At VIP Studio Sessions we love hearing students’ raps. Teaching rap can be daunting, so we decided to share the highly successful method that we use across a wide range of settings – for classroom and beyond.
Our system is designed to teach the basics of rap. We know from experience how many young people want to learn to rap and write lyrics, and when they do, how much they enjoy it! It engages them, builds confidence, literacy and life skills in general.
Step 1. Deciding the Subject Matter
The first step is to pick a theme or a subject. This can be something they are learning about at school or topics like their home town, everyday life or hobbies.
Identifying and developing themes can be great for emotional literacy and developing self-confidence by realising the things they like or are good at. If the group is choosing one topic it’s nice to get them to suggest ideas and then vote on their favourite.
Initially young people may be less focused on the subject and more concerned with the mechanics of making things rhyme, but over time they will start to understand the importance of narrative, concepts and imagery.
If the whole group isn’t looking at a shared classroom topic it’s good to have a few stock subjects to suggest:
- Home Town
- Crime & Social Issues (War, Poverty, The Environment)
- Stories & Storytelling
- Hobbies & Interests (Computer Games, Pets, Football, Shopping, Art, Dance)
- Family & Friends
- The Environment
Step 2. Choosing Your Words
For example, if the group is doing a project on ‘refugees and asylum’, first look for words to do with that subject as a group. Then as a group see which words might work for a rhyme. As a general rule shorter words with vowel sounds are often a good place to start. For example – with ‘refugees’ as the topic the list might be:
Choose words that are good for rhyming – words like run, fear and food, because they end in sounds that will be fairly straightforward to rhyme with (un, ear and ood) unlike say ‘poverty’ which will be pretty difficult (overty). Select a word, let’s say ‘Fear’, then the group needs to come up with their first line.
Step 3. Writing Rhymes with the Rhyme Guide
We developed the Rhyme Guide as a response to the two main things young people struggled with:
- Making all the lines the same length
- Coming up with rhyming words
The Rhyme Guide, which can be found in VIP, is a worksheet for teaching rap.
Each line is clearly marked and has a bold space at the end where the rhyming word will sit. Each line is a ‘bar’ and the lines are numbered so the student can see when they have finished their 8 or 16 bar ‘verse’, and raps almost always come in 4, 8, 16 or 32 bar chunks.
Write your chosen word (‘Fear’) on the bold part at the end of the line. This is important as it helps to make each line the same length.
This method removes the scary concept of a blank sheet of paper. All the students have to do is fill in the blanks on their sheet with sentences that make some kind of sense.
This format keeps their lines at a fixed length, which means that they will stay more or less in time to a Hip Hop beat. A demonstration of a clapped beat works well at this point to illustrate the point.
Place the rhyming words they’ve chosen onto the ends of each line of the Rhyme Guide. For example if the first rhyme they have chosen is ‘Park’ and ‘Dark’ place ‘Park’ on the bold section at the end of line 1, and ‘Dark’ on the bold section at the end of line 2.
The most important part of the process in many ways is writing the first line. This is where the creativity kicks in which can be daunting for some groups, exciting for others. It’s also where the cross-curricular side of the work really begins to take hold.
For example asking “who can give me a line about refugees that ends in the word ‘fear’?” quite often the first few suggestions will be very short. For example ‘Refugees feel fear’ – this is great but the line needs to be longer in order to fit to the beat. What this then does is get the group thinking about how they can add more detail to their sentences.
Step 4. Using the Alphabet Technique
Get the group to come up with some words to do with their chosen topic, and then show them the Alphabet Technique to see what rhymes with those words. This is a great way to develop their basic literacy.
The technique involves identifying which part of the word is the sound we’re going to rhyme with and then running through the alphabet to see what rhyming words they can generate by putting each letter at the start of the sound.
Get students to write out the alphabet. When they need to find a rhyme they can take the word that they want to rhyme with, say ‘cat’, identify the sound it ends with – ‘at’ – and then run through the alphabet to find all the other rhyming words for it.
Eg A- at, B- bat, C- cat, D- dat, F- fat, G- gat, H- hat etc.
This is a great way to get students started when they are struggling to get off the block creatively.
Step 5 The Importance of Storytelling
Explain to a group that the most important thing is that their raps make some kind of sense – in terms mainly of a chronology or narrative. This is key to make sure that the quality of their rap is actually to a standard they will be happy with and recognise as a ‘rap’.
If you can help them to pick words here that can be strung together in terms of a chronological sequence of events tied in to whatever concept they are writing about, that would really help the students.
This is a big part of the work involved in making sure the session is successful, and sometimes a fair bit of steering (especially for their first few lines) is necessary to make sure it all comes together for them. A lot of the time young people will try to randomly pick words they like the sound of even if they have no idea how they can put them together. It’s really good to get them thinking about a story or basic way of linking their words together as early as possible.
This is where we introduce the idea of narrative or continuity – it’s important that what they are writing rhymes but the main thing is that it makes sense as a whole.
When selecting the first rhyme (in this case for the word ‘fear’) make sure the group spend a while picking one that actually makes sense and explain why the rhymes being rejected don’t.
After discussing the topic again the group will usually arrive at something more like
Refugees flee the war, travelling miles in fear
They haven’t seen home in nearly a year
Far from their families they shed a tear
In a teaching context this is a really great place to discuss the issues around a cross-curricular project without seeming too didactic.
Step 6 Rapping Out Loud
Once they have written their opening couplet, get the group to rap it over the beat to check it fits. Here is our example:
Refugees flee the war travelling in fear
They haven’t seen their homes in nearly a year
First clap in time to the beat and count 1,2,3,4 in time with it. Each line of their rap is a ‘bar’ and these are the ‘beats’ in each bar.
When they have the hang of this, tell them that 1 is the start of each line of their rap, 2 always lands in the middle of each line (in this case the words ‘war’ and ‘homes’) and 4 lands on each rhyming word. Knowing and getting the hang of this is the entire trick to rapping along to a beat in time.
Once the group are clapping in time, give them a count in of 1,2,3,4 and get them to rap the words all together as you point to them on the board.
One trick we have found that works is to say “So I’ve seen you all rapping now!” This means that later on no one has the excuse of “I can’t do it” because you can say that you’ve already seen them doing it. This can be referred back to later if anyone is getting cold feet!
Step 7 Complete the Rap
Use the Alphabet Technique and Rhyme Guide to complete the lyrics, typically 8 lines. This is an ‘8 bar verse’ (each line is one musical bar) that is four pairs of raps or ‘couplets’. They can change the word they rhyme with each time or stay on the same rhyme scheme if they prefer.
Each rhyme needs to be part of a pair though, because if they start having odd numbers of rhymes it gets tricky when later they try to put it to a beat.
At this point the class might like to work in small groups. It’s important to keep checking in on their progress to ensure that they are keeping on topic and to the rhyming principles.
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