How to Rap 2: Advanced Flow and Delivery Techniques (book excerpt) Lyrics

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Chapter 1: Advanced Rhythm Techniques

Schoolly D: One way I developed is I don’t write lyrics, I use sounds instead of words. As long as you’ve got the feeling and as long as you have the rhythm then, in the end, I add words. I come up with the flow first.

Rhythm is a very, very important part of being an MC, yet it is often overlooked in favor of concentrating on the content and rhyme schemes. Not spending enough time on rhythm often results in work that looks great on paper and has clever lines in it but doesn’t actually sound as good as the work of more rhythmically proficient MCs—MCs who can really sink into a beat and use a wide range of rhythmic techniques to entertain the listener.

Rhythm is perhaps the only element of MCing that is totally indispensable. If you have great rhythm, you can still be considered to be rapping, even with basic content and rhymes and an unremarkable voice. But an MC with no rhythm and no ability to stay on beat can’t really be considered an MC, even with great content, rhymes, and voice.

Evidence, Dilated Peoples: I would say ultimately, the flow is more important in rap music than the message. And that sounds disgusting and sh*tty and shallow to say, but I’m going to take a stand and say it. Because I don’t care how good , if I can’t feel the way you’re saying it, then you should find a different means to translate that message. That’s my personal opinion. I mean, think about it—what if a singer had the greatest message but couldn’t hit a f**king note? It just doesn’t make sense. It’s sad to say that “yeah, you have this great message, but no, I don’t want to hear you,” but it’s sad but true.

Omar Cruz: can be saying some phenomenal sh*t, telling people the secrets to life, but if on the song it’s not in the pocket, it’s not there, people are gonna be like, “This is wack, this is garbage.” I mean, you’ve heard bad rappers before—you don’t care what they’ll say, you just go on to the next song, they can be saying some beautiful sh*t.

If there is a choice between very clever content on the one hand and staying on time and being properly in the pocket on the other, then staying in the pocket and having great rhythm usually wins out.

Crooked I: I’ve sacrificed a lot of ingenious metaphors because it wouldn’t have fit precisely on the beat how I wanted it to.

Mighty Casey: There’s definitely times when I thought of a really clever punch line, but it just didn’t work . So sometimes you have to sacrifice some cleverness on paper for the eventual goal of music and the sound and being pleasing to the ear.

Being on the beat and being able to do interesting things with the rhythm is arguably even more important to sounding good on a track than having a good voice .

Evidence, Dilated Peoples: Would you rather hear someone with a good voice and a bad pocket or someone with a weak voice and good pocket? Rhythm is more important—the pocket.

Vocal Percussion

A lot of the rhythmic techniques in rapping are closer to percussion and drumming than they are to traditional poetic techniques. Although rapping uses a lot of poetic techniques in its content and in some of its rhyme techniques, rhythmically it’s very similar to percussion.
Shock G, Digital Underground: I hear and remember the word positions like percussion parts in my head.

Del the Funky Homosapien: I could write out my lyrics like a drum pattern, because I know how to write drum notation, basically. Not gonna say I’m the best, but I could write out a drumbeat if I wanted to, like “Funky Drummer” I could write out on a piece of paper.

This is because rapping almost always has to keep to and maintain a strong beat, unlike poetry, which is often only on the page and can be read in different ways. Therefore, most of the terms in this section come from percussion and drumming rather than poetry a***ysis. As Mighty Casey says, “Your voice is like a drumbeat on the beat, so every syllable is like a different drum sound.”

E-40: I always have been into music. I was in the marching band from the fourth grade all the way to the 12th grade, see, and I played the drums. I was in the percussion, in the drum line, so that’s what my thing was, so that’s how I did it.

Tech N9ne: Having the rhythm to being able to stay on beat, it made me sort of like a percussionist. I always wanted to play drums, so if you listen to my flow it’s like I’m beating on bongos or something.

Thes One, People Under the Stairs: One approach to is to approach it like a producer and hear a rhythm over the beat. Like if we were to add another layer of percussion over this, what would it sound like? And then try to model the rhyme pattern after that.

Writing from the Rhythm

As rhythm is such a key element to making a song sound great, the rhythm is actually where the lyrics begin for many artists—the rhythm is the first thing they come up with, before they even have words for the song. This is touched on in the first How to Rap , but it bears repeating. Coming up with the rhythm first and making that the initial focus is often the key difference between MCs with advanced flows and those without.

Tech N9ne: I come up with styles first sometimes. I might say I wanna sound like a ping-pong ball on this one, so I’ll put words to it.

Masta Ace: What I do, I’ll play the beat and I’ll start mumbling words, a flow to that beat. And the words don’t make any sense, they just sound like gibberish, but what I’m trying to formulate is how the rhymes that I’m gonna create are gonna flow into that beat. So the beat comes on, and I just start kinda mumbling, and once I get the bounce of how I wanna rhyme, then I start to turn those mumbles into actual words.

Thes One, People Under the Stairs: Now when I sit and hear a beat, I usually flow some nonsense over it until I find some pattern or groove that I really like and then I’ll actually put words . So in a sense I’m getting a syllabic count and I’m getting the pauses and I’m getting that all together in my head and then I actually fit words into it.

Lord Jamar, Brand Nubian: You might just do a flow before you even write the rhyme sometimes, just to test the flow out, and it’s meaningless , you’re not even really saying anything.

T3, Slum Village: My method is usually I go into the booth and I come up with a pattern first, or flow. Once I got a flow and I already got the concept, then I match words to the flow.
Focusing on the flow first and coming up with the rhythms before the content means you’re putting a lot of thought into and emphasis on how the song will sound, rather than what it will mean. This is why a lot of MCs start with the rhythm—they want to get the song to sound great before they even begin to come up with a theme or idea for the content.

Stat Quo: You can have great subject matter, but if you don’t have a nice flow, people are not gonna want to hear it. Flow is good for the ear—it’s something that makes the ear like, “Oh, what is that?” Then when you get the ear, you can put something in there.

K-Os: As a youth, subject matter , but then I’d start doing things like as soon as I got a beat, I’d record, I’d just scat over it. The words wouldn’t really mean anything, I’d just get the flow down and then I’d start to figure out my lyrics from the flow, because people respond to that right away. Sometimes I’d wanna know my exact physical response to a beat without worrying about what I’m gonna rap about.

Devin the Dude: When you develop your flow, even if your subject matter isn’t always right there where everybody can understand what it is, or it really doesn’t make sense—if your flow is tight, you’ll eventually come up with some sort of cool subject matter.

Of course, knowing many different rhythmic techniques helps immensely with this method of starting with the flow, as you have a lot of different rhythmic building blocks to create your flows. Rhythm is also closely linked to enunciation—if you can’t say individual syllables clearly, it is very hard to put them precisely in time to the music.


The most common types of rapped rhythms are created by dividing each bar up into 16 segments—we can call these segments 16ths.
The following diagram illustrates how the main four beats of each bar can be shown along the top of a flow diagram, with each of those four quarters of the bar split into four more parts, to create 16ths.