(photo by Mark Louie)
Just realizing that I know a lot of young (age 16-25 or so) hip hop artists, and I find myself saying the same things to all of them. I figured it’d make sense to formalize some of that stuff and put it in an essay, kind of a “ten things I wish I knew when I was your age” thing. Not that I’m that old (I’m 28) or that successful (arguable), but I feel like these are some things that are worth having a conversation about. It’d also be great if other people left comments about things that I missed, or maybe things I got wrong. Let’s create a good resource for young artists.
One note, however: these tips aren’t about “getting on.” They’re about building a meaningful career. Those are very different things. If you just want to get on 2DopeBoyz or Nah Right, or play the First Ave. mainroom or whatever, go do that. But these ideas are for younger MCs just starting to think about music as a real career, as something they can leave behind, as a way to connect to people. A lot of it does overlap with traditional conceptions of generating buzz, but that’s definitely not the main point.
1. Before you do anything, think long and hard about what the word “success” means to you.
If you’re just rapping for fun or to express yourself, that’s great. Always keep that in mind. If you want to make a living off rap, that’s going to involve different tactics and strategies. And if you aspire to something even bigger, whether getting filthy rich, changing people’s lives, putting yourself in a position to influence policy and culture or whatever, you’ll definitely need a solid gameplan. This essay isn’t about telling you exactly how to do all of that stuff, but it’s important that you know why you’re doing what you do.
2. If you sound just like someone else, why would anyone want to listen to you?
It may make sense that if Artist X is famous, and you sound just like Artist X, then you will get famous too—but it doesn’t work like that. When a copycat artist DOES get on, it’s for a variety of reasons. Most of the time, though, biting a more popular artists’ style (whether consciously or unconsciously) just makes your music that much more disposable. If you can communicate to an audience that you’re a fresh and exciting original voice, they’ll reward you for that.
3. “Good beats and good rhymes” are not the end goal; they’re the basic foundation.
A lot of MCs seem to be just going through the motions—no creative song concepts, no memorable punchlines, no vulnerability, no heart, no honesty, no originality, no reason for me to give a damn. They might “work hard” at writing rhymes, but it’s not about the technique itself; it’s about what you’re doing with your beats and rhymes—what makes you different from every other rapper on the planet? A HUGE part of doing this right is the revision process. Your first drafts ARE NOT GOOD ENOUGH. Write a song, and then go over that song over and over again, making it better. Tighten up rhyme schemes, replace filler lines with quotables, try to pour as much of yourself as you can into every bar. It’s not about writing a 16 every day of your life, or recording a hundred songs and then choosing the best 10 for your album—it’s about putting thought and intentionality into your songwriting.
4. Take your time.
The world might try to sell you the idea that hip hop is a young man’s game, but it’s not. Most MCs don’t release anything worthwhile until they’re 30—don’t let Mac Miller fool you. Have fun. Hone your craft. You only get ONE debut album, so don’t waste it on songs you’re going to hate in five years. Artists these days are way too quick to release music and go on tour; wait a year or two and really have something powerful to stand behind, something you can book a real, profitable, meaningful tour behind. A CD-R of the first fifteen songs you ever wrote is not going to do that. “Learning as you go” may be part of hip hop, but it’s not written in stone.
5. Get honest, constructive feedback from people who aren't your best friends.
No matter how brilliant you are right now, you could be a whole lot better. When you first start rapping, all of your friends (who may or may not know anything about hip hop) are going to big you up, buy your mixtapes, tell you how amazing you are and how you deserve to be famous. They’re all full of shit. Find people—maybe an older artist, a rap veteran, a music critic or whomever—who will tell you that you’re wack… and will also help you get better.
6. It’s not all about club shows and touring.
Until you’re relatively famous, club shows and touring are both kind of depressing and not all that profitable. Look into colleges, conferences, summits, community centers, rallies, house parties, abandoned warehouses, parks and other non-traditional venues for hip hop. You’ll meet more cool people, more attentive listeners and probably get paid better. Be careful not to over-romanticize the idea of hard work; hustle harder, but hustle smarter first. “Paying dues” doesn’t have to mean sleeping on floors, driving for hours and hours in a smelly van and playing dive bars in front of a dozen drunk jackasses. Be creative, and pave a new path for yourself. What worked ten years ago for Sage Francis is NOT what’s going to work today.
7. Creative song concepts are very important.
Underground rappers LOVE rapping about rapping, telling off ex-girlfriends, writing horrible love songs and talking really vaguely about all the abstract thoughts in their heads. Try writing a song about a topic that no other MC has ever written a song about. It’s not as hard as you might think. Tell a story we haven’t already heard a hundred times already. Remember: the word “hook” doesn’t just mean chorus; it also refers to the thing that makes a given song different from other songs, whether that’s the approach, the concept or whatever. Songs have hooks; sometimes albums have hooks; sometimes entire careers have hooks. Utilize them. This makes for better art, but it also makes for more marketable art; it’s a win-win. Even if I don’t like your music, if you write an entire song breaking down the U.S. military industrial complex through the lens of imperialism in the Philippines, I’m going to have to give you props for that… and I’ll remember you name, too.
8. Being memorable is more important than being good.
You’re not trying to impress people, you’re trying to connect to them. A flashy rhyme scheme or intense stage show might get people to say “wow” in the moment, but if you want them to really support you, buy your CD, etc., it’s more important to write songs that speak to them on a deeper level. Fans aren’t the same thing as supporters. Fans will nod their heads at your show, but they won’t spread your music around; they’ll listen to your tracks on Bandcamp, but they won’t pay for them. Figure out who your target market is (hint: it’s not “everybody”) and really try to reach out to them in a genuine way.
9. It is a far better thing to say something meaningful to ten people than say absolutely nothing to a thousand people.
Think about what you’re writing and why you’re writing it. Anyone can jump around on stage like a jackass and rhyme words together—what do you want to leave people with? How do you want them to remember you? If you died after this show, what would they say about you? At the end of the day, you have to be a good/interesting/experienced human being before you can be a truly great MC. Don’t get me wrong—you can have a wildly successful career while not saying anything new, interesting or meaningful. But if you’re an artist, you have access to a platform that very few people have. You will meet thousands, maybe millions, of people through your music. Do you really want to look into the eyes of a million people and say “I sure like rapping” or “let’s party?” I’m not saying that every song you write has to be some universe-shattering manifesto; but if being an artist is anything more important to you than a fun hobby, you should be thinking at least a little bit about your legacy.
10. Grab bag of random tips (that I sometimes forget myself):
Don’t cup the mic when you’re rapping. “Getting signed” is increasingly meaningless; go indie. Always be nice and polite to sound people, venue managers, bartenders and the other people who are at your show because they have to be. Use Twitter and Facebook, but don’t depend on them. Change up your stage show so it’s not 45 minutes of rah rah punch-you-in-the-face music; that stuff is exhausting. On that note, play shorter sets; you’re not Atmosphere—a half-hour is probably plenty of stage time for you. Leave them wanting more. Be serious about your money, but be just as serious about your relationships; playing a show “for exposure” is not necessarily a horrible thing. Every time you say the word “bitch,” no matter how you’re using it, you’re alienating a huge fraction of your potential fanbase (same goes for homophobic slurs, obviously). Do not ever perform over your own tracks; get the instrumental versions (it sounds a hundred times better with just one layer of vocals). Practice, practice, practice. Know what you’re doing on stage when you’re not rapping—don’t just stand there awkwardly. Get your friends the hell off the stage. Always have a business card or a handbill with your website/contact on it. Listening to an MC freestyle can be thrilling; listening to an hour-long freestyle rap jam session is torture (there are certainly exceptions to this rule, but you’re probably not one of them). Don’t spam people. Do send out press releases. Learn how to write a press release. Drink tea. Have fun. Be cool. Smile.
Finally, read this, and then go knock ‘em dead.