Sometimes people write me asking for advice. This is strange because I drive a Honda Fit but also makes sense because I drive a Honda Fit, if that makes sense. I've been to the GRAMMYs, got in a fight with Xzibit one time at the Playboy Mansion, but I also know what life is like for the average artist just trying to get by. That's my life.
All of that is a long-winded way of saying that I assume no responsibility for anyone who has their life ruined because they followed the life advice of a stranger on the internet. And with that disclaimer out of the way, here's a real, verbatim email:
Hey Nathan, I'm an 18 year old trying to rap in New York & think I have something good to offer even though I'm sure so do millions of others. I'm having a bit of trouble finding ways to start off & I really would appreciate some guidance & advice. I don't understand whether I should buy a mic & set up shop in my basement to make a mixtape, or go out & find a studio that I can make my music in. I also don't know how that whole finding a producer to work with you thing happens, etc. there's so many questions about the game that I have & have no one to really ask. I'd really appreciate what you have to say, thank you for your time.
Louis, if I understand you correctly, essentially your question is: how do I become a rapper? Before we get to the logistics of your question though, let me ask you a more important question first; why do you want to rap?
Whether it's writing, music or any art, no one says this—at least not that I see—so I'll say it now: It's ok for rap to be a hobby. It's OK for rap to be a passion that improves your life but never becomes a career, never makes you rich and famous. That's not just OK, in many ways I'd recommend it.
Music can make your life better, it can be your therapy, become an escape from your ordinary life and a way to look at that life through a new lens. It can connect you with others, strangers, in beautiful and profound ways. So what's wrong with working a day job—preferably not a day job you hate, but one that allows you to pay your bills and maintain a sense of dignity—and then coming home and making music that makes you happy? So what if you never make any money rapping? So...fucking...what? If rap serves as a vehicle for you to express yourself creatively, connect with others and improve your life, there's no downside. And even if you find a niche and make, say, $50K a year, do you know how many people in America break their backs working for far less? Start rapping right now and never stop. In that sense, it's impossible to have too many rappers in the world.
If you're approaching music as the channel through which you're going to fulfill not only all your personal and spiritual dreams but your professional and financial dreams as well, it's going to be a rough ride. No matter how hard you work, how talented you are, music's an extraordinarily difficult path to making money. 80 percent of all restaurants fail in the first five years, and I've been doing this long enough to know that the rapper failure rate is even higher. The market is absurdly saturated, the returns are historically low (pennies on the dollar), no one who cares about your future would recommend it as a career path.
And worse, maintaining that raw love you have for music in the face of all those financial hardships is going to be a war. Turning your music into a business will change your relationship to music, it will change your relationships with other people, and you'll spend more energy managing those relationships, and your relationship to yourself, than actually making music.
"Struggle rapper" is the lowest insult of our age, but you're only struggling if you're not doing what you're striving for, and if you're striving to be the next millionaire rapper, your career is almost inevitably going to be a struggle. But if music is your refuge, a meaningful part of your life instead of the way you make a living, then there's no struggle at all, only contentment. You can never fail.
My NBA dreams ended in high school when it was clear I wasn't topping six feet and I have the vertical jumping ability of an obese cat. I still play pick-up games because it keeps me from becoming an actual obese cat and keeps my shit talking skills sharp, but if I thought there was a chance, even an incredibly remote chance, that some NBA scout could walk by every time I set foot on a court and bring me up to the league? The pressure would suck all the joy out of playing. In athletics there are clearer boundaries, there's just a flat out zero percent chance of me making the NBA, but in music? Maybe you could really run into Kanye and become the next star. It's incredibly incredibly rare, but it does happen, and to pursue that possibility is to invite suffocation.
If after all that you're still dead set on becoming a rapper of the professional sort, the next [insert name of your favorite rapper here], more power to you. That kind of stubbornness and faith in yourself is what you need to actually make it happen. Either way, to return to your actual question after that enormous detour, don't get in a studio, not yet. Don't even set out to make a "mixtape." Just make your own versions of songs over beats, write and write and keep writing. At first you'll sound exactly like your heroes, but eventually, you'll find your own voice.
Once you've found your voice, find others with the same dream. Make that your life, and everything else will manifest. The producers, the studio, the fame and fortune, everything. Except maybe it won't. It all depends, why do you want to be a rapper?