When Meek Mill accused Drake of enlisting writers to help pen his rhymes this week, the Philly MC left hip-hop fans with more questions than answers. Then, when Hot 97’s DJ Funkmaster Flex played an alleged reference track for Drake’s “10 Bands” on the radio Wednesday, things got even crazier.
Rappers with writers is nothing new; artists like Dr. Dre, Diddy and Kanye West are all known to have used writers in varying degrees. Still, for an MC like Drake, who is widely regarded as one of the game’s top lyricists, the accusations are shocking and could be damaging.
Most fans don’t know the politics of rappers with writers, and that’s because in hip-hop a ghostwriter is supposed to remain quiet. They very rarely speak out — until now.
On Thursday, I sat with a well-known rapper, who moonlights as a ghostwriter for multiplatinum, Grammy Award-winning and iconic hip-hop artists. This writer, who we will refer to as Aaron (in order to protect his identity), walks us through the process of ghostwriting and explains why hip-hop fans are freaking out about the new Drake rumors.
(MTV News debates what these Drake allegations really mean)
MTV: How does someone go about becoming a ghostwriter?
Aaron: The thing about ghostwriting is it’s extremely tough to get into because the lane is so small and it’s such a secret society. So there’s the trust factor that a lot of people have to have with you, there’s people not wanting you to get in. Let’s say, if this guy over here is a ghostwriter and y’all are friends, he’s probably not going to help you become a ghostwriter and get into that world, because the world is so small and if he does that, then he’s potentially taking bread out of his pocket. So it’s hard to get in, it’s very hard to get in the door. Once you’re in, you’re kinda in for a while, but getting that first crack is extremely tough.
MTV: What is it that attracts an artist to a writer? What are the attributes that artists look for?
Aaron: There’s so many ways that it could be played out. You could be an artist that’s moving around, selling records, creating a buzz and then the person looking for help may hear you, reach out and come to you. Or it may be vice versa, you may have a connect to a certain artist, a certain rapper, you may have a connect to their A&R, their assistant, their management or whatever and you’re pitching them records. You’re giving them your stuff or stuff that you whipped up specifically for them. There’s so many ways that it goes about, but it really becomes a trust factor of being able to keep all that under the rug and then also being able to get the job done. Most of the time ghostwriters are either artists themselves, or aspiring artists.
MTV: Can you break down the difference between the two types of writers?
Aaron: You have two different types of people who are ghostwriters. One is the person who is an artist, moving around doing their thing so people are reaching out to them for help. Or on the other side is somebody who wanted to be an artist their whole life, but they haven’t cracked it yet. And a lot of times those become the best writers. To be a writer is one thing, but to actually be an artist, there’s a lot of other moving parts. There’s the flow, there’s diction, there’s the look, image, brand and some artists don’t have that… It takes a lot of moving parts to be a successful artist and if you don’t have those parts and you only have a pen, then you can sell that pen to somebody else who has all the parts but no pen. You can make money and live a life and still be able to walk to the store and not get harassed.
MTV: Once you get tapped by an artist to write, what happens next? Is there an agreement that’s signed before you step in the studio?
Aaron: I never had an agreement [before writing], so I can’t speak on everybody’s situation, but to sign an agreement before you go in would seem very rare. I would assume you’d have to be writing for somebody who’s looked at as never having a writer. It would have to be a Jay Z, and obviously we know Jay isn’t getting any help. Jay’s written for other people; Jay’s been writing for people since 1996. For the most part it’s just a vibe, it’s really going in the studio, catching a vibe, building, feeling each other out and just making music. It usually starts with one song and that turns into more. It’s like a trial and error. You see how that goes and then you keep going.
MTV: Some writers receive writing credit, some do not. It’s wildly assumed that being a ghostwriter means that you receive no traditional writing credit. Can you break that down?
Aaron: You’re still a ghostwriter if you’re getting credit, the difference is if it’s public knowledge. When you look at album credits and track one has five or six names on it. The artist, you know his real name, that name may be first. The second name is the producer’s name, so that name is there. Let’s say there’s a Michael Jackson sample, so you might have Michael Jackson’s name there. You might have Quincy Jones’ name there, because he produced the original Michael Jackson record. So now you got so-and-so rapper, so-and-so producer, M. Jackson from the sample, Q. Jones from the sample and then there’s a fifth name and it becomes, “Who’s that fifth name?” And that’s when people start doing research and trying to figure out who’s this fifth name on this record. And that’s when you start getting to the bottom of things. You gotta really read the credits. There’s a lot of musicians on the record, you may have 10 names, it doesn’t mean 10 people wrote the rhymes.
I say all that to say, you’re still a ghost if your name is in the credits… It’s still hidden, it’s still tucked away, that person isn’t doing interviews running around saying, “I wrote this and I wrote that.”
(CyHi the Prynce explains his writing credit on Kanye West’s Yeezus)
MTV: Writing doesn’t have the same stigma in other genres like R&B, but in hip-hop it’s taboo. Why?
Aaron: When you look at R&B and you look at pop and all these other genres of music, it’s nothing to have writers. I see a lot of people arguing for different artists, saying, “Well, Michael Jackson had help with this and Mary J. Blige had help with that. And Usher had help with that.” That’s very true, the reason is because in R&B and pop it’s about so much more than what you’re saying. What you’re saying may be the last piece of the puzzle. It’s about vocally, can you hit octaves and ranges. And if it’s not dancing, it’s playing an instrument. So you take somebody like Alicia Keys, she has to be able to sing, she has to be able to play instruments, and then the writing is just the added component — and we all know Alicia Keys writes — but if she’s not writing a certain song, that’s not what she really came there for anyway. She came to sing and play the piano. Usher came to sing and dance, Mary came to sing and occasionally dance. It’s about those components.
(Dr. Dre’s “Still D.R.E.” was written by Jay Z)
MTV: So what’s different about hip-hop?
Aaron: The requirements in hip-hop are not about being a dancer, it’s not about being able to play the guitar and drums while you’re rapping, or even DJ’ing while you’re rapping. It is literally about what you’re saying, that’s it. And that’s why people have such a problem when they find out an artist that they look up to is getting help. It’s like, “Wait a minute, all you’re supposed to do is worry about what you’re saying.” I know an R&B artist may not have written their song, but I’m not coming to them for that, I’m coming because their voice is amazing… so it doesn’t matter if this guy or that guy wrote the record. With rappers, you’re only coming to them because they can rap. So if you’re not rapping, what are we doing, why am I here? And that’s the tug of war that the older fans understand from a different generation and the newer fans don’t get… Of course flow is a big part of it and cadence and different things like that. 100 percent, but it’s very different from hitting nine octaves like Mariah Carey.
(Kanye West plays an early version of “Lucifer” for Jay Z)
MTV: If somebody wrote a hook for a rapper, is that more acceptable?
Aaron: Yeah, it’s more accepted because it’s the hook. The hook is eight bars — it’s really four bars looped up twice, so it’s a little more acceptable with that. It’s even more accepted when the hook comes with the beat. A lot of times a producer like Kanye West or Pharrell or Swizz Beatz, they’ll give you a beat with the hook in place. So if you don’t take the record, they’re going pitch that record to somebody else. That’s common knowledge. If you watch “Fade to Black” the  Jay Z documentary, Kanye was playing all of those beats for Jay for The Black Album with the hooks. The “Encore” beat was playing and ’Ye was spitting the same hook that you now hear Jay spitting on the record. The “Lucifer” beat was playing and Kanye was spitting the same hook that Jay was spitting when you bought the album — he changed a line or two, but ’Ye wrote those hooks. It’s not because Jay needed a writer, it’s because when Kanye made the beat as a producer, he had a vision for what the hook should be and he pitched the beat with the hook and Jay just wrote around it. That happens all the time. When the producer pitches the hook with the beat, that’s not ghostwriting at all… When it comes to those verses and the whole song, that’s when we have an issue.
MTV: I’m assuming the really good writers take on the persona of the artist they are writing for. How do you prepare for that?
Aaron: For me, I step into that person’s world. I could write for somebody from the south, I could write for somebody from he midwest, the west coast, whatever it may be. I become that person. My job is to take off my hat from where I’m from and become that person. I have to put away my morals, certain things that I may never talk about, certain things that I may never say, certain phrases or views that I may never use, because it’s not about me. A lot of times you hear rappers who don’t write and you can tell who wrote for them and to me that’s an issue. If I could listen to an artist and tell who actually wrote the rhymes than that means the writer didn’t really transform themselves.
MTV: You’ve written the verse and you to present it to the artist that you’re writing for. Are you handing him a sheet of paper? Or you laying down a reference track for him to listen to? What’s next?
Aaron: It’s the reference, it’s 100 percent the reference. A lot of the times you’ll send them the lyrics as well, whether you wrote it down on paper or you’re texting it to their phone. 99 percent of artists nowadays write everything on their phone just because it’s convenient– myself included. But you’re laying down a reference track… You lay it down in that artist’s voice and tone to the exact beat that they’re going to do it to and you give them that. Maybe over the course of a couple of days, they learn it, they got it down and they can go in and record it themselves.
(Quentin Miller’s alleged reference track for Drake’s “10 Bands”)
MTV: Does the artist just spit the rap as you wrote it or do they change some words?
Aaron: A lot of times, even the guys who don’t write a word, they still may flip a line or two. That doesn’t mean I didn’t write the record; you changed half a line and that’s totally fine. That does happen a lot and I think fans get mistaken with that as well. Rarely is a record 100 percent the way you wrote it. Most of the times it’s 95 percent because they’ll change a word or change a cadence. But at the end of the day you wrote that. That’s like if you’re mother is cooking dinner and you put a dash of garlic in the pot and then say, “Oh, I cooked too.” No you didn’t, you put a dash of garlic.
MTV: What happens to these reference track? I remember back in the 1990s when a reference track of Lil Kim’s “Queen Bitch” leaked with the Notorious B.I.G. spitting Kim’s rhymes from a woman’s perspective. It was funny to hear Biggie rap about his lady parts and referring to himself as bitch.
Aaron: When you’re writing for an MC, somebody who gets busy, those reference tracks aren’t supposed to get out. A lot of times what people will do, instead of emailing the songs back and forth, you come into the studio. I go into their studio, write the record, lay it down in front of them, they keep it. It’s in their studios, they have it, I don’t have it. The only thing I have is the lyrics in my phone. I don’t have any proof that I’ve recorded that. If that got out, it wouldn’t be on me, it would be on that artist’s engineer. A lot of times leaks happen because of the engineer. The reference should never have gotten out.
MTV: Drake is viewed as one of the top MCs in hip-hop. An alleged reference track to his “10 Bands” song was recently leaked. Does this hurt him?
Aaron: We look at Drake like he really gets busy, he’s really, really nice. This is a guy who has pretty much hits home runs almost every time he’s went up to bat. So when you find out that there’s allegedly something going on, it is a shock. It is a punch to the gut; it does blow you away. And for some people it’s like, “Oh, that’s why you’ve been so great, because you got a million people helping you.” And that’s what people are trying to come at him with. This is all alleged we don’t know that, but it’s like having a ringer when you’re playing sports.
MTV: As a ghostwriter, at what point do you discuss the particulars of your credit and or compensation with the artist?
Aaron: Once an artist agrees that they want to use that record, that’s when all that happens. The thing about ghostwriting and songwriting is you can write 10 records and nothing gets used. If an artist brings me to their studio and I work on five records, they may not use any of them for their album. These are all ideas and sketches, you never know. When you get that call it’s normally an artist’s manager or lawyer or a publishing company that will reach out to you. There’s a lot of stories of writers doing records for people that never saw the light of day — myself included. You may get your upfront money as a work-for-hire, meaning here’s some money for you coming into the studio everyday. But those records may never have came out. You don’t get paid for real until the song comes out and hits the stores and hits radio. It’s a tough business.
MTV: But when you build a reputation as a writer, I’m sure it gets easier.
Aaron: Exactly. The situation with [Quentin Miller], who they’re saying wrote for Drake — whether it’s true or not — there’s enough floating around that I’m sure that his phone is on fire right now. Every publisher, other artists, managers, producers are reaching out saying “Hey we need some of that.”
MTV: How much money can a ghostwriter make?
Aaron: It’s endless. It depends on what you write and where it gets placed. If you write an album cut, you’ll get a percentage of the sales and royalties. It may not be crazy, it won’t set you up for life. But if you write a record that becomes “Gangnam Style” or something like that, then you can eat forever. It’s limitless.
MTV: You make a living writing for others, so you benefit from ghostwriting but should hip-hop fans draw a line, or is ghostwriting something that fans should just accept?
Aaron: I don’t know if fans care because of where the generation is now. 15 years ago this wouldn’t have been a discussion. If it was an artist of Drake’s stature 15 years ago, there would be no discussion, there would be no rebuttal, there wouldn’t be a single fan saying, “I don’t care.” With everything going on this week, half of the fans are like, “Who cares?” That’s totally fine. The only gripe that a lot of people have is if you’re an artist that is looked at as being the best and then we find out that it may have not all been you — I think that’s where people are having an issue. I don’t know if this will become a debate in hip-hop though, something will happen tomorrow and make everybody forget about this.