IASPM-US Interview Series: How to Rap 2, by Paul Edwards

by Victor Szabo on February 24, 2015


In How to Rap 2: Advanced Flow and Delivery Techniques (Chicago Review Press 2013), Paul Edwards builds upon his initial book How to Rap: The Art and Science of the Hip-Hop MC (Chicago Review Press 2009). Edwards gives readers insight on advanced vocal techniques, while also introducing rudiments for MCs. To back up the techniques, the book integrates interviews from over 100 of the best rappers in hip-hop history. Edwards’s How to Rap books are currently being used at the University of Calgary in a linguistics course entitled “Rap Linguistics.” In this interview, Shane Colquhoun discusses with Edwards some of the technical aspects of the book, the current rap music scene, and the value of studying rap music in depth.

Shane Colquhoun: Starting out, I would like to ask, what was your motivation or goal for writing this series of books?

Paul Edwards: My aim originally was just to find out how the art form worked, because it was never really explained anywhere in any detail. If you want to play guitar or sing or learn how to write poetry there are a million books on those subjects, but there was nothing on MCing. I also wanted to catalog all the techniques in the words of as many hip-hop artists as possible, so that there is an historical record of how it’s done.

It would be a shame if nobody collected any of this information while these artists are still around to tell their stories. I felt that the techniques were important and groundbreaking, so they should be preserved just as any other art form is preserved.

SC: What is your musical background? (Are you an avid listener, did you play an instrument, are you an MC yourself)?

PE: I’ve always been an avid listener of music in general, my parents like a lot of different genres so I always heard different types of music. In the past few years though I’ve really been thoroughly going back and listening to as much classic hip-hop as possible, so I haven’t had a chance to really keep up with other forms of music outside of hip-hop or with too much current hip-hop. Also hip-hop today changes so quickly, with most of it not making that much of a permanent mark. Artists that are hyped as the next big thing seem to quickly be forgotten before I even get a chance to listen to them.

For about ten years now I’ve played the doumbek, which is a type of Arabic drum—I grew up in Dubai and Abu Dhabi and I always loved the rhythms and percussion in Arabic music, so that’s how I got into percussion. I’m not a professional, but I can play the main rhythms and I know how they’re put together. That also introduced me to the drum rudiments and that method of learning and practicing rhythms.

Other than the doumbek, I don’t really play any other instruments, though I can get by on a few other percussion instruments, like the bongos. The drumming rhythms also help when I use hip-hop production equipment too, because you can tap out the rhythms when you’re using an MPC sampler/sequencer.

I’ve rapped for fun for a long time and having that personal experience of rapping did help a lot, as it meant I could test out all the techniques and that made them easier to explain. Though I always like to stress that I didn’t come up with any of these techniques myself and I generally don’t like to favor any one set of techniques over another—I’m simply documenting the techniques that already exist with explanations of them from professional MCs.

SC: Do you prefer to use the term “MC” or “rapper”?

PE: I generally use MC rather than rapper, though in most cases I don’t think it makes too big of a difference. Some people use “MC” to mean someone whose music is good and authentic and “rapper” to mean someone whose music is bad and overly commercial, but you can just say that they’re “bad” or “good” anyway, so that doesn’t seem a very useful way to use the terms. However, because some people do use “rapper” as a negative term, I usually avoid it and use “MC” instead, just so there is no confusion and they don’t think I’m dissing someone by calling them a rapper. The only time I think it makes a difference is when you’re talking about performing live, where you might be referring to MCing in its original sense of actually being a “master of ceremonies” and being skillful with an audience.

SC: Do you believe that MCing or rap music in general is viewed as an art and a science by the masses, and more specifically, by scholars and classically trained musicians?

PE: There are a lot of people who do view it as an art and science, but then there are two other groups: those who see it as something that’s not worth their time and then the other extreme, where they think it’s magic and that there are no “techniques” that can be learned.
Though I think most people understand that it’s like learning an instrument or singing—it’s a complex skill like any other.

I think scholars and classically trained musicians have different views from each other. Scholars are often very interested in hip-hop, but usually not from a musical standpoint—it’s usually either studied very, very broadly as a culture, or the focus is entirely on the content as a “text” rather than as anything musical.

Those are interesting ways of looking at it, but I don’t think that many scholars value hip-hop as a form of music. From what I’ve seen, it’s often downplayed and devalued as actual music—I often see phrases such as “hip-hop is a lot more than just music.” The use of words like “just” suggests that the music isn’t a worthwhile thing to study on its own and that it has to be put in a broader context for it to be “important.” So I think there are a lot of scholars that do want to study hip-hop, but only from a certain angle, and to do that they often have to downplay the musical angle.

I haven’t really seen that many classically trained musicians engaging that much with MCing or hip-hop in general, either positively or negatively, so I’m not sure if there is a general view that they have of it. I get the impression that it’s not really viewed as a “serious” form of music by some classically trained people, though I do know that there are music scholars working on hip-hop such as Kyle Adams and Justin Williams, so that’s starting to become more prevalent. I think the lack of serious musical analysis is not necessarily unique to hip-hop though, I know a number of classically trained musicians who don’t consider rock music or electronic music to be worthy of study either.

One problem is that some classical musicians approach other genres with a classical music mindset—expecting every genre to value the same elements that classical music does. When people do that, they invariably find nothing of “value” in the other genres, because they’re looking in the wrong places.

In pop music it’s important to understand different types of choruses and creating a groove, as well as how the songs are produced and mixed and how the performer’s personality comes across in the music. You really have to get into the music to know what’s valued within each genre, so you can start comparing different songs to understand why some songs are acclaimed and some aren’t.

Looking at hip-hop specifically, you can spend hours analyzing how a specific snare sound was EQed in the studio, because that’s important in hip-hop, while in classical music that’s not really valued. There is a lot of complexity in hip-hop and also in pop music, but if people don’t know where to look, or if they’re expecting complexity in the same places as in classical music, then they’ll come away thinking other genres are simplistic.

It’s also down to the way people study music and learn how to play instruments. A lot of that educational infrastructure is built around classical music, so it gives that particular mindset precedence right from the beginning with a lot of people.

It works the other way around though too—people who don’t listen to classical music often don’t know how to listen to it and what to listen for, and so they don’t know what they’re missing. So I think there is an educational gap there in both cases, where people need to learn what different genres value.


SC: As a classically trained percussionist, I was interested with the way you implemented drum terms and really focused on rhythm in Chapters 1 and 3, as well as how you implemented rudiments.

PE: That percussion angle came mainly from the MCs that I interviewed, because so many of them told me that they see themselves as percussionists and that they had either learned the drums or had an interest in the drums, and that they had systems to notate the rhythms of one kind or another. And the MCs who were also beatmakers and producers told me that they would often look at the rapped rhythms as simply another percussion instrument on their beat.

One of the great things with the software that’s used for making beats is that they usually have a visual representation of the rhythms in a grid format (usually called a “step sequencer”), which makes it easy to “see” the rhythms. People who are interested in MCing often make beats too, so it made sense to use a kind of “grid” style with the rhythms.

The percussion angle is really important, though MCing is also a combination of several different disciplines. To represent it accurately I think you have to use bits and pieces from percussion, general music theory, poetry/literature analysis, and linguistics to get the complete picture. I like to approach MCing as its own unique thing and then use the most suitable tools from various disciplines to represent it. I think sometimes scholars try to use just one discipline to explain it (e.g. just poetry analysis, or just music theory), and they end up having to twist MCing to try to get it to fit into that one form, and it gives a skewed view of it.

SC: As simple of an idea as it may be, up until I read your book I never thought of flow and content separately as two elements of the rapping. Can you explain the concept of flow vs content?

PE: That was something I had to do early on in the process of writing the books—I had to untangle the elements of MCing so that they could be broken down and organized. The content includes the topics you’re rapping about, and the literary techniques and structures you’re using such as metaphors, similes, story structure, etc.

The “flow” refers to the rhythms and the rhyme schemes and how they interact. And there is also the “delivery,” which is how you use your voice. Sometimes people refer to both the flow and delivery as just the “flow,” but it’s clearer if you separate them, especially if you want to break down and organize the techniques.

SC: As it pertains to timbre in Chapter 2, what characteristics come naturally, and what characteristics can be developed?

PE: The elements that are part of your normal speaking voice are the most natural and easiest to use on a record. For example if you’ve got a raspy speaking voice, you can easily be raspy on a record.

I think most vocal characteristics can be developed with enough practice. If you look at people who do voice-over work for cartoons and movies, they can usually do some pretty crazy voices just from having experimented so much, regardless of how their normal voice sounds. People like Hank Azaria who does voices on the Simpsons, or Andy Serkis who did Gollum in the Lord of the Rings, they can combine lots of different characteristics and they work a lot on developing those voices. Even without practice I think most people can put on a few different voices.

Obviously there will be some limits, such as how high or low your voice can go, or if you have a lisp then that will probably always be present. However, I think most people have the potential to do a lot of things with their voice, probably more than they think they can.

SC: Punchlines are very important in rapping. What are your thoughts on phrasing?

PE: Phrasing the punchlines correctly is important because there are many different ways to say the same thing, but certain ways will be more memorable. I think MCs like Big Daddy Kane and Jay-Z are particularly good at phrasing—it comes across as playful and witty, while also being conversational and direct. I think some of the more technical MCs can sometimes phrase things in such a complex way that it gets lost or it doesn’t have the same impact as someone who can still be clever, but also direct at the same time.

Lines are sometimes more memorable if they’re phrased in an “odd” way, in a way that is just so unusual that it sticks in your mind. I think Kool Keith and some of the Wu-Tang members are really good at that kind of phrasing.

SC: We all know that music moves in cycles, and like anything else. there are trends. What rhythmic patterns and trends do you find to be trending in MCing today?

PE: Recently there has been something people have been calling the “Migos flow,” which is named after the group Migos, who use it a lot. It’s the same technique I describe in “How to Rap 2” on pg. 26, “Triplets over Four 16ths”, which are sometimes also called, “8th note triplets.” (An illustrative montage of the “Migos flow” can be viewed here.)

The example I use in the book is from a Chubb Rock song from 1989, so it’s clearly not a new technique in rapping. It was used a lot in the 1990s by groups such as Three 6 Mafia and Bone Thugs N Harmony, and I’ve found examples of MCs using it as far back as 1986, but it’s recently surged in popularity with everyone from Drake to Kanye using it heavily.

The other thing that has become very popular again recently is rapping fast using 32nd notes. Again, this was popular as far back as 1992 when Twista made “Mister Tung Twista” and around that time several MCs made it into the Guinness Book of World Records as being the fastest rappers. It’s always been quite popular, but people like Eminem and Tech N9ne have really brought that to the forefront again.

One technique that I don’t really hear much of nowadays is what Shock G calls “lazy tails” (on pg. 33 of “How to Rap 2”). It was a key technique in early ’90s West Coast gangsta rap and it pretty much defined the laid back rapping style by sliding off the beat, but it faded out and hasn’t made a big comeback yet.

SC: If you were building the perfect rapper, based on all the elements mentioned in your books, what artist(s) (past or present) would you combine to pattern your rapper after?

PE: I would probably include the content of someone like Pharoahe Monch or the groups Latyrx and Blackalicious, where they often have strong, unique concepts to tie whole songs together. Then as far as the flow, I like people with constantly changing, unpredictable flows, so someone like Method Man or Lady of Rage or E-40 where they do a lot of different techniques and where it’s difficult to predict where the flow will go next. With the delivery, I like people with distinct voices like B-Real or Mystikal and I also like MCs who half-sing sometimes like the Pharcyde, Shock G, or Del the Funky Homosapien.

Also I think ability to pick good beats is a big part of it. For me personally, I love the golden age style of beats, with lots of samples and a collage of sounds. There are some MCs who I think are really great at MCing, but who often choose lackluster beats and so it makes it hard to get into their music.

SC: Who is on your Mount Rushmore of rappers?

PE: Rakim, Kool G Rap, Big Daddy Kane, and KRS-One… I think if you could only ever study four MCs, those would be the four that are able to teach you the vast majority of the techniques through their music.

SC: In the process of your interviews, which interview stuck out to you most? Why?

PE: There were many that stuck out, though I’d probably have to say Kool G Rap, as he was really articulate in explaining his craft and really went into detail about how he did things. To hear some of the explanations behind the records and techniques that influenced so many other MCs was amazing, as he is one of the originators of that style of complex rhyming.

I generally found that the MCs who were more complex and technical in their music talked for longer and in went into more detail. Which makes sense, because if you’ve thought a lot about the science of writing raps, you’re probably going to have a lot more to say and more opinions about it than someone who has a simpler style. Though I do appreciate the simpler styles of MCing as well—they can be very effective and they add to the variety of hip-hop.

SC: In closing, is there anything that you would like to add or comment on that I might have missed?

PE: I just wanted to add that I like where hip-hop books and hip-hop studies in general have started to go recently. They seem to slowly be covering more aspects of hip-hop, especially the musical aspects, and presenting a fuller look at the genre. I think for a while hip-hop studies were obsessed with a very narrow range of concerns and those became the standard approaches for everyone. When looking over the existing literature in the past, it could be intimidating to see so much of a focus on certain subjects and none on others, as it suggested that certain topics were not considered important. So it’s great to see the lines of enquiry broadening and to see different subsections of hip-hop literature becoming more robust.

Here’s a video link that highlights parts of the book.

Paul Edwards is a writer and researcher of hip-hop who has interviewed more than 100 of hip-hop’s most acclaimed and notable rappers, and done extensive research on rappers’ creative processes, musical theories, and lyrics. He has been interviewed by the Chicago Tribune, the New York Amsterdam News, Chuck D’s New York radio show, Australia’s Acclaim Magazine, UK’s Echoes Magazine, Germany’s HHV Magazine, HipHopDX, and Time Out Dubai, and has been referred to as “the Aristotle of Hip-Hop poetics” by internationally acclaimed and award-winning poet Dana Gioia. He holds a Master’s degree in postmodernism, literature, and contemporary culture from University of London. Contact: howtorapbook (at) gmail.com

Shane Colquhoun is an educator, producer, arranger, and currently serves as the Director of Bands at Loachapoka High School. He received his MMEd from Auburn University, and his research interests include culturally relevant music ensembles, urban/suburban music education, and popular music pedagogy. He can be reached at colquhoun.shane (at) gmail.com.

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