A G.O.A.T. Rapper’s Advice To New Rappers

Jean Grae Interview
December 27th, I had the chance to live out a personal and
professional dream of mine when I got to interview rapper legend Jean Grae.
Besides from being an extremely genuine and nice person (sorry, does that ruin
Style Wars for you?), I can also confirm her work from the “Cookies or Comas”
mixtape: she’s funny as shit, and yes, does use the word “fuckery” in every day
conversation. However, it was a dream not to be able to express my
appreciation, but also being able to ask her the questions that I always wonder
about when I approach rap music as a craft: how much of her work is
inspiration, and how much comes from actively working on it? What idea comes
first: words or rhythm? What do they know of music theory? Hopefully the
interview below helps dispel some misconceptions around rap music being a “poor
man’s music”, so to speak, because “anyone can rap”, but also it hopes give a
window into something that we all, as rap fans, get too little information on:
how a rap takes its final form on the record. Thus, my mission was to trace the
development of the musical idea from its first conception, through to its
editing in the studio, to its final manifestation on the CD. Thus, this
interview touches on a little bit of everything. Rather than offer my analysis
here, I want to present the interview in as raw a form as possible, and let you
make of it for now what you will.
What is the first advice you’d give to a start rapper music-wise?
Learn an instrument, it doesn’t
matter which one: recorder, piano, whatever. You need that different musical
perspective in your work. Always rap a loud too – some things that look good on
paper might not work in performance.

When you generate your rap, how much of what you come up with is
inspiration, and how much of what you come up with initially do you have to
shape and work on further?
It’s never reworking. There’s only
one piece that ever took longer than an hour. I work best completely under
pressure. The one song that didn’t work like that was ”you and me and everyone
we know.” I try to write beforehand, but it just doesn’t work. I write usually
directly before I record, and that’s it. I record a lot of stuff at home in my
studio, or if we set a studio date…but yeah, I don’t have a really big process
beforehand. My process beforehand is more I need to have a bunch of experiences
in life. I never do first draft, second draft. I self-edit as I go along. I
write really fast.
How did you, Mos Def, Pharoahe, Talib Kweli, Jean Grae, all 4 extremely
technically complicated and accomplished rappers, find each other, and come to have
such close personal as well as professional relationships?
I think for myself and Kweli and
Mos it was just generally New York. We just kind of knew each other, and it was
the same time and era, and we just never stopped being friends…outside of all
of the rapping, you’re friends first. Pharoahe I met years ago and I guess we
really started to be friends a couple years when I started working with some
partnerships with him, and when we started hanging out, we were like, “Oh shit,
I know who you are!” I call it finding the other mutants – “Oh man, I know
exactly how you think!” But in a good way. But people who see me writing and
creatively generally come the same way…so that’s how I look at it. We do hang a
lot, but mostly we are never coming up with amazing raps. When you write, and I
think as frequently as all of us write, all of that hanging out and experiences
is exactly what goes into the rhymes, not happenstance, not random – it’s your
experiences, what you heard, where you’ve just been. It’s absolutely all in
What is your compositional process? Do you have a schedule, or do you
just write as it comes along?
I absolutely set up a schedule, but
whether or not I’m sitting there writing music? Hahaha…sometimes it happens,
but usually not.  Something I wouldn’t
have done before, I set aside time: “These are my hours when I’ll focus on this
project or this project.” I can do a lot of organizing beforehand, but the
writing seems like the smallest part to me. Sitting down and saying everything
about the album is one thing…but it never happens until it’s the last second
and I have to hand it in. My brain doesn’t get that spark until I’m under the
When you start writing, do you start with words or music?
I don’t think that they’re
different. I don’t separate the rhythm from the actual word. The word is
exactly what is creating the timing…I guess I look at them as beats and notes
in themselves. So I’m very conscious of what sort of patterns feel right…and
you know it’s the best rhyme when you’re fucking the beat. You’re not
competing, you’re not lying somewhere there, you’re getting in there, finding
all the spaces where you’re supposed to be. It’s choosing the right words…the
first idea, the one I always have and that takes the most time, is the opening
line. And it all grows from there…there are people who are absolute masters at
writing opening lines, that’s what you want, that’s how you know a song, that’s
how it goes…Prodigy [from Mobb Deep]. Might be my favorite. There are so many
fucking great ones…and when you find it, it’s absolutely an introduction for
people who have never heard you before, it sets the tone for the song – it does
so much, it’s a first impression. It happens really quickly – you can decide
how many bars it will take – 1 bar, 4 bars, 8 bars – and once that goes,
everything else finds its place.
So does the word suggest a rhythm?
Again, it doesn’t suggest, it is
the rhythm. It suggests an emotion, whether you’re using triplets or whatever
it is, I think certain patterns and certain syllables convey emotions, and
that’s really my goal at the end of it. It’s not only using the right word,
it’s selecting a word and usually one I haven’t used, words that draw emotions
out of people. Words that are relatable are the most important things.
Do you have any favorite words? What kinds of words do you like?
I’ve always really liked words, and
syllables are great. Words that feel good in your mouth! There’s a saying that,
when we find one word that rhymes or a statement that rhymes, I know this is
true for my friends and I, you can’t stop coming up with more words – we’ll
just keep texting each other back and forth. I remember, talking to Pharoahe,
finding out that we both have the same favorite word: it’s amalgamate, or
amalgamation, is just an amazing word. I don’t write those kind of words down,
but I’ll save them somewhere.
So you’re overarching guiding principle is the emotion you elicit in
the listener?
I’d say so.
Is your approach top down or bottom up? For instance, it could be like
making a hammer, where you start with a blueprint of a hammer and then put all
the parts together until you have one? Or is it like legos, where you start
with blocks, just start putting them together, and see where you end up?
It is more like the legos…I can’t
visually see a whole puzzle, I’m not great at word searches. What I can do take
the word search and make it something new. I work backwards, I work from the
future. In my mind when I start with a song, I’m already at the video and
accepting awards for the video. I can see the song and the video, it’s all done
– what I have to do then is figure out how to go back and time and make the
song. It’s like taking a giant ceramic pile. This is already a whole thing, I
like this. I take the hammer, smash it, and then have to reconfigure it back
into a whole picture. I need to know the innerworkings of it. I absolutely work
backwards. When I start with an album, the album is already done. I know what I
want it to sound like, I know what I want it to feel like, I just have to go
figure out how to do it. I know what it looks like, I know how I want the
videos to look – absolutely everything. It’s working from the future.
Based on that answer, and for you this question might not even have an
answer, so I just want to hear whatever you have to say: Do you purposefully
structure sentences to fall across the bar line to create a better flow, but I
guess for you is the answer very case specific?
The rap has to make you feel a
certain way. Whether it’s something like “Style Wars”, where it’s supposed to
feel a little threatening, and unhinged, and energetic– and even if it’s
something that’s the same tempo, you can’t go into “Love Thirst” threatening
and unhinged because that would be fucking weird! Yeah, there are secrets that
the general consumer doesn’t understand, that rhythms and chords all make you
feel a certain way, words too. Even pop songs – hits are hits. These songs make
you feel a certain way. I absolutely have finally come to understand that in
music – I can play around as much as I want. There are songs I can go back to and
listen to as an adult. Like, I heard Katy Perry’s “Fireworks” for the first
time the other day, and this is kind of how I know people who appreciate music,
like oh, you get it, and that song is fucking brilliant! Like fucking
fireworks, are you kidding me? There’s a really deep technicality to making
those kinds of songs so I think it’s going into that world understanding it,
and when people are like, “This is underground, that is underground,” I’m like,
well, a lot of people don’t actually know what they’re writing. If there’s a
song I want to be an underground song, I know exactly how to write that. I’m
not trying to sell it or license it. But if I want it to be in a specific kind
of movie or TV show, then I’m going to include those words, those emotions,
those feelings.
You went to La Guardia, a school for the performing arts. There, you
learned music theory, both harmonic and rhythmic. Can you read music?
Yes, I can. I learned music when I
was much younger, from my parents and I took a gang of piano lessons. I have my
dad’s piano now since my parents moved, which is great, I was like, “I really
need to go back in and play,” I play somewhat and play it by ear, and I just
started going back into reading sheet music again. But it’s been a long time. I
stopped doing formal training when I was younger, and really used to like going
to places, like Carl Fisher, and picking up sheet music and learning how to play
stuff. I love musicals, “Annie” for instance, I would get those books and
really, really learn how to play those songs. I think there’s a certain amount
of technicality that’s great, but I think mine also just came a lot of genes.
It was just kind of innate feeling of knowing things, and then going into music
theory class and being like, “oh, that’s what that’s called! I totally know how
to do that!” They just gave it a name. That’s kind of how I’ve approached most
of myself when I go to learn, I’m like I have ADHD, and this is a lot of money,
thank you for telling me these 3 things I needed to know, now I’m going to go
do that.
What’s your notation scheme?
I don’t write as much by hand
anymore, but when I do, it’s usually in slashes, for instance for a double beat
it gets a double slash, but I also tend to space them on the page. I have to be
super neat about it. Computers have been great for me because I write so much
more and it looks like so much less and when you go back in, you’re like oh
shit, that is not 16 bars, that’s 64 bars! So I need to relax. And because 64
ars on a note pad looks very very different.
So you know all that theory, counting bars and so on?
Yes, it’s really important for me.
In most public discussion of rap, that all usually gets glossed over. If
you’ve never tried to rap, it is really difficult!
There are nuances and subtleties,
and it is fucking difficult…you do have to learn how to count bars, and for
some people, it’s just a term, saying “bars”… you know, like a hot 16. It’s
absolutely necessary, and some people won’t even recognize it that much.
There’s this conception that “anyone can rap” because all you need is a
voice, and a brain, and a microphone, and there’s this conception that rappers,
since they don’t go to a formal educational musical setting to learn to rap,
that rap is somewhat of “a poor man’s music”.
There is that conception out there,
and again, I’d like to thank you. Not enough people recognize it.
So you don’t notate your rhymes in “traditional” music notation?
No, I think I probably do that more
so in my head. You know there’s times when I go back. Say when you’re going
back and doing the ad libs, and you’ve already got the verse down, it would be
easier to go in if you wrote it down and if you’re doubling something with pro
tools, a lot of people go in and do one ad lib, and they’re like let me throw
in another one on top of it. So it’s to go back in and say in bold, “These are
things I’m going to emphasize.” These words are the words that need emphasis,
or syllables…I probably focus more on nailing the ad libs. To me, it’s accents…the
words that you should be getting right. Usually it’s the first time I’m hearing
it, and if I did this right, then here is where I go in and figure out what
needs to be accented.
So when you bring accent to a rap, it matters where they fall?
Absolutely, and it comes from
having in my early career been super monotone about things, that I was reliant
a lot on rhythms and accents but not necessarily doing it with my voice. Not on
purpose, I think I was generally young and literally had not found my voice. So
yeah, I think all of that forced me into it. It’s learning how to do stuff with
a blindfold on, and then when you’re good enough you take the blindfold off,
you’re like, “Oh shit! Well now I can fucking play around.” This would have
been around “Attack of the Attacking Things” [from 2002], and going back and
listening to it, it doesn’t sound young material-wise, but voice-wise, I can
hear it. I didn’t really know what to do. I was definitely playing around more
in the poetry world than the rap world. Really, really breaking rules and
rhythms in a real conversational tone, and definitely not as technical, even
just starting with the next album, “This Week” [from 2004].
How much of your rhythms at the microphone are improvised, or is it the
same take every time?
Interesting for me, because it’s so
new for me when I get in there, it just happened, so it depends. A lot of times
where I go in and I absolutely nail it first take, and sometimes when you do
that first take you go back and listen to it and you’re like, “Nope, don’t
change a fucking thing.” Even though there are some imperfections, there’s
magic in there. Usually, it’s a couple times, like 4 or 5. Just to kind of play
around with it and get the energy right. I think that’s what it is, trying to
figure out what I already have. I know the words are there, I know what it’s
supposed to sound like, I can hear it in my head. But I try to justify the
words, give them the life they deserve. You don’t want to let them down now
because they look so good on the page. Not much editing or revising is going on
though, generally really small stuff…figuring out vocally what I need to do.
You put Frankenstein together, and bring him to life!
So when you start to write, you always have the beat first?
Yes, I definitely need the beat
How does that play out over the whole recording process? For instance,
once you have the beat, do you just add the rap to it? Or will you go back and
forth between the two – start with the beat, add rap, change beat to fit, then
change the rap, and so on? How much do you coordinate with the production side
of things?
I am really involved on that side.
It’s a continual back and forth, not changing the beat, but definitely adding
things…again, probably things that the general public doesn’t notice a lot.
When we’re picking drops, even if you’re just dropping off the snare, or the
hi-hat, or the kick, or everything for a second, it’s a huge part of constructing
a song. It’s the backdrop, it’s the reason you’re going to feel the way about
something, it’s the reason you’re going to take a breath and then come back in
when you’re listening. And adding instruments, live instruments, or whatever
sounds right…there are times when my manager comes back in the studio, and
they’re like, “Yeah, Jean put a glockenspiel on it”, laughs, and he’s like “Really?”
and then he’ll listen to it and he’s like, “This is why I hate you, because
you’re right! Now it feels better.” It’s just wanting to have the right ear. If
I’m going to add something, what is it going to be, where is it going to go,
and how do I arrange it so that I’m pulling the same emotion that these words
are driving at? So I’m really, really involved as far as that goes.
So you won’t ever mix and match raps to a beat?
Sometimes there’s a great moment
when that happens. You might have something that goes with a certain beat…I
don’t really write a lot of extra stuff, because I’m not just writing to write,
but there are definitely times when you’ve written for something else and it
might not ever get used or come out, and then you hear something, and you try
that over that beat, and you’re like, “Oh shit, it’s perfect! Absolutely
perfect! I” think that’s the only time that happens for me just because I don’t
have a surplus of rap.
Sometimes, you listen to an entire verse from a certain rapper, and you
just get the feeling that it was put together piecemeal. The first 4 bars all
fit together, they’re a unit, they all go together musically, thematically…
 [Cuts in:] And then
something else happens, and you’re like wait, what? That doesn’t go there!
Yeah, and you wonder how that jump got made…to me, that just means the
creative process was they carry around a book, put together a lot of one or two
liners, until you get a full 16 bars.
Sometimes, that happens. I
definitely know rappers who do that. I sometimes call it “rappity rap” – you’re
just rhyming cat with hat, nursery-rhyme stuff. I don’t do that. No, for me,
everything is tailor made, with that really small exception that I can’t
remember the last time that happened. I thought of that today, I had a verse,
and I was like, “I’m sorry that song never came out”, but for me it’s
different, because then I can go and create a different beat for it. But you
know there are a lot of emcees who do that. I think there are some rappers who
are better at doing that seemlessly, because I don’t know 2 people who write
the same. I write differently than Kweli, and Pharoahe…I go in and if I’m in
the studio session, I’ll be like, “let me see how you write.” And there are
people who write in paragraph form, using ABCD phrasing. It’s really
interesting to see everyone’s writing process, and even if they don’t think
it’s a process, it’s fascinating.
So much discussion of rap centers around flow: what it is, how to
create it, who has it, and so on. What is good flow to you?
Flow is different for each
particular person – everybody has their own flow. What doesn’t work for one
rapper might work for another. You have to get to know your voice as if it was
an instrument. Know what you can get away with – how you sound, almost what the
frequencies of your voice are. I hear beats that I really like, but pass on
them because I know my voice won’t fit. I hear other rappers say certain words
and raps that I really like, but I know that I couldn’t get away with it. It’s
like certain accents, like Southern, can use certain words that others can’t. I
think rappers should think more about what words they can use in a certain
order. For instance, if you change the rapper of a verse, but keep the rhythms
and words the same, the feel of the verse completely changes.
Alright, let’s try a small composition experiment. I’m going to give
you a line and you tell me how you’d continue it. How about the final line of your
song “Style Wars”: “Slit your neck open from your chest/ who’s next to duel?”
I actually don’t think that was the
end of verse, I think I cut it off for the song. I would do the obvious thing
and continue that 3-syllable pattern, “next to duel”, which I was doing right
before that point on the song, with lines like “Catch you hiding in a darkened
VESTIBULE”…Maybe mix it up by using 2 words to fit that 3 syllable pattern,
just like vestibule was 1 word for 3 syllables. Eminem is great at doing stuff like
How about a line you didn’t write: “Give me some more reason to have
the women in your mama’s church…” (From “Oh No” with Pharoahe Monche, Mos Def,
and Nate Dogg”)
Well, the words that stand out are
“gimme”, “women”, and “mama”…I’d probably continue the pattern of the m sounds.
I like when Mos sticks in one place for a while, which he doesn’t do too
often…his verse on “Thieves in the Night” [from Blackstar] is one of those
Do you have any other favorite verses?
Pharoahe’s on “Extinction Agenda”
[from Organized Konfusion’s album “Stress: The Extinction Agenda.”]

Martin Connor is a music teacher & writer from Philadelphia, PA, with a music degree of high distinction from Duke University who is currently studying for a master’s degree at Brandeis University in Boston, MA, while focusing his research on the vocal melodies of the rap genre. He has contributed freelance articles to HipHopDX, Complex, and Pigeons and Planes, and had multiple articles from his website, www.RapAnalysis.com go viral on BET, The Source, XXL, and MTV. He teaches rap lessons online through the music school LessonFace, and has a book, The Artistry Of Rap Music, forthcoming from the McFarland Publishing House, scheduled for release in late 2017, as a follow-up to his 2014 contribution to their anthology "Eminem & Rap, Poetry, Race." He welcomes all comments, compliments, insults, and restaurant suggestions at [email protected].

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