Aug 27, 2010
Why Your Song Sucks: A Hip-Hop Primer
By Grip Grand
I hear a lot of rap music during my day. Some of it is made by my friends, some by famous people, some by strangers, some by myself. Most of it, frankly, is terrible. Well, maybe terrible is too strong a word, but…let’s go with it. Therefore, as a service to the public, I decided to jot down this list of common pitfalls that many modern hip-hop songs succumb to. You’re welcome. Oh, yeah, and if you think this is about you, it isn’t—don’t take it personally. Unless you should take it personally, in which case you really do need my help. Onward.
Nota Bene: I should preface this by saying, not only do exceptions to everything that follows abound, but all of this “criticism” is leveled equally at my own output, the inconsistency of which makes me familiar enough with songs that don’t work to comment on them in the first place. Oh, and if you’re one of those people who wants to argue about the fact that I used the terms “rap music” and “hip-hop” interchangeably above…please leave.
WHY YOUR SONG SUCKS
- The Beat is Too Boring: Most beats I hear are a snooze-fest. They do nothing and go nowhere. Of course, plenty of rap classics were made over a one-bar loop. But if that’s all you’ve got, your verses better be FIRE. And, let’s face it, they aren’t. Sometimes simple is most definitely better, but simple isn’t the same thing as plain, dull, and ordinary.
- The Beat is Too Busy: You’ve thrown everything and the kitchen sink on top of your wall of drums, leaving no room for the rapper to move. Look at it this way—the human voice is an instrument. Whoever’s on rap-duty is basically soloing over your beat. Your bells and whistles should highlight what they’re doing, not compete with it for space. You know how the band just vamps behind Miles when he takes a long lead? No? You have more problems than I thought.
- Your Raps Are Off-Beat: Oh, man. This is a deal-breaker, ladies. If you can’t lock into the groove, hip-hop is not for you. Of course, sometimes the producer is to blame…more than once, I have sent an acapella to someone, only to have them place it off-beat on their instrumental. That shit is truly galling. A related error is assuming that any rap can go over any beat. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Some flows just won’t fit some drums—they sound terrible when you force them, which is a primary reason why I hate your remixes.
- Your Raps Are On-Beat…Too On-Beat: Swing, slump, lag, drag. Whatever you call it, good rappers got it, as do good producers. The groove, the pocket, et cetera—these phenomena are not caused by precision in the sense of playing your instrument perfectly on-time, but rather by playing precisely off-time. I’m not saying you shouldn’t quantize your drums (in fact, you better be a robotic groove machine if you don’t, because a lot of entirely non-quantized beats just sound off…you ain’t Dilla, dog), or that you shouldn’t spend some time chopping and aligning your vocals by hand so they lock right into the groove. But don’t overdo it—if your raps and drums sound like white people clapping, find another genre to ruin.
- Your Song Doesn’t Know What It Wants to Be: The beat has nothing to do with the lyrics, the lyrics have nothing to do with the hook, everything’s slapdash all over the place. Your music has no discernible identity. Why does the song exist if not to make me feel something, anything? Isn’t that what art does? Well, not your song. It’s just there, taking up space, which ultimately makes it meaningless. As my man Richie Cunning says, “There’s no mood I’m ever in where I want to listen to it.” Next.
- Your Song Knows Exactly What It Wants to Be—The New Lil’ Wayne/Drake/Jeezy Single: Oh, I’m so guilty of this (luckily, that’s what mixtapes are for). Most art, even great art, is derivative in some respect, and we all show our influences through our work. But if I can’t tell your new song from everyone else’s copycat-clone attempts to cash in on the flavor of the month, I usually turn it off after a few seconds. And that’s all you’ve got these days, a few seconds—it’s depressing and wrong, but true nevertheless. Which brings us to our next topic…
- It Takes Too Long to Get to the Good Part: That’s assuming there is a good part (a pretty humongous assumption). If you’ve got a super-catchy hook, why am I waiting a minute and a half to I hear it? If the first verse is jaw-dropping, don’t put 50 seconds of introductory keyboard noodling ahead of it. Producers (myself included) love to introduce a beat from the ground up, adding layers as you listen. But that’s not how you grab someone’s attention and keep it. To quote the Tom Petty theory of songwriting (and this is a cat with a lot of hits in his holster): “Don’t bore us, get to the chorus.”
- Your Shit Sounds Amateur: This isn’t really about audio fidelity—that tape I have of Lord Finesse battling Percee P in the Patterson Projects sounds lo-fi, but it doesn’t sound amateur. MF Doom’s “Dead Bent” 12-inch sounds like it was recorded on a four-track, but it doesn’t sound amateur. You, however, do. Why? Well, it could be all of the stuff I mentioned above. But, setting that aside, maybe it’s because you thought it was OK to record My First Verse and then call it a song. You know what? Don’t record your first hundred verses. You aren’t ready for the mic. Being a rapper combines many skills, and recording the raps themselves is one of the last things you’ll master. I suggest that you polish your lyrics, your voice, and your delivery until they all shine like a diamond. Then record fifty songs that suck. Then send the 51st to me. Maybe. When I was a youth, no junior high student had a home studio. There was no Garage Band to smooth out your inadequacies. The mistaken impression that your earliest attempts at rap might be worth recording and putting on YouTube for the whole world to hear didn’t exist. I wrote rhymes for years before I recorded a single thing. And even then, my first album (poorly captured on a four-track tape machine), does sound amateur, because I lacked rap-recording experience. Oh, well. Live and learn. Get that experience, then let us hear it.
- It Has You On It: You may be the world’s only anarchist/straight-edge/vegan rapper ever (indeed, I wish you were). But if you aren’t a good rapper, I really don’t give a fuck what you’re into. This isn’t spoken word. You can’t just say what you’re thinking out loud. Having a point of view doesn’t mean you’re qualified to rap it. A rhyme’s style is as important as, if not vastly more important than, its substance, and technique is everything. That goes for all you emo/nerd/not-regular-rap rappers, too. Thinking you can make artsy-post-everything hip-hop before you know how to write a hot sixteen is lazy and presumptuous, like playing free jazz without learning scales first. That shit only sounds easy to do…it ain’t.
- It Doesn’t Have Me On It: ‘Nuff said.
- Grip Grand (URB’s Next 100, XXL Chairman’s Choice, East Bay Express Best Rapper) totally agrees with you that he doesn’t know shit and that you should have written this article instead. You can find out more about his own terrible music at GripGrand.com, Bandcamp, Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, and wherever else fine music is difficult to sift from a sea of utter crap.