Why did you start writing How to Rap?
I wanted to rap – for fun, not to be the next Eminem – and was interested to know why some rappers were great and others weren’t. I also wanted to help preserve MCing techniques and methods. You can
find books on how blues scales work, how to sing opera, how to play percussion and so on, but there’s nothing for rapping.
Were there any artists that were particularly hard to get hold of?
Yeah; some of the pioneers just had no contact info anywhere, so you end up going round in circles for ages. And others I had to contact once a week for a year until they gave in. The more mainstream artists, such as Nelly and Black Eyed Peas, wanted to see who else I’d interviewed. It’s like: ‘You interviewed Big Daddy Kane? Cool, now we’ll arrange an interview for you with Chuck D from Public Enemy… okay, you have Chuck D, now you can get hold of Twista; once you have Twista you can get…’
What have you learned about hip-hop from writing this book?
I discovered so many different ways of doing things, so many styles and artistic decisions to make and so many different sub-genres to explore. I learned a lot more of the history as well. In the early ’80s, guys like Melle Mel would write one-syllable rhymes like ‘blind’ and ‘kind’, then Kool Moe Dee comes along and starts doing two-syllable rhymes like ‘twisted’ and ‘lifted’; Kool G Rap comes in rhyming ‘random luck’ with ‘vans and trucks’, and Slick Rick rhymes ‘lead rap permanent’ with ‘deep black firmament’. It keeps getting more complex until you get rappers like Eminem and Nas.
What would you recommend for new listeners?
The underground scene is flourishing with abstract and alternative music, and I think that’s a great scene to explore if you’ve only heard mainstream hip-hop. Personally I’m a big fan of the classic East Coast stuff: the Rakims, Kool G Raps and Big Daddy Kanes; I also love the musicality of the classic West Coast stuff, where people like Dr Dre had live bass, guitar and flute players. Lyrically, I like the artists with technical, intricate rhythms and rhyme schemes, such as Eminem, Tech N9ne, KRS-One and Lady of Rage. I’m a fan of people who have something to say in their rhymes, but first and foremost they have to sound impressive.
James Wilkinson. How to Rap: the Art and Science of the Hip-Hop MC is available online or to order from Magrudy’s.
What the pros say
Some quotes from How to Rap.
Will.i.am (Black Eyed Peas)
‘If you want to be an MC, you gotta know different styles, patterns, coasts. That’s what makes a good MC: a person that knows and that can be a chameleon… that can do all the styles.’
Kool G Rap
‘You definitely have to study some of the people that are considered to be legends… You gotta know what it is to be a great MC in order to do it; you gotta hear it, you gotta feel it.’