Freestyle Rap

Freestyle Fellowship

Freestyle is a style of a cappella rap, with instrumental beats, in which rap lyrics are improvised, i.e. performed with no previously composed lyrics, or ‘off the top of the head.’ It is similar to other improvisational music such as jazz – Myka 9 of Freestyle Fellowship describes it as being ‘like a jazz solo’ where there is a lead saxophonist acting as the improviser and the rest of the band providing the beat. Rap battles are sometimes improvised in this way.

It is similar in both form and function to the ancient practice of flyting (contest consisting of the exchange of insults). Originally, in old school hip hop of the 1980s, the term ‘freestyle’ referred to a pre-written rap verse that was not on any particular subject matter, but rather was written for the purpose of demonstrating skill. The term is still occasionally used in this way, though since the 1990s, the majority of today’s artists use it to mean improvised rapping.

‘Battling’ is generally believed to have originated in the East Coast hip hop scene in the late 1970s. One of the earliest and most famous battles was in December 1981 when Kool Moe Dee challenged Busy Bee Starski – Starski’s defeat by the more complex raps of Kool Moe Dee meant that ‘no longer was an MC just a crowd-pleasing comedian with a slick tongue; he was a commentator and a storyteller,’ which KRS-One also credits as creating a shift in rapping in the documentary ‘Beef.’ In the 1980s, battle raps were a popular form of rapping – Big Daddy Kane in the book ‘How to Rap’ says, ‘as an MC from the ’80s, really your mentality is battle format… your focus was to have a hot rhyme in case you gotta battle someone… not really making a rhyme for a song.’ Battle rapping is still sometimes closely associated with old school hip-hop – talking about battle rapping, Esoteric says, ‘a lot of my stuff stems from old school hip-hop, braggadocio ethic.’

In the early 21st century, freestyling (particularly freestyle battling) experienced a resurgence in popularity as successful freestyle battle competition TV shows were shown by both BET and MTV. In addition, Eminem’s movie ‘8 Mile’ brought the excitement of the freestyle battle to mainstream movie audiences. In Cuba, freestyle battles often follow organized concerts and juxtapose composed songs with ‘flowing’ lyrics that are relevant to the present situation. Freestyling can allow audience members to integrate into the performance stage. This provides a forum for up-and-coming underground artists to engage in a musical discussion with already prominent underground Cuban rappers. Freestyle battles often turn political when artists incorporate perspectives on social disparities and issues plaguing the Cuban population. More recently battle rap has been revived in the form of pre-written battles.

Kool Moe Dee suggests the change in how the term ‘freestle’ is used happened somewhere in the mid to late ‘80s, saying, ‘until 1986, all freestyles were written,’ and ‘before the ‘90s it was about how hard you could come with a written rhyme with no particular subject matter and no real purpose other than showing your lyrical prowess.’ Myka 9 explains that Freestyle Fellowship helped redefine the term – ‘that’s what they say I helped do – I helped get the world to freestyle, me and the Freestyle Fellowship, by inventing the Freestyle Fellowship and by redefining what freestyle is… We have redefined what freestyle is by saying that it’s improvisational rap like a jazz solo.’ Although this kind of freestyling is very well respected today, Kool Moe Dee states that this was not the case previously: ‘A lot of the old-school artists didn’t even respect what’s being called freestyle now… any emcee coming off the top of the head wasn’t really respected. The sentiment was emcees only did that if they couldn’t write. The coming off the top of the head rhymer had a built-in excuse to not be critiqued as hard.’

Artists like Jay-Z and Lil Wayne have made it difficult to determine when an MC is freestyling a verse or recitting a written one; they who freestyle on their albums and features, so an on the spot freestyle is just a memorized verse. Artists who do this say that they write lyrics in their heads and call freestyles ‘free verses.’ Old-school artists now respect the way new artists can freestyle for 12 minutes and tie lyrics together cleverly. The are still MC’s who do freestyle the original way, meaning written verses rapped on a random beat. These artists such as Joe Budden, Royce Da 5’9, Crooked I, and Joell Ortiz prepare written freestyles just for freestyling on the spot.

Many rappers learn to rap through improvised freestyling, and by making freestyling into a conversation or a rhyming game which they play frequently as a way to practice, as described in the book ‘How to Rap.’ Reasons for freestyling include entertainment, as a therapeutic activity, to discover different ways of rapping, promoting oneself, increasing versatility, or as a spiritual activity. Improvised freestyling can also be used in live performances, to do things such as giving something extra to the crowd and to cover up mistakes. In order to prove that a freestyle is being made up on the spot (as opposed to something pre-written or memorized), rappers will often refer to places and objects in their immediate setting, or will take suggestions on what to rhyme about.

Freestyles are performed a cappella, over beatboxing, or over instrumental versions of songs. Freestyling is often done in a group setting called a ‘cypher’ (or ‘cipher’) or as part of a ‘freestyle battle.’ Due to the improvised nature of freestyle, meter and rhythm are usually more relaxed than in conventional rapping. Many artists base their freestyle on their current situation or mental state, but have a ready supply of prepared lyrics and rhyme patterns they can use as filler. Freestyling can also be used as a songwriting method for albums or mixtapes. In a freestyle battle, each competitor’s goal is to ‘diss’ their opponent through clever lyrics and wordplay, with heavy emphasis being placed upon the rapper’s improvisational ability. Many battles also include metaphorically violent imagery, complementing the ‘battling’ atmosphere. Its considered dishonorable or shameful to recite pre-written or memorized raps during a freestyle battle, because it shows the rapper to be incapable of ‘spitting’ spur-of-the-moment lyrics. A live audience is key, as a large part of ‘winning’ a battle is how an audience responds to each rapper. Appointed judges may be used in formal contests, but in most cases the rapper who receives the largest audience response is viewed as the victor.

The idea of such poetic battles has a long history that can be found in genres of poetry such as Haikai and flyting. As hip-hop evolved in the early 1980s, many rappers gained their fame through freestyle battles. Battles can take place anywhere: informally on street corners, on stage at a concert, at a school, or at event specifically meant for battling (such as ‘Scribble Jam’ or the ‘Blaze Battle’). A cipher is an informal gathering of rappers, beatboxers, and/or break-dancers in a circle, in order to jam musically together. The term has also in recent years come to mean the crowd which forms around freestyle battles, consisting of spectators and onlookers. This group serves partly to encourage competition and partly to enhance the communal aspect of rap battles. The cipher is known for ‘making or breaking reputations in the hip hop community; if you are able to step into the cipher and tell your story, demonstrating your uniqueness, you might be more accepted.’ These groups also serve as a way for messages about hip hop styles and knowledge to be spread, through word-of-mouth and encouraging trends in other battles.

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