Punching in: Orality makes a comeback

Rappers don’t write their own songs any more.

That doesn’t mean they didn’t compose their songs. Just that there’s no writing involved.

Instead, many rappers use a method called “punching in,” where they go into the studio and mumble improvisational gibberish over a beat — again and again, refining each line until they nail a take, then move on to the next one. The end result is a rap song, from mind to mouth to ear without ever taking a detour through anything so old-fashioned as an alphabet.

This is a new method — rappers like Tupac and Eminem were prolific and meticulous writers — but also a very old one, and a sign of some fascinating shifts in how our society communicates.

The New York Times spotlighted the rise of “punching in” in a fascinating new video essay, which you should absolutely watch:

They note that the rise of “punching in” had several key causes. One was famous rappers such as Jay-Z or Lil Wayne, who pioneered the technique and inspired imitators. Another was the advancement of technology, with cumbersome tape recorders replaced by digital recording studios that made it feasible for ordinary artists to record lots and lots of takes and quickly edit them into a final product.

This isn’t actually novel. When rappers deliver variations of a line, over and over again, and select the best phrasing in the editing process for publication, they’re not so different than the famous 19th Century orator, Sen. Daniel Webster, whose published speeches were often quite different from what listeners had heard. As Donald Ritchie summarizes:

Webster diligently edited his speeches. The majesty of his voice and the strength of his arguments swayed his audiences, but they often heard him groping for the right word, trying out one synonym after another until he obtained the desired effect. One listener recalled Webster saying, “Why is it, Mr. Chairman, that there has gathered, congregated, this great number of inhabitants, dwellers, here; that these roads, avenues, routes of travel, highways, converge, meet, come together, here? Is it not because we have a sufficient, ample, safe, secure, convenient, commodious port, harbor, haven?” The senator removed all but the best before his words appeared in print.

Nor, in a grander sense, would any of this surprise Walter Ong, who published widely on the differences between spoken and written language. In his 1982 book Orality and Literary: The Technologizing of the Word, Ong argued that written language is not merely a different way to express the same things as the spoken word, but is associated with fundamentally different ways of thinking.

The key difference is that oral speech is fundamentally fleeting, existing only in the moment it is spoken; the written word exists outside of time, and can be re-read, excerpted, and transmitted verbatim. As a result, oral cultures (as recorded by literate visitors, or captured in poetry written down by later generations) share certain common traits, such as a tendency toward repetition or the use of distinctive epithets — in the Iliad, Achilles is never just “Achilles” but “swift-footed Achilles,” for example. These pre-literate techniques serve as mnemonic devices for the poet, who like today’s “punching in” rappers has no recourse to the page to record their thoughts. (Unlike Lil Wayne, of course, Homer was oral-only by necessity instead of choice.)

In contrast, works produced by literate societies — even works for auditory consumption — often share other techniques shaped by the use of writing in their creation. Literate communication is often more analytic, discursive, abstract and distanced, compared to purely oral forms of communication.

But the relevant twist is that half a millennia after the invention of the printing press enabled widespread dissemination of the written word, new technology has transformed the spoken word. Ong called this “secondary orality” — “a new orality… sustained by telephone, radio, television and other electronic devices.” Ong was writing 40 years ago, but modern digital technology has only accelerated matters. Today any teenager can record a video of themselves and send it instantly to tens of thousands of strangers with a speed and scope reminiscent of the explosive disruptiveness of print in the age of Martin Luther.

It’s not just distribution that marks the unique impact of “secondary orality.” The rise of cheap digital storage and search engines means audiovisual content can be searched, scanned, and remixed just like the written word. Before the late 90s, television was effectively ephemeral. As Jon Askonas wrote, “People on television reasonably assumed that no one would hear what they had said ever again.” That hasn’t been true any more for the better part of two decades; we’re all used to old video clips resurfacing by now.

Now we’ve reached a point where recording technology is so powerful that for many people it can effectively replace writing. No need to toil over a page, writing and re-writing a line until you get it right. Now you can just rap into a constantly recording microphone until the line lands. The final product will have the precision of written verse, but without the trouble of actually writing. Some have argued that we are nearing the end of the “Gutenberg Parenthesis,” a rare and temporary period in history where the written word reigned supreme.

I’m a lover of the written word, both as a consumer and producer. But many people — maybe most people — clearly don’t share that same love of literacy and would much prefer to stick with the more intuitive spoken word. Now, finally, technology is letting these people get what they want: the ease of speaking with the power of writing.

The impacts will echo far beyond the rap studio.

This post has been revised and expanded since original publication.