Freestyle rap commonly refers to rap lyrics which are improvised through a a capella or with instrumental beats, i.e. performed with no previously composed lyrics, or “off the top of the head”
– Taken from Wikipedia.
Doesn’t sound to complicated, now does it? But apparently loads of emcees, many of who are even well-respected rappers, seem confused about this. Take a random trip around the daily output of the bloggerati and you’ll no doubt stumble upon your fair share of tracks labeled ‘freestyle.’ Virtually none of these would fall under the commonly accepted definition of the term though. They sound like full songs; you hear ad-libs, choruses, they’re often mastered in a studio and even the freestyles spit on radio shows are pre-written most of the time.
Drake – Hot97 ‘Freestyle’
Rappers in the naughts have eroded the term so heavily that the only appropriate contemporary description could be ‘shit I spit to the hot beat of the moment, which isn’t mine’ or something along those lines. Ripping apart somebody else’s beat like that doesn’t have to be a bad thing at all, especially if you surpass the original, and we’ve seen many moments worth remembering of emcees flipping a sentence or flow in their own, surprising or humorous way. Curtis ‘Fif’ Jackson pretty much made a career out of it when he started out on the mixtape scene after getting dropped by Columbia Records. To be fair, the term ‘freestyle’ hasn’t always been as steadfast in it’s meaning as it appears to be to begin with. In the book ‘How To Rap – The Art & Science Of The Hip-Hop MC’ by Paul Edwards you can find Big Daddy Kane explaining that the term had a whole different explanation in the 80s, I’ll let the man tell it himself:
Big Daddy Kane – Definition Of ‘Freestyle’
Still, ‘freestyle’ as a term for an ‘off the dome’ verse has been prominent since rappers started regularly showing up on radio stations in the early 90s. The highpoint of any interview (and usually it’s conclusion) was when the guests were invited to drop an improvised rhyme, flowing freely like a jazz solo. It became an integral part of hip-hop culture and the raw nature of this specific art was the basis for many legendary mixtape series, like Tony Touch his 50 MC’s tapes or the Wake-Up Show compilations. Of course, some emcees didn’t have improvisation as their strong suit, and spit written rhymes anyway. Most emcees often had a couple lines prepared when asked for a freestyle, but when they were feeling the vibe, after a couple of written bars they quickly segued into improvisiational wordplay. It’s hard to deny that is still what most people think of when talking about a freestyle.
Eminem & Proof – Freestyle
Words change their meaning. It’s a natural occurrence in any spoken language and shouldn’t be lamented as some kind of horrible defiance of the rules, as is often done by linguistic purists. But in the word losing it’s more traditional meaning we also run the risk of losing an element of our culture. How many real, improvised freestyles have you heard recently? If we’re already being generous enough to call a track over somebody else his beat a freestyle, reading a lyric off a Blackberry (worthy of spoofing a mere two years ago) doesn’t even seem that bad anymore. So let’s just stop it. Rappers, don’t label your track ‘freestyle’ is it’s not improvised. Bloggers, don’t put it up on your site labeled ‘freestyle’ if it clearly isn’t, no matter what the accompanying e-mail said. And if an artist can’t or doesn’t want to freestyle, let’s not make that big of a deal out of it. You don’t have to be a GOAT in every category, some excel at brag and boast rap, others in storytelling, others in battles, and so forth. If you don’t want to freestyle, don’t. But calling the written verbal gymnastics that you’re reading aloud in the booth a freestyle is an insult to those who let their truly improvised rhymes run wild.
17-year old Biggie freestyling on Fulton Street