Ghostwriting: Disputed Authorship in Hip Hop

ghostwriterGhostwriting is a controversial and common service offered to celebrities. Having a ghostwriter write your books, musical pieces, and even keep up to date on personal blogs happens all too often without the public knowing that what they’re reading about or listening to isn’t actually penned by the name of the author on that work. That’s what ghostwriting is. It’s paying someone who’s willing to write your biography for you and then slapping your name on the final product as if you wrote it, without giving acknowledgement to the actual writer. It’s essentially passing off someone else’s work as your own—but that’s too critical to say. Instead of stating it loudly for everyone to hear the truth, these ghostwriters quietly write away, emulating their clients’ “voices,” if they even had voices to begin with, and continue on writing as ghosts (unseen and unheard of) for one person, then another, and then another.

ghostwritingThis service of writing material for others often occurs in popular music. Actually, much of the music we listen to today, especially those by new artists, is ghostwritten. Often times, when a new and inexperienced artist enters the music game, the record company hires an experienced songwriter to help write lyrics, melodies, and basically compose tracks for the new singer. The ghostwriter would be paid, the artist would gain fame, and the record company would gain even more credit for popular hits. (It’s interesting to note here that it seems that the fame and riches gained could all originate from ghostwriters and the talent vested within them.)

The hip-hop industry is no stranger to ghostwriters. In fact, there are plenty of big name ghostwriters who have helped pen lyrics and rhymes for even bigger name artists. While investigating these works, I was surprised to find so many popular hits of the late 90s having possibly been ghostwritten.

willsmithOne such hit is Will Smith’s Grammy-award winning 1998 single, “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It.” Prior to putting out this album, Will Smith had already proven himself as a musical artist (a rapper, to be specific) before he became an A-list blockbuster making Hollywood star (think Independence Day, Men in Black, I Am Legend, etc.). He was part of the rap duo group called “DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince,” which produced popular hits in the late 80s/early 90s. Since that time, Will ventured out into acting, playing the star of the 90s sitcom, “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.” It wasn’t until later into the 90s when he picked up his musical career again, this time as a solo artist. It was with his “Big Willie Style” album that he produced the popular hit, “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It.” So with much experience in music in the past and much recognition given to him in his acting talents, it was surprising to find that there are strong speculations that this track was ghostwritten, and written by another well-known rapper as well—Nas. Earlier it was mentioned that some new artists might have been forced by record companies to accept ghostwriting unwillingly. It didn’t make sense that an established artist would have another (some would say) just as respected artist write material for him. However, the thought that Will Smith had not released anything of a musical nature on his own since the early 90s, it made sense that he could have probably talked with some of his friends in the hip-hop industry for some guidance, which lead to a possible hiring of a ghostwriter.

A rhetorical and stylistic analysis will now be employed to examine a few stanzas from “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It” with a few stanzas from a popular single of Nas’s in the same time period, “Nas Is Like.”

Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It

No love for the haters, the haters

Mad cause I got floor seats at the Lakers

See me on the fifty yard line with the Raiders

Met Ali he told me I’m the greatest


In Will Smith’s song, the character he projects himself to be to his audience is one who is “hated” or envied. In these few verses, he mentions having no love for people who “hate” on him, which translates to people who are envying him for the things he has, like “floor seat” tickets for the Los Angeles Lakers Basketball games, or tickets for the Oakland Raiders that would allow him to be at the fifty yard line, in the middle of the action. He also seeks to exalt himself by stating a close to hyperbolic statement, that Muhammad Ali, who is also known as “The World’s Greatest” in boxing, told him that he is actually the greatest.


Nas Is Like

“Nas is like..” Earth Wind & Fire, rims and tires

Bulletproof glass, inside is the realest driver

Planets in orbit, line em up with the stars

Tarot cards, you can see the pharaoh Nas


Musically, I sought to find a song that is similar in the upbeat sound patterns as “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It.” This single of Nas’s is close to that style. The ethos Nascreated in these few lines also demonstrates the same sense of conceit as the previous song. In these lines, Nas compares himself to a highly successful musical group from the 70s, glass that cannot be broken by bullets (which conveys invulnerability), and even as being a pharaoh, or king. These similes Nas chooses to use help create a sense in the listener that who they’re listening to is one who is great, similar to how Will Smith “described himself” to be in the previous song.

Based on these few stanzas, speculations that Nas could have helped write Will Smith’s Grammy Award winning single for him (interesting fact: Nas has never earned a Grammy Award, which is the most prestigious award offered in the music industry, for any of his musical pieces) is supported.

drdreOther cases of ghostwriting involve hip hop artists, Dr. Dre and Jay-Z. When the musical genre of “gangsta rap” became more popular towards the late 80s and early 90s, Dr. Dre was one of the main rappers headlining and representing the west coast of the United States of America. On the other coast, the east coast, there was Jay-Z. “Gangsta rap” can actually be divided into subgenres of “west coast rap” and “east coast rap.” Stylistically, the music would sound similar, however the lyrical content involved would showcase the differences. For an east coast perspective of what life was in that region, one would listen to east coast artists, like Jay Z, P. Diddy, Nas, etc. For a west coast perspective, one would listen to west coast artists, like Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg (or Snoop Lion, as he now refers to himself), 2-pac, etc. What is interesting is that it has been speculated that Jay-Z, an east coast rapper, wrote a number of tracks for Dr. Dre, a west coast rapper, for his 1999 album, “The Chronic 2001.” One of the singles is Still D.R.E., which is quite popular and well known to listeners of hip-hop and rap (I’m familiar with rap and was surprised to have researched and found this online).

A rhetorical and stylistic analysis of a few stanzas will now be done to look at how Jay-Z’s music during the same time period compares with the aforementioned tracks that Dr. Dre supposedly had him ghostwrite.

Still D.R.E. (Dr. Dre)

I’m still at it, After-mathematic

In the home of drivebys and ak-matics

Swap meets, sticky green, and bad traffic

I dip through then I get skin, D-R-E


Periphrastically (a trope used when one substitutes a descriptive word or phrase for a proper noun), “drive bys” is a phrase substituted for “killings,” “ak-matics” is a phrase substituted for “guns,” and “sticky green” is a phrase substituted for “weed” (I had to look that last one up.). In these few lines, Dr. Dre is described to be still part of his “After Math” record label, still in the home where people are killed by drive by shootings, where people meet on Saturdays for swap meets, where weed can be found, and where traffic is not very good. These few lines describes his current situation at the moment. Ghostwriters are known to emulate the client’s perspective. To be able to use these “west coast” nuances, Jay-Z would have had to understand and study the background of Dr. Dre.

Big Pimpin’ (Jay-Z)

We doin.. big pimpin, we spendin cheese

Check em out now

Big pimpin, on B.L.A.D.’s

We doin.. big pimpin up in N.Y.C.


JayZThis is one of Jay-Z’s well known songs that was released the following year. As Dr. Dre was described in his lyrics within the context of his living circumstances and environment, Jay-Z also does the same in these few lines, describing how he lives in New York, the east coast. There’s another usage of the periphrastic trope in the first line. “Cheese” is substituted for “cash.” An anaphoric scheme (in which the same word or phrase is repeated at the beginning of successive phrases, clauses, or sentences) can also be observed by the repetition of “We doin.” This repetition also appears in the latter verses. It was not noted before, but in the lyrics of Still D.R.E., there is also anaphoric usage of the repetitive use of the phrase “I’m still.” Examining the lyrics and seeing the main stylistic devices used (periphrasis and anaphora), one can observe that Jay-Z could have likely ghostwritten Dr. Dre’s single.

It is worth noting that deducing the originator of a musical piece can be a bit more difficult solely using rhetorical devices as a basis for comparison, as much of its style should be examined and investigated aurally (how the musical pieces sound and what kind of instruments or rhythms are observed). Nonetheless, ghostwriting exists in music as much as it does in literature. Initially, I seemed to give a negative stance on ghostwriting in the beginning of my entry, but after reading about how common it is for artists to have other artists ghostwrite for them (regardless of how famous either are), it seems to be a collaborative effort in the end. And this effort often results in songs that become wildly popular, to which one wonders whether the ghostwriter could have done the songs just as well in the first place.


One thought on “Ghostwriting: Disputed Authorship in Hip Hop

  1. It’s never occurred to me that hip hop artists would seek out a ghostwriter to write their songs! That to me just makes me think they aren’t actual artists if they can’t write their own songs. It also makes me think of why anyone would want to be a ghostwriter? I can’t imagine myself writing something that turns out to be a hit and letting someone else take credit for my work! Very interesting cases!

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