Over the past week, the hip-hop world was gripped by twin controversies. First, in an interview on ESPN, Action Bronson suggested he had surpassed the recent output of Ghostface Killah, the rapper who'd been a key inspiration for his style. After Ghost's iconic response video was released, Bronson backed down. The most recent conflagration, which has now dominated headlines for several days, is Meek Mill's Twitter assertion that Drake uses ghostwriters. On cue, OG "didn't need a ghostwriter for 'U Guessed It'" Maco tweeted that the rapper Quentin Miller—known locally as one-half of WDNG Crshrs—was responsible for much of Drake's work on his recent If You're Reading This It's Too Late. By the end of the day Wednesday, Funkmaster Flex leaked Miller's reference track for the song "10 Bands," Drake producer 40 took to Twitter to defend him, and the world discovered…
...Well, they didn't really discover much at all. Even Meek Mill's seeming apology felt a bit more like a backhanded doubling down: "Let him be great in all the motherfucking lanes he's great in." The consensus amongst those familiar with rap music's creative process is that ghostwriting is not only nothing new, but in this case, it's not even true: Miller received credit and a publishing split on the songs to which he contributed, so he isn't as much a ghostwriter as a writer full stop. And for years, Drake has mentioned the names of creatives who've contributed to his process, from poet Kenza Samir to rapper Nickelus F. There's no hypocrisy; if it was discovered that Jay Z had been using a ghostwriter for years, then there might be some reason for the surprise, since he's been marketing himself as a writer whose process occurs entirely within his own head. (That he lifts flows has been known since the days of Young Chris—only a flow is harder to copyright.) But hip-hop has always been a collaborative art form, and Drake has always been upfront about it.
It's a romantic idea that artists' words are just created by genius ex nihilo, but not only is it not supported by history; there's some evidence that collaborative art results in some of the best work. Appealing to broad swaths of people practically requires it: There's no The Chronic without D.O.C. or Daz Dillinger; there's no My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy without a wholesale pop music factory behind the scenes contributing ideas on a grand scale. It's how a lot of artists who might struggle to find mainstream appeal can cash checks. It's how the entertainment business has always worked, and works still. If anything, the industry's inability to make nearly as much money as it did in the past has depressed the available jobs and wages for artists who used to contribute to the machine. Contributing a known, public-facing brand to the final product is, much like picking out a synth sound or writing a hook, just one piece of the overall package many hands have touched.
And it's not just producers or Puff Daddys who've used this collaborative process. In an interview with Rhapsody (now offline, but quoted on XXL), Ghostface Killah explained how the album was put together while defending himself from accusations that rapper Superb had ghostwritten Supreme Clientele:
He been in the studio a few times while we’re doing sh*t. He ain’t write sh*t. All ’Perb contributed was a couple of lines that you could put in the air. When we write, we all do that. “Say this one right here” or “Put this one right here.” We all catch lines with each other ’cause you in the studio. You got n*gg*s around you that write. Even if he did write a verse, he could never make an album of mine. He couldn’t make an album, you feel me? I made Supreme Clientele what it is. Those are my stories, based around whatever they’re based upon. It’s me. I can’t see what songs ’Perb wrote. He ain’t write “Mighty Healthy” or “One” or “Apollo Kids” or “Cherchez LaGhost” or “Saturday Nite” or “Malcolm.”
The greater irony is that Drake's entire style has relied on magpie-like pastiche since the beginning; his style incorporated hashtag punchlines and Migos flows, Rappin 4Tay bars and mutually beneficial cosigns that help him retain a kind of broad relevance. For an entertainer of his scale, perhaps it's a necessity, a way of keeping the ideas fresh. (The only time he got into trouble was when he didn't split the credit with Rappin 4Tay for his "Playaz Club" bars on "Who Do You Love," until the rapper protested and Drake offered him money in exchange.) But he's not alone. In an era where everyone is filtering and producing content—if not for money on websites like Complex, then in arguments on our very own Facebook pages, or in discussions at the water cooler—we're often distilling and processing ideas and information, turns of phrase and ways of speaking. Our ideas are collaborative; even if in disagreement, our self-presentation and arguments are sparked by the reactions and thoughts of others. In that context, it's not so much authorship that is important as it is transparency: an explanation of the paths our ideas have taken.
But it's also about money. Meek Mill's plea regarding Drake's lack of authenticity is in some ways a dog whistle for a portion of his audience. Although hip-hop is a collaborative art, and Drake's crime here doesn't seem to be much of one at all, rap music's authenticity obsession is not a meaningless affectation. It's a moral argument. Look, for instance, at the Action and Ghostface situation. For an audience that looks to rap music for its personalities first and narrative qualities second, it's understandable that Action Bronson may seem a more appealing star in the moment. But even for those of us who place more of a priority on narrative originality, Ghostface's recent output has been disappointing. As one of the genre's great artists, Ghostface puts us in a tough place when he releases lesser material. Especially because, unlike Jay Z—whose fortune insulates him when he's mocked for "falling off"—it's doubtful Ghost is living too large these days. And there are older artists—think Scarface and Cormega—whose late-era work is deserving of praise; championing less imaginative work by their coasting peers marginalizes those who've continued to push themselves artistically.
Our ideas are collaborative; even if in disagreement, our self-presentation and arguments are sparked by the reactions and thoughts of others.
But this is also why Action's dismissive attitude toward the rapper who fathered his style felt so poisonous. Authenticity in hip-hop is less about appealing to an objective truth—after all, there are as many truths as there are people on the planet—than it is a social code. An inverse of race itself—a biological myth with real social implications—authenticity is a loose, unspoken set of rules that orient credit to the art form's creators. The rules—more negotiations, really—are flexible, always in flux, decided by audiences in different ways in different places. And who, exactly, is a "creator" remains equally fluid. But in the context of the United States, a place built on a legacy of stolen labor, the celebration of originality, the veneration of authenticity in hip-hop, is as much about ensuring credit—and, idealistically, money—to those who have done the work.
These rules aren't hammered into a tablet somewhere, and they're not static. Hip-hop's been driven by two seemingly contradictory facts from the beginning. There's a sign on the door that says "no biting allowed." And yet hip-hop only evolves through the creative misprision of new creators, who build on the vocabulary of their inspirations. The hip-hop industry's original sin is that the first rap single pressed to wax, the first single to make money from the art form, was a bite. The verses of "Rapper's Delight" were written by Grandmaster Caz of the Cold Crush Brothers; when Joe Robinson of Sugar Hill Records heard the group's manager Big Bank Hank reciting them at a pizza parlor—so the rumor goes—he hired Hank to record the track. Art is a product of collaboration and imitation; no idea's original, and everything comes from somewhere else. But it's still a good idea to keep your eye on where the money goes, and why.
David Drake is a writer living in New York. Follow him @somanyshrimp.