I had this idea a while back - writing an article on how to rap. Where I’d give some good tips (in my humble opinions) on how to become a skilled, great and possible an iconic rapper. I’ve been listening to rap/hip-hop for a while now - passionately since 1996 (I know, I started in the past millennium). And since then, I’ve heard, absorbed, listened closely, and tried to understand rap as an artform, what makes it tick(bop), and how you can become a very skilled rapper that people want to listen to, recite your rhymes, and tell friends about.
So, before I clue you in on the road to riches from rap, I’d like to put my credentials on the table. More like, explain why you can trust these principles I’ll outline here even though you haven’t yet heard any of my stuff on the Billboard Top 100 (very soon though, but I might be croonin’ instead).
To support my credibility, I’ll use an analogy from the sports world:
A coach is usually can not do what the athlete(s) he coaches can do. He just needs to understand the principles behind doing it better, which is what he teaches the athlete.
Well, he does occasionally provide motivation (which I will!), and discipline (which you will!)
Let’s get to it.
- Some famous Rappers
Learn How to Rap
Rap is an art. Consider it an art form just like directing a movie, writing a novel, or making a sculpture. Ultimately, you get good at it by practicing. However, you need to understand WHAT you need to practice, principles to adhere to. Truly, there are principles - because you’ll find that a lot of rappers have many things in common. The first principle I’ll talk about is confidence.
Some tips on Confidence
When you’re in the studio, in the booth (you know, the foam-padded room where you have your microphone), it is important to know what your end goal is. Your end goal is to say things(rhymes, words, sentences, lines) that will go well on the beat, and ultimately, that people want to hear (still being true to yourself). One guiding force behind whatever you say should be to ‘project confidence’. You should clear ALL doubts about your skill, accomplisments, and shortcomings. Before you start speaking into the microphone, you should absolutely have thoughts in your head like:
"I AM the best"
Remember, Muhammad Ali started saying this waaaay before he became number 1.
"I sound very good"
(You’re very confident, you’re not trying to please anybody. You will now tap into your on style. More on that later)
"People want to hear what I have to say."
(When you know this, you’ll probably express yourself meaningfully. With thoughts like will say important, unique, personal, and striking things.)
"I’m free to express myself the way I want to"
(Have you heard of ODB? Ol’ Dirty Bastard of Wu Tang? He projected absolute confidence, and he sang soulfully - trying to hit high notes, rough notes, even sometimes singing off key. If he didn’t care about sounding like Celine Dion, why would he care if you cared? The moment you stop caring, you’ll be free to express your on individuality.)
A note about songs: When people listen to music generally, think of it as…trying to tap into a SPECIFIC energy/emotion. A song might be 4 minutes long, but there is a particular way it makes you feel overall, which no other song can. Ever get that feeling where there’s one song you want to hear at that moment. It’s probably cause you kinda know exactly how you the song makes you feel, and you want to get that feeling again. A lot of times, listening to typical rap music fills you with feelings and thoughts of aggression, being more dominant, and good ones will give you confidence in the mix too. Don’t get it twisted, these aren’t necessarily good or bad…there’s probably a place in music for all emotions you feel. So, try to be clear about the way you want the listener to feel, when you’re making your song/lyrics. Begin with the end in mind :)
This brings be to the second principle - your own individuality, and the flow.
Individuality(STYLE) and the Flow:
This is the elusive part about success in anything. Most people think that you can become successful by doing exactly what somebody else did to become successful.
Allow me to introduce two terms : FORM and STYLE.
I’ll be more specific…
STYLE is what all rappers have in common (rhyming, projecting confidence…), cause it’s the artFORM. On the other hand, STYLE is what ONLY YOU should be able to do really well.
STYLE is what should be unique to YOU, which others shouldn’t be able to imitate easily, if you’ve practiced being you very well. e.g. Twista is a rapper, so his artform is the same as that of Jadakiss and Ludacris. But his STYLE is fast.
Bone Thugs-n-Harmony once had a small beef (feud) with Twista, or maybe it was vice versa. In an interview, Krayzie Bone explained that sure, they both rap fast, but Bone Thugs have harmony and stacattos in their flow. e.g. their styles were kinda similar, but on a closer look, they are different.
Something I’ve noticed is that you can do things that are uniquely you to different degrees of perfection. You can do what comes from inside you with little skill and practice - but everyone will know you haven’t perfected the art of being YOU. So, you can practice your own unique style, and others will know you’ve perfected your unique style. Just cause it’s unique doesn’t mean it’s gonna blow! :)
PERFECTING YOUr unique STYLE is what makes some people ICONS.
…and this applies to any artform.
Notice how Alfred Hitchcock perfect his own FORM of making thrillers and suspenseful movies.
Notice how Matt Groening (creator of the now 20-season-long ‘The Simpsons’ and the new Futurama), has perfected his own FORM of making cartoons that are daring, bold, entertaining, and probably addictive.
Notice how Banksy perfected his own unique FORM of making graffiti that is stiking, politically subversive, funny, and pleasing to look at. On a personal note, I admit that the style of gorillas I design for The Love Network t-shirts, are influenced by one of Banksy’s styles… monochrome art.
Notice how Michael Jackson had his own STYLE of dressing and dancing.
When you perfect what comes from within you, it is inevitable that it will be considered GREAT. I think this is a very key idea to understand how to be successful at making good art (rap, paintings, movies, novels, sculptures, even websites).
Thus far, I’m talking a bit about the philosophy behind art-forms and rap in general. I’ll get to the nitty gritty real soon. I’m including this because it’s a bit important not to copy anybody, but be yourself. I know this is impossible, probably because you might have wanted to rap because you heard someone’s song, and decided this was one thing you wanted to do. TRY to be original - yourself.
A short explanation of STYLE:
The STYLE is basically the principles which you see in the art form. In rap, the STYLE includes things like rhyming (all rappers rhyme. All great rappers have rhymed - time after time, even if they didn’t get a dime).
Another element of the STYLE is something like the structure of the song. For example, some songs have a verse, then a hook(chorus, but in hip-hop/rap/modern song, it’s called a hook). Tupac songs, Biggie songs, Jay-Z songs, Nas songs, Eminem songs…all have hooks and verses. It’s part of the STYLE. On the other hand, there are those who FREESTYLE. What really makes my point here is that not all so called ‘freestyles’ are done impromptu (right off the dome) - although this is considered a bit like cheating. What’s important here is that freestyles do not have a chorus. A freestyle is usually in the form of one long verse. It’s a free-style because they’re not sticking to all the style elements a typical mainstream rap song has (where’s your hook, dawg?). However, freestyles do rhyme.
In a nutshell: To understand STYLE in art better, let’s take a chair.
The STYLE principle of a chair is basically :
1. It’s something that provides a stable surface for you to sit on, above the floor.
And that’s ALL there is to the style of A chair.
I know I’ve talked a bit about style (but it’s important to understand!). Let me now talk about the FORM of a chair.
1. As long as you follow the style element (which is, an elevated stable surface for people to sit on!), you can do whatever else you want, and it will still be called a chair by anyone who sees it. It may or may not have a backrest to lean on. It may have three or four legs. Or even five. It can be made of wood, metal, plastic, or foam. Just as long as people can sit on it. It can be 2 feet off the ground or 4 off the ground. As long as people can sit on it.
This means, you can make a great rap song very about anything as long as you RHYME, and PROJECT CONFIDENCE.
Now to THE FLOW:
Let’s talk about the FLOW. This is your own way of rhyming, the things you rhyme about, your way of projecting confidence, and the specific things you say on your songs to sound confident. So, the flow is essentially the RHYME, projection of CONFIDENCE(which I’ve talked about)…and let’s add this aspect called BELIEVABILITY, and putting your unique personality on a song.
I consider the RHYME to be the most important element in rap. I sometimes thing it’s the very fact that people want to be entertained by how you rhyme that makes it pleasing to hear. Why do people recite tongue-twisters like “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers”? We like the repeating sounds. In some ways, rap is rhyming poetry - just that it’s now with rhythm. Interesting…I just noticed that the words rhyme and rhythm are quite similar. hmm…
There are different ways to rhyme in rap. Understanding these different rhyming STYLES and using them alternatively in your song is a great skill to develop. This will make people want to hear what you have to say on your song more. AND essentially, that’s who a successful rapper is. Somebody that people just want to hear. They just want to know what you have to say, because when they listen to you, they like the feeling they get: entertaining rhymes(and you keep it entertaining by switching up your rhyming styles and content), confidence, and more.
The most common way(might be the easiest) is…
Rhyming at the end of each bar.
I like to rhyme every bar,
I got a fine little car,
Living the life, of a rap superstar
This technique can be very useful especially when you have something you want to say, just the way the sentence/idea came to your mind. Like…you don’t want to have to switch up the wording of what you want to say, because you think it’ll reduce the impact of what you have to say.
Also, it’s not just the last words that can rhyme. You can make the last two words (or three or four! If you can) sound alike. Here’s an example…from Styles P’s freestyle on this video (DJ Greenlantern’s Invasion)
I stay on point like a pencil, kid
Aiming at the temple, kid
So don’t even come outside
I say the game’s all mental, kid
Catch me in a rental kid
I’ma show you how I ride
Remember how I talked about repetition? How we just love repetition? Oh, and this is the reason why advertising works! Notice how he uses the word ‘kid’ four times. It makes an impact. But what makes it interesting is all he says before ending each line with kid. And he uses the last two words to rhyme. CAM’RON is another rapper who uses this style of rhyming the with the same word even up to 3 times a lot.
The next rhyming technique is called…
The Inside Rhyme
I personally consider Eminem to be a master of this technique. Let’s look at the starting lyrics of his song, “Business”, which is on his album “The Eminem Show”, which just happened to be the best selling album of 2002 too ;)
He starts off ‘Business’ with…
You’re about to witness hip-hop in it’s most purest,
Most rawest form, flow almost flawless
Most hardest, most honest known artist,
chip off the old block, but old dock is back!
You might need to actually hear the song to understand how good his delivery of these lines is. A lot of times, the inside rhyme depends on the accent and pronunciation of the rapper. For example, somebody from Uganda doesn’t have the accent to make the words ‘hardest’ and ‘flawless’ sound alike. But Eminem does (and so does your uncle Marcellus Wallace - notice how this character name from Pulp Fiction even has a bit of the inside rhyme element).
Basically, the inside rhyme is based on repeating the sounds of the syllables, IN the line, not just at the end of the line. e.g. a lame line like
“Why try, cause I…think twice
I’m so nice, like ice in a glass of wine.”
Another way of rhyming is what I’ll call ‘Sound Patterns’
Sound Patterns and Tone
When rapping, it might be obvious that your voice is your instrument. So, as much as it’s your lyrics that people are listening to, it’s also the tone and rhythm of the words. It’s important to vary the tone you use, even in one verse, to keep people interested. Especially in today’s short attention-span society :)
An example of how tone could work:
At the begining of a verse, you might want to sound calm. As you proceed into your verse, you might want to get serious (just as a movie could insert an intense violent scene or sex scene ten minutes in, to absorb you in). After you sound serious (talking about serious s**t, of course), you could sound calm and dangerous. After this, you could now end your verse sounding playful.
Two good examples of using tone/mood skillfully that come to mind:
In ‘Hail Mary’, by Tupac…notice how at the end of the song, he really deepens his voice and calmly/dangerously raps…
"come with me, Hail Mary nigga run quick see…
What do we have here now…”
So, try to repeat syllables sometimes within lines in your lyrics.
This change of tone makes your listener pay attention again, cause you changed something on them.
Another example, also from Tupac is from ‘Hit Em Up’. This diss song to Biggie/Junior Mafia, has a lot of anger in it. Right from the start, he seems so angry. I consider this the best diss song of all time, because you can feel his rage throughout the song.
One reason it’s important to let your tone match the lyrics in every second is that it makes it seem BELIEVABLE. And if people believe you, well…you can be their messiah. no joke. haha. well, joke. You know what I mean? In ‘Hit Em Up’, because of Tupac’s angry tone, you’d even doubt he wrote the rhymes on paper. It seems like he just ran into the studio, gave a hand signal to the engineer, and just went to vent and let it all out. Different tones project different moods, and if it matches your lyrical content, it seems natural, and real. Which is priceless…when making a song.
Sometimes, when I’m listening to a great verse…by the 10th listen or so, I try to substitute the words for maybe a snare drum, or hi-hat. And listen to the rhythm of the verse. Some rappers really nail this down perfectly.
One verse that comes to mind is Lil Wayne’s verse from ‘Always Strapped’. I really recommend you listen to this song, and see what I mean. The rhymes have a perfect rhythm, and the syllables are pretty much perfect matches in each bar:
"I’m the hottest shit, jumpin out the coffee pot
Man, I’m just tryin’ to get my spot, like a polka dot
Lil’ kush makes my eyes and my shoulders drop,
Lil’ syrup, and I can make a soda pop
Keep talin’ and I can make my soldiers pop…”
Listeners like to hear patterns. As humans, we probably seek out patterns naturally. Maybe that’s why we profile people, and have stereotypes.
Why do you think pretty much ALL…well, maybe 96% of ALL songs RHYME?
Even blues songs, love ballads, country songs…why do we like tongue-twisters? Like “peter piper picked a peck of pickled peppers..”. We just do these things to tickle our minds, ears. So, when you’re writing a verse, try to harness the entire power of patterns and rhymes.
Stay tuned…this article is growing!