The 47th installment of I Used to Love H.E.R., a series in which artists/bloggers/writers discuss their most essential or favorite hip-hop albums and songs, comes from Paul Edwards, author of How to Rap: The Art & Science of the Hip-Hop MC, a 340-page book containing analysis, advice and guidance about, well, rapping, culled from interviews with more than 100 emcees. For his entry, Edwards picked five of his favorite tracks by emcees he interviewed for the book, which has a companion YouTube channel that features fascinating audio clips from his interviews.
How to Rap (Chicago Review Press) is available at bookstores and Amazon. Soak up the book’s website and read an interview with Edwards – who holds a master’s degree in postmodernism, literature and contemporary culture from the University of London – at the Amoeba blog.
Big Daddy Kane – Set It Off
Kane is one of my favorite MCs and the first verse of Set It Off is probably my favorite verse of his. It’s a master class in MCing coupled with a great beat, so you can’t really go wrong. I think if you’re a student of MCing you could study this track alone and learn so much. Amazing rhythms, vocal projection, breath control, clever lines, the works.
It used to be standard on golden age Hip-Hop albums for an MC to just go on a rampage for at least one track, just showing off techniques, usually at a fast pace, too. Tracks like Set It Off, Kool G Rap’s Men at Work and Rakim’s Lyrics of Fury.
It would be dope if more newer MCs would try that – even just one track on the album where there’s no chorus, just relentless lyricism. I think it has to have a fast pace and really be crammed full of flows and witty lines with an energetic delivery to work though, otherwise it can just sound like a slow, lazy 500 bars worth of nothing!
Check out this clip where Kane talks about how he wrote Set It Off, mentioning that it’s his favorite of his own tracks. Also, if you weren’t up on the original meaning of “freestyle,” Kane explains that, too. So now you know!
Pharoahe Monch – Simon Says
This is a great combination of beat, chorus, and verses – everything fits. I like that it’s in the guise of a big single with a big chorus, but he also slips in extra levels of complexity.
He does the “NY city-gritty-committee-pity” run of rhymes at the end of the chorus and the “some might even say this song is sexistest” part is both witty (commenting on his own chorus within the song) and intricate flow-wise at the same time. And all on a hit single!
One of the things I really miss from back in the day was that you could have hits with big choruses that also had hard beats and stellar MCing on them – songs like Simon Says, Hip-Hop Hooray and Night of the Living Baseheads come to mind. Wu-Tang’s Triumph was a hit and it didn’t even have a chorus. Today it feels like you either make a huge, simple club hit, or you stay underground and get complex. But it’s definitely possible to do both and I think that’s the ideal kind of Hip-Hop single.
Check out Pharoahe talking about writing the song:
Das EFX – Mic Checka
This is another great example of a single that had complex flows and styles and was still a big track – it had a lot of clever references in there as well.
I think some of the punchlines in the track are similar to what is popular today, except Das EFX would flow rings around a lot of today’s popular rappers. I think many of the guys today underestimate the average fan’s ability to keep up with a complex flow and feel that they have to talk slowly over a track so that you’ll hear all the clever punchlines.
I don’t think you have to sacrifice interesting, intricate rhythms just so people can hear the line really clearly. I definitely know I appreciated hearing the mad styles Das EFX were kicking first of all and then I caught all the references on repeated listens—while some of the stuff today doesn’t grab me initially like that, so I’m not even bothered about checking out what they’re saying. Today’s guys have some very witty punchlines, I just wish they’d marry that to a high technical level of flow more often.
Check out how Dray from Das EFX keeps his flow interesting:
Royce da 5’9” – Boom
Royce is one of the newer MCs who I think has a very strong grasp of flow, especially with making whole lines rhyme and keeping it tightly in the pocket. He doesn’t do crazy rhythms like a Tech N9ne or Das EFX, but he keeps it at a level of complexity where the flow is interesting and sophisticated. He sounds great over a Primo beat and I think he’s the kind of MC that up-and-coming artists would do well to study – he’s an MC first and foremost and he respects the craft and the pioneers.
Royce talks about today’s MCs and older MCs:
Tech N9ne – Welcome to the Midwest
Tech N9ne is like a mad scientist of flow, and the first verse on this track is just insane. He’s got a lot of crazy verses and styles, but this track stands out to me in particular.
In this clip Tech explains his process for coming up with flows … it’s like a variation of Jazz scatting, but with the rhythms ramped up to a hundred.
I think by encouraging new MCs to study and find out about the different creative processes, MCing can keep expanding. I think the love for the art and the respect for what has been created and mastered so far is key, and I think Tech N9ne is an example of someone who has put in the work to gain mastery of the craft. Even with songs of his that I’m not crazy about, I can still hear the level of technique and mastery in his writing and delivery and I’d like to see more people with his talent pushed to the fore.