I’ve always been hella picky about the music I listen to, especially with hip hop. If I’m really feeling something I’ll bump it for months on end, learn all the words, etc. But if a song doesn’t grab me in the first few bars, I’ll punch that skip button so fast the CD might get scratched.
When it comes down to it, I’m just a regular-ass person like everyone else, including the motherfuckers who get paid to review albums and tell us all who is supposedly dope. However, I have been listening to rap music since before a lot of cats I encounter in the underground scene were even born. I’ve seen trends and styles blow in and out on the wind. I’ve seen some of the most talented artists disappear without a trace, and some mediocre dudes continue to linger like a bad case of athlete’s foot.
I was a teen in the mid-90’s, and I heard a lot of fantastic music, real hip hop, actually get played on commercial radio. Most of these cats in the scene can’t say that. They’re post-Biggie, post-Pac. Most of these cats were initiated by Eminem (ugh). Point is, the spectrum of what made it on the air in the pre-Clear-Channel-owns-the-universe days was much, much wider than it is now. By the end of the 90‘s the corporate overlords started closing the gap as far as what styles, lyrics, themes, and content would be permitted.
If you didn’t make it into hip hop before that doorway was shut, locked, and deleted from the continuity, chances are good that your concept of what rap music is and can be is heavily skewed toward bullshit. That’s not a dis to the younger generation, it’s just statistics. Like, find someone under 25 that doesn’t have a cellphone on them at all times. We’re products of our respective generations.
These days, I mostly listen to underground rap. And I mean super-underground, like shit that people hand to me in paper envelopes with their name scrawled on it, discs burned on their computer at home. Music made by people I meet, people I know. Local artists, up-and-coming artists, by and large folks who in 5 or 10 years will be talking about how they used to rap.
People claim that the underground is where real hip hop lives. I’m not so sure. The average radio-play, cable music video, “mainstream” artist puts me to sleep, but I can’t make a blanket declaration that the ability to induce a coma is the same as being “unreal.” At the same time, I hear so much garbage in the underground that the stench of it could easily wake me up. The main difference is that underground artists have the freedom to do something different, because they’re not beholden to contracts, labels, corporate overlords, or the demands of the masses. But possibility is not the same as manifestation; real talk, most of these cats should probably retire the mic AND the pen.
The content of mainstream rap, of course, uniformly reflects the values of the culture at large: materialism, money-worship, domination culture, patriarchy, misogyny, ignorance. But frankly, the content of underground rap is not much different in that respect. I’ve heard plenty of indy rappers who describe themselves as “conscious” say some outrageously ignorant and disrespectful shit on a track, especially about women. This is not surprising to me, since male privilege–along with its attendant sense of entitlement–is just as invisible to men generally as white privilege is to white people.
(And P.S., if have no knowledge/wisdom/understanding of white privilege, or if your only knowledge of it comes from songs/books/videos/whatever by white artists, stop reading now and go do some research. Otherwise we’re wasting each other’s time, and I’m not going to pause to explain Invader Culture 101. And since you don’t never hardly hear a hip hop song about male privilege, go do some research on that, too.)
So, what’s to be done? Well, I’m an advocate of overthrowing industrial civilization and putting the whole Babylon show to bed (The War Is On). But, since that’s not likely to happen, I decided, as a fan and an artist, to write the following two cent guide to stepping the game up.
Immortal Technique once said that knowledge is the stone that sharpens an MC’s lyrical sword. I can’t say it any better than that. Read. A lot. Study. A lot. Real books, not just the internet. Some of the most accomplished and influential individuals in history were self-taught. So stop watching youtube videos about the illuminati and get some real knowledge and wisdom to put into your lyrics and style. The deeper your knowledge, the more interesting your music will be. Knowledge is the fifth element of hip hop.
Speak your truth when you rhyme. I think that for artists of any variety, if you’re not willing to rip your chest open and spill your heart and guts into your art, you’ve got no business creating. Don’t be afraid to show vulnerability. Fear is the mind killer, and it’s the heart killer, too. But please, for the love of all that is sacred, don’t fucking preach to me. Nothing makes my eyes roll as hard as some twenty-something trying to tell me what life is about. You can tell me what YOUR life is about, but that’s all you got. Work with it.
This goes along with truth; nobody has the same experiences and perspective as you, so bring it out, put it on display. Be original.
If you can’t put on a show that keeps people’s attention, you may be a rapper, but you are NOT an MC. Emceeing, as a descendent of west african griot culture, is an art of social performance. There is a theatrical element to putting on a show; who the fuck wants to see someone holding a mic, staring at their feet and delivering rhymes? You’re wasting people’s time and energy, and possibly money. Learn how to entertain people. If shit goes wrong, if there are technical difficulties, it is the MC’s job to keep the show going no matter what. If you can’t improvise to fill time, you’re a pretender to the throne.
Put some god damn LIFE into your lyrics. Put your passion in it. The cultures that originated hip hop are cultures that integrate the mental and physical. Get your body in it.
A big part of the aesthetic of rap is technicality; original flows, tight rhymes. However, some of the best songs have the simplest lyrics. A high level of technical ability in rhyming doesn’t necessarily make your music more interesting, and it doesn’t make you an MC. Stop trying so hard to be the dopest rhymer, and focus on the first five points.
Can you write a song that is rich in metaphor without using the word “like”? Give it a shot. Similes are grade-school level in writing and rapping, so aim to graduate. Paint a picture with your words. Build a world and bring listeners into it. Invent your own terms, phrases, and slang. Experiment with word placement, move things around, shake it up.
Whether you’re making a living doing music or not, be a professional. Show up when you’re supposed to. Deliver on your promises, do what you say you’re going to do. Give your best to everything, or don’t bother doing it. Live up to a higher standard. If you give your word, keep it. Word is bond, or it’s nothing. If you don’t take your art and business seriously, who’s going to take YOU seriously?
Special Addendum for White MCs
Learn our history, the history of the people who created this culture and art. If you are white, you are the inheritor of Invader Culture, which is largely defined by its sense of entitlement to colonize, capture, and claim as its own whatever it wants. Learn why, and learn how it’s affected the rest of us throughout history, and continues to affect us. Otherwise, you’re just another thief, another cultural appropriator. We built this house; you’re a guest. Learn the protocol, and don’t hide behind some false “universality” of music. It’s your responsibility to alleviate your own ignorance, not ours.