Now, this is a story all about how I cautiously tried and miserably failed with rap music throughout the years. I never strived to become a full-time musician, but I sure as hell collected a shitload of lessons as I dipped into the craft.
This is what I learned.
BE FUCKING CONSISTENT
Hands down, the best rap advice anyone could ever give you is to be consistent. Whether you like it or not, we reside in the information era. We’re at the peak of consumerism. But you know that already.
Dropped an album today? Give it a week before people start asking when your next song is out. That is, if there are people who are interested enough to care (or if the YouTube gods bless you with some miraculous specks of exposure against their wrathful algorithm).
Although old school heads could argue for ages about the ephemerality of music these days – and often rightfully so –, the truth is that you have two choices.
Adapt or die.
Focus on creating and releasing content as often as you can.
I’ve never been able to keep a steady flow of new music – hence my failed rapper moniker –, but nor have I ever particularly aimed to. However, I’ve studied the impact that laser-focused discipline and consistency can have on a creative’s career.
Take a look at online content creators, for example. They set, announce, and religiously follow their upload schedule to keep giving their supporters reasons to, well, support them. It’s basic logic. Supply to meet demand.
If you really want to do this music thing and make it a full-time job, make perseverance your middle name.
HAVE THE BALLS TO TAKE OPPORTUNITIES
Anxiety is a bitch. Nah, scratch that. She’s some sort of otherworldly supreme matron who makes you her bitch. Whip and all.
As someone who has chickened out of multiple life-changing opportunities, trust me that I know what it feels like to be scared shitless in the face of one.
I’ve sat in a conference room with the head of a major label welcoming me into the royal music business family with open arms.
One of the coolest, chart-topping labels was willing to give me – a nobody – the chance to make the music I wanted and share it with a massive audience. Creative freedom, no compromises, and a phenomenal team to work with.
And I still hate myself for it.
I backed out whimpering, as if I were a dog that had just been hit by a semi-truck instead of a where-the-hell-have-you-been-hiding wannabe musician who had just been presented with the opportunity of a lifetime.
After mutually agreeing that I would return to their studios a week or two later with some fresh ideas, I almost instantly slid into another year-long affair with my old side chicks – anxiety and depression. But that’s a story for another time.
The point is – if you don’t grab the handle when the door creaks open, you can’t expect the Universe to keep shoving you into hallways full of them. Once it’s gone, it’s gone.
If you’re #blessed enough to be served with opportunities on a silver platter, don’t take them for granted, no matter how intimidating they may seem.
NETWORK LIKE YOUR LIFE DEPENDS ON IT
Introvert or otherwise, you need to leap out of your comfort zone to make connections. Online and offline.
I know. It sucks. But if it didn’t, we’d all be raking in those Old-Town-Road racks.
Start using social media the smart way.
Instead of mindlessly scrolling through your feeds, follow and friend request key players in your local industry. Managers, booking agents, label heads – basically anyone who deals with marketing hip hop artists.
Go so far as to stalk big-name rappers and singers you would never dream of collabing with.
You’d be astonished to see how the most ridiculously eye-opening opportunities arise when you slide into the DMs with a clear vision, purpose, and the work to back it up.
Befriend the blogs. Interact with editors from hip hop promotion sites. Although the current influence of rap blogs is debatable, you never know when a feature can be the spark for your blow up.
Get your socially anxious ass out of your home studio and into all the relevant parties in your local industry. Drink a shot (or two, if you’re a veteran binge-drinker like me) and work up the courage to introduce yourself.
However disheartening it may sound, you are who you know.
It’s just the way things work, especially in the music business.
I’ll say it louder for the people in the back who didn’t catch it the first time around – adapt or die.
READ, WRITE, AND READ AGAIN (C’MON)
I never thought I’d have to advise people who work with words to read and write consistently. Well, that all changed when I got into Journalism school and witnessed in disbelief how an alarming amount of my classmates didn’t really know what this grammar thing was all about. But I digress.
Before you even think about attempting to master rap writing techniques, make sure you have a decent vocabulary to begin with. The most prolific lyricists succeed in effortlessly spitting those mind-boggling bars because they write, read, and repeat on the daily.
I know, shocking, right?
Still, be honest with yourself. When was the last time you read a book? And not the ones you’re supposed to read for school.
If you just finished one and you’re on the verge of diving into another, then kudos to you. But if you can’t even remember when you last read something other than an IG caption, Twitter rant, or toxic YouTube comment section, then you need to start questioning your priorities.
You may not require the richest vocabulary to mumble about all the money, cars, and bitches you actually don’t have.
But if you want to push your creative limits, put out records that you won’t be embarrassed of a few years from now, a hot body, a Bugatti, a Maserati – you better work, bitch.
Want some real advice on writing rap lyrics? Devour as many books as you can, write until your fingers hurt, and do it all over again the next day.
Real GOATs don’t pop bottles every night.
They enter total lockdown.
Then, they drop the albums that you listen to obsessively.
LISTEN TO ALL GENRES (EVEN THE ONES YOU DESPISE)
“I only listen to rap. Pop? Ew. House? Ugh, hipsters. Wtf, manele? Are you serious?”
Of course I’m damn serious. What’s wrong with you. Your favorite rappers draw influence from genres you might not have even heard of.
Be curious. Immerse yourself in wildly different music styles, even if your initial reaction is to reject them. The more diverse, the better.
You don’t have to like them. You just have to absorb and analyze them.
And as far as rap advice goes, you really shouldn’t focus on listening to that much rap in the first place, especially if you’re in album mode.
Obviously, you need to stay connected to the industry and everything that comes out. But if the only albums you listen to are on the Hot Rap Songs chart, you’ll end up sounding exactly like every other “up and coming” rapper scrambling his way up the SoundCloud cliff.
The same goes for classic records. Naturally, you have to study the greats to appreciate the tremendous art that is timeless lyricism.
However, if Illmatic, Enter the Wu-Tang, or All Eyez on Me are the only albums on your phone, I respectfully advise you to step out of your time capsule.
It’s for your own good.
BRAND THE F OUT OF YOURSELF
If you’re wondering how to promote yourself as a rapper from the get-go, you’re asking yourself the wrong question.
Your real focus should first be how to brand yourself as a rapper. At least that’s what I strongly recommend.
But hey, who am I to tell you what to concentrate on. After all, these are lessons from a failed rapper.
In any case, having a solid brand will only bring you benefits in the long run. If you create a strong identity, your career is prepped to excel on all levels.
Nevertheless, learning how to brand yourself as a rapper goes beyond having a dope name, fire logo, or signature adlibs (Migos beat you to that anyway).
You need to have an a e s t h e t i c.
Tumblr jokes aside, you should be a whole ass vibe, from beginning to end. Your cover artworks, your IG feed, your beats and post-production, your music videos, your fits – every last detail has to tie into your brand.
In no way does this mean that you have to create a persona that goes against who you really are. Quite the contrary, we all know by now that authenticity is mandatory if you don’t want to be another victim of cancel culture.
Instead, you should focus on building your brand in alignment with your intrinsic qualities.
In other words, take everything that you truly fuck with and find a way to make it all coherent. Be as specific as possible, even if that means showcasing your unapologetically dorky self.
That’s how cult fan bases form. The drama club goths and anime geeks of yesteryear are the cool, weird, and relatable artists kids fuck with today.
All in all, you have to blend the audio and visual components of your craft until they reach Jay & Bey level of couple goals.
EXPERIMENT, EXPERIMENT, EXPERIMENT
Even though I fail horribly at this music thing, there’s one area that I can confidently say I’m familiar with – experimentation. So much so that I’ve never been able to create a style for myself, musically speaking.
I’ll drop a grime track today, a dubstep collab tomorrow, and a bilingual electro-ish? tune the next. These days, you’ll find a shit ton of emo pop punk WIP voice messages on my phone. Yes, I’m even more random than your YouTube home page.
While not establishing yourself as an artist in a specific genre may not be the smartest move, all established artists will tell you that experimenting is essential.
Besides, nowadays we’ve been smashing the boundaries between genres more than ever before (shouts to Post Malone & co.). Even the greats have consistently challenged and transcended musical borders, like DJ Premier & The Berklee Symphony.
Some of your most brilliant pieces of work can spring out of bending the rules until they break.
And you’ll never know where inspiration is hiding if you don’t risk the potential failure that comes with searching for it.
STUDY THE CULTURE
Rap pales in comparison to the greater culture that it’s part of. Hip hop is so rich in its complexity that you’ll never run out of resources and study materials. But you need to honor the culture that made what you’re doing possible in the first place.
To my shame, it took me about a year or two after I began making music to start reading about the origins of hip hop, watching lectures and documentaries, and learning about the elements.
However, when I started, I couldn’t stop. I’ve become equally passionate about breakin’, graffiti, and dj-ing as I am about music, and studying the elements has expanded my horizons tenfold.
Sure, you can make it in the game without a degree’s worth of hip hop education. But knowledge is the fifth element of the culture, and you wouldn’t know that without deep-diving into the foundation.
BE FUCKING CONSISTENT – AGAIN (AND AGAIN, AND AGAIN)
When all is said and done, the main reason I’ve failed with music is my complete and utter lack of consistency. The rest is just details.
No matter how frustrating the current consumer climate is, you have to push through with regular and preferably high-quality projects. Otherwise, you’ll be mourning what could have been a multi-album legacy of your soul poured onto beats and into the souls of others.
Oh, and there’s one last tip.
Don’t take rap advice from rappers.
Do whatever the fuck you want.
And have fun doing it.
Hip Hop Elements is a series dedicated to the culture that has shaped my identity and its art forms. If my light-hearted take on my rocky music journey spoke to you, help others avoid my stupid mistakes. Share this story with someone who needs to read it.