Songwriting and Inspiration
By Amr “ZAG” Awwad
Yo, ZAG here with another Music Biz blog. This time we’re covering songwriting and the inspiration when it comes to writing your own material. As a Hip-Hop artist, we often have the highest bar to set when it comes to intricate lyricism and uniqueness. Although you may not see that being the case when it comes to many rappers in our mainstream. Anyway, that’s a topic for another day!
Today I’ll be going through my own process of songwriting with ya’ll and some tips and tricks that I’ve learned since I started spitting in 6th grade.
You Don’t Always Have To Rhyme
Remember that time when you were in 3rd grade and you were asked to write a poem? And all you could think of is “The Fat Cat ate a Black Bat then sat on my Lap.” Yeah, turns out you don’t always have to do this. More important than rhyming is actually creating a scenario with your words that also happen to fit on a beat.
“Making all of this money hoping I don't get rich
Cause ni**as still getting bodied for foams
Sometimes the truth don't rhyme
Sometime the lies get millions of views”
- Chance The Rapper on “Acid Rain”
Yes, rhyming is obviously an integral part of songwriting for the most part, but remember lyricsdon’t always have to rhyme. Rhyming can even curb your creativity, especially if you find yourself trying too hard, because it can keep you distracted from finishing the idea you’re trying to write down.
You Can Rhyme the Ends with the Beginnings
You can take the last word you used in your first sentence and instead of trying to rhyme it with the next one, you can build up your story by rhyming that word with the first word in the next sentence and build up a new rhyme scheme from there.
“Life was stagnant for a 9th grade cat with a heart for rappin’
No Cappin’, only beanies with American Flags
Corrupted by whitewashed American standards, yes
So I packed my bags and headed West”
Here, I’m talking about how I wanted to pursue a career in “Rappin’” followed by the rhyme, “No Cappin’” which means “No lie” but also literally no caps; as at the time I only wore beanies with American flags on them. A double entendre and a true story.
You Can Continue Your Line Into the Next Bar
When I started writing my own raps, I always thought every line had to end at the end of the bar. I thought it was a very strict art form, until I met MF DOOM. A rather ugly brother with flows that's gorgeous, he became some sort of an inspiration for me when it comes to rapping outside of the box. There really isn’t much to say about it, you have to listen to him yourself to know what I’m saying.
Kendrick Lamar is also really good with this, I suggest you check out “Sing About Me, Dying of Thirst” from his album, Good Kid M.A.A.D City
When it comes to inspiration, there’s a huge difference between inspiration and biting. You can be inspired by other artists’ lyrics and persona, but it becomes biting when you copy someone’s exact lyrics. Kinda similar to writing an essay, where you can cite other authors (inspiration) in an essay (song) without completely copying them.
An excellent example of a piece of art that’s heavily inspired by other artists without losing its integrity is Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. Lin Manuel Miranda made sure to litter Hip-Hop references throughout the play as to pay respects to those that shaped black music, especially that most of the cast for Hamilton are indeed black and brown themselves.
An example of this would be 10 Duel Commandments in Hamilton that is a take on Biggie’s 10 Crack Commandments. You can listen to both below and see that even though one is inspired by the other, they are both still two separate bodies of work, and the only way to notice it is if you know both songs.
There are some wrong ways in which you can bite someone else’s lyrics. Sometimes certain rappers can get too lazy and just keep ripping lines from one of their dead friends. Yeah, it’s really sad, but Joey Bada$$ isn’t really making this easy for us when he keeps recycling lyrics from his late friend Jamal Dewar, also known as Capital STEEZ.
“Teach her many lessons
Reduce the stress and balance out the imperfections”
- Joey Bada$$ on “500 Benz”
“I got these bi***es stressing
I never love 'em, I just balance out they imperfections”
- Capital STEEZ on “Vinyls”
“Unfortunately, I am not that type of niglet
But pass the pot, let me skillet”
- Joey Bada$$ on “1Train”
“Keep a stash even when my pockets was looking thin
So pass the pot and let me skillet”
- Capital STEEZ on “Chicago”
There are many other instances where Joey is stealing lyrics from STEEZ without paying proper respect, to the point where STEEZ even prophesied this in his last song recorded 10 days before his untimely death.
“How you not going to give me mine, every time I rip a line
I haven't seen the limelight, in a right mind
Rappers base their careers off of white lies
A ghost writer been why he so nice
And the time he spit some of his lines it's no concept”
- Capital STEEZ on “Last Straw”
I don’t think there’s harm in taking certain lines from other artists if you’re planning on crediting them somehow in your music, whether that be Lin Manuel Miranda’s way by making obvious Hip-Hop references throughout Hamilton, or interpolating lyrics, like how I do in one of my poems.
“Raising generations of youth that speak truth to power
Telling the Nas from the hilltop that this world is ours”
- ZAG on “Yesterday”
Nas means people in Arabic, my mother tongue. It’s also the name of the Queensbridge Hip-Hop legend, who has a song called “The World is Yours” off his debut album Illmatic. So I’m interpolating that in my song while still mentioning Nas, as a way of paying respect.
So there ya go! Hopefully my tips are going to come in handy the next time you pick up a pen and pad. Also, I’ll be leaving one extra link relating to what I’ve been writing about in case you’re interested in doing more research on your own.