“A man broke his jaw trying to say what I / say on the microphone, you shoulda left it alone / just for the record, let it be known / that my ego’s only partially grown / and never will I ever condone / biting, in any form”
-Masta Ace, “The Symphony,” 1988.
Nothing can inspire indignant hip-hop purists and classicists quite like Justin Bieber’s flirtations with rap music. When Raekwon featured on the 2010 remix of Bieber’s hit “Runaway Love,” many “real hip-hop heads” were up in arms, disturbed by how their favorite gritty street rapper would sell his soul to the marshmallow-soft teen pop star. Bieber invoked the ire of hip-hop’s purists again last week when word got out that he had attempted to gain entrance into BET’s Award Show Cypher, where rappers trade verses in a display of their lyrical skills. But Bieber was refused entry, because he proposed to break one of the cardinal rules of hip-hop. He was going to enlist Ludacris to pen his rhymes. DJ Premier, legendary producer and moderator of the Cypher, said , “‘If you ain’t writing your own rhyme, you can’t do it.’ So, Justin, you got to take a backseat. Write your own rhyme, honey.” Besides the odd use of the word “honey,” Premier was reflecting a consensus of the hip-hop community: no biting allowed.
Unlike many other types of music, hip-hop makes a very explicit connection between performing and authorship. This comes from the essence of talent in rapping. As anyone has been to a college party when a hit rap song was getting burn on the jukebox can attest, anyone can give a decent rap performance; the talent lies almost completely in composition.
Stealing rhymes was always a serious risk and rappers were wary, especially in the half-decade where all hip-hop was performed live, and rappers had yet to record their songs. You could hear a tight line at one party, then use it in your own performance on the other side of town, and no one would have any idea you were stealing someone’s lines.
So, rappers constantly called out “biters” and “sucker MCs” who were not the author of their own lines. This dates as far back as the very first hip-hop song to be recorded, the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” (1979) where Big Bank Hank raps, “so when the sucker MCs try to chump my style/I let them know that I’m versatile/I got style, finesse, and a little black book/that’s filled with rhymes and I know you wanna look/but there’s a thing that separates you from me/and that’s called originality.” Because no listener can ever be certain where any rhyme comes from, artists would use their rhymes to assert that the rhymes were really theirs, and to explain how all the other sucker MCs kept trying to bite their style.
This preeminence of authorship within hip-hop comes into the way fans and critics talk about rappers. I remember when Kanye West was coming up in 2003 and 2004, a lot of people valued his producing but were very skeptical of his rapping skills. So whenever those people would come across a Kanye line whose greatness they could not deny, then they’d say, “oh, that’s definitely a Jay-Z line,” or “Yo, I heard Lupe Fiasco wrote this whole song.” To question the authorship of a line or song is to completely discredit the skill and integrity of the performer.
At the same time, there are certain artists who maintained a measure of respect while hinting or acknowledging that they did not write their own lines. But they were usually only able to maintain this position because their position of respect came from somewhere else. Eazy-E was accepted as a rapper because he was the founder of Ruthless Records and a leader in NWA. Dr. Dre and Diddy were similarly accepted because of their positions as record producers and industry moguls. In fact, on his 2006 album, “Press Play,” Diddy made a point a leaking the names of his ghostwriters including Jay-Z, Nas, and Ludacris, so that fans would buy his album based on the lyrical reputations of his ghostwriters.
Biz Markie was probably the one rapper who made a career out of rapping songs that everyone knew were written by someone else. His acceptance came as a result his charming personality, and how he did not take his rapping seriously. In the otherwise quite serious song “Erase Racism,” (1990) with Kool G Rap and Big Daddy Kane, Markie invites each rapper to spit their verse, saying, “why don’t you just do your rhymin part, and then I’ll come on after you.” After each of the real rappers had done their part, Biz Markie says two simple couplets and then says peace. His rapping is an enjoyable joke.
Biz Markie was really just a parody of a rapper, because how could you even claim to rap if you didn’t write it? Like DJ Premier told the Biebs, “write you own rhyme, honey.” Or maybe Bieber will try to join the Cypher again next year with a more covert ghostwriter.
- Tad Bell, host of The Good Hip-Hop Show, Tuesdays at 10pm on WGTB