Let the Rhythm Hit Em: A Look at the Musical Notation of Rap

Joshua Lerner is dropping knowledge like Galileo dropped the orange. “I try to start off with sixteen dots on the paper.” This is how Rakim explains his process of writing to Ice-T in Something...
By    April 9, 2013

Joshua Lerner is dropping knowledge like Galileo dropped the orange.

“I try to start off with sixteen dots on the paper.” This is how Rakim explains his process of writing to Ice-T in Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap. He continues. “If it’s a sixteen bar rhyme then at least I know what I’m dealing with. I see, like, a graph in between them four bars. And within that I could place so many words and so many syllables.” Ice-T just laughs and shakes his head. “Even though you explained it,” he responds, “n**** can’t do it.”

Around the time that Ice-T was getting his mind blown on tape, NYU Law student and rap devotee Charlie Hely was committing his first set of so-called “hip hop transcriptions” to graph paper. His process is quite simple. Using only square-centimeter paper, a ruler, and a pen, Hely takes snippets of rap lyrics and writes a close approximation of what would be their musical and rhythmic notation. The result is not only a quirky visual snapshot of excellent lyricism. These transcriptions are, in a loose way, miniature lessons in the use of rhythm in over three decades’ worth of hip-hop lyrics.

For those new to music notation, let’s keep it simple. Basically, hip hop songs are almost invariably written with bars that can be subdivided into four even beats. Those beats can then be evenly divided into smaller fractions of time, allowing a rapper to squeeze two or even four words or syllables in the time it takes one beat to pass. How and when words and phrases fall among those beats is what defines the overall rhythm of a line or a whole verse.

Looking at some simple graph paper transcriptions can help even the casual listener start seeing trends among how MCs line up their bars. Take AZ’s verse on “Life’s A Bitch.” It’s the kind of verse that makes you screw up your face every time you hear it. The kind of verse that makes you stop the song early just to repeat it and hear it again. But it wasn’t until I looked at the transcription that I noticed something interesting. Look at how those vertical lines in the top row all line up with the blue lines of the graph paper. That’s because AZ has deftly subdivided every syllable of every word into equally timed fractions of the beat.

 Now inspect “Figaro” for an example of some more abstracted shit. One of the first things that struck me about DOOM when I first heard him was how he could bend words in and out of time with the beat. Looking at this transcription, you can see that when DOOM rhymes “a shot a Jack” with “it’s not a act,” it actually appears that he’s subdividing a beat into five—not four—spaces, leaving that first of five spaces open, and then cramming four syllables into the remaining time of the beat. This actually provides some logic as to why DOOM’s verses sometimes sound like he’s speeding up or slowing down “behind the beat”—as musicians might call it. (On that tip, next challenge: Lord Quas.)

Even as a casual listener and observer (and only an amateur transcriber), I’ve looked to this site for help in understanding how rappers like AZ and DOOM line up their rhythms. There’s a lot more on the site, too. Everything from Ghostface to MC Shan, as well as the drum pattern for Clipse’s “Grindin’” produced by the Neptunes. But looking at these transcriptions has also helped me think more deeply about how someone like Kendrick Lamar has such a unique delivery on so many of his tracks. What I mean is, rhythmically, why does no one else sound like him? And I think I found an answer. Kendrick loves him some triplets.

Musically speaking, triplets are the equal grouping of three words or syllables—instead of two or four—into the space of a beat. In songs that are built around groups of four, triplets provide some off-kilter syncopation when sparingly sandwiched between evenly spaced groups of two or four beats. This is the trick that Jay-Z employs when he raps that he’s “fleein’ the murder scene” at the 0:32 mark of “Hard Knock Life.”

More than any other MC I’ve heard, Kendrick Lamar uses triplets extensively to fill entire expanses of verse. If you’ve ever wondered why his second verse on “Swimming Pools” sounds so hypnotic, almost as if his words are galloping on top of that straight hi-hat beat, it’s all because of those syllables falling in evenly placed groups of three for each beat. It’s also triplets that fill the first verse of “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe” and then return in the mantra, “I’ma break out and then hide every lock.” And, just to complete the trifecta, Lamar raps in all threes for almost a full minute on A$AP Rocky’s “1Train”—a posse cut so deep with talented new voices that it gives “Scenario” a run for its money. Still, with all the talent, it’s Kendrick’s unique use of rhythm that sets his verse apart from the crew.

 Now, it’s not right to complicate all this by fitting every word from every verse into musical notation and terminology. Hely himself admits there’s no perfect way to transcribe on paper the rhythms that many MCs put into their verses. Hip-hop was born in the parks, not within the classroom walls of Western Music Theory 101. Nonetheless, there’s something interesting, even educational, in these transcriptions, even if it’s only helping a music nerd figure out what makes Kendrick stand apart. Fingers crossed Hely takes a stab at some of those triplets.

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