Vol 4: What Does it Mean to be an Emcee?


Art is subjective and that’s a good thing. There is no formula for creative magic, so trying to prescribe it is impossible—and wack! I think where a lot of Hip Hop heads go off the rails is when they try to set themselves up as the lords of the genre: “Who deserves five mics, who deserves two. But the nigga with two still can serve you!” That said, we should all be able to set standards as to what an artist in a particular art form is. For example, I can’t call myself a painter because I create pencil sketches, nor can I call myself a sculptor because I play with Legos.

So what defines an emcee? Whenever I get into a top five emcees conversation/debate, very few people born outside of LA and/or after 1984 understand why Ice Cube holds the number one slot on my list. I’m not interested in making a case for Cube here, but my rationale has all to do with how I define what a real emcee is: a poet (i.e. writes his own lyrics) and rapper who reports on the black/urban experience.

There are three main components to my definition, the first of which is this: you must be a poet. FOH if you’re trying to call yourself an emcee and you use ghost writers. I’m not debating fringe examples of legends who may have used a ghost writer a few times. The standard remains, and if you regularly use ghost writers, you’re a performer and not an emcee. You’re akin to those clowns on cable news who are talking heads, not journalists. Or in the music world, you’re like an R&B singer who doesn’t write their own songs.

Second, you have to be able to rap. If you don’t have breath control, or aren’t able to ride the beat, or can’t enunciate your words, you’re not an emcee. These cats out here who stay off-beat, or mumble over the track, are doing something else. Most notably, they’re freeloading off of the producer. The dopest emcees create lyrics that are so fly, they could rhyme a cappella and the rhythm of their flow will keep the crowd rockin’.

The third and final component is you have to report on the black/urban experience. Hip Hop is from the streets and has been the most authentic news source in the history of the hood. It is/was the unfiltered voice of the voiceless. Unfortunately, most folks from the hood were so eager to be accepted by the mainstream, we started producing and accepting folks who called themselves emcees but talked about some other shit; e.g. runway apparel. We can’t complain about cultural appropriation when we actively validate content that has nothing to do with the culture of Hip Hop.

So for those of you who love formulas: poet + rapper + urban reporter = emcee.

Every serious discussion I’ve ever heard about a “real emcee” has contained these elements. Dudes used to get ran out the game for being exposed as impostors, then we became obsessed with celebrity and started accepting pop artists as emcees. The rift that exists in Hip Hop right now is based on this cultural phenomenon. On one side you’ve got Hip Hop heads like me who will never accept pop artists as emcees, and on the other side you’ve got people who appreciate what it takes to be a performer. They aren’t concerned if the artist actually wrote the lyrics, or if they’re a mumbler, or if they’ll ever mention #BlackLivesMatter. But my point is simple: an emcee is an emcee is an emcee. Let’s celebrate the real ones and quit being accomplices in Hip Hop’s cultural appropriation.

If you want to hear music from dope underground emcees, be sure to check out the Vaytus app in the iOS App Store.

Music for the Rest of Us is an exploration of dope music made with artistic integrity— music that’s about something more than just the turn up. Written by Aniefre Essien.

By Aniefre Essien

Aniefre is a Los Angeles native with varied interests ranging from the Afro-Brazilian martial art of capoeira to an undying love of Lakers basketball, even in the lean years. He's an alum of both San Francisco State University (BS) and the University of Michigan (MBA), and is a firm believer in education as its own reward.