Hip-Hop Terminology

Written on Jun 6, 2023

Hip-hop is a culture in itself that has its own set of terminology. Since hip-hop is a culture that is constantly evolving, so is the terminology that goes along with it. This post is a living document that will be updated as new terms are added to the culture.

Bar

Generally in music, a bar refers to a section of music that holds a certain number of beats. Each one of these sections can hold a number of beats ranging from three, four, six, or eight, although four is by far the most common.

In hip hop though, a bar is thought of as something slightly different. Taking the four count bar as an example, a bar would be the lyrics that a rapper said within that four count.

In this audio clip, listen in the background when Royce counts. He's counting each time he finishes a bar right before the next one starts.

When you hear a phrase like "BARS!!", that can refer to either a single line or multiple lines that are particularly 🔥.

Most songs are with three verses, each one spanning 16 bars. Sometimes though, rappers will break that 'rule of thumb' and just go crazy. This next audio clip is from a song called "100 Bars" by Canibus. It's a song that is literally 100 bars long with no chorus or hook. It's incredible.

Here's a link to the whole song

Verse

A verse is a section of a song that is usually 16 bars long. It's the main part of the song where the rapper is well... rapping. Verses are normally followed by a chorus or a hook and most often, songs are three verses long.

Although traditionally songs are three verses long, that's by no means a rule. Especially in undergroud rap. Songs are getting shorter and shorter and some songs only have two verses.

Chorus

A chorus is a section of a song that is repeated throughout the song. The chorus is normally placed after each verse and sometimes, a song starts off with the chorus. It's usually the most memorable part of the song and is often the part that people sing along to.

Long Play (LP)

This is another term for full length album. Traditionally, an LP is a vinyl record that can hold up to 30 minutes of music on each side. This is why most albums are around 60 minutes long. But in the digital era, an LP is another name for a full length album.

I wrote a more in-depth post about the difference between an LP, EP and a mixtape here if you want to check it out.

Extended Play (EP)

An EP is a shorter project than an LP. It's usually around 20-30 minutes long and has 4-6 songs on it. It's a good way for an artist to release a project without having to go through the process of making a full length album.

Metaphor

Everyone loves a good metaphor and it's often something that seperates an elite wordsmith from a non-elite wordsmith. A metaphor is a figure of speech that compares two things that are not alike. Some metaphors are difficult to decipher and can have a multitiude of different meanings depending on the listener.

Battle rappers are particularly good at using metaphors. They'll often use metaphors to describe how they're going to kill their opponent (in the context of the rap battle).

Check this out from the battle rap legend Loaded Lux:

In this ring, I'm a surgeon with the blade, precision's my potion/ Every line I'm spitting is a scalpel, dissecting with devotion.

Here he's comparing himself to a surgeon and his lyrics to a scalpel. He's saying that he's going to dissect his opponent with his lyrics.

Simile

A simile is close to the same thing as a metaphor, except that it uses the word "like" or "as" explicitly. It's a way of describing something by comparing it to something else. Here are some examples:

Coming from the deep black like the Loch Ness/ now bring apocalypse like the Heart of Darkness.

Talib Kweli on We Got the Beat

Like Slick Rick the Ruler I'm cooler than a ice brick/ got soul like those afro picks, with the black fist/ and leave a crowd dripping like John the Baptist

Black Thought on Mellow My Man

I run the Gambit like I'm throwing cards

Lupe Fiasco on Mural

Wordplay

Wordplay is a technique that rappers use to manipulate words in a clever way. It's a way of using words in a way that is unexpected or that has multiple meanings.

GZA is a rap legend who's known for his metaphors and incredible wordplay. This song from his album "The Legend of the Liquid Sword" is called "Fame" and the entire song is a play on words. He uses celebrity names in an amazing way to piece certain parts of the songs together.

Chris Tucker to a show, Ted Turner to a ho/ Robert Diggs the beat, but ain't feelin the flow/ But he signed it fast, for half of Johnny's Cash/ Nia Longed for the album to drop, cameras flashed/ Tom Sawyer at the Lucielle Ball up at the foyer/ He confronted Richard Pryor to hiring his lawyer/ Suge's Knight removed the rook off the board/ Don King was checked and Al Sharpton the sword/

GZA on Fame

It's one of the best displays of wordplay I've ever heard. Here's a little audio clip:

This is an ever growing list of hip hop terminology. More to come.

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About the author

I‘m not music expert but I know what good hip hop sounds like. I‘m just a dude who loves music and feels that non-mainstream hip hop is under-represented and under-appreciated. All thoughts and opinions are my own but I‘d love to discuss.

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