In a cramped room on the top floor of the UA Building, junior Felix Smith and freshman Lev Roland-Kalb sit around a computer displaying Logic, a digital interface for music production.
Many students make rap music as a creative outlet. However, these artists approach the art form in different ways, reflecting wider changes in the genre regarding its focus on lyrics, expanding diversity and controversial content.
In the wake of a new generation of prominent artists that tend to be more concerned with overall sound than lyrical content, some rappers at the high school still prefer to work on writing the lyrics while others focus more heavily on the musical aspect.
Senior Marquis Schoonmaker believes that lyricism is paramount, dismissing rap that neglects lyrical integrity as “mumble rap,” a term that music site DJBOOTH describes as “a catch-all term to describe any young rapper whose appeal lies in melody and mood rather than traditional lyricism.”
“You can’t call yourself the best rapper if you don’t have bars,” Schoonmaker said. “Yeah, the beats are cool, but what are you really getting from that? If you’re listening to the rap just for the beat, you might as well just be listening to the instrumental. It’s up to the wordsmith.”
Schoonmaker and senior Carson Murphy, a rapper at the high school who has accumulated tens of thousands of “listens” on SoundCloud, said they believe rap music should always have well-crafted lyrics.
“It has to be about something that’s helping others and something that’s dear to your soul,” Schoonmaker explained.
However, other rappers at the high school, including Smith, Roland-Kalb and freshman Jack Kane, said that they genuinely express themselves through the music more than the lyrics.
“I came at it from a musical standpoint,” Smith said. “At first I focused less on the actual lyrical content and most of the stuff I said was not actually applicable to my actual life at all. The final product for me, the end piece, includes the melody, the chords and the drum progression.”
Senior Marquis Miller, who raps as a hobby, agrees that the overall mood of a song has come to be most important in today’s rap.
“Rap nowadays is more about the sound more than the lyrics,” Miller said. “I feel like back in the ‘80s or ‘90s it was more about lyrics, but now it’s more sound.”
In addition to having varying perspectives on the purpose of lyrics, rappers today come from a broader range of backgrounds than in the past.
Rap is originally—and predominantly—a Black art form; since the 1980s, it has been a central part of African-American culture. However, according to theNew York Times, artists like Eminem and Macklemore have more recently popularized rap created by other races, broadening the genre’s scope. Many of the students at the high school who rap are White.
According to Kane, a shift in the focus of the genre’s content has allowed artists from other backgrounds to participate and contribute.
“The music from the ‘90s was so much about struggle, hustle and all that stuff,” Kane said. “Now, you see even with these African-American artists… it’s not really about that struggle anymore. Obviously I couldn’t even rap about that if I wanted to, because that would just be false completely, but I think people are accepting of [white rappers] because it’s not just an expression of struggle, it’s an art form and you can express other things.”
Murphy said he recognizes the implications of being a White rapper, but feels it is ultimately not an issue.
“We always use the phrase, ‘Does that sound too White?’ and too this, too that, and that’s super interesting,” Murphy said. “At this point, I don’t really have a ‘sound’. I’ll do songs that sound more ‘traditionally’ like Black stuff, and sounds more traditionally like a ‘White rapper.’ It’s interesting when I go back and forth between those sounds that ‘belong’ to each community or whatever you’d call it. I think that music is something that transcends race so easily that I have not really experienced any exclusion or any form of that.”
While rap has expanded to many backgrounds, much of its language in and outside the high school is centered on topics such as drugs, guns, money and sex.
According to Kane, profane words are just one component of a song and have connotations that are commonly misconstrued by the public.
“It’s interesting, because it sounds so negative, but it’s kind of just become something that’s referring to someone not in a negative way,” Kane said.
However, Schoonmaker warns that rapping about experiences that are not original and truthful can be damaging to one’s reputation as an artist.
“I do feel like people are pressured to become someone they’re not, and I feel like that’s how a lot of people get exposed and it’s just bad,” Schoonmaker said. “That can really end your career, being exposed for trying to be someone you’re not. Like maybe someone you’re close to knows what you’re rapping about is not really you.”
Looking to the future, Murphy said that he is very serious about music and plans to continue rapping.
“Pursuing your own music is never the most reliable thing to put your chips on, but at this age, I’m going to keep pursuing this,” Murphy said. “For a high school student, I’ve done some pretty cool things, both as an artist and in marketing and publicity stuff. I think someone, a young kid like me, who understands the business and the music of it, is something record companies would value and want to pick up, so I’m just waiting for that opportunity.”
Murphy and his frequent collaborator Danny Levitov, class of 2016, have already performed at professional venues such as the Brighton Music Hall.
“We make tons of music together, do all our performances together, and it’s just cool both coming from like 40, 50 Soundcloud followers and watching our play [count] go up by like three or four a day to playing Brighton Music Hall and almost selling the place out,” Murphy said.
According to Roland-Kalb, creating rap is the only job he can see himself wanting in the future.
“It’s the one thing I have control over,” Roland-Kalb said. “In my daily life, so many people are telling me how to do this, telling me how to do that, but it’s like the only thing where it’s really just—I’m creating it.”