Top Of The Head (An Ode To The Freestyle Rap)


In the early 1990’s, everybody rapped.

& before you inform me that the same thing is occurring today, allow me to expand on that thought.

Before selling songs to people replaced selling drugs to people (hustlenomically speaking), rapping was as much a skill as it was art. (The exact same thing can be said for graffiti & djing.) A skill which didn’t necessarily require music to pull off. The ability to put words together was a much more credible function than being able to make dope songs, per se. Hip Hop – the culture designed around rap music – was an art form long before it was a commodity, so it wasn’t uncommon to see kids of all ages, all walks of life, frolicking through inner city streets, flaunting their free art, or skills.

I was one of those kids. & if you weren’t, your best friend or uncle was.

This was before the Internet. The ability to bite borrow rhyme patterns & verbal idiosyncrasies from anonymous contemporaries only existed to cats who traveled extensively. Most urbanized youths weren’t privy to such a thing, so in most instances, a cat’s style was home grown. Dudes would spend countless hours, sometimes days at a time, honing their rap styles, & it wasn’t to earn a record deal. It was to ascertain & uphold the respect of being able to rap spontaneously. Or, as it was more commonly known – freestyle.

To freestyle, in the 90’s, basically meant to rap strictly from the top of the head. No rehearsals, no memorization, no room for fuck ups. You either had a knack or you didn’t, & it wasn’t hard to tell the difference between the two.

Keep in mind that with no Internet, rap idol worship was relegated to local talent, so the “crabs in a bucket” effect affected most young men (& women) who thought they deserved a shot at Hip Hop greatness. & when I say “crabs in a bucket,” I mean that for every MC, there were four more who said MC had to prove him(or her)self to, respect wise. In fact, the battle scene in & around Leimert Park’s lyricist mecca “Project Blowed” during those years was epic, because everybody who was anybody wanted to be the king (or queen) of L.A.’s underground rap railroad. For the most part, one had to get through “The Good Life” or “Project Blowed” to do so. It wasn’t a lot of literal hate, but the animosity between rappers was always thick. Almost as thick as the love. Even in the parking lot, which spilled out into the (all of a sudden) legendary Leimert Park (as in trees, a water fountain, & some homeless people) itself. Nevertheless, as long as there were people who took their verbal craft seriously, there was always someone there to attack it. That was the essence of freestyling.

Like breakdancing, freestyle’s choreography was that there wasn’t any, except that which you applied on the spot (a favorite phrase or saying, for example). The crowd or audience responded to the MC’s ability to incorporate his (or her) surroundings into the rhymes, which undoubtedly time-stamped the lyrics, displaying beyond a shadow of a doubt that you were making the shit up as you went along, on the spot. This is what separated the adequate rappers from the deliberate, clever MC who obviously cared a lot about being better than everyone else in his (or her) field.

In high school, all the cool kids gathered at the quad at lunch. There you’d find a veritable who’s who of the student body; jocks, crooks, hookers, smokers, idiots, & most importantly, the hip hop heads. We, the Hip Hop headed society, held battle after battle for schoolyard supremacy, & never once was it about status symbols. It was about the status of having such a command over words that they’d do what you instructed them to do at the drop of someone else’s dime. If someone challenged you to rap, there was only one answer, & it started with “Yo!,” “Check me out!,” or the ever ready “1-2-1,2,” if you smell my cologne.

The term “freestyle” now holds a plethora of meanings, dependent upon age & location of it’s user & receiver. Common, for example, was invited to some radio show last month & was asked to freestyle. He immediately activated his b-boy stance & made up random bars to the beat. Even to the untrained ear, I’m sure it sounded like he was merely entertaining the hosts requests, rhythmically rambling on about nothing in particular, but the fact that he took it back to that acumen is pretty awesome. Especially since Paystyle is the new freestyle & apparently the only things that are free are S[exually]T[ransmitted]D[isease]s & babymomma drama.

In all fairness, the culture must change in order to progress. It’s inevitable, word to MarQ Spekt. I understand that the new generations must manipulate, recalibrate, & regurgitate to continue the cycle. I salute the movement as it marches forward. Hell, without constant motion, I’d eventually run out of stuff to write about. Yet & still, if you don’t know where you’ve been, you won’t know where you going. Never forget that. •


3 comments on “Top Of The Head (An Ode To The Freestyle Rap)

  1. Mark Dub says:

    It was about the status of having such a command over words that they’d do what you instructed them to do at the drop of someone else’s dime.

    ^^^That isht right there? THAT defines a “freestyle” to me. I don’t care if I sound like an old hip hop curmudgeon. The spontonaeity and cleverness of a freestyle was what made it valuable. Now anytime a muhfugga rap to a beat, it’s considered a freestyle. And that’s progress? SMH


  2. Loki says:

    Great post, all young hip hop heads should read this.

    I myself consider myself an MC, but freestyling was never something that i ever thought about, or anyone around me ever thought about. We are products of our environment, I have a friend whos spent a lot of time with a local rapper who freestyles a lot, and even though my friend isn’t a rapper, hes gotten good at freestyling. I really miss it though in terms of the culture though, but remember, everything comes full circle, soon we’ll be having live streaming cyphers all around the world


  3. DV says:

    Im bout to get my young-old head on: Fuck these blackberry readstylers and already used verse over a different beat fake rappin ass niggaz.

    ” how could you call yourselves emcees, its all poison” – The Goat


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