In our current issue “The Jazz and Hip-Hop Debate,” we’ve discussed (through various forums) the exclusion of hip-hop from being viewed as an acceptable musical form in larger social institutions like academia (which the hip-hop community is actively changing). Though recently there has been much more emphasis on hip-hop being a legitimate musical form, with special attention to sampling, and technologies altering the views of what constitutes an instrument, there is still an unnerving disinterest in rap, and the exclusion of viewing rap as possessing artistry, and more specifically, musicality. Here, we talked to three emcees with distinctly different styles, techniques, and attitudes, who break down the mechanics and intuition behind–as well as the science and history–of rhythm and poetry (RAP).
Do you think of melody in terms of rapping?
Homeboy Sandman: Absolutely. I think first and foremost about melody before it ever comes to the words or subject matter. It has to be appealing to the ear first and foremost. That makes it effective as a social tool, as an upper or downer or brainwashing vehicle, or whatever it is. It has to sound good. I want it to be another instrument with the words that I’m saying.
Immortal Technique: I think that it plays into the flow and the cadence of the verse or the hook definitely. When I first began recording my first album, I tried to stay away from things like that because I thought it would become a distraction from the words, but I came to eventually delve deeper into it. It is in the backdrop of the music I make now, and has a much more prevalent role in the music.
Eagle Nebula: Absolutely. It’s funny because that’s really all it is. It’s all melody. When people say “I love your flow”, your flow is your melody. John Coltrane had a flow, Miles Davis had a flow, Thelonius Monk has a flow. When you hear it you know who it is. The tone—then you hear Jay-Z’s voice, you know that tone, that melody—it’s the same thing. I think that people so often discount the voice as an instrument. If you talk to a singer, a singer knows their voice is an instrument. I think a lot of emcees don’t give themselves that credit. Emcees have to watch for their breath control. Talk to a person who plays saxophone or another wind instrument. It’s about breath control. There’s a lot of things that are the same, but when you look at an instrument as something that has to be outside of yourself, then you totally miss the point.
Does this change if you are freestyling vs. when you write a rhyme?
Homeboy Sandman: For me, it doesn’t. I seem to be real melodic with everything that I do from freestyle to written. I want my stuff to be clean, and from a freestyle standpoint, it took me a little while to become more an in depth freestyler because I wasn’t willing to give up the melody that I wanted. I would have been able to construct freestyles that made sense sooner, if I had just said, this is just a freestyle so I’m going to make sure the last word rhymes every time, and not pay as much attention to the cadence and everything, but it’s really important to always be on the beat. The rhythmic part is the most important part for me so it took me a little while to get adept at maintaining that type of freestyle, but I made it a priority to not rush it.
Immortal Technique: To me it depends on the mood, an individual who’s constructing a song might have more time to think about what fits in better with a harmony to compliment the message that what the song is trying to convey. When you are freestyling it’s more improvisational but it also can play a factor.
Eagle Nebula: Freestyle is improvisational. I think what’s so amazing about freestyle, and why it’s so much the same thing as improvising with jazz, it’s like the synthesis of the spirit. You’re letting something flow through you. You might be aware of the melody, but you’re not hyperconscious of it. You put it out and there’s no turning back. Sometimes it’s ugly, sometimes it’s grimy, sometimes it’s beautiful. You might never know what you’re going to put out until it comes out of your mouth. Freestyle to me honestly is like church. Freestyle is like some of the ways to really get close to God. I know that might sound a little bit weird. As a kid watching people freestyle, I remember looking at people that would freestyle, watching cats like Myka 9 and be like “whoa, something is happening here.” These men are telling you stories that they didn’t even know that they had, that they just thought of and it’s all making sense. That flow that’s happening with these words that is perfect, and to me that’s very spiritual. That’s how I feel about freestyle. That same thing happens when you’re writing, but of course you can go back and change things up. There’s an ability to freestyle, there’s that feeling to freestyle, just like in improv. The feeling is that spiritual thing, that invisible thing that you can’t really contain in the word. It’s a feeling of free fall, almost.
What do you think about cats like Mos Def who started incorporating more singing to his music? Does adding melody to rap not constitute it as rap any longer?
Homeboy Sandman: Mos Def is a musician. Him adding more elements to his music is natural progression. Musicians evolve and they become better musicians. Mos can carry a tune. He probably decides that he can carry a tune instead of hiring someone else. I don’t think you need to be Luther Vandross or Whitney Houston in order to carry a tune. Probably everybody has a range, and within that range they can hold a melody. Mos is one of the guys with the courage to do that on his own, and I respect that a lot about him.
Hip-hop is rhyming. I think hip-hop is an interesting art form because you can basically take any genre of music and turn it into hip-hop. You can take a classical record, rhyme over it and turn it into hip-hop. You can rhyme over a jazz song and it’s hip-hop. You can rhyme over an R&B song. You can ‘hip-hop’ anything. When cats are rapping and it’s hip-hop, they can be singing too, they can be juggling too, and it’s hip-hop.
Immortal Technique: As far as what Mos does, to each his own, if that works better in terms of his performance, then what can I, or anyone else really say and would it matter anyways? I know from my experience that different crowds want to hear different things so sometimes people have the feel of a melodic inspired track, whereas other times people just want the instrumental and you sitting those bars. In terms of adding a melody to it making it not hip-hop, I heard this argument several times. You have projects like “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” and Kanye’s last album. Both go for a more musically diverse sound, something experimental for Kayne, and in Miss Hill’s case, more R&B and soulful. But hip-hop has not just rhymes but aspects of DJ’s and the cultural influence of speaking truth to power. As long as this is present it makes the project hip-hop in terms of it’s genre but we live in a time where the culture is constantly redefining itself. What was the standard of hip-hop before, isn’t now. And yet that traditional standard, that hardcore street sound cannot be destroyed, it can be added onto for people to give their own creative interpretation, but it doesn’t cease to be unless it’s purposefully removed. Plus each of these artists is, in my humble opinion, completely capable, as far as I know, of not only doing their own style but also the traditional hard beats with power words form of hip-hop.
Eagle Nebula: I feel like it’s just a natural progression for emcees to sing. I don’t feel like they should make singing their goal, but when you are working with words and harmony, it’s just not always going to come out like a rap. You are fooling if that’s the case. A lot of people don’t want to take that road, because singing is a whole other craft, but I do think that it’s a natural progression. Because you are working with lyrics and melodies, but you are channeling those things, you can’t say what you want them to be. You can’t say “Well, I’m an emcee, whatever I do will have to be a rap.” If you open yourself up to the spirit of sound, they come in all different forms.
What are some vocal techniques particular to your style?
Homeboy Sandman: I’m becoming more and more comfortable whistling, humming, grunting on records. In addition to stuff that people really contribute to being sing-song-y, and traditional singing, even though there is a difference between singing and breaking glass, for people with the talent of doing that, and just expressing yourself over melody. I’m capable of doing that within range, like Mos Def is, like you are. So in addition to becoming comfortable with that, I’ve started to work with non-traditional sounds. Instead of having a fourth bar, it may consist of me just making noise with my mouth. It’s just a hybrid of rapping and devices that I don’t know what they’re called. We’re capable of making all different types of noises with our vocal chords, so I want to have a full arsenal at my disposal.
Immortal Technique: Well I’m not a singer but I definitely do a lot of loud scream and harsh rhyming. After Revolutionary Vol.2 I actually had strep throat for a couple of months and became very sick, I was doing so many shows that I overworked my voice, I wasn’t sleeping so I had to take some breathing classes and I also reworked the flow of the music to make it more compatible with the production behind it, which is why I kind of laugh to myself when I read those old criticisms about me being off beat. I guess on Vol.1 the argument can be made because back then I was really just trying to find beats that matched the tone of the music I had wrote while incarcerated, but after Revolutionary Vol.2 and definitely on The 3rd World, the flow is completely different and the issue doesn’t really apply. In terms of the techniques for breathing, they helped me with this immensely. I began to breathe using my diaphragm and I also learned a few other secrets, which are mine to keep. Haha.
Eagle Nebula: I stress a lot of my words a lot. I am really inspired by saxophone, and wind instruments. It’s always kind of funny to me, stretching out of words, taking one syllable word and making it the equivalent to 3 syllables. I feel like I talk like that sometimes too. I was listening to one of my songs and I was like “why do you do that so much?” I think it’s because I grew up listening to a lot of horn players. And also seeing my voice as a horn and wanting to emulate a horn, not all of the time but looking at the horn for inspiration. The horn makes everything better. I feel like the sax, the trumpet, those instruments, they have those emotions. They can really cry or they can really squeal. They can really make you excited…wow, I never thought of it like that before.
What are some differences to you between what is considered poetry and what you consider rap? Especially if the acronym to rap is Rhythm and Poetry?
Homeboy Sandman: I always write to beats. The reason why I always write to beats, is that I always want everything that I write, every song that I create, I want the rhythm, the words and the melodies to be tailor made to match with the beat. I don’t think it makes sense when I go on a radio show, and they’re like “yo spit a verse over this other beat.” You would never ask Michael Jackson to spit the “Thriller” verses over the “Billie Jean” music. It wouldn’t sound right. When that type of thing happens, I go at the top of the head.
When I’m talking to people about that I’m like, “yo this is music.” That’s why I write to beats. If you take the beat away, if you take the music away, then it’s not really hip-hop anymore, it’s not really rap anymore, it’s not really music anymore. It is spoken word. It is poetry. So I’ll be on stage when I go over an Acapella, and my Acapella can even be doing a song. I have a song called fuel that I do Acapella sometimes. It’s a hip-hop song, but when I do it Acapella and I present it that way, it is a lot more like poetry, like spoken word.
I have acapelities…I just coined that term. Acapella’s that have melodies themselves, so I can say the Acapella and you can still kind of hear what the music sounds like even when there’s music there, which is a acapelity, which I just made up.
Immortal Technique: Rap is usually set to common time, 4/4 and although I’ve heard a handful of people do something to ¾ beats, it’s very rare. That being said, hip-hop is confined by these rules, and as a result, becomes more rhythmic and seducing, where as the poetry itself is just the raw aura of the soul. It is the unbridled anger, love, sadness, willingness to sacrifice, or the humor to reflect on being selfish. In my opinion that makes Rap harder to do, because in effect, you can have poetry without it being in a rapping format, but you can’t have Rap without the poetic aspects of it. A song that just doesn’t rhyme? Okay well I did it on “The Poverty of Philosophy but that’s another story.” Haha.
Eagle Nebula: It’s so interesting because the poetry and rap discussion is something that I feel like depending on what era you’re talking about it’s different. Poetry is a difficult discussion, because if you are a poet—when I say poet I’m talking about someone who is published in the literary journals who is on the academic sense, that many poets have to survive. That particular contemporary poetry is very anti-rhyme. One of the reasons why I stepped away from contemporary poetry is that a lot of my poems would have rhyme in them, and that would be looked down upon. My issue with that is that I’m from the hip-hop generation, so for me to ask a wordsmith to not rhyme from the hip-hop generation, was like nah son! I just couldn’t believe that. It just limited me creatively. It took me to a more stiff and European place that I didn’t feel connected to.
I do feel like the greatest emcees are poets. That’s me coming up from the nineties. I hate that Tupac is so fucking cliché, but I’ll just go with Tupac. If Tupac set the world off with “Thug Life” and everybody after Tupac wants to be a thug, but if you listen to how Tupac discusses “Thug Life”–leave the lyrics and listen to it–you’ll see poetry in that. If you take that and you take somebody later who is talking about “Thug Life,” compare the Lyrics from 94-95, from some thugged out lyrics from 2000 or 2010, you know, it’s going to be a difference in the poetic language that is used, but it’s a matter of taste too.
Many of these cats that I think is lame, they still use lots of metaphors. They use all of the poetic devices. I can say that poetry being so highly academic separates it from the people. And the people are the people who are rapping. When I was more part of the poetry movement. I was always the outsider, because I wasn’t necessarily trying to have a PhD in poetry, I knew I liked to write poetry. When you get into that, you are just writing for other poets, and I didn’t want to write for other poets. I like to write for people like me, who are people in the world who happen to like poetry, but aren’t confined by the contemporary cannons and aesthetics and ways of being a poet. That to me was just really jive, separatist and elitist. I couldn’t really feel it. Of course there’s a lot of really jive elitism, and separatism in hip-hop too, but I just prefer that, because they are the family that I like to perform with.
How does timing, cadence, tonality play into rapping? What instruments can you relate this to?
Homeboy Sandman: When you’re on beat, that’s part of being musical. Sometimes we use syncopation and it will be good. I always think of Das EFX style–something that really impressed me. You have people who are not the most respected makers of hip-hop–Freeway uses 50 words. The man has four albums. If you look at all four albums, only 50 words are used over and over and over again. I know that Freeway uses more than 50 words, but the point I’m trying to make is the flow that is amazing. I am a huge fan of his flow. He definitely has a style. Some people say that I have a style. I don’t think I have a style because I try to sound different on every single record. I don’t sound the same unless I’m rapping on the same beat. I craft something to each beat that I get. I don’t think you’re supposed to have a style. Black Thought has a very distinctive delivery. You are supposed to have a distinctive delivery. It’s not supposed to be a style that 5 people have. Of course there is that. There’s a style that may have been initiated by Fabulous. Maybe that is a really common style now that 100,000 people rap that way, and most of these people don’t really count as musicians.
Immortal Technique: It refines the way an idea is conveyed to the masses. In terms of what examples of instruments you can use, a piano for example is a great example of cadence as you have the tone set by the manner in which the two chords that sometimes overlap are brought about for a complete harmony. I think I could go on and on about this, but it’s simple timing that creates a flow. The flow is guided by the cadence, and the cadence is the seat upon which the tone of the music is set. You know some of us rappers actually know a thing or two about music.
Eagle Nebula: There are two ways that I do things. For the most part when I’m writing a line, and I’m listening to a beat, I feel like there has to be an interaction that’s going on between me and the track. When I’m listening to a beat, I hear the lyrics coming out from some part some instrument. I might hear a synthesizer and I’ll listen to what it’s saying. I’ll hear a phrase. From hearing that phrase, I might just mimic that phrase and what I think it’s saying, or I might do the opposite to compliment it. Honestly, when I hear a beat, I almost feel like it’s like playing double dutch. The ropes are going like click, clack, click, clack, it has you look at it and see where you fit in, and you hop into it and you have to play along with it, or else you are out and you step on the rope. It’s playful for me. I let it take me wherever. I don’t go in there and say “oh imma hit it like this.” It’s a game. Every beat gets me differently. What I don’t like to do is the straight ahead. I’m not really into it, because then I get bored. My brain doesn’t even think that way. I admire people who have the discipline to do that and not get bored, but it bores me. I always want to find the surprise in it. If there’s no surprise it’s just like the next man’s rhyme.
What are the possibilities for vocal manipulation in terms of rap?
Immortal Technique: They can alter the mood of the person listening for one, but I don’t want to have this interview dictated to me. So I want to speak my mind about something. For years I’ve had to endure the snide and condescending attitude of people in the music world. Usually it’s behind my back or so subtle in its patronization of hip-hop that it goes unnoticed. You have musicians and music moguls who go on and on talking about how hip-hop isn’t really music because of the sampling and it’s not composing because of the structure. I prefer these criticisms being straightforward, but since most people on that side of things are so removed from real human interaction, that they live in their own world. Let me interrupt your life for a minute. Mozart didn’t cue himself on protocols and record every live instrument possible, in fact he used several variations of melodies available to him to create and build upon. A composer doesn’t need to play every instrument in the orchestra. As a matter of fact the average musician who plays instruments doesn’t even need to compose his own music to be considered a good musician! What the fuck?
You know for years Jazz musicians and even people that I respect like Quincy Jones made irresponsible commentary about hip-hop all the time. Yes many rap artists don’t read music, and several of them don’t know how to count bars. So many are the equivalent of an ignorant kid with ball skills who goes from high school straight to the NBA spending money irresponsibly because he’s never had it. But discounting the ignorance and the culture leeches (of which there are so many examples of in Classical, R&B and the Jazz/Funk world, that just mentioning it deviates the present course). I’m really tired of people that automatically write hip-hop off because of the early aspects of sampling. We were paying homage to those who inspired us. We took a small piece of brilliance and refined it into a gem that captured the attention of the world. You made it a hot line I made it a hot song. When those records sat there collecting dust on a shelf and people stopped giving a fuck about your music during the disco era, we came through crushed them into oblivion and redeemed your art. You’re all welcome.
Eagle Nebula: It’s endless. I have seen so many people do so many amazing things with rhyming. It’s limitless. As long as you can get your vocal chord there, you can do it. You can mimic whatever you want to mimic, you can change it, you can add to it. If you are looking at the recording level, you can layer and layer and layer, and harmonize. I mean there just is no limit. With Garage Band, Ableton, Pro Tools, Autotune, there is no limit. I used to feel limited, like “it needs to be like this.” But now I’m like it can be whatever I want it to be. Listen to old Freestyle Fellowship. They are people who are so informed by jazz and instrumentation. You can’t deny the power of the live vocal. The live vocal is something that I think has yet to be fully utilized, but I know in a couple of years, emcees are now in a rock band, in a punk band, in this band and that band. They are kind of still doing their emcee thing but then somebody’s going to do some free jazz rap stuff on a punk rock track and then we’re all gonna be in trouble.
What are some of the intricacies in the most prominent rap styles that are musical in subtle but distinct ways that most people may not pick up on?
Homeboy Sandman: There are infinite possibilities. We will never make all the music that there is to be made. There will always be more music to be made. When it comes to people who don’t take music further, these are not things that are important to a lot of people. Hip-hop is the only genre where you can be terrible at music and be famous for making hip-hop. It’s not talent based. On the mainstream level, you’re never going to go to a rock show filled with 50,000 people and there be a guy on stage that just doesn’t know how to play the guitar at all. At a hip-hop show, it’s more about the image a lot of the time. It’s more about being the face of a generic and, often times counterproductive lifestyle, or it’s not about the music it’s about the fool willing to play a role. Some people think hip-hop is more about money than it is about music. Some people think that hip-hop is more about crime than it is about music. These are hip-hop problems because of racism. But hip-hop, as its supposed to be, is music. The people who are gifted for doing this, they do hip-hop to make music. These are not musicians. For the people who do it for the love of creating, and that gives them genuine joy in their life to create, these people with their god given talent, this is where you are going to find unique sounds, these are where you are going to find music that has never been made before. These are people that you can’t imitate or duplicate—one of a kind talent—these are the types of people who are supposed to be making music. When it’s about music these are the people that thrive.
Immortal Technique: Most of the hooks in hip-hop are structured to be not just catchy but also intricately woven into the flow of the change up for the hook backdrop in the music. It can be as simple as the intonation of the words matching or more as the end of each bar matching the harmony in a rise or fall of each octave. This all of course depends on how skilled the songwriter and the producer actually are. You will find other examples but that’s one.
How do these stylistic differences help convey your message?
Homeboy Sandman: Tone. When you talk about writing. What’s the tone of the piece? You can have a rapper with rapid-fire delivery that conveys that type of energy, whatever it is that you’re rapping about. Maybe you’re rapping about something very desperate, something very urgent. You could have a very laid back cadence, with a lot of space. It could convey a feeling of malaise or laziness. I have a song called “Opium,” with a delivery that’s just very relaxed. The delivery in itself is trying to convey a feeling of an opium trip, a euphoric kind of feeling. I have a song called “Listen” where I speak lower than I normally speak because people have to listen closer to the things that I’m saying. The way you deliver something, it’s like they say, it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it. Hip-hop is what you say and how you say it. You could hold a note, and you could hold it and say it in a tone that makes you sound sad, or a tone that makes you sound happy, or a tone that makes you sound excited or unexcited, or bored…
Immortal Technique: This question answers itself.
Eagle Nebula: I will say that when I have an attitude in a song—because a lot of my songs nowadays have an attitude—that’s when you’re going to get the looooooong wooooooord, and a random high note here or there. Some people might just say that I write happy songs, but I think I just have a happy voice. I do know that the lower emotions, the pissed off emotions, it’s all about stretching out those words and syllables, and letting people know that you’re annoyed. A joyful emotion might be more staccato. A joyful emotion you might say more quickly, because it’s bright, it’s up, but it could also be an attitude too.
Who are some of the most original rappers in terms of speech manipulation and use of rhythm?
Homeboy Sandman: Freeway has an original flow. Eminem at his height was doing a lot of genius stuff in terms of flow. If you listen to a song like “Return of the Gangsta” and see how Andre 3000 delivers his bars, he’s another dude who uses delivery sometimes in a simply powerful way. Von Pea from Tanya Morgan has such a charisma in his delivery that it just sounds so distinctive to me. He sounds like he’s so confident in everything that he says that it’s so obvious to him that he’s right. It’s almost like he’s irritated that he has to say it. I don’t know how he does it.
Immortal Technique: Too many to name, but I’ll say this much for those people who like doing research, they existed well before the term “hip-hop” was ever coined. I think for example Muhammed Ali was a rapper, Cab Calloway was a rapper, he wasn’t a hip-hop artist, but he was a rapper. The manipulation of speech and intonation was present in every form of early much, the rhythm the rhyme and the knowledge of self, created a place for us to reclaim the soul of our people, trapped in a perpetual state of shock in respect to our dying position as a people.
Eagle Nebula: I love Freestyle Fellowship, Del the Funky Homosapien. I’m a big Antipop fan. They rap real fast, I think it’s amazing. I’m going to put, I’m not going to say Ice Cube. I’m just on an Ice Cube tip right now, don’t mind me. Mos Def definitely does it, Bahamadia actually. Bahamadia is dope she’s really really groovy and melodic. Her range is low but really beautiful. I love that. The LA underground does a lot. Honestly, you know who does it, and people will refute this, Old Dirty Bastard. ODB would hit those beats so perfect like you wouldn’t even imagine. All of Wu-Tang really. Oh my god, Ghostface! Ghostface to me is real saxophone. Ghostface is real like—he will cry on the mic. He will make you feel it. He doesn’t stretch out real long all of the time, but he will stretch out at all the right times in all the right places. Blackthought duh! Blackthought totally does that. He is one of the few who always was on that, scatting and, cause he had a band, and he could do that. He knew what that was…
Interview by Boyuan Gao
Homeboy Sandman “The Carpenter”
Immortal Technique “Point of No Return”
Eagle Nebula “Waiting”