Note: I really like to rap. I rap over instrumentals whenever I get a chance, I freestyle to myself when I walk around, but I’m really embarrassed to rap in public or in front of people. I don’t know why, but it takes a lot for me to go for it. Anyway, here are some things I’ve learned.
- I’ve always said I hate comedy rap, but I don’t mean that I hate any comedy-based rap. I mean I hate when the joke is “look at me! I’m white and I’m rapping! And I’m terrible at it! Ridiculous!” There are lots of greatwhiterappers. Unless the context of the scene is that you aren’t good at rapping, you need to learn to be good at it if you’re going to do it. Way too many comedians rap, and way too many clearly do not listen to rap music.
- One of the best ways to improve your rapping immediately is to vary your rhyme scheme, and look for multiple rhymes in your lines. Don’t just rhyme the last word of each sentence. Rhyme the last two words. Use internal rhymes. You can use near rhymes!!! And you should. Eminem is a master at it. If you say it right, you can rhyme “active”, “practice”, “dogmatic”,”ecstatic”, “challenge”…whatever. You can rhyme anything with anything if you say it with the right emphasis and accent. Look at Snoop with his dizzy hizzy shit. Dog does not rhyme with hook, Snoop!
- Use assonance and consonance. It is really cool when somebody is able to rap using the same first letter or the same vowel sounds.
- Rap is rhythmic. I’m going to say that again: rap is rhythmic. It ismusical. It is more important to have flow than to be clever. Find that rhythm; understand 4/4 and 3/4 time schemes (and others, but those are far and away the most prominent time signatures you are going to encounter), and when to emphasize syllables. You can say the smartest shit in the world, but if you can’t make it flow over the beat, then you will sound like garbage. Unless you are Rza, who is just awesome no matter what.
- Hip-hop has a tradition, and that tradition continues to live and be re-defined. If you want to rap, get hip to what is happening right now, and what has happened in the past. If you don’t do your research, you will end up sounding like you stopped listening to rap music in 1989. You will sound ridiculous. You need to listen to Kendrick Lamar. Listen to Drake. Then go back and listen to Notorious B.I.G. Listen to everything, and really try to understand what makes it important, relevant, powerful, or good. Rakim was known for elevating rap through more complex rhyme schemes. Listen to what the music sounded like before, and what it sounded like after Rakim. Understand the history, and understand where the music is headed now.
- Hip-hop, more than almost any other art form, lives and breathes authenticity. You have to be honest about who you are, or you will be called out. That doesn’t mean you can’t tell stories, but those stories need to be informed by your background. The Swollen Members don’t actually swing battleaxes at dragons or whatever, but that type of language comes from who they are, what their interests are.
- Hip-hop is different than rap, but, you know…whatever. I guess hip-hop is beat-boxing, break-dancing, graffiti, rapping, DJing…the whole culture. Some people kind of think of hip-hop as underground, rap as mainstream. It’s all good though. If you’re good, you’re good. Know what I mean?
- Be specific, and use metaphors where possible. Talk about pop culture, or talk about what you know. If you are going to talk about shooting somebody (please don’t), what are the specific elements of the situation? Who are they to you? What kind of gun are you using? Are you nervous? How do you feel? If you want to be a celebrity, which celebrity do you want to be? What brand of shoes are you wearing? Specific language makes what you are saying more real, it grounds you, and it gives you more things to rap about. Instead of saying “Walking around in my new shoes”, you can say “Stepping lightly in Adidas Gazelles”, which gives you way more jumping off points, and much more of a sense of how you feel.
- Rap music has its roots in poverty, African-American culture, and African-American musical traditions (gospel, blues, street poetry, jazz, funk, soul, r&b, reggae, early house, etc.). That doesn’t mean you can’t rap if you don’t know that music, or if you aren’t African-American, or whatever. It does mean, however, that some of the common tropes, language, samples, and beats are going to come out of that tradition, and the more educated you are about all of that, the more you will be able to understand what you’re listening to, and the more authentic your own lyrics will sound.
- Freestyling is a valuable skill. When you freestyle, you channel a deep part of your subconscious. Sometimes, you just spew out words and don’t know where they come from. Watching ODB freestyle is like watching a man possessed. It’s unnerving, and speaks to how much you can be taken over. If you’ve ever soloed in guitar, or danced with abandon, or sung at the top of your lungs, or gotten angry beyond reason, or been truly in the moment as an improviser or actor…then you understand.
Photo of Dub Cee (not Josh Bowman) courtesy of Oslo In The Summertime