Reviews · Videos

Rappin’ is My Radio: New Books on Rap Poetics

One of my favorite Hip-hop studio tales is from the recording of “Brooklyn’s Finest.” The story goes that Jay-Z and Biggie were sitting in legendary D&D studios in New York City listening to Clark Kent’s beat, a pen and a pad on the table between them. “They’re both looking at the pad like, Go ahead, you take it. No, you take it,” says Roc-A-Fella co-founder Biggs, “That’s when they found out that both of them don’t write.” That is, neither of these emcees write any of their rhymes down. They write, edit, and recite straight off the dome. Their method isn’t freestyling per se, but it’s still quite amazing.

Insight like this into the creative processes of Hip-hop is rare, but becoming more prevalent as the culture is recognized for what it is: the last salient, significant musical and cultural movement in history — and one that is now global in scale (Omoniyi, 2009). A few years back, Brian Coleman‘s book Check the Technique (Villard, 2007; née Rakim Told Me, WaxFacts, 2005) set out to fix this by providing liner notes to classic albums. “…it’s about talking to the artists themselves about their work as musicians, as creators.” he explains. “It seems to me that when you talk about music a lot of times, people tend to view the image of a group or at least the end product of their art, an album, as the most important thing. I think that the process of making them what they are as a group is as, if not more, important.” No question.

The books assembled here focus on language use, a tack that is often taken for granted in studies of Hip-hop (Alim, 2009), but one that is central to the culture and the music. Michael Eric Dyson (2004) puts it thusly:

Rap is a profound musical, cultural, and social creativity. It expresses the desire of young black people to reclaim their history, reactivate forms of black radicalism, and contest the powers of despair and economic depression that presently besiege the black community. Besides being the most powerful form of black musical expression today, rap projects a style of self into the world that generates forms of cultural resistance and transforms the ugly terrain of ghetto existence into a searing portrait of life as it must be lived by millions of voiceless people. For that reason alone, rap deserves attention and should be taken seriously (p. 67-68).

Enter How to Rap: The Art and Science of the Hip-hop MC (Chicago Review Press, 2009) by Paul Edwards. This book is a collection of discussions with hundreds of emcees of all stripes about inspiration, techniques, writing, freestyling, flow, content, style, subject matter, etc. More specific topics like rhyme schemes, metaphors, rhythm, delivery, and collaboration are covered, and with a chapter each on working in the studio and performing live, contextual considerations are given due time as well. Comments, advice, and insight on all of the above from nearly everyone in Hip-hop who matters (including our dude Cage Kennylz) from every school and era that matters. Is your favorite emcee in here? Mine is. Here’s Sean Price on the art of flow:

Like Bruce Lee said, if the water is in the jug, it becomes that jug. If the water is in that bowl, it becomes that bowl. That’s how I approach it (p. 64).

It’s not all koans and riddles though. For instance, here’s Clipse’s Pusha-T on Jay-Z and writing in your head:

Anything that you’ve ever heard of anybody saying about seeing Jay-Z in the studio, what does he do? He mumbles to himself, he walks around, he mumbles to himself, he walks around, he mumbles to himself, then he’s like OK, I got it. It’s not like, stroll into the booth and [record immediately]–he plays with the idea. Paper and pen is nothing but comfort, to me it’s nothing but being comfortable and being able to look at it, digest it, and say OK, this is how it’s supposed to [go]. But if you can train your mind to do it without that, that’s dope (p. 144).

The next few pages go on to explain the reasons one might want to learn to write in one’s head, and techniques for doing so. How to Rap covers every technique in this way. Weighing in at over 300 pages and introduced by a Kool G. Rap-penned foreword, this is seriously the handbook emcees have been waiting for.

Adam Bradley’s Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip-hop (Basic Civitas, 2008) breaks down emceeing in a different, but just as useful and intriguing manner. He digs deep into the meter, rhyme, and rhythm of rap in search of its poetics. “In the hands of unskilled poets and MCs alike,” writes Bradley, “rhyme can be an impediment, and awkward thing that leads to unnatural sounds and unintended meanings. But rhyme well used makes for powerful expression; it at once taps into the most primal pleasure centers of the human brain, those of sound patterning, and maintains an elevated, ceremonial distance from regular speech” (p. 57). Emcees must stay elevated, maintain that distance, but not drift too far away.

Since rap is a battle-borne art form, emcees must continually add on with their contributions while maintaining the culture’s heritage. That is, a practitioner must make something new while still adhering to the rules. Thomas Kuhn (1977) described an essential tension in science between innovation and tradition: Too innovative and the theory is untestable, too traditional and it’s not useful. The same tension can be said to exist in Hip-hop, as if one “innovates” without regard to “tradition,” one is no longer doing Hip-hop. Where lyrical interpolations are concerned, one must not adhere too closely to the original source lest one be accused of biting. “What separates ‘biting’ and ‘enlightening’ is the difference between repetition and repetition with a difference,” Bradley writes (2008, p. 150) It’s a delicate balance to be sure, but one of which a violation is not difficult to discern.

Bradley, along with Andrew DuBois, continues his exploration of rap’s poetics with The Anthology of Rap (Yale University Press, 2010). This giant tome compiles over three hundred lyrics from over thirty years of Hip-hop. The editors shot here for diversity rather than inclusion, thereby showing rap’s poetic and stylistic breadth rather than just its sheer quantity, though the book does weigh in at just under 900 pages. It also sports an foreword by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., afterwords by Chuck D and Common, and essays that contextualize each major era of rap music. The four eras according to the editors are The Old School (1978-1984), The Golden Age (1985-1992), Rap Goes Mainstream (1993-1999), and New Millennium Rap (2000-2010). Among the undisputed legends and usual suspects, other monsters on the mic include Jay Electronica, Ras Kass, Edan, Eyedea (R.I.P., Mikey), O.C., Big L, Pharoahe Monch, Black Sheep, Brother Ali, and the homies Aesop Rock and Chino XL, among many, many others. Bradley points out in Book of Rhymes that lyrics are to be taken and judged differently when spoken as when on the page, and The Anthology of Rap gives one a chance to do the latter. It is comprehensive, definitive, and essential to be sure.

And if you don’t think people care about lyrics anymore, these are Sean Price‘s final words in Paul Edward’s How to Rap book:

I think it’s going to get back to lyrics, man, and that’s good. I’m ready for that, I can rhyme. Redman, he can rhyme, Jadakiss, he can rhyme–it’s going to get back to them [MCs] who can spit real hard-body lyrics, lyrics that count—Talib Kweli and all of them, they spit bodies. I like those dudes (p. 312).

Word is bond.


Here’s the book trailer for The Anthology of Rap [runtime: 3:12]:




Alim, H. S. (2009). Straight outta Compton, straight aus Munchen: Global linguistic flows, and the politics of language in a global hip-hop nation. In H. S. Alim, A. Ibrahim, & A. Pennycook (Eds.), Global linguistic flows: Hip-hop cultures, youth identities, and the politics of language (pp. 1-23). New York: Routledge.

Bradley, A. (2008). Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip-hop. New York: Basic Civitas.

Bradley, A. & DuBois, A. (2010). The Anthology of Rap. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Coleman, B. (2007). Check the Technique: Liner Notes for Hip-Hop Junkies. New York: Villard.

Dyson, M. E. (2004). The culture of hip-hop. In M. Forman & M. A. Neal (Eds.),That’s the joint: The hip-hop studies reader (pp. 61-68). New York: Routledge.

Edwards, P. (2009). How to Rap: The Art and Science of the Hip-hop MC. Chicago: Chicago Review Press.

Erwin, J., Malcolm, S. A., Duncan-Mao, A., Matthews, A., Monroe, J., Samuel, A., & Satten, V. (2006, August). “Told You So: The Making of Reasonable Doubt.XXL Magazine, 10, 7, pp. 89-102.

Kuhn, T. (1977). The Essential Tension. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Onimiyi, T. (2009). “So I choose to do Am Naija style” Hip-hop, language, and postcolonial identities. In H. S. Alim, A. Ibrahim, & A. Pennycook (Eds.), Global linguistic flows: Hip-hop cultures, youth identities, and the politics of language (pp. 113-138). New York: Routledge.


Apologies to Aesop Rock for ganking his “No Jumper Cables” lyric for the title of this piece (“Rappin’ is my radio, graffiti is my TV, B-boys keep them windmills breezy”).

[Top photo of Ras Kass by B+. Photocopy treatment by royc.]