Why all copywriters should listen to hip hop

It’s probably safe for me to bet that you have a favourite author (or three), a writer whose words you really love.

I wouldn’t presume to know what flavour they are: novelist, poet, dramatist, essayist, coder, scriptwriter, lyricist, graphic novelist, copywriter, storyteller, children’s author, non-fiction writer, journalist…

Hip hop graffitiThose flavours are in no particular order, and it’s not a comprehensive list, but I have left out one kind of writer on purpose.


“But aren’t they lyricists?” the pedants among you may chance to cry.

Well… yes. And no.

For me, it does not do to lump Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s The Message in with, say, the Fast Food Song, that paragon of bubblegum pop sung by the eponymous Rockers.

This is neither a vendetta against pop as a whole, nor an assertion that hip hop words transcend all others. There’s great writing going on in both those genres of music and many others, but it’s hip hop that interests me in particular.

Maybe you’ve never knowingly listened to hip hop. Maybe you decided at some point that hip hop really isn’t your thing, as a matter of taste, or for cultural, musical, aesthetic, even linguistic reasons. Maybe you love it and you’ll be right on board with what I’m about say… or you’ll completely disagree. If so, comment and let’s talk about it!

This is my attempt to persuade you to give hip hop a chance. Take a punt. Fall down a YouTube rabbit hole into 1980s odyssey. It’s all raw material.

Here goes nothin’.

Reason one: ways with words

I’m not what you’d call a serious rap aficionado (aficionada? who knows?), but one of my favourite authors is a hip hop artist. His name is Scroobius Pip and he holds that title because he’s an incredible storyteller, picture-painter, heartstring-twanger.

As copywriters, we do a pretty good job at that stuff from time to time ourselves. We both use rhythm, rhyme, double entendre, aural misdirection, and a thousand other varieties of verbal wonderousness. It’s exhilarating and refreshing to hear these familiar techniques used in new ways with such skill, to tingling atmospheric and narrative effect.

Lady LeshurrAnother hip hop artist I’m into lately is quite different: less of a storyteller, but so entertaining. In Queen’s Speech Ep1-4 she spits tight, fast patter with harsh putdowns and killer pauses – all in her own Solihull accent!*

She’s called Lady Lesshur, and she’s got words like knives.

Listen to hip hop because the way words are used and combined isn’t quite like anything else. It’s refreshing. You can hear usages changing and meanings mutating right before your ears.

Reason two: the feels and the fun

When I first started to listen to hip hop it took a while for the words to get me, but once they did, I was in awe. I’ve already talked about the stories and the pictures. The visceral, immediate nature of the medium can catch you up and transport you into a new poetic, dramatic landscape.

When rap is good, it can be blistering on a technical level; heart-wrenchingly emotional; lyrically beautiful; flippant and fun; cleverly layered with meanings that reveal themselves slowly with repeated listening.

Listen to hip hop because it’s a unique form of storytelling and drama. It’s tragic, comic, epic, concentrated, serious and silly. And you might just like it.

Reason three: volume and logistics

These people don’t just have to write and craft the words until they’re happy with them. They have to be confident that they can live with saying or singing the final draft show after show after show. For months. MONTHS. And there are a lot of words, too. That Grandmaster Flash song I mentioned is just under 900 words long, including repeated sections (377 unique words, if you’re interested). If an artist gets an hour-long set with 10 songs, that’s 9000 words a night.

Listen to hip hop because you’ll appreciate the craft. Those lyrics have been road tested damn hard.

Reason four: the parallels

Granted, it’s not all roses and buttercups. Some of the subject matter is unsavoury, even offensive. But certain tracks that might cause moral discomfort are revered even now by totally right-on dudes, because the writing is so good. We do something similar when we acknowledge the brilliance of certain iconic 20th century ad campaigns, in spite of their rampant sexism. We are challenged to look past the ugly bits and appreciate the craft.

Listen to hip hop because, like copywriting, it’s a discipline worth exploring, warts and all.

I could go on for ever. I really could. But my message is simple: you should listen to hip hop.

*Yes, even the pauses.


7th October 2015

Gillian Jones

I totally agree! I love hip hop, rapping. You’re right about the skill involved and there’s poetry in there. I definitely think it helps with writing.

13th October 2015

Chloe Marshall

Thanks Gillian! May it continue to bring you inspiration combined with the handy extra of killer beats.

14th October 2015

gill Knight

I don’t mind hip hop, I even have some on my iPod for when I work out. On the other hand, let’s not forget good old poetry. Let’s not forget that English poets are foremost in the world, with reason. Personal favourite, as a Yorkshire woman it has to be Ted Hughes ( you want controversy violence in nature?..Ted’s your man) For words jumping from a page- Birthday Letters and be careful, the Letters may well burn your fingers from the intensity.
Let’s not forget the Terrible Trio of Romantics, Byron, Keats and Shelley. You want youthful experience? Only Byron got beyond 30. There’s a big body count in their poems.
I don’t mind hip hop, fact of life and all, but…Hip hop artists certainly could learn from the Real Thing. All of life (and a lot of death) is there.

14th October 2015

Chloe Marshall

Hi Gill, thank you for reading the article and leaving your thoughts. I hope you enjoyed last Thursday as much as I did with so much poetry being recited and discussed on the radio! I love poetry too – nothing like a good grapple with a metaphysical poet to get the intellectual juices flowing. However, there are some writers who wouldn’t be able to place themselves on one side of a clear line between the two (hip hop and poetry) if you paid them. I’m thinking of poets who release audio albums as well as or rather than books – Kate Tempest; Celia Knapp; George the Poet; beat poets of the mid 20th century. Sometimes the words are accompanied by music, sometimes they’re not. I’m certain that those spoken word writers have learned from their more traditional forebears. At any rate, they make wonderful stuff that appeals to all sorts of people, within and beyond the bounds of hiphop fandom.

27th December 2016

Peter Stephen

I recently wrote (and performed for everyone at work) a rap about the technology of one of our clients. I was set a challenge by our ECD or produce something different, and it showed me how to use words differently (and use different words). Your post has convinced me to listen to more hip hop.

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