Black Thought Clarifies Whether His 10-Minute Freestyle Was Written Or Off The Top

Nearly two weeks ago, Black Thought set the Hip-Hop world on fire, with a 10-minute freestyle that many considered the best of the year. In fact, Puff Daddy went as far as to say the verse was the greatest freestyle in Hip-Hop history. The video quickly went viral and, to date, has racked up more than 2 million views. While he is a staple on The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon, as part of The Roots crew that oversees the show’s music, Thought’s performance rightfully earned him a spot as one of Fallon’s A-list guests, as it truly was one of the entertainment news highlights of the week.

Although the freestyle was stellar by any standards, one of the biggest questions about the verse was whether it was pre-written or completely improvised, or “off the top.” The sheer complexity and density of rhyme patterns and subject matter suggested that the rhymes may have been pre-written. However, later that day, Thought tweeted “That verse was just what I had to say at the moment lol.” Also, when on The Tonight Show, Fallon asked “That was all freestyle?,” to which Thought responded “Yeah,” leading many, including Ambrosia For Heads, to believe the verse was entirely off the top.

Now, in a recent interview with Rolling Stone, the MC born Tariq Trotter, has explained in detail exactly how the verse was constructed and, in short, it was a combination of pre-planned thoughts and impromptu rhymes. “I think the definition of “freestyle” has definitely changed,” said Thought. “When I was coming up, a freestyle wasn’t a freestyle unless everything was completely improvised, in-the-moment and right there, and you had to incorporate various elements of what was going on in the room on the day. That’s still a part of it. But I feel like it’s evolved into something more, where you have to have the improv element, but you also have to have a certain script. As an actor, the theatrical side of me identifies with the concept of having a script, and memorizing the lines, and then being able to be “off book,” so to speak. If you know your lines and everybody else’s lines, and you have those beats in your muscle memory, then you can improvise and go off-script. And if you reach a point during the improvisation where you feel like you’re about to stutter or second-guess yourself, then you can immediately fall back on the part that you already know. So that’s what [freestyle] has evolved into. It’s like the new definition of freestyle. I mean, it still has to be witty, and you have to have punchlines. But in order to make it super dense, and incorporate all those layers of meaning and depth to the listener, it has to be both improv and muscle memory.”

While acknowledging that he did pre-prepare for the freestyle, Black Thought also made it clear that he was perfectly capable of rhyming completely off the top, a feat he regularly does in concert and on The Tonight Show. “I’m able to do that with the best of them. But in order to say what is needed, to get a rise out of young audiences, the 18-to-25s…and in order to get that sort of response from them, it has to be a combination [of improvisation and pre-written]. There has to be a research element involved,” he said.

Thought’s definition of a freestyle is actually in line with that of some of Rap’s earliest MCs. In the book How To Rap, Big Daddy Kane said, “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… it’s basically a rhyme just bragging about yourself.” Similarly, in his book, There’s A God On The Mic, Kool Moe Dee said “There are two types of freestyle. There’s an old-school freestyle that’s basically rhymes that you’ve written that may not have anything to do with any subject or that goes all over the place. Then there’s freestyle where you come off the top of the head.” In essence, Black Thought’s definition combines Kool Moe Dee’s two iterations of “freestyle.”

The furor over what’s really a freestyle, however, begs a question as to why so much emphasis has been put on the importance of “off the top” rhymes. In almost no other circumstance is unpreparedness celebrated. Even in the sports world, when Michael Jordan made a game-winning basket or Stephen Curry drained a mind-blowing three pointer, each would be quick to say that the situation and shot was something that he practiced in the gym thousands of times. No one would attempt to diminish the greatness of them performing in the moment because they practiced it beforehand. Similarly, why should a spectacular verse be considered any less spectacular because aspects of it were pre-conceived? Some of the greatest MCs of all-time–Rakim, Nas, Scarface–were never known as off the top MCs. On the flip side, some of the true greats at off the top flows have never been able to craft a hit or enduring record. At the end of the day, it’s the quality that’s most important, and no one can deny that Black Thought’s Funkmaster Flex freestyle was of the highest quality Hip-Hop has to offer.

#bonusbeat: Here’s an awesome off the top cypher between Black Thought and Phife Dawg from the mid-90s.