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The Curse of the ghostwriter

Hey you guys,

Ghostwriting has been a fairly integral part of hip hop pretty much since The Sugar Hill Gang stole a bunch of rhymes that had been floating around the underground circuit, jacked the beat from "Good Times" and scored rap's first crossover hit.

Ghostwriting has long been an essential part of gangsta rap as well. MC Ren, The D.O.C and Ice Cube famously wrote rhymes for Dr. Dre and Eazy E for NWA's seminal albums as well and Dre has relied on a stable of ghost-writers (and some say ghost-producers) ever since.

But if it's an open secret that many of rap's top names don't write their own rhymes there's still something covert and taboo about it. Perhaps no artist better symbolizes the weirdly furtive, double-edged nature of ghostwriting than Royce 5'9, a rapper who exploded onto the scene with an irresistible DJ Premier-produced single ("Boom") and looked to ride his friendship with Eminem to multi-platinum sales. Then Royce 5'9 violated one of rap's unwritten taboos by bragging openly about writing rhymes for Dr. Dre for use on "The Chronic 2001" and was promptly exiled from Dr. Dre and Eminem's inner circle. His career never recovered.

Though secretive and covert by design Ghostwriting has been getting a lot of press lately. With his new album Diddy made headlines both for hiring big names like Nas and Pharaoh Monch to write his rhymes and by allegedly contributing more to the songwriting process than ever before (wow, a rapper writing the words coming out of his mouth. Revolutionary!). Around the same time a Philly rapper named Gillie Da Kid made a lot of noise in underground circles when he claimed to have written most of Li'l Wayne's rhymes on "The Carter", an allegation that turned a lot of heads.

After all, nobody really expects guys like Diddy or Shaquille O'Neal or Baby to write their own rhymes. They're producers or moguls or basketball players first and rappers a distance second. I don't think kids are going to weep uncontrollably if they learn that Baby didn't really write his lyrics about stunting on 27-inch rims on his moon buggy.

But Li'l Wayne is actually a fairly respected lyricist and if Gillie's accusations turn out to be true it'd cause a lot of people to lose respect for him. Similarly, there was much conjecture a few years back over whether Rhymefest or Kanye West actually wrote "Jesus Walks". Nobody expects breath-taking originality from the Diddys or Babys of the world but a lot of West's popularity stems from the emotional authenticity of his work. I think a lot of people would feel betrayed if they found out someone else was putting words in his mouth.

So here's my question for you, my beloved readers (assuming you're masochistic enough to have made it this far): Does it matter to you whether the Timbalands or Diddys or Babys or Li'l Waynes or Kanye Wests or Games of the world write their own rhymes? Does hiring a ghostwriter make an artist any less authentic or valid? Would you lose some measure of respect for West if it turned out he didn't write "Jesus Walk"? Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley didn't write their own songs and that doesn't make them any less revered. Or is it different for hip-hop?

I'm of two minds on the subject and think ghostwriting should be judged on a case-by-case basis. I honestly don't care if Timbaland or Dr. Dre don't write their own rhymes. They're great producers and they make great albums. That's the important thing. "The Chronic" and "The Chronic 2001" are two of my favorite albums of all time and I don't think I'd like them any less or more if I found out Dre spent hours every day writing his own lyrics. Moreover a lot of guys who famously employ ghostwriters don't have much claim to artistic legitimacy to begin with so it really doesn't matter who came up with the feeble thoughts coming out of their mouths. What's your take on the subject? Anybody want to use this forum to start blasphemous rumors about who does and doesn't employ ghostwriters?

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