How to Rap 2
Advanced Flow and Delivery Techniques
By Paul Edwards
Chicago Review Press Incorporated Copyright © 2013 Paul Edwards
All rights reserved.
Advanced Rhythm Techniques
One way I developed is [where] I don't write lyrics, I use sounds instead of words. As long as you've got the feeling and as long as you have the rhythm then, in the end, I add words. I come up with the flow first.
* Schoolly D *
Rhythm is a very, very important part of being an MC, yet it is often overlooked in favor of concentrating on the content and rhyme schemes. Not spending enough time on rhythm often results in work that looks great on paper and has clever lines in it but doesn't actually sound as good as the work of more rhythmically proficient MCs — MCs who can really sink into a beat and use a wide range of rhythmic techniques to entertain the listener.
Rhythm is perhaps the only element of MCing that is totally indispensable. If you have great rhythm, you can still be considered to be rapping, even with basic content and rhymes and an unremarkable voice. But an MC with no rhythm and no ability to stay on beat can't really be considered an MC, even with great content, rhymes, and voice.
Evidence, Dilated Peoples
I would say ultimately, the flow is more important in rap music than the message. And that sounds disgusting and shitty and shallow to say, but I'm going to take a stand and say it. Because I don't care how good [your message is], if I can't feel the way you're saying it, then you should find a different means to translate that message. That's my personal opinion. I mean, think about it — what if a singer had the greatest message but couldn't hit a fucking note? It just doesn't make sense. It's sad to say that "yeah, you have this great message, but no, I don't want to hear you," but it's sad but true.
[You] can be saying some phenomenal shit, telling people the secrets to life, but if on the song it's not in the pocket, it's not there, people are gonna be like, "This is wack, this is garbage." I mean, you've heard bad rappers before — you don't care what they'll say, you just go on to the next song, [even though] they can be saying some beautiful shit.
If there is a choice between very clever content on the one hand and staying on time and being properly in the pocket on the other, then staying in the pocket and having great rhythm usually wins out.
I've sacrificed a lot of ingenious metaphors because it wouldn't have fit precisely on the beat how I wanted it to.
There's definitely times when I thought of a really clever punch line, but it just didn't work [rhythmically]. So sometimes you have to sacrifice some cleverness on paper for the eventual goal of music and the sound and being pleasing to the ear.
Being on the beat and being able to do interesting things with the rhythm is arguably even more important to sounding good on a track than having a good voice (which is very important in itself, as shown in chapter 2).
Evidence, Dilated Peoples
Would you rather hear someone with a good voice and a bad pocket or someone with a weak voice and good pocket? Rhythm is more important — the pocket.
A lot of the rhythmic techniques in rapping are closer to percussion and drumming than they are to traditional poetic techniques. Although rapping uses a lot of poetic techniques in its content and in some of its rhyme techniques, rhythmically it's very similar to percussion.
Shock G, Digital Underground
I hear and remember the word positions like percussion parts in my head.
Del the Funky Homosapien
I could write out my lyrics like a drum pattern, because I know how to write drum notation, basically. Not gonna say I'm the best, but I could write out a drumbeat if I wanted to, like [the drum break of James Brown's] "Funky Drummer" I could write out on a piece of paper.
This is because rapping almost always has to keep to and maintain a strong beat, unlike poetry, which is often only on the page and can be read in different ways. Therefore, most of the terms in this section come from percussion and drumming rather than poetry analysis. As Mighty Casey says, "Your voice is like a drumbeat on the beat, so every syllable is like a different drum sound."
I always have been into music. I was in the marching band from the fourth grade all the way to the 12th grade, see, and I played the drums. I was in the percussion, in the drum line, so that's what my thing was, so that's how I did it.
Having the rhythm to being able to stay on beat, it made me sort of like a percussionist. I always wanted to play drums, so if you listen to my flow it's like I'm beating on bongos or something.
Thes One, People Under the Stairs
One approach to [coming up with the flow] is to approach it like a producer and hear a rhythm over the beat. Like if we were to add another layer of percussion over this, what would it sound like? And then try to model the rhyme pattern after that.
Writing from the Rhythm
As rhythm is such a key element to making a song sound great, the rhythm is actually where the lyrics begin for many artists — the rhythm is the first thing they come up with, before they even have words for the song. This is touched on in the first How to Rap (pp. 113–116), but it bears repeating. Coming up with the rhythm first and making that the initial focus is often the key difference between MCs with advanced flows and those without.
I come up with styles first sometimes. I might say I wanna sound like a ping- pong ball on this one, so I'll [come up with the rhythm first and then] put words to it.
What I do, I'll play the beat and I'll start mumbling words, a flow to that beat. And the words don't make any sense, they just sound like gibberish, but what I'm trying to formulate is how the rhymes that I'm gonna create are gonna flow into that beat. So the beat comes on, and I just start kinda mumbling, and once I get the bounce of how I wanna rhyme, then I start to turn those mumbles into actual words.
Thes One, People Under the Stairs
Now when I sit and hear a beat, I usually flow some nonsense over it until I find some pattern or groove that I really like and then I'll actually put words [to it]. So in a sense I'm getting a syllabic count and I'm getting the pauses and I'm getting that all together in my head and then I actually fit words into it.
Lord Jamar, Brand Nubian
You might just do a flow before you even write the rhyme sometimes, just to test the flow out, and it's meaningless [sounds], you're not even really saying anything.
T3, Slum Village
My method is usually I go into the booth and I come up with a pattern first, or flow. Once I got a flow and I already got the concept, then I match words to the flow.
Focusing on the flow first and coming up with the rhythms before the content means you're putting a lot of thought into and emphasis on how the song will sound, rather than what it will mean. This is why a lot of MCs start with the rhythm — they want to get the song to sound great before they even begin to come up with a theme or idea for the content.
You can have great subject matter, but if you don't have a nice flow, people are not gonna want to hear it. Flow is good for the ear — it's something that makes the ear like, "Oh, what is that?" Then when you get the ear, you can put something in there.
As a youth, subject matter [was more important to me], but then I'd start doing things like as soon as I got a beat, I'd record, I'd just scat over it. The words wouldn't really mean anything, I'd just get the flow down and then I'd start to figure out my lyrics from the flow, because people respond to that right away. Sometimes I'd wanna know my exact physical response to a beat without worrying about what I'm gonna rap about.
Devin the Dude
When you develop your flow, even if your subject matter isn't always right there where everybody can understand what it is, or it really doesn't make sense — if your flow is tight, you'll eventually come up with some sort of cool subject matter.
Of course, knowing many different rhythmic techniques helps immensely with this method of starting with the flow, as you have a lot of different rhythmic building blocks to create your flows. Rhythm is also closely linked to enunciation — if you can't say individual syllables clearly, it is very hard to put them precisely in time to the music. For more on enunciation, see chapter 4 of this book, p. 195.
The most common types of rapped rhythms are created by dividing each bar up into 16 segments — we can call these segments 16ths.
The following diagram illustrates how the main four beats of each bar can be shown along the top of a flow diagram, with each of those four quarters of the bar split into four more parts, to create 16ths:
To show how lyrics fit into this structure, here is an example from Spoonie Gee and the Treacherous Three's "The New Rap Language" (01:12) shown here with just the four beats along the top:
This song is one of the clearest to demonstrate 16ths with, as the vast majority of the lyrics throughout the song are split into very clear 16th segments, pronounced precisely and exactly on time within each 16th section of the bar.
Here is the same line from the same song, this time showing how the bar and lyrics can be broken down clearly into 16ths:
When you listen to the song, you can hear the rhythm that the 16ths create, and you can count along with the 16ths as the MCs are rapping (saying, "1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 ..." etc., as they say each syllable of the lyrics).
Raps based around 16ths rhythms have been around since the early years of hip- hop — as evidenced by the Treacherous Three lyrics above, which are from 1980 — and they are still the basis for most rap rhythms today.
Big Daddy Kane
There were great lyricists before us [the MCs from the mid to late '80s]. I don't know if you've heard any of the Kool Moe Dee stuff when he was with the Treacherous Three, but Kool Moe Dee was an incredible MC, early '80s, late '70s. It's like when you listen to Rakim, you can hear a heavy Kool Moe Dee influence.
I learned how to rap listening to old school people — I used to hear old school rappers like Kool Moe Dee and the Treacherous Three, and Busy Bee, and Schoolly D, and Just-Ice. And when I got [a bit older, I also listened to] Boogie Down Productions, and Rakim, Kool G Rap. I just listened to them kinda guys since I was real young, and I kinda picked up a knack for rhyming. I used to memorize their lyrics and spit them as if they were mine [when I first started learning].
Styles Using 16ths
If 16ths are used on a beat that is at a midtempo (medium speed), then it will often make the rapping sound conversational and like everyday speech. This is because when 16ths are rapped over a midtempo beat, it closely mimics the speed at which most people speak — it's not slow like a chant or fast like a speed rap, it's at a conversational pace. This is useful if you want the flow to showcase your content without overshadowing it.
One Be Lo, Binary Star
My favorite MCs are the ones who sound like they're talking to you. Sometimes the rhythm is more dominant than the actual commentary, but I try to write my rhymes in a way where even though it's a specific rhythm or a specific word pattern, that unless you're closely paying attention to it, you don't even really notice it. I leave that for the people who want to study that, but for the people who don't, I just wanna make sure that they're swallowing what I'm saying, as opposed to like, "Oh, man, that rhythm is crazy!"
Using 16ths on a midtempo beat allows rap lyrics to be reasonably sophisticated rhythmically, but not so fast that the content will be hard to decipher. For example, many Nas and Jay-Z songs mostly use rhythms in 16ths over midtempo beats, like this example of a line from Nas's "It Ain't Hard to Tell" (00:38):
This type of conversational flow really allows Nas's incisive content to take center stage, while still being rhythmically complex and precise.
Brother J, X Clan
I admire Nas when he's poetic — I like when he does like really busting like [on] "One Mic." I wanna hear him do more of that Lauryn Hill, like really talk like a dude who's been there, done that. Talking about, if I ruled the world at this stage this is what I would do, I would build with positivity and with some kind of love for tomorrow's youth for the seeds, for the understanding man. I like to see artists of that kind of writing capability step there.
The speed of a track is usually measured in beats per minute, which is shortened to bpm. This counts the number of beats that occur in each minute of music. Around 90 to 100 bpm would be considered a midtempo beat — the slower the beat, the more room there is for the syllables in the rap.
"Murder Death Kill" is around 90 beats per minute, so I was able to get more syllables out of each bar. The artist is given more space to create when rhyming at a slower tempo, which is probably the reason people dig East Flatbush Project's "Tried by 12" [instrumental] so much for freestyles ... it is 88 bpm.
16ths on Faster Beats
The second most common use of 16ths is to rap them over faster beats, which creates a faster rap — this was popular on many classic 1980s hip-hop tracks, such as Big Daddy Kane's "Set It Off," Kool G Rap's "Men at Work," Rakim's "Lyrics of Fury," and the earlier example, Spoonie Gee and the Treacherous Three's "The New Rap Language." Although it is not done as often in more recent hip-hop, it can still be used to good effect.
Big Daddy Kane
Big Pun had a Kool G Rap kind of flow, but it was, like, during a time when no one else was trying to have that faster flow — everybody else was either trying to sound like Jay-Z or Jadakiss. And Pun came with that fast G Rap kind of flow and he won — he was different, he stood out.
With this use of 16ths, the beat will actually determine the speed of the flow — anything upwards of 100 bpm is generally considered a fast beat, and an especially fast beat would be around 120 bpm. This doesn't always mean that the lyrics have to be written to the beat, as sometimes a rap can be written for a midtempo beat and then simply rapped faster over a fast beat later.
Kool G Rap
All my early records I didn't write to the tracks. I don't think I started writing to the tracks until the third album.
Big Daddy Kane
I have faster songs ... "Warm It Up Kane" and "Set It Off" are the same tempo, they're both 113 [bpm] and "Wrath of Kane" I think is like 120 to 125.
"Daisycutta" is 112 beats per minute, so it gives you less time to squeeze words in, so you adapt to the drums.
Variations with 16ths
The previous examples showed lines that had a syllable on every 16th segment of the bar. However, to create variation and different patterns, certain segments can have no syllables said on them, and certain syllables can be stretched to cover two or more 16ths. Here is another line from Spoonie Gee and the Treacherous Three's "The New Rap Language" (01:19):
The highlighted segment does not have a syllable in it. This breaks up the regular pattern to create variety, so that not every single 16th segment of the bar is occupied by a syllable.
This is an example from Nas's "Represent" (00:20):
Here, most of the 16ths in both bars are filled with individual syllables, except for the highlighted places. In the first bar, the 9th and 10th segments are both taken up with the syllable "last," and the 15th segment is empty. Similarly, in the second bar, the 9th and 10th segments are both covered with one syllable, "blast," and the 15th segment is left empty.
Again, variety is created in the example by altering where the syllables are present and not present, as well as lengthening certain syllables to cover more than one 16th segment. We will see more examples of lengthening certain syllables in chapter 2 (p. 108).
Using 16ths in this way with subtle variations makes it possible to maintain a relatively complex and interesting flow, while still keeping it conversational and easily understandable to the listener. A lot of MCs find this kind of flow ideal because of this balance — this type of flow isn't overly simplistic, and it's not too difficult for the listener to make out the content.
So hip-hop is a conversation, right, rapping, it's a conversation. When you talk to people on a normal daily basis, you just get your point across. It's about getting your point across as graphic as you can, and as fluent as you can, and as easy as you can so that the listener can feel you. If you're too difficult for the listener to feel you, then you might as well just not write it. (Continues...)
Excerpted from How to Rap 2 by Paul Edwards. Copyright © 2013 Paul Edwards. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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