‘No Pen, No Pad’: The Unlikely Way Rap Is Written Today

By Joe Coscarelli and Noah Throop

Joe Coscarelli and Noah Throop reported and filmed footage for this video in Atlanta, Los Angeles and New York.

Picture a rapper writing a song — but now forget about the pen and paper. In fact, in a recording studio these days, there may be no actual writing happening at all.

While many fans and listeners might still have that outdated, old-school image of an artist scribbling furiously in a notepad — think Tupac, Nas or Eminem — many younger hip-hop artists grew up idolizing stars like Jay-Z, Lil Wayne, Future and Young Thug, all of whom have boasted about never putting their lyrics to paper, or even a phone screen.

Instead, using technological advances in digital recording, much of modern rap music is composed via a strange, improvisational studio technique known as “punching in” — a mumbling, nonsensical-at-first, freestyle approach to every line, one at a time, until a song is fully formed.

Is this good for the music? The jury is out, even within hip-hop. But in this behind-the-scenes video — the latest entry in our Diary of a Song series, which documents how popular music is created — we track the generational shift through exclusive studio footage of young rappers like Doechii, Veeze and Lil Gotit, plus interviews with genre veterans including the artist Killer Mike and the producer Just Blaze, to track this creative shift and its effects on the still-experimental genre of hip-hop, 50 years after its birth.

“Diary of a Song” provides an up-close, behind-the-scenes look at how pop music is made today, using archival material — including voice memos, demo versions, text messages, emails, interviews and more — to tell the story behind a track. Subscribe to our YouTube channel.

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