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Book of Rhymes [May 2011 Issue]

Jay-Z’s influence extended to collaborators beyond B.I.G. A number of artists in his Roc-A-Fella Records camp learned the technique, too: Beanie Sigel, Young Chris and Freeway began composing verses in their heads after working with Jay-Z. While they were mimicking their boss, there were some fringe benefits to the method. “My handwriting was so sloppy that it was easier to just come up with stuff in my head,” says Freeway. “I’ll write it down and can’t hardly read it.”

Due to the towering success of Jay-Z and B.I.G., the idea emerged that putting pen to pad was a task reserved for proletariat rappers. So when Jay-Z took shots at Nas, on the 2001 track “The Takeover,” with barbs that included, “You ain’t live it/You witnessed it from your folks’ pad/You scribbled in your notepad/And created your life,” there was a hint of scorn for the written word. Rappers including Lil Wayne, T.I., Lil Fame, Ja Rule and Kanye West revealed that they don’t construct rhymes with pen and pad either. Whether such declarations were truthful or self-mythologizing showmanship, the notebook was falling out of favor quickly.

A simple fact of technological advancement: Anything that can be digitized eventually will be. We can gripe about the soullessness of listening to music on MP3 players or the lack of heft when reading books on an iPad, but the relentless march toward convenience and affordability continues. It’s no surprise that the arrival of cell phones with qwerty keypads made rhyme books seem archaic. Devices such as the BlackBerry, iPhone, Sidekick and Droid are omnipresent, portable and more comfortable for a demographic that sends text messages, instead of leaving notes on the fridge. “I abandoned the books in about 2008,” says Reek Da Villian. “The BlackBerrys are so much more convenient, because you can type it real quick. If you have a correction, you can just delete it. You can copy and paste and move things around. It’s just way more convenient… You don’t have to carry no big notebook, and you’re gonna have your phone with you at all times.”

Indeed, the handiness of handheld devices has rendered memorization unnecessary—as evidenced by the way no one remembers phone numbers anymore. Still, old mores die hard. The rising star Drake caused a small furor when he was caught on videotape reciting rhymes off a BlackBerry during a 2009 appearance on Funkmaster Flex’s Hot 97 radio show. To some, this looked like cheating. (Like it does when a politician’s transparent teleprompter gets caught sidelong during a televised speech.) “I’m more impressed with his reading skills than his freestyle,” scoffed a commenter about Drake on Miss Info’s website.

Such stigmas are likely to be short-lived. Out of the 11 members of XXL’s 2011 Freshman Class, six write on a computer or a smart phone. Yelawolf uses an iPad. And recently, Atlanta rapper Waka Flocka Flame was even seen reciting lyrics off a digital tablet in a YouTube video titled “Yung Gwapa Feat. Waka Flocka ‘White Boy Wasted.’”

It’s just a generational thing. “Rap notebooks are the new baggy jeans,” says Heems of Brooklyn rap group Das Racist. He and his rap partner, Kool A.D., often write lyrics on Gmail, then save them as drafts. “I don’t think anyone starts rapping on their BlackBerry,” Heems says. “You start in class, on a scrap of paper. It’s not that much different.”

Computers are far from infallible—as anyone who has had a hard drive wiped out knows well—and rappers who rely heavily on technology run the risk of losing data. Heems admits that organizing lyrics can present a problem when they’re floating around as e-mails. Lloyd Banks lost over a dozen verses on his phone and subsequently began transcribing hard copies of his newly typed bars.

“Losing phones is way more common than losing notebooks,” says Reek. “I’ve lost so many raps from the last five or six years by having them in my BlackBerry it’s ridiculous. You get to back up something, but then you may go two or three months without backing your phone up, and you lose it.”

Still, the advantages of technology are obvious. And for some, the major drawbacks come not in terms of functionality, but in format. A typed verse on a text document lacks a certain personal touch. Mickey Factz, a rapper from the Bronx, transitioned from paper to a cell phone, but he misses the intimacy of working with a pen and a pad. “When I got a Sidekick 2, that was it,” he says. “It was so much easier. But writing in notepads [is] nostalgic art for me. Sometimes I can go back and reminisce about the scribbles and keynotes and specific memories of when I wrote them. The sentimental value is the only thing missing.”

For all of the rhyme book’s charms, has its disappearance affected the quality of contemporary rap music? Purists argue that modern artists are less dedicated to writing and, in turn, have lowered the threshold of lyricism. But there’s no reason a hastily scribbled verse on loose-leaf would be of a higher caliber than intricate lyrics typed into an iPhone. It’s about the craftsmanship of the carpenter, not his tools.

Here’s a tangential theory: When the hip-hop production of the late 1990s popularized tempos outside of the East Coast’s narrow 95-bpm boom-bap tradition, an artist could no longer make any verse from his notebook fit into any song.

Writing to a specific beat replaced using an internal metronome, and while this led to a flurry of creative new deliveries, it demanded more immediacy from the process of penning rhymes. Rappers had to write on the spot, a practice that devalued owning a notebook packed with prewritten material. But even with that analysis considered, one immutable fact remains: Artists with talent and effort will be dope whether they etch on cave walls, punch keys on an iPad 2 or suture their rhymes together in their head.

Even Caz, who treasures his collection of notepads and regards the art of writing as sacred, says we shouldn’t miss the big picture. “Once you make your record,” he says, “that’s your rhyme book.” — Ben Detrick

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