The Art of Rapping
Created | Updated Mar 5, 2009
Rap music is the cornerstone of hip-hop. The genre has its origins in African American culture and indeed, rappers are more frequently Afro-American than not. Tensions between races are still very significant on a social level in the States, especially in the city environments where many urban rappers consider their roots to be. This can make it difficult for people of other ancestral backgrounds to become involved in the style.
However, as the global success of the controversial white rapper Eminem has proven, music is blind and will always lean in favour of talent when it can - though potential white rappers should be wary of the risks of ridicule from their black hip-hop counterparts. And yet, differences in skin colour can be used to an advantage. Eminem regularly makes references to his race, and observes that this may have added to his success, as white music buyers feel they can relate to him better.
From this launching point, Eminem fans have gone on to try music from other groups and artists such as D12 - Eminem's rap group - and Dr Dre, a black rap artist who produces much of his music. The soundtrack to Eminem's film, 8 Mile, has also been reviewed favourably for introducing a number of lesser-known artists. Effectively, this has helped expose white culture to the genre and further diminish the strong racial barriers. Thanks to this, it is probably easier now for white rappers to achieve success than it ever was before. Hence nobody of any culture should feel that they cannot attempt to rap themselves for any reason.
Rap music is dependent mostly on rhyme and complex rhythmical patterns. Once you start writing, there are a lot of things to take into account, to ensure your rap sounds professional or at least half-decent. Some of the most fundamental aspects are described below. A basic understanding of rhythmical devices and time signatures in music may be of use to you here.
Rap songs are usually in four-four time (four beats in a bar) and musically they follow a repeated four-bar phrase. The introduction often involves bringing in the instrumental parts, with the rapper giving introductory expressions or freestyling. During the verse, the artist has to follow the basic structure and rhythm as closely as possible, giving the sense of an accent or change of rhythm at the start of every cycle or rep (repetition, ie the four-bar phrase). After a number of reps - usually more than four, sometimes going up as far as ten, you end the verse with a relevant statement, then go into the chorus. The chorus leads smoothly into the next verse, and so on until between two and three verses have been performed. An outro is then usually included, often repeating the instrumental parts as they fade out. The rapper makes closing expressions, sometimes revelations or conclusions based on the subject just discussed.
A simple approach to rhyming in a rap song is simply to introduce a rhyming word at the end of every statement. A single statement in its simplest form is usually the length of a bar, hence giving you four rhyming words in a rep. For example:
I'm syncopated like an asthmatic dancer
Breathing in like a smoker who contracted lung cancer
This is a good way to start rapping as it allows you to use simple rhythms, but it is unwise to use this simple method too frequently in a serious rap, for fear of making it to sound dull and repetitive. Nonetheless, rhyming is an essential aspect of a rap and this is a good way to get started. Once you've mastered the basics, you can then try writing with a rhyme in the middle of the line. Note also, by bringing in a rhyming word early in the line, you can easily and effectively change what rhyming word you are using:
I'm syncopated like an asthmatic dancer
Breathing in like a smoker who contracted lung cancer
What chance do ah have? I don't live my life in the fast lane
Treating life like a board game, poisons dripping through my brain
I can't rap, I'm far too sane... etc
From here, you can begin to develop your style further. You could try using several rhyming words together...
I can't rap, I'm far too sane, it makes my tunes lame
Think I need a new name? Maybe I do. I'm sayin'
... or try interchanging between different rhyming sounds...
I'm sayin', There's no kind of music I will never attempt
But rap ain't easy - and I've proved it with the chorus I wrote - it went
... or any number of different approaches. Half rhymes and alliteration (where the start of a word sounds the same as the start of a preceding word: bottle of beer, etc), two statements where the rhythm and rhyming patterns are the same or very similar... the possibilities are almost endless.
The subject in a rap (ie what the rap is about) is as important as anything else. The best raps usually make some kind of statement expressing the views of a character, or describing an event that happened. The character is almost always described in the first person, and to be convincing it is often best to create a persona who is an extreme version of yourself, giving yourself a pseudonym or alias. Consistency of your character's feelings and opinions is essential, and you should try to stick to the same persona for the whole song and, if possible, for as long as you perform under the same alias. By sticking to your own views consistency can be easier, especially if you use rap as a means of expressing your own darker feelings clearly without fear of repercussion. After all, the persona you create is up to you. Make sure you like what you create.
All artistic forms rely on inspiration and rap is no exception. However, do not assume that if you listen to Jay-Z all the time any rap you write off the top of your head is going to sound as professional. Nor are you going to sound like him, or any other rapper worth his salt, unless you get a lot of practice in. Just as a good guitarist won't assume he can write a Hendrix-style guitar solo without at least being able to play 'Purple Haze' and 'Voodoo Child', a rapper-in-the-making will learn the rhymes of his favourite artists. This way you can gradually form an understanding of the rhymes, rhythms, structure and persona that these artists use, and take them to your own level. Evolution of rap music has of course greatly surpassed the attempts of Wham! in the 1980s, and only by listening to the style as it is now can the potential rapper begin to observe these patterns and incorporate similar ideas into their own rhymes. Plus, it's fun to be able to spit out a rendition of 'Forgot About Dre' on request.
Controversy and the Music Business
Controversy has always been closely associated with rap music and it will be hard to distance yourself from this. Successful rap artists, like so many other rock and pop acts through history, are often perceived as revolutionaries by the music-buying public. This is probably the key source of their appeal to the teenage community. Put simply, controversy sells: it is a tried-and-tested method of cracking the music industry, and it does work. What you have to decide is whether or not this is the path you want to take, as there are other options available.
The rap group NWA (which Dr Dre was a member of until 1992) were notorious/renowned for the introduction of gangster rap, where violent acts and suggestions were graphically portrayed. Also significant to this style are sexual practices, drug consumption, and quite a lot of bad language that renders the whole thing incomprehensible when the songs are censored for radio. Bear in mind that, though these things are graphically described, they are described honestly. The artists usually rap about specific occurrences that never really happened or, at least, never happened to them. Yet the subject matter is consistent with events that can or have happened to others in the poor, inner-city environments where many rappers grew up. This means that the legal, moral or physical consequences of these actions are discussed just as often as the actions themselves. De La Soul, for example, have chosen to rap about the dangers of drugs. Eminem teamed up with the relatively unknown Obie Trice for a frank (though still slightly twisted) song about sexually-transmitted diseases.
A chicken-and-egg conundrum is associated with the controversy surrounding hip-hop: critics or opponents to the music choose to regard it as being a direct cause of crime by suggestion, while others believe that rappers are merely describing life as it is in their home environments. But that is not to say that music and life are inseparable: to name but two, both Tupac Shakur and - more recently - Jam Master Jay (one-third of rap group Run-DMC) were fatal victims of gun-related crime. In fact, this real-life relationship with gangster life is rare, though many artists are not above the odd casual offence to further their reputations amongst those who count such things. To those who don't, their actions are separate from their music as it always should be. So, if you should choose to be a gangster rapper, there is wisdom in your decision. But caution is advised; controversy buys as many enemies as it does friends.
Other rappers choose a different path altogether. Will Smith's success during the 1990s came without a single swear-word or sexual reference to be seen, using his acting success rather than controversy to boost his popularity. The Fun Lovin' Criminals, despite their name, confined most of the tales of bank-robbery to their rebellious youth and have instead started to voice fuzzy feelings for their significant others ('Mini Bar Blues,' with BB King, is a good example of that). The road for the clean rapper is not a lonely one by a long shot, if you can pull it off. The choice is yours.
Freestyling is the art of rapping with little or no preparation. Obviously, for most people, freestyling sounds inferior to rehearsed works; but a talented freestyler is worthy of respect nonetheless. It is actually extremely difficult to do - much harder in fact than writing, though it should come with both practice and experience if you are committed enough. Knowing other raps well and, of course, writing your own can be key sources of on-the-spot inspiration; other than that you're really on your own. Go to it, and good luck.
Instrumentally, rap music is almost always in four-four time and tends to rely on the repetition of a sequence called a four bar phrase which, by convention as much as name, is four bars long. As this cycles, it provides a sturdy and secure background while the artist rhymes freely over the top. Though it is usually without melody, at least as far as the chorus, it is important to remember that the rap itself is rhythmical rather than tuneful, so some foundations of a vague melody, at least something memorable, is often advised. Otherwise, the instrumental part can take inspiration from many other genres from rock (try Run-DMC or Limp Bizkit) to classical (Dr Dre isn't above the odd string quartet), from musical (Jay-Z's 'Hard Knock Life' takes a sample from the musical Annie) to madrigal (why not?) - whatever fits the mood. It is the treatment of the style in structure that makes it unquestionably hip-hop. Be wary of commercialism, however - Gorillaz, for example, have been accused of being 'pop', and most rap artists won't be too happy about that.
Importantly, the better rappers adjust the rhythm of their rap based on the rhythmical structure of the backing track, indicating that the instrumental parts are often best written before the rap is. It is easier for a rapper to latch on to a repeated rhythm, than for a composer to catch onto rhythmical structures of raps written without a tune in mind. Often, such raps can be without a consistent rhythmical structure, making it impossible to write an instrumental part that fits completely. Communication between the artist and the composer are essential in reaching compromises over rhythm and structure.
The chorus of a rap song often uses the same four bar phrase as before: the melodic foundations, bass parts and chord progressions are normally continued through the chorus and onwards, while new parts are introduced. In effect, it sounds like a more powerful version of the verse, with greater depth added to the background and an instrumental or vocal addition to the foreground. A memorable melody is often used here, a vocal part if possible with sing-along lyrics, although instrumental melodies work well if the rapper uses a simple, easy-to-remember and repetitive rhyme on the top (effectively, a spoken chorus). Otherwise, it tends to sound like the rapper has run out of things to say: the chorus should be used to explain the point to the song as plainly as possible.
Remember, also, to keep the audience guessing: the best moments from rap music often come from unexpected pauses in the instrumental part, which seem to put a spotlight on a particularly intricate or intelligent section of the rap itself. Though what each instrument plays is unlikely to change, actually stopping and starting certain instruments (not usually all) at rare, but appropriate times can have a brilliant effect.
A Closing Note on Creativity
Observation of the points made in this guide is really only the beginning. There is a lot more to rapping than there is space here to describe it completely, and far more to it than many people believe. Think of this guide as an introduction to the song you are about to begin, the prologue to a long and exciting novel. Discover your own way; try something no one has ever attempted before, as your individuality must shine through. Enter the genre not to copy or say things already said, but to better it, to take the art to a new form, a new level of excellence that no one ever thought it could reach. You are your own guide now. Rappers are poets for the new century: enjoy exploring your art and your talent.