The Basics of Hip-Hop Songwriting
All of the lessons presented in this book can be completed with or without music. If you decide to have a culminating performance, you should probably give your students a sense of how to choose a beat and structure a complete song. This kind of assignment may work best as an extra-credit assignment.
Step 1: Find a beat
Most of the time, you should have your students write over a particular beat from beginning to end. If they write without a beat, it's going to take a lot more work to try to get their lyrics to fit with the music once that element is added. So have them pick a beat first. You can find 20 original beats here.
Note: To keep things simple, you can play one beat in class and have all of your students write over it. If you have the time, however, it is generally better to have each student choose their own beat that reflects their mood and style.
Step 2: Add hooks and verses
Nearly every rap song consists of three basic parts: intros, hooks (choruses) and verses. Occasionally, you'll see some other elements, but usually rappers stick to these three.
Most songs begin with some instrumental bars, which are typically followed by a verse, although some do start with a hook. Very few songs begin with rapping. Usually the beat plays for 4 or 8 bars before the rapper comes in.
After the intro, most songs contain two to four verses of 16 to 32 bars each. The verse is the largest section of a song and usually contains the bulk of the information. When instructing your students, have them sketch out the song by dividing the academic content into verses that make sense. Verses are often of equal length, such as 16 bars each. However, they can also have different lengths.
After the first verse comes the hook, which is the most memorable (and often most important) part of many hip-hop songs. There are basically two types of hooks: rapped or sung. Many hooks incorporate both of these techniques. All kinds of rappers write the rapped hooks, while pop-type rappers favor the sung hooks. As your students are writing their hooks, know that they have these options.
It's important to have the hook accomplish two things. First, it must be fun to listen to, because it's the part that listeners are going to hear the most. This, I'm sure, is what The Sugarhill Gang was thinking about with this hook on "Rapper's Delight":
I said a hip-hop, the hippie the hippie,
To the hip hip-hop, uh you don't stop the rockin', To the bang bang, say up jumped the boogie, To rhythm of the boogie the beat.
That hook doesn't make any sense, but it is fun and oddly catchy. The second thing most hooks should do is advance the main idea of the song. Often, the best hooks do this without being obvious. Take this example from Jay-Z on a track where he basically just brags:
Can't touch the untouchable, break the unbreakable
Shake the unshakeable (it's Hovi baby)
Can't see the unseeable, reach the unreachable,
Do the impossible (it's Hovi baby)
He doesn't use the hook to come out and just say, "I am awesome," but that is the message. Since your students are writing an academic song, they'll want to think of a hook that can complement the subject. Students should always come back to the hook once they've written the whole song to see if they can improve it. Hooks are extremely important.
Step 3: Write the song
In some cases, it's a good idea to have students sketch out their songs, but if they have a good sense of the information they want to include, they can probably start writing and see where it takes them. The best advice at this stage is just to keep the students writing and rewriting until they have something that they're ready to share with others.