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I spent a lot of my free time over the last year working on a diss track and practicing so I can rap at a decent pace, and I'd like to actually record it at some point. Problem is, I'm struggling to compose a drum track that matches the lyrics after the fact, and I haven't found any good resources on the subject. Do most rappers start with a drum track and add lyrics on top? I do not actually play drums, I just use sheet music software (currently MuseScore for piano and Aered for drums).

If I record myself on three different days and compare the results, it sounds pretty consistent. I apparently came up with a rhythm while I was composing the lyrics, but I have trouble putting it down in TUBS notation. If I try rapping alongside anything I compose, it always feels like one syllable falls between beats, or that the important words don't fall on the important beats. Where should I start?

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Disclaimer: I am not a proffessional producer. I have done some recording and working with some rappers (mostly close friends or friends of friends), but it was always on an hobby base.

Do most rappers start with a drum track and add lyrics on top?

As from my (little) experience... Yes. Most rappers I have worked with so far are picking beats they like and then write their lyrics down while listening to that beat. This has the advantage, that you already have a rythmical structure to which you have to align your words and you have a arragenement (intro, verse, chorus etc.) which gives the songs structure. The beat will also most likly dictate what kind of song this will be. (Like an aggressive, in your face beat will most likly not end up to be used for a love song). Of course the other way around is also a possibility. But I think its harder do find a matching beat to your lyrics than writing lyrics to an already existing beat. If the text comes first you also may have to take some compromises on the lyrics to make them fit. Also the beat needs to fit to the overall "feeling" of the song (rythmically and timbre wise). Another possibility would be to create the beat yourself. This way you can make it fit perfectly for your desire.

If I try rapping alongside anything I compose, it always feels like one syllable falls between beats, or that the important words don't fall on the important beats.

I don't think there should be one syllable per beat. This would most likeley sound strange (which does not have to be something bad). It's way more common to have more syllables per beat. You just have to align the syllables in a rythmical way to fit the overall rythmical feeling of your beat. It's nice to have important parts of your lyrics (like in your example this could be a good punch line) to be emphasized by the instrumental. But when your lyrics are already finnished, its hard to find an instrumental to fit everything. Here are some ideas to deal with such situations:

  • Sometimes you can try to break with some common convention to gain the listeners attention
  • You could try to contact the producer of the song and ask him to rearrange the instrumental for you
  • You can try to cut the instrumental with some audio software and rearrange the parts to be more likly to fit your lyrics yourself
  • Rearrange your lyrics (you maybe have to make some compromises)
  • Choose a beat before writing the lyrics
  • Produce the beat yourself or ask a producer to produce the beat with you together.

I guess the most common way would be to just choose an instrumental first.

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  • Thanks, those are some good pointers. Especially the fact there should be much less drum hits than syllables in a rap, I realized that myself yesterday after watching a lot of drumming lesson videos on basic hip hop beats. I did figure out why I was struggling with the specific rap I've written, and I intend to share it in my own answer later. – Domino Sep 4 at 16:50
  • @Domino Thats some good news! Good Idea to add your own answere. This might be helpful for Future visitors. Keep on going! – Olli Sep 4 at 17:01
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Maybe this is not the right place to go into this, because in my view you are not really asking a general question, it is more like you are asking: help me! But reading your story I did get an idea that I'd like to share.

What if you leave the sheet music software for a moment and instead try to add a track of human beat-boxing to the vocals you have already recorded?

I could go into more detail if you like, but I think the idea speaks for itself. The quality of the sounds or even that of the rhythm is not important at this stage of creation. Making the beat with your voice could be a more direct way to find something that feels right than writing sheet music.

Suppose you succeed in developing a rhythm this way, then don't be surprised if you still have to adjust the vocals to really fit the beat everywhere.

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  • I've been beatboxing while making scribbles on paper for an hour now and it was definitely a good idea to leave the software side for later. It helped me realize the start of a measure doesn't have to line up with the start of a line in the lyrics, which is why I was struggling in the first place. – Domino Sep 4 at 17:03
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I'm the one who asked the question, and I since figured out the reason I was struggling to find the beats in my lyrics.

  1. I was drumming too fast.

    I listen to a lot of metal where drummers use very fast kicks, and electronic music with hi-hats on every 16th. Hip-hop drumming is never that aggressive since it would cover the spoken lyrics. You don't need a percussion hit on every syllable, far from it.

  2. I was drumming too loud.

    You should emphasize beats 2 and 4 with the snare drum and build the rest of the groove using the kick drum. Avoid loud cymbals, toms and loud snare hits that would stand out during the rap, those are for fills when you're not talking. If you think that leaves you with too few options, don't forget the hi-hat is more than a metronome. You can hit it harder or softer, make it sizzle and stop the vibration early, or tap the pedal for a subtler sound. It's easy to forget about dynamics when you're trying to compose using software and not an actual drum.

  3. I was trying to align the first syllable of a sentence to beat 1.

    Sentences often have unimportant particle words that you tend to rap fast and don't really want to emphasize. If you line up the sentences with bars, beat 2 and 4 will fall in unsatisfying places. What I had to do instead was start the sentence a bit early so that the rhymes fall on beat 2 and 4. And since the sentence ends on beat 4, this leaves us with three eights which can then be used to start the next sentence early or place a drum fill. It'll be more obvious with an example from the actual lyrics (sorry for the vulgar humor).

    See, your nines are rocking triple Ds, no wits or personalities.

    ...          See your nines are
    -------------[bar 3]-------------
    ro-   cking  tri-     ple
    Ds    no     wits     or
    per-  so-    na-      li-
    ties.                 ...
    -------------[bar 4]-------------
    

    By starting the sentence in the previous bar, the rhymes Ds and -ties fall on beats 2 and 4. We can then put a drum fill at the end of bar 3 or start the next sentence early too.

So here is the very simple beat I came up with so far. sheet music for two measures of drums

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  • I actually find that starting the measure with "nines" sounds better than starting it with "rocking". Even if I say the lyrics as constant 16th notes, the results don't sound too bad. – Dekkadeci Sep 5 at 12:24
  • @Dekkadeci Yeah, this bar kinda works either way, but it really makes the previous and next one work better like that. – Domino Sep 5 at 20:47

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