What Do I Rap About?
Most blogs would say the following: if you don’t know already what you are going to rap about, you’re lost. This is not true. It’s okay not to know what subjects to take on, especially when you are young. The dismissive method of answering an important question is wrong.
Bloggers: if you feel like it’s too obvious of a question, you may not know the correct answer and you need to check your ego. Because the answer is not obvious. The answer: “just be true to yourself and write what you feel,” is a cliche, it helps no one. This is because it doesn’t give the reader the answers they are looking for. Which is what subjects, attitudes, themes and tropes they should write about.
The Simplest Answer
The traditional subject matter in hip hop is rapping about how good you rap. Other notable subjects: Sucker MC’s, the place to be, where you’re from and the crew you identify with. Master these topics, they are inexhaustible. (even though contemporary audiences are becoming bored of traditional rap tropes. That is why we will evolve this thinking a little bit…)
The key to mastering any craft is to carry on tradition. Traditions are simply archaic ways of passing on vital information that society pressures you to obey. The true artist sees through the societal bullshit for what it is. Every culture has traditions. Hip Hop is no exception.
That is just something to write when you first start out. Your subjects will get more complex as you develop your persona and learn what styles you are best at. Before you think about any of that, there are a few questions you need to ask yourself…
What Type of Artist Are You?
What type of career do you want? Do you want to be a hitmaker? Do you want to rap in a club somewhere? Do you want to have an underground following? Do you want to make experimental sounds, no one has heard before? Are you aware that being underground and experimental will keep you off of the radio?
You don’t have to answer these questions right now. Just think about it while you write. Get some lyrics under your belt and the questions will answer themselves. Some food for thought…
The path to real longevity is to be an artist. To produce authentic work that is true to your vision will make the best output. There are only a few paths as an artist to make authentic music…
Are you an ‘Auteur’? An auteur is a term filmmakers use. It means you write, produce and oversee all parts of your project from beginning to end. The person who comes to mind first is Kanye West. Love or hate him, he has a singular vision and never compromises. Other notable auteurs: Dr. Dre, Timbaland, Madlib, Black Milk, basically most superstar producer/songwriters. An auteur incorporates a personal philosophy to their work, with a built-in set of values and a subject or theme they repeatedly come back to. Auteurs have long-term artistic, almost literary, ambitions.
Maybe you are a ‘Provocateur,’ someone who incites another person to do something considered bad by general society. Not necessarily a crime or something of that nature. But encouraging people to break social norms, challenge the status quo, civil disobedience, etc. The first name that comes to mind is Eminem. The second is N.W.A. Being provocative is a requirement of certain styles that several types of rappers use.
What Type of Rapper Are You?
My favorite type of rapper is the ‘street rapper.’ Big L. Cam’ron. Jadakiss. Fabolous. They have wordplay galore. Street themes. And they use all the lyrical tricks that the ‘conscious’ rappers use, without the emotion (for better or worse). Street rappers have heavy cross over appeal, and if they have a hit early in their career they become big stars. Jay-Z. Biggie. DMX. Usually street rappers get featured in The Source’s Unsigned Hype column.
If a street rapper doesn’t have a mainstream hit early in their career (either by choice or bad luck), then they can switch lanes and pursue a cult-following. These are ‘underground rappers’ like Immortal Technique, Tech Nine & Canibus. The differences between ‘street’ and underground are few, but important. A street rapper persona glorifies a criminal lifestyle. Underground rappers are free to try more diverse subject matter, like political or abstract topics. This is because underground rappers are not beholden to mainstream aspirations, in fact, they often reject it altogether.
If you are fed-up with street topics and contemporary rap tropes, you may be what is commonly called ‘Alternative.’ Greg Tate said “there is no such thing as alternative hip hop.” I never understood what the term alternative meant. Now I understand that it is a reactionary movement. Alternative rappers experiment with unorthodox sounds and they rebel against contemporary subjects and attitudes. A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul were considered alternative for their time. Instead of being criminals De La portrayed themselves as hippies. Instead of streetwear, Tribe wore dashikis and rice-paddy hats. It is interesting, when you are successful as an alternative rapper, you lose the prefix “alternative” and gain the moniker “real hip hop.” Funny how that happens.
What Playlist Do You Fit Into?
Who do you sound like? This is not a sarcastic or mean-spirited question. But, to sound like no one else is misguided. Not because it is not possible to sound like no one else, far from it. But if you sound like no one else, no DJ will want to play you.
When you are learning the game, you will inevitably sound like your favorite rappers without your knowledge. On the other hand you may be trying hard to sound like someone you are not, in the pursuit of success.
There is no such thing as originality. Let me finish lol. Everything there is to say has been said by someone smarter than you hundreds of years ago. All we can do is synthesize information in different ways than we have done before. That is the last vestige of originality.
Take A$AP Rocky for example. He is from Harlem. The audience expects him to sound like a typical New York street rapper. But, that wasn’t what Rocky and his friends found to be dope. Rocky gravitated towards southern Hip Hop with a Bone Thugs rapid fire flow. “Don’t remember me as a wannabe New Orleans nigga/ slash lean-sippin’ Tennessee nigga, naaah/ Influenced by Houston, hear it in my music/ A Trill nigga to the truest, show you how to do this!” (From “Palace” by A$AP Rocky)
The new creative kids don’t make the best music because they are trying to be original. That is a paradox if I ever heard one. They are simply making the music they think is dope. Regardless of what is expected. But they still follow the expectations of a genre, in A$AP Rocky’s case, Early 90’s Texas Trap Rap like UGK.
What is a Genre, within Hip Hop? Genre is a blanket term people often misunderstand. Genre is not entirely your topics of conversation. “Gangsta” is not a genre, it is a style, as many different subgenres within rap use the “Gangsta” style. A Genre is a set of expectations you can use as a template of sorts to make music.
Picture a Western film with no cowboys. People step to works of art with expectations in their mind. Rap music is the same. Picture 2Pac doing a whimsical novelty pop tune. Not likely.
A genre is a formula. It is a particular mood, an attitude, it appeals to a specific group of people and chronicles their particular life experiences. A genre also claims the right to speak about a subject with authority. And it’s production uses particular instruments and sounds. Early 90’s West Coast G-Funk, of which Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg are prime examples, is a genre with upbeat party jams using P-Funk samples (George Clinton, Funkadelic, etc.) that talks about about the gangbangers in L.A.
Choose the genre that excites you the most. Often it is not a genre of your particular era, but one of the past. The original era probably didn’t get any love, but it’s descendants often become cross over success stories. Either way, choose a genre, or at least be aware of it as you write, and master it’s themes and subject matter. When you master your genre, eventually you can innovate and even reverse it’s expectations. Then you become truly original.
But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves.
The Final Answer
When most bloggers tell you that you should already know what you should rap about, or that you should follow your heart and rap about what you love, they are not wrong. They are 100 percent correct. But, that is not an answer you give to a new rapper eager to learn about the craft.
Most teachers try to force macro-level concepts down your throat in the beginning, hoping to shortcut the learning process. That is why you get overly simplified answers to beginner level questions. Because the teachers have become advanced they expect everyone to come to their level. They mean well, because they want you to skip the steps they had to take, and just be good.
But, now that I have answered your question in the best way I know how, it is time for you to do some soul searching. What subjects are closest to your heart? Who do you admire most as a rap artist? And if you don’t know the answers, write along the lines of the traditional subject matter. Eventually you will come to find out who you really are, as if you are overhearing yourself for the first time.