Rhymes in the Flow: How Rappers Flip the Beat

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Despite its global popularity, rap has received little scholarly attention in terms of its poetic features. Rhymes in the Flow systematically analyzes the poetics (rap beats, rhythms, rhymes, verse and song structures) of many notable rap songs to provide new insights on rap artistry and performance. Defining and describing the features of what rappers commonly call flow, the authors establish a theory of the rap line as they trace rap’s deepest roots and stylistic evolution—from Anglo-Saxon poetry to Lil Wayne—and contextualize its complex poetics. Rhymes in the Flow helps explain rap’s wide appeal by focusing primarily on its rhythmic and thematic power, while also claiming its historical, cultural, musical, and poetic importance.

Preface:

We are two nerds with a passion for rap music, a retired professor and a former undergraduate student from the University of Michigan. In his frst term, Aurko came to Macklin’s ofce looking for insights about how poetic rhythms and meanings interacted. He walked in carrying a King Lear paperback defaced with scansion marks, and he’d just been listening to Nas’s Illmatic out in the hall. We immediately realized that we shared similar questions about sounds and beats—especially in rap music. We’ve been collaborating ever since, examining rap lines, exploring the dynamics of style, and every now and then texting battle verses back and forth.

We are staunch hip hop proponents, recognizing it both as a sophisticated forum for the systematically suppressed and as music to party to. Macklin was for years the only University of Michigan teacher who included rap in his Intro to Poetry sections. Some colleagues challenged this: “Do you really think it qualifes as poetry?” He would reply, “Yes, it’s always metrical and has amazing rhymes, but it’s performance poetry, not literature. It can be as intricate as Sir Gawain, as biting as Shakespeare, and a lot more fun than Byron.”

We both know that, and we’ve been studying rap rhythms for the last six years, but we are nevertheless hip hop outsiders. Macklin’s white. A sometime poet and an expert in medieval four-beat poetics, he’s been listening and engaging with rap since “Rapper’s Delight.” Aurko’s brown, a millennial immigrant who grew up the United Kingdom and Michigan, who caught the hip hop bug when he came stateside. Neither of us has lived in an urban black ghetto. We enjoy and admire hip hop because we like its beats, its fows, and its messages—how they play of against each other. We conceived this book as a thorough exposition of rap poetics, as a kind of explanation for its global appeal and relevance. We also wanted to give credit where credit is due. Our analyses and insights suggest that rap, so often disparaged as monotonous and silly or crude, is far more complex and complicated, far more versatile, far more nuanced, and far more important than has been widely realized. If others agree, then our book will have helped the cause of critical justice.

Acknowledgements:

We, too, owe. Tis book honors and engages with forty years of rap music, ranging from Te Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” to Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN., each song belonging to a community whose members form an endless list of artists, listeners, fans, and intellectuals whose infuence has extended far beyond popular culture and into theaters like politics and fashion.

Much of our work—be it the formulation of our framework, the analysis of our data, the support to follow our intuition, or the historical context we needed—would not be possible without this community. Many insights came from undergraduate and graduate students in Macklin’s classes at the University of Michigan, as well as from friends with special musical talents, from family, from the freestylers in Ypsi, and from commentators on Genius.

And while we owe our primary debt to the community, we mustn’t neglect those who gave us skills, support, and, most of all, their time. Without astute, meticulous commentaries on our early drafts from Tessa Brown, Michael Schoenfeldt, Gil Scott Chapman, and David Manley; without the analytical savvy of Shashank Joshi (Aurko’s father), Richard Price, Kevin Just, Bopeng Li, and Nandi Tawani; without musical and aesthetic consultations with Amy and Rebecca Smith (Macklin’s daughters), Dexter Kaufmann, Yuma Uesaka, and MC M. T. Z.; and without the encouragement of Adam Bradley, David Kelly (aka Capital D), Lynette Smith, and John WhittierFerguson, this book would have been plainly impossible.

We are especially grateful to LeAnn Fields, our editor, as well as to our anonymous external reviewers and to the members of the University of Michigan Press Editorial Board, for suggesting many improvements in the book’s scope, argument, and style.

To the artists and producers who created the lyrics, music, and traditions we researched, studied, and comment upon in this book, we owe our biggest debt. We quote and analyze beats, verses, and choruses from many rap songs—themselves a subset of our broader research, whose sources are listed in the Discography. Here we name and thank the DJs, MCs, and other vocalists whose artistry we discuss in the chapters that follow:

Aesop Rock, Afrika Bambaataa, André 3000, Anthony Ramos, AZ the Visualiza, B.o.B., Big Bank Hank, Big Boi, Big Daddy Kane, Big Youth, Bizzy Bone, Black Tought, Busta Rhymes, Capital D, CeeLo Green, Christopher Jackson, Chuck D, Common, Cosmic Force, Danny Brown, Daveed Diggs, Debra Killings, Del (Te Funky Homosapien), Dido, DJ Jazzy Jay, DJ Premier, DMC, Dr. Dre, Drake, Duke Bootee, E. D. I. Mean, Easy A.D., Eazy-E, Eminem, Eric B., Eve, Faith Evans, Gemini, Ghostface Killah, Gil Scott-Heron, Grandmaster Caz, Guru, Hussein Fatal, Ice Cube, Ice-T, Immortal Technique, Inspectah Deck, Iomas, J. Cole, Jay Dee, Jay-Z, JDL, Jr., Justin Vernon, Kanye West, Kay Gee, Kendrick Lamar, KG, Khia, Khujo Goodie, Kid Cudi, Krayzie Bone, KRS-One, Kurtis Blow, Lauryn Hill, Leslie Odom Jr., Lightnin’ Rod, Lil Wayne, Lil’ Kim, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Liz Rodrigues, Lupe Fiasco, Mac Miller, Mannie Fresh, Master Gee, MC Ren, MCA, Melle Mel, Method Man, Mike D, Missy Elliott, Mr. Biggs, Nas, Nicki Minaj, Okieriete Onaodowan, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Pepa, Pharoahe Monch, Phife Dawg, Pop, Pow Wow, Q-Tip, Queen Latifah, Raekwon, Rakim, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Richie Rich, Rick Ross, Run, RZA, Salt, Sam Adams, ScHoolboy Q, Senim Silla, Shaheed, Slick Rick, Slug, Snoop Dogg, Stro, T-Pain, Talib Kweli, Tekniq, Te Genius, Te GLOBE, Te Notorious B. I. G., Tupac, U-God, Umar Bin Hassan, Vast Aire Kramer, Vin Jay, Vordul Megallah, Wiz Khalifa, Wonder Mike, Woody Guthrie, Yaki Kadaf, and Yasiin Bey (Mos Def ).

Introduction:

When we hear rap, we recognize it from the feel of the beat, the nonmelodic (spoken, shouted, declaimed) delivery of the poetic lines, and the rhythmic interplay of the beat and the lines. If we are hip hop heads, we can identify the fow of particular rappers, or the beat contours of particular producers, or the regional style or historical period of unfamiliar rap songs. Rap music, then, like many other genres, is both deeply coherent and widely diferentiated.

Early rap can be characterized variously as loud party-blasting street poetry, as catchy disco-club poetry, as protest poetry, as poetry representing African American communities, and as poetry expressing black masculinity. Today, rap has successfully occupied Broadway (Hamilton) and has vastly infuenced the beats and prosodies of American pop music, but it remains a powerful voice of the historically disenfranchised—as witnessed by Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. Rap’s message and style continue to challenge traditional American musical norms. Its non-melodic (or, at most, semi-melodic) voices accompany beats constructed from percussive and harmonic musical fragments, which may in turn be infused with urban noises (trafc, shouts, police sirens) or sampled verbal tags. Rap may be playful, seductive, smooth, ironic, grandiose, angry, aggressive, prophetic, or spiritually wise, but it always tends to be edgy. Its modes may be lyric, narrative, or dramatic; collaborative or combative. It innovates out of artistic competition and social disruption and dissolution (Urban Renewal, redlining, poverty, the War on Drugs, systematically racist incarceration, family trauma), articulating a new African American sound.

Although rap’s basic beat, accommodating a four-stress line in 4/4 time, is globally common and, in point of fact, replicates the oldest English meter poetry, the sound quality of the musical composition embodying this beat is revolutionary. It’s an extraordinarily complex musical collage of sampled sounds—also called the beat—appropriated (fipped) from other compositions. What is also revolutionary, in parallel to the composition of the hip hop beat, is the way rappers engage with its simple, utterly ordinary rhythmic 4/4 foundation so as to accommodate extraordinarily complex vocal rhythms. Busta Rhyme’s Conglomerate—formerly, the Flipmode Squad— comes to mind here, as does Nas’s classic battle boast: “Rappers, I monkey fip ’em with the funky rhythm / I be kickin’, musician, infictin’ composition.” Our title’s key word is of course fow, the ongoing and continually variable rhythm through which each rapper fips his or her 4/4 beat into an individually styled message.1

Yet after forty years of recorded rap music, we can hear its rhythmic fow(s) as both new and renewed. We can hear recurrences and crossreferences, ideas and attitudes. Jay-Z’s fow stands out as distinctly his, and he capitalizes on this exclusivity, translating it into superiority. “You got starch in your fow,” he boasts, “I got a arch in my fow.”2 But Jay also claims representation, inclusion, and universality. His fow incorporates Marvin Gaye and a Rucker Park pickup game, and it never stays the same: “I evolve with the fow.” He’s the best, of course—“I’m of the charts with the fow / Actually I’m number one on the charts with the fow”—and he doesn’t mind noting that in some places they say that, “I am God with the fow.” But his emcee (MC) ego also channels the community spirit of hip hop culture, perhaps even its histories and ongoing futures: “I am the youth spirit, I am y’all with the fow.”

Tis spirit is already invoked in the opening lines of “Rapper’s Delight” (1979), the frst rap radio hit. Although a studio production, “Rapper’s Delight” had a live feel to it, and although in fact a test of rap’s viability for a broad listening audience, what we thought we heard was a real disco party with a new poetry groove. Before Wonder Mike even introduces himself on the mic, he defnes his performance as rapping to the beat, as collaborative, and as meant to get the audience up and moving. It is still these things.​
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