What Rappers Can Teach Writers

Recently, I watched Something from Nothing: the Art of Rap, Ice-T’s first documentary. It’s on—you guessed it—the art of rap, and it brings in some of the biggest and most respected names in the business to talk about how they craft and refine their art. (It’s on Netflix and Amazon and everywhere else, so see it. It’s pretty amazing.)

As I watched, it occurred to me that so many of the insights these artists offer up are things that writers should listen to. Now you are probably smarter than me, so you probably immediately thought “Duh, of course writers could learn from rappers. Rappers ARE writers.” Well, yes. But I was so used to thinking of rappers as musicians and collaborators that I never considered that a lot of their work still takes place inside their heads, or alone in a room. Just like writers.

So, I pass on to you just a few pieces of knowledge this film captured:

Skip the setup. “Once you grab the mic, in the first bar of your rhyme, you have to swing the crowd to you.” KRS-One tells amateur rappers to hit the ground running. Don’t tell people what you’re going to do, just do it. Writers hear about this concept a lot (hook readers in the first page, the first line) but it’s important not to forget it. No one is going to give you a gold star just for showing up; you have to show what you’ve got. Bring your best and the audience will follow you. But you can’t drag them there. They have to want to go along. Speaking of…

Learn how to listen. “If you don’t know how to listen to it, it doesn’t make sense.” DJ Premier is talking about understanding hip hop versus jazz and blues…but the same thing is true for writers. If you’re going to write in a genre, learn the genre. “You have to know the language” says DJ Premier. For writer, that means reading the classics of the genre, learning what the tropes are, seeing how things have evolved. Don’t assume you can fake it, because the readers who love the genre will definitely spot your ignorance…and they’ll tear you apart. Which brings us to the next lesson…

You’re gonna get booed. Eminem tells his story of getting booed during his first attempt to rap in public, an event that got recreated in the movie 8 Mile. He’s up front about it being traumatic. He initially felt like he was done after that…and who would blame him? (At least beginning writers can read their rejections in private.) But obviously, he didn’t give up. He says “couple days later, week later, hour later” he realized he had to get up and do it again. And eventually it worked out. Are you guaranteed to achieve Eminem-like levels of fame if you keep at it? Of course not. But you sure as hell won’t achieve more if you quit now. Which brings us to…

Know how to work. Immortal Technique discusses his…well, technique for how to write. He often works out or boxes, saying “I come back with my blood up…but instead of physically fighting, I focus on fighting mentally.” Everyone has a way to get into the flow of writing. Maybe you need silence. Maybe you need loud. Maybe you need to eat. Maybe you need to not eat. Figure out what gets you ready to write and then stick to it. One warning about this idea: don’t let your habit become an excuse. Just because you don’t have your special yellow legal pad and #2 pencil with you doesn’t mean you can’t write. The pen is just an instrument. So is the computer. The writing comes from you. If you find yourself making excuses, maybe you need to…

Make sure this thing is for you. Dr Dre says once you decide on your path, “you have to give it the passion that’s necessary.” Why listen to Dre? Out of a 27 year career, he took two weeks off. Two weeks. That’s dedication. If you’re a writer, you need to give the same dedication to your craft. You don’t have to write every single day, but you have to be consistent, and you have to care. And, finally…

Be yourself. Speak with an original voice, make it your voice, and make the best thing you possibly can. That’s how you get to be the best. In the words of Snoop, who closes the film: “Find yourself, find your art, find your heart.” Aw, Snoop. You said it.

There’s a lot more where that came from (seriously, just watch the movie…you’ll be smarter at the end). As writers, we should constantly look for ways to write better and improve our craft, and that means learning from every source, even ones that don’t seem obvious at first. Got it? Now go write!

Jocelyn Koehler writes science fiction and fantasy. Learn more and find links to her published work at her personal blog, Team Blood.

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