Freestyle rap is an art form itself within the hip hop community. Originally, freestyle meant “unassociated content” so technically written song could be considered a freestyle. Over time, however, it came to mean “off the top” where a rapper delivers lyrics impromptu style, either alone or in a cypher (group of rappers together).
While most talented rappers can freestyle to a certain extent, there seems to be a divide between the greatest written rappers and the greatest freestyle rappers. The most notable examples of freestyle rap champions in the past fifteen years have been Supernatural (who recently claimed the Guinness World Record for longest freestyle), Juice, Eyedea, TheSaurus and Illmaculate (2 time world champions recently). Despite their fame, none of these MCs have delivered an album that received critical acclaim.
Freestyling still remains a true indicator of a rapper’s skill, however, and is perhaps the single greatest way of building your reputation is the shortest time possible. Freestyle battles provide an avenue for up and coming rappers to demonstrate their lyrical prowess alongside bigger names. A rap battle generally consists of two rappers who have two one-minute rounds to effectively out think, outwit and outspit their competition. Most televised rap battles have rules regarding profanity and misogny, though most untelevised battles or those shown online like Jump Off TV’s freestyle rap tournament offer no constraints, allowing the rappers to be dirtier than a Richard Pryor comedy skit.
Freestyle rap also plays a vital role on radio. The nationally syndicated Wake Up Show featuring Sway and King Tech is a cornertone of rap culture and often invites well known emcees to spit freestyles on their show. They’ve included such notables as KRS One, Eminem, Atmosphere, Tech N9ne and Xzibit, and allowed all of them to demonstrate their freestyle prowess.
Freestyles also help writers feel out a song. Rather than combatting writer’s block, many MCs will simply freestyle with a beat to feel out its mood, while testing out different rhyme patterns and tempos to see which fits the best. It is said that Jay-Z doesn’t write his rhymes at all, but rather freestyles them in the booth before put together into a cohesive song. This is a grey area and raises an interesting question: If he’s freestyling parts of song, then putting together, is he really freestyling? Or just writing out loud?
MCs who freestyle rap- be it over mixtapes or the neighborhood- are in a lot of ways the guardians of hip hop. They’re the ones who are living the culture truly in the moment (much like B-boys and B-girls), as low to the ground as possible. While some rappers may go platinum and start resting on their laurels, the freestyle rappers are out there sharpening their skills every day.