25 Jan 2024

Mazbou Q - the rap scientist breaking down hip-hop

From Nine To Noon, 10:05 am on 25 January 2024

Auckland hip-hop artist and academic Mazbou Q is becoming an international authority on the burgeoning science of rap.

New Zealand hip-hop artist and academic Mazbou Q, aka The Rap Scientist

New Zealand hip-hop artist and academic Mazbou Q, aka The Rap Scientist Photo: Andi Crown Photography

A TikTok video from three years ago called 'Don't rap on beat, rap behind the beat' was what really "set off the storm", Mazbou tells Kathryn Ryan.

"It was literally me just describing the way in which I put my verses on a track and how I hung behind the beat a little bit and did what I thought a lot of rappers sort of knew about but apparently the way I communicated, it resonated with a lot of people."

Mazbou Q, aka The Rap Scientist, was a two-year-old when he moved to New Zealand with his Nigerian parents who'd been living in Liverpool for 10 years.

"I went to school, I was learning New Zealand culture, I came back home, I was learning this mix of Nigerian and UK culture."

His parents - who both liked to sing - enrolled him in piano lessons through primary school. At high school, he got more into percussion before in Year 13 a teacher enlisted him as a vocalist for the school Rock Quest band.

Three weeks and a few singing lessons later, the band did quite well and Mazbou says he fell in love with being a vocal performer.

"That was the thing that really turned the tide for me. I thought it was going to be drummer for the rest of my life, basically, until that year."

A career in music wasn't presented to him as an available option, Mazbou says.

Having excelled in physics and maths in school, engineering was the recommended field of study he "least detested".

In the last couple of years, Mazbou realised his "engineering mindset" is something he's always subconsciously used to deconstruct and create music.

His videos with theoretical analysis of hip hop are getting good traction because rap as a genre is quite young (50 years old) and hasn't been yet examined this way as other genres like jazz and classical have been.

The phenomenon of different cultures integrating hip-hop into their music and making it their own makes for an explosion of possibility within the genre, he says.

"The variety that you see within rap just exceeds what you see within rock or what you see within other genres. Because so many people have seen it as part of their story, seen it as encapsulating what they've been through what they've experienced, and all this kind of stuff. So it's an exciting thing. It's a brilliant thing. But [rap] still very young, I'd say."


A post shared by Mazbou Q (@mazbouq)

After Mazou's TikTok video was shared on Twitter and caught the attention of American music academics, he put the word out to universities that might be interested in him visiting and last year presented his work at Louisiana State University, Southern University, Boston's Berklee College of Music and Harvard.

"Everyone just received it really well, especially the high-level students and also the staff. So they were keen for me to come back and do more and also keen to recommend me to their colleagues … you know how the academic network kind of spreads itself out … So I'm leveraging that and going back this year and sort of pulling on some more threads and trying to do more of that kind of thing."

At the prestigious Berklee Music School, he enjoyed meeting the talented teachers and especially the students.

"I could see like how seriously they took their craft and how it was very much a clear pipeline between what they're doing and sort of what's happening in Hollywood. they're just doing their thing every day, week in, week out, just with so much dedication, and passion and just getting shipped off to Hollywood to do their thing professionally. it was quite inspiring to see."

Later this year, Mazbou will return to the States for an artists-in-residency programme,

In the meantime, he's hoping to "bridge the gap" between his rap science following and the audience for his music with the new track 'Polymers'.

"I think that was the missing piece to the puzzle. Prior, I'd just been making music, the music I loved, the music I thought was cool. And then I was doing this rap teaching as well. So they were like these two diverging things.

"This is me saying 'Hey, look, I'm making this music for the purposes of demonstrating these ideas, so the people that are interested in these ideas are now coming over to the music."

On 10 February, when Mazbou Q performs live at Auckland's AfroFest, audiences can expect a live show that's "a step up energy-wise" from his recorded music.

"There's interesting arrangements, there's instrumentation that you don't hear in the studio and I really get the crowd going. I love interacting with the crowd. I'll expect everyone to line-dance ...There's excitement, there's a lot of buzz that you'll experience."


Rap science from Mazbou Q:


"When you're rapping you're doing vocal percussion. So you're making a rhythmic stream with your voice versus the instrumental in the same way a drummer is making a rhythmic stream with the left hand versus the right hand. So I'm just saying 'hey, look, these two things exist at the same time'.

"If you think of one rhythm as a stream, you can add another stream to it. And these streams can either be in phase with each other, they can make sense with each other …

"What happens is you have waves of tension and release, it releases every time they click back in phase and it builds every time they go out of phase. So essentially what we're doing when we're rapping these polyrhythms, we're creating these rhythms with a voice that goes in tension with what's happening in the beat, so they go out of phase a little bit.

"People who aren't used to hearing those kinds of rhythms might be like 'Oh, it sounds a bit weird. It's a bit offbeat'. But we're doing this intentionally, we're trying to build this tension so that when it comes back in phase it sort of releases and it gives you a feeling of satisfaction.

"It's actually quite a highly mathematical process that's done subconsciously by most of its practitioners, which is the amazing thing and that's kind of what I'm unpacking with my Instagram and my TikTok."


Microtiming evolved out of what early jazz musicians called 'swing'.

"What they mean is that these rhythms are fluid, and they're moving around, and they're wavy, as opposed to being rigid and structured. And that kind of delivery of rap on top of a beat gives it a swag that you can't really create by being too precise.

"This is the idea that instead of performing a rhythm that aligns exactly with the background beat or exactly with the grid, so to speak, you shift it by a kind of infinitesimal amount, a small amount that makes it feel uncomfortably off, makes it feel like it's lagging slightly behind or that there's some kind of delay between the beat and the vocal stream or whatever other rhythmic streaming gives it a kind of flavour."

Four-bar cadence

"Basically, it's based on this idea that in Western music, in general, things operate in fours - you've got 4 beats in a bar, you've got 4 bars, a 16-bar verse, an 8-bar chorus.

"So if you're rapping within this idea of a four-bar cadence, you're rapping with a small unit that can be multiplied.

"If you use that as a structure to write your music - and this is not only rap by the way, this can be transferred to songwriting in general - then you have a structure by which you can create things that will be naturally aligned with the music, Western music. In general, if you operate in this four-bar framework then you're going to make something that that makes sense to the ear.