For many rappers it’s been a way to earn instant street cred as they come up with rhymes delivered on the spot, often in complex word battles with other lyricists.
Now a new documentary filled with a who’s who list of hip-hop stars dives deep into the art of freestyle rapping.
“Generally rappers think of freestyle as being improvisation, working with the moment, the crowd, whatever is in front of you,” said Frank Meyer, who directed “Freestyle 101: Hip-Hop History,” which is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video, Google Play and YouTube.
The documentary is narrated by Chuck D of Public Enemy and traces the evolution of freestyle rap, which is often compared to improvisational jazz for its spontaneous nature, from its roots in 1970s New York to modern day freestylers waging lyrical battles on the East and West coasts.
“Essentially you’re judged based on the crowd reaction and how hard you hit the other guy, how smooth you were with your execution and your performance because there’s a certain amount of theatrics,” Meyer said.
His film includes interviews with stars like Ice-T, RZA of the Wu Tang Clan, The Game, Chali 2na of Jurassic 5, Sean Kingston and Ras Kass, a member of the hip-hop ensemble groups The HRSMN and Golden State Warriors.
“It’s what gave me my first opportunity, period,” Kass said. “It’s about having the witticism to turn on a dime and be able to captivate the crowd and get people excited and reacting,” he added.
And while not every rapper comes from a freestyle background, and it’s not a prerequisite for being in the music business, Kass said freestyle skills definitely earn rappers respect.
“It’s like if you meet Gretzky and all of the sudden he’s like ‘I don’t really ice skate,’ well it’s like you don’t play hockey,” Kass said.
Meyer, who besides being a film director is a well-known punk rock veteran as the guitarist and frontman of The Streetwalkin’ Cheetahs and other bands, came up with the idea of the documentary while he was a host of a music show on G4 TV, an online channel owned by NBC.
“I talked to rappers the way you would talk to guitar players in terms of their technique and their influences and how they use their instruments and how they were doing this amazing thing,” he said.
The documentary is not only a history lesson in the artform, but also a look forward as it follows New York battle rapper Iron Solomon and L.A. indie rapper Open Mike Eagle as they use their freestyle skills in local battles and to navigate through today’s music industry.
“I really hope to shine a light on all the amazing artists in this movie and there are some famous ones like Ice-T and The Game, and Cypress Hill and Wu Tang Clan. But there are a lot of underground artists who are just as incredible who people may not have heard about,” Meyer said.
The film comes during a milestone year for hip-hop as the genre celebrates its 50-year anniversary. It all started at a New York party in the Bronx in the summer of 1973 when Dj Kool Herc used two turntables to switch back and forth between two records to isolate and extend the most danceable parts of the song, or the break beat.
And just as hip-hop was born so was freestyling.
“People were freestyling before they were even putting together rap songs,” Meyer said. “In that sense freestyling is one of the foundations of hip-hop,” he said.