"How to Rap: The Art and Science of the Hip-Hop MC" is compiled from interviews with over 100 MCs, and featuring many West Coast artists.
Highlights include – Shock G describing working with 2Pac and his writing processes, RBX on ghostwriting for Dr. Dre, Lady of Rage explaining how she comes up with flows and content, B-Real recalling how he came up with Cypress Hill’s biggest hits, Crooked I on writing lyrics down and using tape recorders, DJ Quik discussing being both an MC and a produce, E-40 on coming up with slang and rhythms and much more.
Other West Coast artists and groups interviewed include Bishop Lamont, Cashis, Crooked I, Yukmouth, Glasses Malone, Guerilla Black, Omar Cruz, Spider Loc, The Federation, Tha Alkaholiks and more.
Now, thanks to the great relationship between Dubcnn and Paul Edwards, the writer has given Dubcnn rights to release all the key WestCoast interviews that were compiled to create "How to Rap: The Art and Science of the Hip-Hop MC." Each of these interviews give an insight into an artists thought process around creating a track and help you understand why being a Hip-Hop MC is truly an Art and Science!
How to Rap: How did you learn to rap – where did you pick up the skills and techniques?
Bishop Lamont: Damn, you hit me with a hard question first! I think it translated from singing, both my aunties were singers, so going with them as a kid and watching them sing, I would mimic their singing, and through talking, I guess in a sense, as a kid. And listening to a lot of old R&B and rock songs and taking it from singing form into rap form.
How to Rap: Did you ever memorize the lyrics to other rap songs as a way of learning?
Bishop Lamont: Yeah, that’s the way you do it to learn rhythms and characteristics.
How to Rap: Were there any particular songs that you memorized?
Bishop Lamont: Walk This Way - Run DMC, anything from Too Short off the first album, Das EFX…
How to Rap: Did you write a lot of raps as a way of learning?
Bishop Lamont: Yeah, you know practice makes perfect, but I was doing it just to be doing it, it was the cool thing to do. I remember the first time I freestyled a rhyme, it was only to impress some girls.
How to Rap: How long did it take you to learn how to rap?
Bishop Lamont: Man, I was doing it for years, I was doing it since I was twelve, I couldn’t even tell you when it started to make sense ‘cause we used to kick it in the treehouse as kids. When we’re eleven, twelve and be kicking the worst rhymes in the world but we thought they were fresh… probably five years… it’s vague, probably took somewhere around four to five years to see some kind of fluidness with it at whatever point that was.
How to Rap: How much practice did you have during that time?
Bishop Lamont: You had to do it everyday, it had to be, that was the only way to get better at it, it wasn’t like, “I’ll just do it on Saturdays, but during the week at school…” nah, we were doing it everyday, that’s why we didn’t pay attention in class.
How to Rap: Was there a point where you consciously sat down and decided to do it?
Bishop Lamont: I didn’t even make a conscious effort of going, “this is what I’m gonna do with my life,” it was just a great outlet and it all started from when we was breakdancing and we was doing all types of stuff to stay out of trouble and it was just a means of doing something fun and keeping us out of trouble. And the girls liked it, so I guess it was more subconscious than anything.
How to Rap: Do you listen mainly to hip-hop for your inspiration?
Bishop Lamont: I don’t listen to hip-hop at all for lyrics inspiration, unless it’s old school hip-hop, but there’s not that much dopeness out there besides Outkast records or Little Brother or Slum Village or Biggie’s second album and first album, 2pac, All Eyez On Me and Me Against The World, Souls Of Mischief first album, Keith Murray… primarily all old classic stuff. I think the most recent would be Slum Village and Little Brother that I listen to right now, Kardinal Offical. But other than that, I just listen to old rock and roll, R&B, Jazz, like Coltrane, Miles Davis – Bitches Brew, Thelonious. I really don’t listen to hip-hop to make hip-hop. For me, I can’t do it that way.
How to Rap: Is there a process you go through when you’re writing lyrics?
Bishop Lamont: It’s always a process, what do you mean in particular?
How to Rap: I mean do you have a set way of doing things, do you sit down with paper?
Bishop Lamont: I used to sit down with paper until I got so used to just writing for other artists, on-hand, on deck, right there in the studio, so pretty much I stopped writing on paper. Like being at home just with the beats and really just being in the studio and letting beats play and whatever the beat tells me to do is then what I jot down and start vibing from there. But I really don’t write at home anymore, I been trying to get back into that mode but it really works best for me in the essence, right in the moment in the studio. The only thing I really do outside the studio is freestyling.
How to Rap: Do you write to the beat you will be rapping over, or do you write without the beat?
Bishop Lamont: You gotta write with the beat or the rhythms won’t be in sync, I mean you can make it work, but it’s always better if it’s customized specifically for that.
How to Rap: Do you write a whole song in one go, or do you do it all in bits and then put it together?
Bishop Lamont: You can write a whole song like that, or you can take your time and write it in bits and pieces, it just depends on the inspiration level and what level of discipline and quality you’re trying to get out of it. If it’s one of these really, really heavy cerebral records then you might be spending some days and sometimes weeks. If it’s really easy, off the cuff, just busting, you can get two or three in one day, it depends.
How to Rap: Do you usually start with an idea for the subject matter or do you come up with some rhyming phrases first?
Bishop Lamont: All the above, it just depends you know, you might have something that pops in your mind from watching a movie or a commercial or somebody sparks a conversation that gets you a title for a record. You don’t know what the hell it means or what it’s about, but it’s been buzzing around your head or a line will come to you that’s slick and all of a sudden you get a beat CD and a beat compliments whatever that thought was, then you got a whole record, it gives you a whole concept for a song.
How to Rap: Do you do a lot of editing with your lyrics, do you go back and change things until it’s finished?
Bishop Lamont: Sometimes you write a record and it’s first verse, second verse, third verse and then it might be so potent on the third verse that you decide to switch the second verse with the third verse, things of that nature. You might wanna re-lay the hook, you might have been able to nail it a little bit doper with the way you want the pocket of the rhythms or whatever. Pretty much simple things like that, but I never really change anything because by the time it touches the microphone, it’s gonna be correct, it’s a serious process to get it complete before you even touch it on the mic and you do the rest of your cleanup on the mic.
How to Rap: Do you have a way of writing down the rhythms and the flow – how the lyrics will fit to the beat?
Bishop Lamont: That’s just being right there in the moment because you can forget the pockets, you can forget the rhythm if you don’t jot it down and spit it out right then and there because there’s really no way, so far, to put down the rhythms you have in mind, to write them down in word form so you remember and will be able to perform them the same way you had in your mind or how you set up the verse, so you really have to do that in the moment. [Note: the book How to Rap includes a system for writing down the flows, so it now exists.]
How to Rap: Which part of a track do you write first, the hook or the verses?
Bishop Lamont: Either way, it’s no holds barred with that, sometimes the hook will come first, you’ll be like, “yo, I know what I wanna do for the hook,” and the hook feeds the verses. Or, “I gotta do the verses ‘cause then the verses are gonna present the hook.” It just depends on the beat, what the spirit of the music wants, the spirit of the music might say, “I want the verses first,” and then you give it the verses, and like ok, now here’s the hook, or, “I want the summary of the song first…” It just depends on the spirit.
How to Rap: So the music is a big influence on your lyrics then?
Bishop Lamont: Yeah, that’s where the energy is, that’s the template for whatever you’re going to utter over it.
How to Rap: Have you changed the way you put together lyrics since you first started?
Bishop Lamont: It’s always an upgrade but primarily the same, besides stepping away from writing at home in advance. I used to think writing at home in advance saved time in the studio, and then it switched and then time wasn’t an issue, because it shouldn’t be when you’re creating records. Because what you create is supposed to be timeless, so time shouldn’t be an issue when you create timeless things. So I think that’s the only thing that changed, my perception and dealing with time and time frame.
How to Rap: Do you use most of the rhymes you write, or does a lot never get recorded?
Bishop Lamont: Pretty much everything I write I’ll use, because if there’s some ideas I don’t like, they get erased, they don’t live, those foetuses get aborted, those things never see the light of day. So pretty much everything gets used, either for myself or I write records for other artists and it’s like, you know, this might work for somebody else, I’m pretty much done with this chamber, but this might be dope for somebody else. So pretty much everything gets used, ‘cause everything that’s gonna be recorded has gotta be fresh, so it’s pointless [if it’s not], erase that shit.
How to Rap: Do you find that other artists you’ve worked with write lyrics using the same process as you?
Bishop Lamont: Actually no, I haven’t really saw that many people that do the weirdo shit that I do, not really at all.
How to Rap: Have you picked up any tips from anyone else?
Bishop Lamont: Definitely Busta Rhymes, Dre always got some magic for you, not really outside of them… Elzhi, T3, Black Milk, Kardinal Offical, it’s always some kinda flavors from architects, some dope architects like that, Stat Quo. There’s a few that’s on the same page with understanding rapping in key. Because cats be sounding so garbage over their beats because they don’t realize keys, they don’t understand tones, you have to approach it the same way you approach an R&B record, that’s why motherfuckers be shouting over records that they shouldn’t be shouting over, they be sounding all raspy over shit they shouldn’t sound raspy over. They have no understanding of keys and tones and adjusting to compliment the beat. So I think collectively they’ve all shown me different aspects of that.
How to Rap: So you try to match the pitch of the music with your voice?
Bishop Lamont: Any smart motherfucker should!
How to Rap: Can you give me any examples of specific tips that other rappers have given to you?
Bishop Lamont: Err, no, because that’s priceless information!
How to Rap: I tried!
Bishop Lamont: Hey, bless you though, I already gave up so much already, that’s just the thing, it’s important to give people building blocks, but no way, I had to confide to get this information, fuck that! Cats catch me out, we conversating, I’ll make you worthy of the kung-fu techniques and then I’ll tell you but you gotta get your gi and come into the dojo, I ain’t doing no kung-fu tricks!
How to Rap: Do producers you work with ever have any input into your lyrics and suggest things?
Bishop Lamont: They tend to stay out of it, like I have a great relationship with most producers I work with from the top of the pile being Dre on down. Dre, he just does some amazing beats and you gotta come with some amazing shit over it. If he’s not feeling something, he’s gonna let you know but he’s gonna let you do what you do, he’s not gonna be over your shoulder and be like one of those kind of producers… the kind of producer I can’t fucking stand is the kind that is trying to tell you, “this is how you bust over it,” it’s like, yo, I wasn’t trying to tell you how to bust over your beats.
So that was always the biggest blessing working with Dre because I came and didn’t know what to expect, and dude does not fucking bother you, he just wants the best out of you, ‘cause he’s gonna give it his best. So pretty much all the producers I work with, I get to take the beats and then go do my thing to them. Because it’s the same as a rapper trying to tell a producer, “I want pianos here and I want cows going moo and I want…” it’s like nah, motherfucker, let him do what’s in his heart and then you compliment it with what’s in your heart and that’ll get it from there. So pretty much I just do my thing and bring it back, it’s either yay or nay.
How to Rap: Does someone like Dre ever give you a starting point, like an idea for a track, or a theme?
Bishop Lamont: Not unless it’s like really conceptual records that I’m writing for him, or he has in mind for me and him, other than that he’ll be like, yo, I got magic beats, you tell me what you think should go over it and we’ll go from there.
How to Rap: Do you freestyle any of your lyrics and does freestyling help you write lyrics?
Bishop Lamont: Definitely, that’s the whole thing about like in the moment with rhythms, like most of my rhythms are freestyled, ‘cause I’ll have an idea and I’ll just wanna get it out to a beat and that’s where it starts from, and that’s why a lot of stuff will be mostly unorthodox, ‘cause it’s not constrained or restrained to the pen.
Because you know the way you put words down is pretty much the way you’re going to pronounce them or enunciate them, whatever the proper word is. So it’s better to just blank out and come from the spirit and just spit it how you feel it, be it over the organs, say if it’s organs or a piano, or to a hi-hat or you flip it out on the snare, and you compliment that with how you spit it.
So freestyle works always best for starting a record, for starting verses or finishing verses or in the middle. That’s what made Biggie, 2Pac, or Jay-Z so influential because they would write off the top of their head, so they were basically synchronizing themselves with the beat as they went. It’s not some words and lyrics they put down and tried to structure it to follow the beat.
How to Rap: What’s more important to you, the subject matter or the flow you’re using?
Bishop Lamont: Subject matter is always… but it’s a marriage, it’s a two-way street, so both have to be above and beyond, it has to be perfect.
How to Rap: Do you prefer lyrics that are based in reality, or more abstract stuff?
Bishop Lamont: I like to combine both because that’s what the world is. As much as there is black and white, there is a grey area, and all things should be represented, and that gives it the spice.
How to Rap: Is ghost-writing lyrics for other people different from writing your own?
Bishop Lamont: Yeah, because you know yourself, so when you’re trying to write for other people you have to get to know them, or look at their body of work if you don’t get to speak to them like that and look at what they’ve done before. Like where would I go from here, if I was Cube or like Warren G, I looked at all Warren G’s old albums and then when we approached it in In The Midnight Hour, it’s like, ok, let’s take it to the next level.
So you just look at all the work they did before, videos, interviews, and then sit down with them and say, “where are you now and what are you trying to say.?” And once you get pretty much a good idea of where it’s trying to go and what their bottom line is, you can put your extras with it to give them new characteristics, to make it unpredictable to fans who’re used to hearing them bust one way or talk about these specific topics, it’s a new twist plus what they used to spit.
How to Rap: So it sounds like it’s more work doing that?
Bishop Lamont: Oh yeah, it is, definitely, but it’s fun because you can do things with them that you can’t do with yourself, because since you know yourself you’re not able to impress yourself, but when you write for other people you can impress them and excite them and they’ll add new things that you’ve not experienced in your life, thinking about your life, with what you are, and it’s like fucking two personalities in one, so it gives it even more definition.
How to Rap: Do you know how you are going to phrase things and use your voice to deliver the lyrics before you record, do you practice the delivery or do you let it come out spontaneously?
Bishop Lamont: No, it’s all on the beat, the beat’s gonna tell you everything, the beat has your script, the beat is your vocal coach, your beat sets the mood and lets you know if you’re gonna be angry on this record, if you’re gonna be on some sexy shit, some love shit, some political shit, whatever the case, comedy shit, the beats gonna tell you where you are and what you're doing with it.
How to Rap: Do you ever change any of the lyrics during the recording process?
Bishop Lamont: Yeah, the mic is the last place, after that the only editing you’re doing is cleaning up, adlibs, and mixing, so you want to make sure your shit is correct or it’s pointless.
How to Rap: Has the recording changed a lot since you first started, now that you’re working with Dre and everything?
Bishop Lamont: No, it’s just being able to have more a your disposal as far as better microphones or keyboards, or engineers that can make you sound even more super duper deluxe than you already sound, from that sense, but nothing else, it’s the same.
How to Rap: Which of your songs so far do you think has the best lyrics?
Bishop Lamont: That’s a hard one because everything is in competition with each other, a lot of times records will come along and knock other records off and then other records will compete, that’s where you want a record to be, you can’t really pick your favourite record, so I can’t even say. There’s a lot of dope shit and it keeps getting better, so that’s the only thing that I look at, it’s never a cap on the salary for where it can go, so I just keep going forward.
How to Rap: What do you think about today’s rappers, compared to older MCs?
Bishop Lamont: As far as…?
How to Rap: Just whether it was better during the early ‘90s, or whether it’s improved now…
Bishop Lamont: Well anyone that’s a real hip-hop head will tell you that it was better in the ‘90s, from the standpoint of the quality, the originality, the diversity, the dedication, the movement, the risk taking, the love that was for it.
Compared to the ‘90s MCs to the 2006-2007, or after ’96, ’97, after Biggie died, it was more of a thing about making money, so that was the good thing that artists who were making crazy money like… Slick Rick should be a millionaire, Big Daddy Kane should be a millionaire, Kool Moe Dee should be a millionaire, but it was just fucked up that the business wasn’t right like it is now, so that’s the good thing about MCs now, we can make a shitload of money.
But a shitload of money is not like a balance of what they’re creating to get that shitload of money. So I think that’s the problem, the same love and energy and craftsmanship that we saw in the ‘80s and the early ‘90s is not here. Like Smith N Wessun, Black Moon… they should be millionaires, because of the dope shit they brought forward, Quik should be a millionaire… he might be… wait, yeah, I think he is… but Compton’s Most Wanted, they should be millionaires, Above The Law should be millionaires for the dope shit they did then, Souls Of Mischief should be millionaires, Ras should be a fucking millionaire, but that’s the condition of the music.
You have some of the young cats now who didn’t get to rapping until ‘96 and ’97, that’s not saying it’s a bad thing, but they don’t know about the ‘80s, they don’t know about the early ‘90s, they don’t know about the Boogie Monsters or Lords Of The Underground or Organized Konfusion, or when O.C. went solo, they don’t know about Group Home or Gangstarr. So really their base is totally only on Biggie and ‘Pac, they don’t remember Fat Joe from Digging In The Crates, they only know Fat Joe from Lean Back, they don’t know about the Beatnuts, that’s what makes their shit so one dimensional.
I don’t like to knock anybody, but most of these cats are one dimensional, two dimensional at most, because they don’t have any more dimensions to expand with, because they don’t know about Keith Murray or EPMD, or Redman – they remember Redman, Method Man for their TV show probably! They don’t remember the Wu-Tang and The Mystery Of Chessboxing, so, long-ass answer, but that’s the difference.
But it’s starting to shift because there’s always been underground dope dudes who are now being given the chance, myself included, to be put in a mainstream situation with the top label to do dope shit, make the big money, but push dope shit. That’s the difference.
How to Rap: Do you think it’s a bigger problem with the beats or with the rhymes?
Bishop Lamont: It’s both, because again you have motherfuckers who don’t know who Pete Rock is, who don’t know who Primo is, they don’t remember RZA, they only know Dr Dre because Dr Dre stays relevant because he’s doing shit for Eminem, 50 Cent, this, that and the third.
But beyond Dr Dre, what about DJ Quik, what about Battlecat, what about DJ Muggs, what about Buckwild, Lord Finesse, so they don’t know. All they know is Neptunes, all they know is Timbaland, Scott Storch, and so that’s why everybody’s album sounds the fucking same because they go and get the same motherfuckers. So then you have motherfuckers who get the same beats because they’ll go, “aw damn, Scott Storch, he did Lean Back for Fat Joe, give me a Lean Back,” they want all the beats to sound the same, so if Fat Joe succeeded with a club record, I’m gonna make a club record too, and everybody’s got fucking club records.
And so you’ve got everybody driving the same thing, wearing the same thing, saying the same thing, and it’s fucking boring. It’s like wearing uniforms in school, nobody got their own individualism, nobody’s got their own identity, and that’s the problem, on both sides.
How to Rap: What do you think makes a great MC?
Bishop Lamont: Being able to be a great MC! Being dope, knowing that you’re an MC, being able to freestyle, being able to make fly-ass records, really having a purpose and a movement and standing for something. Most of these motherfuckers nowadays don’t stand for anything, it’s money, it’s rims, it’s bitches… ok, so? Slick Rick had that, but Slick Rick gave us Hey Young World, Slick Rick gave us Children’s Story, so it’s like what are you doing? Slick Rick gave you Mona Lisa. Big Daddy Kane – he had motherfucking guns, minks, jewellery, but he gave you Ain’t No Half Steppin’, he gave you Raw, on and on and on, motherfucker stood for something.
Rakim, you know what Rakim stood for, he always gave you balance - at the same time he had the jewels, he had the finger-rings, he had the freshest jumpsuits, but at the same time it wasn’t about materialism, they had a message, most artists now don’t have no fucking message except they sound like a fucking commercial - “wear Prada, wear Gucci, you got that Jeep Wrangler?” It’s like y’all motherfuckers is commercials, y’all niggas is like promoters, you’re not giving anybody anything beyond name brands, price tags. They should be working at strip clubs, in the mic booth!
How to Rap: So with the stuff you’re doing are you trying to bring that old stuff back and the more underground vibe to it?
Bishop Lamont: I’m just doing what Bishop grew up on and where Bishop wants to go with it, I can’t really speak for everybody else or what I’m trying to do, it’s just about making fresh music, but you gonna see all the inspirations and influences of those past eras where I am now. From level of rhyming and my level of MCing and what I’m trying to contribute to the game, and just trying to put some paint where it ain’t, basically, trying to fill in the voids, shit is missing.
How to Rap: What sort of advice would you give to people who are learning how to rap?
Bishop Lamont: Anything in particular?
How to Rap: Like what to focus on and how to learn…
Bishop Lamont: Let’s see, because that’s so open, you can go anywhere with that!
I’d say always look at great people in history because no matter what field they’re in it reflects the same sentiment and that is - whoever these people were, they’ve mastered their field.
If you want to be someone great and someone who will be remembered, you have to master that field and that means mastering every aspect and every style that there is, be it in rap or be it in R&B. You look at Ray Charles, he took gospel and mixed it with rock and mixed it with R&B and blues, or you look at Jimi Hendrix and what he did with rock, you take Bob Marley and what he did with reggae, that’s why we still talk about Bob Marley. You take 2Pac, he mastered every element, every aspect, from originally coming from New York and coming to the West coast and putting that together. Biggie under the same circumstances, of mastering all the hemispheres of the music.
So don’t think you get one belt and you’re happy with that. Bruce Lee is Bruce Lee because he mastered all the arts and then took all the arts and created something new with his own vision, and that’s why he’s the master and that’s why you still watch Enter The Dragon and Chinese Connection to this day.
So you have to really be a master of what you create, you can’t half-ass it, there are no shortcuts to excellence, you have to sacrifice everything to be the best at this. Jimi Hendrix slept with his guitar, so you better be sleeping with your motherfucking microphone, your turntables, your notebook, whatever the fuck it is, go to sleep with the headphones on listening to records. If you don’t give your all, you’re not gonna get it all.