Sunday, February 17, 2008


I began consciously vocalizing in the frantic conversational style I call "scatterapping" on Dark Age (mainly in the song 90 East, but also a bit in Lemon and others), and have since employed it on a few other projects. My process for writing lyrics in that manner has evolved quite a bit from Dark Age to Grace Land, to A Bullet, A Lever, A Key.

In 90 East, the song-writing process was basically this: I wrote this "poem" (cut together from tour journal entries) and I produced this beat (originally for use by Sage Francis, who didn't use it), and then I made them work together. I literally just said those lines over the beat over and over until their syllabic rhythms come out - chop a line here and there, but generally let the syllables find a home themselves. [It's important to note, that once they'd settled, they were indeed locked into patterns. I can do any of these scatterapped songs the same way every time - every syllable is on a legitimate subdivision of the beat i.e. they could be written out as drum patterns on staff paper. The reason I stress this is because I get the sense that some listeners think I'm just talking over the music a-rhythmically, occasionally falling into a couplet pattern (accidentally, perhaps). And that's how some people perceive jazz drumming: just sort of beeping and bopping in no particular time with drags and flams until the drummer just happens to hit the cymbals when the song ends or something. I think that assumption greatly discounts the prospective musician's knowledge of rhythm.]

Before Grace Land, there was a track I did for the soon to be released Stateless / GavCaz EP that employed a much more polished version of scatterapping than 90 East. I had been listening to A Grand Don't Come For Free (by The Streets) which I consider to be one of the greatest narrative "hip hop" records of all time and a big inspiration for Grace Land. Since Stateless had already arranged this lush instrumental backdrop (a remix of their hit song Exit), I opted to graft my lyrics exactly to it, as far as song structure/story arc and rhythms were concerned. I wrote the lyrics for that song in three stages: the first stage (the Story Arc Stage, we'll call it) was writing out exactly what I wanted to say in the most colloquial voice, and breaking up the story into sections that fit the pre-determined sequencing. The second stage (the Rhyme Stage) was sifting through those lines and locating the potential internal rhymes, as well as swapping out words or phrases for those that could add to the rhyme pool or possible alliteration patterns without sounding unnatural to me. The final stage (the Rhythm Stage) was the cutting/adding/swapping of lyrics in order to position those rhyming syllables on optimal beats and subdivisions (in this case most often the ending of couplet lines, as is standard in hip hop lyricism and what I assumed would feel most recognizable for hip hop fans).

With Grace Land, I was able to shape the music throughout the lyrical process, so instrumental backdrops were a bit more symbiotic than in the Exit remix and 90 East, but mostly in respect to the mood. Cyrus and I discussed each song's content and mood, and then I would go off and arrange an instrumentation and chord progression to match it while he was condensing hours of Gary interviews into coherent blocks. That was our first stage in the three stage process from the Exit remix, but quite different in that Cyrus was providing the lyrics, and I was much less liberal with the other two stages. My additions and subtractions were very minimal. I focused most on the third stage, the rhythm application, and even that stage I worked in far more clustered and unconventional patterns than the Exit remix (that being the case, it's not surprising to me that many people find Grace Land to be a hard listen). Any "reaction" from the music to the lyrical rhythms was done post vocal tracking. There were a few cases where we brought the lyrics and the music together and they just didn't like each other. One song, in which Gary told the story of how he came to own his parrot, was cut altogether both because it didn't help the story much and because I couldn't color it correctly. Another, The Blues, was given an entirely different backdrop (a slightly different rendition of that in The Press-Ons).

For A Bullet, A Lever, A Key I wanted to simplify and showcase more fluid rhythms (again spending an exorbitant amount of time on step three), so that all the listeners' attention would be given to the story. I also limited the instrumentation to accomplish this - no flutes, no oboes, no kalimba - just guitar, bass, drums, percussion, and occasional keyboards. With the exception of the song 2007, which was originally sketched out for a different project, all of the music was written in conjunction with the lyric writing, so there was constant adjustment on both ends to keep the two complimentary. The result is an album with what I would say is my most intricately married scatterap lyric/music song writing to date.
Regarding ABALAK, I was determined from the outset to work towards a more Hemingway-esque simplicity in the storytelling (which is entirely necessary when trying to fit one's life story into a twenty-minute EP), so most of that first stage was spent selecting little snapshot scenes that would connote a much bigger picture to the listener. While both albums' vocals have that conversational tone to them, the voice of Grace Land is one of many frantic words, where the voice of A Bullet, A Lever, A Key is one of relatively few and well-placed words.

To me scatterapping seemed an obvious next step for hip hop, akin to the move from the really formal "here are my written jokes" delivery of early stand up comics like Rodney Dangerfield (and revived by comics like Mitch Hedberg and Demetri Martin) to the more conversational and naturally segued deliveries of the generation after those earlier dudes. I'm referring to the generation of comics spearheaded by Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor, and then taken much further by the comics of today whose sets sound entirely improvised (David Cross, Dave Chappelle, etc.). I'm saying rap where it's at is Rodney Dangerfield most of the time. "Here are my raps. Hear this line? It rhymes with the next line... because that's the rule. It's a zinger, a real mastery of word play."
What's strange is how frequently wordplay gets confused with poetry. Clever wordplay has little to do with emoting something to the listener and everything to do with trying to impress them. It's the difference between the witty prose orators jousted with in the French courts of the late 1700's and the music that Beethoven was writing at the exact same time over in Germany. One is about impressing people, one is about impressing something upon them. One is about getting something from your audience, the other is about giving something to your audience. One comes from insecurity, the other comes from a strong heart. Personally, I'm interested in the latter, but I'm not trying to comment on the validity of one over the other (only subtly implying it). I'm just trying to point out that they are stark opposites, and when most listeners and even the artists themselves (watch one episode of Def Poetry Jam and you'll see my point) think that "clever wordplay" and "poetry" are interchangeable, it's a clear indicator of how little value and effort is placed on lyricism in the majority of today's music.


bcaL said...

Word to that last paragraph! (no pun in intended)

Popular hiphop it seems will always be intrinsically focused on catchy rhyme schemes since that's what the general listener expects, but I think eventually they'll run out of patterns that sound remotely original and be forced to actually draw on other writing sources besides other hiphop artists. Or not given the fact that every classic song hasn't been sampled at least once. Not that there's anything wrong with that (I really like how Kanye sampled Steely Dan's "Kid Charlemagne" on his new disc), but I think there will inevitably be a change in style/structure, just not for awhile.

As for scatterapping? I'm already a fan! keep those sick narratives comin! :^)

Lorna said...

This was really interesting. Your process of creating is almost scientific, and it sounds like it requires so much precision, like you would rearrange those words with a pair of tweezers.

I liked your last paragraph too, you make some very good points about principles that could be applied to more than just music.

I am an Orchestra said...

I really appreciate this last paragraph because you've articulated the flaws in my early songwriting attempts when I started out almost ten years ago. I noticed that difference between impressing others and impressing emotions upon others in your lyrics right off the bat because its something I work hard to do in my songwriting. I usually hate rap, especially when white people do ti, because of all the false bravado and doo doo lyrics and awkward posturing/gesturing, and I now understand when I actually enjoyed your rapping.