By Raef Boylan
So, you’ve decided you want to be a rapper. Why?
Maybe because it sounds insanely easy. After all, you’re capable of rhyming ‘over’ with ‘over’ forty-seven times (JME in Over Me), you’re willing to make up words like ’swag’ (Jay-Z in December 4) and you don’t care if what you say makes any sense (Soulja Boy in pretty much every song). You’ve bought a notebook, Googled ‘best type of microphone for hip hop’ and are familiar with the concept of rhyme. Congratulations, you’re ready to begin your rap career.
Or are you?
For one thing, the word ‘career’ suggests you’re planning to earn money from this. If wealth and fame are your only objectives, you might as well start feeding the blank pages of that notebook into the shredder and forget about the whole thing. The majority of rappers getting rich in the industry right now are the same ones giving rap a bad name. If lyrically-lazy albums consisting of tracks about any of the following are your aim, you’ve got a lot of competition:
- yo’ ride
- yo’ bitches/hos/misogyny in general
- yo’ gun/gat/tool/piece etc.
- the copious amount of drugs you sell
- the copious amount of drugs you take
- how you’re rich and living the celebrity gangsta lifestyle
- how you’re broke but you plan to get rich and live the celebrity gangsta lifestyle
It’s all been done. And yes, you can argue that there are successful artists in the charts right now who got there by rapping about the above topics, and whose music continues to sell. The word ‘success’ means different things to different people though. Do you want a reputation for being a skilful lyricist, a gifted rhymer, an MC with something important to say…or an untalented idiot who got lucky and convinced people to buy a load of crap on iTunes?
Let’s just say, for the sake of this article, that you’ve opted for artistic integrity and becoming known as a great rapper (as opposed to just being known). Congratulations.
Now here comes the hard work…
Sorry to sound patronising, but before you go off and blow a small fortune on expensive microphones, software and studio time, make sure you’re fully committed to this new interest. It’s no secret that YouTube users can be highly critical of people’s videos…but they won’t boo you off the internet over a bit of static. If they like what you’re doing and sense you’ve got potential, they’ll merely tell you to invest in a better mic. As long as you’re still enjoying it, this is the sign for you to get your wallet out. Until then, whatever equipment you can lay your hands on is fine. I know underground rappers who record themselves with thick dressing gowns draped over their heads to muffle background noise, and others who spit into cardboard boxes lined with egg boxes and bubble-wrap to prevent an echo. True story.
Make sure you only post high-quality rap: snippets and full songs, battles, collaborations, beats etc. Don’t post your drunken freestyles, unless they’re amazing (judge this in the morning, when sober). Set up a separate YouTube channel for your personal videos; fans wanting to check out your work or subscribe to you shouldn’t have to search through a blurry bunch of videos of your cat.
It could be worth making decent-quality videos to go with your tracks, but only if you/some media-savvy friends have the time and ability. Or you could hook up with a local production company; often these are run by students who might be happy to create a video for free, just for something to add to their portfolio. Many rappers, however, choose to keep it simple – after all, music is about the audio – and use a basic program like Windows Movie Maker to run their performance over a single image, logo or lyrics. Posting the lyrics is a good move; people generally won’t instantly be able to decipher what you’re spitting so it’s helpful to provide the words for them to follow.
LISTEN TO HIGH QUALITY RAP
Until you find your own voice and style, it’s easy to fall into the habit of emulating the rappers you’ve listened to most recently. Just like you wouldn’t take driving lessons from a bad driver, don’t be inspired by sub-standard rap. It’s also important that you DO keep listening to rap – you might find that some of the rhymes or word plays that you thought were completely original have already been used by other MCs. Don’t be disheartened by this, just push yourself to come up with something even better.
The more you write and rehearse writing and spitting verses, the more likely you are to improve. Challenge yourself to write songs about unusual topics, chuck around rhymes about anything: changing a bog-roll, making a cup of coffee, dropping a pen. Work on sharpening your punchline bars, finding new forms of hyperbole to big up your skills. And tackle the more serious stuff – social issues that make you angry, memories that move you. If you’re struggling for inspiration, check out the hundreds of rap contests posted on YouTube; many of these request that artists spit about a particular subject. Fill your MP3 player to the brim with the beats that you collect and see where your mind takes you when listening to them.
AVOID USING THE LATEST HIP HOP SLANG
As Ernest Hemingway once said, “all slang goes sour in a short time”. Rap slang changes as rapidly, and for the same reasons, as teenage slang: it eventually hits the mainstream. As soon as words like ‘bling’ and ‘trill’ creep into your parents’ vocabulary, it kills the exclusivity and they’re no longer cool. So try to stick to everyday, familiar language.
EMBRACE YOUR ACCENT
If you’re British, don’t rap in an American accent. If you’re from Yorkshire, don’t rap in an East London accent. Be true to yourself and people will have more respect for what you’re doing – besides, that accent could be your golden ticket to stardom. However, if you feel that your dialect alienates a lot of people because it’s difficult to decipher what you’re saying when you rap, it’s ok to tone down or adopt a more neutral one. For proof that accent doth not the rapper make, you need look no further than the Glaswegian crew Being MCs, whose members Loki and Respek BA are held in high esteem across the UK hip hop scene:
RAP ABOUT WHAT YOU KNOW
While Mark Twain may not have been an MC, he knew what he was talking about when it came to writing – and this rule applies as much to rhyming as it does to novels. There’s no point pretending you’re a drug dealing, gun-toting pimp when you’re actually a law-abiding IT technician masturbating yourself to sleep every night. Sure, gangster rap is sometimes fun to listen to. But if you try to reproduce a reality that’s not your own, people are going to know you’re faking. Find an angle about your life that people can relate to: maybe things are going badly right now, or maybe you have a litany of daft stuff that makes you happy. It doesn’t matter if it’s not a ‘typical’ subject for rap – as long as it’s interesting and well-crafted, we want to hear it.
This whole deal is supposed to be fun. Enjoy what you do, and with a bit of luck other people will enjoy listening. Peace out.
Stereotopical rating: 8/10