What’s The Real Definition Of A Freestyle? The Great Debate Continues (Video)
Last month, Ambrosia For Heads revisited a 1997 conversation between LL Cool J, Redman, DMX, Method Man and MTV News’ Abbie Kearse. The interview unpacked the varying definitions of a freestyle, pulling opinions of the MCs from some different eras and backgrounds. As can be seen and heard by the definitions given from these early Rap veterans, the debate over what is and what isn’t a freestyle has been argued over and redefined since the beginning. To better understand the issue at hand, Justin “The Company Man” Hunte, takes a closer look for the first TBD episode of 2019, with some additional input from Papoose, Reason, and others.
Back in ’97, LL Cool J opined, “A lot of times, when people talk about freestyle, it’s interesting, because being a student of Hip-Hop and growing up on Hip-Hop, I learned that ‘freestyling’ back in the days, really, was when you write a rhyme, and then you say it.” Next, DMX offered his take, “It’s just talkin’ mess, not talkin’ about any particular subject, just talkin’ about how good you are. That’s freestylin’ to me.” And later, “Freestyle, to me, is a style—not speaking on any particular subject, just on how nice you are.” Although he is in agreement to the previous two MCs, Redman added, “Sometimes it’s off the top of the head, but sometimes it’s just lyrics that can be about anything. You can write a freestyle, just talkin’ about anything, any particular subject. You can jump from subject to subject.”
Even as told some 20 years ago from the genre’s leading artists, freestyling still seems to have multiple definitions. Hunte asks Brooklyn’s Papoose, an artist who has proven himself to be highly capable of keeping the artform alive on mixtapes, by some definitions.
“In my opinion, there are two definitions of the freestyling. Hip-Hop is a culture… When you grow up in that culture, and you’re coming up [as] an MC, you might not be in the industry yet, but you consider yourself an MC – and those who know you, we all know each other. We consider ourselves MCs. Sometimes we have these things called cyphers. That was anytime you ran into another MC that was respected, y’all exchanged verses…Some guys had dope rhymes, and there were some guys who could just speak about what was going on at that current time off the top of they head. We reference them as ‘He’s a freestyler.’ When you’re coming from the core of this sh*t, that’s the definition of freestyling. Freestyle in that sense is coming off the head. Period. That’s one definition of a freestyle.”
The artist who released You Can’t Stop Destiny a few years back continues, “But when it comes to the industry [and] the music business, the definition of a freestyle changes. A freestyle can be put on a beat, and I might kick an ill-ass rhyme that you’ve never heard before. Or a freestyle could be, I’m gonna jump on a [DJ] Kay Slay mixtape and do a verse they’ve never heard before – an exclusive verse, a freestyle. Or I might go up to Funkmaster Flex show, and he might throw on a beat and I might freestyle. The definition of freestyling changes when you’re in the streets, and you’re in the industry.”
Later, Hunte receives another definition from a far younger MC in the game. Top Dawg Entertainment’s Reason, who recently released his debut album, There You Have It, gave his thoughts on what a freestyle means to him.
“I consider a freestyle rapping over someone else’s beat, in a cypher format where there’s no specific content. Just rappin’, you can talk about anything, say anything freely, there are no rules.” The Carson, California MC continues, “It used to be it had to be off the top of your head, no prepared material. The Internet, in my opinion, has ruined that because now it’s too risky to do a wack freestyle on camera because it lives forever. So now people prepare material beforehand, but it’s still a cypher type format.”
Hunte also notes the difficulty of a true “off-the-top” rhyme and pays homage to the likes of rappers like King Los, who he remembers spitting off top for nearly 30 minutes straight. Hunte also gets Los’ definition of what a freestyle means to him.
“Words not bound by restriction or imprisonments of other people’s perceptions but your true self personified through sound. As long as they fit the “free” criteria, it doesn’t matter [if they are written]. Many people confused “freestyle” vs. “off the dome” which is just a form of freestyle,” says the Baltimore, Maryland MC who had been signed by Diddy before releasing God, Money, War on RCA Records in 2015.
Hunte later talks to King Los about when he realized that people have been transposing “freestyle” and “off-the-top.” Los responded that people have been doing this “since the beginning of time,” and there may not be any more of an honest look into the confusion over the definition of the freestyle than Los’ realization, right there. As Hunte points out, the answers we received twenty plus years ago from LL, DMX, Redman, and Method Man are little to no different than the answers given by Papoose, Reason, and King Los.
Hunte gives some historical context to add to the discussion. “What stands out most to me out of all of this is the first part of LL Cool J’s answer [from the MTV interview]. LL said, ‘A lotta times when people talk about a freestyle, it’s interesting because being a student of Hip-Hop, growing up on Hip-Hop, I learned that freestyling back in the day really was when you write a rhyme, and then you say it,’ which sounds like pretty much any and every kind of Rap—which makes sense if you consider the MC’s original purpose was to hype the DJ. Talkin’ about how great the DJ was. It wasn’t until later that the MC evolved into telling their own narrative, and when they did they found different ways to do so, whether freestyle or off the top. The point is this, as Hip-Hop continues to grow and expand, new generations add their legacy to the talisman of the culture. So, it makes sense that once agreed upon covenants take on new meaning.”
So, which do you find more impressive? A great off-the-top, or a great freestyle? And as Hunte asks in finality, “Does a great freestyler deserve more respect than a great writer, or vice versa?”