Sacha Jenkins’ Word Is Bond celebrates the art of lyricism in hip-hop at a time when the genre’s mainstream is mostly focused elsewhere: on bunker-busting beats, on beguiling melodies, on Spotify playlist selection. This film is heavy on interviews with hip-hop veterans, including rap royalty like Nas, Rakim and Big Daddy Kane; a few newer artists also make an appearance, notably Flatbush Zombies and Anderson .Paak. Between interviews, pencil-on-paper drawings appear to happen on-screen in real time, providing a pleasing visual companion to each rapper’s words. Here are eight takeaways from this docu-survey of how to put together the perfect 16 bars or die tryin’.
1. Hip-hop appeared to become dominant overnight.
Big Daddy Kane and Rakim both remember how quickly hip-hop became the driving force in their lives. “When rap came through the neighborhood, it took the hood by storm,” Rakim recalls. “It was like the next day, everybody was rappers and breakdancers and DJs.” And he can still recite his very first rhyme: “Mickey Mouse built the house, he built it by the border/ An earthquake came and rocked his crib and now it’s in the water.”
Kane says he also took immediately to the form, and remembers his you-need-to-up-your-game moment. “I thought I was killing it,” he claims, until a friend played him the Cold Crush Brothers. After that, “I ripped all my rhymes up and started my whole life over.”
2. Pay attention to the downbeat.
Word Is Bond is best when it stays away from generalities about the importance of lyricism and digs into the nitty gritty details. Brother Ali provides a quick hip-hop history lesson by discussing various MCs’ relationship with “the one,” or the downbeat. But he comes at this sideways during a conversation with the rapper Slug about writing down rhymes in a way that allows you to remember their cadence. “The first space in a line is always the one,” Ali explains. “If you come in before … those words go on a line above, and the syllable that hits on the one is the first space on the line.”
He continues, “Chuck D was really big on hitting the one: [raps Public Enemy’s “Don’t Believe the Hype.”]. Other people might come in before the one: [raps LL Cool J’s “Mama Said Knock You Out”]. Nowadays people miss the one mostly. When you miss, you put a dot there to hold that place.”
3. Nomenclature is important.
“An MC having someone else write his rhymes is whack,” Big Daddy Kane declares. “An artist having someone write their rhymes is understandable, because every other artist in every other genre of music does that.”
Pusha T prefers to differentiate between rapper and entertainer. “My brother’s five years older than me, and I told my brother, ‘MC Hammer is the best rapper, you gotta check this guy out!’ he explains. “He said, ‘No, man, MC Hammer’s the best entertainer. There’s a big difference between what MC Hammer says and what … Rakim or Run-D.M.C. [says].’ I started listening differently.”
4. There’s no right way to write and record your raps.
Pusha T prefers to write rhymes “early in the morning in the shower …. Water and the shower is the best freestyle session.” Jadakiss and Styles P insist that when they are recording, they must deliver an entire verse all in one go, not construct it piece meal from multiple takes containing different lines. Slug gets all his ideas while he’s behind the wheel. “I like to think of things to write about while I’m driving,” he explains. “By having my peripheral vision stimulated, it allows me to start thinking in a way that I can’t do when I’m just sitting at a desk. It allows me to think around the story … driving is problem-solving. Driving is my favorite thing in the world.” Other than rapping, presumably.
5. Jay-Z might have ended up with the “Grindin'” beat.
Word is Bond takes some unexpected digressions, but who would object when Pusha T starts telling the origin story of the Clipse classic “Grindin'”? “Pharrell was at the studio and he basically called me and told me, if I didn’t get to there in 15 minutes, he was gonna give a beat to Jay-Z,” Pusha T recalls. “He’s like, ‘No, listen … you better get here: Don’t sleep, don’t do nothing, don’t hesitate, don’t stop.'”
“[The beat] was so unorthodox to me, I think that might have been the first time I had to re-write a verse,” the rapper continues. “[It’s got] no formulaic structure or hook at a time when Pharrell was at his height, singing on every record on the radio, and he didn’t sing on ours.”
6. “I hate rap right now!”: Part 1
The documentary mostly shies away from taking shots at mainstream hip-hop, until Peedi Crakk shows up. The first words out of his mouth are, “I hate rap right now!”
He continues: “The competitiveness is gone, because there ain’t nobody hot to even compete with …. These niggas is horrible. I need somebody to put some pep in my shit lyrically. It’s ass backwards right now. The dope people gets no credit, and the whack niggas … it’s like a party for these dudes!”
7. “I hate rap right now!”: Part 2
Crakk’s sidekick in the “back in my day” games is Tech N9ne. “We’ve been doing this for so many years we write our shit to perform it live,” he exclaims. “The youngsters don’t do that nowadays. That’s cool – they didn’t have no OG teachers teachin’ em. ‘How you gonna rap that on stage? You just rappin’ and rappin’ and rappin’. When you gonna get a breath?’ Um… I don’t know.”
8. To ghostwrite or not to ghostwrite – that is the question.
The most interesting part of Word is Bond might be the heated debate towards the end about ghostwriting – is it acceptable in special cases, or does it count as an immediate affront to true lyricists? Flatbush Zombies’ Meechy Darko wants a better definition of what constitutes ghostwriting. “What is allowed?” he wonders. “My friend that I do music with my whole life can’t tell me, you should say ‘the’ instead of ‘that’ at the end of that bar? Now I have a ghostwriter? I’m whack now?”
Jadakiss believes ghostwriting is fine, as long as a rapper admits he’s using someone else’s lyrics – at which point maybe it’s not ghostwriting any more. “If somebody’s writing for you, you should let that be known, and then it’s a fair shake,” he says. “When it’s going on under the table, you’re cheating the people, tricking the culture.”
“But as a writer,” Styles P adds, “I’d take the gig.”