COLUMN: The Evolution Of Hip-Hop Freestyling
Published: Wednesday, October 9, 2013
Updated: Wednesday, October 9, 2013 20:10
The evolution of freestyle as an improvisational art is married to the development of hip-hop as a genre. And while the purpose of this art has changed, its inspiration has not. Anybody that criticizes rappers today for delivering pre-written verses in an opportunity to flash their capacity for spontaneous wit is missing the point. Let’s go to the beginning.
In the early 1970s, the Jamaican community began to establish their signature dancehalls in the Bronx. These spaces quickly became a venue for the popular dub, soul, and funk grooves of the time—a place for the largely insulated urban community to engage in dance and drinks. It was also the birthplace of hip-hop as we know it today. “Toasting” was a common method used by DJs to interact with the audience—they would cut out the track and shout-out the club owner, highlight talented dancers, plug themselves or their booking agent, etc. The technique was used to develop a relationship between the DJ and the audience, and was highly improvised based off of the energy of the night and the present crowd. With the invention of the turntable and the creation of “looping,” DJ-ing became too complicated to simultaneously “toast” and spin. A separate emcee was hired to “toast” the audience while the DJ spun and mixed the tracks, and so “rapping” was created by a man (Coke la Rock) talking to a very different audience each night over a consistent, repetitive beat.
Take a look at early acts like Public Enemy or N.W.A. The hype was never about the lyrics with them, it was about the fact that they were speaking at all. The performance was carried by the energy of the dancehall and an entire community that these people were bringing into the mainstream. The songs spoke to so many people because of their unlikely existence. Now, the emphasis is on the voice with which rappers speak. Think of Kendrick and Danny Brown—two up-and-comers whose work is at an almost-schizophrenic level of detail. The voices they use not only represent the dimensions of their psyche, but the many voices of the community that they grew up with. Hip-hop has moved, and continues to move, toward the theater.
Does Rick Ross actually hang out with tiger cubs? Does A$AP Rocky have his secretary pencil in a time to drink champagne in a gold bathtub filled with stacks of money, while two girls menage in the background? Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that these displays of impossible opulence make the rappers inauthentic. The aesthetic they choose to portray is an expression of the world they try to create through music. The product we buy is the performance—the music is only a component of that.
Kanye West—a man who has devoted his life to performance art—has brought theater into his stage shows. When asked to phone in a show at some hotel in Atlantic City, Kanye decided to make a fully immersive experience. Through the use of surround sound and projections, costumes (straightjacket and a mask), and even props (falling snow), he supported the aesthetic of his album Cruel Summer with a multi-sensual reality.
West recently argued that “hip-hop is the new rock and roll.” I say it’s the new theater. Music may be the body, but the lifestyle is the lungs of the performance. Whether that performance is to break racial stereotypes or to refashion the black American man as a “new god” or what not—freestyle today can be broken into its component words: free style. As rappers increasingly liberate themselves from the “thug” persona, as it becomes cool to like art and fashion and express sensitivity or remorse, we come into a “free style.”
So, when a rapper goes onto Hot 97 or Westwood or whatever medium, what should be judged is their ability to leverage their public persona, their personality, and what they represent for the community into a coherent framework. It’s not “give me some spontaneous thought,” but “show me your character—who you are and what you stand for—in 32 bars.”