Everyone Calm Down About Drake: Rap’s Ghostwriters Are Here to Stay

In the wake of Meek Mill’s gently pissed-off tweets and accusations, in the aftermath of Funkmaster Flex’s on-air revelation, we now have solid (if inconclusive) evidence that Drake retains collaborator Quentin Miller for several thousand dollars a month. The world has gone nuts on Drake. Meanwhile, a city councillor in Toronto tried to ban Meek Mill from the city.

Does Quentin Miller write uncredited verses for Drake? Is he Drake’s ghostwriter? It’s hard to say. To begin with, the recordings that match Miller’s verse on “10 Bands” with Drake’s are not dated — they don’t tell us much. And, to state the obvious, Miller is credited on Mill’s track “R.I.C.O.,” the song that supposedly injured Mill’s faith in Drake. So it’s difficult to understand how Miller (at least in this case) could be considered a ghostwriter, or why Mill is feigning shock. And the second point is the more important one, if only because we know that Mill has had ghostwriters in his studio in the past, at least if we’re to believe Eskeerdo at HipHopDX. The same complaint can be pointed at Flex, who stated yesterday that if Drake doesn’t write all of his verses, he must be a “fraud.” Flex has played ghostwritten music on Hot 97, and he knows it.

On the other hand, would anyone be surprised if Drake collaborated with a ghostwriter? Or multiple ghostwriters? Pop musicians of his stature, especially solo artists, rarely write all of their own music. (We’ll get back to hip hop.) Then there is the fact that Drake comes from a family of musicians — he is sensitive to the collaborative process of musical production. And we can’t forget that Drake came up as a television actor, as an artist trained to perform lines written by another person. In other words: Drake’s “process” makes little sense without the involvement of collaborators (and possibly ghostwriters).

Either way: not surprising. Nor is the subject of ghostwritten verses a new controversy in rap. Many rappers have admitted to (or at least refused to deny) it in the past. Ice Cube, it is often pointed out, probably wrote more than his share of verses for N.W.A. Even Sugarhill Gang likely “borrowed” a Rapper’s Delight verse from Grandmaster Caz. And we’re free to wonder whether Dr. Dre has ever written a verse at all.

On one hand, it’s impossible to know whether rap is flooded with ghostwritten verses. Just think about it commonsensically. Ghostwriters, by definition and contractual obligation, don’t reveal who they ghostwrite for (or whether they ghostwrite at all) — especially if they want to continue being paid. To begin with, ghostwriters always sign nondisclosure agreements that prevent them from leaking the name of their principal, the person who uses the ghostwritten material under their own name. Not to mention that if a ghostwriter named his principal, he would de facto cease to be a ghostwriter — he would be a real presence and no longer a ghost.

On the other hand, rap is most definitely flooded with ghostwriters. This is because creative ghostwriters get most of their work when art — in this case rap — is at its most capitalized and corporatized, when the reputational economy is at its largest, when investors stand to lose more if their investment fails. You’d better believe that the countless individuals who have a stake in Drake’s success — including Drake himself — refuse to rely on Drake alone to guarantee his lasting appeal. If Drake needs a little help being Drake, he’s going to get it. A few grand a month is a small price to pay.

Another thing: a big, profitable persona requires a lot of management and upkeep. Being an extremely famous artist, in other words, not only requires some measure of talent, curatorial ability, etc., but it also demands a lot of time spent doing other things — making appearances, fulfilling contractual obligations for endorsements, naming restaurants after yourself, and so forth. There isn’t a lot of time left over for “artistic” — or, to use the capitalist form of the word, “creative” — projects. Enter the ghostwriter.

And the ghostwriter is becoming more and more accepted in the world, especially as the capitalized drive for “creative labor” comes up against a deficit of time. It’s not just rap: even the writing of novels has become a collaborative process that may or may not require ghostwriters. The Jenner sisters “wrote” a novel that was ghostwritten by someone else. The fastest-selling debut novel of all time, too, Zoe Sugg’s Girl Online, was written by a ghostwriter.

So let’s stop playing naive when it comes to ghostwriters — in rap, fiction, or anything else. They are performing a service, attempting to make money without courting the cold vapidity of fame and celebrity in the 21st century.

Or if we can’t do that, let’s at least get off the bandwagon of this insane complex of pseudo-artistic celebrity musicians who masquerade as auteurs. Let’s instead listen to (and buy) records by prodigious talents who obviously write their own verses, like Joey Bada$$, Vince Staples, and Killer Mike. Otherwise: in the 21st century, mega-celebrity requires the ghostwriter; one comes with the other, and you can’t have it both ways.