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Thursday, May 9, 2013

Rapper's Flow Encyclopedia - Big Boi

In today’s analysis we are going to go into somewhat uncharted territory for my analysis. This time, we’ll be taking a look at the Dirty South – Big Boi aka Daddy Fat Saxxx aka Sir Lucious Left Foot aka Francis the Savannah Chitlin Pimp (and more.) But today, I’m gonna switch up styles on you: we’re gonna take a look more at the musical rhythms of Big Boi’s verses on “Aquemini”, rather than what could be called the verbal rhythms of his verse, the words and such. To that end, I am going to walk you through the whole process: from the basic rhythms that happen in rap music, to some variations on them, and then on to how a rapper can combine all these different techniques to come up with very distinct, subtle rhythms.
I know “subtle” is not the first word that comes to mind for you when you think of Big Boi, but some of his flows are so specific that it is really the only adjective that works. I’ll keep the long reading to a minimum as much as possible and show you rather than tell you with lots of videos and audio. At the end, we’ll finally see what contributes to Big Boi’s southern-feeling flow, and that kind of swing, jazz feel that the listener gets from him. And answer the question: just what IS he doing when he talks so damn fast?

The song is on youtube below:

The Rapgenius lyrics are here.

To get our answers, we’re going to need to go through some basic music theory. Now, there is a good amount of simple math in here, but if you just read through it the videos will demonstrate it for you much better.

Now, for rap music, the time signature is 4/4. A time signature is what organizes musical time. The number is not a fraction – 4 is not divided by 4. Instead, the top number signifies how many beats there are in a measure, and the bottom number signifies what rhythmic duration gets the beat. So from that 4/4, we know that there are 4 beats to a measure, and the quarter note gets the beat. A measure, also called a bar in rap music, is simply a length of musical time. It is similar to a minute in that way, but unlike a minute, a measure can last a differing amount of seconds depending on how fast a song is. And just like a minute is made up of seconds, a bar is made up of a smaller time duration: a quarter note. 4 of them, to be exact. Musicians use the beat defined by the time signature to keep track of musical time instead of seconds because, as you know from your own experience, sometimes music is slow and sometimes it is fast. A rapper or producer needs to be able to count to themselves where they are in the music so that they place their musical idea in the right place. This is what makes musical sounds musical – they are all organized in strict time relationships to each other. That’s why the jangling of your keys or running water doesn’t sound musical, but Dre’s beat on “How We Do” does – they are all separated from each other according to divisions of that same beat.

So, all of a song’s musical events – for instance, in the song we’ll be examining, “Aquemini,” the guitar, the synth, the sung chorus – can all be placed in musical time according to divisions of that beat. (Note that this use of the term “beat” is different from what is sometimes called the beat in rap music, which definition refers to the musical backing of a song’s track — everything besides a rapper’s words.) Music notation represents this concept very well, and that is why I’ve chosen to use it.

The video below plays the beat, which remember, is 4 quarter notes in a measure in rap music. Those black round circles on the line with the vertical line connected to them represent the musical duration of a quarter note, and are played by the high triangle. The squiggly things in between them are called quarter note rests – they last the same amount of time as a quarter note, but instead represent that no note is supposed to play on them. For every video, you will get a bar of rest from the triangle, represented by that square thing on the line, and a bar of the bass kick being played.
In the video below, the lower bass drum you hear is playing the quarter note of the 4/4 time signature. Thus, it plays on every quarter note in a bar. Then, we have the triangle playing all those quarter note beats, lining up exactly with the bass kick drum. Just ignore the blank music line in the middle for now. Check it out for yourself:

In the next video, we have that quarter note split in half, which is called, logically, an 8th note (¼ divided by 2 = 1/8.) The 8th note musical duration is represented by those same black circles with vertical lines like a quarter note, but this time they are connected across the top with a horizontal line, called a beam. Thus, in the video below, we have 2 8th notes followed by a quarter note, and then another 2 8th notes followed by a quarter note. Then, we have a whole bar of 8th notes. You can tell for yourself that each 8th note lasts half a quarter note. You can also tell that 8 8th notes take up the same amount of time as 4 quarter notes.

What would you expect we can do with 8th notes? That’s right, cut them in half too. And that gives us 16th notes (1/8 divided by 2 = 1/16.) And 16 16th notes last the same amount of time as 8 8th notes that last the same amount of time as 4 quarter notes. (Notice a pattern yet?) In the video below, 4 16th notes, represented by the double horizontal lines above the notes connecting each other, are played, followed by a quarter note, all happening twice. You can tell for yourself that 4 16th notes last the same amount of time as 1 quarter note, which, again, is being played by the bass kick drum. Then, after the full bar rest by the triangle, there is a full bar of 16th notes.

Now, we could divide 16th notes again into 32nd notes, but that makes the notes even faster and are very hard to rap. So, most rap happens at the level of the 16th note. We can combine all of these – quarter notes, 8th notes, and 16th notes – to make interesting rhythms, because doing the same rhythmic level all the time would be really boring. So, we might get something like the following:
However, we still need a little more spice. Why do the triangle notes always have to land at the same time as every bass kick drum hit? Well, they don’t. When notes skip that underlying beat playing the bass kick drum, which is present in all music even if no notes are hitting it, then we call that syncopation. That’s demonstrated below:

But that’s still a little too robotic. How about we turn to a master, Notorious B.I.G., in the following 4 bars. They are the first 4 of Biggie’s verse on “Hypnotize”:

There, you see he’s combined all the metric levels: he opens with syncopation off the bass kick drum with “pop”, 4 16th notes on the 2nd beat (“sicker than your”), 2 8th notes (“average”), 2 16th notes with an 8th note (“papa twist”), and so on. A combination of those levels of rhythm with syncopation is what gives a rapper’s rhythms spice.

However, who says we have to always divide the beat by half, into 2 8th notes?

Well — again, we don’t.

What if we divided it by 3? Then, you’d get what we call “triplet” 8th notes, while what we described above – quarter notes, 8th notes, and 16th notes – are called “duplet” 8th notes. And what makes Big Boi’s flow so unique is that it occurs at a metric level where the triplets and duplets are actually equivalent to each other, and can flow back and forth between each kind of division, by 2 or 3.
Played below is the quarter note beat, still played by the bass kick, divided into three by the triangle. After a bar of rest from the triangle, you’ll then have demonstrated how the 3 triplets and 4 16th notes last the same amount of time – the length of a beat, still played by the bass kick. Then, you’ll have a full bar of triplets.

And we can do with those triplets what we did with the 8th notes: cut them in half. This gives us what we call “sextuplets”, since 3 x 2 = 6. In the first half of the first bar of the triangle playing in the video below, I give you a full beat of 3 triplet 8th notes. In the second half of that bar, I divide the first triplet 8th note, which falls on the beat, by 2, making 2 triplet 16th notes. They are represented still by those 2 horizontal lines connecting above the notes, and that “3” above the bracket.
In the next bar, I divide the 2nd triplet 8th note into 2 triplet 16th notes as well, just like we did with the first triplet 8th note, so that there is just one full triplet 8th note left at the end.
In the 3rd bar, I divide that last triplet note by half so that all 3 triplet 8th notes are split in two, and we get 6 16th notes per beat. I place a quarter note between those full sextuplet beats.
Finally, I give you a full bar of those 6 16th notes. You can still hear that 6 sextuplets take up the same amount of time as the quarter note played by the bass kick drum.

However, we can also arrive at sextuplets from the rhythmic duration of the duplet 8th note. What if we had the musical duration of a duplet 8th note, equal to half of one quarter note, divided by 3 instead of 2 like before, just like we divided the quarter note beat into 3 8th notes instead of 2 8th notes?

That’s what I walk you through in the video below: I start out with a full bar of 2 duplet 8th notes played against a single quarter note in the bass kick.

In the 2nd bar, I divide one of the 8th notes divides into 3. Again, that duplet 8th note + 3 triplet 16th notes = 1 quarter note, as you can hear against the bass kick.

Next, just like above, I split both duplet 8th notes into 3, so that you get the same 6 sextuplets per beat that we had above. I play 6 sextuplets to a beat followed by a quarter note twice, and then fill a full bar with sextuplets.

Just think about it for yourself: 6 can be divided by 3, or 2, and you still arrive at a whole number.
The easiest way to see this is to apply it to the rap of Big Boi. In the video below are the first 2 bars of his rap. The bass kick is still playing the quarter note level. Listen to all of the rhythmic levels we have described so far occur in Big Boi’s rap:

In the above, we get the sextuplet level during the first beat “Now is the time to…”, and the 4 16th notes to a beat in the second bar (“get your work and…”).

But now let’s listen to the same 2 bars with the 8th note level represented as well, this time by the higher snare drum hit.

There, we can hear the 2 16th notes to an 8th note (on the words “like spike”, or “Lee said,”) and the 3 16th notes to an 8th note there (“get on the”.) Listen for yourself how each lasts the same amount of time as the 8th note snare, which is itself half of the quarter note beat played by the low bass kick drum.

But, as we established above with the syncopation and the example from Biggie’s “Hypnotize”, you don’t always need to fill the entire beat full of notes. That’s what he does here on the words “get on”, where he hits on only the first 2 16th notes of the triplet 16th note level, or on the words “is a”, where he hits on only the last 2 16th notes of the triplet 16th note level.

So, sometimes Big Boi makes the sextuplet play on the 4-16th-notes-to-a-beat level, which, remember, are called duplet 16th notes. He does this below, on the words “you on that dust” (3 triplet 16th notes, represented by that 3 over the words, plus the duplet 8th note of “dust”, equals 1 beat of the bass kick drum), or “familiar with that” (3 triplet 16th notes + 2 duplet 16th notes = 1 beat of the bass kick drum.)

But in the same 2 bars, he also plays on the triplet level of the sextuplet:
In the above, he does this on “smack man”, “green stuff”, “sack man”, and “pac man”, and “that man.” You can hear that those rhythms are close to, but not quite, the duplet 16th note rhythms. Because the rhythm on the words “smack man, the” is not this:

Or this:

But this:

Although this is impressive in itself, the flawless way in which Big Boi moves between these 2 levels of rap is what’s most impressive. Consider the next 4 bars:

Notice how he moves between the full sextuplet level, which is both duplet and triplet together (“ready to bust on”, “any nigga like”), to the triplet level (“that man”), back to sextuplet (“me and my nigga we”), to the duplet level (“roll to-“), to the 16th note triplet level (“-gether like”), back to the triplet level + sextuplet level (“bat man and”,) and so on.

This equivalency of rhythmic level between the triplet and duplet can be represented by the fact that sextuplets, the intersection of the triplet (“three”) and duplet (“2”) can be notated in a number of ways (3 x 2 = the “6” of sextuplet,) as I’ve done in the music you’ve seen. Notice that the rhythms in the video below in the first bar all sound the same, and that the rhythms in the second bar all sound the same.

Each separate notation simply represents a different rhythmic level, either the triplet, the duplet, or the triplet and duplet together, called the sextuplet. You can tell that they still all last the same amount of time. What notation you choose is simply which one most accurately reflects the rhythmic level of the music being played, or the rap.

Now, listen to his whole 1st verse and 2nd verse combined and try to hear all of these changes:

These rhythms are, for me, the defining style of Big Boi’s rap. He uses them in tons of songs, not just this one. And, conversely, his rhymes are rather unremarkable. Not that they aren’t good, it’s just that I literally do not have much to say about them. They are mostly single syllable rhymes, both inside and at the end of the sentence. His sentence structure is varied in that it doesn’t always end and start at the bar, but it’s nothing we haven’t seen before.

Thanks for reading!


  1. hey thanks for doing these breakdowns, Im learning a whole lot !


    1. No problem! Thanks for reading them!

  2. Nice work with this!! Loving all of these

    1. Thanks man! If you like Big Boi, you MUST like André 3000, and I did an article on him over here too:

      Enjoy man! And email me if you wanna chop it up more, thanks!