Kool G Rap was interviewed extensively about his rapping techniques for the book How to Rap: The Art and Science of the Hip-Hop MC. The following are previously unreleased highlights from that interview, covering his story-rap writing methods, writing to the beat, writing on a phone, recording, and his thoughts on today’s emcees.
As the conversation did not appear in the book, author Paul Edwards exclusively provided HipHopDX with insights to the mind, method and techniques for a true master. Those interested should note: Kool G Rap also penned the Foreward to the increasingly popular book.
Interview by Paul Edwards
How to Rap: Do you have a set process when you’re writing lyrics?
Kool G Rap: I wouldn’t really say there is a set process, it’s me just trying to go in that zone. I just try to zone out and let the beat tell me exactly what should be placed on it and let the beat give me the lyrics.
Each track calls for something different, whether it’s a flow, whether it’s a subject matter, whatever it is. Some tracks call for you to be a little more hyper, some tracks call for you to fall back a little more and to just talk to them.
How to Rap: Do you write everything down on paper?
Kool G Rap: Now I don’t use paper, I type now. It took a long time to do that transformation, but I finally got the transformation to typing now.
I just type in my phone, I don’t really type on the laptop or nothing like that because who’s gonna lug a big laptop around with them everywhere, so I just type in my [Sharp] Sidekick. I can go to the studio or wherever, do a feature with somebody else and my phone is always gonna be there.
Typing it [helps you play around with it more], because instead of crossing out, you’re going back and deleting words and replacing them. And it’s not sloppy, as opposed to writing—with typing it’s easy and simple and it’s not a bunch of cross-outs and scratches on the paper.
How to Rap: Some people say they write in their head, do you think that’s a good way of writing?
Kool G Rap: To me—I could do that, but it’d take time. I don’t even play like that because sometimes you don’t wanna forget one simple word. Sometimes it could be a three letter word, and if you use another word instead of that word it can make the whole line sound a lot more harder.
Simple little words make a difference on how the line hits. So when you’re trying to write [in your] head, sometimes you might forget those little things like that, and that shit might not hit as hard. When you’re writing [on your phone or paper], you've got time to sit down and think about it and play with the words and replace one word for that word and be like, “Oh yeah, it hits better if I say this instead of that.”
You’re not going to remember little small details like that when you’re just trying to store all that shit in your memory and do it real quick.
I mean, a lot of times it can work too. A lot of times you can rhyme off the top of your head and get lucky and that shit just hit crazy. But when you’re a professional and you’re making records for masses of people to listen to, or masses of people to get into—your creativity, that’s something I wouldn’t play with.
It’s hard enough writing it sometimes and getting as complex and as intricate as you wanna get. So trying to just do it in your head like that, I mean that’s crazy, unless you got a "Beautiful Mind" like my man Russell Crowe did in that movie. Or you some Rainman type dude or something where you can just remember all that shit like it’s nothing, but I don’t have that gift right there, so I don’t even play with it.
How to Rap: When you write a story, do you figure out the whole plot on paper first, or do you come up with it as you’re going along?
Kool G Rap: I do it as I’m going along. For my story rhymes I never really had like – “Okay, this is how I’ma start, this is what I’ll say in the middle to make it juicy,” or “I’ma end it with this.”
I start from the first line, and I just go from there and the story just comes out. I think that’s the best way to do it, because if you sit there and study too much on how you gonna end it and all that it might not come out as dope.
I don’t usually have the ending and how the story is going to go, I just do it as I go along. That way it keeps me hyped about it, because I’m seeing it form in front of my own eyes, I’m not knowing how it’s going to turn out, so it’s like I’m presenting myself with a movie too.
How to Rap: When you do that, are there ever times when words that rhyme together will influence where the story is going to go?
Kool G Rap: Nah, it’s gotta make sense, you can’t just put whatever comes next that rhymes, the story gotta be right too. You can’t just go from: “went to see Papi and picked up a key /… and now I’m by the tree,” nah, that shit gotta be put together beautifully. If it’s not, you’re not going to be credited as a good story rapper.
It’ll still be as I go along, but once I start going in a certain direction, once I start writing the first few lines and it’s going in a certain direction, I’ma keep it that direction until it’s the right time to do a switch up and I’ll make it like scenes of a movie.
How to Rap: How do you come up with the flow?
Kool G Rap: When I first start listening to the track and I start zoning out, the track is basically telling me how to flow on it. Especially when I write the first maybe four lines or whatever, I know where I’m going with it as far as the flow.
The flow is nothing but G Rap just staying with a flow that’s not dated, but is still G Rap at the same time. Because I could never flow with somebody else’s flow like that.
And if I did, it might sound like somebody else’s flow, but these dudes was inspired by G Rap and so they took pieces of G Rap with them and became what they became.
So what might sound like somebody else’s flow—nah, not really, that’s a part of G Rap and if we could go back and listen to each and every record I made you’ll probably hear those flows and shit that I did before.
Somebody might have took a certain flow of mine and just based their whole style around that and just ran with it. I never just did one flow, I mean you hear a flow I did on "Men at Work" and you heard a different flow on "Road to the Riches," so it’s like I never just did only one flow.
How to Rap: Does it take a long time to write raps with lots of complex multisyllable rhymes?
Kool G Rap: It depends, sometimes if you’re really zoning and your wheels is turning, once you start with the first few, they just come to you. And not just shit that just rhyme, but shit that hit hard too, like oh my God, like you can’t even believe you thought of some ill shit like that.
How to Rap: Do you ever practice just coming up with rhymes… not for a song, but just to practice rhyming?
Kool G Rap: What I might do sometimes, if I’m not writing but my mind is still zoning, like sometimes once you open your mind it’s hard to stop it from fucking going... like once you put yourself in that zone you can sit down and try to watch a movie, you can try to do anything else, but your wheels is gonna keep turning.
So, you’ll be looking at a movie with your eyes but your mind is totally, totally different and sometimes shit will keep coming in your head. So sometimes when shit like that happen to me and I think of something crazy, I might write down that rhyme so I don’t forget that shit because that shit is crazy. And maybe I’ll put it in something, like one day when you’re writing something and it fits in then, you just throw it in.
How to Rap: Do you usually write to the beat that you’re going to be using?
Kool G Rap: In the early part of my career I would just write the rhymes with no tracks, no nothing and just place them on beats later. "Road to the Riches" I did like that, I did a lot of records like that, "Kool is Back" …all my early records I didn’t write to the tracks.
I didn’t start really writing to tracks maybe until [Live and Let Die], some of the [Wanted Dead Or Alive] as well.
"Talk Like Sex"—I wrote the first two verses with no track and then my man, Large Professor played that track for "Talk Like Sex" and I just started thinking what could go with this shit. I remembered I wrote that "Talk Like Sex" shit and it went with it perfect, so then I wrote the third verse to the track because now I know the direction. He gave me the track and the track was crazy so I wrote the third verse to the track.
But by [Live and Let Die] I was writing everything to the tracks.
How to Rap: Do you find it comes out better if you write to the track?
Kool G Rap: No, because "Talk Like Sex" is a classic! It’s about what works with what. I love to write to the track now because I feel like I can tailor make the rhyme to the track a little more.
How to Rap: When you record lyrics, do you have them memorized?
Kool G Rap: No, a lot of times I read them, because when you first finish writing something you’re still excited over it. Even though you don’t have the memory of it down pat yet, you don’t have the flow all the way down pat, you still got that energy of it being fresh and new because it’s still new to you, you’re entertaining yourself when you hear how good you sound on the track, because it’s new to you. You don’t exactly know what’s coming next.
So I like to record reading off the paper, it’s more fun if I read it. Even if I make some mistakes, I just do the punch-ins because I’m so charged up over this shit because it’s brand new, I’m amped up over it, I might have surprised myself with this particular verse or whatever.
All that energy is still there, so you want to get that shit out while that energy is at peak level like that. Once you start to know something by heart it’s not at peak level no more, it might go down to an eight. So you might lose something… even though it’s still up there, it still sounds good, it’s still hitting hard, but you still lose a little something. They call it that ‘umph’, you lose that little ‘umph’ and I don’t want to lose that.
How to Rap: Do you ever have something that looks great on paper but doesn’t work when you go to record it?
Kool G Rap: Yeah, I’ve been through that, I’ve got something in my head and I think it’s going to come out sounding a certain way and then you go to lay it down and it don’t come out exactly how you imagined, I scratch those shits, back to the drawing board, that’s how I do it, shit gotta come out perfect.
If it don’t move me, then I don’t like to put it out there because it’s not even moving me. The first person I gotta entertain is me.
How to Rap: Does everything you write get recorded?
Kool G Rap: Some things I just keep in the bag like for freestyles, competition. If anyone ever call G Rap out in the streets, I got something – I got clips I’ma blaze at niggas. Those be the clips, like don’t get it fucked up, I got something that’s gonna stop a fucking horse so don’t play. If niggas come, man, they better come with some fucking elephant guns because I’ma knock a fucking horse on its side – real talk.
How to Rap: Do you prefer recording or performing live?
Kool G Rap: I’m more of a studio person, like that’s really my comfort zone because I love being in the studio, I love hearing the shit I’ve been keeping in my head materialize, like it fascinates me. I love just sitting there and being creative and shooting ideas back and forth with the engineer or producer or whatever to make something come out amazing.
How to Rap: What do you think about today’s emcees compared to older emcees?
Kool G Rap: The era I’m from, everybody strived to stand out and be their own person and to have their own character and have their own image. It’s like you didn’t wanna come out and be another Chuck D, you didn’t wanna come out and be another KRS-One. You wanted to be as good as those rappers but you wanted to be you though.
But nowadays so many people are like trying to be the same. Somebody gonna want to be T.I., somebody gonna want to be Jay-Z, or somebody gonna want to be 50 Cent, but you can’t knock people [trying to be like other people] sometimes, because these are very credible, influential rappers.
But when it’s on a mass scale, when everybody’s sounding the same then that’s when the music gets fucked up, because it’s like you’re buying the same shit over and over again, just different pitch tones and voices and shit like that.
It’s not only the rappers trying to be another rapper, he got the same producers, so it’s like you hear the same music and you hear the same song over and over again.
As opposed to [in the past when] the same people that love Rakim also love G Rap and vice versa, but G Rap and Rakim was totally different. Same people that love G Rap, love Big Daddy Kane, love KRS-One, love Chuck D, love EPMD… but nobody can say, yo, their shit sound all the same.
So that’s how the rappers today differ from the rappers in the golden era of Hip Hop – there’s less variety, it’s [mostly] the same type of shit over and over again, just different groups.