As some of you know, I worked with youth through Morpheus Youth Project for the last six months or so. I was running hiphop writing and recording workshops at the MYP office and at Fir Ridge High School in deep east portland. This will probably be one of many experiences from this time that I share.
I had a kid that was the best freestyler and probably had the most natural rhyming talent, but he wouldn’t write, he insisted on freestyling. The reason is, he’s afraid to not be the tightest so he’s afraid to write something and have it not work out. The one time I got him to write a couple bars when there were other kids there, he wrote his patterns too fast to spit comfortably, and as soon as he tried to spit it out loud he got embarrassed and insisted on freestyling his verse. His freestyles on the mic are not nearly as good as they are when he’s rapping at the lunch table or the piano at school with his friends because of the pressure - he uses a lot of filler words and nonsense instead of rapping about things and people around him. He reminded me a lot of myself when I was his age (and even to this day). I always wanted to be the best, or else not even enter the contest. I was the kid in talented and gifted that wouldn’t ever do his homework.
I noticed that in general, the kids that are used to being the best rhymer within their circle of friends had the hardest time challenging themselves to be vulnerable. Kids that don’t even really rap but were able to put pen to paper and do it like an assignment. Perhaps they didn’t feel like they had as much to lose — being good at something puts a lot of pressure on a person to be that good all the time. The less worried you are about the outcome, the more freely you can be creative. I’ve struggled with that forever — I know I have the potential to write very potent lyrics that stick with the listener, and I want to write those kind of lyrics all the time. I put immense pressure on myself to perform and strangle the breath out of my own creativity.
I had another kid who ran with the same clique as the first kid, but was clearly the worst at rhyming. But unlike the other kid, he always showed up and tried his best to follow my advice. I like both of them a lot, but I probably had the most rewarding times working with this kid one on one and in small groups. I told him what I would tell anyone — hard work and dedication trumps natural talent. There are a million hot spitters out there — every school has one, every neighborhood. But 99.9% of them don’t have the follow through. They have a million hot freestyles and everyone knows they have talent, but they have few songs, few albums, few shows. I used to suck at rapping, and when I realized I sucked I made a decision to get better that took a long time to show. Next week, I’ll post some songs I just recently re-discovered from my early days of rhyming to show that if my backpacking, whiny-voiced teenage self can mature into the artist and person I am now, anyone can do it.