If there were ever a reality television show or video game where the ghosts were entities that could be found in the real world, it would be about hip hop ghostwriters. Yes, that’s where this is headed. Near the end of July, Meek Mill made a statement about Drake having a ghostwriter in response to him not tweeting out his album after its release. The ghostwriter accusation, whether true or not, caused hip hop fans to question not only Drake’s credibility, but the proliferation of ghostwriters within hip hop. Some established MC’s gave brief responses on Twitter such as Jean Grae and Immortal Technique. They mentioned that it is only the creativity of the end product that matters as well as there always being ghostwriters throughout hip hop history (also that they do not use them). Lupe Fiasco also wrote a short piece on the process of ghostwriting and its relationship to hip hop. With everything that has occurred, let us forget about ghostwriting being present since hip hop’s inception. That says barely anything about whether or not it should be here, you know, because slavery was a huge component of building the modern American society we have today, so let’s just keep it around right? FOH! There are more intricate and concrete arguments to be made.
Caring about the state of others is a quintessential quality of being a compassionate human being. It doesn’t have to end at only caring for their physical well being, caring about their mental and emotional state plays into it as well. Even more so, we should have an investment in a person’s intellectual and creative state. Appreciating good advice, ideas and inventions regardless of who it comes from is good for being able to innovate on one’s own. Where the rubber meets the road is when we ask, who developed these ideas? The person matters because…in general…people matter. If it’s an experience, I want to know how a certain experience that a MC speaks on relates to their life. I am curious to know the parameters which have shaped and molded their worldview in order to convey that experience. If it’s an idea, I want to know what made that person come up with or use that idea in their music. What surrounding influences, whether internal or external, caused that idea to be expressed? Engaging an artist’s realm and life directly is a form of parallelism; projecting oneself into the astral plane of the artist his or herself. It is, however, a logical fallacy to want to forward the human civilization based on ideas alone. To eschew people and sentient beings is to disregard who the ideas are for. Nuclear fission of heavy atoms is great, but when there is an accident which causes areas to be inhabitable for life, then the means does not justify the end.
Hip hop culture not only consists of rap music and rapping (which are essential), it is composed of much more. There are other entities present which have given spiritual vitality to the culture and allowed it to be expressed in many different modes. Let’s focus on those creative elements and the value of hip hop as art and culture and how this recent incident of ghostwriting accusations reveals larger problems in hip hop.
Night 1: Discovering the Entities…at Work
Prior to July 22, 2015, The hip hop world was operating on a level which felt familiar to most fans and students of the culture. Hip hop was operating in a narrow box, where moments of creativity and innovation shine amongst the work of MCs and producers. Then on July 22, Meek Mill wanted everyone to stop comparing him to Drake because “He don’t write his own raps! That’s why he ain’t tweet my album because we found out!” Others such as OG Maco and Roscoe Dash came to Meek’s defense and concluded that Drake is a fake artist because of the other names in the liner notes. As Drake’s in-house producer Noah “40” Shebib pointed out, the accusations of Drake being a liar are false. 40 explains this by tweeting, “If your asking if he contributed to if you’re reading this… Yes, he did. You can also see that by reading the credits”. The information on the album credits that show there are contributing writers. If that information is made public and the writers are credited, then Drake is not a liar, even if he doesn’t state they exist himself. The major concern shouldn’t be whether or not Drake has a ghostwriter, but what the writing process should entail for a MC to be a credible lyricist. We must figure out how the writers influence the MC whose project it is. Are the writers poltergeists who influence the ambiance of the studio or writing area for the MC? Alternatively, are they entities which invades the creative vessel of the MC? Poltergeists, moving the ambiance of the room is something Hip Hop should desire. MCs cannot hold up the entire art form by themselves.
Night 2: Unveiling the Mask
Unless MCs are only rapping for themselves, appealing to a group of people means having a collection of ideas from a group of people. Being self made in the most literal sense of the phrase is nonexistent. At the most rudimentary level of creation, we are all products of something that came before. Therefore when discussing originality, we must be very mindful of what came before. A point in time came when MCs in hip hop began to alienate certain traditions that came before in support of their own vantage point of the society around them. Gangsta Rap in the late 80’s and early 90’s was the first open expression of the philosophy of existential nihilism within the genre. This philosophy still exists in modern hip hop music, but was most eloquently expressed by the song “Life’s a Bitch” by Nas featuring AZ. In the song, AZ raps:
“We were beginners in the hood as Five Percenters
But somethin’ must’ve got in us cause all of us turned to sinners,
Now some, rest in peace and some are sittin’ in San Quentin,
Others such as myself are tryna carry on tradition.”
AZ shows how an individual’s particular experience can take precedence over traditions with a rich history. He personally sees this change, but decides to adhere to a tradition because he correlates the consequence of being dead or in jail with being a “sinner”. Nas himself expressed philosophies throughout “Illmatic” that go beyond existential nihilism, but this song captures how black men and poor men lost their religion and saw the finitude of their life; they are just trying to deal with it until their inevitable death.
If anything, “Illmatic” is the pinnacle of what collaboration can accomplish. One accomplishment this album is lauded for is its use of multiple producers to create a cohesive sound. This includes Pete Rock (from the Bronx/Mt. Vernon), Q-Tip (Harlem/Queens), Large Professor (Harlem, raised in Queens), DJ Premier (Houston, moved to Brooklyn) and others. Hypothetically speaking, If each producer was a nihilist in the strongest sense, their geographic locations would cause them to be influenced to create unique sounds based on what they heard. Even without the historical or time-oriented collectivism, there is a spatial collectivism through the different locations in their upbringing. When MCs who hear or have heard this album are influenced by it and decide to create their own project, they have an influence now that is not only based in the timeline of hip hop, but based in the space of Hip hop and America. These Illmatic-influenced artists have performed an artistic séance in calling forth the creative spirit of a preceding body of work. This is one form of the collective sharing of ideas from individuals, even if it isn’t from other writers. Producers engage the MCs in what type of sound they are going for, and the final output is the producer’s approximation of what the MC wants. It also bridges the gap of what English philosopher Mary Midgley calls “moral isolationism”. Future participants understand that their existence and culture’s existence aren’t always correct or the only cultural practices that exists. This is different than ghostwriting in the sense that it is a collaborative effort. Formation of ideas in this manner isn’t driven by automatons who stalk MCs and then engulf the MC’s creativity by structuring ideas and writing everything for that person. It should however, be driven by the world around the MC, which definitely includes other people and their input.
Editors Note: Check back next week for the second half of the essay. Subscribe to get FlyPaper articles directly to your inbox. Get Stuck!