Invention concerns itself with the process by which ideas to write or speak about are discovered. Being able to produce new ideas was and is very important to rappers since nothing prevents the crowd from being “moved” like stale material that has been covered in excess, and it is no surprise that the most successful of rap artists were dubbed fresh. New and original ideas were expected. After it permeated Hip Hop, the term fresh went on to find its way into popular culture. Fresh eventually made its way into the name of one of the music’s biggest stars: The Fresh Prince a.k.a. Will Smith.
Kool G. Rap covers the idea of fresh lyrics in his piece “Poison.” He raps, “Write a rhyme quick when I pull out my Bic Pen/ stick to an idea, the soundproof slick then/ put it on paper cause I make you hyper/ than any other rapper cause I keep my rappin’ riper/ like cherries or some say berries/ mandatory for the auditory and its glory.” By using the simile of ripe fruit he makes the point that his rhymes are ready to be heard as the cherries or berries are to be consumed for both are fresh. In fact, there was a co-dependent relationship between rhyme and the invention of fresh lyrics.
A given word only has a finite number of words that would be considered true rhyming words. For example, date can be rhymed with fate, plate, state and other words ending in the a-t-e letter grouping. Date also rhymes with the word eight. Though there are plenty of words that share a similar ending sound, we must conclude that there are a limited number of them. These limits impose a sort of steering effect. What I mean by steering is that, for instance, if date can only be rhymed with, say, eight words then one must steer the topic towards the use of one of those eight words. That is, using fate instead of plate to rhyme with date may take the writer in a different direction in his/her logistic reasoning or artistic inspiration simply because the words plate and fate have entirely different meanings. Subtle or dramatic changes might have to be made to the composition in terms of not only word choice but also thematic topics to accommodate the chosen rhyming word (this happens more often than one might think when using rhyme). So, the available number of rhyming words influences invention because the rapper/poet has to be creative to overcome the limits that are inherent to the use of rhyming words. This concept is not exclusive to poetry for in many other disciplines the obstacle of a limit encourages inventiveness and new ideas or ways of thinking.
Bosco of the rap group Downtown Science wrote of a metaphysical approach to the discovery of ideas. He didn’t believe in “new” ideas but rather ways to make old notions new. In his seminal song “Radioactive,” in which he details the way in which ideas are formed into songs and then sent out across airways (radio) to the listener, he rhymes, “Sunrise…darkness fades to light/ illuminating the sky as well as the insight/ to see a new beginning and resurrect/ reminiscent of the phoenix and recollect/ thoughts from the universe of ideas/ select lyrics to illustrate the obvious image/ project it so everybody sees it’s/ off the soul, take the body, and freeze it.” Later on in the same stanza he uses physics to make his point. “To each new substance/ matter is constant/ not created or destroyed/ merely deployed/ as words in a radio void.” He speaks here of the physics concept “conservation of energy.” Bosco is echoing a point that many writers and literary scholars have made: that the number of ideas (stories) that exist are finite and already present and accounted for, that a writer doesn’t make new ideas no more than Einstein made the formula E=MC2; ideas are discovered. By taking an idea “off the soul” a writer can own it, make it distinctive, and make it fresh.
The use of the metaphysical and physical supports for his argument is interesting because it makes a strong case for why that particular song is so effective. Bosco has increased his level of Topoi (one of two classical rhetorical terms for idea gathering, the other being Stasis or questioning) or places to find things to write or speak about. In other words, by having knowledge of both the metaphysical and physical he is able to pull from a broader range of concepts to form his songs. By using opposing philosophies to support his ideas he makes a stronger case for their validity. Aristotle proposed a similar method of idea gathering.
Aristotle divided rhetoric into three “species:” deliberative, forensic, and epideictic. Deliberative rhetoric is aptly named, for Aristotle attempts to sum up the things in which people deliberate on. They would be ways and means, war and peace, protection of the country, imports and exports and legislation. Notice how war and peace are opposites and so are imports and exports. One cannot deliberate on one without forming an opinion of the other.
But Aristotle doesn’t stop there. He writes: “These, then, are all the chief subjects with which the intending debater should be conversant. Let us now state again the premises, from which he must exhort or dissuade on these and all other subjects” (153). In other words, what is the barometer by which we measure the above topics? Aristotle states that it is happiness, and he divides happiness among the following categories: good birth, goodly and numerous offspring, wealth, good repute, honor, health, happy old age, friendship, good fortune and virtue. To my knowledge rappers have weighed in on all those topics save good birth and happy old age, but they have touched on those two indirectly for they have deliberated on their antitheses: poor birth and what it’s like to be young and miserable. Lil’ Kim’s song, “Money, Power, Respect,” asserted that that triumvirate was the “key to life.” Whodini’s song “Friends” asked how many of us have them (friends) and whether they are dependable. They even offer a warning for people who are seeking to get involved intimately: “Before we go any further, let’s be friends.”
After ideas are harvested the next step would be to structure them in a way that would be effective. This leads us to the second canon of rhetoric which is Dispositio or Arrangement.
Aristotle stressed that “it is necessary to state the matter which is our subject, and to prove it” (184). Later, Roman rhetors like Cicero expanded on Aristotle’s ideas and asserted that there were six steps to arrangement: introduction, statement of the case, the outline of major points in the argument, proof of the case, the refutation of opposing arguments, and the conclusion. Chuck D. of Public Enemy loosely sticks to this outline in his song “Don’t Believe the Hype.” In the introduction to the song he implores his audience, “Don’t believe the hype.” Then he goes on to state his case: he’s being unfairly treated by the media who report that he’s a criminal. The fact that the media misreports facts about him, his songs don’t get played during prime time, and that he is an example of who America believes to be public enemy number one (black male) are some of the major points in his argument. Chuck D. even hints at the fact that he might be getting harassed because he’s a follower of Louis Farrakhan. The proof of his case is as shabby as his critics’ case against him, but he goes on at length to refute the claims of his detractors even going as far to attack their ethos in calling the media “devils.” In his conclusion it is clear that he will continue his plan to educate and motivate his listeners.
However, most rap songs don’t stick to this arrangement as there is no need to. Many rap songs vary widely in topic so there is a need to arrange the subject matter in a variety of formats. For example, a rap boasting about the prowess of the rapper followed Aristotle’s arrangement. The rapper states that he is the best, then set about proving it in the subsequent lines unfurling a barrage of lyrical acrobatics designed to “wow” the listener. Rappers boasting about the greatness of their dj follow a similar pattern.
Rappers that tell stories like Slick Rick arrange the rap in the same form that short story writers and novelists use: beginning, middle, climax, and ending. In “Children’s Story,” Slick Rick’s most famous effort, he orients the listener with the familiar once upon a time introduction:
Here we go,
Once upon a time not long ago,
when people wore pajamas and lived life slow,
When laws were stern and justice stood,
and people were behavin' like they ought ta good,
There lived a lil' boy who was misled,
by anotha lil' boy and this is what he said:
"Me, Ya, Ty, we gonna make some cash,
robbin' old folks and makin' tha dash."
Slick Rick provides the background for the story in his beginning—an idealistic society that is disturbed and sharply contrasted with a ne’er do well who seduces another boy to join him on a crime spree. Initially, they have little trouble, but one boy begins to enjoy it too much and the police enter the scene. Slick Rick continues:
They did the job, money came with ease,
but one couldn't stop, it's like he had a disease,
He robbed another and another and a sista and her brotha,
tried to rob a man who was a D.T. undercover,
The cop grabbed his arm, he started acting erratic,
he said "Keep still, boy, no need for static",
Punched him in his belly and he gave him a slap,
but little did he know the lil' boy was strapped,
The kid pulled out a gun, he said "Why did ya hit me ?",
the barrel was set straight for the cop's kidney,
The cop got scared, the kid, he starts to figure,
"I'll do years if I pull this trigga",
So he cold dashed and ran around the block,
cop radioes it to another lady cop,
He ran by a tree, there he saw this sista,
a shot for the head, he shot back but he missed her,
Looked around good and from expectations,
so he decided he'd head for the subway stations,
But she was coming and he made a left,
he was runnin' top speed till he was outta breath,
Knocked an old man down and swore he killed him,
then he made his move to an abandoned building,
Ran up the stairs up to the top floor,
opened up the door there, guess who he saw?,
Who? Dave the dope fiend shootin' dope,
who don't know the meaning of water nor soap,
He said "I need bullets, hurry up, run!"
The dope fiend brought back a spanking shotgun,
He went outside but there was cops all over,
then he dipped into a car, a stolen Nova.
Raced up the block doing 83,
crashed into a tree near university,
Escaped alive though the car was battered,
rat-a-tat-tatted and all the cops scattered,
Take note that there is an inevitability of events that begin to occur. The crime spree gets too good and one of the boys can’t stop. Then, he runs into his first obstacle: an undercover cop. From that point on he’s chased by police officers and in and out of buildings and cars—one impediment after another as he attempts to stave off capture. His choice not to shoot the cop in the kidney foreshadows the climax of the story in which he must make a choice as to how far he is willing to sink as a person. So far he has not killed anyone, but it is getting harder to evade the cops.
Slick Rick raps:
Ran out of bullets and still had static,
grabbed a pregnant lady and pulled out the automatic,
Pointed at her head, he said the gun was full o' lead,
he told the cops "Back off or honey here's dead",
Deep in his heart he knew he was wrong,
so he let the lady go and he starts to run on,
At this climactic point in the story the boy has made a choice; he will not become a monster. Ironically, this choice may have doomed him, because he’s ultimately caught by the cops—again, the inevitable events.
In the ending, Slick Rick rhymes:
Sirens sounded, he seemed astounded,
before long the lil' boy got surrounded.
He dropped the gun, so went the glory,
and this is the way I must end this story.
He was only seventeen, in a madman's dream.
The cops shot the kid. I still hear him scream.
This ain't funny so don't ya dare laugh.
Just another case 'bout the wrong path.
Straight 'n narrow or yo' soul gets cast.
Slick Rick concludes his tragic parable with a moral and the obligatory ending: goodnight. It’s clear that he is attempting to persuade his audience against the traps of violence and crime. Note that even though the boy dropped his gun he was still shot—a not so subtle jab at inner city police officers as more than enforcers of the law, but inflictors of punishment as well.
Many rap songs used this arrangement because the goal of the song was to tell a story. The story-telling arrangement demanded a certain style, as did the other aforementioned arrangements. Style, therefore, was often decided by the chosen topic and arrangement.
Style is the third canon of rhetoric, and as I mentioned above, the plagiarism of style in the Hip Hop community was considered among the gravest of sins if not the worst. Style was that important, and the best rappers could change their style seemingly at will to fit the topic. LL Cool J was equally adept at brag rapping as he was at crafting a love song. Each subject required a different style and he felt comfortable transitioning from one to the other. It is little wonder that in an art in which an artist had a life expectancy of one album, LL Cool J lasted well over ten years.
One rapper who did not have the longevity of LL but who was just as good if not better at crafting rhymes was Kool G Rap. Kool G Rap was known for deft lyrical flows, and he also felt comfortable conversing on a wide variety of topics. In his brag rap Poison he rhymes:
A mind designed to find a rhyme that’s right on time
One step beyond and not behind the line
That separates dogs from divine
Take it as a caution or a warning sign
Words I’m blendin’ ‘em
Good like M & M’s.
He uses hyperbole here when he states that he is not a mere dog rapper but that he is divine. Then he flaunts his knowledge of rhetorical tools by mentioning antonyms, homonyms and synonyms. In the end he uses a simile to stress that his use of words are as sweet to the ear as M & M’s—chocolate candy—are to the taste buds.
In his song, “She Loves Me, She Loves Me Not,” Kool G Rap laments a broken relationship while unfurling a lyrical masterpiece:
Now I whisper how much I missed her.
My lips should’ve blistered the way I kissed her.
Soft and slow laid back and relaxed
And when I move the groove is smooth as a sax.
She kissed me low and then proceeded up
Bet she’s heated up. The pace is speeded up.
Slowly but surely we reached our destiny
She got the best of me and left the rest of me.
Now all I got is total confusion
She disappeared and it’s not an illusion.
In this excerpt above Kool G Rap’s strength is the ability to conjure images in the listener’s mind without being too dramatic. Blistering hot kisses and love play that is worthy of the smooth notes of a saxophone are appropriate to the matter at hand. Aristotle writes, “Our metaphors, like our epithets, should be suitable. This is the result from a certain proportion; if this is lost, the effect will be unbecoming…” (182). In other words, do not go overboard with one’s comparisons. In the sixth line Kool G Rap states that the pace speeded up. He demonstrates this acceleration by crafting shorter sentences. His use of internal rhyme and alliteration tickles our ear and seizes our attention. His willingness to appear vulnerable is marked by his acknowledgement that he whispers how much he missed her and that she got the best of him and left the rest. His word choice is remarkable as the feelings of longing come across even when the text is not read aloud.
The rendering of a love song requires some different stylistic elements than a brag rap. This willingness to tackle different subjects is part of what spurred 1980’s rap songs to new heights. Notice how the majority of the words in the love song are soft sounding. Kool G Rap writes: “Soft and slow, laid back and relaxed…” Had he used more percussive sounding words the song would not have elicited the same effect.
On a slightly different angle, we must acknowledge that Kool G Rap’s choice of theme is worthy of praise as rap topics of this type are as common now as dodo birds and pterodactyls. The move toward hard rap or Gangsta Rap—as it is called now—has Hip Hop locked in a stylistic freeze from which a defrost will only come about from a simultaneous thaw in the hearts and minds of the rappers themselves.
When the style was chosen and the rhyme written, the lyrics had to be memorized. Memoria or memory is the fourth canon of rhetoric. Dr. Gideon Burton of Brigham Young University presents the following views on memoria in his online rhetoric publication, The Forest of Rhetoric-Silva Rhetoricae. He asserts that we should consider the following points: one, the degree to which a speaker successfully remembers a memorized oration, two, the facility with which a speaker calls upon his memory of apt quotations and thoughts that effectively meet the rhetorical intention, three, an analysis of the methods a speaker uses in order for the message to be retained in the memory of those hearing (mnemonics), and four, assessment of direct appeals to memory or the mention of it or related terms.
With respect to the first condition, rappers could not read off of cards or cheat sheets, memory is obviously important because you can’t sway the audience without first memorizing your lines. Still, in an art form where freestyle competitions (improvisational battles) were common, memory took on a whole new dimension. A good improvisational rapper had a vast vocabulary and organized words into rhyming groups for fast and easy access. The rapper also has several fail-safe phrases at his/her disposal to call upon when ever he/she gets stuck. Some of these are “yes yes ya’ll,” “and we don’t stop,” and “every body say ho. (not to be confused with Don Imus’s ho)” These phrases gave the rapper a few moments to recall the next verse. Jimmy Spicer, who released “The Adventures of Super Rhymes” in 1979, made a bold statement towards the importance of memory in Hip Hop. The song, which he covers nearly the entire record with lyrics, is thirteen minutes long, lengthy even for an age of Hip Hop that routinely produced extensive works.
Rap battles required a strong memory since one of the criteria for winning a battle was how much good material a rapper had. The rapper relied on his ability to call upon any number of raps to ensure that the battle was one. Also, every rapper was wise to have a “go to” rap that would be used just in case defeat was imminent.
Concerning the second point, in order for a rapper to be good he/she has to be a veritable encyclopedia of “popular” knowledge with the ability to call upon it at will since Hip Hop is a “popular” art form. Snappy lines that elicit the most “oohs” and “aahs” contain timely (in terms of there relevance) “popular” references. Everything is fair game from Serena Williams’ posterior in Kanye West’s song, “Gold Digger,” to the “respect” given to Maya Angelou’s brilliance in Nas’ song, “The Makings of the Perfect Bitch.” In Lauryn Hill’s song, “Foregive Them Father,” she writes, “Like Cain and Abel, Caesar and Brutus, Jesus and Judas….backstabbers do this.” Those six names are maybe the most ever alluded to references for betrayal, and she unfurls them effortlessly and with wit as if they are an everyday part of her conversation. This wittiness is highly regarded by rappers and rhetors alike and a command of current events/trends as well as past references and future speculations makes the use of words in a clever way possible.
The third point that Dr. Burton makes concerning “mnemonics” can be explained as the cumulative effect of the proper execution of the five canons. In other words, nothing remains emblazoned in the memories of the audience or cements an idea in the mind of the reader or the listener like a deftly rendered speech or rap. Taking great pains to invent, arrange, stylize, memorize, and deliver a rhetorical composition accomplishes what Big Daddy Kane describes when he writes, “As I shoot the gift MC's stand stiff/While my rhymes stick to you like Skippy or Jiff…” The sticky quality of Big Daddy Kane’s rhymes hearkens to the ability of his ideas to adhere to the minds of his listeners. This is important, for though “oohs” and “aahs” fade like the taste of Skippy or Jiff (peanut butter) after they are swallowed, the benefits of their nutrition is much longer lasting as it is incorporated into the body, and don’t all rhetors or rappers strive for longevity, the ability to linger in the minds of the audience.
Fourthly, as it concerns the direct appeals to memory, rappers have always shown an awareness of this faculty. The Notorious B.I.G., in his song, “Nasty Boy,” delivers what probably is the most famous opening line of any Hip Hop song. He raps, “I go…on and on and on and…” This is an invocation of the canon of memory, because it is impossible to go “on and on” without being able to memorize a lengthy composition. In addition, this is a banner that he is waving. Among the rap community, having a strong memory is not only considered a prerequisite of the craft but a virtue. Kool G Rap says as much in his song, “Jive Talk.” He spits, “Fully equipped with a hip hop lip, my memory bank is like a microchip.” Comparing his memory to that of a microchip is strong evidence to the exultation of Memoria in Hip Hop.
The last canon of rhetoric is Pronuntiatio or Delivery. Although delivery of the spoken word lost some emphasis as people wrote more, in rap, delivery is just as important as style. It’s not hard to understand why when you consider that Hip Hop started out as a performance art. There was very little of anything written down. In fact, T La Rock in his 1984 manifesto, “It’s Yours,” asserts, “Common talk deserves a walk the situation changed/ everything said from now on has to be prearranged.” He’s saying that rappers must move from the now antiquated practice of devoting rap entirely to memory and nothing to paper. Though rap soon evolved into a recorded music, delivery remained important for “capturing the moment” when recording, performing live shows, and music videos.
Once, a simple raising of the arms, pointing into the crowd, or facial expression would be the extent of the delivery, but competition for sales pushed the delivery of lyrics all the way to dance routines. One might even have to include elaborate sets or backdrops as part of Pronuntiatio. There are some rappers like MC Hammer who went on to set sales records with a very poor style but an elaborate delivery (dance routine) and set.
Rappers used a variety of non-verbal means to vary delivery. For example, some lyricists like Ole Dirty Bastard used a slurred voice to rap. This delivery has the effect of giving the voice a “dirty” tonal quality, perfect for fans of rap who desired voices that weren’t antiseptic or homogenous. Kool G. Rap had a lisp, although, it was a naturaly occurring speech malady.
Early rappers used exaggerated voices to sound “larger than life,” no doubt mimicking the oratorical deliveries of some ministers that had become icons during the civil rights movement. This didn’t last long though; by the mid-eighties these exaggerated voices were abandoned for those that were more natural sounding. Aristotle is in agreement. He writes, “We must disguise our art then, and seem to speak naturally, not artificially; the natural is persuasive, the artificial is the reverse; for men are prejudiced against it, as against an insidious design, just as they are suspicious of doctored wines” (181). Hence the everyday speaking voice came into vogue amongst rap artists and has for the most part remained that way except for times when it is made clear that the rapper is portraying a character or a charicature of himself as does the rap artist Little John who accentuates words like “okaaaaay!” for comedic effect.
Rappers also used a variety of nonverbal tools to vary their delivery. Aristotle stressed that, “The art of Delivery is concerned with the voice: it is the art of knowing how to use it for the expression of each feeliing; of knowing , for instance, when it should be loud , low, or moderate; of managing its pitch, shrill, deep, or middle; and of adapting the rhythm to the subject” (180). Rakim in his maniacal mantra Lyrics of Fury raps:
I'm never dying-terrifying results,
I wake ya with hundreds of thousands of volts,
mic-to-mouth resuscitation, rhythm with radiation,
Novocain ease the pain it might save him,
if not, Eric B.'s the judge, the crowd's the jury...
How do I plead to homicide?
Lyrics of Fury!
Rakim’s composed style of rap had him declared the best ever even before he produced his second album. However, in the above passage Rakim comes as close to screaming as he will ever. At other times in the song Rakim is more or less on a slow boil, but he never departs from the angry quick silver delivery that is the hallmark of this song. The lyrics were laid down on top of an accelerated “Funky Drummer” (James Brown, 1969) beat. How he managed to deliver three verses of the song at such a frenetic pace is remarkable. Yet, there were others who were just as adept in a fast delivery.
Bid Daddy Kane was Rakim’s contemporary and was just as talented. In the song Set it Off he unfurls what many people believe to his best work.
Attack, react, exact, the mack'll move you with
A strong song, as long as you groove to this
I keep the crowd loud when you're hype
Do damage onstage and injure the mic
As I shoot the gift MC's stand stiff
While my rhymes stick to you like Skippy and Jiff
Feel my blood fist, or my death kiss
The rap soloist, you don't want none of this
Supreme in this era, I reign with terror
When I grab the mic believe you're gonna hear a
Fascinatin' rhyme as I enchant them
So let's all sing the Big Daddy anthem
Go with the flow, my rhymes grow like an afro
I entertain again and Kane'll never have no
Problem, I can sneeze, sniffle and cough
E-e-e-even if I stutter Imma still come off.
During this delivery his voice goes up and down as he emphasizes some words and deemphasizes others as in the following excerpt: “Feel my blood fist, or my death kiss/ the rap soloist, you don’t want none of this.” The words in bold type are emphasized in his rap with a deeper voice. It’s easy to visualize him shaking his head and his finger at the opposing rapper or listener, whatever the case may be. Also, Bid Daddy Kane accelerates his delivery and then decelerates all in an attempt to keep the listeners’ ears glued to the speaker. For example: “So let’s all sing the Big Daddy Anthem/ Go with the flow my rhymes flow like an afro.” Here, Big Daddy Kane gathers the listeners together, and then the text in italics are rhymed at an extremely fast pace—sort of the “calm before the storm. At the end of the above excerpt he stutters to illustrate the following point: he will do well even with a speech impediment. Ironically, his crew mate was Kool G Rap who I mentioned earlier as having a lisp.
The proper execution of the five canons creates an intelligible speech or rap that is accessible to all whether the work is scholarly or not. Quintilianus writes, ““For my own part, I regard clearness as the first essential of a good style: there must be propriety in our words, their order must be straight-forward, the conclusion of the period must not be long postponed, there must be nothing lacking and nothing superfluous. Thus our language will be approved by the learned and clear to the uneducated” (343). I have to wonder if Chuck D. read the previous quote, for in his song “Don’t Believe the Hype” that I alluded to earlier he writes, “Eighty-eight you wait the S-One’s will/ put the left in effect and I still will/ rock the hard jams, treat it like a seminar/ reach the bourgeois and rock the boulevard (ghetto).” To reach the bourgeois and the boulevard rhetoricians and rappers have to be clear. This clarity is achieved through the proper use of the five canons of rhetoric, through the intellectual tradition of the rhetorician.