Hello. Professor Elemental here, noted emcee, adventurer and well-respected mad scientist. Straddling the twin worlds of rap and science, I feel that it is my duty to constantly create, innovate and otherwise keep the flame burning for original and ridiculous hip-hop. But, lately, I have grown concerned.
What happens when I am too old and withered to rap? How do I deal with going on tour while trapped in an iron lung? What happens if the transfer into the body of my orangutan butler doesn’t work as well as I had planned? Hopefully, I will live forever through either science or, at a push, a terrible black magic ceremony where I sell off what remains of my tattered soul. However, just in case, I have come up with a plan.
On the following pages, you can read my blueprint for creating the perfect emcee. Without these key ingredients, rappers are rubbish. They are just men shouting over beats¹, like a cattle auctioneer over a well-placed collection of funk samples. To be an emcee takes more than just barking random words, as we shall see. Here are the five key ingredients for every rapper worth their salt², and six awesome examples to brighten up your ears.³
Easily underrated, breath control is a vital skill that can take a surprisingly long time to learn. Get it right and you can use circular breathing to rap seemingly without stopping forever (or at least until the crowd leaves out of exhaustion from watching your five-hour set).
Get it wrong and you miss out the end of your punchlines, rush through important parts of your rap and fall off beat quicker than Eric Pickles riding a bucking bronco. Breath control is a large part of what makes rap more rhythmic and, even, musical.
One of the best examples you’ll ever hear is Breathe Later from Abdominal.
These days, all the old b-boys are angry. Of course they are, they’re old. But, specifically, they’re angry at a new breed of American rappers (who have a tendency to mumble like a comic convention nerd asking a hot girl for a photo of her Red Sonia cosplay). “These new rappers are awful!” say the old men, “You can’t understand a word they say! They talk nonsense!” And they are right.
But how soon we forget! As a 42-year old b-boy, I remember older heads in the ‘90s getting angry at the brief trend for tongue-twisting raps, and my dad livid at the idea of rap being considered music at all. It’s the next generation’s job to piss off the older generation’s idea of what constitutes a fresh style. Still, I’ll take the mumbliest new rapper over someone with no style at all. You can be technically gifted and have great beats but, without some charisma, your music gets boring very quickly. Have a watch of Frankie Sinatra by The Avalanches (feat. MF Doom & Danny Brown) for some reference from two of the most oddball and distinctive rappers in the game at the moment.
A lot of rappers get along without them (from Biz Markie and the Group Home to, erm, Lil Yatchy), but polish up your vocabulary skills and you can wow both seasoned heads and grandmothers who “usually hate rap but thought that was quite clever”. This is the more intricate side of rapping, and it needs practice, work and perseverance to make your lyrics shine.
Arguably, Rakim and Big Daddy Kane were among the first to bring technical prowess to the forefront but, for my money, R.A. the Rugged Man is the finest technically gifted emcee. Take a listen to Definition of a Rap Flow (feat. Amalie Bruun) for a prime example.
There is nothing I can say about this section that isn’t better said by the dear departed Guru, one half of the legendary Gang Starr and possessed of a voice that sounds like he’s been gargling sand. Their track, Mostly Tha Voice, makes my point for me.
Finally, you need some lyrics. I mean, unless you want to try a new form of rap using just animal noises or vowel sounds (and, even then, you’d still sound better than Kanye West’s recent output). There’s a lot of bragging and boasting – understandable when you know where rap came from and how it came about – but there’s a lot more too. Stories, characters, political rants, theories on religion and the universe… It’s all there! When rap tells a story well, it’s enough to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up and salute. Aesop Rock’s No Regrets is one of my favourites; put it on, close your eyes and listen all the way through.
There’s more to rap than the disciplines I’ve outlined, of course — the advanced skills, if you will. A great live show is very important to maintain your career and audience, while the art of freestyling separates the amateurs from the hardcore enthusiasts. As far as I’m concerned, strong imagination is a vital contender and often seems lost in the shuffle of showing off and climbing to the top. Different rappers place different importance on these, depending on where they’re from and what they want to say. So, to finish, I recommend Never Mind by Dizraeli and the Small Gods, an emcee who does it all.
There. That should do it. When I am gone, either through an opium related mishap, gardening accident or simple stupidity, take these elements, feed them into a machine and recreate the rapper we need — the rapper that Hip Hop deserves.
¹ This is not to discount the fine tradition of the female emcee, but they are a frustratingly rare breed these days. Why women should be put off by this braggadocios, frequently misogynistic and often pointlessly aggressive artform is a complete mystery.
³ The lovely fellows at Secret Cave have kindly posted links to my recommendations, along with a playlist I compiled myself, at http://secretcave.co/building-the-perfect-rapper!