The Art of Emceeing

Lupe Fiasco
Lupe Fiasco. (Photo by Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)

Who is an Emcee?

The term "emcee" is derived from the abbreviation M.C. It is full for "Master of Ceremonies," and also implies "Move the Crowd." An emcee is a person who raps to inspire people with clear, concise and compelling content. If that sounds like fancy alliteration, it's not. Pure MCs take the art seriously. Where others would rather rhyme words in a catchy manner, MCs take their game to the next level.

They contort words and flows in ways few would ever dare. They take the time to actually make their words count. That's just one of the many differentiating factors between rappers and those who consider themselves MCs.

From An Emcee's Perspective

Who best to help us with the definition of "MC" than one of the best in the business: Stic.man of the legendary rap duo, dead prez. In his book, The Art of Emceeing, Stic.man says: "A rapper is to an emcee what an average street fighter is to a trained martial artist. They are both fighters but the degree and depth of their skill is very different."

There Were Emcees Before Hip-Hop 

Don't get it twisted: emceeing did not necessarily originate from hip-hop. In fact, emceeing was around before the days of slavery, long before civilization blessed mankind with a microphone. The earliest pioneers of emceeing were African griots or poets, who delivered their rhythmic folk tales over drums and other forms of instrumentation.

Little did they know back then that they were innovating an art form that would directly influence rap music.

The Elements of Emceeing

Certified emcees stand out because they share certain elements in common. Let's consider a few elements of emceeing:

Rhyme Scheme: This is also known as rhyme structure.

An emcee's rhyme scheme refers to the pattern of his rhymes. This ranges from a basic 4/4 rhyme scheme (think Kanye West or Drake) to complex, multi-syllabic rhyme schemes (think Eminem or Tech N9ne).

Delivery: An emcee's delivery is the way he or she flows. Delivery varies based on cadence, speed, melody, intonation, rhythm, enunciation, and even accent. Great MCs like Eminem and Nas have a way of alternating flows with swiftness. Other emcees can flow slow (Evidence), while a few prefer to bust rhymes in double time (Busta Rhymes). Still others rhyme like they're rapping for dear life (Twista), pushing the boundaries of speed rap, while barely breathing.

Breath Control: Speaking of breathing, no one likes to hear a breathy flow. Breath control is how you pace your words to allow for small breath breaks. World-class emcees write their rhymes in such a way that allows for these breaks. If they're really good at it, the listener will barely notice. Breath control is one of the most underrated qualities of MCs. (For a lesson on breath control, revisit Lupe Fiasco's first album Food & Liquor, then check out his newer material for comparison.)

Word Play: One listen to the Notorious B.I.G.

and our session on word play is complete. Biggie had the ability to experiment with words creatively.

Some Great Emcees: