Freestyling (excerpt from How to Rap, Chapter 9)
Freestyling, to most MCs, means coming up with lyrics off the top of your head. In early hip-hop, however, the term had a different meaning.
Big Daddy Kane: That term, freestyle, is like a new term, because in the ’80s when we said we wrote a freestyle rap, that meant that it was a rhyme that you wrote that was free of style, meaning that it’s not [on] a [particular] subject matter—it’s not a story about a woman, it’s not a story about poverty, it’s basically a rhyme just bragging about yourself, so it’s basically free of style.... That’s really what a freestyle is. Off-the-top-of-the head [rapping], we just called that “off the dome”—when you don’t write it and [you] say whatever comes to mind.
This earlier definition of freestyling has evolved into the meaning that most MCs associate it with today.
Myka 9, Freestyle Fellowship: 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. Back in the day freestyle was bust[ing] a rhyme about any random thing, and it was a written rhyme or something memorized. We have redefined what freestyle is by saying that it’s improvisational rap like a jazz solo, so as a result we actually helped create another trend and culture, another pastime. So now kids can do something else other than just play basketball or whatever—they can sit on the staircase and exchange rhymes instead of going around getting into crimes. It’s a good thing to not only MC but freestyle, because it kinda helps promote free thinking.
A number of artists first learned how to rap by improvising lyrics on a regular basis. Some of them made freestyling into a type of game that improved their rapping and served as a fun activity at the same time.
David Banner: First four years of my record I just freestyled. I learned how to be the best freestyler—looking at stuff that was in my environment and rapping about the stuff that was in my environment.
MC Shan: We used to have a thing called the rhyming game. Somebody would start the sentence, and you gotta finish it. If you didn’t make the rhyme rhyme, you’re out, so it kept us on our toes all the time as far as rhyming off the top of the head and things like that. Just out of the blue, [someone] would say, “Rhyme”—boom, you better spit something!
One Be Lo, Binary Star: It was a day-to-day thing. All we used to do was sit around all day and freestyle—that’s all we did. We were just trying to be the best we could be, and we were bouncing it off each other. We woke up freestyling, we went to sleep freestyling. We would just be sitting in the basement trying to come up with songs, and we’d just start freestyling. We was just having fun—we wasn’t trying to make records or make history.
Reasons to Freestyle
Freestyling can be beneficial for a number of reasons. First, it can be a fun activity to do for your own entertainment.
Bobby Creekwater: [I freestyle] all the time—it’s therapeutic, even, so I definitely do that as much as I can. We’re in it to have fun, so I definitely try to have fun with it when- and wherever I can.
Coming up with lyrics off the top of your head can help you to formulate new ideas and discover different ways of rhyming.
K-Os: Freestyling helped me, because when you freestyle in rap, that energy, it sounds very live. A lot of times I would be like, how come when I freestyle it sounds a certain way, but when I write a rap it sounds different? So freestyling helped me learn how to make my more calculated raps sound sweeter.
Performing freestyle verses for an audience is also a great way to promote yourself as an artist.
Cappadonna, Wu-Tang Clan affiliate: In the long run, freestyling is like an investment. You have to stack as many freestyles up as you can, especially when you’re first coming in the game—you gotta give everybody a little freestyle for like thousands of people. You hit up mad spots, doing a lot of advertising over the years, and people know who you are.
Finally, for some MCs, mastering different levels of freestyling is a goal in itself. It’s another direction in which you can take your music and another aspect of hip-hop in which you can learn to excel.
El Da Sensei: I think it’s a good practice to do both [freestyling and writing], because you wanna be able to be kinda versatile.
Myka 9, Freestyle Fellowship: The pinnacle level of MCing, I believe, is when you can actually freestyle with a rap partner and you guys can both say a series of rhymes at the same time and say the same thing—you get psychic, it gets really deep, it’s spiritual.