This is a guide to writing your own lyrics and then about delivery as an MC. It’s not all here as we’re all learning, but there’s a few hints, tips, tricks and elements to help
There are different subjects you can write on – both Christian and secular. Some of my raps are on evangelism and getting saved, music, city life, loneliness, about so-called gangsta rappers, a Psalm and so on. Many are Biblical, some simply tell stories about life or my life. ‘Rappin is poetry, a way to express..’
Think about your priority
Are you aiming to be the best rapper you can be (yes of course) but is your aim to be respected at being clever with words? Is your aim to write and record commercially? Is your aim to speak the Gospel clearly to young people and others? Do you want to be a specifically Christian emcee writing Christian stuff – or do you want to be an emcee in the commercial scene who is a Christian (like you may be a builder or teacher who is a Christian)?
Your rhymes, delivery and presentation will depend on this. I guess we should be aiming to be as dynamic and varied as possible and therefore aim to be respected as an emcee as well as speaking and living Christ.
In a sense there are no rules in rhyming but the more disordered the rap, the more difficult for the listener to pick it up. We’ll look at examples of rhymes. Some basic hints for you.. Again, this is stuff you can learn but you gotta feel this – it ain’t learnt by robots following scripts but by lovers and growers in the art:
a. Here is the first 4 lines of a rap:
yo did you come here tonight lookin for a good time?!
get on, u aint wrong, now let me busta rime!
I’ma spit a flow about dis guy Jesus, he freed us
Hung up on da cross bleedin for us, believe dis
In this we see that there are rhyming couplets with the last line of every line 1 rhyming with the last word of the second line. This is the most common way of rhyming.
b. Now we’ll look at the first couple lines of another tracks:
Don’t want your anger and your hatred, your vitriolic statements
Aggression that’s messin, depressin and accessin’..
In this we see that the second line shows a different kind of rhyming – where 4 words in a row rhyme with each other. Some tracks have a lot of this style.
c. Here’s another set of lyrics from one more track:
Cos people are dying and crying, sighing and trying
So hard to find peace, but we ceased to believe that God brings release
To empty hearts and broken lives, we’ve been deceived my lies
And meaningless ties to tradition that flies
In the face of God’s truth in his Word, no longer heard, it’s so absurd
No wonder stagnation’s occurred, our vision’s blurred
We concur with the world, even though God says don’t go there.
You’ll see here that this has a combination of styles where lines rhyme with the end of the previous one – and times where a whole bunch of words rhyme with each other. This time it’s a little bit more complex as well.
d. Another way is to have endings rhyming on alternate lines:
Where is the meaning, my head is feelin
All my shattered dreams, yet only sixteen
I’m reeling, confused, my head hittin the ceiling
The life I dreamed just ain’t what it seemed
e. We can break and mix up rhyming patterns. So we can have 4 lines ending on the same kind of rhyme – in this verse we also have several words rhyming together:
Errupting into violence, pourin out their racial hate
Once a mate, now they don’t relate, their fate
Dictate-ed by the need to break and rape another race..
In each other’s face so now it’s time to replace..
f. Remember that you can make a bunch of words fit a line but thing about the amount of words used from one line to another (and amount of syllables used) if you want something to really flow:
So for example here is a section from one of my tracks (below) that I’ve edited so it doesn’t flow:
God’s on our side so listen up – to me – what can be said
Thru Jesus blood that he shed
God gave his Son to us so what won’t he give
To his people that live
You’ll see that it doesn’t flow – whereas the real one does flow:
If God is on our side then listen what can be said
Thru the sacrifice of Jesus and the blood that he shed
God freely gave his Son to us so what won’t he give
To his people on this earth, to his people that live
g. Another way of rhyming is to have words with the same amount of syllables in – an example:
The land, the sound, a sea, a blur.. (4 lines all with 2 syllables)
There are many other ways of rhyming too. Ultimately you won’t think about how the words are made up but the rhymes and lyrics should all flow. I had to think hard to define all this stuff here as it’s not natural to try and logically break it all down to explain!
One of the main things people listen to in your music – this is where you rise or fall. Lyrics are worth investing in. Don’t just simply flow any old words together but think how you can put things, what are you trying to say? Can you say it better. I read an interview with someone who spent 2-3 hours sorting out the first couple lines of a track. I worked on a rap about city life recently and came back to it and back again, trying to flow and get the right words.
I personally think that some of the artists songs that make it in the charts aren’t all that. An example is 50 Cent. I’m not a great fan of his lyrics (as they are well dodgy and messed up – the guy needs prayer) but also because I think many other artists have better more intricate lyrics – a great album which I love is ‘Reflection Eternal’ by Talib Kweli and Hi-Tek. Some of the lyrcis are amazing. In Christian terms I love the style of Mars Ill.
I’ve found there are 3 ways of writing. My favourite is when God just gives you words and it just flows. Prayer is so important. The Bible says commit your way to God and he will guide you. So understand that God wants you to write words from his heart, words that will be heard to honour him. Second, you can work on lyrics from a beat. Third you work on lyrics and then apply the beat. As with any writing, go away and come back to something. Don’t just accept what has been written but re-write. I write on recycled paper and often they’re a jumble of words, lines, arrows, scribbles and crossings out. Walk around, get out, go to the sea, sit in the city centre – whatever inspires you.
Editing and developing your lyrics
I had a line in a rap which said – ‘the history, breath of life, waiting to be outspoken..’
I wasn’t happy with it at all so this slightly changed to – ‘the history, breath of life, waiting to be spoken..’
But again it just wasn’t right so the final version is – ‘the history, the life, reflected but unspoken’
2. Delivery and Emcee Skills
We take it for granted that you know something about rapping. You’ll also need a sense of musical timing called rhythm. This is basically the ability to talk in time with a beat so that your words fit the beats. This is sometimes called ‘riding the beat’ – rapping over and with the beat.
Hints for emcees :
a. Rap as normal, rhythmically, keep it tight, expressing certain words at different moments
b. We can rap in a monotone perhaps breaking at the end of each section by changing tone.
c. We can also use syncopated timing where perhaps a couple lines have less content in and are then followed by 2 lines with many more words in. This way the first set of 2 lines are spoken very slowly – in fact half the speed of the second set of 2 lines
d. We can sing a rap – using different tones and notes at different times
e. We can mix all these ideas together
f. We can freestyle rhymes (make up as we go along – usually pre-planned to some extent but not always)
g. Another thing is to use levels in your voice so going from whispering through to shouting out (move the mic further away from your mouth!)
h. Or use different styles of voice – impersonate people – posh voice, an American voice – pretend you’re talking to someone in the rap and have a different way of doing each voice – and so on..
i. What about keeping it smooth – or keeping the performance jagged and rugged. Either can work.
More than one person rapping:
a. Take a different section each with the other filling with freestyle lines
b. Have one person rapping the main sections and another one coming in simultaneously on certain words (say at the end of a sentence)
c. Have one person echoing another’s lines in time to the music
d. We can sing a rap – using different tones and notes at different times
e. Use someone singing a chorus and another rapping it at the same time
f. Have 2 ‘takes’ of your voice playing at the same time – so live you’d be rapping over a track you’d already recorded
The Beats and Music:
a. Listen to different beats, slow them down if you can. Copy them using your own beats in a sequencer.
b. Use a live drummer or instrumentation. We’ve used live guitars, violins, piano and trumpets etc.
c. Mix and scratch in samples of people (careful not to break copyright)
d. I can beatbox so find it useful to create a beat-boxed beat then slow it down in my head and then put it down on my sequencer
e. If you have a good enough turntablist, work with them to create new breaks and samples
f. Cut parts of instrumentation throughout appropriate parts of the tracks (cut the drums, the break, the bass, the background sound etc.)
g. Hip hop breaks are mostly sampled breaks that have been messed around with – find a kick drum or snare drum you like then cut it up (get software, and edit the waveform by chopping out bits and then pasting the sample back together). Unless you’re using licensed samples, you need to chop up breaks and mash them round to stay legal and legit and full of musical integrity before God.
h. Want ideas for improving or changing samples – here’s a good one – play the beat through your speakers and stick a mic next to the speaker to re-record the beat. Depending on mic placement and speaker you get a different sound!
Hints When On Stage / Stage Presence:
a. ‘Some rappers don’t even know how to hold the mic’ spits Raphi. Word. So learn how to hold the mic.
b. Movement – get about the stage. Don’t stand still. React to the lyrics of the song and the ‘big’ and ‘low’ moments.
c. Watch yourself – watch back a performance. How did you look? Are there any habits you need to break from? Like I used to flap my left hand around a lot. Now it’s much more defined and tight.
d. Act but don’t front. You are who you are. You can change but be you. Nevertheless, you can act – I’ve got a song about a girl whose family falls apart. It’s deep so I go with that flow. I’ve got other funny songs so in them it’s full of big facial expressions – not going over the top like some wack clown though! But you’re an emcee, you’re hip-hop, you’re you.
Your Voice / Vocals:
1. Remember your voice is an instrument, a gift from God and you need to look after and nurture it like anything else.
2. Don’t get a bad throat when in the recording studio or on stage – learn that your voice comes from your diaphragm (stomach area) not your throat, so don’t strain your throat and vocal chords, sing from the diaphragm!
3. Drink a lot of water before and during a stage performance especially. Try to avoid sugary drinks. Try to avoid dairy products as they can clog you up.
4. Learn about posture – stand tall and keep fit – keep your energy high.
5. Find your natural voice – don’t front and try and rap or sing like someone else. Seen Pop Idol? The comment over and over (apart from ‘you suck’) is ‘be yourself, don’t sing like X..’
6. Do vocal exercises. Before and even after to warm up and down. An athlete doesn’t walk into the Olympics and just get on the starting blocks and shoot. No way. They warm up and down. Check www.vocalist.org.uk.