Hip Hop, and most music in fact, is centered around rhyme. Rhyme is defined as the writing or uttering of words that have corresponding sounds to them usually at the end of lines in poetry. If you are of the mind that Hip Hop isn't poetry, then I'm afraid you're woefully ignorant of the amount of rhyme, alliteration, rhythm, assonance and so many other poetic devices that rappers use in every song.
But today is not meant to be a discussion of written rhymes, but rather the unwritten ones. The ones that reflect a rapper's soul.
Freestyle Verse Vs. Off The Dome Freestyle
There's a distinction that must be made first and foremost, not all "freestyle" is thought up, there are two definitions of it in the hip hop world. A freestyle song or verse can just be a song with no hook, and/or no tied themes connecting the lines together. It's just rapping for rapping's sake. The XXL Freshman Cyphers for years have received widespread social media attention for either panicked off the dome verses, or amazing pre-written freestyles.
One of the most recognizable cyphers in recent memory. The verses are either clowned, respected or a sign of the times, depending on who you ask. And this divisiveness is what makes it an art.
In this writer's opinion, opting to do an "off the dome" freestyle, regardless of quality is always respectable, being vulnerable in a creative way is not easy, and the criticism is only an amplification of the cypher's spectators. Sometimes you need that hate to strengthen your skills.
So to recap, you can technically "write" a freestyle, but we want to discuss the beauty of a professional "off the dome" freestyle, and the traditions that surround it.
The Appeal of "Off The Dome" Freestyles
All rappers can spit lyrics, but a small portion can confidently freestyle, let alone in front of a large audience. Drake's OG freestyle with Funk Flex was written in advance, on a show where off the domes are showcased constantly. There is a comfort in writing your verses, and a weakness in freestyling, in the possibility of failing, of not coming up with comprehensible bars in time, of being humiliated. But like anything in life, practice will make you an expert. Let loose, say whatever you want, no matter how funny or goofy it sounds. Only when you have loosened your mind can you truly say what you need to say to get in and through a 16. Not only is it an entertaining experience, it is improvised poetry. Where people who pre-write verses can find comfort and maintain their image, their brand, freestyling tears all that down. An off the dome tells people who you are, what pops into your head without advance notice, what makes you tick, and how truly fearless are you as an artist.
The best freestyle videos are always low quality and filmed awkwardly, it's a scientific fact.
The Traditional Cypher
The cypher is a circle of rappers, disc jockeys, and spectators who take turns freestyling over a beat, judging each other's skill, and making music on-the-fly. There are variations, some are just for fun, and some are for sport, the blood sport of Battle Rap. You've seen it in 8 Mile, you've seen it echoed in pop culture for decades, when two emcees go toe to toe with their lyrical skills to degrade and verbally assault one another through rhyme until one cannot respond, or until the crowd has crowned a winner. Meek Mill started out as a tested battle rapper on the streets of Philly, and carried his skill into a prolific commercial career. There are battle rap tournaments all across America, and we at the MSQ Shop have covered RVA Rap Elite's battle rap clashes and their cutthroat emcees several times, and we salute them for maintaining the culture every month.
Great Off The Dome Rappers
You have your KRS-One, Snoop Dogg, Biggie, Eminem, Mos Def, and Lil Wayne who can give you a freestyle without you even asking for one. But to those who say the new generation can't freestyle, this is typical "back in my day' discourse, which is dismissive and ignorant. There are new-era artists who freestyle through whole albums as their process, as Denzel Curry did for his album ZUU, and the late Juice Wrld did for his whole career (Rest in peace). Tyler the Creator, A$AP Rocky and most of the Mob, Freddie Gibbs, J.Cole, Kendrick, Ski Mask the Slump God and Cordae have all been documented murdering beats with only their minds. The art style has never died, it has reinvented itself as the beats and lyrical subjects have changed over the years. YouTubers Zias! and B.Lou have become well known for the freestyles they do week in and out on their channels, and alongside bigger names in hip hop that they interview. So even beyond the immediate sphere of rappers do we see the traditions taking new life on modern platforms.
A personal favorite for this writer to go back to are the freestyles from A$AP Mob & others on the AWGE DVDs, something about the camerawork, editing and lyrics on screen make these freestyles easy to get lost in, and make you want to jump into the circle with them.
Ultimately, though not all of hip hop is centered around Off the Dome freestyling, it is still a huge part of the culture, and the bravado of rappers who can think on their feet is unparalleled. It is an art form unto itself, and mainstream media has not perceived it as the beautiful improv poetry and high-level literature that it is because of its ties to Hip Hop, and the negative perception of the music that still remains. But we are seeing more and more schools, tutors and masterclasses that are studying freestyles and rap poetry more and more, and taking it seriously, emcee Mickey Factz' Pendulum Ink school is one example, helping young rappers fine tune their lyrical skill to suit their styles and careers.
But to close out this article, I will leave you with one of the greatest freestyles ever recorded. Black Thought's 10 minutes of pure poetry with complex rhyme schemes can compete against some artists' whole written discography. Back on one of the biggest freestyle platforms in the country, Funk Flex on Hot 97.
The words speak for themselves.
Written by Max Olarinde, @mobeige1 on all social media.
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