I harken back to the first time I heard Dr. Dre's and Eminem's "Forgot About Dre". I was at my parents' house, all alone, with the radio turned up to what was probably an unreasonable level. Now I had enjoyed Hip-Hop in the past, most notably in the forms of When Disaster Strikes by Busta Rhymes and The Score by The Fugees, but, up to that point, I wouldn't have identified rap as my genre of choice. However, right at that moment, listening to Dre and Shady ride the waves of that instrumental with such fluidity, something shifted within me. From that moment onward, thanks to that duo's impeccable flows, I was an unapologetic Hip-Hop head.
Flow is everything. It is, in a very real sense, what makes rap music rap music. Much like how the melody is paramount to the singer, the flow is the rapper's most crucial tool at his or her's disposal. While the singer's main goal is to seek a melodious harmony with the music that accompanies them, the rapper's primary focus is to instead develop a rhythmic harmony. Indeed, one's flow is not simply the rhythm behind one's utterances, but rather, and more specifically, it is the relationship that one develops between the rhythm of one's words and the rhythm of the accompanying music.
In a technical sense, one's flow arises out of where and how one decides to place one's syllables and phonemes in relation to the transients -- the kicks, snares, and hi-hats, for example -- within the instrumental. Does one line them up perfectly, or does one place one's syllables a bit before or behind the transients? To what degree does one take advantage of the rests and gaps between the percussive elements? Every rapper has a different set of answers to these questions.
As such, every rapper employs a different approach; therefore, a rapper's flow is their signature. Much like the timbre of an instrument, the flow of an emcee distinguishes them and expresses their individuality. It is a very real, personal assertion.
But an assertion of what, exactly? I've talked before about how an emcee's rhyme scheme is an abstract expression of their relationship with chaos and order. On the other hand, their flow describes their relationship with the passage of time. We as humans instinctively understand time in a rhythmic context; to all of us, life moves at a steady pace of 60 beats per minute. Indeed, by both constructing and fractioning time into these bite-sized, rhythmic pieces, we are able to wrap our minds around the macrocosmic that is the fourth dimension.
Flow, then, is a deeper exploration into this phenomenon -- into making the infinite finite and digestible. We as emcees take large swaths of time and partition them down into portions just large enough to each house a single syllable. The amazing thing is that each of us will partition a little bit differently, and, thus, our portions will never be identical. Therefore, we can posit that flow is a two-way street: while, on the one hand, flow is about sectioning the infinite into definable segments, it's also about taking finite portions of time and seeing a infinite amount of possibilities.
Positing that flow is everything, then, begins to make that much more sense. It is the embodiment of a free-flowing discussion between the infinite and the finite, the limitless and the definitive. How we engage with this discussion is a function of who we are as people, artists, and individuals, and the resulting discourse has culminated in the most popular genre of music on Earth. So the next time you hear your favourite rapper tearing up a flow, perhaps consider what they're saying about the passage of time in all of its infinite glory.
Matthew "AntiFrantik" Carter | Twitter: @AntiFrantik | IG: @AntiFrantik | https://muddyork.wordpress.com/