RIFFS AND VARIATIONS
(Alternate Takes, Live Versions, and Early Mixes)
The Notorious B.I.G. - “Queen Bitch (Reference Track)”
Ghostwriters are the worst kept secret in pop music. There’s virtually no one who doesn’t realize that plenty of artists have other people helping writing their music, no matter if they’re credited or not. Yet, some of those artists still attempt scrupulously cover-up any trace of outside help. And, no genre is more paranoid about this than hip hop. Barring the occasional anomoly like Dr. Dre,1 most rappers who use ghostwriters work furiously to keep it under wraps.2
That’s why I think it’s so interesting when evidence of ghostwriting in rap comes to light. There’s just something inherently intriguing to getting to look behind the curtains of a genre that’s so obsessed with controlling it’s own public image. For instance, I love the fact that Nas helped write “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It.” Aside from being a great fact to use to piss off ~real hip hop~ bros, it also allows you to listen to that song in a new way. The first time I listened to that track after I learned the truth about it’s composition, I found myself trying to find bits of Will’s verses that point to Nas’ involvement. Of course, there’s nothing in there that screams “NAS WROTE THIS LINE” but still, learning that fact altered how I listened to that record.
Perhaps no other musical artifact can shift the listener’s perceptions more seismically than a reference track, a demo recorded by a songwriter as a guide to an artist. The track above is an example of this, it was recorded by The Notorious B.I.G. to show Lil’ Kim how the verses to the song “Queen Bitch”3 fit into the track. This vocal demo is particularly notable because a small section of it appears in the final version of the song, where Kim left Biggie’s voice in for a couple of lines near the end of the track.
Aside from the sheer novelty of hearing an even-more-marble-mouthed-than-usual Biggie deliver line like “Got buffoons eating my pussy while I watch cartoons” or “With hardcore flows to keep a nigga dick rock”4 this track also gives us listeners a peek into the composition of the track. By comparing it to the original, you can pick out tiny tweaks and alterations that Kim put into her version, like how she tends to draw out the last syllable of line, or how she tends to spit out her words staccato while Big slurs his together. And I love the section in the middle of the demo where Biggie sort of scats / hums some filler sounds in the space that would eventually become a scratch solo. That’s really what makes this track an enjoyable listen; it’s a half finished version of a whole we now have. Thus, by comparing the two we get a quick glimpse into the composition process, which (for me at least) is absolutely fascinating.
So, in short, while the whole rap world might be scared of the revelation, learning the truth about ghostwriting can actually be a boon to the listener.
1. I really don’t think Dre has ever written a single line. There are so many stories about dudes writing for Dre that if even a fraction of them are true, they would account for every song he’s ever rapped over. I mean dude didn’t even write “The Message” which is about his own brother’s death. And that’s okay! Dude’s a great producer, and knows that he needs help to write verses worthy of his instrumentals.
I really hope Detox features a Riff Raff collab called “Rap Game Carolyn Keene.”
2. Unintentional / turrrrrrrible pun alert!
3. No, it isn’t a Bowie cover.
4. As far as I can tell, no one’s sampled any of Biggie’s vocals from this track, but wouldn’t it be an awesome sample for the chorus of a song by basically any LGBT(etc) rapper? If you know Mykki Blanco or Cakes Da Killa or someone like that, you should really send them a link to this song.
5. BONUS MINI RIFFS AND VARIATIONS:
Nicki Minaj and Chase & Status - “Saxon (Reference Track)”
I’ve been trying to figure out a way to write about this reference track that Nicki Minaj made for Rihanna way back in 2009, but it really doesn’t fit because Rihanna never wound up recording the song. So I’m just gonna stick it here. Once again, it’s fun to hear Nicki refer to herself as “Ri Ri” and everything, but in this case it’s interesting because it’s an early instance of dubstep elements being incorporated into more straightforward pop. All of the sites that posted it did so with a description that was some form of “whoa wobble bass in a pop song? that’s new and exciting!” which allows us future-dwellers to laugh at their naivete.