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How to Rap
The Art and Science of the Hip-Hop MC
By Paul Edwards
Chicago Review Press Incorporated Copyright © 2009 Paul Edwards
All rights reserved.
Honestly, nothing is nothing without content, because a lot of [rappers] be flowing but they ain't saying shit. I kick stories, I kick conscious shit, I kick braggadocio shit, freestyles. ... I kick everything.
2Mex, The Visionaries
The content of a hip-hop song (sometimes called the subject matter) includes every subject you talk about in your lyrics. It is what you're actually rapping about, rather than the rhythms and rhymes you're using (the flow), or how you're using your voice to perform, or "spit," those rhythms and rhymes (the delivery). Hip-hop artists tackle a huge range of content in their music — anything you can think of can become the subject of a hip-hop track.
will.i.am, Black Eyed Peas
[Topics come] from anything and everything. Sometimes I rap about stuff from clubs. Sometimes I rap about the world. It just comes — whatever inspires me.
Some MCs like to stick to the topics they're most familiar with, while others cover a wide variety of subjects. MURS, for example, says, "I can write about anything. A challenge to me is you saying, 'MURS, you're in a room with a paperclip and a stripper — make a song about it.'" Content will always vary from artist to artist.
Evidence, Dilated Peoples
That's the dynamic of our group. We speak on a lot of different topics because as MCs we're real different kinds of people.
Rock, Heltah Skeltah
There have always been simple rappers, and there have always been complex rappers ... there have always been party rappers, there have always been gangsta rappers. There have always been a lot of different types of rap, and there still are a lot of different types of rap.
The content can give you a direction to take a song in — Paris says, "I'll have a list of topics that I want to cover [and] after I'm sure I've covered everything, I'll start composing the actual tracks." Most MCs like to have strong content, because it helps them express themselves better as artists, rather than just rhyming for the sake of rhyming. They agree that what you're saying is just as important as the way you're saying it with your flow and delivery.
If I just wanted to pull out a rhyming dictionary and make something just to make words rhyme, I could do that, but I be having thought behind the things I say.
Lord Jamar, Brand Nubian
At the end of the day, subject matter is the thing that would really be the meat of what you're doing. A flow is a flow — I can hum a flow right now — [but] the substance to the flow is what's being said. What really makes a flow dope is what's being said within the flow, not just the flow itself.
Many listeners like to hear something being said in a hip-hop track, so having strong content is a great way to draw people to your music. If listeners know that you have great subject matter, they will be more willing to listen to what you're saying and will pay more attention to it. Entertaining content will always draw people in.
The subject matter, the content, is gonna be how it is that people are able to relate to what it is that you're saying. There are a lot of MCs that I can think of that do subject matter really, really well. Eminem does subject matter really well, where the song is not about the same shit, and it's fucking crazy. ... The subject matter is so out there that you're really entertained.
Good content also makes your lyrics deeper, which can keep people interested in your music. Instead of just listening to it a few times because it sounds good, they'll keep coming back to it because they know they can get more out of it. Chuck D of Public Enemy notes that a good flow can make up for a lack of subject matter, "but always short term. After a while it's gonna be like, OK, where do we go from here?"
The majority of MCs like to write from real-life experience — either autobiographical lyrics about things they have actually gone through or lyrics at least generally inspired by situations they've encountered.
Havoc, Mobb Deep
[My lyrics come from] life experiences, things I go through, things I see my people go through, stuff like that — everyday life.
Big Pooh, Little Brother
[I like writing about] things I'm going through at the time, things that I went through when I was younger — those are the best, because those are things I went through firsthand, the things I'm going through firsthand, and there's no better way to start off writing than explaining or writing about something you went through firsthand.
Life is a great source of material. Lyrics are readily available if you can simply rap about what has happened to you at some point in your life.
I go out there and I live it — I write my life and then I put it on paper. I don't believe in writer's block, because the cure for writer's block to me is to go out and have something happen to your ass. I'm always having something happening to me.
It's like poetry, man. Every time you got a feeling, you mad at your girlfriend, you're gonna write a rhyme about it. Cops just beat you up and arrested you, you gonna write a rhyme about it. It's definitely autobiographical.
Write about yourself. The best way to become a great MC, I feel, is to make your ordinary story, about how you grew up, extraordinary. And if you can bring your story about where you were raised, on what block and what your mama did, and all of that, I think when you do that, and you do it in a way that makes people wanna listen and care, you're on your way to being a great MC.
Connecting with Listeners
Lyrics that deal with real life are a great way to connect with listeners, as people can easily relate to what you are saying if they have been through something similar. Many of the most admired artists use this technique.
Big Daddy Kane
I think when you look at artists like Melle Mel, Chuck D, 2Pac Shakur, when you look at artists like these cats, it's the type of thing where what they're talking about is something that you've experienced, something that you're probably having a problem with. [Like] a bad part of your life, something that you hate having to deal with, and they just touched upon it in song and you felt it, because this is something that's been messing with you mentally. You felt it and it touched you that way — it hits your heart.
Brother J, X Clan
Look at Eminem. Eminem represented for all of the "white trash," as they say, with the trailer park and all of the other stuff. He took that whole American community, everybody who related with that, and he went from [there] to being a number-one artist — he's going down like Elvis in rap, homie. That's a dream now. He took a whole audience with him. That's real — you can't hate on that. [And] you think about 50 Cent, who represented the same elements for every cat hustling a mixtape, trying to get a buzz on in a city of millions of people, and overcoming that to getting a deal.
Even if listeners have not gone through the exact same experience, they will find it easier to relate to the content if they know that the artist has actually experienced it, and if the artist is able to express all the emotion of that experience in his or her lyrics.
I always want to make music that's really powerful and personal and real, and that when you hear it, you can feel the feeling that I'm going through. And so the only way that I really know to definitely ensure that is to [write] stuff about my life. Even if I'm writing things that aren't necessarily my story, it's somebody very close to me, or something that I've seen or that I've been involved in. So it's all from real-life things, and then basically at that point the idea is to just tell you what you need to know to understand where this feeling is coming from.
Writing from real-life experience is also a good way to express yourself as an artist and deal with topics that are important to you.
[Ideas come from] different places. A lot of times it's things that you go through, things that you're feeling, whatever is on your mind that particular day or that particular time period.
Gift of Gab, Blackalicious
[I write about] who I am, who I'd like to be, how the world is, how I'd like the world to be, my victories, my struggles — everything. I'm just telling my story. I think being any kind of artist, you gotta tell your story, you gotta get off your chest the things that you think about on the daily.
Although many MCs write content that is exclusively based on real life, there are also plenty of MCs who feel that there is a place in hip-hop for fictional content. They believe that because MCing is an art form, you shouldn't have to limit your imagination and the scope of your music.
O.C., Diggin' in the Crates
KRS[-One] said it best — he said, "Poetry is the language of imagination" [on the track "Poetry" from Boogie Down Productions' album Criminal Minded]. I always try to use my imagination, so I usually try to just draw from my imagination on some Steven Spielberg shit.
Fictional content can make lyrics very vivid and entertaining, as you are limited only by what you can think of, rather than having to stick to what actually happened in real life.
Andy Cat, Ugly Duckling
A lot of rap is autobiographical — it's talking about where you're from, and your life, and all of that, but I got news for you, [many classic hip-hop artists,] they used to make it all up. They weren't going out killing people every night — it's called creativity. I'll be listening with a friend to some track, and be like, "Dude, why do they think anybody cares about what they do every single day that they hang out, smoke weed, watch movies?" Make some stuff up, man.
Different types of songs may call for different amounts of fiction or reality. For example, a lot of battle-oriented songs (see chapter 2, p. 25) use fictionalized, fantastical content to get the point across and entertain the listener.
Vinnie Paz, Jedi Mind Tricks
When you're just doing some battle shit, and when you're saying you're going to chop someone's head off, it's not necessarily very realistic. So it's really whatever the song calls for. I think if you want to be picky you can critique everyone — if all [someone] talks about is their life and reality then you can critique them for favoring that too much, and if someone's whole shit's just constantly over-imaginative, then you would critique them for never really showing a part of who they are. So to me it's each individual's choice for what they want people to know about them.
Many MCs use both reality and fiction in their content. As Bishop Lamont says, "I like to combine both, because that's what the world is. As much as there is black and white, there is a gray area, and all things should be represented, and that gives it the spice."
Often, hip-hop lyrics focus on topics that can be controversial, such as violence, sex, drugs, alcohol, power, and money. These forces are sometimes said to have a negative impact on society, but artistically speaking they are inherently attention-grabbing subjects — which is why numerous classic hip-hop albums have revolved around them and will continue to do so.
No one saw gangsta rap coming. They told them they were crazy: You're gonna curse on a record and it's gonna get played? Yeah, right! And now everything on the radio [is like that]. They changed the world [and] you couldn't have told anyone. ... And I think that's the beauty of hip-hop — you'll never see it coming, whatever it is.
Devin the Dude
To each his own — that's what makes rap so incredible, man. There's so many different kinds of raps and styles and everything, and some people feel that their life is not peaches and cream and it's hard on the streets and the world is tough and they feel that they should kinda reflect that in their music.
Many artists argue that the negative topics covered in hip-hop lyrics simply reflect those elements that are present in society. One such artist is Lord Jamar of Brand Nubian — a group that is actually noted for its positive, socially conscious lyrics.
Lord Jamar, Brand Nubian
I guess hip-hop represents society in general and America, the best and worst of it. You're not going to change things in hip- hop if you don't change things in the world. Anything you find in hip-hop, you're going to find in society, especially this American society.
But some MCs also warn that if you're going to cover controversial topics, you should be ready to explain your reasons for doing so.
You might have to sharpen your blade mentally, because when somebody challenges you and says why the hell are you rapping about this and that and this, you want to be able to have a conversation with them and explain exactly why you're rapping about this and that and the other thing.
Quality and Creativity
Many of the best MCs have covered controversial subjects at some point in their careers and have found that they can inspire great creativity.
Fredro Starr, Onyx
Back in the day, what me and Sticky [Fingaz] used to do is see who could write the most fucked-up shit, like who could write the worst shit. It was fun doing that, coming up with the wildest, most outrageous shit, so it'd stand out.
But these artists put a high level of craft and attention to detail into writing about controversial subject matter. That's what separates the classic hip-hop albums from the mediocre ones. If you decide to cover these topics, then you should make an effort to do it in an entertaining, original way.
Sheek Louch, D-Block/The LOX
Even if you're going to talk about guns every second, or drugs every second, I need you to word it [well]. Give me something — bring it to life a little more.
Sean Price, Heltah Skeltah
You're talking to Sean Price. [With] my subject matter, I'm not trying to save the world. I be smacking the shit out of people in my rhymes, I be drop-kicking people. I know what I'm writing when I write it, though, so it might be some crazy shit, but I know I'm writing the crazy shit, and I want to write the best crazy shit I can write.
Balancing the Negative and the Positive
Life has both positive and negative aspects. Because artists are often influenced by the things they do and witness — the good as well as the bad — this range of experiences is reflected in their content.
Whatever is going on around me influences me, positive or negative.
My environment, stuff that I see around me, things that I'm doing — it was hard for me to write balling songs when I wasn't balling. I wrote more about pain, I wrote more about the environment which I came out of, I wrote more about struggle.
Some artists make a deliberate effort to include every side of life in their music.
Buckshot, Black Moon
It is trying to [do] the best that I can do, create something spiritual. I try to take the yin and yang approach, which is the balance. Negative and positive is a part of life, so when I write, I write from that perspective — I write from the yin and yang.
Controversial topics can reflect the harsh realities of life, or they can encourage listeners to fantasize about doing things they can't do in real life. On the one hand, the reality of struggle and pain can have a profound effect on the listener. A large part of 2Pac's appeal was the way that the listener could relate to his struggles.
2Pac spoke about the common struggle every day in his rhymes — he was never above the average street dude. He always made you feel like he was on the corner with you smoking that last dime bag of weed, with corrupt cops looking for you, and your enemy threatening your life, and how are we gonna survive, and will we die tonight. That's how Pac made you feel — with 2Pac, you feel like grabbing a pistol and going against the government.
It's about touching somebody's emotions — the best music is always music that people feel. The one common denominator that all people have and the only thing that links all men and women together is pain, and that's because of death — everybody's gonna die, I don't give a fuck how much money you got.
On the other hand, controversial content can let the listener revel in a fantasy lifestyle along with the artist. The music of the Notorious B.I.G. could have this effect.
Whenever B.I.G. would start rapping about the good life, it was like he brought you and sat you at his ever table of luxury and let you eat caviar and drink champagne and let you ride around — he made you feel like you were in a Phantom when you weren't. He made you glorify those things, the upper echelon. Even when you didn't have it, you felt like you were there with him — with B.I.G. he made you feel like you just won a million dollars.
Excerpted from How to Rap by Paul Edwards. Copyright © 2009 Paul Edwards. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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