Books I get. Rap, not so much. So when my editor gave me Paul Edwards' quixotically titled book How to Rap: The Art and Science of the Hip-Hop MC (Chicago Review Press; $12.95), one that promises to explain this incomprehensible art form in 314—pi times 100?—pages, I wondered if my introverted bookishness too could learn, as they say, to bust a rhyme. After all, books can teach me anything. Right?
But if I was going to do it, I was going to do it the same way I do everything else: like a huge nerd. I am an English and comparative literature major, a cognitive science minor. I love Shakespeare and brains. I am the captain of my college's Quidditch team, which speaks for itself about the obsessive level of my Harry Potter fanaticism. My friends and I watched Lost religiously and tried to figure out the ending. Believe me, I could go on all day.
I struggled with the book in the beginning, but not for the obvious reasons. Author Edwards structures the exposition with his own sober explanation of a rap staple such as braggadocio or freestyling followed by more colorful testimonials from seasoned hip-hop pros. Sometimes when I read a quote, I wasn't sure if it was a lyric or just something the guy said. I would try to read it with rhythm, but then it would fall apart and I would feel like an asshole. (Hint: it never is a lyric.)
What follows is a chapter-by-chapter breakdown of what I have learned and how I applied that knowledge when crafting my lyrics. Excuse me. I meant to say, "when laying down my rhymes." I even recorded my song.
Chapter 1: 'Content Topics'
"I don't believe in writer's block," says Tech N9ne, apparently some kind of rapper, "because the cure for writer's block to me is to go out and have something happen to your ass." That left me with one question. What has been happening to my ass lately? College! I opted for real-life content, but only after realizing that the bulk of what rappers call fantasy content has more to do with strippers than dragons.
Chapter 2: 'Content Forms'
Since flaunting one's style seems to be so central to the hip-hop street ethos, I took note of the book's instruction in braggadocio and battling form. "[With my subject matter, I'm] not trying to save the world," says Sean Price, another hip-hop artist I had never heard of. "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." What he lacks in vocabulary he makes up in awareness of his message and pure writerly aggression. Inspired by my favorite rap battle of all time, Flight of the Conchords' "Hiphopopotamus vs. Rhymenocerous," I decided to talk some smack.
Chapter 3: 'Content Tools'
Edwards advises using punch lines or setting up a question before answering it with a deft rhyme that "hits" the listener. I used this when I wrote, "Tuesday night, common room at any cost." (Why is she going to the common room?) "We don't want to do our homework, we just wanna watch Lost." (Understood.) Edwards also recommends similes to convey a cocky message in an innovative way. I both mocked my imagined battle opponent and incorporated figurative language when I recalled my ferocious experiences playing Beater on my college's Quidditch team: "You'd better run fast when I'm burning a Bludger / You'll be more terrified than Cornelius Fudge . . ."
Quidditch, of course, is adapted from the broomstick sport of the same name from the Harry Potter series, and Fudge is the bumbling politician who let his fear get in the way of nipping the Voldemort threat in the bud. See? It's a topical insult. At the end of my third verse, I brag about my way with words, and then I sneer, "Your passive voice can be spotted like a bad toupee." In addition to completely destroying my opponent's self-esteem, I poke fun at his terrible grasp of the English language by delivering my dig about passive voice in the passive voice. Yeah, I know it hurts.
Chapter 4: 'Flow'
Flow is to rap as meter is to poetry. Some tricks that apply to both include rests and enjambment, here called "overlapping bars." Edwards instructs me to pause on a downbeat to emphasize the next part of my line. Eager to make sure everyone understands that I achieved an A in zoology, by general consensus a rather difficult class for nonscience majors, I pause between "I ruled at zoology" and "I got an A." I overlapped bars, or continued my idea across lines (in this case, across stanzas), when I wrote "You'll be more terrified than Cornelius Fudge or / the kids in the library staying up late." Here, I both deepen the humiliation of my opponent, who is now more of a nervous wreck than Fudge and finals crammers combined, and seamlessly transition into my next topic.
Chapter 5: 'Rhyme'
Observe the internal rhyme. "I bewitch on the pitch when I play Quidditch / It's uncanny how my Annie can catch that Snitch." Not only do I use the "&–itch" rhyme to join the first line to the second, but I also develop internal consistency within the first line alone by invoking the rhyme three times. Furthermore, I throw in an extra rhyme ("uncanny," "Annie") that has no payoff in any other line, but adds coherence within the second line, just because I care. Circumstances forced me to abandon my inclination toward perfect rhyme and work with assonance, or same vowel sound, rhyme when I wrote the couplet: "Our dining hall repertoire often repeats / But still our food is better than at the UCs." I alliterate in my chorus when I promise, "I'll proofread your paper like a private eye."
Chapter 6: 'Rhyme Schemes'
Typically, the main rhyme falls on the last beat of each measure. But sometimes, if a lyricist wants to get very, very tricky, she can place the initiatory rhyme on the fourth beat of the first measure and rhyme it on the upbeat of the second measure's fourth beat. I employ this tactic when I flaunt the raw power of my extracurricular activities: "I write for the paper, I work the lit mag / I critique your concerts, throw bad poems in the trash bag." "Mag" and "trash" cooperate as assonance rhymes, but the perfect rhyme falls on "bag," the upbeat syllable.
Chapter 8: 'The Writing Process'
Halfway through chapter eight, I realize that I am a natural when I read this: "I dream raps, I dream verses, I dream hooks, choruses," says Crooked I, allegedly some sort of hip-hop artist. The previous Friday night, I had a dream in which I wrote a rap couplet and performed it for the favorite fictional character to whom it was dedicated. A repurposed version of said couplet appears as the opening lines of my rap song: "MC Oz in the house, I sling words like daggers / I swagger, my rhyme's the only thing that really matters."
Chapters 12 and 13: 'Vocal Techniques' & 'In the Studio'
"Spit" is hip-hop speak for vocal performance. When I arrived at the homemade recording studio in a friend of the Bohemian's garage, I intended to do just that. The word spoke to me of aggression and stamping one's own disgusting, phlegmy identity on one's art. As someone who doesn't usually think of herself as particularly aggressive or especially phlegmy, I knew I would have to dig into this word to sell myself as a rapper. I opted to half-memorize my lyrics and still use the sheet as a security blanket to maximize swagger.
My dear friend Edwards advised me to be expressive, designate breathing spaces and think of my voice like an instrument. I did all of this as I stood at the microphone, the beat pumping through the big, black headphones cupping my ears. I held my half-memorized lyrics sheet with my left hand and waved my right hand around like rappers I've seen on television. I moved my shoulders. I enunciated. I pretended I was Chris Parnell from SNL's "Lazy Sunday," the only rap song to which I know all of the words. In short, I swaggered.
But my voice wasn't the only instrument I brought. After recording the vocals, I whipped out my alto sax and improvised a backing track. Being a high school band geek continues to pay off!
Can books teach me everything, including how to rap? They can indeed, as long as I want to rap like a person who reads a lot of books.
(Ed note: Special props go to Devon Rumrill, who produced the beat, engineered the session and mixed it all down. In true hip-hop fashion, he accepted a bottle of top-shelf liquor as payment. Thanks, Dev!)