By Paul Edwards.
Chuck D of Public Enemy was one of the 104 emcees interviewed exclusively for the book How to Rap: The Art and Science of the Hip-Hop MC. The following is the full interview, where Chuck gives his opinions on everything from writing lyrics in your head to doing punch-ins.
With a previous glimpse at Kool G Rap’s writing process, author Paul Edwards again provided HipHopDX with these exclusive insights into the emceeing techniques of a true legend.
How to Rap: How did you learn how to rap?
Chuck D: I don’t know if I really learned how to rap, all I know is that at one particular time there was no Rap music. When I was growing up there was The Last Poets, there was James Brown.
[Later] I was turned on by the fact that these guys out of the Bronx were making these tapes and I was intrigued by the rhythm, how they delivered their raps. And then from that point on, I kind of mimicked what I heard and I liked the guys with the great voices, guys like [Grandmaster] Melle Mel, I thought they were just unbelievable, and so I kinda followed guys like that and came up with my own style.
How to Rap: Did you memorize other people’s lyrics?
Chuck D: Yeah, guys like DJ Hollywood, Eddie Cheeba and people like that, I thought they were quite stellar in their approach.
How to Rap: Did you do a lot of writing before you felt you were good enough to perform in front of anyone or record anything?
Chuck D: Not really, I was always an artistic person, I was always good at the arts as far as drawing and painting and things like that. I wanted to become a sportscaster, so the use of my voice actually came about talking about play-by-play announcing in baseball and basketball.
How to Rap: When you write lyrics, do you have a set process you go through?
Chuck D: My most enjoyable way I like to go about it is writing the title first and working downwards, I enjoy that process best.
How to Rap: Do you write everything down on paper?
Chuck D: I would like to, yeah, but also the computer has helped out a great deal over the last 10 years for me because I write it out on paper but I kind of arrange through the computer.
How to Rap: Do you ever write in your head?
Chuck D: No, I think that’s so sloppy, I think you can do something kiddy and frivolous off the top of your head, but if you want to do something that has substance and sticks around for a long time, my experience is that I have to write it down.
How to Rap: Where do most of your ideas come from?
Chuck D: The world, our surroundings. There’s a big world that surrounds each one of us.
How to Rap: Do you think it helps to have a large vocabulary?
Chuck D: Well you’re using words, no matter what language you’re rapping in, it’s always helpful to know as many words as you can, words are your artillery.
How to Rap: Though do you think you can go over listeners’ heads if you get too complex?
Chuck D: Yeah, well, you’ll go over some heads and hit some others, you shouldn’t always worry about other people all the time, sometimes just do what you feel.
How to Rap: Do you research the information for your lyrics?
Chuck D: I think it makes the most sense if you’re gonna say something that’s profound to back it up with some facts. You’ve got to pay attention to what you’re talking about so the research has got to come from various places out there in the world. I think you should always back up what you say. I think that’s smart to do, if you want to be smart about what you do.
How to Rap: Do you think more emcees should be tackling bigger topics?
Chuck D: Well, it’s kind of stupid for a person that’s forty to not tackle something that’s on the mind of a 40 year-old. If a person 40 years old is trying to figure out the topics that a 20 year-old is trying to figure out then how much are you gonna listen to that person?
How to Rap: Do you think Hip Hop will get back to where it’s more political?
Chuck D: It is already, it depends on what you’re looking for and where you’re looking for it. I think places like myspace and YouTube, all these various places on the Internet, they make it possible to check out a lot of people doing their thing.
How to Rap: Do you think it’ll become more political again on a mainstream level?
Chuck D: I can’t make that prediction—mainstream has a whole bunch of different things going with it that I try to stay far away from. Trying to predict that is like trying to predict the weather and I’m not a good weatherman.
How to Rap: Do you like to have a full concept planned out before you start writing… you mentioned you like to come up with the title first?
Chuck D: Yeah, with a title you can fill in the blanks and have a clear conversation about what you’re talking about. I mean how can you have a clear conversation about something if you don’t know what the hell you’re talking about?
I think a lot of the time with a lot of rappers the problem that they have is that they don’t listen to each other. That’s a big problem with rap music at this particular time—they listen to what’s successful, but they don’t listen to each other. It’s like somebody talking all the time and not listening to anybody.
How to Rap: Do you ever start writing without a concept?
Chuck D: Lyrics sometimes pop in your head, like sometimes a great saying pops in your head and you want to build off of that. My key is I always gotta write it down because there’s a great chance I could lose it. Writing things down sometimes saves me.
How to Rap: How do you come up with the flow?
Chuck D: I kind of detect the flow of the music sometimes and then try to figure out a rhythm within the rhythm. But sometimes it doesn’t happen that way, sometimes the words might have a flow of their own. A lot of the times it’s a feeling in the moment.
How to Rap: Do you have any way of writing down the flow?
Chuck D: I have certain ways, yeah. I might write one line per bar or I might just do a pretty good map where I write on the whole page a bunch of different ideas.
How to Rap: Is it ever difficult to rhyme and still make sense?
Chuck D: Yeah, sometimes you don’t have to rhyme though, sometimes you can write something profound and not rhyme the words but come off with a similar inflection.
How to Rap: How long does it normally take you to write lyrics?
Chuck D: It depends, some will come real quick, some will come over a span of a year. Sometimes it comes better if it comes long, sometimes it comes better if it comes quick. The song “Harder Than You Think” [from Public Enemy’s How You Sell Soul To A Soulless People Who Sold Their Soul] was totally inspired by the music to write the words rather fast, so “Harder Than You Think” is probably the fastest song I wrote and probably the quickest executed song.
How to Rap: Do you like to write to the beat you’ll be using for the finished track?
Chuck D: Sometimes you can write to the music and sometimes the words have their own beat to them.
How to Rap: Do producers you work with ever have any input?
Chuck D: Yeah, every song I’ve written has been a collaborative thing.
How to Rap: Have you changed the way you write lyrics since you first started?
Chuck D: Yeah—as a songwriter you have to mess around with a whole bunch of different techniques and I’ve always done that.
How to Rap: Do you use most of the rhymes you write?
Chuck D: I try to, I’m always writing, so there’s always going to be something that’s going to be unused that I can use for something else.
How to Rap: What’s more important, subject matter or flow?
Chuck D: I think they both go hand in hand. When you’re reading words off of paper they might not have a flow necessarily attached to them but maybe the words could stand the test of time. And then sometimes when you hear something and might never even read the words, that flow might stand the test of time. The flow has something to do with the vocal ability, the words have something to do with the writing ability.
How to Rap: If someone has a really good flow can it make up for a lack of subject matter?
Chuck D: Yeah, it can, but always short term, after a while it’s gonna be like, okay, where do we go from here?
How to Rap: Was it a very different process when Paris wrote your Rebirth of a Nation album?
Chuck D: It was kind of different, but he kind of wrote in a way that was reminiscent of earlier work that I’ve done. He had great substance in the writing of the words and when he did the flow, he based it off of what I did before. He laid a guide vocal—it’s really a total science how he put it together, he’s almost like a scientist slash musician.
How to Rap: With ‘Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos’, did you have the story planned out before, or did you do it as you went along?
Chuck D: I did it as I went along. I mean, sometimes I’ll write out an idea and then put it into some kind of poetic flow.
How to Rap: Do you memorize the lyrics before recording them?
Chuck D: Sometimes I do—it would be a great help if you do have it memorized because you can play around with it more. Certain things that I do have memorized, I can come up with a lot of different inflections that I wouldn’t necessarily come up with reading. Though reading it and going through it a few dozen takes makes me really get it down.
How to Rap: Do you decide where you’re going to breathe in the track, so that you don’t run out of breath?
Chuck D: That would come in the writing. When you’re writing the words you know what’s an impossibility and what’s a possibility, so if you’ve got to breathe wherever and you’ve got words running into each other, you possibly can’t take that breath anyway.
How to Rap: Do you think it’s very important to have a distinct voice?
Chuck D: I do, but I can only talk for myself because I do—if you have a distinct voice and vocal style it really doesn’t matter what language you speak in, you’ll command attention. I only know English, but let’s say I go to a part of Spain where they only know Spanish, the flow and the vocal style is gonna take precedence.
How to Rap: Can someone who doesn’t have a good voice get by if they’re a really good writer?
Chuck D: They can become a great writer, and performance-wise they can even become a great performer, but it might take that much more work to actually get a point across than somebody with just a great voice.
How to Rap: Do you ever do punch-ins when you’re recording?
Chuck D: I don’t like to punch-in, I like to do it in one take. I usually go back up to the top and come all the way back down to the bottom. I’m known as the person of a hundred takes, so I really don’t like to punch-in. With the amount of inflections I put into a rhyme, it definitely sounds like it’s consistent [in one take].
How to Rap: What do you think makes a good live performance?
Chuck D: Projection, conviction, belief in what you’re saying, confidence. [The best performance is] if you’re talking to a crowd of non-believers and at the end of your musical statement you have them understanding what you’re trying to say.
How to Rap: What do you think of today’s emcees compared to older emcees?
Chuck D: I think today’s emcees are more trying to figure out how to be similar and I think the older emcees always tried to figure out how to be different from each other.