In today’s episode of Twenty Thousand Hertz — the 2022 Webby-nominated and Ambie award-winning podcast about sound — host Dallas Taylor dives into the secretive and taboo world of ghostwriting and producing in pop music and hip-hop. Featuring rapper and ghost songwriter Skyzoo and producer Dame Taylor, “Ghosts in the (Hit) Machine” reveals the experiences and methods these hidden hitmakers utilize when getting into the mindset of legendary artists.
Listen to “Ghosts in the (Hit) Machine” Here: https://www.20k.org/episodes/
While the term ghostwriting wasn’t officially applied to music until the 1950s, the concept has been around for centuries. Some even consider Mozart the father of ghostwriting, given his history writing for wealthy patrons who would pretend they wrote the music themselves. It’s an abundantly common occurrence in pop music, but in the world of hip-hop and rap, the practice is sometimes frowned upon.
The episode opens in conversation with Gregory Skyler Taylor, a rapper, MC, lyricist, songwriter, and ghostwriter from Brooklyn, New York best known by his stage name Skyzoo. He explains that in the world of pop, people are used to the idea that a lot of famous artists don’t write their own songs. But in hip-hop, the music is “literally only about what you’re saying. So then people go, ‘Dang, if it’s only about what you’re saying, and you’re not even writing what you’re saying, then what are you here for?’”
But ghostwriters don’t just pen the lyrics — they provide a full picture of what the track should sound like, in the style of the artist they’re designing it for. “I’ll write the song, then I’ll go in the studio and I’ll record the song to the beat that you’re going to use and everything,” shares Skyzoo. “And I’ll even do my best to imitate your voice so that you really, really get the full picture.”
For every hit single that has a ghostwriter, there’s a highly confidential reference track that is never meant to be released — but here and there, these demos get leaked. Artists like Drake, Lil’ Kim and Kanye West have all had their top secret reference tracks put online for anyone to hear.
The episode continues with Dame Taylor, a ghost producer who has worked on tracks for the likes of Kanye, Pit Bull, Nelly, Ludacris, and more — but you won’t see his name credited on any of their songs. In fact, ghost producing is an even more hidden part of the music industry than ghost songwriting. Dame had his first brush with ghost production as the engineer for DJ Felli Fel. At the time, DJ Felli Fel was considered one of the most exciting producers in the business, making hit tracks with artists like Puff Daddy, Nelly, and T-Pain. The main reason Dame, and other ghost producers, are hired is simple: time. A famous DJ who is constantly touring might not have enough time to come up with new music, so they delegate the work to their ghost producers.
“Ultimately, ghost songwriting and ghost producing are just two more ways of earning money, in an industry where it’s notoriously difficult to make a living,” explains host Dallas Taylor. “An artist like Dr. Dre or Puff Daddy might seem like they’re just one person, but in reality, they’re an entire brand. The person we see on stage is the product of tons of behind the scenes work from managers, publicists, stylists, producers, ghostwriters, and lots of others. Their job is to help transform the person they work for into kind of a mythic figure…a larger than life persona that millions of people know and love. And if they’re treated fairly, it can work out well.”
In addition to world of ghostwriting and production, Twenty Thousand Hertz recently spoke to songwriters behind some of the biggest songs in pop history: in interviews with Desmond Child and Gizzle, “Hidden Hitmakers” explored an oft-unsung side of the industry, delivering the inside scoop on working with the likes of Bon Jovi, KISS, Ricky Martin, Snoop Dogg and more. The show has also delved into common chord progressions, synesthesia, perfect pitch, vocal nodes and more as part of its mission to tell the stories behind the world’s most recognizable and interesting sounds, from music to movies, video games, language, everyday noises, outer space and far beyond.
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