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What is Hip Hop?!
What is freestyle?!

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free adj.: capable of moving or turning in any direction
stylen.: a distinctive manner of expression (Vibe)

In the mid-1970's when hip-hop was first being created, DJs used turntables and doubles of rock and roll records to make "breaks," or 4/4 beats, for MCs (rappers) to rap over. Frequently, the MCs would not have any lyrics prepared, but would come in an off-the-head manner called "freestyling." Freestyling, especially in MC battles, has similarities to "playing the dozens" (a spontaneous, back and forth game of insults) in that both require quick wit and cutting down of an opponent. This style of rhyming has taken place in important historical contexts in terms of the hip-hop/b-boy culture, with different definitions depending on who one talks to. Oddly, even though freestyles are a foundation for modern day hip-hop, lots of rappers along the way didn't acknowledge the importance of this art form and consequently they suffered commercially.

The hip-hop, or b-boy, culture encompasses graffiti art, DJing and "turntablism", breakdancing, and MCing and "freestyling." Suggah B of the Baka Boyz' "Friday Night Flavaz" radio show said, "Anyone who claims they're an MC and don't freestyle is like someone who claims to be a graffiti artist but can't catch wreck [do the same thing] on a building or a train-just on canvas." Tash, of Tha Alkaholiks, compares freestyling to basketball, "It's the dunk contest of the rap game" (Woodson).

The exact definition of freestyling hasn't been pinpointed. Some rappers consider it just rhyming a written verse over any given beat. Others define it as having general ideas planned ahead of time, but the lyrics themselves being created on the spot. The hip-hop purists generally define it is 100% improv. The most likely reason is that the talent it takes to make lyrics up on the spot requires more "mental stamina" (originality) and shows how much a true MC lives and breathes the music.

During the earliest days of hip-hop when Jamaican DJ Kool Herc and his Herculoids began to DJ parties, their performances were largely improvised. While Herc spun doubles of small 2 or 4 bar sections of records, or "breaks," he would chant party lyrics, such as:

Ya rock and ya don't stop
and this is the sounds of DJ Kool Herc and the Sound System and
you're listening to the sounds of what we call the Herculoids.
He was born in an orphanage he fought like a slave
fuckin' up faggots all the Herculoids played
when it come to push come to shove
the Herculoids won't budge
The bass is so low you can't get under it
the high is so high you can't get over it
So in other words be with it. (Kool Herc)

As hip-hop evolved in the early-80's, but before every kid and his cousin was a rapper with a record deal, rappers gained their fame through live battles with other rappers. While having pre-written lyrics was OK, if a rapper couldn't make up a rhyme on the spot about his opponent, he wasn't going to win the respect of a crowd. Perhaps the most famous freestyle battle was in 1981 (or 1982, there are two different dates recorded for it) when Kool Moe Dee challenged Busy Bee Starsky. Busy Bee was well known for his chants of "What's your zodiac sign?" and other crowd pleasers that had been originated a few years before by other rappers. Moe Dee came out with lines of hard disrespect for Busy Bee:

Everytime I hear it I throw a fit
Party after party the same ole shit
Record after record, rhyme after rhyme
Always wanna know your zodiac sign
He changed the shit to your favorite jeans
Come on Busy Bee tell me what that means
Hold on brother man don't you say nothin'
I'm not finished yet, I gotta tell you somethin'... (Vibe)

Busy Bee, who was also a good freestylist at the time and was featured in the movie Wild Style, was left dumbfounded, only able to say "shut up, shut up" to Moe Dee.

Live freestyles began to die out in the mid-to-late 80's as many more artists were getting record contracts, and they recorded their songs with hi-tech production and a goal of heavy airplay. However, the artists that did freestyle at the time, like Biz Markie, Rakim, and KRS-One, are the ones that went on to continue making records up to this day. Other artists, especially some of those in the late-80's to early-90's, actually proudly stated that they did not freestyle and made their songs in the studio for home audiences. Artists that did this, like West Coast gangster rappers 2ndIINone, neglected not only the art of live hip-hop performance, but also insulted the intelligence of the hip-hop crowd by claiming that an important part of hip-hop culture wasn't really all that essential.

About 1993, freestyling came back into popularity because of radio shows throughout the country allowing for rappers, MTV-frequents and underground artists alike, to "flex their skills" (show their talent) by coming off-the-dome in a live radio setting. It's no coincidence that the resurgence of freestyle popularity came about in 1993 -- the momentum was with underground hip-hop radio shows, popping up all over the country, from New Jersey to New York to California to Texas to Iowa, and local artists and nationally known artists coming through the area were invited to showcase their talent and verbal prowess to a live listening audience.

This recent resurgence of freestyling by artists like Saafir was showcased on hip-hop shows like "The Wake-Up Show," based in California. In a 1994 freestyle, Saafir stumbled around and managed to come with an interesting freestyle with nothing planned in advance, where he recited:

Don't know about this, uh, stencil,
Utencil, coming with more than a pencil,
No lead, no, no ink,
Here we come again with that sync, MIDI,
Fools don't know gitty-gat gladiator,
Don't know about no, uh... <pause>
I was gonna' say radiator, but f... uh, I can't cuss,
So I'm like damn near disgusted,
Damn I'm like busted, I might as well just let it go,
fuck it, here I come with a front tuck,
tuck it in my shirt, drawers and pants,
Let see if we can like, make you do more than dance,
Peep the flow, oh, I wish I could come with a written but,
I don't need no mittens, I got
fingers, I got swingers on my team,
Fools don't know about the Hobo Junction. (Off the Dome)

Perhaps the most talented freestylist of recent times is Supernatural, who "won the New Music Seminar's 1993 MC Battle for World Supremacy by stringing together flawless improvisational rhymes about people's clothes, hair, or whatever was happening at the moment he was rhyming." (2) He was due out in 1994 with an album that was supposed to be recorded in one-take straight through, totally freestyled, but for whatever reason, the album was never released. Supernatural was best known for his ability to have someone in the crowd (or on the radio) give him a random topic and he would rhyme about it off-the-cuff. A clip from "The Wake Up Show" shows this interesting talent:

On fingernail clippers...
Fingernail clipper,
Every time I rock I tell you what, I do not slip up,
Clip your nails, every time that I do work,
Prefer my nails clipped so they don't hold dirt.

On old-school hip-hop...
Old school hip-hop, it don't stop,
So I got to give it mad props,
Let me start to flip it as I exactly do work,
Got to go back to the old school can't forget Kool Herc,
Kool Herc, that's exactly what I said,
From Busy Bee to Treacherous Three and can't forget my man Red,
'Cause he goes way back, way way back,
Love the way that I explode through the track,
The Cold Crush Four, Plus One More,
Everybody lookin who's up at the door,
Double Trouble, Double Trouble, Double Double Trouble Trouble,
Every time that I flip it, now I come to burst your bubble,
As I can flip it so naturally,
In the style of my man Mister Busy Bee,
I can flip flop, brother, go non stop,
Afrika Bam was another Godfather of Hip-Hop,
So that's the way it goes,
What's the next topic so I can continue with this freestyle flow? (Off the Dome)

In the second example, Supernatural emulated the styles of old school rappers in his tone and diction. He pulled a piece from Wild Style when Double Trouble, a hip-hop duo consisting of twin brothers, as well as the articulated sound of Busy Bee.

The idea of solo freestyling, as shown in the previous examples, is to present a coherent rhyme about a particular subject. It's not easy to do when you have a beat in the background that you have to keep time with and many ears hanging on your every word. While no one can do a perfect freestyle, there are devices that help save time and give the rapper time to think. Supernatural is said to always be thinking three to four lines ahead of where he is in the freestyle, but in the freestyle on old-school hip-hop, we can see where he momentarily stalls to think of where to go next in lines like "Let me start to flip it as I exactly do work" or "Love the way I explode through the track."

While Supernatural is a virtual unknown in the mainstream market today, even one of the most popular hip-hop groups of the 1990's has put lots of effort into keeping freestyling alive, A Tribe Called Quest. Phife Dog, one of the members of this group, showcased his talents on the Underground Railroad radio show:

I got the Cons to the Quence right next to me,
'Cause I'm about to wrap this whole m-i-c,
p-h-o-n-e, I weigh 120,
I mean 150, that's 30 pounds more,
I punch you in your jaw, what's the deal son
You don't want none, and I don't have to bust rhymes about no guns.
So check it out, I got that ol' lyrical ammunition
For the weak competition with their ragged renditions,
Of seein' me, but you can't do that,
'Cause it's Phife-Diggy coming through with that freestyle rap. (Freestyle Archive)

An impressive part about Phife's freestyle that can't be shown in words is his strict adherence to the rhythm. Many other freestyles stumble on and off beat, which is normal, but it is especially impressive when someone can improv their lyrics and structure their sound to make it sound like it could have been written.

As in the old days, there aren't just solo freestyles. MCs today still battle frequently. Sometimes, they are done with no personal vendettas, such as on web sites like The Lyricists' Domain ( where individuals simply battle verbally. Other times, though, freestyle battles are used as a way to settle "beef," or personal arguments, between artists.

Saafir had a freestyle battle on "The Wake Up Show" with former friend Casual, but Casual accused Saafir of having pre-planned his rhymes in order to win the battle. Casual had some impressive freestyle shots early in the battle. As the show was beginning, Saafir and Causal started arguing about who would go first, but Casual burst in more loudly with a dozen people in the studio still talking and trying to get the show ready:

(someone from Casual's side):
Cas' want to go first...

Casual coming off the top, Casual coming off the top...

I'm coming with written freestyles...

You do whatever you want to.
We're doing it like this... yo,
Saafir, the Saucy Nomad, I'm the boss, you know that,
Cas' on the mike to let you know,

(studio worker):
Hold on, hold on, hold on...

No, no, I'm not waiting up, 'cause MCs is getting eaten up,
And niggas want to get beaten up,
If they want to take it to that, but I'm making the rap,
To slice and dice the wack men, Casual's attacking,
Ya know, when the Heiro flow we go
inside of your heart, rip it apart,
Kick a style, if you can,
Off the head 'cause I'm the man. (laughter from Casual's crew)
That's Casual's program,
but you plan,
I'm on the mic to rip it up like that,
Now kick your written rap, kick your written rap.

However, Saafir also took a few verbal swings. Whether they were completely written are partly improvised is up for discussion. What isn't, however, is that like playing the dozens, freestyle battles can hit way below the belt:

... so take that wack shit back.

Yeah, I got that wack shit for you, check it out:
Hey, hey, you don't even own a microphone
Your blood owns no bones,
I'm holding special ed classes
Teachin' cowards how to wipe them asses.
You're the type of nigga to lock the door when he's pissing,
'Cause when you're pissing it really look like that you're shitting,
You're talkative, I've give you that, I'll give you that,
But, uh, you talk like a cat,
On the 28th day, period,
I'll neuter you're future,
You don't, you don't know,
Yoouuu... I'm the one to which one turns for help in despiration and some funk,
Like A Plus (Casual's friend) did in the DNA Club,
Join our crew, we'll call you fat cock,
You can bring me my jock drawers, mascot.

The result of that battle was a draw, measured by number of phone calls voting for one side or the other. There's no doubt that Saafir's lyrics were more clever, but Casual won the hearts of many listeners by taking on allegedly written rhymes with 100% improvised freestyles. The members of the battle took it very personally, with a small fight breaking out in the studio and a gunshot fired outside afterwards. No one was hurt, but there were some bruised egos (Wake Up Show).

It's clear that the structure of freestyle rapping is similar to other modern improvised street art forms. It takes the quick wit with insults required when playing the dozens (aka "snaps") and combines it with the improvised style of rapping, rhythmic adherence of toasts, and spontaneous outburst of poetry slams. The sharp mental concentration and creativity have helped to show who is "true" or "real" in hip-hop and who can be disregarded as a strictly-studio rapper. This hip-hop culture has been around for almost 25 years old, and the improvised art of freestyling is just as old. It has proven to be absolutely instrumental to the survival of hip-hop as a music and a way of life. The literary art of freestyling is one unique and essential to hip-hop music and culture

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