How To Write Rap Lyrics
– Without Writer’s Block…
This post is for anyone new to rapping so you can learn the correct habits and ways of writing. It’s also for anyone who write’s raps regularly and has come to a point where they are repeating subject matter and rhyme schemes over and over again. If you have come to this point I will diagnose you with a condition right now: you are over-ambitious.
Let me guess, you heard a lot of rap songs and tried to start out by emulating the things you heard on a Biggie or Pac record, for example. And it worked. You got good quickly, and people gave you props for being dope. This encouraged you to continue writing, as it should, because it feels good to be respected for your talent. Now you have gotten to the point that whenever you put pen to pad you can’t write or you feel uninspired. It’s not unusual. In fact it’s quite common.
I learned the same way. Consider this: maybe the reason why people say hip hop is dead is because we all start out influenced by the golden era rappers, instead of the more simple styles of grandmasters in the original era of hip hop. I will explain.
The Wrong Way To Start
I started rapping because of Nas. “Illmatic” inspired me to write a rhyme entitled “Mathmatik” in the back of my math textbook when I was about 12 years old. My first rap:
“The time has come, close your windows and lock your doors/ I got a style that will get you dropped for yours/ I’m cleanin’ house, but no I ain’t mopping floors/ With a flow, that you know, is not in stores…”
Not bad for a 12 year old. It starts out well, but I quickly switched to a multi-syllable rhyme scheme involving the word Mathematic. You know. “I’m a rap addict, I’m back at it/ You know i’m Mathmatik.” I tried schemes using addition, subtraction. I used the term, ‘lowest common denominator.’ I thought I was so dope. Ironically, I was really bad at math in school. The point is that I started out using advanced techniques without proper knowledge of the basics. This is not how the old school rappers started out.
The Best Way To Start
Think from the point of view of rappers like Rakim and KRS-One. Their first albums came out in 1987. They were already masters of their craft by that time. They would have been about 19 and 22 years old respectively by the arrival of their first album. That means that in their formative years they grew up listening to groups like The Crash Crew, The Cold Crush Brothers and Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five. The early rap pioneers didn’t use complex rhyme schemes and tropes. They made simple rhymes.
I am certain that Rakim and KRS would have started out writing raps in the same style as the pioneers. Single and Double syllable rhymes. Few, if any, internal rhymes. Party and braggadocious subject matter. Then their styles would have advanced as they kept writing. All the way to the point of innovating the form of rap itself by the time of their debut album. Albums like Criminal Minded and Paid In Full rendered the old styles obsolete by comparison.
Why is it necessary to start simple? I’m sure there are rappers out there that were naturally gifted who started out as prodigies with a silver tongue. Maybe. I have no way of knowing. One thing I do know is that everyone comes up believing that they are a genius of rhyme. How many people do you really think are that talented naturally? Very few. I would even venture to say that no one is a born wordsmith. All skill is born of hard work and determination. If you are not willing to put in the countless hours of simple repetitive tasks it takes to become the best, then you can never make it to the top of your chosen field.
Another advantage the old school cats had over us is that hip hop and rapping was new back then. It was easy to be original because most subjects were untouched. Disclaimer: this is not an excuse for the myriad of wack lyrics we see today. But, it does point out another reason to start out simple. Because there is so much material to draw influence from, our minds are filled with cliched lyrics and tired subject matter. Therefore, no matter what, the first lyrics you write will probably be very close to, if not a direct bite from, someone else’s lyrics. So, if you start simple, you will get a lot of the cliches out of your system before you begin writing lyrics for the public ear.
The Antidote For Sucker MC’s
If you have written raps already and are now stuck for original rhymes and subjects to rap about, my suggestion is: record everything you have. Unload the clip. Then start over fresh. Follow the exercise i’m about to explain and compare the subsequent new material to the old. If you are brand new to writing raps you have come to the right place. It is my dream that a kid finds this blog and uses it to innovate the art of rapping with rhymes that would have been unthinkable in the 80’s. Hopefully that is your dream as well. This blog will present you with the unique opportunity to learn the correct habits instead of the typical ways of writing rhymes.
How To Write Raps Endlessly
The first step to writing raps is to train our brains to think writing is easy and effortless. When we perform an action, and think in a certain way, our brains form a neural-pathway that makes it easier to perform that task. It’s like putting a plastic coating around a wire to make it conduct electricity faster. That is what our brain does to the circuits that it uses the most.
How do we achieve this? It requires a few tools and a dedication of time.
- The first thing we need is a place to log your rhymes and keep a record of the things you write. Start a new Word document or a new notebook in Evernote, whatever you like. The great thing about Evernote is that it saves your notes in the cloud so you can always access and retrieve your notes. And if you have an idea on the run you can save a note quickly and come back to it later. And, don’t worry, this is not an affiliate product. I make no money from plugging this app. I actually use this tool. You may prefer a good old fashioned pen & a pad. I like those classic black and white composition notebooks. They are the perfect size and you can get them at the dollar store for a buck. My notebook has 22 lines on each page and 100 pages per book. Therefore if I filled every page I would have written 2200 bars or 1100 rhyming couplets. That is the optimal number for this exercise.
- The next thing we need is a random word generator. I like to use watchout4snakes.com, but any one will do. Sometimes I don’t have access to the internet so I found it useful to download a random word generator app. I use the Parrot app in the Play Store. I’m not sure if it’s available for iOS. I don’t use iPhones. Dreadful things lol. We are going to use this tool to generate rhymes for us and we will fill in the context of the rap. The reason is that I don’t want you thinking too much about what you are writing. I want it to be spontaneous.
- Now we use our tool to generate a random word. When generating words, only use single syllable words at this point. You know it’s a single syllable word if your jaw only comes down once when you say it. Hat. Car. Word. Notice how your jaw comes down twice when you say the word ‘arrow.’ That is not a word we want to use as a base rhyme. (A base rhyme is a term I use to describe a word that we will be using to rhyme with another word we choose.) So when the generator comes up with a word with more than one syllable, hit refresh until you get a one syllable word.
- When you find your one syllable word, doesn’t matter what it is, place the base rhyme at the end of the line on the page. Try to only rhyme the word once and move on, no matter how many words it rhymes with. Keep it simple. Place the word you choose to rhyme with your base word at the end of the line below.
- Now fill in the blanks of the rhyme with the easiest subject matter: rap about how good you rap, or diss a sucker MC. These themes are hip hop traditions and therefore are the natural subject matter to start with.
- Keep each line short. Do not exceed one page line. Make your writing large if you are writing with a pen and a pad. If you are typing, keep your lines between 8 to 10 syllables in length. This will make them easy to say aloud. Also, this will teach you to be aware of how many syllables are in each bar. This skill will be invaluable as we get more advanced in writing.
After you finish writing for the day say each rhyme you wrote aloud. Don’t worry if it flows well, or if it doesn’t sound like a professional wrote it. No one starts out sounding like Eminem. Start off simple and build your skills. Practice writing everyday for at least 20 minutes, for one month. There is a TED Talk by Author Josh Kaufman, where he says that it takes 20 hours to learn any skill. This can be broken down to just 20 minutes a day for one month. When you exceed the one month point we will advance our skills and teach you some new techniques.
Good Music Taste Will Make You A Better MC
Listen to rap music you have never heard before while performing this exercise. It’s amazing how much different rap music will inspire creativity. It has the added benefit of building your music taste. Building your music taste is also a fundamental skill that will help you become a master. Writers who have been practicing for a hot minute have a leg up in this department. They may already have great rap knowledge before coming to this blog. That’s great! I will have some resources in subsequent posts for people who are both new to rap, and for people who are advanced, to learn some more about great rap records.
I showed this exercise to a rapper friend of mine. He was having major writer’s block. So I wrote a simple rap with him in 20 minutes. It was easy and fun. It wasn’t great, but it was significantly more than he had written in months. I thought he would be ecstatic. Instead he was insulted. He had been writing for years and felt that it was below him to start over again. The biggest barrier to success is not the time it takes, or the effort involved – it’s our ego.
Eyes Glaze Over = E.G.O.
It happens to me all the time when I’m talking to someone. When I tell them about something that I learned, their eyes glaze over. I can physically see it bounce off of them like I threw a paper ball against their forehead. Our ego blocks us from changing. Our ego tells us we are better than we are. To humble ourselves is to admit that we are not the greatest. That is why children learn so fast. Children don’t care what people think of them and they know they don’t know. And they are not afraid to try anything. If we could learn to start over we can gain the same power and strengthen our resolve, like folding steel to make it stronger and sharper.
Write as much as you can as often as you can. Write first, edit later. When it comes time to compose songs we will already have hundreds if not thousands of rhymes to choose from. This is a process you can use forever. Instead of writing a song on the spot you will already have dozens of songs waiting to be pieced together. We will start with simple subjects and single syllable rhymes. Next we will build to multi-syllable rhymes and internal rhymes. Wordplay. Concepts. And as we practice, it will come effortlessly – and without writer’s block.