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Rhythm and Flow: Finding Your Rap & Hip Hop Style

Post date: Dec 13, 2015

Rap and hip-hop music is unique because it uses the voice to create rhythm, which is usually left to percussive instruments (e.g. drums or cymbals) in other music genres. An accomplished rapper is able to carry a beat even a capella (in the absence of musical accompaniment). This is a skill that comes with practice, and also with some knowledge of the basic elements of rapping.

Cadence

A hip hop guide is probably the last place you’d expect to hear a word like “cadence”. It sounds like something from high school English class, but it’s actually a core part of what rapping is all about. If a song has rhythmic flow, it’s said to have strong cadence. Rhythm is the essence of rap music, and rhythmic complexity has increasingly become a hallmark of good rap.

Like most things worth achieving, rapping with strong cadence is something that comes with practice. A good place to start familiarizing yourself with cadence is by trying to rap along to the lyrics of some of your favourite artists.

Once you’ve mastered this, you’re probably going to want to start writing your own raps. There’s actually more of a science to it than one might think. In other musical genres, vocalists have some leeway when arranging song lyrics to match the beat and/or melody (in ballads, for example it is less vital that the vocals align with the song’s rhythm exactly). Unlike these types of vocals, rap music relies heavily on carefully arranged lyrics and precise delivery to create rhythm and reinforce a song’s beat. Because of this, the structure and order of your lyrics are extremely important.

Counting Syllables

Every word in the English language can be broken up into syllables. A syllable is a single, uninterrupted sound that typically consists of a vowel and one or more consonants. Because we consider rap vocals to serve a purpose similar to a drum kit, it’s helpful to think of a syllable as being the equivalent of one beat.

When trying to map out a word or phase’s syllables, the dictionary is a great place to start. Merriam Webster dictionary and thesaurus (merriamwebster.com) is an excellent resource for this, as it separates each syllable of word entries with a dot (•), like this:

mu•sic melt•er

The words “music melter” have four syllables in total: mu/sic/melt/er. If we were to clap along with the beat of these words, we would be clapping 4 times— once for each syllable.

Syllables are fairly easy to navigate once you get the hang of them. They’re essential to keep track of when writing rap lyrics, because they are the building blocks of your rhythm.

Breathing

Rap music’s defining trait is the rapid, flawless delivery of lyrics. This is difficult to achieve without first establishing good breathing technique. When writing rap lyrics, a good rule of thumb is to treat breathing just like a one-syllable word (e.g. “uhhh”), which is added to the end of each line. Depending on your experience level, you may be able to go longer without taking a breath. Remember: if you decided to inhale less frequently, you will need to take longer, deeper breaths which may throw off your song’s rhythm.

Iambic Rhythm

Iambic rhythm refers to variations in the syllables that are stressed or emphasized, versus those are relatively silent. Remember when we talked about rhythmic complexity helping to create strong cadence? One way of increasing the complexity of your rhythm, which is popular with many rappers today, is by creating rhyme schemes using iambic rhythm.

Figuring out which syllables are stressed and which are silent is a bit trickier than simply counting syllables. As with syllable counting, however, saying the words aloud does help.

Take the following words, for example:

about → a •BOUT
indeterminate → IN •de •TERM •in• ATE
examples → ex•AM•ples
poetry → PO•et•RY

The syllables in capital letters are stressed, while the others are comparatively silent. This means that when we pronounce any of these words, we automatically emphasize (either with inflection or by raising the volume) the stressed syllable. This is important for rap lyrics because the key is to rhyme only the syllables that are stressed—rhyming the silent ones won’t add anything to your rhythm.

Rhyming

There are several different types of rhymes, and all of them are found in rap lyrics. When we rhyme the vowel sounds of words, this is called assonance (e.g. “go” and “follow”). When we rhyme the consonant sounds, it is referred to as consonance (e.g. “pitter patter”). When both the consonant and vowel sounds of two words rhyme, this is called a perfect rhyme (e.g. “house” and “mouse”).

Multi-Syllabic Rhymes

When rap lyrics rhyme more than one syllable, this is called a multi-syllabic rhyme. These types of rhymes sound pleasant to the ear and are especially catchy. Old school rappers typically ended lines with rhymes, but more recently, rappers have begun to craft more complex rhyming schemes. Eminem is an example of a rapper who is exceptionally skilled at multi-syllabic rhyming.

Check out Eminem’s use of multi-syllabic rhymes in the following lyrics from Lose Yourself:

His palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy
There’s vomit on his sweater already, mom’s spaghetti
He’s nervous, but on the surface he looks calm and ready to drop bombs,
but he keeps on forgetting

There’s quite a lot going on in terms of rhyming just in those few lines! In addition to rhyming vowels and consonants, Eminem also rhymes multiple syllables in a row.

palms •aresweaty
armsareheavy
mom’sspaghetti

In the above phrases, the words “palms”, “arms”, and “mom’s” don’t seem like rhyming words at first glance, but theses are in fact examples of consonance (which we discussed above). Each of these words ends with the same “ms” sound, which—despite not creating an obvious rhyme—still has a significant impact on the song’s flow.

The words “sweaty”, “heavy”, and “spaghetti” are more easily discernable rhymes because they are examples of assonance; each of the words begins with the same short “e” sound, and ends with the same short “y” sound. The words “nervous” and “surface” are also an example of assonance, this time in close proximity to one another. 

Now let’s take a look at the following phrase:

calmandready

What does that remind you of?

palms •aresweaty

How about this?

vomitonhis

This time, Eminem rhymes the “alm” sound in the words “calm” and “palms”. When we say it out loud, the word “vomit” also contains the same “alm” sound; it’s simply spelled differently. Now let’s take another look at those lyrics:

His palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy
There’s vomit on his sweater already, mom’s spaghetti
He’s nervous, but on the surface he looks calm and ready to drop bombs,
but he keeps on forgetting

This time, the rhymed words (pALMs, vOMit, cALM) are far enough apart that the rhyme isn’t obvious, but this is precisely what makes the song’s rhythm so spectacularly catchy.

Conclusion

Eminem is highly skilled at arranging lyrics, but it goes without saying that there are almost as many styles of rhythm and flow in rap music as there are rappers. You may have a favourite rapper whose style you want to imitate, or you may be aiming to invent a distinct style. Whatever your rapping aspirations, you can adjust your rhythmic flow by experimenting with the following three elements or components of rap lyrics:

1.The rhyming scheme.
Are the rhymes multi-syllabic, or only single syllable? Do they fall at the end of the lines or at the beginning? How many rhymes are in each bar (i.e. section of music)?

2. Sentence structure.
Are the sentences short or long? Both? How many syllables in each sentence and/or bar?

3. Repetition.
Are rhymes repeated (i.e. are the same sounds being rhymed over and over), or are new rhymes introduced frequently?

Now that you know the core elements rap lyrics, you’ll find there are an infinite number of exciting possibilities.





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