What a Time to Be Alive: Hip-Hop's Golden Age of Ghost-Writing

The cover of Drake & Future's 'What a Time to Be Alive'
The cover of Drake & Future's 'What a Time to Be Alive'

I started thinking about the politics of ghostwriting in hip-hop after stumbling on an article in The New York Times about a guy who turned to a company, called Oratory Laboratory, to help him deliver a toast at a friend’s wedding.

Then Drake and Future’s new project, What a Time to Be Alive, dropped and I really started contemplating why Drake walked away so pretty from his public battle with Meek Mill after the Philly rapper chose to expose him for using a ghostwriter on “R.I.C.O.”

The whole beef, even used by corporations for marketing, played out like the scene in Pulp Fiction. Viable shots with the intention of ending one’s career were fired, but they all missed Drake. He walked away unscathed, recently crowning the Billboard Artist 100, a chart that blends data measuring album and track sales, radio airplay, streaming and social media fan interaction to provide a weekly multidimensional ranking of an artist's popularity.

I guess you can’t shoot a ghost.

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In general, I see a lot of positives in ghostwriting. It produces jobs and allows people to have their creative work delivered through influential personalities and powerful orators, or in the case of the Times article, aspiring orators who need help. I’m biased, because I am a ghostwriter in another world where it’s very commonplace: corporate America. That’s probably why I didn’t (and still don’t) take issue with Drake for using a ghostwriter.

But maybe I should. I grew up in the ’90s, after all, the golden era of hip-hop. For a long time, the pillars upholding that genre were uncompromising authenticity and true street credibility, and that included writing your own lyrics, damn it.

So that got me wondering how Drake won that beef so handily? Have authenticity and tolerance for not writing your own lyrics changed in hip-hop that much? Of course, that implies that Drake isn’t authentic and uses ghostwriters for 100 percent of his lyrics, which isn’t a fair assessment.

What I learned in my exploration of this issue is that it’s not black and white, and authenticity has a different definition today than it did yesterday.

I talked to a couple of experts who gave me perspective.

Leggo: "This generation doesn’t care about the history or the chronology."
Leggo: "This generation doesn’t care about the history or the chronology."
Photo courtesy of David Rojas

The first was Los Angeles-based music producer David Rojas, known as “Leggo” in the industry. He has worked with A-level artists his entire career, and through the mid-2000s was doing work with Interscope Records. Today, with a BMG publishing deal under his belt, he works behind the scenes writing and producing for major-label artists and prefers it to stay that way.

But he did offer to crystalize things for me. I got Leggo’s thoughts on why, in a genre that historically has been so staunch on authenticity, we didn’t see Meek clean up the floor with Drake’s immaculate fade.

Leggo told me there will always be a lane for Meek Mill, and there will always be a Meek Mill for a segment of the population who values rappers who write their own lyrics. He said that he doesn’t feel those people will be left behind, but their voice is becoming more marginalized and narrow, and it’s getting smaller in the grand scheme of whether the general public cares or not.

“This is a bigger conversation about art and how the general public is consuming art and entertainment and whether or not we are a ‘future’ generation or a ‘now’ generation,” Leggo says. “This generation doesn’t care about the history or the chronology. They don’t care about the future relevance of whether it’ll be a classic or not. They care about how it feels now. It’s about now.”

Drake is synonymous with now. Now is synonymous with present, and when was the last time Drake wasn’t present? For the past several years, he’s delivered a product to the masses consistently. They’ve consumed it consistently. Maybe how it gets made (i.e., through ghost-writing) is the least of their worries.

“There’s a time and a place for everything,” Leggo continues. “There is a place for a rapper who doesn’t write their own lyrics and is so charismatic and has so much personality that you can give these same lyrics to 50 different people and no one could pull it off like this rapper can. There is a place for that artist. And there’s a place for both of those people [Drake and Meek] to co-exist.”

Leggo’s tolerance sounds as if it’s evolved with the times, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a preference and standards for artists who use ghostwriters.

“If you spit lyrics, I hope you wrote them,” he said. “But if you didn’t, I’m not going to shit on you like it was ’96 or ’97. Somewhere in the process, can I hear some craft or work ethic in the execution? Is there a relationship with the person that wrote it for the performer?”

Immediately, I understood what Leggo was trying to convey. I once wrote a speech for a member of Congress, and he destroyed my work with poor delivery and no eye contact with the audience, so yeah, I get it.

“There are artists who know the message they want to convey but can’t put the words succinctly enough and concisely enough to convey it properly,” Leggo said. “I’ve been in a session where a lyricist gives a framework or paragraph [to a ghostwriter] written through a stream of consciousness.”

In that instance, Leggo says, a relationship forms between the writer and the artist, and if it's done well, you can’t distinguish the true writer.

“That’s the kind of thing that you hear right away or you don’t,” he said.

Leggo hears work ethic in Drake’s music.  

“Prior to the [beef], I already had a baked-in respect for Drake as a lyricist,” he said. “Nothing about what he puts out makes me feel like he doesn’t care. If I got in the studio with him, I wouldn’t have to push him to work.”

Matt Sonzala likens the many Drake soundalikes to Katy Perry and Lady Gaga.
Matt Sonzala likens the many Drake soundalikes to Katy Perry and Lady Gaga.
Photo courtesy of Matt Sonzala

Matt Sonzala also has a baked opinion. He is a Texas-based music promoter and journalist who's head of Pushermania, a consultancy and event management firm that connects independent artists and major brands. He’s best known for growing the hip-hop presence at South by Southwest.

“If you were to tell me that KRS-One or Scarface didn’t write their own rhymes, well, that would be a tragedy,” Sonzala said. “But to learn that Drake or any of his million soundalikes didn’t write their own rhymes doesn’t matter a bit. These rappers are Katy Perry. These rappers are Lady Gaga. There really is no difference, and they should be treated as such.”   

Sonzala’s perspective is this: Drake isn’t hip-hop. His music is a product of a formulaic and unoriginal hit-making machine driven by big business and should be classified in the pop category.

It’s a hard stance from an advocate of independent rap, and it helped me get closer to my answer.

In every other genre, songwriters are pretty much embraced and accepted, so if in Sonzala’s eyes Drake’s in that lane, I can see why he couldn't care less about Meek putting Drake on blast for using a ghostwriter.

Multiply that reality all over the country, and there was my answer. If purists from Leggo to Sonzala have found a way to either accept or not care about Drake’s ghostwriting, then it all made sense that Meek’s attempt to discredit Drake based on ghostwriting fell flat with the masses. The masses being those who think like Leggo, Sonzala and my 13-year-old daughter, who is presumably part of the “now” generation.

I sent her a text during the development of this piece, because teenagers don’t know that a phone is used for talking. I asked her if she liked Drake’s music. She wrote back “yes.” I then asked her if she would think less of him as an artist if he paid someone to write for him. She said she wouldn’t.

“No, I think that’s okay,” she wrote. “If someone wrote it and someone else sings it, I think that’s cool.”

Sings it, she wrote. Maybe she views Drake as Sonzala does, grouped with her favorite pop artists, but through the lens of innocence and youth.

Regardless of how you see Drake, the story went like this: In a hip-hop beef, the guy from Canada beat the one from the mean streets of Philly.

Indeed, what a time to be alive.


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