Rap Rebirth Blog Hip-hop ghostwriting and lyricism


Breath Control & Lyricism

The mark of a true professional is breath control. A great MC can effortlessly fire off a series of dizzying multi-syllable rhymes and never skip a beat. It's essential for sounding professional, pulling off impressive flows and rhyme schemes, and presenting a strong presence on the mic.

So how do the greats do it? Turns out there's a few tricks.

1. Practice

The number one rule for almost anything applies to breath control as well. The more you rap, the more you train your brain to subconsciously account for difficult portions of the verse and take breaths at appropriate spots. Over time you also condition your lungs to hold more air and you can rap unimpeded.Do you have to be in great physical shape? Not necessarily. Many rappers we associate with being overweight show amazing feats of breath control. That said, they do have the benefit of years of practice. Their brains are finely attuned and their lungs are much stronger than their overall image would suggest. All else equal someone who's athletic will have better breath control, but being out of shape isn't a prohibitive factor.

2. Punching in

Punching in is the practice of rapping a few bars, hitting stop on the record button - catching your breath, and then jumping back in where you left off. It's commonly done every 4 bars, and it's a great way to initially build your breath control. Even the great Big Pun would often only rap one bar at a time. A challenge of punching in is matching the vocal pitch and rhythm you left off with (otherwise it will sound uneven, and the "punch-in spots" will be obvious to the listener). A great engineer or producer can make punching in a seamless process, but it can also be done in a home studio using software like ProTools or Reaper.

3. Writing

Before you even step into the booth you can account for breath control in your lyrics. Part of this is knowing your own limitations as a rapper (or if your client's if you're ghostwriting). Trying to pull of a series of double time multi-syllable rhymes right out the gate (like Eminem on "Forever") is extremely challenging. You can sprinkle in impressive lines between parts where the flow changes, breaks down, or where you stretch out words. A secondary benefit of changing your flow for better breath control is that it keeps your delivery interesting and the listener engaged. You can also put pause marks "[--]" in your written lyrics to remind yourself where to take a breath or slow down.


A Vision for Hip Hop

"Now I take a trip around the world twice - from knowledge born back to knowledge precise" - Rakim

In the mid 90s hip hop was lyrically dense. Verses were layered, internal rhyme schemes ruled, and "that buck that bought a bottle could've struck the lotto." Rappers like Nasty Nas made the grimy world of intercity living an appealing landscape of multisyllabic double entendres. The listening experience was a complex journey for the verbally visual mind. On songs like Camp Lo's "Luchini" the active listener was rewarded with deeper meanings the casual passerby missed. I'm still catching new things. 90s hip hop was a mentally stimulating experience that, contrary to public opinion, made you smarter as you listened.

Today it's more hit or miss. Underground artists like Fashawn, J. Cole, and Jay Electronica proudly wave the lyricist's flag. Aboveground rappers (who I'll leave unnamed) make emotionally compelling music but lack that complex 90s punch. I equate it to a delicious four course gourmet meal with low nutritional value. You love it while you're eating it. It taste great. But when you finish you find yourself hungry for more.

A lot of people will say this decline is due to commercialism. Once hip hop became a billion dollar industry it was only natural it would lose it's intricate lyrical nuance. I disagree. I think music fans are intelligent enough to appreciate complex lyricism. Look at Eminem's album "Recovery". It's as technically complex as anything that dropped in the 90s and is, so far, this year's best selling album. Look at a song like Big Pun's "Not a Player". His wordplay and flow are incredible and the song was a career defining hit. I think at some point rappers stopped caring. They got lazy. Good enough replaced above and beyond. It became a race to the bottom of lyrical standards.

At the same time the production quality of hip hop has improved. You have breathtaking, high budget beats from artists like Justice League, Kanye West, and Dr Dre. Don't get me wrong, I love 90s production, but today it's on a whole other level. Songs like Rick Ross' "Maybach Music III" sound amazing and set the perfect mood. Kanye's and Jon Brion's work on "Late Registration" was awe-inspiring. Live orchestration is no longer a novelty, it's becoming the norm.

With this in mind, I'd like to paint an alternate reality of hip hop. Imagine a musical world where artists with the lyrical sophistication of Rakim flow over Justice League beats. I think ghostwriters are the key to creating this kind of music. There's a generation of amazing writers who grew up listening to 90s hip hop. They're an untapped resource for rappers today. Their talent could be utilized in a crowd-sourced way to create the best lyrics for the most popular rappers (who may not have the time, talent or desire to improve their lyrics themselves).

Some may raise concerns of artist integrity. If a rapper's using someone else's lyrics then doesn't that make them less genuine? My answer is no, it makes them more resourceful. Rappers can still be the driving creative force behind a song or album. They can set the artistic vision and define specific parameters for writers to fill in. The easiest way to think about this is to compare it to film making. Martin Scorsese doesn't write the scripts for his movies but no one would deny that they're his artistic creations. He sets forth a larger idea and directs people under him who specialize in areas where they have more competence. If more rappers use ghostwriters as tools to reach more complex and interesting levels of expression then it's a win for hip hop fans the world over.


Rap Rebirth’s Top 10 Hip-Hop Albums of 2010

1. Rick Ross - Teflon Don - An almost flawless album. Great beats, lots of Rozay swagger and excellent guests. No skip tracks. Perfect summer album.

2. Nas & Damian Marley - Distant Relatives - Nas brings his usual lyrical genius and Damian Marley pulls off a nice hybrid of rap and reggae.

3. Kanye West - My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy - The production on this album contends with the great classics of all time. Musically it's a true masterpiece.

4. Lloyd Banks - The Hunger for More 2 - The G-Unit underdog makes a great album with that dark, dense Queens, NY sound.

5. Fashawn - Ode to Illmatic - Fashawn pays tribute to Nas' Illmatic with multis, internal rhymes, and that mid-90s hunger.

6. J Cole - Friday Night Lights - Understated piano on the production and excellent songwriting make a classic J Cole mixtape.

7. Statik Selektah & Termanology - 1982 - Brings back that mid-90s sound. Term is a master lyricist, reminds me of Big L. Statik's beats remind me of DJ Premier.

8. Drake - Thank Me Later - This album grew on me. Drake's producer 40 has a nice smoothed out sound. Drake may not be Ice Cube, but he's true to who he is.

9. Eminem - Recovery - Surprise comeback. Production is a little uneven but Em makes up for it with rapid flow, strong delivery and good lyrics.

10. Lil Wayne - I Am Not a Human Being - Solid album throughout. Good production and Wayne brings his usual wittiness. Nice prelude to Carter IV.