To the benefit of hip-hop fans, rappers Drake and Meek Mill have been feuding since last summer by exchanging “diss tracks,” songs through which they toss verbal barbs at each other. These include Drake’s single “Back to Back.” The headline-grabbing battle began when Mill took to Twitter to accuse Drake of using a ghostwriter to write his featured verse on Mill’s “R.I.C.O.” He hasn’t let the claims go since.
“This is hip-hop/You ain’t write it, don’t record it,” Meek raps to Drake on his latest diss track, “All The Way Up Remix,” which he dropped Wednesday. (The song contains strong language.)
He ain't even write that verse on my album and if I woulda knew I woulda took it off my album….. I don't trick my fans! Lol
— Meek Mill (@MeekMill) July 22, 2015
The charge might sound odd. After all, much of American music is based off artists (a) playing other artists’ songs or (b) employing a ghostwriter.
The most well-known example of this is Elvis Presley, whose estate is consistently the first or second highest earning on Forbes’s annual Top-Earning Dead Celebrities list. As rock critic Chuck Klosterman wrote in the New York Times, “Like Frank Sinatra, Elvis did not write songs; he interpreted songs that were written by other people.” While Wikipedia certainly shouldn’t be taken as gospel, it has a nifty chart of Elvis’s songs and their writers, which highlights this fact.
The Beatles followed a similar path. Before changing the direction of rock music through the songwriting of Lennon and McCartney, the band’s first two records, “Please Please Me” and “With the Beatles!” contained almost as many covers as original songs.
Even more straightforward, Sir Elton John has spent more than 50 years with Bernie Taupin as a songwriting partner, Rolling Stone reported. Taupin often writes John’s lyrics. Pop stars from the Supremes to Beyoncé to Kelly Clarkson to Rihanna all have hits written by other people, according to Billboard.
So, why does Meek Mill care if Drake wrote his own verse?
If any other rapper was exposed on ghostwriting allegations, they would've been finished.. Drake is above the rules of hip hop
— Respect. (@UATheFirst) May 3, 2016
Hip-hop strays a little from rock or pop insomuch as rap tends to be driven by personal narratives. Unlike those genres, part of rap’s appeal, as Goodwin College English professor Matthew Hodgman wrote in the Journal of Sociological Research, is the idea of its authenticity. Artists speaking about their own experience earns them credibility.
After all, no one actually thought Elvis Presley had spent much time in a jailhouse, but that didn’t take away from the enjoyment of listening to “Jailhouse Rock.” But it would be jarring to think Jay Z had fabricated his childhood in the Marcy Projects in “Where I’m From.”
“The difference between what is and what is not ‘real’ is at the crux of rap authenticity configuration,” Hodgman wrote, going on to say of Eminem, who is white in a mostly black genre, “The authenticity of Eminem’s art lies in his ability to honestly represent a black urban lower class space.”
This idea is seen throughout rap lyrics. “I rap and I’m real/I’m one of the few here,” Jay Z raps on “Real As It Gets.”
In some ways, a ghostwriter is the antithesis of credibility. On last year’s hit single “King Kunta,” Kendrick Lamar raps, “I can dig rappin’/But a rapper with a ghostwriter? What the f— happened?”
It becomes reading from a script, rather than portraying one’s own experience.
— The Orator (@TheOrator_UK) May 2, 2016
“We expect it to be personal, we expect it to be from the heart and straight from that individual’s experience,” underground U.K. rapper Jehst told the BBC in 2014.
Grandmaster Caz, who became famous at the beginning of rap’s development in the 1970s, strongly agreed. He also told BBC in 2014, “It’s a travesty, anybody who calls themselves an MC and doesn’t write their rhyme — no way you can even stand in the same room as an MC if you don’t write your rhyme, plain and simple.”
But ghostwriting in rap, taboo as it might be, isn’t uncommon. In fact, Caz is rumored to have written several of the verses on the SugarHill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” which is considered the genre’s first recorded song, Complex reported.
It’s just kept secret.
“I think I set a rate, every bar a thousand dollars,” MF Grimm, a California-based ghostwriter who reportedly wrote dozens of verses throughout the late ’80s for which he received no royalties and no credit, told Forbes last year. “Everything I did was off the books.”
That isn’t to say rap ghostwriters aren’t paid well. Forbes reports they typically receive between $10,000 to $20,000 for each anonymous contribution.
Theres countless number ones and songs drake has written for others never mind himself, thats the funny part lol!
— Noah Shebib (@OVO40) July 23, 2015
The view about ghostwriters may be changing, though, at least in some circles. As rapper N.O.R.E. told rap blog HipHopDX in 2013, “At first, I used to be like, ‘Yo, B, if you’re not living that lifestyle, you shouldn’t speak about it,’ ” N.O.R.E. said. “Now, the way I feel like it, I really respect entertainment. I really respect the artistry.”
And, as Vibe noted in 2013, most of the genre’s superstars, from Kanye West to Dr. Dre, are rumored to use ghostwriters — who are frequently rumored to be other well-known rappers. In fact, North Carolina rapper King Mez gave an extended interview with Pitchfork last year in which he openly discusses ghostwriting for Dre on his newest record, “Compton.”
Oh, and for the record, Drake all but admitted to Fader last year that he has used a ghostwriter. “I need, sometimes, individuals to spark an idea so that I can take off running,” he said, adding, “Music at times can be a collaborative process, you know? Who came up with this, who came up with that — for me, it’s like, I know that it takes me to execute every single thing that I’ve done up until this point. And I’m not ashamed.”