How Hip Hop Music Can Teach You to Program

Project Management

Writing computer code can be difficult, but rewarding. It is very much like writing music. It is difficult to do well, and people can tell if you aren’t doing it well. In this article by Shareef Jackson, we learn that writing computer code follows a format, or template, like writing music.

One thing I love about early hip hop is that while the artists may change, the structure stays the same. There’s always a beat, some verses, and a chorus. There are variations on this, of course, but the structure of a hip hop song is something I internalized from childhood. It gave me a sense of comfort whenever I heard a new song, and added to the element of surprise when an artist could still be creative within the confines of that structure.

During the late 80s to the early 90s, my favorite period of hip hop, there were plenty of artists innovating against traditional strutures. Rakim helped transition hip hop from the Run-DMC era, and established the sound of a modern MC. But there were other, weirder acts—Kool Keith and Ced Gee of Ultramagnetic MCs introduced an off-beat rap style that didn’t seem like it should work, but it did! Public Enemy combined Chuck D’s forceful delivery with Flavor Flav’s nonsense. Das EFX threw in all kinds of stutters and -iggity’s to the end of their rhymes. And the Kool Genius of Rap stuffed multiple instances of rhyming words in places that no one else could, a tactic that was later picked up by Big Pun and Eminem.
Despite all of that, the template stays the same: beats, verses, and choruses. The only thing that changed was how the beats were produced, the delivery and rhyme schemes within the verses, and the catchiness of the chorus. I used to write my favorite rhymes in a notebook so I could memorize them. Pretty soon, I started writing my own rhymes in my black and white composition book. I would take a blank sheet of paper and write out a template. I’d split the page into four sections, and title each section as below:

Verse 1

Chorus

Verse 2

Verse 3

I only had one section for the chorus, because I knew it would be repeated after verse 2 and 3. “Why put three different sections for the chorus if it’s the same each time?” I thought. “I can just place it once, and then reference it at the end of the second and third verse”. Most importantly, I thought “If I ever need to change the chorus, I only need to change it in one place”.

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