Columns > Published on March 1st, 2023

The Bitten Word: A Writing Exercise

Header image by Roy Christopher

Quoting and paraphrasing are common in writing disciplines such as journalism and academia, but plagiarism is anathema, punishable by excommunication. While endemic to the creative practices of hip-hop, the practice of interpolation is also hotly debated. The orthodox rule there was no biting, but if you can take what someone else wrote and make it better, that’s worthy of respect. “I can take a phrase that’s rarely heard,” Rakim once rapped, “Flip it, now it’s a daily word.” Because of the perils of plagiarism, in writing practice, riffing on the work of another is not widely accepted, but it can be quite fruitful.

While some still consider the interpolation of rap lyrics an act of biting, others see such a move as metaphorical and central to the art form and indeed historical African oral traditions. In the use of allusive appropriation in hip-hop, a practitioner must make something new while still adhering to the traditions of hip-hop. In this way, lyrical allusions can be viewed a lot like the musical samples over which they’re spoken. The tension between biting and innovating has been around since the beginning of recorded rap. The lyrics to the Sugarhill Gang’s 1979 hit, “Rapper’s Delight,” were lifted straight from the streets. The fact that those verses belonged originally to Grandmaster Caz and the Cold Crush Brothers is the oldest bit of rap lore. One person’s clever quip is another’s cliché. Novelty is as cognitive as it is cultural.

My most used example of this practice comes from Eminem. In his 2000 song “The Way I Am,” he says:

An allusion [...] is a great place to nod to your network and to hide information from your enemies. Try it!

I am whatever you say I am

If I wasn’t, then why would I say I am?

His words have their direct meaning in response to his treatment in the news media at the time, but they also allude to the 1987 rap song, “As the Rhyme Goes On,” by Eric B. & Rakim. In the earlier song, Rakim raps:

I’m the R to the A to the K-I-M
If I wasn’t, then why would I say I am?

The line has also been flipped by Nas (on both “Got Ur Self a…” and “You’re Da Man”), Jay-Z (on “Supa Ugly”), and Curly Castro (on ShrapKnel’s “Lazy Dog”). Allusions as such pose a communicative problem in that they employ and require shared knowledge. At least a passing familiarity with the Eric B. & Rakim song interpolated by Eminem heightens its meaning, gives it another layer of significance and signification.

They’re also a great way to learn and improve your craft. Ursula Le Guin once said that while musicians practice by playing another’s music, we expect writers to just bust out with their own work from the start. Kathy Acker used to rewrite great novels as a writing practice, some of which ended up in her published books. You can write and rewrite whatever you want in your practice.

You can use allusions and interpolations yourself as a writing exercise. Take your favorite bar from a rap song or a line from a poem or a book, find the central idea, and flip it. For example, on Public Enemy’s “Welcome to the Terrordome,” Chuck D raps:

When I get mad,
Put it down on a pad,
Give you something that you never had

I rewrote that like this:

I lace the white page
When I write with rage

It might not be quite as forceful or have as much impact as Chuck’s version, but it’s mine. 

Another way to approach this is by recontextualizing a lyric. You can use a bar as a jumping off point or you can introduce a bar with your own, giving the latter new meaning. This is common in hip-hop and a common exercise in improvisations of all sorts.

On the song, “Get Off My Dick and Tell Yo’ Bitch to Come Here,” a less family-friendly Ice Cube raps:

All I got is hard dick and bubblegum
Just ran out, my last stick, is where I’m comin’ from

Several other rappers have interpolated this line: Blueface on “Disrespectful,” Fabolous on “Bubble Gum,” Big L on “7-Minute Freestyle,” Jay-Z on “Show You How,” Bun B “Pourin’ Up,” and Gucci Mane on “Killin’ It,” among others.

In my song-in-progress, “A Song Called Quest,” I re-introduced the second line with this one:

All this dynamite is getting quite cumbersome
Just ran out, my last stick, is where I’m comin’ from

Changing the first line gives the second line a whole new context and meaning by changing what the word “stick” is referring to.

This is a good writing exercise for loosening up, for expanding your practice, or just for getting better at paraphrasing. It can also be applied as an advanced technique for hiding messages or references in your work. As in the Eminem example above, if you don’t know the Rakim lyric, you’re not in on the reference. You get left out. An allusion like this is a great place to nod to your network and to hide information from your enemies. Try it!

If you happen to try the exercise above, feel free to share. I’d love to see what you come up with.

Get Boogie Down Predictions: Hip-Hop, Time, and Afrofuturism by Roy Christopher at Bookshop or Amazon

About the author

Roy Christopher is an aging BMX and skateboarding zine kid. That’s where he learned to turn events and interviews into pages with staples. He has since written about music, media, and culture for everything from books and blogs to national magazines and academic journals. His books include Dead Precedents (Repeater, 2019), Boogie Down Predictions(Strange Attractor, 2022), and Escape Philosophy (punctum, 2022), among others. He holds a Ph.D. in Communication Studies from the University of Texas at Austin. As a child, he solved the Rubik’s Cube competitively.

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