Learning From Hip-Hop: Lessons for Debaters from How To Rap: The Art and Science of the Hip-Hop MC

“Learn everything you can, anytime you can, from anyone you can—there will always come a time when you will be grateful you did.” — Sarah Caldwell

If one looks closely enough, there are lessons to be learned about debate almost everywhere. The book Moneyball—Michael Lewis’s look at the exploitation of market inefficiencies in Major League Baseball—for example, can help us consider ways to exploit market inefficiencies in debate. While management strategies in professional baseball would seem at first glance to have little to do with high school debate, important lessons can nonetheless be learned—if only we take the time to dig a bit deeper.

In the same way that Moneyball inspired reflection about market inefficiencies in debate, Paul Edwards’ How to Rap: The Art and Science of the Hip-Hop MC provides the astute observer with a wealth of lessons for high school debaters. How to Rap is a comprehensive guide to hip-hop MCing that includes lengthy discussions of content, flow, writing, and delivery. Based on interviews with more than 100 MCs, Edwards’ book “marks a cultural coming-of-age for hip-hop — the first comprehensive poetics of this new literary form.”

While the entire book is fascinating, the section about delivery is particularly useful for high school debate. This article refashions Edwards’ advice to prospective MCs and applies it to debate. Five areas of advice are outlined: Breath Control, Taking Care of Your Voice, Enunciation, Vocal Style, and Presence/Swagger.

Breath Control

Breath control allows you to say your rhymes without running out of breath and to adjust the volume and strength of your vocals. If you’re not in control of your breathing and you don’t get enough air when you’re performing your lyrics, then either you won’t be able to complete your rhymes or they won’t come out the way you intended. (p. 239)

Like MCs, debaters need to speak with maximum effort for long periods of time. Unfortunately, few coaches teach proper breath control and many debaters develop poor breathing habits that remain uncorrected for their entire careers. To effectively control breathing, debaters (like MCs) need to breathe diaphragmatically—from the belly, not the chest.

The breath control needed in MCing is similar to the breath control singing and acting require, so MCs use the same techniques and exercises singers and actors use to project their vocals through their breathing. (p. 242)

A variety of symptoms manifest themselves in debaters that are not breathing diaphragmatically: they have trouble projecting their voices, they struggle with breathing (double-breathing or taking breaths often and in a distracting way), they become exhausted during speeches, and they often lose their voice or develop a sore throat during tournaments.

There are a variety of exercises that can be used to develop diaphragmatic breathing. Because it is the natural way for humans to breathe, it is relatively easy for most people to learn.

The importance of diaphragmatic breathing for debaters can’t be overstated. By breathing correctly, debaters can better project their voices, maintain stronger volume and clarity, and sustain their vocal quality throughout a long tournament. Like an MC performing a long concert, a debater that reaches the late elimination rounds needs to perform at their best for several consecutive days and in high-pressure situations. Only debaters with proper technique will be able to do so.

Taking Care of Your Voice

Because your voice is your instrument for delivering your rhymes to people, it is important to look after it. You can damage your voice by straining it and not properly resting it, so be careful to avoid these tendencies when recording or performing live. (p. 260)

MCs need to maintain their voices for long recording sessions and concert tours. In the same way, debaters need to maintain their voices for long tournaments and full seasons.

Many up-and-coming MCs don’t pay proper attention to main- taining their voices. Vinnie Paz of Jedi Mind Tricks, known for his guttural vocals, explains that “the process of taking care of your voice is a whole art in and of itself. There are a lot of younger MCs, you see them do one show and their voice will be blown out.” (p. 261)

Learning to breathe and speak diaphragmatically is the single most important way to build stamina as a speaker. Beyond good technique, debaters should practice their speaking every day, drink plenty of water, and keep themselves physically healthy. Illnesses can wreak havoc on debaters’ voices and can make it difficult to make it through long tournaments.

In debate as in hip-hop, it is important to take care of one’s voice.


Enunciation refers to how accurately and clearly words are said. You have to have good enunciation to be able to pronounce all the separate syllables fluidly and quickly enough to stay in time with the beat. Writing great lyrics with a great flow means nothing if you are stumbling over the words, they are not in time, and no one can tell what you’re saying. (p. 244)

In debate as in hip-hop, the quality of one’s content matters only to the extent that it is effectively communicated to the audience. Debaters who struggle to enunciate their words are difficult to flow, irritating to listen to, and substantially less persuasive than their peers.

Enunciation is especially important if you plan on rapping fast, because if syllables have to be said more quickly, there is a greater risk that you will mumble or mispronounce them. (p. 245)

Because of time constraints, debaters feel pressure to fill their speeches with as much content as possible. That means going fast—too fast to be understood, in some cases. While MCs can write slower songs to make enunciation easier, debaters need to effectively enunciate at very high speeds.

The most straightforward way to improve your enunciation is to repeat lyrics over and over until you can say them fluidly with no mistakes, with every syllable under your control. Gift of Gab of Blackalicious, known for his strong enunciation and fast rapping style, says, “It doesn’t take real long. It’s just a matter of going over it, repeating it, repeating it, repeating it—just getting comfortable with what you’ve just written.” If the flow is particularly dense and fast, it pays to practice more than usual. (p. 245)

Practice is the best way for debaters to improve their enunciation, too. Unlike MCs, however, debaters must develop the ability to enunciate well even when they have not previously practiced the particular text they are speaking. While MCs can practice a song exhaustively before performing it live or recording it in the studio, debaters need to be prepared to deliver speeches with content that they have not explicitly practiced.

It turns out that hip-hop songs provide debaters with some of the best materials for practicing proper enunciation. While it is helpful and important to practice enunciating debate materials, too, every debater should incorporate hip-hop drills into their practice routine. The following songs have proven particularly effective at training students to enunciate well:

(Note: some of these songs contain lyrics that some readers may find inappropriate. Discretion is advised.)

Other materials that are effective for practicing enunciation include:

When practicing enunciation, debaters should focus on clearly pronouncing every syllable of every word. The goal should be for every word to be clearly understandable.

“MCs are often praised for how sharply and clearly they say every syllable in a rhyme—so that the listener can make out every word. For example, Slick Rick and Eminem are considered masters of enunciation.” (p. 244)

Good debaters, like good MCs, make it easy for the listener to hear every word they say. Strong enunciation is critical to establish this level of clarity.

Practice, practice, f@#!ing practice, practice, practice, practice, and practice, then you go practice some more. — RBX (p. 313)

Vocal Style

When you deliver your lyrics, you can adjust your voice in many different ways to create a particular vocal style. You can alter the pitch of your voice and make your delivery more or less melodic. You can adjust how muffled, clear, or nasal your vocals are. You can control your voice’s volume and how smooth or harsh it is. An outstanding and unique vocal style can help you to stand out from other MCs. (p. 247)

One of the most important ways for debaters to improve their speaking is to find their own voice. In the same way that MCs have unique styles, good debaters sound like themselves—they have distinctive styles that are easily recognizable as their own. Good debaters sound in debates like they do outside of debates—only with a different cadence, rhythm, etc.

The goal of a debater should be to speak well, fast—not to speak fast, well. Too many debaters attempt to speak quickly before they learn to speak well. As a result, they never develop a vocal style that is comfortable and compatible with their unique voice. The best debaters—the ones that consistently win top speaker awards—are good speakers who simply turn up the tempo in order to jam more content into their speeches; they still speak well, but they do so more quickly.

While vocal style is more obvious in MCs than in debaters, the same principles apply in both contexts.

One of the main points of vocal style, according to Akir, is “not being monotone, having a certain level of expression in the recording, which is something that a lot of people don’t really take into consideration.” He adds that “some people just have it naturally, but part of being a recording artist is to be able to bring that expression out and that feeling on the actual recording.” This natural vocal expressiveness can often be the sign of a particularly talented artist. (p. 247)

Good debaters, like good MCs, are not monotone—they have “a certain level of expression” and are able to “bring that expression out.” Connection moments in debate are all about style: in the midst of a high-speed speech, speakers find opportunities to slow down a bit, vary their pitch, and really connect with the judge on an important argument.

Vocal style is certainly an art, not a science. Listening to great MCs can help debaters hone their appreciation for stylistic techniques that they can incorporate into their debating. Some of the fastest MCs include:

  • Bone Thugs-N-Harmony (including solo work from Bizzy Bone, Flesh-n-Bone, and Krayzie Bone)
  • Gift Of Gab (solo and Blackalicious)
  • KRS-One (including Boogie Down Productions)
  • NoClue
  • Papoose
  • Tech N9ne
  • Tonedeff
  • Twista (formerly known as Tung Twista)

Because these MCs often rap at high speeds, their deliveries are remarkably similar to those one finds at a debate tournament. In listening to these MCs, debaters should be attentive to the ways these rappers vary their deliveries, emphasize parts of their songs, project their voices, and maintain a powerful delivery without taking distracting breathes.

Being better at MCing? Be yourself. If you can be yourself and feel like you’re fresh, dog, you gonna be the man—you’re gonna be light-years ahead of everybody else because a lot of these people ain’t being their self. — Pusha-T, Clipse (p. 313)

Each MC has their own unique style; so do good debaters.


Your presence and attitude on the microphone also can be important elements of your vocal style. Some rappers don’t necessarily have the greatest content or flow, or the most precise delivery, but they give themselves an edge by conveying their personality and charisma through their delivery. (p. 257)

Ethos matters in hip-hop as much as it does in debate. Lil Wayne—arguably the most popular MC in the world—relies largely on swagger to distinguish himself from his peers.

Guerilla Black says, “The swagger—that’s one of the big things right now,” which can be seen in the rise of Lil Wayne, who is often commended for the swagger he has on his records. By injecting your delivery with this kind of personality, you can add more life and intrigue to ordinary words and phrases and make even a well-written verse more entertaining. (p. 258)

While its meaning is different in debate, swagger still matters. The best debaters control the room from the podium in the same way that the best MCs control the room from the stage. Good physical presence and a sense of being in control are evident in debaters that project confidence and credibility to the judge. Debaters that are perceived in this way win close debates and earn higher speaker points.

Strategies for improving one’s ethos are beyond the scope of this article. In debate as in hip-hop, however, swagger sells.


  1. Paul Edwards, How to Rap: The Art and Science of the Hip-Hop MC, Published by Chicago Review Press, ISBN 978-1-55652-816-3, 2009.

  2. Many of the interviews from the book are posted on Edwards’ Youtube Channel.

  3. Special thanks to Noah Goetz of St. Mark’s for uncovering Edwards’ book and for inspiring this article.

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