Right up there with the endless search for the gay rapper, the biggest waste-of-time hip-hop controversy involves whether an MC has or hasn’t used a ghostwriter. And apparently, even one of hip-hop culture’s finest chroniclers couldn’t resist the chance to throw someone under the bus. On Twitter yesterday, in response to a follower who asked, “Is Jay[-Z] really that concerned with losing [money] that he can’t just say “Fuck my image” and make an Untitled (Nigger Album) like Nas?,” writer Dream Hampton dropped this bomb on the rap Internet. “I think Jay writes what he believes,” Hampton diplomatically explained, and then apropos of nothing, really, added: “Nas’ “Nigger” album was largely written by Stic of dead prez and Jay Electronica.” According to Hampton, Nas, the best bar-for-bar rapper maybe ever, has committed hip-hop’s greatest sin.
Fueled by Hampton’s tweet, Frank William Miller Junior of Rappers I Know, wrote about his knowledge of Nas and ghostwriting, in a post titled, “Nas Lost (Ghostwriters)”. In the piece, FWMJ, as he’s better known, recounted a phone call with his friend Jay Electronica, who told him that “Queens Get the Money,” which Electronica produced, was also ghostwritten by the then-buzzing cult MC. Then, Hampton tweeted that while FWMJ “only got a phone call,” she “heard reference tapes for like, 6 songs.”
Earlier today, Hampton clarified that she “wasn’t coming for [Nas’] “legacy,” but “was responding to [someone] who said hip-hop needed more radical albums like Nigger.” That seems disingenuous. Whether Nas wrote that album or not has little to do with the question posed, which was about mainstream artists with a lot of power and therefore less to lose, releasing radical, controversial works of art. Nas most certainly released Untitled with his name on it. He had to answer for it. The result of Hampton’s tweet has been an Internet-level explosion of betrayal, best summarized by this histrionic question from FWMJ: “When it’s public knowledge that the ‘greatest lyricist’ of our era, has ghost writers, what does that mean?” The answer is clear, though, right? This is a travesty, an innocence-murdering moment in which a hip-hop hero is exposed and will never be the same again.
Nas hasn’t commented, though about a week ago, he appeared on Los Angeles radio station Power 106 and when asked about ghostwriters, he said he never used them. Opportunistic websites like Global Grind are framing video of this interview as a response to the controversy, but it is dated August 8, 2012. Strangely, no one has mentioned this April piece on the Complex website, which quoted a 2002 interview with Nas, to note that Illmatic producer and rapper Large Professor had a significant hand in helping Nas craft his career-making rhymes.
The number of hip-hop hits penned by someone other than the person rapping them doesn’t even need to be mentioned at this point. And we’re all well aware that rappers are not so much diarists as storytellers, bigger-than-life characters, and ciphers for their neighborhood or region, all at once. Fact, fiction, and fantasy are merged together, as they are in every art form. So, outrage over ghostwriting is a regressive way of approaching rap music. Trumping lyrics over all else sends the genre back even further than the already problematic celebration of “skills” that dominated during the golden era and still lingers. The betrayal fans muster up about ghostwriting turns rap music into nothing more than words on paper. Back in 2007, Ghostface was accused of using ghostwriters on Supreme Clientele, but does it matter? He most certainly owns every insane utterance on that album.
One more time: The question that spurred this controversy had nothing to do with ghostwriting. It was the actually far more compelling, “Is Jay[-Z] really that concerned with losing [money] that he can’t just say “Fuck my image” and make an Untitled (Nigger) album like Nas?” Dream Hampton’s canny answer (“I think Jay writes what he believes”) is what should be discussed here. Watch The Throne, a cogent, sweeping expression of being rich and black in America and being caught between those two worlds — an album-length version of Jay’s “I can’t help the poor if I’m one of them” from The Black Album’s “Moment of Clarity” — is, indeed, Jay-Z’s version of Untitled. Challenging the simple-minded idea that a rapper is only doing “important” work when he or she plays a revolutionary firebrand, is much more interesting than holding onto to never-existent ideals about an MC’s lyrical purity.
Autumn, but maybe Winter, 2007 was a weird time of life for me. I was one and a half years into my 4 year stint at HOT 97 where I would low key plot on how to somehow have whatever “backpacking” rapper I liked that quarter getting 150 spins a week (hey, I was young and naive, and didn't understand what Radio Business was actually about). One of the gods had fallen.
The day Jay called me at work to tell me he was ghostwriting for Nas was a hard day for me. On one hand, I was happy that a friend of mine that seemingly no one cared an iota for a year or two prior was quickly ascending through the ranks of hip hop as a voice to pay attention to and a career in the making to watch. Earlier that summer we’d posted and artworked Act I and word was quickly spreading that he was a one to watch. Not too long after began that yearly teasing at Christmastime that Act II: The Pledge would be dropping for free as a download that would surely overload my server and shut down my site from traffic. It’s 2013 and we’re still waiting.
Since 1993, Nas has been (no pun intended, but I chuckled anyway) my barometer for what emceeing was supposed to sound like. Even with all the criticisms you could lob at him, whether it be his choice in beats or producers, The Bravehearts, faux mafioso rhymes, affinity for loose cannon women—any fan of Nas could always respond with “but he raps better than you(r favourite rapper), so what is we talkin' bout?”, (basically a “but can you whoop my ass, though?” style of reasoning) and you'd pretty much be left alone. Where other MCs would have odd voices (Jay Z), gimmicky deliveries (Busta Rhymes), overwhelming rhyme patterns (Pharoahe Monch), or were more products of great marketing and affiliation than skill set (Biggie), Nas had that no nonsense, technically dense and descriptive style of writing, that somehow didn't come across as dry as say a Gza might. Clearly this is all matter of personal taste. But for me, Nas was in that small pantheon of rappers, who when they rapped, there was no one else I would rather have rhyming at that moment. Big L, Pharoahe Monch, Snap, Posdnuos, DOOM, Mos Def/Yasiin Bey, Tash from The Liks, Pun, Sean Price, Black Thought. When these cats, rap, I just want everyone else to be quiet and let them do their thing. Each I like for different reasons, but when cats like Nas rap, it's a beautiful use of the English language.
Most of the newer rappers that I like and have used this site and my countless hours of message board arguing and trolling to promote, with few exceptions (Baatin, ODB etc), are definitely branches off the Nas tree or at the very least come from the same same forest/school of rhyming that Nas does.
The crazy part for me was that the mythology of Nas being that 16 year old wunderkind, single handedly making an entire genre of music attempt to step up (with varying results) its lyrics amazed me. The production was no slouch either.
© Cognito Gregory Barr
I don't recall specific dates, because I actively avoided listening to any of it, but we were either at the tail end of or in the middle of the ringtone era when I got this call from Jay. Rapping was in bad shape on a mainstream level, and that's why the New York DJs as I would witness for the months surrounding any new Nas release would be giddy as hell hoping that the Soulja Boy and Tity Boy songs they are handcuffed to play day in and day out, would come to some sort of balance when a new Nas single that would hit.
You gotta ask yourself, how many times has Nas let you down with a record, and yet you still check the next one? Here’s an equation for you.
X = Total Number of Nas Albums
Y = Illmatic
Z = How Many Times Let Down By Nas Albums
X – Y = Z
I’m good at maths.
You check because despite his inability to put together an album that's pound for pound the quality you (perhaps irrationally) expect from him, at the end of the day he can still out rap the majority of other rappers with major label deals out there doing it.
But then I got a call from Jay telling me that he was ghost writing for Nas. What does that mean? What does that do to your legacy? What does that mean for any of your future recordings?
This is why, I say I am unmoved when I listen to a song where Nas is rapping positively about raising his daughter. After all, this is the same guy that has the absolute worst and most disturbing, while trying not to be, sex raps out; may I never hear another rhyme talking about pentagrams in a woman's vagina or ass play with a beer bottle (“a real joker!”). No really, I'm good.
Or when, after wasting the bulk of his prime years rapping about ice, and cars, and women owing him like 40 acres to blacks over subpar and often trendy production, he turns around and is rapping about free masons and space ships while stutter stepping over verses penned by Jay Electronica in a cadence not his own, I'm confused.
When he finally has a half decent record like Life Is Good, how much can you really trust it? After 3 or 4 listens, I can hear at least 4 or 5 times where he's woefully off beat or out of pocket with the music much like he was when rapping Jay's lyrics in “Queens Get The Money.”
Is Nas just lazy?
When it's public knowledge that the 'greatest lyricist' of our era, has ghost writers, what does that mean? Like, he has the ability to write crazy raps, but it's like doping in the Olympics, how can we ever trust the good results again? This ain't pop music, so it matters if you write your own raps or not. For at least 6 albums, that was the only currency Nas had; his lyrics. How long has he been using ghost writers?
I had an existential crisis that day. I was happy for Jay Elec, but he basically speared a childhood music hero and make a sock puppet out of him.
“Niggas is still Hatin', talkin' that 'Nas fell off with rhymin'…”
You did Nas, you did.
I've been carrying this hurt for years now. I took that call from Jay down the hallway from HOT 97's on-air studio overlooking Hudson St, 7 floors below me. Rap kind of died for me that day. Ironically, HOT 97's tagline at the time was “Where Hip Hop Lives.”
I designed some subway and billboard advertisements that said so.
Stic.man on the “controversy”
As far as the rumors about myself and jay electronika ghost writing for Nas, let me say this. Nas is one of the if not the most prolific original lyricist to EVER do it. My contributions to his album was a collaboration and an honor and under his direction of what he wanted to convey and say. Haters cant discredit that man's genuis. Nas is the Don.