Drake, Tech N9ne & the Final Word on Songwriting vs. Ghostwriting
Just when you think you're out, it pulls you back in.
Ever since Meek Mill made the mistake of his career by revealing that Drake used a ghostwriter for his "RICO" verse, I've seen the same version of the same conversation over and over again. Literally overnight ghostwriting and its place in hip-hop became one of the hot topic issues of 2015, Drake vs. Meek was the biggest drama of the year, and so of course in addition to the debates happening among the general music populace, musicians were also asked to weigh in. Logic said that Drake using a songwriter was no big deal, BJ The Chicago Kid said that Drake using a songwriter was no big deal, and now Tech N9ne's weighed in, saying that, you guessed it, Drake using a songwriter is no big deal.
And I agree with all of them, using a songwriter isn't a big deal, except there seems to be this persistent confusion about the difference between a songwriter and a ghostwriter, which one Drake used, and perhaps most fundamentally, how songs are actually made.
It's a classic apples and oranges situation, except instead of fruit it's the creative process, and when I hold up an apple people say, "Yep, that's an orange." This is essentially the conversation I've been having on repeat for the last three months:
Person: I dont get what all the fuss is about, Drake using a songwriter isn't a big deal. Everyone does it.
Me: You're right, he didn't use a songwriter though, he used a ghostwriter, and not everyone does that.
Person: Exactly, so he used a songwriter. Who cares?
Me: Well yes, again, using a songwriter isn't a big deal. This is a different thing though. I'm talking about ghostwriting.
Person: I hear you, you're talking about songwriting.
Me: No, that's the opposite of what I just said.
Person: Good, I'm glad we agree.
So while I probably should have just written this breakdown months ago, better late than never, right? If the last thing I do with the remainder of my 2015 is to clarify the Drake-ghostwriting saga and hopefully put an end to the debate once and for all, then I'll consider this a year well spent. And in that spirit, here we go.
General Inspiration: Artists are almost never alone in the studio, so of course it's common for someone else to offer suggestions or be asked for feedback. Maybe they'll say something along the lines of, "It'd be dope if the beat dropped out right at that word," or suggest some slight change to a line. Or maybe they have a conversation about their mother with an artist, and later that artist makes a song about their mother. It happens all the time, no artist in any medium generates 100% of their ideas entirely by themselves, that's just the way the general creative process works. Collaboration like that may technically sometimes cross the line from general inspiration to more specific songwriting, but if the contribution is pretty minor and/or general, anyone who insists on songwriting credit is generally considered a dick. I helped you a little bit here, you helped me a little bit there, we'll call it even. That's not songwriting or ghostwriting, that's just being creative and being around other creative people and not being an asshole. [For the record, when everyone who does make even a minor/general contribution gets credit you end up with 31 songwriters on "All Day."]
Songwriters: In R&B and pop, genres where the artist's most distinct attribute is their voice and not neccesarily their lyric writing skills, songwriters will often write all of the lyrics to a song. In hip-hop though, where the lyrics themselves are a fundamental, crucial part of who the artist is as an artist, songwriting is usually contained exclusively to the hook or more melodic parts (like a bridge).
It's really not that complicated. Rihanna didn't personally come up with, "You can stand under my umbrella-ella-ella" and that's not a big deal because who came up with those words isn't a particularly important part of who Rihanna is as an artist or how she compares to other R&B/pop singers. Similarly, now that I know Tech N9ne didn't personally write the hook to his song, that doesn't really change anything about my conception of him as an artist. Writing short, melodic hooks is a different skill than rapping, writing hooks isn't a particularly valued skill in hip-hop, and so most rappers use songwriters for that exact reason. Again, no big deal. But if, hypothetically, we learned that Tech didn't write any of the words to his song, including the verses, that would fundamentally change how we think of him as an artist and how he compares to other rappers. So what a songwriter does, the difference between verses and hooks, and the differences between songwriting in hip-hop and other genres can get a little complicated, but not really. We're all intelligent adults with critical thinking skills, it's not that complicated.
Regardless though, the crucial thing to understand is that songwriters are officially credited as songwriters, and are therefore eligible to win awards (like a songwriting GRAMMY), receive a cut of the publishing money, etc.
Ghostwriters: By contrast, ghostwriters are usually employed to write entire verses, and they're obligated to remain an anonymous "ghost" exactly because writing your own verses is considered a fundamental part of what it means to be a rapper. Some rappers may use ghostwriters for their hooks, but it's pretty rare because why would you? That's just songwriting in the broadly accepted sense. Regardless though, the crucial thing to understand is that whether they're writing hooks, verses or anything, ghostwriters are not officially credited as songwriters, are therefore not eligible for any awards, and usually receive a one-time payment instead of any percentage of the song's publishing.
For example, neither Eminen nor Rihanna wrote the hook to "The Monster," the people who did are officially credited, so that's songwriting, not ghostwriting, and since it's just a hook it doesn't effect how we think about Eminem as a rapper. Dr. Dre's been very open about not writing his verses on Compton, the people who did write those verses are officially credited, and so again, that's songwriting, not ghostwriting. Not writing most of those verses also means Dre rightfully isn't considered a great rapper, but he's also not considered a liar.
What Drake did though was, by definition, use a ghostwriter. It wasn't general inspiration, it wasn't one minor word or one line or idea (like Future saying "Started From the Bottom"), it wasn't songwriting, it wasn't "just" the hook, it wasn't verses that were credited, it was QUENTIN MILLER WRITING ENTIRE VERSES THAT DRAKE REPEATED VERBATIM AND QUENTIN MILLER WASN'T OFFICIALLY CREDITED FOR SOME OF THOSE VERSES. That's ghostwriting. It just is.
Of course, it turns out that most people don't care that Drake used a ghostwriter because they don't really think about Drake as an emcee, they think of him more like a R&B/pop singer, and the average music listener doesn't give a shit how a song gets made or who made it, they just want to be entertained. Drake is the greatest entertainer of his generation, and the real reason Meek Mill got crushed was that he failed to understand that he was in an entertainment battle, not a rap battle.
All of that is true and fine, I very genuinely don't care much about Drake using a ghostwriter either because I never really valued him as an "emcee" in that sense, and I certainly don't care about him using songwriters for hooks and melodies. But I'm also not the average music fan, I very much do care how songs get made and who makes them. I very much am a hip-hop fan, and I do care which rappers write their own verses. Plus, I have anger management issues, and so it's lowkey infuriating to have to repeatedly listen to this "songwriter or ghostwriter?" conversation when the lines between them are very clear and there's not even the slightest sliver of a doubt, not even a single shade of gray, that Drake used a ghostwriter.
And let's be honest, just like no one gets caught cheating on their wife the first time they ever cheat, no one gets caught using a ghostwriter the first time they ever use a ghostwriter, and so it's borderline delusional to think that Quentin Miller is the only ghostwriter Drake's ever used. Do what you will with that information, just don't dispute it.
And...there, I've said my peace. So let this be the last time we talk about this topic in the year of our
Lord Drake 2015, or really any year after. Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go write some verses for a rapper I'm contractually obligated not to name.