Introduction To Hip Hop Training

Coordinating Flow, Range, and Tone

By far, the most under serviced genre in vocal training is hip hop. Somehow, despite it being arguably the most successful genre commercially of the past decade, coaches have ignored it entirely. A lot of this has to do with a bias on both sides. Coaches think it’s not musical enough or there’s no real technique to it… they’ll say things like “they’re just talking/yelling”… funny enough, they say the same thing about most vocalists outside of their genre of preference. 

On the artist side, a lot, or probably even most, rappers want nothing to do with any training. Everyone fears, and probably rightfully so in most cases, that it’ll take away their style, their “edge”, or make them sound too trained, like an opera singer trying to spit a verse.

That’s the feeling right up until they have to perform more than one show or studio session in a week and find that their voice is fucked up. There’s a hoarseness that’s killing quality, a swollen feeling or pain in the throat that makes it almost impossible to produce any sound, or a cracking that keeps happening that takes you right back to your pre-pubescent middle school days.

That’s when most people come to me. They often already have some skill but have no idea how to do what they do night after night without killing their voice each and every time. Other people come with a passion for hip hop, and maybe some pen game, but aren’t able to rap with any rhythm or flow whatsoever. Both of those extremes, and everything in between, can be coached. 

YouTube is full of coaches all over the world training singers of all kinds, and I’ll be adding to that catalogue myself. But, I want to place a special emphasis on hip hop as it is just as important as any other genre in the vocal training game. I don’t claim to be the best rapper in the world but I can rap well enough to demonstrate, and certainly can help those who are already doing it or want to at any level. Unlike most coaches I’m not going to try to change you,only make what you already do easier and safer as well as improve on the things that you want to improve upon.

As hip hop has become more commercial, it’s demands have become more and more diverse. Rappers are expected to be able to sing, vary their tone to the point of creating different alter egos, have every speed of flow ready to go at any given moment in a track, all while writing their own shit. This is a lot to ask. So, my method is to first cover the fundamentals that apply to vocalists of any type: things like breathing & support, placement, and tension release. We basically create a blank slate to open up your most real, primal voice possible before we start changing it up. At that point, we’ll work on everything from rhythm to speed to tonal shifts to accents and everything in between.

So, although this is just an introduction to why I think hip hop training is important and my take on it, I want to get you started with an exercise that will help almost immediately. Here’s the important thing to keep in mind about training in general; hip hop is about as authentic as it gets in music. Most MCs write their own verses and are usually pretty open and vulnerable within those verses. Therefore, every word has emotion behind it. With emotion comes pre-programmed involuntary responses within the body. 

Think of it this way… say you’re writing a verse about a breakup with your ex. That alone isn’t the happiest memory in the world so, most likely, while you’re purging your emotions vocally and verbally, your body is intuitively having a more withheld reaction itself. Maybe your jaw tightens a bit, your larynx rises and chokes off a little, you push up some more air… depending on what the words and overall theme trigger in you, your body is bracing itself against the same shitty feeling it felt when the event actually happened. In essence, you’re reliving a traumatic experience every single time you spit your verse.

With that in mind, you need a blank slate to kill these bad habits of muscle tension, a rising larynx, and forced air pressure; there’s no way in hell you’re going to be able to focus on those things while also thinking about the fact that you lost your ex. The solution to this is through vocalizing on vowels and consonants only. You have to work on the technique and sounds while separating them from the emotion of actual words. To make this applicable to rapping, I design the exercises to keep them within not only the same style as you’ll be rapping but also within the same motions meaning things are usually more staccato than legato - staccato meaning short and broken up with legato meaning long and connected. We also focus more on rhythm and speed as that’s a lot more relevant than melodically connecting everything to a perfect scale. This also helps to keep you from your big fear of sounding like a trained opera singer trying to kill it with ‘Lose Yourself’ at open mic night. 

This one exercise works on essentially all of the hip hop vocal fundamentals all at once: breathing and support, tension release, placement, range, flow, enunciation, and tonal coloring. I wanted to give you an overall review of the kind of work that I as a coach do with rappers while also giving you something that, should you never choose to do any other training or research, will actually make a difference. Here we go:

The exercise is divided into 3 sections, each with their own unique benefits. First up, we have scales. We go through the 5 primary vowels, AY, EE, AH, OH, and OO which helps to get your articulators and placement aligned. To make sure you’re not mindlessly sliding through each note or sending up too much air for each note we’re putting an H at the beginning. These scales will act as a warm up as well as get you started on improving your intonation for melodic rapping and singing. You’re also working on your rhythm by making sure you fit all of these short notes precisely within the beat.

Next up comes a ridiculous tongue twister to work on articulation, flow, and breathing. I chose these two tongue twisters in particular because, if you mess up the articulation even a little, you’re going to wind up saying some pretty ridiculous and profane stuff, a dead giveaway that you’ve messed up and need to start all over again. It’s also mindless enough to not only loosen you up and prevent you from taking yourself too seriously but also so that you can just focus on forming the words, not what the words actually mean. You’ll almost go into a trance while rapping, most likely only being pulled out of it if you mess up and find yourself saying “fucker” over and over. It’s a lot of syllables to fit into just a few short bars so everything has to be precise; make sure you nail it now, it’ll pay off big time when you’re rapping actual meaningful lyrics and intended profanity later on.

The third section is ad libbing based off of the track itself. This is something you’ll need to do while freestyling or writing your own verses, picking things up on your own out of the beat to embellish upon or reference, so do whatever you think of. First though, follow along with what I have since it’ll provide some simple singing practice, then do your own thing.