Rap for English

I’ve been playing around with the idea of doing a blog for my middle school focusing on using rap lyrics to get at daily oral language and to build vocabulary. I think the potential is definitely there. I’m worried about two things. Can I come up with material consistently enough to make it worthwhile for the students? Secondly, can/should I use an appropriate portion from an inappropriate song? These are middle school students so it gets a little iffy and the county I’m in is pretty conservative. That being said they are having a Souljah Boy dance party at our school and played a clip from the song today on the intercom. So maybe I could pull this off.

I’d love to use lyrics like the ones below from TI’s “You Don’t Know Me”

You gone make me bring da chevy to a real slow creep
My Partner hangin out the window, mouth fulla gold teeth
When the guns start poppin, wonder when its gonna cease
choppa hitchu on the side and create a slow leak
We can end the speculation cuz today we gone see
What’s the future of a sucka who be hatin on me
i don’t care about the feds investigation on me
I don’t care they at my shows and they waitin on me
Ima keep a flossin poppin long as Toomp is on the beat
Tell police that I ain’t stoppin Ima keep it in the streets
Contrary to yo believes, im as real as you can be

You’ve got great vocabulary in there and you could come at this two ways- have them “translate” this into formal English or write it in formal English and they have to figure out which song it’s from. I’d probably use the former more but the latter would be nice for a change every so often.

The formal version-

Sir, you are going to force me to drive by you slowly in my Chevrolet.
My friend will be leaning out of the window. You’ll notice his teeth are covered in gold.
When the firearms begin to fire, you’ll likely wonder when they are going to cease.
If a bullet impacts your lower abdomen you’ll start to bleed slowly.
There’s no need to speculate because today we will find out for sure
what will be the fate of the unfortunate individual who covets my stature.
I am not concerned about the ongoing federal investigation of my person.
I am under surveillance at my performances and they are waiting for me yet I remain unconcerned.
I will continue to seize life with a joie de vivre as long as the music continues.
Inform the police department that I will continue to be true to my self.
Contrary to your beliefs, I am a forthright and honest individual.

It’d be hard to keep it up on daily basis but even if I had to avoid violence I could probably dig up older stuff. I know I’d have to get it started with new songs though- get some momentum going.

What do you think? Doable? Worth the time/effort? or am I just amusing myself?

30 thoughts on “Rap for English

  1. That’s a fine line, friend. Part of me says that you’re providing a lesson riddled with context that will allow students to grasp the concept of formal language versus the vernacular.

    I cannot, however, support any music that contains foul language. Truth is, the kids already know the lyrics that follow the “clean” section you play, and once you start the tune, even if only in the mind, the lyrics are completed. This leads kids’ minds and hearts to focus on the bad stuff we don’t need them focusing on.

    I would encourage the searching of indie labels, pandora, jandoo (sp?) and other underground sources for clean rap that they may not have heard before. Then you are maintaining the upstanding moral ground and also offering them an alternative to what they may already be listening to.

    I’ve made a point of being me no matter the audience, and I am no rapper, so I will not try to perform a rap in front of students for the sake of being “relevant”. I know that’s not the point of the post but I felt it a worthy side note.


  2. Chris,

    I appreciate your comment. It is a fine line.

    I’m back in a fairly underprivileged school now and I think using songs they know and that are currently popular is important in building momentum for something like this. After that I can see branching off more and pulling in older as well as different groups/songs/genres. I just feel you have to get them involved first.

    I don’t really have issues with “foul” language as I tend to look at it historically as a form of French language oppression of the English (that may be the history teacher in me). I’m more concerned with the message of violence/drug use in some of the songs. But I can also see the potential, if done properly, to use the music as an avenue for the conversations that need to be had on those topics. As for morality, I’m unsure. If I use a section of a song that is w/o violence or cursing and that is played on the radio, TV, iPods etc. am I taking the low road? What if it opens up conversations that cause students to think each time they hear a song?

    I don’t know where the line is here. You’ve given me some things to think about and that was the whole purpose of the post- I wanted some outside eyes/opinions. I truly appreciate it.


    To quote Lil Wayne “And I don’t even need a G-Pass, I’m past that.” I’ve been a rap fan since Str8 Outta Compton. 🙂

  3. Me, I’m straight outta Low Cash.

    I guess my issue with the foul language is not just the use of the more “traditional” foul language but also the objectification of women, the encouragement to party, potentially to partake in alcohol, etc.

    I suppose it’s different if it’s played on the radio, especially if you use a radio edit.

    Either way, I’m still on the fence here, but would LOVE to hear how it turns out should you choose to employ this strategy!


  4. Interesting stuff here. This post has confounded me for a coupla days. Chris has a lot of good points. Profanity, misogyny, racism, violence & drugs (unless used as counterexamples for some exceedingly awesome point) oughtta stay off the table. Still that leaves a lot of great rap, if only in isolated stanzas.

    The thing is, Jay Z doesn’t write his rhymes down. You have any idea what kinda vocabulary you have to pack to pull that stunt off? ‘Cause I don’t but that’s the tack I’d take here: “all your favorite rappers have incredible control over the English language.”

    And then you back it up.

    You give ’em some lyrics from some track they’ve all enjoyed, something top 40 even, but which employs a metaphor or simile or touches some historical reference that’s above their heads. You stymie ’em, give ’em the idea that something from school is essential for understanding their music.

    My final, scattered thought here is that you can’t go all Erin Gruwell here and Freedom Write this thing to death. Every one of Those Movies has some white crusader analyzing “the poetry of Tupac” and it just … it just feels like pandering. Transparent pandering.

    It’s great you’re actually into this stuff and wouldn’t have to force that enthusiasm. That, more than anything, will carry whatever you do with this material. Let us know, huh?

  5. Tom,

    I think you’re on to something here. I agree with Dan, that maybe you should stick to isolated, clean stanzas. Rap, unfortunately has come a long way from “Self-Destruction” and “We All In the Same Gang.” (See BET’s “Hip-Hop vs. America,” and you know it’s true.) But there are some positive artists out there (Talib Kweli, Common, Mos Def, some of Kanye West’s stuff). However, a lesson like this will definitely get your students’ attention/enthusiasm. I love the formalized version you did of T.I.’s “You Don’t Know Me.” It almost sounds Shakespearean in that context… and that’s the point!

    P.S. If it takes me all year, I’m gonna learn that darn Soulja Boy dance! Crank that!! (n_n)

  6. All due respect to Nicole, who, if she’s taught English at all, has taught it more than me, asking them to match slang lyrics to standard English lyrics would seem gimmicky to me as a student and a wasted opportunity to me as a teacher.

    I mean, rap is pervasively popular, even throughout demographics where it has no right to be, such as my own. (It’s pathetic. I watched this modded Soulja Boy like fifty times last month.) There is something legitimate to that — it isn’t coincidence or fad — something that a teacher should explore with a class.

    There’s a lot of interest in social studies, for example, in how rap captures oppression on a digital CD, how it makes money by exploiting young black male fantasies and, in doing so, records them for us to pick apart.

    There’s a lot of interest for literature in how the best rap uses end rhyme, internal rhyme, metaphor, simile, allusion, etc etc, all at once.

    The key as a teacher, I really think, is to treat rap sincerely. Let’s say you hear a verse you really like. (Any stanza of “All Falls Down,” by Kanye West, f’rinstance.)

    You listen again and yourself, “Why did I enjoy that so much? The awesome play on words with ‘couldn’t afford a car / so she named her daughter “Alexis”‘?”

    You play that snippet for your class and say, why do you like this? (Or if they don’t, why not?)

    They you tell ’em why you like it. (The awesome, casual pun.) Then you toss out three more selections and say, how have these artists used the same effect?

    That’s what I’d do, anyway.

    What I wouldn’t do is:

    a) try to force an appreciation of rap just to relate to your kids. They’ll smell death on you if you try that. (You wanna go that route, you ask them for some selections to bring you up to speed and report back.)


    b) rap about math / history / English / whatever. Chris is right about that. Gotta try and preserve whatever dignity we’ve got left, right?

    That’s what I wouldn’t do, anyway.

  7. Dan-

    That’s pretty similar to what I did when I had my own class (long time ago now, nearly 3 years). We actually used “All Falls Down.” I like the “Then she cut it all off now she look like Eve” although I’m not sure I convinced them that this was also a reference to the first woman’s African origin (and natural hair) in addition to referring to Eve the rapper.

    The difficult thing for my position is I’m not in the classroom (not a complaint, just a fact). I’ve either got to do this through the web asynchronously or find a proxy teacher that will do it in my place. That makes structuring lessons around verbal conversation much more difficult. I know what I could pull off but it’s harder to know for others. It’s an odd position to be in.

    The translation stuff isn’t as good as a real conversation would be but it might be the best I can do. It does mimic a pretty popular radio show game around here. They have a very “white” sounding guy read off portions of popular song lyrics and people call in to guess the song. It’s actually pretty difficult.

    I may just do it for fun outside of school and see what happens. If people do stuff like this and this surely there’s room for my plan.


  8. Actually, you’re totally onto something. I also agree with you, in that by using relevant rap artists the kids will see you as real, and understanding them. You can’t introduce some 3rd grade poetry rhyme and call it rap, you’ll never get their respect. There are, however, many artists out there who don’t curse, objectify women, or things like that – and they’re mainstream. Find some of them, and do it. Good luck my friend.

  9. Hi there I came across this posting after googling for listen to rap music. Thanks for the interesting read. I have often thought about or English at Bionic Teaching too. Thanks for sharing. On Thursday I will have time to look into it more.

  10. Hey Y’all,

    This is an amazing conversation! As a life long listener to hip hop, I have become more selective with what I listen to these days. Truth be told, the best lyricist today is Talib Kweli (even Jay-Z gives him a nod), and his work is socially relevant, rails against the objectification of women, and paints an honest picture of the business. Aesop Rock is another one underground artist with lyrics that seem to bridge the gap between spoken word poetry and hip hop. Using underground artists with solid skill who avoid promoting the thug-life dream would expose the students to the depth of this genre while avoiding the themes in pop hip hop we don’t want are students to embrace.

    Dan, your point about the need for an arsenal of vocabulary to freestyle (referring to Jay-Z) is well put. I saw Mos Def earlier this year, and he freestyled an entire set! I was in awe. Could be a great motivator for vocabulary. Heck, it could be your in for getting your students to USE the vocabulary.

    In the end I think this would only work if you treated rap with respect, sincerity, and integrity.

  11. Read this in Entertainment Weekly’s 17 Most Awkward Moments in TV History [link] and thought of this post. (I can’t remember my phone number yet this post still lingers in my head. Weird.)

    The Moment
    When Kevin’s (Brian Baumgartner) monotone reenactment of Chris Rock’s “N — -as vs. Black People” riff at a Dunder Mifflin sensitivity training seminar makes Michael (Steve Carell) twitchy — he’s ruining the bit! — the wannabe funnyman finally interrupts and unleashes his Rock homage, a screechy, jerky, minstrel-show-worthy performance. “Whatchoowant, a cookie?” Crickets.

    Why It’s Awkward
    Rule No. 1 in the Handbook for the Reconstructed White American: Never mimic anyone who isn’t white.

    The connection to our fantasy lesson here seems pretty straightforward.

  12. And ’cause I can’t freaking let well enough alone, here’s a lyric I just caught from Kweli’s latest album, a track called “Holy Moly,” where he calls out baby rappers:

    You are not Short, you are not Katt
    You’re not a player or a pimp, money stop that
    Learn to master your speech and be eloquent
    Rappers keep peddlin sweets, the beats weaker than gelatin.

    It’s like he’s handing you the keys to the car and all you have to do is get in the car.

  13. As far as this discussion, I found it through Dan’s blog. Secondly, I have to say that the amount of literacy that it takes to really be a dominant rapper in rap is very high. Fortunately, the rap community is no longer tolerating these one-bit rappers for more than 1 song (think “This Is Why I’m Hot” and “It’s Going Down”). If there isn’t that lyrical maturation, then there’s nothing to their game. Secondly, I think it’s sad that people only want to focus on Talib Kweli, Mos, and Common, particularly because for some time they’ve actually been combating the backpacker stereotyping and getting on more “popular” songs in fear that they’ll be looked at as one-dimensional, much the way Lil Wayne will do a track with Little Brother and Jay-Z does a song with dead prez.

    As far as you bringing that into the classroom, I also agree that we don’t want a Freedom Writers situation, because that often makes me sick. It’s great that discussions like this can happen with people from different cultures because rap culture has become more mainstream, but where is that line between mimicking and true and honest discussion? When do we stop being polite and start being real? HA!

    I think if you’re going to do it in the classroom, do it from the gut i.e. have a true and honest discussion. After all, that’s what rappers do when they use history, math, and current news to formulate their rhymes. They’re the most current record keepers of everything that happens at that point and time. For instance, Joe Budden was the first to talk about A-Rod’s demise in the playoffs in 2006 and Cory Lidle’s death as a metaphor for himself and how hip-hop’s dying around him (“Broken Wings”). But do we want to ignore his rhymes because he uses profanities that are part of the world or do we instead discuss why those profanities come into play, especially in this urban art form? Hmmm.

  14. I’m liking this conversation and am finding myself nodding as I read jose’s comment – “…do we want to ignore his rhymes because he uses profanities that are part of the world or do we instead discuss why those profanities come into play, especially in this urban art form? Hmmm.”

    Why are we worried about bringing profanity into the classroom? So kids won’t swear? so kids won’t know we swear?

    Instead, let’s look at why it is there and the effects it has on us as listeners.

    A few years ago I developed a unit on poetry for one of my groups. We looked at Sonia Sanchez, Langston Hughes and Tupac Shakur amongst others. One of my students went ahead and made a website defending rap music as poetry, using Tupac as poet/rap artist.

    This year, in teaching alliteration and rhyme I looked back at Del, Eric B and Rakim, EPMD, and Blackalicious. My students got a giggle out of the ‘old’ rap I was showing them and scrambled over each other to find examples of alliteration in ‘their’ music.

    Now we are moving on to creating their own poems – a la spoken word – to eventually perform. It’s a long process, but some are already starting to watch different spoken word artists (including rap and hip hop) to find out what makes a good spoken word performance.

    And these are kids with special needs (she says with a wide smile on her face).

    I am discovering how amazing it can be to inspire kids with what is already around them 🙂

  15. Tom,

    I am interested if you are utilizing rap in your classes. I am doing a dissertation and would like to see results from this modality.

  16. Erinn,

    Not sure how much help I’d be with this as I’m now working in college rather than the K12 environment anymore. I’d be happy to talk to you about how I did use it and the results at the time.

    If it all works out I’ll be teaching a class at the Univ. of Richmond next year and plan to really work with incorporating not just rap but lots of different aspects of popular culture to get at some difficult material.


  17. I am in graduate school now to be a 5-12th grade ELA teacher with the goal of working in an urban environment. Working with rap music/lyrics connects what we’re trying to say with their life/reality. As far as swearing, the kids do use it but I think for my classroom, I’ll whiteout the offensive words (kind of a visual “bleep”). I can see it working to help teach what proper English is (so many of these kids speak the language of rappers that I often wonder if they even know it’s wrong!). Plus, I think you can teach symbolism, metaphors, similies, etc… through song lyrics as well as you can through formal pieces written by “dead English guys” (and which do you think the students will be more interested in). It would be great to evaluate a song lyric and then find a poem speaking on the same line to compare (I think 50 Cent “21 Questions” and a poem about questioning a loved one’s devotion woudl be a great comparison!). I can’t wait to get into the classroom to try my ideas! I’d appreciate your comments and thoughts!

  18. Denise,

    I like your ideas. I think they’ll serve you well. One thing I’d watch out for is the idea of “proper” English. Granted there’s English that school accepts and we want to teach that but you’ve got to be really careful about calling the language kids come in with as “improper.” Remember it’s very likely their parent(s) speak that way and their friends etc. I tended to portray it more like school English and the rules needed for this situation vs. non-school English for the things you do outside of school.

    Whiteout should work. We have enough extreme conservatives in my school district that even that might not have been enough. So just make sure you know your community/admins.

    I did the exact same type of thing in terms of teaching English vocab and poetry by comparing more traditional poetry with rap lyrics which had similar themes. I had a lot of success with that and it was fun.



  20. As can be seen on my website, I am very interested in raps. Way over here in Germany, there’s a healthy rap culture with talented rappers like Peter Fox and ‘Die Fantastischen Vier’ to name only a couple.
    After writing two readers about rappers (‘King of the Rappers’ and ‘Rapping for Shelly’, I’ve begun writing rap texts for use in EFL (English as a Foreign Language)classes. My raps are about current issues, ‘timeless’ questions (What’s Life Rap), serious and silly, hitting the various target groups (5th to 12th graders.)
    I’m in retirement now, but am often invited to come to schools. When I do, I get out my trusty tape recorder, play a good solid rap beat and get the kids to perform a rap or two.
    There’s a lot of anxiety and prejudice about rap music over here as there is in the US, but we’re making some inroads -I hope.

  21. ya,,,,,,,,,,,,,u call dat rap…….

    it wasnt bad,,,,,,but here is scope….keep trying,,,u aint gonna be crying,,,,there is hope,,,,i ainbt lying…cmon man,,,,keep trying………..

  22. I’m a middle-school kid and I would be all over something like that! It’d be even cooler if you made up your own raps using vocab words. Or you could make the kids do it. It’s not that hard. Don’t be lazy and get quotes from already existing raps. Most kids at my school know every rapper from eminem to Fresh Prince to NWA. It would get boring hearing quotes from songs they already heard a trillion times.

    1. I don’t know if I’d put that down as lazy. My rap would be of questionable quality. I could go with student created raps though. I would think the connection to things that people had actually heard would be part of the allure but apparently not for you.

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