Rap Rebirth: Ghostwriting in the 21st Century
24 year old entrepreneur Jesse Kramer has a vision, “I want to improve hip-hop lyrics. I want it to be possible for someone with passion and a dream to put out a quality album even if they have writer’s block.” Jesse is a ghostwriter. He writes lyrics anonymously for rappers. His company Rap Rebirth, founded in 2008, has clients all over the world and boasts an article in June’s XXL Magazine. For just $24.99 aspiring rappers can purchase an 8-bar sample complete with an audio reference track (so they can hear how to flow). For $699 they can get a song and, for a few thousand, a whole album. HHR sat down with Jesse to discuss his business, ghostwriting’s role in hip-hop, and the creative process.
HHR: How did you get started writing hip-hop?
Jesse: In middle school I had a business selling CD mixes. Through that I got exposed to a range of music and what I liked best was rap. The first album I ever bought was Dre’s “2001”. From there it was Jay-Z, Eminem and DMX. Then I started getting deeper, studying the history. Nas became my favorite artist along with Rakim, A Tribe Called Quest, Lauryn Hill, Jeru the Damaja, Biggie, Canibus, Wu-Tang, Ras Kass, AZ, Pete Rock & CL, Mos Def, Talib and so on. At a point I was listening to so much hip-hop I felt I had to create. I began to write lyrics. At first it was basic. I was building a vocabulary of what rhymed. Once the rhymes came naturally I moved on to flow and rhythm, and then content. I started posting lyrics online and was encouraged by the positive feedback. After about 7 years of practice I was writing at an advanced level.
HHR: And where did Rap Rebirth come in?
Jesse: I went to college at USC and studied Film and Business. In my entrepreneurship classes we were encouraged to come up with business ideas. I took my passion for writing lyrics with what I was learning in class and started Rap Rebirth. It took a while to get the first client. But the business grew and eventually blossomed.
HHR: How did you promote it?
Jesse: Primarily through online marketing: Google AdWords, social media and search engines. Also through word of mouth and promotion at shows and events. Later it was through customer service. I went above and beyond for my clients to make sure they were satisfied and their lyrics were dope.
HHR: How does the process work?
Jesse: An artist tells me about their life, their style and what kind of subject matter they like. They buy a sample verse, send over an instrumental and then they get the lyrics. If they like it they buy a song or an album.
HHR: And if they don’t like it?
Jesse: We’ll figure out what’s not working and do a revision. The company’s policy is that we offer a full refund if they’re still not satisfied after the revision but that hasn’t happened yet.
HHR: Do you ever recycle lyrics?
Jesse: Never. Clients pay with hard earned money and they deserve to get something unique.
HHR: It’s been alleged Rap Rebirth writes for mainstream acts. Any chance you’ll make news here and drop a name?
Jesse: MC Hammer. No, I’m playing. I can’t. We have a strict confidentiality policy.
HHR: Clearly there’s a lot of controversy around what you do. Will you speak to that?
Jesse: Yes. This is the first time hip-hop ghostwriting has been out in the open. In the past it was all done behind closed doors. Now anyone can buy lyrics and that’s bound to attract attention. And there are valid concerns of authenticity. If Jay-Z’s “Reasonable Doubt” was written by someone else would it still be a Jay-Z album? Yes and no. It would be collaboration between him and whoever helped. But in reality DJ Premier, Clark Kent, and Ski all contributed beats so in part it’s their album too. Adding a second writer to that process only expands the collaboration. (Keep in mind this is hypothetical, Jay-Z wrote his own lyrics on Reasonable Doubt.) I believe an artist can use a ghostwriter and keep their authenticity as long as they stay true to their own artistic vision. If they’re the ones calling the shots then a writer is another instrumental at their disposal. My clients often come to me with amazing concepts that they can’t quite express. I help them put words to their ideas and their music is better because of it.
HHR: It’s been said that ghostwriters ruin hip-hop. What’s your response?
Jesse: What people react to is the loss of clear authorship. They feel they lose a connection to the person who’s rapping, presented on the album cover, and in videos and interviews. But music is more than one person’s self-expression. It’s about telling stories, exposing truths, making you feel good, making you feel sad, and connecting with something innate in all of us. If a ghostwriter can help bring out those things in an artist’s music it’s a good thing. The quality of the music is improved and the genre is elevated. I’ll give you two examples. “The Message” preformed by Dr Dre (co-written by Royce da 5’9″) and “Getting Jiggy With It” performed by Will Smith (co-written by Nas). “The Message” was a heartfelt song with intricate lyrics. It connected with listeners because of the production, Dre’s excellent delivery, and Royce’s dope lyricism. Those elements together made a classic song. “Getting Jiggy With It” was a basically a dance songbout having fun. Will Smith’s charisma elevated the song. But underneath it was inventive wordplay and multi-syllabic rhymes which Nas provided. Putting those two elements together created a hit that sparks nostalgia for everyone.
HHR: Speaking of sparking do you smoke weed when you write?
Jesse: No, I don’t drink either but to each their own. For me it’s all about staying sharp so the words flow. I usually hit the gym and eat a good meal before I write. Also I find the best lyrics come in the morning.
HHR: Is there anything you won’t write about?
Jesse: Yes. I won’t write anything racist, bigoted or hateful toward women. Also if I think something’s corny I won’t do it.
HHR: Earlier you mentioned a lot of old school artists. Who are some
rappers that inspire you nowadays?
Jesse: Jay Electronica, Elzhi, Fashawn, Lloyd Banks, Raekwon, Kanye West, Royce Da 5’9″, Eminem, Nas, Andre 3000 and Rick Ross.
HHR: Rap Rebirth is currently an independent entity. Would you ever want to write in house for a label?
Jesse: It’d depend on what they were offering. Independence is nice but so are big label budgets. It would have to make sense for everyone involved.
HHR: Where do you see Rap Rebirth five years from now?
Jesse: In the medium term we’re developing an online marketplace for lyricists to sell verses to rappers. That way a kid with a lyrical gift can eat off of his writing. Long term I’d like to partner with certain companies and incorporate hip-hop lyrics into consumer products. Like how dope would it be if a flavor of Vitamin Water or a Nike shoe came with an inspirational hip-hop verse.