The Evolution of Rhyming in Hip-Hop

Posted: May 15, 2013 in Uncategorized
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The Evolution of Rhyming in Hip-Hop

by Jeff Walker

(Please Click Each Pic for Video Examples)

Merriam Webster Dictionary defines rapping as a “Musical style in which rhythmic and/or rhyming speech is chanted (“rapped”) to musical accompaniment”. To those in hip-hop culture and raised in the hip-hop generation, the actual verb of rapping has also been called “flowing”, “spitting”, “emceeing”, just to name a few. While the performance art has taken on many names, the one necessity that all emcees have in their repertoire is the art of rhyming. The purpose of this paper is to explore the puzzle of words which emcees configure each time they take a pen to the page, its various stages of importance and how it has evolved and/or devolved over time. When one turns on the television in 2013, it is impossible to avoid being bombarded with hip-hop culture. The music, the style, and the lingo are all reminders that the baby boomers seat on Madison square garden has been replaced with a seat tagged “Hip-Hop Generation”. Whether it is a Honda automobile commercial, Swatch watches, clothing or even Vodka  spirits (Chang, pp. 419), hip-hop has made its way into the homes of every household in America and most of the civilized world. While its acceptance and subsequent takeover of the mainstream market share may seem ordinary to younger generations, the memory of a different time still is tattooed on the brain of many who consider hip-hop as their life sake. A time when the South Bronx was creating a music and lifestyle out of necessity, a time when the music was local and regional, a time when a hip-hop party mainly consisted of bboy circles, a time when emcees were at the party to support the DJ and keep the party lively. The birth and incremental expansion of hip-hop culture in the early and mid 1970’s is now considered just a sliver of the whole hip-hop pie for one big reason; it was before the emcee started creating stories with his words. From Pigmeat Markham to Slim Galliard (late 1920’s and 1940’s respectively) to the Last Poets  and  Muhammad Ali  “Rhythmic talking styles have always been a part of African American culture (Stanley, pp. 16)”, so should not have been a surprise to anyone when the emcee started to put his stamp on the party. In the late 1970’s and very early 1980’s the emcee’s with the most recognition were party emcees whose lyrics were boastful but the main content was always about the house party and/or the dance floor. One of the biggest hits at the time (1980) was the nine minute long, “That’s the Joint” by The Funky Four plus One More.

 “Jeff is the rhythm and Kay is the bass(A)/Sha-Rock shocking the whole darn place(A)/now here’s a little story ya got to be told(B)/party people in the place, you got a whole lot of soul(B)

“Party people” and the calling out of band members were very common for the era as is the rhyme scheme; AABB where the AA correlates to the bass/place and the BB correlate to the told/soul. There is no specific length to the songs verses, varying from 10 all the way to 18 bars. The verses were often separated by only the group calling out “That’s the joint!” There is hardly any difference in the syncopation or delivery between the four emcees as they alternate verses throughout the song.  “Early hip-hop featured simple syncopation-matching beats or more specifically pulses to syllables- and that explains why early rappers often paused between syllables (hip…hop…you…don’t…stop) and generally rapped slower than their lyrical descendants (Cobb, pp. 84)”.

Despite its “simple syncopation’, songs like That’s The Joint symbolized a change in hip-hop, which now began to showcase the vocal, “DJ’s no longer enjoyed the eminence or the central role their billing implied…the rise of the rap producer, the arrival of some extraordinary rappers and the increasing flow of capital propelled hip-hop music into a period of remarkable stylistic development (Chang, pp. 229)”.

Busy Bee vs. Kool Moe Dee

In 1981, there was one emcee who was dominating the emcee battle scene, Busy Bee Starski.  As seen in the clip Busy Bee would call out “If you were born in New York City sayYou know that!’” and the crowd would resoundingly respond with a “You know that!”  Busy Bee, and scores of others at the time, was known for the call and response interaction with the crowd. Rhyming was technically simple, rhythmic and party oriented. That all changed in December 1981. Busy Bee walked into Harlem World expecting to win the emcee contest, “I would walk in the spot and tell all the emcees, ‘Ya’ll can relax ya’ll selves, the trophy is mine (Unsung, Kool Moe Dee).’” What he didn’t expect, was the host of the talent show, Kool Moe Dee, to take the mic and change the landscape of hip-hop rhyming forever.

Hold on Busy Bee, I don’t mean to be bold/but put that ba-diddy-ba bullshit on hold/were gonna get right down to the nitty grit/tell you a little something why you ain’t shit

 Pioneering emcee Melle Mel stated, “That was the first time that an emcee dismantled somebody.”

“In a battle like this you know you’ll lose/between me and you who do you think they’ll choose/if you think it’s you, I got bad news/when they hear your name you’re gonna hear some boos

This battle is significant because it was not only the first time that an emcee directly called another emcee out but the rhyming patterns and delivery had never been heard before on a large stage.  His delivery was considered “fast rap”, he cursed (which was very rare) and as noted in the above quote with lose/choose/news/boos, he was elongating his rhyme scheme.  The tape circulated throughout New York and “marked the triumph of the serious, poetic, lyricists over the flamboyant showman (Cobb, pp. 81).”

Messages in Music

This lead to a slew of crews and emcee’s focused on the written word and the stories coming through their pens and microphones.  “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five dropped in 1982 and is still considered one of the most influential rap songs in history. They shattered the party rap mode with lyrics about the streets, drugs, poverty and inner city plight.

“Broken glass everywhere/people pissing on the stairs/you know they just don’t care/I can’t take the smell, can’t take the noise/got no money to move out, guess I got no choice”.

With this one single the lyrical landscape began to take a new shape. Artists realized that they could use their gift to paint pictures and “The Message” was a “gritty street level snap shot of modern life (Woodstra,Bush, Erlewine, 2008).” While “the emcees were tied to the old school delivery (careful and slow)”, the six minute song also delivered lines with triple rhymes;

“All the kids smoke reefer, I think it’d be cheaper/if I just got a job and learned to be a street sweeper/cause it’s all about

 money, ain’t a damn thing funny/you got go have a con in this land of milk and honey”

 

Although there were only hints of it by landing reefer and cheaper in the same line then coming back to end the next line with sweeper, Grandmaster Flash and Furious Five were breaking ground in more way than one.

Creative Context and Run- DMC 

From 1983-1985 song concepts were expanding. Songs like “Haunted House of Rock” by Whodini created a first person story in which the emcee encounters imaginary ghoulish creatures, while “Radio” by LL Cool J personified his boom box as his friend. While the creativity was expanding the rhyme schemes and flow were still formulating and had yet to have that breakthrough emcee who changed rhyme patterns completely. With the classic 1986 album Raising Hell, Run DMC took rap music to its rhyming pinnacle, up until that point. With the single “Walk this Way” which featured legendary rock group Aerosmith, helped Run DMC and hip-hop’s audience suddenly spread to broader races and cultures. The production is well noted, “Sonically there was more going on with this record than any previous rap record- more hooks, more drum loops (Woodstra, Bush, Erlewine, pp. 77).” What is not documented as thoroughly is the internal rhyme schemes which they used so often on Raising Hell.

“Heard in the heavens are the sounds supreme/so clear to the ear it is sometimes seen/so loud to the cloud it is sounds like lightening/so proud to the crowd it is somewhat frightening”

While internal rhymes had been done before, never had it been done so consistently and over a whole album.  Two forms of internal rhymes are delivered here, first the ABBA sequence where supreme and seen sandwich (A) clear and (B) ear. In the next line, Run DMC accentuates the internal rhyming point with the AAB rhyme scheme in two consecutive lines.

Loud (A) Cloud (A) Lightening (B) Proud (A) Crowd (A) and Frightening (B).  

No More Simple Rap” & Rakim

At the end of 1986 the majority of emcees were still crafting lyrics considered simplistic by today’s standards.  Albums released in 1987 included Yo! Bumrush the Show by Public Enemy, Move Something by the Two Live Crew, Rhyme Pays by Ice-T and Criminal Minded by Boogie Down Productions.  All of these albums have a place in hip-hop history but none are considered the ground breaking, game changing, and even life altering (for other emcees) classic that Eric B. & Rakim’s Paid in Full became. Eric B. was the DJ and the emcee was Rakim. Rakim not only raised the bar for lyricists, he actually took rhyming to a level that was so high that it would take years for other lyricists to even get close. Paid in Full showcased Rakim’s multi-syllabic lyrical delivery which would be later adapted by numerous rappers —introducing the idea of a rapid, continuous, free-rhythmic flow, based around deeply woven rhyme structures (incorporating internal rhymes and sophisticated metaphors).  Before Rakim, rhymes were used at the end of a sentence to punctuate the point. Respected emcee Planet Asia states that, “When you are talking about Rakim you are talking about the next level, the shift…like BAM, no more simple rap (Edwards, pp. 97).” Here is Rakim from his “Paid in Full” in 1987;

“I learned to earn cuz I’m righteous

I feel great maybe I might just

Search for a nine to five,

If I strive maybe I’ll stay alive

So I walk up the street, whistling this

feeling out of place cuz man do I miss

a pen and a paper, a stereo, a tape of

me and Eric B and a nice big plate of

fish, which is my favorite dish

but without the money, it‟s still a wish…”

In the first line Rakim uses and internal scheme of AAB, with “learn” and “earn” as the (A) rhyme and “righteous” as the (B) rhyme. While the AAB had been done before, it was how he rhymed “righteous” and “might just” which cemented compound rhymes as the way of the future for rap lyrics.  “A compound rhyme is created when the rhyme is more than one syllable long (Edwards, pp. 87)”. In the noted verse Rakim uses the perfect compound rhyme of “righteous” and “might just”. This was a first at the time because he was taking one word and perfectly rhyming it with two words. As if that was not enough, by ending the sentence with “might just”, the listener was left hanging, wonder what “might just” Rakim do?  By putting together all of these original pieces Rakim left an unparallel mark which still has emcees like the legend Masta Ace talking about him,  “Everyone’s mind was blown because nobody had ever put three words that rhyme together in a sentence and that just opened up so many doors (Edwards, pp. 98).” In the same verse Rakim duplicates his brilliance by again using the inter-sentence compound rhyme moments later.

Feeling out of place cuz man do I miss/a pen and a paper, a stereo, a tape of/me and Eric B and a nice big plate of/ fish, which is my favorite dish…

As seen in the above quote, many of the lines lead into the next,. “Man do I miss…” has got the listener hanging, wondering what Rakim misses.  He then creates assonance (vowel sound rhyme) with “paper” and “tape of” and then with “a nice big plate of…” which again has the listener wondering what exactly is on that nice big plate. When one puts the compound rhymes, the assonance rhymes, the inter-sentence rhymes and multi-syllabic rhymes with his perfect timing and delivery, it is no wonder that Rakim was crowned by The Source magazine as the #1 Hip-Hop Lyricist of all-time (2012). Masta Ace sums up Rakim’s influence, “Up until Rakim, everybody who you heard, the last word in the sentence was the rhyming word, the connection word. Then Rakim showed us that you could put rhymes within a rhyme, so you could put more than one word in a line that rhymed together, so it didn’t just have to be the last word (Edwards, pp. 105).”

Rhyme Expansion & Big Daddy Kane

1988 also proved to be a monumental year for rap and is considered by many to be the start of the “Golden Age” of hip-hop (some claim 1987) which spanned until 1994 (some claim 1993).  More than a dozen influential albums were released, including Eric B & Rakim’s verbally viscous sophomore album Follow the Leader, Public Enemy’s political bomb It Takes a Nation of Millions, Eazy-E brought humor and the west coast gangster lifestyle to the forefront with Eazy Duz It, Rob Base had fans dancing to It Takes Two and DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince created a song called “Parents Just Don’t Understand” which won the first rap Grammy.  The content was rich, the lyrics were meaningful and the rhyme schemes were now opening up in ways that no other music ever had. Big Daddy Kane was one of the emcees who helped to achieve that. With his 1988 release of Long Live the Kane was “one of the most appealing creations from the new school of rap…The Big Daddy Kane who had the verbal facility and razor-clean dexterity to ambush any MC (Woodstra, Bush, Erlewine, pp. 7)”. Indicative of the times when emcees would use the art as a way to “slay emcees” (in the figurative, not literal), Kane spends the majority of his debut album boasting about his rhyming skills and abilities on the microphone but the way that he did it opened new doors in rhyming. While emcees like L.L. Cool J were telling you that they were the “baddest” by lines like, “During this episode vocally I explode/My title is the king of the FM mold”, Big Daddy Kane delivers his rhyming words back to back and fast, again reiterating the change from the slow and careful deliveries from previous emcees.

“Any competition/wishing for an expedition/I’m straight up dissing and dismissing/listen…”

And then in the same verse

Confuse and lose, abuse and bruise the crews who choose to use my name wrong, they pay dues”

Rhyming five, six, seven or even eight words within two bars was a deliberate way to redirect the listener’s ear to the rhyming itself and became one of Big Daddy Kane’s signature techniques. In more recent times the rapper Fabolous has paid homage to the technique with lines like;

“We’ve been (1) creeping (2) and sneaking (3) just to keep it (4) from leaking (5) We so deep in (6) our freaking (7) that we don’t sleep on (8) the weekends (9)”.

Similes, Metaphors & Punchlines & Lord Finesse

“Artists are constantly on the lookout for examples to work in a metaphor, simile or analogy (Edwards, pp. 44). Again, Big Daddy Kane in 1988, was one of the fist to showcase similes and metaphors;

“Perpetratin’ a stunt/when you know I’ll smoke you up like a blunt/I’m genuine like Gucci/raw like sushi/the age of rage is what rap did to me”

While songs like the above mentioned “Raw” ushered in the analogy, similes and metaphors that are still prevalent in today’s hip-hop world, albeit less showcased than in the golden age.  Modern day emcee Murs says, “Metaphors are impressive-it’s like a slam dunk.” Emcee Remy Ma states, “With real lyricists, you have to hear it a few times before you catch every metaphor (Edwards, pp. 47)”. Similes and metaphors like these gave way to the punchline emcees. In “Word of Mouth”, Cobb describes the “playground emcee” who’s original proving grounds were “the freestyle battle and live on the street performance” making the punchline “indispensable to getting a crowd open.” Burgeoning in the early 1990’s, “This verbal tactic is the reason that early DJs started the tradition of dropping the audio at the end of every fourth or eighth measure-to literally give the MC breathing room, to allow him to drop is punchline a cappella for maximum impact (Cobb, pp. 89).” Cobb calls the emcee, Lord Finesse,  a “punchline king.” “When you was hearing Public Enemy, Kane and Rakim…you was like, ‘One day I hope I am that nice.’” This is what Lord Finesse was thinking as he was creating his rhymes in the late 1980’s and when his album, Funky Technician, was released in 1990, he laid the ground work for some of the greatest emcees (Big L, Eminem) to follow. Funky Technician, was filled with metaphors, similes and punchlines as well as compound and internal rhymes.

“Yeah, cause I’m on some old new shit

Got more styles than you see in a Kung Fu flick

I wax opponents off with ease

I’m more deadly than a venereal disease

So think twice, those who think I’mma fall

I’m shining more than a tire full of Armor All”

“I’ll steal your show like a bandit/I get the papes while your broke like mass transit/There’s no one as smooth as this so what can you do with this/brothers need to step and stop with the foolishness”

Modern day emcee, Elzhi, recently stated “It was cats like Lord Finesse that I started breaking down, as far as the way that he was doing metaphors and how he was coming up with patterns and the words that he was using.” Finesse is constantly leading to a punchline “so the listener knows exactly where the lines punctuation will be (Cobb, pp. 89)”. One listen to the above song will show the timing in his delivery, leaving the listener anticipating the upcoming metaphor or simile. Also, he is always consistent with his compound rhymes (notice the multiple syllables, do-with-this matches with fool-ish-ness). Like emcees of the era, Lord Finesse’s content mixed boasting, relationships/pickup game and social commentary rhymes.  A full listen of the album and one would note that he calls his fellow black men “brothas” as opposed to other derogatory terms, the absence of “bitches and hoes”, as well as the absence of in your face violence and/or illegal drug promotion. With only a few exceptions, this was rap music in the early 1990’s.

Gansta Gangsta & Pop Goes the Weasel

“Not long ago, a rappers skills and creativity dictated the direction of the music. The music didn’t change, the environment changed. As the music grew more popular, it became open to mainstream influences (Salaam, pp. 304).” It was in the mid 1990’s that controlling powers began to see that “Hip-hop influences not only conventional ‘rap music’, but also all forms of popular music as well as radio, music, television, film, advertising, and digital media throughout the world (Morgon, pp. 180).” The result of that insight led more and more people and companies, whom had had never been hip-hop oriented, to start to use rapping, scratching and general hip-hop culture in their marketing plans and advertisements. With that, more and more people became aware of the growing culture causing more and more marketing… and the cycle continues. Rap music and hip-hop culture were now in the homes of Americans of all classes and races, who for the most part could not even pronounce Bambaattaa. “When Straight Outta Compton crossed over to white audiences, things became very unpleasant…it became a more formidable lightning rod for the suppression of youth culture than rock music ever had (Chang, pp. 337)” and that meant sales and unprecedented popularity. By 1993 the huge success of Los Angeles base gangster rap group, N.W.A and its breakout star Ice Cube, had created uncountable numbers of copycats groups and rappers.  The west coast hip-hop scene had become overtaken with graphic violence, misogynistic messages and direct illegal drug promotion.  “Straight Outta Compton also marked the beginning of hip-hop’s obsession with ‘The Real(Chang, pp. 328).’” It was not uncommon to hear gunshots and reenacted drive-by shootings on artist’s albums. Lyrical content, technical writing, rhyme schemes and patterns all took a back seat to the overpowering feeling of machismo, and as a result, the craft suffered.

So I ain’t holding nothing back/and motherfucker I got five on the twenty sack/It’s like that and as a matter of fact (rat-tat-tat-tat)/Cuz I never hesitate to put a nigga on his back”.

What’s My Name-Snoop Dogg

Menace to Society, Mothafuckin killa/just call me the East Bay gangsta/I’m a real ass nigga/quick to get my blast on/do a 187 with this mothafuckin mask on

Spice One- Niggas Got No Heart

When the gangsta persona was combined with passionate rappers who used classic R&B samples to “smooth out” the feel of their song, the combination was unparallel mainstream success for rap music.  In the documentary “Notorious”, Christopher Wallace, aka Notorious B.I.G says that his manager/partner Puff Daddy (Sean Combs) pushed him into making songs that people could “dance to” and that had more “mass appeal”.  Despite Wallace’s reservations, the move gave him incredible commercial success, giving commerce the over culture. Little did the hip-hop world know that a few years later commerce would become the culture. In one of the most popular songs of the era (and all-time), “Juicy”, Notorious B.I.G (despite his overall greatness/presence) proved that in the new era one didn’t have to be a complex wordsmith to sell records to the mainstream;

“The Moet and Alize keep me pissy/girls used to diss me, now they write letters cuz they miss me/I never thought it would happen this rappin stuff/I was too used to packing gats and stuff”.

Two Sided Tupac

On the east coast Notorious B.I.G had taken the lion’s share of popularity and was selling while on the west coast Tupac Shakur was doing the same. Although Tupac had the talent and creativity to write with the best lyricists, it was his rebellious nature, his honesty/pain on tracks, his constant run-ins with the law, his acting and his bigger than life persona which put him on the world’s stage.  Tupac penned many songs and even albums where he stretched the west coast gangsta ideas of writing (2pacalypse Now & Makaveli especially), by using alliteration and compound rhyme. From his song “White Man’s World”:

“Staring at walls of silence/inside this cage where they captured all my rage and violence/in time I learned a few lessons/never fall for riches/apologies to my true sisters far from bitches” 

His rhymes schemes were stringing together not just syllables but words of rhyme.  Notice the walls (A) of silence (B) inside this cage (C) where they captured all (A) my rage (C) and violence (B). Apologizing to his “true sisters” through the lessons he learned.  White Man’s World and most of Makaveli: The Seven Day Theory, which was written while serving a prison sentence, represents the vulnerable, activist and community minded Tupac. But his mainstream superstardom was catapulted with All Eyes On Me, by far his least intricate album, as far as rhyming patterns and lyrical content.

“Say money bring bitches, bitches bring lies/one niggas getting jealous and motherfuckers died/depend on my like the first and fifteenth/they might hold me for a second but these punks won’t get me/we got foe niggaz and low riders in ski masks/screaming thug life everytime they pass”.

 

In the song “All Eyes on Me”, his rhyme patterns are very simple, as he forces the rhyme “fifteenth” and “get me”. His “sisters” are back to “bitches” and his “brothers” are now low riding thugs. This is indicative of the majority of All Eyes on Me the album which “is widely regarded as one of the most influential albums in hip hop history and recognized as one of the crowning achievements of 1990s rap”. Taking only two years to go 9x platinum, All Eyes on Me album is one of the highest-selling rap albums of all time. With above average intelligence and a passion for writing, Tupac had a choice to and did write songs on many topics from teenage pregnancy, to empowering women, to police brutality, but as evidenced by album sales, the masses wanted less intricate lyrics with a bigger beat.  As (Wu-Tang Clans RZA said it best when he was giving sight to the blind but the “dumb are mostly intrigued by the drum.”)  His overwhelming success played a heavy influence on emcees to follow for the next decade.  Unfortunately, it seems like the next generation of emcees chose to copy the All Eyes on Me Tupac, rather than the 2pacalypse Now or Makaveli Tupac, causing the technical craft of writers to sink further into obscurity.

Music or the Machine?

Jared Ball says that hip-hop is a cultural expression that has now “become part of the machinery of colonial control”.  The inevitable commercialization of hip-hop is even more disconcerting considering the fact that hip-hop was born without help from mainstream media.

It is rare to hear a mainstream artist taking a political stand now and if they don’t rap about the staples of “money, sex and violence”, they are automatically put in the “conscious” crowd, which doesn’t get financial backing by the corporations.  From Taco Bell commercials to rapping wrestlers, hip-hop culture is everywhere but the few artists selling high volumes of records are far less technically lyrical than their predecessors.  Currently popular artists like Soulja Boy  and Wiz Khalifa    prove to the world that the craft of lyric writing is no longer important to mainstream fans and that youth will follow whatever the major labels (i.e. corporations) put in front of them.

In a 2012 interview Lord Finesse said of the latest generation of rappers, “Nowadays, it’s like, ‘what was the thought process behind this?’ I don’t think they rhymes are technically put together.” He continues, “Hip hop is like a reality show now… it wasn’t about that back in the day, your lyrical capabilities was your persona and your credibility.” Artists like Lord Finesse don’t want to fit into this world of commercialized hip-hop where corporations are again dictating what the creative lower class does with its now tainted art form.  How can artists with Rakim’s ideals compete when the cultures current leader, Jay-Z, admitted on his track “Moment of Clarity” that,

“I dumb down for my audience and double my dollars…If skillz sold truth be told, I’d be lyrically Talib Kweli/Truthfully I wanna rhyme like Common Sense/ (But I did 5 mill) and ain’t been rhyming like Common since”.

In the constant boxing match of Culture vs. Commerce, that was a knockout blow by commerce.

Elzhi and the Multis

While the mainstream rappers being pushed by the corporate machine have “dumbed” down their lyrics, there are scores of lesser known emcees continuing in the line of classic emcees and taking the craft to new levels. An example modern day lyrical dexterity is Detroit emcee Elzhi. He is known for his complicated rhyme schemes, many of which contain multi-syllabic patterns, internal rhymes and alliteration, evocative imagery, simile and metaphor.

Yo, the day that hell snowed is when El fold, poetry well told It’s entertainin, keep niggaz trainin like the railroad Stingman, what I bring in is dope as the kingpen Slingin, OG’s threw me beneath the wingspan Expert, through the less dirt, but still my tec squirt Bucked then, it gets tucked in, just like a dress shirt

Every single rhyme is a compound one, often combining more than one word.  Hell snowed/El Fold/well told/raildroad is all dropped within the first two lines and then entertainin/trainin is the internal rhyme in those same lines. He also uses word play in his metaphor when “trainin like the railroad”, being that trains travel on railroads. A simile to start the second line, where what he  brings in is dope as the kingpen, meaning that his rhymes are literally as good (dope) as materials bought and sold by the most reputable drug dealers (Note he is not boasting of selling drugs himself). He is an expert through less dirt (meaning he gained high praise without going through the regular tribulations that most have to) but still my tec squirt (again three compound rhymes in one line) proving he is still of the streets and that when his tec does squirt, its bucked then it gets tucked in (perfect internal rhymes which sound sweet to seasoned hip-hop fans) like a dress shirt.  He brings back the original rhyme scheme with a creative and crafty metaphor. In only six lines, one can see Elzhi is supremely talented as a writer of hip-hop lyrics and is a good example of how hip-hop rhyming has evolved.

“I end careers, years/ pierce ears/ fierce with spears they say I’m gifted/get lifted like the beers in Cheers!”

Elzhi follows a rhyme pattern of his predecessor, Big Daddy Kane (multiple consecutive rhyming words), but adds an internal rhyme gifted/lifted which turns into a metaphor with a pop culture reference, lifted like the beers in Cheers. These subtle differences are consistent with taking an earlier rhyme scheme and then adding to it.

 Legendary lyricist Kool G. Rap explains the difference between simple and compound rhymes “With multisyllable rhyming, its not like your just rhyming might and fight. You’re rhyming random luck and handsome fuck with we cop vans and trucks­- it ain’t just doingthe basics, because that’s not ear catching (Edwards, pp. 88).”

The Great White Hope

When one speaks of the evolution of rhyming in the modern age, it is impossible not to mention the man Rakim called the “the Muhammad Ali” of rap, Marshall Mathers, aka Eminem.  As he gained notoriety as a battle rapper in the mid 1990s when he was already dropping compound and internal rhymes packed with punchlines Even though he was freestyle battling, his talent to put together complex rhyme schemes were paramount, as seen I’ve got so many ways to diss you/that I’m playful with you/I’ll let a razor slit you/till they staple stich you/everyone in this place will miss you/if you try to turn my facial tissue to a racial issue put him on the map.  Notice that the compound rhyme here is four syllables ways to diss you/playful with you/razor slit you etc.  7 perfect compound rhymes in essentially two lines that finish with knockout punchline “try to turn my facial tissue to a racial issue”. The influence is noted, Rakim’s compound rhymes and Kane’s smashing of rhymes together and Finesse type punchlines, as Eminem baffled listeners with the constant onslaught of creative rhymes, which often had never been heard before. Whether battling or on his stunningly lyrical underground release “Infinite” or on his major label effort “Guilty Conscious”, Eminem proved himself over and over again to be a technical mastermind of rhymes.

I let the beat commence/so can beat the sense of your elite defense/ I got some meat to mince, a crew to stomp and two feet to rinse- Infinite

and Tell her you need a place to stay/you’ll be safe for days/if you shave your legs with Renee’s razor blades-Guilty Conscious

Another technique which Eminem has added to his repertoire is the of spreading assonance throughout a verses. With “Lose Yourself,” Eminem essentially “bends” his words into a fitting rhyme scheme. Here’s an example in where he intercuts two sets of vowel sounds together (lyrics bolded to indicate the long “o” rhyme and italicized to indicate the short “a” rhyme):

Oh, there goes Rabbit, he choked He’s so mad, but he won’t give up that easy, no He won’t have it, he knows his whole back’s to these ropes It don’t matter, he’s dope He knows that, but he’s broke He’s so stagnant that he knows When he goes back to his mobile home, That’s when it’s back to the lab again yo

 

Over the years many have deified Eminem as an emcee while others have claimed that he has been over hyped because of his skin color.  Whatever the opinion is on his voice, his message, his albums or his legacy, when it comes to consistent rhyme schemes and the technical craft of lyric writing, there is no doubt that he rests very high on the list of all time greats. In previous examples he smashed together numerous similar sounding compound rhymes into two lines, while on “Stimulate” he has four different rhyme schemes being spread across two lines:

Like a flame(A) in the night(B), like a ghost(C) in the dark(D) There’s a ray(A), there’s a light(B), there’s a hope(C), there’s a spark(D)

And Here We Are…

Some modern day emcees have taken that rhyming to extreme levels, which unless really being listened for can easily be overlooked.  Underground Brooklyn emcee Louis Logic spreads his intricate compound rhyme scheme over four lines on this song “Misery Loves Comedy”, where there are actually more rhyming words than not.

That’s the best (A) way (B) to treat(C) disaster (D)

cuz if you let regret (A) stay (B) it eats(C) you faster (D)

then your breast (A) plate (B) shakes (B) when you breathe(C) with asthma (D)

and death (A) may (B) take (B) you to greener(C) pastures (D)

Sage Francis has a slew of lines on his incredibly lyrical album Personal Journals, in which he nearly rhymes every single word in the sentence.

Ripping (A) my cape (B) on the ground (C) that it dragged (D) on (E)

 Tripping (A) on fate (B and hearing the sound (C) of a sad (D) song (E)

I choose (A) to wallow (B) and I’ll just swim(C) in my fat (D)

You refuse (A) to swallow (B) so I see ribs(C) from the back (D)

Artists like Sage Francis and Louis Logic may not get the mainstream recognition that many less talented artists get but they are examples of how far rhyme schemes have come since  hip-hop music began.  Being that the few remaining hip-hop labels are now run by corporations, it is likely that the beauty and technical savvy of writers like these will continue to be pushed further and further into the underground.  For those interested in keeping the creative aspect of rhyming alive in present and future generations, it is important that we take the time to analyze, study and craft lyrics with thought and meaning.  Study the written words of Kool G. Rap, of AZ, of Gift of Gab and you will notice the art of writing rap as opposed to mindlessly listening to rap. The messages that mainstream hip-hop artists today are feeding listeners affects us on conscious and subconscious levels and that is played out in society over and over again.  For youth who want to become rappers, the advice from this one is; Don’t. Don’t become a rapper. Become a writer, a lyricist who uses rap as a format to express well thought out lines that can open minds with time. As shown by this paper/blog, there are numerous techniques and styles in the crafting of rhymes which are not showcased by mainstream artists in anyway shape or form. The majority of mainstream hip-hop artist’s careers come and go with whoever the corporate machine wants to push, while those who never settled on their rhymes, those took the extra time to find that perfect metaphor, elongate that rhyme scheme, and actually were conscious of the message they put out in the world, will always have a place in the hearts and minds of those true to the hip-hop culture. Thank you for reading…and writing. -Jeff Walker creator of RHYMECOLOGY

Disclaimer There are dozens of emcees which I did not write about that all had significant impact on the evolution of hip-hop lyrics. If I had more space and time they would be added. These are the artists that I personally thought had the biggest impact and the ones that affected me personally in my writing.  There are facts and some of my personal opinion in this piece. Being a student of the lyric for the past 18 years does not make me the only authority but it gives me confidence to state my opinion.

References

Chang, J. (2005) Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation. Picador, New York. Ball, J. (2008). FreeMix Radio: The Original Mixtape Radio Show. A Case Study in Mixtape “Radio” and Emancipatory Journalism.  Journal of Black Studies. Morgon State University. doi:10.1177/0021934707299640 Edwards, P. (2009) How to Rap: The Art and Science of the Hip Hop MC. Chicago Review Press, Illinois. Salaam, Mtume (1995) The Asthetics of Rap. African American Review, Vol. 29, No. 2, Special Issues on The Music pp. 303-315. Indiana State University Stanley, L. (1992) Rap: The Lyrics. Penguin Books, New York. Morgon, M. & Bennett, D. (2011) Hip-Hop & the Global Imprint of a Black Cultural Form. American Academy of Arts & Sciences. Pattison, P. (2009) Writing Better Lyrics: The Essential Guide to Powerful Songwriting.  Writers Digest Books, Ohio. Woodstra, Bush, Erlewine (2008). All Music Guide Required Listening: Old School Rap & Hip-Hop. Backbeat Books. New York. Cobb, Word of Mouth

Documentaries

From Nothing to Something: The Art of Rap Unsung: Kool Moe Dee- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J8AMkPuu3jg

Interviews

Lord Finesse- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6_4ziV6wAKI Elzhi-http://www.2dopeboyz.com/2013/03/04/elzhi-on-ice-cubes-influence-his-relationship-w-proof-meeting-eminem-video/

Websites

http://rap.wikia.com/wiki/All_Eyez_on_Me http://rapgenius.com/discussions/8591-The-source-top-50-lyricists-magazine-scans

Albums Studied/Mentioned

Kool Moe Dee- Go See the Doctor Run DMC- Raising Hell Rakim- Paid in Full/Follow the Leader Big Daddy Kane- Long Live the Kane Lord Finesse- Funky Technician Makaveli- Don Killuminati: The Seven Day Theory Elzhi– The Preface/Elmatic Eminem- Infinite Louis Logic- Misery Loves Comedy Sage Francis- Personal Journals

Other albums which were studied for their complex rhyme schemes but not mentioned in the text of my paper:

AZ- Doe or Die/Legendary/The Format Big L- The Big Picture Kool G. Rap- 4,5,6/ Road to the Riches Masta Ace- Disposable Arts

 

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Comments
  1. LoKi says:

    Thank you for this.

  2. berynn says:

    Great breakdown of major points in the history and evolution of rhyming. Clearly expressed, too.Thanks a lot.

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