Friday, March 26, 2010

How To Rap

Ok, we're gonna make a little shift and get literary here at Werner's tonight. I do own a bookstore, after all; so I really ought to have more than one book review on this site. And there's a new book out now making the rounds - you might've seen a spot or two of promotion for it online - called How To Rap by Paul Edwards from Chicago Review Press.

Here's the selling point, and certainly what caught my interest. As the title cover says, it features "advice and guidance from exclusive interviews with more than 100 artists." And it's a pretty terrific selection of artists. First there's a lot of good ones: MCs you'd be interested to hear from. And second, it's very well-rounded, including old school, new, indie, underground and commercial artists, from your classic NY MCs like Big Daddy Kane and MC Shan, to your favorite "art fag" artists like Cage and Murs (no Anticon, though). And I'm happy to report that this book doesn't just drop in one sentence from each so they can write their names on the cover. No, the artists actually get more ink in this book than the Edwards, who almost serves more as editor than author... just like you'd hope for. The cover also boldly touts a forward by Kool G Rap, but it's super short and says next to nothing. Fortunately, though, G Rap also appears throughout the rest of the book.

So, there's really two ways to approach this book, depending I suppose on whether you're really looking to learn how to rap, or if you're just a fan/curiosity seeker, like myself. If you're just a fan of some or a lot of the artists, you'll probably just want to pick it up and read the quotes from the artists you like. This is made very easy, with a complete index that lists every artist and where their content appears. The artists' quotes - which can be as short as a single sentence or as long as a couple paragraphs - are clearly separated from the rest of the page with the artist's name centered and bolded above (although the author sometimes sneaks even more quotes into the body of his text... you'll really have to pour through the book to hunt all those down). And in addition to the index, there's a glossary of bios for all the interviewed artists. So if you're reading this book, and keep seeing a name recur and wonder, "who the Hell is Vursatyl?" you can look him up and see he's one of The Lifesavas, a positive rap trio signed to Quannam.

If you're really looking to learn and take this book seriously, however, you'd probably be inclined to read it straight through from page 1. How does it hold up in that respect? Well...

It starts out with the basics, which are like... really basic. Not only is the sentence, "the content of a hip-hop song (sometimes called the subject matter) includes every subject you talk about in your lyrics" an actual sentence taken from the book, but that simple point is repeated again and again. This is partially due to the way the book is structured: Edwards will make a general statement, then clarify it, and then use 2-3 quotes from artists to make the same statement in their own words. And it's partly just because this book spends a good deal of time covering such basic fundamentals of language - the sentence, "content forms are the basic ways of structuring the content of a song" is no better than saying, "parking spaces are the basic spots for parking a car" - that anyone who needed this so deliberately spelled out for them would probably also need to have the book read aloud to them.

But fortunately, it does get more detailed as you soldier through. By chapter 5 or so, they're up to explaining the differences between similes and metaphors, or perfect rhymes versus assonance. It's like English class all over again, except with comments from Yukmouth and Papoose. We progress through like students towards graduation, except this book starts us all the way back in kindergarten. So the budding MC might want to skim through the opening chapters until he starts finding info that's genuinely new to him.

The book does get into things a lot of aspiring MCs (and even successful, working MCs on major labels) could really find educational, like how to count bars or tips on how to improve your enunciation. So sections of this book seem genuinely useful. ...A lot more of it, though, seems purely anecdotal. There's a big section on Places To Write, sub-divided into sections suggesting places like Home, In the Studio, Your Car, or just A Quiet Place. Sections like that seem like they only exist to house quotes of MCs talking about these things, rather than offering you explosive ideas as an aspiring song-writer ("'Home'?! That's brilliant! All these years, I've been shelling out millions of dollars to NASA for them to fly me up to the moon to write, when all this time I could've been doing it right here in the comfort of my own home. Thank you, How To Rap!"). Take the section for Times To Write. The book explicitly spells out over two pages that you could write at night... or you could write in the morning... or just "whenever the inspiration hits." Now surely, no human being could type all that out and think they're imparting useful knowledge to potential readers. But it does allow for fun quotes like this one from Vinnie Paz, "I usually drink a lot, and it's always late at night - they're the only two things that are like a constant."

I don't imagine knowing Vinnie's dedication to the bottle is going to help anyone become a better rapper. Ultimately, How To Rap boils down to a giant collection of anecdotes. But that's fun. And whether you're looking for novel insights into your favorite rappers' style as a fan, or helpful tips to hone your craft as an MC, you're sure to find some of what you're looking for in here. Think of it this way: it's a hundred plus interviews with interesting rappers. Sure they're chopped up and edited in a different way, but basically it's a just whole lot of interviews with an emphasis on craft. You'd read that, wouldn't you?

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this. The book caught my eye and I wondered if it's worth reading. Now I know.