Rappers and songwriters: Is it OK to get help writing songs?

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Getty Images/Jennifer McCord

Imagine a person writing a grime track. You might be picturing a lone figure in a dark room, bent over a laptop.

You’re probably not thinking of what industry professionals have told Radio 1 Newsbeat is “the norm” – the rapper getting help from a professional songwriter.

But in a genre that’s all about self-expression, how much influence can a songwriter have without making the music dishonest?

Newsbeat has been to a grime and rap songwriting camp to find out.

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From left to right: Daktyl, Lisa Mercedez, Novelist, Joe Killington

“I write all my own lyrics – personally,” rapper Novelist tells us, “but some artists don’t work like that.”

The 21-year-old, who put out his Mercury Prize-nominated debut album in 2018, is just one of the artists at the two-day camp – based at London’s Tileyard studios.

It’s a bit like the sort of thing local councils put on at half term – you take a bunch of school kids who play music, let them jam in groups for a few hours and then switch up the groups.

Except, instead of school kids, this camp features some of the biggest artists, producers and songwriters working in rap right now – and its ultimate aim is to create as many hits as possible.

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Jennifer McCord

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British rapper Flohio says she loves working with producers – but her lyrics are her own

“A lot of the music you hear on the radio will have been created at camps like this,” says Daktyl – a British producer who’s worked with artists like Vic Mensa and Chance the Rapper.

He’s been put in a group with Novelist, a dancehall singer called Lisa Mercedez and a topliner called Joe Killington (topliners are songwriters who specialise in writing catchy choruses).

They’ve been given a few hours to create a track together, and then they’ll move on.

While these camps are used a lot to write pop hits, the one we’re at is thought to be a first for the world of UK rap.

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Getty Images

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Drake is among the big name rappers who’ve been accused of using a ghostwriter. This is NOT a picture of him reacting to that accusation

But since Novelist is writing all his lyrics himself, leaving everyone else in charge of the beat and the chorus, he doesn’t think it makes the music any less honest.

“You can only be you. No-one is forcing you to do anything.”

This distinction between letting someone else take care of the beat or the melody – and letting someone else write your rhymes – is one that’s crucial.

Using a ghostwriter is basically a sin in the rap world – but it’s something Drake, Jay-Z and Kanye West have all been accused of.

In the case of Drake, he found the suggestion so offensive it started a three-year feud with the man who accused him, fellow rapper Meek Mill.

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Left to right: songwriter Flyo, producer MK the Plug, Newsbeat reporter Will Chalk, rapper Ms Banks

In a studio down the hall we meet British rapper Ms Banks. “For sure ghostwriting happens,” she tells us.

“So many rappers work with writers and it’s such a blurred line now with people doing the melodic stuff as well.

“It’s just such a natural thing for people to ask you, as you’re getting bigger, if you want to get in with a writer. It’s become the norm in the rap scene.

“I don’t mind working with writers but to this day everything you’ve heard from Ms Banks, Ms Banks wrote.”

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Flohio and Shadow on the Beat

Before we go we drop in on Flohio – a rapper on the BBC’s Sound Of 2019 list- who’s working with producer Shadow on the Beat.

“There’s no right or wrong way to make music,” Flohio says. “But my words are my words – the only input a producer will have is maybe how I enunciate them.

“In a writing camp like this we’re all here to input and bounce off each other.

“It’s not that we’re writing for each other. It could end up like that, but it’s not ghostwriting because everyone is involved.”

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