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2023: Notes on a Year of Making Rap Music

My past year in the trenches, summed up in a single sentence: I didn’t get nearly enough done.

I am writing this from the first week of February 2024, a year that I had planned out meticulously back at the beginning of 2023. I still have a ridiculous powerpoint pitch outlining the whole blitzkrieg. The plan was stupid ambitious. I wanted to drop a new project every single month this year. As it stands today, I’m only two singles deep, with no big announcements coming any time soon. So much for meticulous plans.

I have zero regrets, though. The process matters far more than the product ever could, and I am blessed to have total creative freedom in my old age. I am also blessed to be working with extremely talented people that I love & respect. So while I have no need to rush anything for anyone, I do want to hold my hubris accountable.

What follows will be interesting to very few readers. By attempting to complete a dozen albums at once, I’ve been paying close attention to my process and constantly trying to refine my approach to crafting the best songs I can. I hope this is useful to some stranger in the same dubious line of work.

For me, making rap music is fundamentally about writing, constrained by meter. The easiest way to distinguish myself in a crowded field is to write better bars than 99% of my peers do. Note that I’m not saying “could,” because hip hop is full of tremendous talents who have been running on autopilot for a decade straight because they know they don’t have to really try. So they don’t.

It’s a big old world, though, and there’s a lane for pretty much everyone right now. The existence of independent success stories like Ka, Open Mike Eagle, Aesop Rock or Homeboy Sandman make it clear there’s a mass audience for niche artistry on the mic. Legendary talents like The Last Emperor, Shabaam Sahdeeq and Divine Styler are still revered to this day. Based on this evidence, I am confident my product will find fans as long as I’m attaining the same high standards. So, I write, I re-write, and I keep writing.

Since the fall of 2022, I’ve had the following text planted at the top of my massive (currently 52 pages!) “RAP PAD” text document where I have been dumping all my current rhymes for about two years now. I have mostly abided by it, too.

“WIPs” meaning works in progress, currently a far larger body of work than my entire catalog to date. “Lockdowns” meaning hours of singular focus on a song or verse. Rap is performance on a level more demanding and expansive than poetry readings, so practice will always reveal extraneous words or small fixes that hugely improve the final draft. Word Sound Have Power, as the Rastas used to put it. Rap can’t primarily exist on paper, shit has to be live.

The most important asset that I have is truly loving what I do. “Once this stops being fun,” as I often remind myself, “we’re fucked.” I don’t force the funk because I’m old enough to know I can’t. It’s important to have good routines, but nothing will save you more time than recognizing when nothing is going to happen today, no matter how long you work on it. There’s always other routines to switch to: chopping samples, workshopping tracklists, or just plain answering emails.

On that same note, when the connection is finally wide open, it’s crucial to sit down and operate in that flow state for as long as possible. I have gotten a lot of my favorite lines of 2023 out of sheer momentum, wrapping up one verse and immediately knuckling down for another. Same goes for cadences and flow patterns. There are only so many tempos & feels available, so that material will always come in useful somewhere else later on.

I am probably writing about a hundred songs right now. That may sound insane, but it works nicely for me. Being able to roam through dozens of verses pretty much guarantees I will hit on something good whenever I sit down to put in work. That also means I don’t need to think about prioritizing albums, that’s a question that resolves itself, day after day. I do wish it would resolve itself a little faster, though.

Of the six items on that list, #4 and #6 have helped the most. A lot of my best lines have come while doing routine chores I would otherwise be putting off, like any other idiot “artist,” thinking that if I just frown at the problem a little harder, everything will make sense. Nah. Go do the dishes. And nothing has helped me more this past year than continuing to learn & listen. Hip hop is vast, hip hop is global. No matter how much you think you know, there is more, much more, to learn. So keep learning & stay humble.

Not only did I absurdly over-commit on my own release schedule, I did the same in terms of guest verses or “features.” I am still digging my way out of that one. I’m not a particularly strategic man when it comes to doing features, it’s mostly a matter of mutual respect and the right beat. (In one case, “Lucky Guesses,” I agreed to do the feature because I’d had a dream about it the night before, a cosmically improbable detail that still weirds me out almost a year later.) Making a cameo in someone else’s catalog is an easy way to maintain momentum and visibility, but not hugely reliable. Some of the first features I recorded in 2022 are on projects that still haven’t dropped. No salt, either: I get it, I do. Albums are a pain in the ass.

Beat tapes, on the other hand, are good, clean fun.

For me, the biggest surprise of 2023 was getting back into the production side something heavy. I’ve always loved making beats, but it wasn’t until my wife got me a Boss DR-202 “Dr. Groove” for Christmas that I got back into it after a decade off. That drum machine was the bedrock of my early days. I bought one right after high school and spent years performing shows with it all over the east coast. I was not particularly great but I always make an impression.

So being reunited with some old familiar gear had a huge impact on me, and sure enough, I’ve been expanding my hardware collection ever since. But of course, it’s not about hardware at all. It’s about refinement.

Most verses are “sixteens,” 16 bars of rappin’-ass rhymes, and most sixteens start with a single, perfect two-bar combo. From there, the whole organism emerges via mitosis. Those two bars get expanded into four; four becomes eight; and finally, eight becomes done. At no point in this process can you afford to lie to yourself. In theory, nothing is ever perfect, but in practice, “good enough” absolutely never is.

At every turn during the making of The Fall Grime Collection, I was struck by the parallels between making beats and making rhymes. Seldom do beats ever burst into reality as head-nodding gold, but it sure is nice when they do. Beats have to get refined through experimentation. There is always another experiment within easy reach, there is always something more to try. The only real “dead end” you can come to is giving up out of frustration, so not getting frustrated is a valuable martial art to practice.

Re-working the same two bars for three months is little different from spending a week chopping a bassline into atoms and re-arranging funk pockets from scratch. Every detail needs to fit. That’s just a matter of giving it the time it needs and refusing to lie to yourself until the final product is undeniable.

That’s the schedule I’m on, from 2024 to infinity. If you see me announce something, you’ll know it is done, and done right. Knowing the difference took me twenty years, but it was all worth it.

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