Saturday, September 09, 2006


For those who have been reading this continuing series, it's heavily centered on popular culture's manipulation, interpretation or complete bastardization of an artform in order for it to fulfill their needs (emotionally, spiritually, socially or even educationally). Instead of taking an artform in the sense it was intended, we feed it through a series of filters and sensors to rid it of its rawness and, in hip hop's case, its danger so that others can more easily digest it.

In today's instance, that digestion supposedly leads to higher education. Yeah, I doubt it, but they make some pretty stout claims.

Here's the lowdown: two accomplished college students collaborate, one behind the boards and the other behind the mic, to create an educational tool that employs the lyrical structure of hip hop to teach youngins SAT words. Pretty innocent, I suppose. So, please let me introduce you to Flocabulary.

Meet the creators.

On the left, we have Alex Rappaport (no relation to fourth Beastie Boy, Michael Rappaport). He's the music student--quite accomplished music student. Claims to be influenced by everyone from "Debussy to De La Soul." He produces the tracks for Flocabulary. I wouldn't probably tap him as hip hop producer with that green tee under the nice jacket, but whatever, most people don't think I really look the part either.

On the right of Rappaport, we have the curly-headed Blake Harrison (he goes by Emcee kidding). He's been the lead pen on two books: Hip Hop U.S. History and The Rapper's Handbook--bet you didn't know there was one, did you? It's like a field book for fishermen, except it teaches you how to properly hold a glock, roll a joint and avoid paying child support. I'm kidding, folks. Actually, as it reads on the book itself, it's a "A Guide to Freestyling, Writing Rhymes and Battling." Eh, we'll get to that later.

Okay, so I'm watching FoxNews one morning and I see these two fellas on there getting the half-interview, half-product placement treatment and their touting something called Flocabulary. The report started out, "Hip hop in the classroom? Can it be used as an educational tool?" So I perk up because I'm thinking, "Oh yeah, here's volume six."

For just 17 bucks (bargain?), you'll receive the Flocabulary book and a 12-song compact disc with songs like "Shakespeare is Hip Hop," "Flo+Cab," "Doctor, Doctor," and the bonus track "It's All Mathematics."

Perhaps you'd like to venture out and get The Rapper's Handbook that will teach you the finer points of becoming an emcee so you can really put that expanded vocabulary to work. Here's an excerpt taken from

The Official Flocabulary 10-Pronged Technique for Learning to Freestyle Rap.
by Emcee Escher, esq.

Step 1. Start Easy.

No need to start off rhyming "the toasty cow's utter" with "most o' my flow's butter". No need to even rhyme. Just forget everything else and flow. The rhythm can be simple, the words might be 2nd grade level, but you're still freestyling as long as you make it up. This was my first freestyle rap, which I spit when I was 11 months old:

I am funny, I like bunnies, touch my tummy, mummy.

Step 2. Keep Flowing.

You're going to make mistakes. You're going to sound stupid. Make your first freestyle rap verses your stupidest verses just to get them out of the way. Keep flowing. Can't think of a rhyme? Keep flowing! Stutter over words? Keep flowing. It's inevitable that at some point some of your lines won't rhyme, won't make sense, or that you will inadvertently diss yourself (I knew one guy who accidentally dissed himself all the time when we were freestyling), just keep flowing. If you make a mistake, do your best to incorporate your mistake into your next lines like this:

I drive you bananas, apples and oranges,ah.... damn, nothing rhymes with oranges,to make it rhyme, I squeeze it into orange juice,flow's tighter than small undies...yours are mad loose.

Step 3. Rhyme

Not ever line in your ridiculous freestyle rap has to rhyme, but most of them probably will. Words that rhyme form the foundation of rapping. As soon as you know what word you're going to end line 1 with, your mind should start racing to find out a word you can use at the end of line 2. Let's say your first line is, "I'm exhausted from doing summer reading." As soon as you realize that you're going to end the line with "reading," you should think of something that rhymes, and might possibly be related: meaning,weeding,beading,ceiling,teething. Pick one and then try to carve the second line to lead toward that word. Let's say you pick "weeding", your next line might be:

I'm exhausted from doing summer reading,breaking my back digging holes, painting and weeding.

If you pick "meaning," you might say: I'm exhausted from doing summer reading, my eyes skim the page but always miss the meaning.

Step 4. Rap over beats, rap over anything.

Flow over one of our free rap beat instrumentals or pop in one of your favorite hip-hop cd's and drown out the 'real' rappers. Rap over classical music, jazz, rock, techno. Rap in the shower, on the bus, before you go to school, during your lunch break, and after dates. Freestyle rap while you're out on a jog, rocking out your iPod. Yeah, people will think you're crazy, but they won't think you're crazy when you go Platinum!

Step 5. Rap about things around you.

This is definitely the best way to prove to the crowd that you're really freestyling and not just spitting something you wrote in your room the night before. It's also a huge crowd-pleaser, 'cause its impressive and it makes everyone real glad that they're hanging out with you. Rap about things you see. Incorporate objects, actions, people, clothing, situations, and sounds into your rap. When I'm in the shower, I'll rap about what kind of soap I'm using:

Trying hard to get clean, maybe just a smidgen, I use ghetto Dove soap, also known as pigeon.

Or at a battle competition, this is crucial. You've got to spit things specific about your opponent. These are the hardest-hitting punches. Take Eminem's freestyle (not really a freestyle - because it was pre-written to sound like a freestyle) on 8-mile. He's battling a guy named Lotto who's wearing a tight, white tank top: "Lookin' like a cyclone hit you, Tank top screamin', 'Lotto, I don't fit you!'"

If you're rapping while driving around in your car, rap about how you feel or things you see.
I'm hungry driving in this old Volvo,I think I'll stop by Olive Garden and drink some olive oil.

Step 6. Include Metaphors

Metaphors and similes are an advanced but important part of freestyle rapping. They are often found in a rapper's funniest and cleverest lines, and they really differentiate beginners from skilled emcees. Take Talib Kweli's lines:

"We're like shot clocks, interstate cops and blood clots,my point is... your flow gets stopped."

Check out a quick breakdown on figurative language, and find more examples at our hip-hop metaphors page. Metaphors and similes are really the backbone of an advanced rapper. He'll spit more comparisons than a door-to-door salesman to sink the competition like a leaky submarine. Learn how to use metaphors correctly, and your rhymes will not only be funnier and smarter, but they'll sound better too. Take Kanye's line:

"Ooh, girl, your breath is harsh,cover your mouth up like you've got SARS."

Step 7. Reference current events.

See what Kanye did in that line above? He snuck in the cultural reference.Other than amazing in-rhyming and dope metaphors, the most impressive thing a freestyle rapper can do is make timely references to culture and current events. Let's say, for example, that you are at a cipher, rapping with some of your friends (dissin' each other, just goofin' around), and the day before you remember reading that Oprah recently lost 200 pounds. How dope is it if you throw that in your rhymes:

You big now, but you 'bout to get cut down,smaller than Oprah Winfrey dropping 200 pounds.

I recently heard an emcee reference soaring gas prices:

fast? son, that ain't fast.I'm rising faster than the price of gas.

The sooner you can reference it, the better.

Step 8. Pass the mic like it's contagious.

Rap in ciphers - groups of two or more rappers playing off of reach other, trading verses. This is a great way to improve and it's hell of fun. One of your friends can beat box, you can throw a beat on the stereo, or just freestyle over nothing. Take turns, cutting in whenever you want or when someone "passes you the mic" (you probably won't have an actual mic). Never drop the invisible mic! Pick it up and pass it!

Work off of others rhymes. If they throw in something about the bible, pick up that theme and run with it. Try to stick to similar topics, or riff off of topics in creative ways. Expand / reference their lines. When my friends and I cipher, we like to kick it about random stuff that we all know about, like our personal lives.

Me: Derek's life is tough, his job is rough, plus Suparna took all his dopest stuff, for her apartment in NYC, 'cause that's where she be, holding down a job at a publishing company.

Derek: Yeah, my life is tough, but not that hard, 'cause I spend all my nights watching Sponge Bob, Blake you the one with the job that sucks, asking people if they want more pepper on their halibut.

Or take this example from Eminem's battle with Lotto from 8-Mile. Lotto starts off references the old 50's TV show, Leave it to Beaver. Eminem picks it up and spits it right back, references all the characters from the show.

Lotto: Screw 'Lotto,' call me your leader. I feel bad I gotta murder that dude from "Leave It To Beaver"

Eminem: Ward, I think you were a little hard on the BeaverSo was Eddie Haskell, Wally, and Ms. Cleaver.

Step 9. Listen to great hip hop and learn.

The best rappers know how to freestyle rap. Listen to your favorites and copy (not permanently) their styles to see how they do it. Check out our best freestyles page (coming soon) for Common, Jay-Z, Talib Kweli, Mos Def and others, freestyling. Listen and learn.

Step 10. Practice.

That's all there is to it. You've got the learn how to freestyle battle rap tips. Now its time to take it to the streets. Rap all the time, practice all night and day. Practice might not make perfect, but it makes damn good! Good luck and godspeed.

My personal favorite part of the lesson is when you're instructed in popular hand gestures (see also: RAP HANDS). Below you'll see the diagrams describing the "Mos Def Hand Wave," "The Shady Chop," "The Common Flick," "The Ninja Star," and "The Tonedeff Piano."

Here's the deal. I consider hip hop educational, absolutely. But I consider it socially educational. But altering the culture to make it academically educational, in my opinion, is nothing short of a pimping of the culture. I have no doubt that both Rappaport and Harrison are fans of hip hop, but I denounce this program because it dumbs down the culture to a Disney denominator and offers it to the masses in a Hip Hop for Dummies package. Really, preservation begins with reservation. I don't really have a problem with people taking interest in or even attempting to make hip hop, however, making it seem as simple as a hobby like, say, stamp collecting or watercoloring, is the tragic maturity of a culture.

Maybe I'm a purist. Maybe I'm just a jerk. I have no ownership of hip hop, but I just can't swallow something as Cheeto as this. I support the education of the youngins. I believe the children are the future, b'lee dat. But teach them hip hop history. Teach them about Public Enemy, Afrika Bambaataa, Kool Herc, Boogie Down Productions. Teach them about the world around them. But I don't see the future of hip hop as education and I don't see the future of education as hip hop. It just doesn't make sense.

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