how to write a rap song

How To Write A Rap Song

Here we explain how to write a rap song.  Writing a rap song can change your life, so you may want to try it.  You might not get rich from doing it, but it can be a creative outlet unlike any other.

What is Rap Music (and when did it start)?

Rap music essentially is words spoken rhythmically over a beat, usually a drum loop of some kind like an 808.

Initially a domain exclusively belonging tо African-Americans in New York in the mid to late 1970’s (which part of NY can still find debate), rap has long since gained worldwide popularity, with people from all over the world giving rap a try. 

Doesn’t matter what age, what nationality, or language you are.  Anyone with rhythm can theoretically rap.

The best rap, in my opinion, should contain an undeniable blend оf poetry and motivation. Thе legendary rapper Tupac Shakur (aka 2Pac) considered himself more оf а poet than а rapper, I believe he once said, because his words could stand on their own as both a story and a poem. 

Here’s one of Tupac’s poems called “Where there is a will”:

Where there is a will

there is a will

to search and discover

a better day

Where a positive heart

is all you need

to rise beyond

and succeed

Where young minds grow

and respect each other

based on their deeds

and not their color

when times are dim

say as I say

“Where there’s a will

there’s a way!” – Tupac Shakur

Before we get into how YOU can write a rap song, let’s have a listen to one of his most famous recorded rap songs, the classic “Ambitionz Az A Ridah”.  And get your pen and paper ready, ’cause soon you should start taking some notes.  

There is a reason that Tupac is considered one of the best of all time.  His flow is amazing, his imagery is creative, his cadence is a great blend of being authoritative and laid back at one time.  With “murderous lyrics”, Tupac dominates yet another track.  Explore his catalogue if you haven’t already, when you have time.    

Now, if you are looking into rap, and want to do your own thing, though…then let’s get into how that can be done.


The Words and The Beat

Rapping has two main aspects: the words and the beat.

For the beat, you’re gonna need one, just like LL Cool J once rapped.  For this, you can either create one digitally, or simply find one online and play it and try to rap over it.  Or you can beatbox…actually, get someone else to beatbox, so you can do the rapping.  One way or another, you need a beat to rap to.

Ever heard of an 808?  It’s a classic drum machine that produced some of hip hops most legendary tracks.  

Here’s a video showing an 808 in action, recreating, in fact, Boyz in da Hood by Easy E of N.W.A.  With a beat like this going, you may even want to throw down your own flow over top just to see what happens.

Next, we have the whole song so you can hear now what was done with it, if you haven’t heard this song already (it’s a classic).

Once you’ve got a beat, you can think about the words to go with that beat / over it.  Sometimes, the beat you use will inspire the words, and other times, the words are something you’ll have to think about separate from the beat, and then try to graft onto the beat.

It depends how you want to do it.  In any case, you’re going to need to come up with some words.  This probably means writing something down somewhere, either on a notepad, your phone, your computer, or a napkin.  

Or, you can improv the words over the beat, aka freestyling, which will teach you the art of improvising, which is a skill unto itself used in many rap battles. Watch these two guys rap battle and then try to figure out what makes people call them some of the worst rap battlers ever.  

No offence to these guys, because at least they’re trying, but this just goes to show that freestyling is a skill that some people really have to practice to get good at.  Add to that the pressure that you’re battling someone, and you can cave in under the pressure.  Not everyone has it in them to just automatically know how to do it from the get go.

Now watch his guy (Ashtin Larold) smack up his opponent with what appears to be some off the cuff remarks that has the crowd in awe.

Keep in mind, freestyling is just one element of rap and most rap songs don’t really employ freestyle into the song structure too much.  Rather, the raps you hear in rap songs are carefully crafted.  

That said, you’ll be a better rapper in general if you learn to freestyle.


How are rap songs structured?

How should a rap song “go”? 

Well, most songs, in general, are structured like this: verse 1, chorus, verse 2, chorus, breakdown or bridge, chorus, and an outro, which is sometimes also known as a “coda”. 

To quickly break down what each of these song structures are, let me fill you in if you don’t know.

The intro: Often, in pop or rap songs, the intro may not have vocals or words in it.  It’s just a brief musical section to lead up to the verse.  It can even be the same music as the verse.  Anyway, it doesn’t usually last long and then the verse starts.  

The verse: In a story, it would be called the “exposition”, where characters or ideas get introduced to the reader, or in this case, the listener. Whatever the song is going to be about, the verse starts to explain it.  Essentially, it’s the reason for the song itself.    

The chorus: The actual word “chorus” means “choral”, as in choir, as in lots of people singing the same thing.  In a pop song, or rap song, it’s essentially the catchy hook of the song that everyone is theoretically going to remember, or want to sing along with.

The bridge:  That’s basically part “C” of a song, so that it’s not just 2 parts.  This gives the song variety, and it’s sometimes called the “middle eight”.  It’s a short detour to break the song up, basically.

The outro: This is the part of the song that takes you out of the song.  The outro is an additional part of the song that is the opposite of the intro.  Generally, in my experience, I hear a lot of intros, but less outros as they are more uncommon.  

Here is a chart showing 5 different types of song structures you can tap into.  

typical song structures

Other popular schemes for writing a song have 2 verses before each chorus, while still others keep the second of the two verses the same each time. 

The chorus, by design, should be very catchy.  And so should the intro, for that matter, since it’s the very first thing the listener hears.

If the opening refrain sounds boring and doesn’t really grab the listener, no one will make it to anything comes later because you didn’t have them at “hello”, so to speak.

guy listening to music with headphones

Take a listen to this track by Big Boi (of Outkast fame), called Shine Blockas.  The song starts with the intro, then the first verse where Big Boi raps, then a chorus, then a second verse where Gucci raps, then another chorus, then a breakdown, then a variation of the chorus where he raps it like a verse, then another chorus, then the outro.

Just keep these various parts of the song in mind when you listen, and this way, when you write your own song, you can be a lot more systematic about it.  This can be good because this way if you’re more of a technical person, rather than the “artsy” type of person, you can treat the song more like a “project” that you can tackle piece by piece.

How to approach lyrics

We’ve discussed the fact that you’ll need a beat, and words, and how you may also want to try some freestyling, just to see how that goes.  We also discussed how the structure of the song can go, if you’re trying to emulate some of the more popular forms of rap song or pop song.

But writing the actual lyrics to a rap song can be a big stumbling block for a lot of potential rappers.

Luckily, there’s a philosophy out there that can apply to anything and make things way easier – keep it simple!

If you keep the overall topic for your song simple, you can get a song started faster.  You might think this is possibly a bad idea, because if it’s too simple, it might sound stupid. 

You can’t just expect to rhyme a bunch of words about your dog and they’re going to be amazing, ie. “My dog Rex ate my leftover tex-mex, so I flexed my pecs and ejected him!”  I just made that up and it’s kind of dumb, but that’s ok.

weird dog picMaybe rapping about your dog isn’t the best topic, but it’s also not the worst topic.  Any topic is fair game, really.  If it inspires you to write something, don’t ignore it.  

Rhyming is also a huge part of rapping, and it helps to connect the words in a way that is memorable.  Luckily, lots of words rhyme, so you kind of just have to start writing, and rhyming words will probably come to mind.  

But what words to you rhyme in a sentence?  Probably not words like “a”, “and”, and “the”.  These words are not the subject of a sentence, they just help glue the sentence together, and so it’s weird to try to rhyme them in a song.  Generally, the words you want to rhyme are the “important” words in a sentence.  

Just remember that certain words are less easy to rhyme than others.  Say you use the word “apartment” in a sentence, it’s tricky to rhyme that word with something, unless it’s “compartment”, or “department”.  If you say “cat”, you’ve got more options – “bat”, “rat”, “fat”, “gat”, “gnat”, “brat”.  So you can go like this: “My cat was being a brat, so I grabbed my gat and then SPLAT!”  

You may also notice that lyrics like that, even if they’re ridiculous, mainly exist because of the rhyming words.  Like, I didn’t kill my cat with my cat.  The words just rhymed.  But a lot of rappers do that.  They rhyme words and it ends up creating a story.

Check out this song by Kool Keith called The Girls Don’t Like The Job, for an example of some creative rhyming and basically making up stories out of thin air.  Listen for the way he uses rhymes.

Listening to songs like this should show you that rules are meant to be broken.  

Weird rhymes can really make a song interesting, but if your rhymes don’t rhyme at all, then they’re not really rhymes, and it becomes more like a poem than a rap song. 

Rap songs can get pretty weird, but they can also be pretty straightforward too.  You don’t want to write a rap song that isn’t about anything and just rhymes random words, because it will end up sounding like that.  

First and foremost, you have to have something you want to say.  Then you find the language to say it.

Take a listen to One Times Got No Case by Sir Mix-A-Lot, which uses some interesting language.

What inspires you?

Songwriting is an art form, so you have the choice to take it seriously, or play around with it.  Just don’t take it too seriously, or you might put too much pressure on yourself and get writers’ block.  If something comes to your mind, jot it down.  That could be the beginning of your future hit, who knows?

If you’ve never done this before, try thinking about something that has happened to you recently which sticks out.  It can literally be anything.  Someone you met, something that happened, something that bothered you, or something you liked. 

If you have some ideas brewing, try to think of them like you’re telling a story, because a lot of great rap is simply stories.  Nas.  Tupac.  Biggie.  All storytellers.  They aren’t usually just putting words together for no reason, the greats are almost always trying to convey a story and get a point across.

And don’t think you have to slave over your lyrics endlessly.  Sometimes the first thing that comes to your mind can work, although some rappers are notorious editors and really polish things up a lot. 

Check out this song by the Beastie Boys, which contains what sound like a bunch of ad libs.  What’s an ad lib?  It’s where you record some vocal thing off the cuff, and leave it in there because you like it.  It’s not pre-planned, but it sounds good. 

Basically, they had Q-Tip in the studio, and they decided to basically lay down a track while he was there.  Turned out great.  Not to say the track isn’t well produced, because it is, but it has an element of fun that you can only get from messing around with your friends.   

Using samples in your track

This Beastie Boys song brings up another thing to think about – using samples!  

This is another tool in your toolbox for making a rap song, and I’d say it’s more “advanced”, because you are going beyond just rapping now. 

Samples, as you may know, is when you take other recorded material and fit it into your own song, to add some extra flavour to your track.

Some samples use a musical element from one song and it can feature heavily in the resulting track, even becoming the main hook, although it may not have been the main hook in the original song it was taken from. 

Other samples are used differently, as in used here and there for comedic effect, or to make a point of some kind.  

The above song I shared earlier, “Get It Together”, uses a sample from a song by Eugene McDaniels called “Headless Heroes”.  It’s from a different era than the Beastie Boys song, and it’s a different genre (ie. angry folk funk).

Listen to the original song and see how the Beasties used the song in their own song to make something new.

Speaking of the Beastie Boys and samples, the Beastie Boys album, Paul’s Boutique, is often said to have the most samples used of any album ever.  

At the time, the Beastie Boys didn’t seem to think they’d get sued, and so they used maybe 100 samples by various artists to piece together an album which was later hailed a masterpiece.

This isn’t something you’ll probably do if you’re just getting into rap, since it’s more of something that DJ’s do to spice up their set, by throwing in crazy obscure samples.

When a DJ uses a bunch of samples in their live set, they aren’t going to get sued, but when you take those samples and put them on your actual album, it’s a different story, because now you’re officially making money off of other peoples’ work.

Check out this Beastie Boys track to hear how they use a whole lot of samples to make the track cool.

(W)Rapping Up

To finish up, to be a rapper, you need to always have a beat handy, some words ready to spit, maybe a notebook or 2 full of ideas for when you might lay down a track.

Carry that pen and paper in your bag with you throughout the day.  You can also do this with your phone, like we said, but the greats all did it with pen and paper, or using a notebook, or on a napkin, so that’s what we recommend.  

You just never know when lyrics are going to come to your mind, and you want to be ready to write them down.  You wouldn’t want to miss out on those seemingly insignificant eureka moments. 

Somebody like Eminem, considered one of the best of all time, is always writing stuff down.  Maybe you should to.

Anyway, good luck with writing your first rap song.  If you have a link, once it makes it online, please share it in the comments below!

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