The D.O.C. and The Legacy of Hip-Hop's Best Ghostwriting
By Stereo Williams
The D.O.C. has an enviable legacy.
To some Hip-Hop observers, the story of Tracy Curry is one of unfulfilled promise. After all, he began as a breakout star of Ruthless Records; an N.W.A. affiliate who dropped his own classic 1989 debut No One Can Do It Better and looked primed to become one of the 1990s most successful rap stars - only to watch it all disappear after a tragic auto accident that left him with damaged vocal cords.
But it would be a great disservice to reduce The D.O.C. to what might have been. Because what we know he became is one of the best ghostwriters in Hip-Hop history. Throughout the 1990s, The D.O.C.'s pen game would lead to hits for superproducer/rapper Dr. Dre. From Ruthless to Death Row to Aftermath, you can see how important the Dallas-born rhymer was to Dr. Dre's most impactful tunes.
Immediately after recuperating from the motorcycle accident, The D.O.C. was desperately needed at Ruthless. Ice Cube had defected from the label and N.W.A., famously embarking on a solo career after financial disputes with Eazy E and manager Jerry Heller. It was The D.O.C. who stepped in to fill the writer void, penning verses for N.W.A.'s controversial sophomore album Efil4zaggin aka Niggaz4life.
“This was when Cube had just left the group," The D.O.C. explained to L.A. Weekly. "I'd just lost my voice. Everyone's wondering, 'How's NWA gonna continue, with Cube gone?' As for me, all I had was alcohol and strip clubs. I was going though a tough time. I wrote that song for everyone, and it made me feel that even though I'd lost my voice I was still valuable.”
N.W.A.'s subsequent implosion would serve as the spark for an ongoing feud between Dre and Eazy that would see the former friends firing repeated verbal shots at each other on records.
The D.O.C. would co-author "Nuthin' But A 'G' Thing," for Dr. Dre and his then-protege Snoop Doggy Dogg upon Dre's departure from Ruthless and subsequent launch of Death Row Records. Bad blood between Dre and Eazy made for high drama. The fact that neither star was known for writing their own material didn't undermine fan interest, or hurt diss tracks like Dre's "Fuck Wit Dre Day" or Eazy's "Real Muthaphuckkkin' G's" from landing on the short list of greatest diss tracks of all time.
Even though both songs featured the talents of ghostwriters.
Dre has had some of the best writing for him, from The D.O.C. and Cube to Eminem. And on Dre's hit album 2001, Jay-Z also did famous work for Dr. Dre. It was Jay who wrote every bar for the 1999 smash "Still D.R.E." Snoop Dogg confirmed that even his verses were penned by none other than Hov.
“He wrote Dre’s shit and my shit and it was flawless,” Snoop told The Breakfast Club in 2020. “It was ‘Still D.R.E.’ and it was Jay-Z and he wrote the whole fucking song.”
“Jay-Z is a great writer to begin with for himself, so imagine him striking it for someone he truly loves and appreciates. He loves Dr. Dre and that’s what his pen showed you, that I can’t write for you if I don’t love you.”
The Notorious B.I.G. famously guided the early careers of his crew/proteges Junior M.A.F.I.A., which featured soon-to-be-superstar Lil Kim. Biggie penned rhymes on Kim's debut album Hard Core, including the anthemic "Queen Bitch." The demo of the Kim classic made internet rounds in the early 00s, with Biggie providing guide vocals.
And Cam'ron's work on Kim's "Crush On You" is the stuff of legend.
“What happened was, [Untertainment CEO Lance] Un [Rivera] gave Mase $30,000 to write five songs for Lil’ Cease at that time and Mase gave me $5,000 of the 30 to write one or two of the songs,” explained Killa to Hot 97's Peter Rosenberg and Cipha Sounds back in 2011. “I wrote the ‘Crush on You’ song and they ended up keeping it for Lil’ Kim album but it was really for Lil’ Cease. The original ‘Crush on You’ is all Lil’ Cease, Lil’ Kim isn’t even on the record.”
Biggie wrote rhymes for his friend Sean "Puffy" Combs, as well, most notably on Puff's "Victory" and "Mo Money Mo Problems." But it was Sauce Money who became a go-to writer for Bad Boy impresario Puff Daddy following Biggie's 1997 murder. It was Money who penned Puff's beloved Biggie tribute "I'll Be Missing You." Puff tapped Sauce Money for the track after Jay-Z declined, and Sauce Money let his grief over his mother's death inform his tribute to B.I.G.
"He was blown away because it was everything he wanted to say," the Brooklyn native told The BBC. "It's almost like being an actor - I became him, and once I became him I knew what he would want to say to Big in remembrance."
Rumors have persisted around Will Smith's writing over the years. Fans have speculated that the former Fresh Prince recruited Nas for work on Smith's major hit "Gettin' Jiggy Wit It." But Nas himself addressed the chatter.
“Alright, let’s clear this up once and for all," Nas said during a 2014 Reddit AMA session. "I hung out with Will in the studio. And watched him write it. It was a fun studio session, and I said a line or two or three to him. It wasn’t that serious. Will Smith wrote that song. But seriously, I watched him have fun making that record on his own, and Will is a true MC."
While Nas didn't write "Jiggy With It" and Rakim has repeatedly debunked the urban legend that he was the true author of the DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince classic "Summertime," Masta Ace did do some ghostwriting for the pop-rap superstar in the late 1990s on Smith's hit album Willennium.
"The way it worked was the beat’s playing, everybody’s in their corner writing lines, trying to come up with cool metaphors, cool lines,” Ace shared in 2014 with Soren Baker.
“And then it’s like, ‘OK. Let me hear what you got. Alright. I got such, such, such. Such, such, such.’ ‘Oh, I like that one line. Let me get that. That’s dope. And then I got this. What you got? I like that line. Give me that line.’ And literally the verses were pieced together taking bits and pieces of what not just — what Will wrote, what I wrote, what Kel [Spencer] wrote, what the other writer wrote, and we formulated verses with bits and pieces of what everybody was doing.”
Of course, that isn't to dismiss The Fresh Prince's pen game. It's just evidence that even a seasoned rhymer can sometimes use an assist when crafting a hit.
Kanye West knows a thing or two about crafting hits. The Chi-town superstar has been one of the most commercially successful artists in Hip-Hop even before he debuted with The College Dropout in 2004. Ye was a highly-touted producer for acts like Jay-Z, Beanie Sigel, Scarface and more; but as he pursued a career as a rapper, he was famously dismissed by peers and execs for a perceived lack of cred, and lack of skills on the mic.
Kanye would finally become a rap superstar, but it wasn't without a little help from his friends - at least in terms of his actual raps. Frequent Yeezy collaborators in his early days, Rhymefest penned the bars for one of Kanye West's biggest smashes.
It was Rhymefest who wrote the iconic lines for Ye's "Jesus Walks," one of the rapper's most celebrated hits. The song was originally supposed to be featured on Rhymefest's debut album Blue Collar after he discovered the ARC Choir's 1997 rendition of "Jesus Walk With Me."
“It really shook me up; brought me to tears,” Smith explained in his documentary My Father's House. “I called up Kanye and said, ‘You gotta hear this song.’ He said, “Oh my God, we must write this immediately.'”
And there have been rumors for years that frequent West collaborator Consequence was the author of another Kanye classic: the 2005 Jamie Foxx-assisted uber-hit "Gold Digger."
Regardless of what you believe or don't believe, the ghostwriter has long been a mainstay in the rap game. In the age of rap superstars like Drake and Nicki Minaj, the subject of ghostwriting has been used to discredit and dismiss artist's and their successes. But that's wrongheaded on it's face; no one would or should attempt to erase the legacies of any of Hip-Hop's greats just because they had collaborators.
The D.O.C. set a standard for the rap ghostwriter. Penning lines for one of rap's biggest icons made it clear that a rhymer is just as potent a songwriter as he is an emcee. And it cemented The D.O.C. as a legend, even after his own recording career was undercut by tragedy.
When rap greatness was solely measured by freestyling in the parks, you could hold everyone to the same standard. But in a world where rappers are expected to churn out hits, you have to anticipate that a "Hip-Hop Brill Building" would sort of emerge. If that hasn't quite happened, we can at least acknowledge that there are rap Carole Kings and Rod Tempertons out there, crafting hits for superstar names. And there's no shame in hits.
*HEADER CREDIT: The D.O.C. performs at the International Amphitheatre in Chicago, Illinois in October 1989. (Photo By Raymond Boyd/Getty Images)