A mug of steaming coffee rests between palms as my eyes race through a chain of tabbed Chrome results on the monitor I’m facing. My brain is spinning. I’m just about to delve into the most prolific and scaled case of Hip Hop ghostwriting since Rapper’s Delight.
About 18 months ago I decided I wanted to ‘blackhat’ my way into rap. I’m a 30+ years old rapper and producer with no local following or social presence. As far as actual rap skills, I’m pretty good, but as far as being a marketable rapper, nowhere near the mark.
Granted – you’re probably thinking to yourself right now, ‘yeah right’. If you’re interested, audio and lyrics are here.
As you can see (or can you?) I can write, but we all know being a good writer doesn’t get you a deal with Dr Dre. By this point in life, I’ve pretty much given up any ambition of becoming a ‘professional’ rapper. I’ve got a regular office job, a family, commitments etc. that all mean I’m getting to the point where, let’s face it, a career in rap has dipped just beyond the horizon. That being said, I’ve got somewhat of an addiction to rap, so I’m still writing every day, listening to hip hop and following the main blogs and youtube channels that are to my taste.
For readers’ information, my personal top 5 goes something like this; 2pac, eminem, hov, drake, tyler the creator. It slips and slides, but as of 2017 that’s how it stands. Rewind to summer 2015 when the Ghostwriting allegations about Drake came to light. I was shocked; genuinely, tantalizingly in awe of the information. I know it is probably naive, but at the time, I didn’t think anyone had writers. Granted, I knew Eazy-E didn’t write – but that was public knowledge, and he was the ‘face’ of the group, the credibility for their gangsta image, so he didn’t need to write. They had Cube for that.
I knew Dre and Puff used writers, but again, it was public knowledge, and still, these guys were producers. I would never dream about any ‘real’ lyricists’ using writers. So, when rumours broke about Stic.man and Jay-Electronica writing for Nas for Untitled I just passed it off and didn’t give it a second thought.
Anyway, back to 2015; the Quentin Miller references dropped, and I was shocked to the core. I was also a little excited. Why? Well, Drake is one of the best writers in the game (my opinion only, but this is my article, so its one I’m entitled to) and when you’re a lyricist you set your bar against the top. I’ll be the first to say – I’m not as good a writer as Drake, I’m not as good as any in my top 5, but I still aspire to compete. This is, I assume, just natural for all writers. We’ve all got what we consider our favourites, and try and emulate and best them when we’re making a song. So if a bullet pierces Drake’s burnished armour and drags him a little further from the clouds it has the effect of giving aspiring writers like me somewhat of a leg-up.
Anyway, the revelations about Drake dropped and I was shocked, however I didn’t understand the allegataions quite the same as everyone else. At the time, I was quite excited, thinking deeply about the matter; this is my theory on what happened. I’ll just add the caveat that this is all conjecture, and I’ve got absolutely no authority or ‘inside’ information about the matter – however, I’ve been ‘studying’ Hip Hop since 2002 and my opinions are to a degree, marked to a degree with something resembling experience. My thoughts on the matter when it happened and in the first few months after, in no particular order, are thus:
- IYRTITL was an underwhelming album, coming as it did 2 years after NWTS
- Drake suggests in a song on the records that he has money problems with his label, Cash Money (read ‘Birdman’). Wayne is also going through money problems, so I assume Drake isn’t being paid correctly
- J-Prince also came out later and basically said to a bunch of producers, ‘don’t mess with Drake’, and he includes Birdman in that bunch. Bearing in mind Drake and Baby had no public beef, why would he say this, unless something was going on behind the scenes?
- Drake was under contract for a certain amount of albums with YM and if Baby was withholding money, and making things difficult behind the scenes, it makes sense Drake would want off the label. Therefore – wouldn’t it be a good idea to fulfill the YM contract as soon as possible, releasing quickly made sub-par content and saving the classic material (he was working on ‘Views’ at the time) for his own label/re-negotiated contract
- The album title ‘IYRTITL’ was weird – it came across as a shot at his label, especially the way it dropped unexpectedly and unannounced, and these rumours (listed above) were swirling around at the time
- All of this being said – if I was in Drake’s position; wanting out of my contract, one solution to get quickly free would be: Hire a writer and bang out a few quick low-quality albums that fulfill obligations, re-sign with another major, such as Beats, for $20 M, with a greater profit share, and release my real ‘masterpiece’ on the new label. Makes sense right?
- One other thought I had, and I go back to my first bullet point: IYRTITL was underwhelming, and if Drake was getting help with writing, that help wasn’t improving things. Anyway, his classics, Take Care, and NWTS, were written with his own pen, weren’t they, so any help he received with IYRTITL wouldn’t taint the reputation of those?
With all that being said, I let the accusations slide, the above explanation being enough to satisfy. In any case, I didn’t really like any of the songs for which references leaked, with one nagging exception: ‘Know Yourself’. Now, this was probably my favourite joint on the whole album, and when I heard that QM reference, it really knocked the wind out of me. But it was just one good song out of a bunch of 4, out of a career of countless hits, so I let it slide. For the time being.
I kept coming back to similar questions though. Joe Budden kept digging at Drake: that The Weeknd wrote Take Care. I’d never really listened/paid attention to that rumour before. He’d sung background on a couple of songs, so was credited for that, right? That was normal in Hip Hop. He hadn’t actually ‘written’ any of Drake’s parts per se, had he? In research mode, I dug a bit deeper and Googled Take Care and the Weeknd, finding a Rolling Stone interview from a few years back.
Well, it was all quite vague. Abel actually has 5 writing credits on TC. But he basically said he had a bunch of songs for HOB and Drake took them. I guess, that means Drake took the beat, kept the chorus, and re-wrote the verses? This is Abel:
“I was hungry… I was like, ‘Dude, take anything. I gave up almost half of my album. It’s hard. I will always be thankful—if it wasn’t for the light he shined on me, who knows where I’d be. And everything happens for a reason. You never know what I would say if this success wasn’t in front of me now.”
Drake tweeted about the ghostwriting rumours recently (November 2017) to a fan who was trying to get at him with the same accusation:
“Abel Tesfaye CO WROTE on ‘Shot For Me’ and ‘Practice,’ obviously was featured on ‘Crew Love’ and ‘The Ride’ and that’s it. There’s 20 songs on that album … don’t try me.”
This list of 4 songs misses out ‘Cameras’ (which Abel has album credits for) but that was only a forgettable interlude type of thing which is why it was neglected (I’m guessing).
Notice he says ‘co-wrote’ on two tracks. Reading between the lines, and looking at the QM example – I’m going to assume this is Drake taking Abel’s reference track and re-purposing it for himself. Well, still, that’s only 2 songs, from a formidable album. Shot For Me is one of the standout tracks on the album but…OK, OK, it’s only a ‘co-writing’ credit; we’ll let it go.
The thing is, I couldn’t just let it go. Something or someone would bring the ghostwriting subject matter back up to me and I’d get another inclination to do some digging. Anyway, after research and deliberation, I found uncovered a lot of questionable evidence that points to ghostwriting being more rife in Hip Hop than I ever imagined. The following is my analysis of Drake’s ghostwriters (ones I could uncover) from an outsider’s perspective. I’m not going to go into the ins and outs and the whys and wherefores behind my research – all of these names are floating around out there, if you take care to find them (i.e. Google). I’ll reiterate – this is my conjecture, I don’t have any proof in the accuracy or validity of these points (with the exception of QM); this is me reading rumours, reading the rappers’ responses, and reading between the lines:
Ghostwriting, the case against the accused:
Nickelus F – Drake sourced Nickelus F from Myspace and included him on his ‘Room For Improvement’ mixtape. Nickelus claims he wrote Drake’s verse for ‘Goin In’ feat lil Wayne.
Credibility? I buy this one.
OVO Hush: Hush has extensive writing credits across NWTS and TC. He’s a high quality rapper from Parma, Toronto, and featured with Drake on the diss song to Aristo ‘Good Riddance’ from pre-Thanks For Nothing fame. Also known as Young Tony (from 2005 mixtapes) he had a big name for himself in the 6. Drake has been on the record to say he gets ‘advice/words’ from Hush. I think Hush writes lines for Drake, and has been since Take Care, and in some cases, possibly verses.
Kenza Samir: Drake admitted she co-writes for him. I think she gives him phrases or lines, rather than writing verses.
Abel Tesfaye (Theweeknd): I think Abel wrote the ‘singing parts’ of the 4 tracks on TC that he’s credited for. (So, to be clear, I think Drake wrote the ‘rap’ on Shot for Me’.
Quentin Miller – You know the story, this one is the only ‘validated’ example of the above.
PartyNextDoor: Party has written for Drake, but I can’t with accuracy say exactly what parts of which songs. I’m assuming his writing credits and features on albums extend his own ‘sung’ parts.
Mo-G: Mo-G (Toronoto rapper from Regent Park) was co-signed by Drake in 2016 on the hit ‘Summer 16’ (“Mo-G with the dance moves”). Mo-G called out OVO records co-founder Oliver El-Kahtib for not paying ghostwriting credits. These rumours eventually dissappeared (instagram posts of Mo-G calling out El-Khatib were subsequently deleted) and the rumour (from Hip Hop website forum sections) is that he was paid $12k for writing credits on three songs. I think this accusation is a long shot, as far as ghostwriting goes. It’s not clear he wrote explicity for Drake projects and his gripe was with OVO rather than Drake. He ended up in hospital shortly after all this was cleared up, though, so it’s clear somone wanted revenge.
Rap is not (as many rappers like to claim) like a sport. It is an art form. It is, however, highly competitive, and stuffed with money.
There has been much debate in the industry about ghostwriting – is it valid? Is it ‘cheating’? I won’t go into detail, but I’ll give my two cents on the matter:
Essentially the use of ghostwriters for a rapper is analogous to Lance Armstrong and the cycling blood-doping scandal. If you’re using writers in secret (i.e. it’s not public knowledge and you’ve never admitted it) then yes, its cheating. If you make it public knowledge, then that’s completely fair play.
Either way, the use of Ghostwriters doesn’t detract anything from the music, and despite everything I’ve just written I don’t discredit Drake in any way, shape or form. As much as he’s used other writers, he’s also been the pen for other artists, including (as far as we know) Dr Dre and Rita Ora, and probably others.
Yes, he’s used Ghostwriters secretly, and gone against the ethics of a ‘real’ emcee. Can he write his own songs? Yes. Is he still a good writer? One of the best. Would he be in the position that’s he’s in today without writers? No. Are they the only force propelling him to the top of Pop stardom? No, they’re not. He also has 40, Boi-1da, major marketing dollars, a Lil Wayne co-sign, and backing from other major industry players. All of this is in addition to a huge OVO team who’s jobs and livelihood depend on keeping Drake at number one. This is the new version of ‘major industry’ rap: Having Crew Love.
Is this new industry establishment postive or not? I can’t say – it just is, so accept it and move on. The industry’s been corrupt since it’s conception, and today’s standards are nothing new. The important thing I take from this is as follows:
If it were the case that the Hip Hop industry is built on talent alone, then to be successful within this game all you’d require is profound lyrical talent . Being 30+ years old, this axiom served as somewhat of a kick in the teeth; resounding proof, as if I needed any further, that I lack the requisite talent to ‘make it’.
If, however, the industry is built on diverse teams of writers and producers whose collective talent directly influences your chance to succeed, and that fame is cultivated from the work of those with who you surround yourself, then talent alone is not enough. Further; industry success can’t be based solely on credibility. It is a system; designed by those at the top and suited to their needs. Although this appears daunting, even unreasonable to some, I prefer to look at the subject thus; any system can be gamed. In the next few articles I propose to expose exactly how big rappers, to a certain extent, have ‘gamed’ the industry, and how this knowledge can benefit you; the budding emcee.
To follow this article I’ll profile and debate the ghostwriting allegations against other rappers, including: Nas, Ghostface, Snoop Dogg, Kanye West, Fat Joe, ODB, and Nicki Minaj.
Lot’s more exciting content in the following months, our faithful HNHH, readership!