"How To Rap" Author Explains Research, Kool G Rap's Foreward
Exclusive: Paul Edwards talks to DX about his stellar new book, and getting Giancana to pen a Foreward about lyricism.HipHopDX: Why was Kool G Rap selected for the Foreward. Many people associate KRS-One and Chuck D as open or scholarly perspectives on emceeing and Hip Hop, but G Rap rarely would be expected to be seen in this medium. You won over a lot of hardcore fans with that. Can you talk about your decision for him, and the authenticity it gives your book?
Paul Edwards: Chuck D and KRS-[One] would have been amazing choices as well, though I definitely felt that [Kool] G Rap was right for this book. He’s someone that always comes up in discussions of the best emcees ever, and it’s a shame that his name isn’t more widely known among the general public because he’s such an influential figure in emceeing.
At the beginning of every interview I did, I asked, “How did you learn how to rap?” and a lot of people said they learned from listening to Kool G Rap. His name came up the most, closely followed by Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, KRS, Chuck, and a few others. So I thought it was a great fit because he has essentially taught the art form to so many other emcees through his records already.
DX: As the author, you researched the hell out of this. It's titled as a "how to" book, but from your perspective, did you want part of this book to show how complex the artform really is, rather than easy?
Paul Edwards: Even though it’s a “how to” book, I think it works on more levels than people normally think of when they think of “how to” books. I wanted to present the art form in a complete way, and show all the methods that emcees use, even if they conflict, rather than simply tell you, “do this, never do that.” I wanted to keep it open so you get all the different techniques and the reasons for using them directly from the emcees.
I didn’t set out to specifically show the complexity, because I think most real Hip Hop fans know how complex the rhymes can get, though I do think even knowledgeable Hip Hop fans will be surprised by how much goes into it. Something which may happen, and would be a good thing, is if people outside of Hip Hop realize how complex it is when they see the book, if they didn’t know already… but I didn’t write the book to try and “prove” the complexity and work that goes into it to anyone, because I don’t think Hip Hop needs defending like that.
DX: One of the more controversial topics from your book is Big Daddy Kane's comments that freestyles never really were what they've been explained to be, as completely improvised. This is interesting discussion, when you think of battle rapping and ciphers, versus Kane and artists like Lord Finesse's - and even countless Rap City guests' perspective of using rhymes in freestyles that would later appear on records. After all the discussions, do you look at the history of the freestyle differently?
Paul Edwards: It’s something I had wanted to include because I had read Kool Moe Dee’s book [There's A God On The Mic], and he mentioned many times that an old school freestyle was written down, so when Kane mentioned it in the interview I did with him I thought it was important for Hip Hop fans to know the history behind the term, and to make that clear.
As Myka 9 says in the book though, the definition has evolved a bit, so now it usually means off-the-dome, but I think it’s important to clear up that it originally meant a written verse. You hear a lot of guys saying stuff like, “Oh, that’s not an original, true freestyle because it was written,” or “Let’s take it back to the beginning when freestyle was truly off-the-dome,” but they’re getting their history wrong according to pioneering emcees like Kane and Moe Dee. I think it’s important from an historical perspective to just clear up some of the terms, so that the art form is properly documented and preserved.
DX: You included so many different emcees from different eras and styles. How essential was that to making this book meet your vision. Can you give us an example of an emcee in Rap that may appear to have simpler rhymes that demonstrated to you a great deal of thought about their words when you interviewed them?
Paul Edwards: That was a big part of it, getting a wide range of emcees, so that it introduces the reader to a lot of different artists and styles. I think a problem with some of the new rappers today might be that they’ve developed their style from a handful of people they’ve seen on TV, whoever has a hit at the time, and so their range of techniques is limited because they don’t know a lot of Hip Hop [artists].
As far as emcees with simple rhymes—even the more mainstream artists, who some people consider to have simpler rhymes, put a lot of work into it. I think there are some people who get lucky and write a hit and are then known for that one hit, but then there are people in the Pop arena who can write hit after hit after hit. People into the more lyrical Hip Hop might not like that kind of style, but there is a skill to it, especially if you can keep doing it. There have always been simple, fun lyrics in Hip Hop since [Sugar Hill Gang's] "Rapper’s Delight" [which were largely written by Grandmaster Caz], and I think that’s a legitimate craft in itself.
Everyone I talked to made it clear they cared about lyrics and cared about putting a lot into it, no matter what area of Hip Hop they’re from.
DX: In general, every artist wants their work documented, analyzed and taught. Can you describe how these emcees responded to your queries, and if you think projects like these remind them of their cultural importance?
Paul Edwards: All of them responded really well, especially some of the pioneers and people with classic albums. They were like, "Thanks for coming and getting us and making sure we’re part of history with the book, and for recognizing out contributions to emceeing… because if someone else was doing it, they might have just tried to interview whoever is on the radio right now."
I think even emcees who were maybe a bit cautious at first got into it after a few questions because they saw that the questions were very specific to crafting lyrics and that it was a thorough interview. What was cool as well was that a lot of them after the interview quizzed me on what other emcees had said, so as artists they’re definitely interested in how their peers work as well.
It was important to me to get someone who is a pioneer, a legend, hugely influential, and has complex, uncompromising lyrics. I think it’s good as well to show that no matter what you’re rapping about, if you do it at a high level and with a lot of craft and skill, then it’s recognized as dope. As far as authenticity, I hope that having such a legend and pioneer [in Kool G Rap] do the Foreword lets people know that it’s a book that is thorough and takes the history and art form seriously.
DX: You've included some people left out of the mainstream conversation, like O.C., Esoteric or Tash, who are all exemplary lyricists. Your work shows how much of a fan you are. As the author, were there artists you knew you would not print the book without having spoken to?
Paul Edwards: Well with some books, the author sorts out the publisher first based on a small sample of the book and then they have a deadline and have to finish all the research and writing before the deadline. But with How to Rap, I made sure I had interviewed most of the people I wanted beforehand, so I had about 75 interviews done before I got a publisher involved. So yeah, I definitely wanted to make sure I had certain pioneers and top level lyricists involved before setting a deadline.
It was great to get hold of the people you mentioned, as well as people like Lady of Rage, Das EFX, R.A. The Rugged Man, Onyx, Planet Asia… all those kind of artists who have crazy flows and intricate styles but aren’t heard every day on the radio. I think it will be an education for readers, especially people coming from outside of Hip Hop who have only heard of a few rappers.
There will always be someone you can’t get hold of just because of their busy schedules or difficulty in contacting them, but I wouldn’t have gone to get a publisher if I hadn’t been satisfied with the line-up, I’d have just kept interviewing.
DX: A great chapter in the book focuses on breath control. That is often forgotten by rookie emcees. What are some of these words of wisdom you think today's bedroom rap-writer needs to apply first?
Paul Edwards: I think they need to realize that some of the physical delivery aspects take time and are like any other skill—playing the guitar or being good at a sport. Getting the breath control down and being able to pronounce all the words fluidly and in time takes practice.
As the emcees in the book say, people need to put work into that to become as good at it as an Eminem or a Tech N9ne or a Big Daddy Kane. What seems to happen a lot is you get people who learn about compound rhymes and different rhythms and can put together some pretty complex rhymes, but then they can’t say them without fumbling over the words.
So that’s something that emcees need to focus on, so that the delivery aspect gets as much attention as the other elements of emceeing, especially if they want to be good at performing live.
DX: The book appears to be selling at a time when Rap fans are thought to ignore supporting artists, let alone authors. Can you talk about the reaction and your daily operation getting the book out there to the people?
Paul Edwards: It’s had great reactions so far and I’ve had to put in a lot of work to even just get people aware that the book exists, and it’s a pretty hard task because there isn’t really the infrastructure to push Hip Hop books.
So I’ve not started doing any other books yet because I want to give this one a lot of support. Publishers at the moment are a bit wary of taking on Hip Hop books because a lot of them are very academic and don’t get pushed and so they do pretty badly.
I feel responsible for at least making sure people know about the book, not just for me, and not just so that people can get all the information, but also so that publishers can see that Hip Hop fans do like reading about Hip Hop. That can hopefully pave the way for more Hip Hop books to be published.
I've been releasing a weekly series of audio clips from the interviews for the book, on youtube, with each one focusing on a different element of emceeing. There is a How to Rap book youtube channel, here and some of the clips so far include
Purchase How to Rap: The Art and Science of the Hip-Hop MC by Paul Edwards