He traded rhymes with the best and often put them to shame. He rapped circles around Method Man in his prime ("The What") - out shone Jay-Z on three separate occasions ("I Love the Dough", "Brooklyn's Finest", "Young G'z") - ghost wrote pages of brilliance for Puff Daddy, Lil Kim, and Lil Cease - even took Bone Thugs own sing song style and did it better they could ("Notorious Thugs").

He had swagger. There was a charisma and confidence that oozed from every song and video. It was a mix of sly self deprecating humor and bravado. He had the audacity to diss lyrical heavy weights Nas, Jeru the Damaja (on "Kick in the Door") and The Roots ("Flava in Ya Ear Remix"). But you couldn't help but like a guy who said, "Heart throb never / Black and ugly as ever - however / I stay Gucci down to the socks / Rings and watch filled with rocks."

He had heart. Underneath the tough persona was someone with real emotion and character. You could hear it on tracks like "Sky's the Limit", "Juicy", and "Miss U".

And he had an incredible flow. The way his lyrics came, one after the other, with effortless precision and grace made rapping seem like the easiest thing in the world. Case in point... "This goes out to crews who choose to use disrespectful views on the King of NY" (from "Kick in the Door"). The internal rhyme scheme on the line is amazing. His delivery of that line is great. The way it fits DJ Premier's classic beat is awe inspiring.

Maybe that special quality was his versatility. He could do any type of song and make it real. Nothing sounded forced or phony. On his second album "Life After Death" the battle anthem "Kick in the Door" somehow flows seamlessly into the swanky players cut "Tonight". His street songs are great ("What's Beef", "Warning", "My Downfall"). His commercial crossovers are timeless masterpieces ("Big Poppa", "Hypnotize", "Mo Money Mo Problems", "Going Back to Cali"). He could do storytelling ("I Got a Story to Tell..."), love songs ("Me & My Bitch"), and social commentary ("Things Done Changed").

If Nas has the most pure talent, and Jay-Z is the wittiest, and Tupac the most passion, and Rakim is the most lyrical, then Biggie was the most well rounded. He was an MC's MC. Someone who could get play on MTV, pop radio, and in the grimiest blocks of Brooklyn. He was a great entertainer, a powerful influencer, and a reflective poet. And because of that unique combination, he just might be the greatest MC of all time.


Some Thoughts on Ghostwriting

Ghostwriting has been part of hip hop since its inception. Big Daddy Kane wrote for Biz Markie, Jay-Z wrote for Foxy Brown, Nas wrote for Will Smith, and Skillz wrote for well, almost everyone. Until recently ghostwriting occurred in backrooms through personal networks and was rarely acknowledged. The idea that a rapper didn’t write their own lyrics was stigmatized and the use of ghostwriters was kept secret.  This was because a large part of hip hop’s legacy is based on individual expression. If a rapper’s using someone else’s lyrics then they were perceived to be less real.

In 2010 things have changed. The internet and online social networking have allowed people to meet and collaborate over great distance. Everything has become a joint effort. We’ve all become interconnected and our experiences are shared. Producers and rappers can now exchange beats and vocals without ever meeting. A rapper can “outsource” their entire album online. Without leaving home they can buy guest appearances, instrumentals and now lyrics. The rapper supplies the creative vision (like a movie director or producer) and various support crew fill in the missing pieces (like a movie screenwriter or cinematographer). The idea that ghostwritten lyrics are fake has been replaced with the idea that they’re a collaborative transmutation of the rapper’s original intent.

How It Works

Rap Rebirth was started in 2008 at the beginning of this transformation. I’d been writing for years and saw an opportunity to turn a hobby into something real. Instead of taking the traditional path of networking at concerts and sending out letters to established rappers I built my own site. I put up samples of my lyrics, bought some basic web advertising, and posted on hip-hop message boards. The response I got was overwhelming. There was a huge untapped market of MCs looking for lyrics. It included MySpace rappers, YouTube rappers, local stars, posse members, international rappers, and even a few established veterans. Suddenly it was alright to hire a ghostwriter and the Internet made it easy.

A lot of people are curious how about the process. First, the artist contacts me and gives me some personal information. They tell me about their world, their slang, their favorite subject matter, their artistic influences and about their friends, family and enemies. Then I send them a sample verse to make sure I have their style down and that they feel properly represented. After that they may request a verse, a song, or even a whole album. Payments are made in advance through PayPal.

Is Ghostwriting Good for Hip-Hop?

So the big question is, “is this good for hip hop?” My answer is, "Yes. It absolutely is". Rapping is now open to so many more people. Someone with good flow and delivery who struggles with writing can now express themselves. A veteran rapper with writer’s block can buy lyrics and still put out music for their fans. The range of available music is now much wider because there are less barriers to becoming a rapper. This is great for fans because there’s now more variety. It also ensures the quality of lyrics can be top notch, a win for fans as well. Finally, ghostwriting allows a greater degree of collaboration. Something special happens when creative minds get together. The sum of the work they create is greater than its parts. Ghostwriting allows each person to do what they do best and thus creates a more compelling work of art.