Ghost-writing: dance music’s touchy topic

Day two of the recent Electronic Music Conference began with a miracle: getting six DJs up and on a panel at 9:30am. As the program put it: “Diplo, Tommy Trash, Nina Kraviz, Matt Stafford, Marlo and a microphone. What more do we need to say?” The panel was designed to bring together players from different scenes and backgrounds, to see where outlooks lined up, and where they sparked debate. As expected, there were fascinating differences of opinion on technology, the role of the DJ and the best way for a producer to develop.

One of the talking points of the panel was dance names who call on their peers to ‘ghost-write’ tracks for them. It’s a topic that Mixmag recently covered in a feature article, Ghost In The Machine, with input from the likes of Maceo Plex (himself a former ghostwriter) and Timo Garcia on how common the practice is in the ‘underground’. The “practice is rife”, according to Mixmag, with “some of the biggest names in house and techno – and further a-field in electronic music – hav[ing] tracks entirely ghostwritten for them by other producers, with absolutely no input of their own whatsoever.”

“In a way I think it’s fucked up, but on the other hand I’ve never been in the other person’s situation,” Maceo Plex reasoned in that feature. “You can imagine there are some pretty amazing DJs that just can’t write music, and we’re at a time right now where if you don’t write your own music and you don’t have your own records out, it’s difficult to get any attention.”

The question of ghost-writing drew some nuanced opinions from the EMC panel. “I can understand why it happens,” Marlo said. “People might want to fast-track their career if they’re at a certain standard of their skill-set in production. They might have an idea that’s really great and they need some help to develop it. On the flipside, I don’t really know where I stand on the topic 100-percent. A band still needs help, they still need an audio engineer and a producer, but no one ever really questions that. On the other hand, if you didn’t come up with the original idea at all, and someone else is making your music, what part do you play? I’m not really sure where I stand.”

With production credits for a ever-growing list of acts including Snoog Dogg, Santigold, No Doubt and Usher, Diplo came from a different angle on the issue. “I think the fans don’t actually care. A lot of times with DJs it’s more about their personality,” he said. “I wrote a record for Chris Brown – he didn’t write any of it, but it’s his record. With pop acts, that’s what we do. For DJs, it’s kind of the same thing, a lot of them don’t write their records, but those are their records. What really matters is if the artist is genuine and love what they do. It’s not like there’s a war between the ones who write records and the ones who don’t. When I produced Climax for Usher, there’s probably eight writers on that, and what matters is if the music is great.”

For Nina Kraviz, despite her own ‘purist’ approach, there were a few ways to look at it. “I’m producing all my music by myself, but I have no problem with others doing it,” she said. “I believe that you can be really good in the studio but no one in front of a crowd. It could be a good combination for a good entertainer to find a good producer, and then you present it to the crowd in the correct way.

“When you take an album from a great artist like James Brown or Donna Summer, you go into the credits part and it’s like 50 people working for this record,” she continued. “And it’s normal. You can’t do mastering as well as writing songs; that’s why you have to get good mastering from a professional. When you say, ‘Wow, I love James Brown’, you actually mean James Brown. You don’t mean people who produce the records for him.”

“In some ways, the DJ is like CEO of a company,” added Tommy Trash. “You get the best people in to do the best job possible. For people who are not as strong at producing, they get in extra work. But a lot of these people getting ghost producers know exactly what they want; what they love, what they hate. They’re directing the session and steering it towards what will be aesthetically right for them.”

Stay tuned for the full Artist Panel report, and check out what went down in the EMC panel ‘Beyond Button-Pushing: What Makes A DJ?’ featuring Laidback Luke, Nina Las Vegas, Sam La More and Goodwill.