A Master of Ceremonies is the official host of a staged event or similar performance. An MC usually presents performers, speaks to the audience, entertains people, and generally keeps the event moving. An MC may also tell jokes or anecdotes.
In hip-hop music, an MC, or rapper, is a music artist and/or performers who usually creates and performs vocals for his/her own original material.
An MC uses rhyming verses, pre-written or ad lib (“freestyled”), to introduce the DJ with whom they work, to keep the crowd entertained or to glorify themselves. As hip-hop progressed, the title MC acquired backronyms such as ‘mike chanter’, ‘microphone controller,’ ‘microphone checker,’ ‘music commentator,’ and one who ‘moves the crowd’. Some use this word interchangeably with the term rapper or emcee, while for others the term denotes a conception and demonstration of the role indicative of skill and of connection to the wider culture.
MC can often be used as a term of distinction, referring to an artist with good performance skills. As Kool G Rap notes, “masters of ceremony, where the word M.C. comes from, means just keeping the party alive.” Many people in hip-hop including DJ Premier and KRS-One feel that James Brown was the first MC. James Brown had the lyrics, moves, and soul that greatly influenced a lot of rappers in hip-hop and arguably even started the first MC rhyme.
As with some rappers, there was distinction, such as for MC Hammer who acquired the nickname “MC” for being a “Master of Ceremonies”, which he used when he began performing at various clubs.
The hip-hop group, A Tribe Called Quest, included this statement in the liner notes to their 1993 album Midnight Marauders:
“The use of the term MC when referring to a rhyming wordsmith originates from the dance halls of Jamaica. At each event, there would be a master of ceremonies who would introduce the different musical acts and would say a toast in style of a rhyme, directed at the audience and to the performers. He would also make announcements such as the schedule of other events or advertisements from local sponsors. The term MC continued to be used by the children of women who moved to New York City to work as maids in the 1970s. These MCs eventually created a new style of music called hip-hop based on the rhyming they used to do in Jamaica and the breakbeats used in records. MC has also recently been accepted to refer to all who engineer music.”
Rapping: Refers to “spoken or chanted rhyming lyrics.”
The art form can be broken down into different components, as in the book How to Rap where it is separated into “content,” “flow” (rhythm and rhyme), and “delivery.” Rapping is distinct from spoken word poetry in that it is performed in time to a beat. Rapping is often associated with and a primary ingredient of hip-hop music, but the origins of the phenomenon can be said to predate hip-hop culture by centuries.
Rapping can be delivered over a beat or without accompaniment. Stylistically, rap occupies a gray area between speech, prose, poetry, and singing. The word (meaning originally “to hit”) as used to describe quick speech predates the musical form.
Etymology and usage
The English verb rap has various meanings, such as “to strike, especially with a quick, smart, or light blow,” as well “to utter sharply or vigorously: to rap out a command.” It is this second definition, which the musical form of rapping is based on and this definition may be from a shortening of repartee. A rapper refers to a performer who ‘raps’.
Rapping can be traced back to its African roots. Centuries before hip-hop music existed, the griots of West Africa were delivering stories rhythmically, over drums and sparse instrumentation. Such connections have been acknowledged by many modern artists, modern day “griots,” spoken word artists, mainstream news sources, and academics.
Blues music, rooted in the work songs and spirituals of slavery and influenced greatly by West African musical traditions, was first played by blacks, and later by some whites. Jazz, which developed from the blues and other African-American and European musical traditions and originated around the beginning of the 20th century, has also influenced hip-hop and has been cited as a precursor of hip-hop.
One of the main influences on hip-hop artists was James Brown. James Brown is credited for inventing funk music in the middle ‘60s. The characteristic funk drum beat is the most common rhythm used for rap music.
“Flow” is defined as “the rhythms and rhymes” of a hip-hop song’s lyrics and how they interact – the book How to Rap breaks flow down into rhyme, rhyme schemes, and rhythm (also known as cadence). “Flow” is also sometimes used to refer to elements of the delivery (pitch, timbre, volume) as well, though often a distinction is made between the flow and the delivery.
Staying on the beat is central to rap’s flow. MCs stay on beat by stressing syllables in time to the four beats of the musical backdrop. Poetry scholar Derek Attridge describes how this works in his book Poetic Rhythm – “rap lyrics are written to be performed to an accompaniment that emphasizes the metrical structure of the verse.” He says rap lyrics are made up of, “lines with four stressed beats, separated by other syllables that may vary in number and may include other stressed syllables. The strong beat of the accompaniment coincides with the stressed beats of the verse, and the rapper organizes the rhythms of the intervening syllables to provide variety and surprise.”
The same technique is also noted in the book How to Rap, where diagrams are used to show how the lyrics line up with the beat – “stressing a syllable on each of the four beats gives the lyrics the same underlying rhythmic pulse as the music and keeps them in rhythm…other syllables in the song may still be stressed, but the ones that fall in time with the four beats of a bar are the only ones that need to be emphasized in order to keep the lyrics in time with the music.”
MCs use many different rhyming techniques, including complex rhyme schemes, as Adam Krims points out – “the complexity…involves multiple rhymes in the same rhyme complex (i.e. section with consistently rhyming words), internal rhymes, and offbeat rhymes.” There is also widespread use of multisyllabic rhymes, by artists such as Kool G Rap, Big Daddy Kane, Hittman and Eminem.
It has been noted that rap’s use of rhyme is some of the most advanced in all forms of poetry – music scholar Adam Bradley notes, “rap rhymes so much and with such variety that it is now the largest and richest contemporary archive of rhymed words. It has done more than any other art form in recent history to expand rhyme’s formal range and expressive possibilities.”
Many of the rhythmic techniques used in rapping come from percussive techniques and many rappers compare themselves to percussionists. How to Rap 2 identifies all the rhythmic techniques used in rapping such as triplets, flams, 16th notes, 32nd notes, syncopation, extensive use of rests, and rhythmic techniques unique to rapping. Rapping has also been done in various time signatures, such as ¾ time.
To successfully deliver a rap, a rapper must also develop vocal presence, enunciation, and breath control. Vocal presence is the distinctiveness of a rapper’s voice on record. Enunciation is essential to a flowing rap; some rappers choose also to exaggerate it for comic and artistic effect. Breath control, taking in air without interrupting one’s delivery, is an important skill for a rapper to master, and a must for any MC. An MC with poor breath control cannot deliver difficult verses without making unintentional pauses.
The ability to rap quickly and clearly is sometimes regarded as an important sign of skill. In certain hip-hop sub-genres such as chopped and screwed, slow-paced rapping is often considered optimal.
Edwards, Paul; Kool G Rap (foreword) (December 2009). How to Rap: The Art & Science of the Hip-Hop MC. Chicago Review Press. p. 340. ISBN 1-55652-816-7.
Kool Moe Dee; et al. (November 2003). There’s A God On The Mic: The True 50 Greatest MCs. Thunder’s Mouth Press. p. 224. ISBN 1-56025-533-1.
stic.man (2005). The Art Of Emceeing. Boss Up Inc.
Krims, Adam (2001). Rap Music And The Poetics Of Identity. Cambridge University Press.