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Name: Adam Bernard
Home: Fairfield, Connecticut, United States
About Me: Entertainment journalist with 15+ years of experience. Supporter of indie music. Lover of day baseball, fringe movies, & chicken shawarma. Part time ninja. Nerdy, but awesome.
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Style Wars - A Debate On Freestyling
Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Freestyles. They’re an integral part of hip-hop, but how many of the freestyles that we hear are truly “off the dome,” i.e. completely made up on the spot? Many people were disillusioned earlier this year when they saw the now infamous video of Drake “freestyling” at Hot97 in New York because they found out what they had heard on the radio was actually the young superstar reading lyrics off of his Blackberry. According to Bridgeport emcee Chase Davis, people really shouldn’t be all that surprised when things like that happen. “A lot of the stuff on radio, and Smack DVDs,” he explains, “are mostly (pre) written.”

Othello, of the group d_Cyphernauts, laments this fact, saying “freestyle is becoming a lost art. As fewer artists that have the ear of the young people freestyle, the more foreign the concept of freestyling becomes to younger audiences, so the art gets lost because it is undervalued and misunderstood.” Othello’s fellow AFA emcee The Rising Sun Quest agrees with this sentiment and adds that although when emceeing was still in its infancy stages it was commonplace for freestyles to be pre-written for radio, “it has evolved to be an extemporaneous skill now. I think most people would say freestyle is off the dome only.” This is what makes true freestyling one of the most respected aspects of the art of emceeing. Chase Davis goes as far as saying he feels “only a few people can truly go in off the top.”

Everyone has their opinions regarding what makes for a great freestyle, but a few things are universally agreed upon as necessities. Nemesis Alpha of d_Cyphernuats says the first golden rule is that “everything being said should connect and make sense.” Plus, formerly of the group Nervous System, seconds this, saying “a lot of people say that punch lines make you dope, and I agree, but let’s try making sense first.”

After making sense, Quest says it’s important to “involve the current scenery and the audience. Pull them in and make them a part of the freestyle experience.” Eclipse, who was known as one of the best freestyle emcees in the state before moving across the country earlier this year, agrees, saying “if an emcee can grab the audience’s attention just using their freestyle ability then I’m impressed.”

Of course, all of this is very difficult to do, which is why so many artists choose to perform pre-written verses, or “writtens” as they’re referred to. Eclipse, and the myriad of other emcees who kick true freestyles, has no respect for artists who try to pass off writtens as freestyles. “Those type of rappers are looking for the acceptance of being an emcee,” he explains, “so the hip-hop culture will appreciate them more, but, in fact, if they were honest and claimed they could only perform the music they have, or wrote, then they would be labeled as an artist and not a fraud.”

There are some tell-tale signs that indicate whether or not a freestyle is truly a freestyle. According to Nemesis Alpha, “you can tell by fluidity. When things get choppy and uncomfortable for the MC, then it is a free for most people.” Chase Davis adds that topic matter is usually fairly limited in a true freestyle, saying “hardly anybody has that much detail in their freestyles.” Othello notes that “usually when someone is freestyling you can hear them working out their thoughts while they’re spitting, or they’re speaking about something that’s going on right then and there. If I’m rapping about the neon yellow kicks I got on, or rapping about the homerun that David Wright hit five minutes ago, that’s freestyle. If someone is spitting with real intricate wordplay and not fumbling at all, and if the breath control seems too good to be true for a freestyle, then it probably isn’t one.” Jokingly, he adds, “if I’m really rapping about the homerun that David Wright hit that might be a written cuz I probably wrote that last year.”

According to Eclipse something as simple as body language can also be an indicator of whether or not you’re witnessing a true freestyle. “If they’re able to act out what they’re saying then seven times out of ten it’s a written.”

In the end, the biggest question regarding freestyling is - does someone have to be able to do it to be considered an emcee? The people involved in this story were split as down the middle as seven people can possibly be with three saying yes, three saying no, and DJ EZ Mike, who could have broken the tie, saying “it’s not necessary to be able to freestyle, but it helps.” Even tightly knit crews are split on this with the AFA’s Nemesis Alpha saying being able to freestyle is a necessity in order to be considered an emcee and shouting out Quest one of the best freestylers around, while Quest himself says he feels freestyling is “not an accurate representation of talent.” Former Nervous System members Plus and Eclipse are split down the middle on the subject, as well.

Whether or not the ability to freestyle is a requirement to be considered an emcee, respecting the art of freestyling is. This is why as a fan, when an emcee grabs a mic and claims to be kicking a freestyle, it’s important to be able to recognize whether or not he, or she, is actually doing so, and only accept what is truly authentic.

Story originally ran in the FairfieldWeekly.

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