Chicago Review Press' recently published How To Rap: The Art And Science Of The Hip-Hop MC is author Paul Edwards' exhaustively in-depth study of what exactly goes into the writing and execution of hip-hop rhymes or raps. For this comprehensive guide to rap making, the hip-hop fanatic author, who holds a master's degree in postmodernism, literature, and contemporary culture from the University of London, went directly to the source, to the experts themselves. Edwards interviewed over a hundred different well known emcees, posing questions on literally every angle of what goes into crafting their lyrical art. E40, Chuck D, Masta Ace, Immortal Technique, Schoolly D, Big Daddy Kane, and Kool G Rap (who also penned the 340 page book's foreward) are among those who fully respond to questions on topics ranging from lyrical content and flow to writing style & structure, rap delivery (including breath control), collaborating, and ghost-writing.
Edwards also set up a corresponding website with related information to the book, such as a breakdown of songs referenced in its pages. How to Rap, which should appeal to the die hard rap fan as much as to the aspiring rapper, is laid out in an easily digestible form and offers some good insights. Even someone who thought they knew everything about hip-hop and its creation will learn something new, no doubt. The "science" part of the book's approach includes illustrated 'flow diagrams' for rappers. This week I caught up with the author, who currently resides in Dubai, to ask him about his new book and the art of MC'ing.
Amoeblog: What gave you the idea to write this book?
Paul Edwards: I’d been looking for something similar about five years ago, even something that wasn’t based on interviews, just to see how MCing worked. I was trying to figure out why some MCs sounded complex, why some sounded simplistic, and what some were doing that others weren’t. At the time there weren’t really any resources breaking it down, which I thought was a shame, because all other music genres have their history and techniques properly preserved and written down. Like there are books on how to play blues guitar and chords and scales, or how to play jazz saxophone or opera singing techniques, but there wasn’t anything for MCing.
Amoeblog: There have been some 'how to' emcee tutorials published before. How is yours different?
Paul Edwards: The big difference is that this is in the words of over a hundred MCs, so it is the combined knowledge and history of many of the key people. I wanted to preserve the techniques and history in their words and have them explain as many elements of the art form as possible. I think it’s good to have that wisdom collected all in one place, for future MCs and scholars. The handful of other guides that have come out so far have been self-published and are usually very short… This is the first full length guide that is available in stores. It also has the first thorough breakdown of the mechanics of rapping, the flow, which hasn’t been properly explained before.
Amoeblog: You divide the book into four main sections -- content, flow, writing, and delivery. How did you narrow it down to these?
Paul Edwards: I wanted the book to be clearly structured, so I had to un-knot the different parts. I think sometimes when you have a long interview with an MC it can go off in different directions and so the information is difficult to learn from, so by organizing all the info into clear sections I think it makes
their points a lot easier to grasp and a lot clearer. I think it naturally falls into those sections as well—I think even if someone else wrote the book they would come up with that structure or something very similar because that’s just the logical way to organize it once you have all the elements down on paper.
Tech 9ne on flow styles (How To Rap)
Amoeblog: You have a lot of voices in the book offering their insights. How did you track down all of these emcees and how long did you spend gathering data?
Paul Edwards: It took a long time! I did pretty much nothing except interview for about a two year period, and some of the MCs were very hard to track down. Some I had to contact on a weekly basis and then after a year in some cases their management finally replied and set up the interview, so a lot of it was down to perseverance. I didn’t have any contacts when I started, so I had to basically track down management and publicist names and info and I often had to try several different angles to get an interview with one MC.
Amoeblog: Are you an MC yourself? It seems like you must be to think of such well covered topics in the book as "How To Improve Your Breath Control."
Paul Edwards: I do rhyme for fun, though with writing the book I came to it strictly as a researcher and kept my own opinions out of it, because I wanted all the information to come from credible sources, i.e. the successful MCs themselves. Some of the questions I asked did come from things I wanted to know
personally, like I always wanted to know if artists punched-in vocals a lot when recording and what the pros and cons were with doing that.
Amoeblog: I like that you covered the aspect of collaborations between emcees in depth. What was the one enlightening insight you gained on this topic from interviewing artists?
Paul Edwards: I think one of the main insights is to surround yourself with people who are good or better than you are, if you can, because friendly competition with them will help you raise your game. I liked how Big Daddy Kane and Kool G Rap would call each other and go back and forth comparing rhymes, so they had to try to outdo each other. I think that’s a lot like the b-boying thing where new moves are created because you’re trying to outdo another b-boy who just did an amazing move—now you have to create something even more impressive. I like how they stressed it was “friendly” competition as well, so it’s like a sport.
Big Daddy Kane on freestyle (How To Rap)
Amoeblog: You wrote about ghostwriting. Do you think the average music fan is aware that artists do that?
Paul Edwards: There are probably a lot of people who don’t know about ghostwriting—you can usually tell because some people put MCs in their top 5 lists who are known to never write their rhymes! One of the things I wanted to get across, and that the artists were saying, was that it’s ok to have ghostwritten lyrics, if it works for the song. I think some fans have this purist thing where they don’t like ghostwriting,
but I think if it results in a dope record, then why not? Even at the top level of lyricists, they can’t always write in each others’ styles — like a Pharoahe Monch can’t write a rhyme like a Slick Rick, and a Slick Rick can’t write a rhyme like a Pharoahe Monch, so it would be interesting to have those guys, just for an example, write for each other, because something totally different might come out. Other genres do it all the time, so I don’t see why Hip-Hop would want to cut itself off from that creative path.
Amoeblog: Could you describe for those you have not seen your book what the 'Flow diagrams' are exactly?
Paul Edwards: The diagrams are a notational system for how the rhythms and rhymes work in MCing. It’s similar to regular music notation because you can see the bars of music, and where the syllables come in relation to the music. The diagrams are useful because it’s sometimes hard to hear the techniques (for example, the difference between putting a rhyming word on the 3 beat instead of the 4 beat of a bar), but with the diagrams people can actually see what it looks like in a diagram, so when they hear the track, it becomes a lot clearer.
Amoeblog: You have a HowToRapWebsite with related info to the book -- what can we find there?
Paul Edwards: There’s info on the book, and also audio clips from the interviews that I’m putting up on YouTube each week, trying to focus on a different topic with each one. So far I’ve got Big Daddy Kane talking about the term “freestyle,” (above) Tech N9ne demonstrating how he writes flows (above), and Royce Da 5’9” explaining how flow can be more important than subject matter. There are also links to the videos for all the tracks mentioned in the book, so that you can easily listen to the examples.
Amoeblog: What's the next project for you?
Paul Edwards: Hopefully I’ll be able to write a couple more books on hip-hop, if this one does okay. Publishers are wary of Hip-Hop books, because it’s not really a proven genre yet in the publishing world, so if this one does ok then I’ll be able to write another one.
Amoeblog: Anything to add?
Paul Edwards: Just want to say that I hope that the advice and tips from the MCs in the book help new MC's out there to perfect their craft. I hope that MCs in general start getting back to having a strong foundation and a love, respect, and knowledge of the craft first and foremost, so that hip-hop and
MC'ing can continue to move forward.