Translating Jesse Stu
Matt Taibbi, the source of many of my ideas, let loose the other day with an hilarious post in which he "translated" a column about Haiti by David Brooks, the New York Times columnist most famous amongst brothers such as myself for saying something to the effect of, "If only Palestinians could find their Mahatma Gandhi, maybe they wouldn't have so many problems." I thought I'd do something similar with a blog post I found over at The Rap Up, by a guy who runs an online ghostwriting service.
In The Beginning, There Was Ghostwriting
For those who don’t know ghostwriting is when someone anonymously writes an artist’s lyrics. Ghostwriting has been part of hip hop for many years. Big Daddy Kane wrote for Biz Markie, Jay-Z wrote for Foxy Brown, Nas wrote for Will Smith, and Pharoahe Monch, Skillz and Sauce Money wrote for well, almost everyone. Until recently this occurred in backrooms through personal networks and was rarely acknowledged. The idea that a rapper didn’t write their own lyrics was stigmatized and the use of ghostwriters was kept secret and taboo. This was because a large part of hip hop’s legacy is based on individual expression. If a rapper’s using someone else’s lyrics then they were perceived to be less real.
TRANSLATION: This article is intended for people ignorant enough to have never heard or ghostwriting, and hence probably wouldn't know from good rap music anyway. No grown person with a proper frame of reference could possibly be swayed by an argument as specious as the one I'm about to make. Can you believe there was a time in hip-hop when people had a sense of pride about themselves? It used to be that rappers would make it seem as if they wrote their lyrics themselves, because the audience wouldn't accept it otherwise. This was back in the '80s and '90s, when rap music was worth a shit.
In 2010, things have changed. The Internet and online social networking sites have allowed people to meet and collaborate over great distance. Everything has become a joint effort. We have all become interconnected and our experiences are shared. Producers and rappers can now exchange beats and vocals without ever meeting. A rapper can “outsource” their entire album online. Without leaving home they can buy guest appearances, instrumentals and now lyrics. The rapper supplies the creative vision (like a movie director or producer) and various support crew fill in the missing pieces (like a movie screenwriter or cinematographer). The idea that ghostwritten lyrics are fake has been replaced with the idea that they’re a collaborative transmutation of the rapper’s original intent.
TRANSLATION: It's 2010 now, so you know what that means: It wasn't just one decade ago that rap music was worth a shit, it was two decades ago. It's time to dispense with the notion that MCing is a genuine act of personal expression. Internets technology has made it such that any ol' wack nigga can buy some rhymes from a random Indian guy on a message board, spit them into a shitty microphone connected to a laptop computer, email the result to the semi-literate Canadian kid who runs a site called Nah Right, and be considered just as legitimate as any other artist (by people who don't know any better).
How It Works
I started my ghostwriting business a couple years ago at the beginning of this transformation. I’d been writing for years and saw an opportunity to turn a hobby into something real. Instead of taking the traditional path of networking at concerts and sending out letters to established rappers I built my own site. I put up samples of my lyrics, bought some basic web advertising, and posted on hip-hop message boards. The response I got was overwhelming. There was a huge untapped market of MCs looking for lyrics… MySpace rappers, YouTube rappers, local stars, posse members, international rappers, and even a few established veterans. Suddenly it was alright to hire a writer and the Internet made it easy.
TRANSLATION: Like the late, great "Wax" Dart Adams, I got my start in hip-hop spamming message boards, and hence should never be taken seriously. The fact that my income, such as it is, arrives via PayPal lets you know I'm not sane enough to pass that personality exam they make you take to get a job at Target. I probably also sell shit on eBay, like the late, great Noz. My clientele consists of people whose careers only exist within the realm of MySpace and YouTube, weed carriers, people from foreign countries, and the Sugar Hill Gang.
Is Ghostwriting Good for Hip-Hop?
So the big question is, “is this good for hip hop?” My answer is yes. It absolutely is. Rapping is now open to so many more people. Someone with good flow and delivery who struggles with writing can now express themselves. A veteran rapper with writer’s block can buy lyrics and still put out music for their fans. The range of available music is now much wider because there are less barriers to becoming a rapper. This is great for fans because there’s now more variety. It also ensures the quality of lyrics can be top notch, a win for fans as well. Finally, ghostwriting allows a greater degree of collaboration. Something special happens when creative minds get together. The sum of the work they create is greater than its parts. Ghostwriting allows each person to do what they do best and thus creates a more compelling work of art.
TRANSLATION: I really do believe that aiding wack MCs is good for hip-hop. The fact that I'm trying to make money selling rhymes to people who can't write rhymes of their own is just a coincidence. There's a lot of people out there who could use my services, including people who own rapper outfits but can't actually rap, and people who used to be able to rap well, before they smoked all that crack. And since kids these days are dumb enough that they might actually find an album by one of my clients to be a more compelling work of art than an album by a real MC, this will just give them that many more albums to buy. It might even save the economy.