It’s late at night on my back porch. I’m with a friend who creates and produces music under the pseudonym The Beat Hunter (AKA Awkward Moment), as well as a mutual friend that he raps with in his songs and videos. Hunter snubs out his cigarette as I put on a Tycho album. With the backing of this instrumental ambient artist, the three of us are ready to take a shot at instrumental freestyling.
Freestyle rap, of course, is nothing new. Existing in various forms for decades, freestyle is basically improvised lyrical creation, and many older rappers rose to prominence by proving themselves in freestyle battles against one another. The objective was to outdo your opponent in terms of improvisation, rhyming ability, and personal appeal to the audience. Since the 90s, however, freestyle rap has typically referred to off-the-cuff lyrical composition done on the spot, without prior writing, on whatever topics spring to mind. Often, a rapper will brag about their achievements or personal greatness, while others use it as a therapeutic opportunity to express frustration and other emotions. How to Rap, an analysis of rapping techniques taken from studying 104 different rappers, documents the uses and techniques of the art. It can be made into conversation or a rhyming game used to practice one’s craft with others. Wikipedia summarizes some of the reasons given for freestyling: “entertainment, as a therapeutic activity, to discover different ways of rapping, promoting oneself, increasing versatility, or as a spiritual activity. Improvised freestyling can also be used in live performances, to do things such as giving something extra to the crowd and to cover up mistakes. In order to prove that a freestyle is being made up on the spot (as opposed to something pre-written or memorized), rappers will often refer to places and objects in their immediate setting, or will take suggestions on what to rhyme about.”
This occasion is one of the first times I’ve ever tested my abilities. As Hunter pours out his rhymes, I remind myself that he has years of experience. At the same time, letting your stream-of-consciousness flow comes only with practice. I get myself into the rhythm of the background music and let off some lyrics with as many connections and rhymes as I can think of. It’s a solid performance for about twenty or thirty seconds before I run out of ideas. But we all laugh together – there will be many other occasions for everyone to improve.
The whole experience made me realize that good writing and good music go hand in hand, and that both require constant flexing of those creative muscles. A smooth lyrical flow is just as challenging as an eloquent sentence; it’s just a question of figuring out the technique.