Word players

Snoop Dogg gets in the mood with a lot of marijuana, some old-school tunes on the stereo and “a couple of females around for inspiration”. Eminem treats it like a puzzle to be figured out. Grandmaster Caz – “widely regarded as one of the best that ever did this shit”, according to no less an authority than Ice-T – needs tranquillity, a notepad, a pen and an enormous cannabis cigar.

I refer, of course, to the act of writing. This delicate activity, for which writers over the ages have devised their own methods, from Truman Capote lying down with a glass of sherry and a pencil to Graham Greene’s daily insistence on stopping after writing precisely 500 words, is as crucial to rappers as it is to novelists or poets. No other form of pop music is as wordy as rap. It’s Grub Street with banging beats, blunts and Puffa jackets.

Yet, for all the outpouring of verses, Ice-T reckons the work that goes into rap hasn’t received due respect. “When people ask about your record, they never really ask how you do it, how you create it,” he says. “It’s kind of like it magically comes. They take time out to talk to songwriters about their process but for some reason rap is always alluded to as something that’s easy to do. Truth is, it’s not easy, it’s very difficult.”

The veteran LA rapper has set out to remedy this by making the feature documentary Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap. In it he persuades fellow emcees to reveal the secrets of their craft, from 1970s pioneers such as Grandmaster Caz and Afrika Bambaataa to modern-day superstars, including Eminem and Kanye West.

Eyebrows will be raised in some quarters by the film’s subtitle. Is rap really an art? The answer needn’t detain us. Of course it is. Yes, there have been loads of useless emcees (hello, MC Hammer) and terrible lyrics (Kanye West: “Don’t try to treat me like I ain’t famous/ Apologies, are you into astrology?/ ’Cos, um, I’m trying to make it to Uranus”). A great deal of it is profane, violent, misogynist or just plain stupid. But just as cinema’s parameters aren’t set by Police Academy V, nor should rap be defined solely by its lowest common denominator.

The best rapping is a unique combination of verbal dexterity, acting and musicianship. Not only does the rapper have to devise verses to fit within a certain metre, rigidly enforced by the producer’s beats, he also has to bring the words to life by voicing them. The result, at its finest, works at multiple levels. “They’re listening to your status, your personality, your flavour, your wordplay. Everything about you comes out in the rhyme,” says Ice-T.

Ice-T performing in Los Angeles circa 1981

In literature writers try to find their voice, a distinctive style of their own. Rappers also have to find their voice, though for them the challenge is twofold. Not only must their voice come across in the way they use words, as with writers, but they also have to employ their actual voice for the purpose of rapping.

It’s a balancing act between the way the words and music interact, the rapper’s so-called “flow”, and the persona he adopts to deliver it. “This is such a key point,” says Adam Bradley, professor of English at Colorado University and co-editor of The Anthology of Rap. “One of the greatest misconceptions about rap music is that there’s a one-for-one association between the artist and the character that they render in their lyrics. And the problem about that kind of conflation is that it takes the focus away from the artistic process.”

The misconception is partly of rap’s own making. Rap occupies the contradictory position of being at once highly stylised and obsessed with authenticity. In the classic Eric B and Rakim track “I Know You Got Soul”, Rakim delivers a silky masterclass in rap’s play between artifice and truth: “I start to think and then I sink/ Into the paper like I was ink/ When I’m writing I’m trapped between the lines/ I escape when I finish the rhyme.”

Ice-T became an emcee on returning to California after a stint in the army in the 1980s. The persona he projected, based on youthful experiences of petty crime and gang membership, was a forerunner of the gangsta rappers who dominated hip-hop in the 1990s. Lyrical adeptness and role play went together, as with his neat inversion of fertility and death in “Colors”, the title track of the 1988 movie: “Suckers, dive for your life when my shotgun scatters/ We gangs of LA will never die – just multiply.”

“That’s part of the fun of rap,” he says. “You can stretch reality and write from a lot of different perspectives. I might have never done drugs but I’ll rap from the perspective of the drug addict because I know enough information about it. When I wrote ‘Colors’ I wasn’t in a gang but I was able to rap from that perspective. I always called what I wrote ‘faction’: a factual situation to put into a fictional story.”

There is, however, a line between acceptable make-believe and risible inauthenticity. You can’t start rapping about dealing crack just because you’ve got a box set of The Wire. Rappers have to be seen to have a link to the lives they’re rapping about. Ice-T sounds a warning note. “Now if you attempt to play it off that it’s really you, that’s a little too much performance art for me. It’s, like, come on. That’s when you come with the fake gangsta rappers, something that’s frowned upon.”

Another example of fakery is the shadowy phenomenon of the ghost writer. “I know a lot of ghost writers who had to sign confidentiality agreements where you’ll never say you wrote this rhyme,” Ice-T says. “That’s another thing which is frowned on. You’re not like a pop singer that people make records for. You’re a rapper, so these are supposed to be your words.”

There’s a tension between making it up and keeping it real when the rapper writes. There’s also a tension between old-fashioned poetic values – try finding a rap that doesn’t rhyme – and the hyper-modern bricolage of samples and beats to which the words are set. “Put it this way,” says Bradley, “rap is new-school music but it’s old-school poetry.”

Rap’s love of rhyming goes against the grain of modern poetry, which treats rhyme as a quaint relic of a bygone age. As such, rappers are unlikely allies of tweedy literary traditionalists who think John Betjeman is better than John Ashbery. Yet whereas rhyme in poetry carries conservative connotations of order and correctness, in rap it means something different.

The most sophisticated raps are exercises in audacity, a blend of puns, street talk, internal rhymes and startling juxtapositions designed to show off the rapper’s command of language. “I sell ice in the winter, I sell fire in hell/ I’m a hustler baby, I’ll sell water to a well,” Jay-Z brags in “U Don’t Know”.

In the context of the black American history of dispossession, rap becomes a bold assertion of linguistic ownership. That’s what the rapper Nas is getting at when he poses a rhetorical question in Something from Nothing: “How are we making poetry out of this broken English?” Or as Ice-T himself rapped back in 1987: rhyme pays.

‘Something from Nothing’ opens in US cinemas on June 15 and is on general release in the UK in July

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