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Freestyle Rap: What is It?

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Butler chapter.

How do you define a freestyle? This is a topic that has been weighing very heavily on my mind recently. Last week I showed my friend this amazing ‘freestyle’, and she responded with “yeah, it’s good, but it’s not a freestyle, it was written.”  This completely threw me off. Not because I didn’t know it was written, because it was absolutely written, but rather, because I didn’t define freestyling as non-written material. I defined it as any material that does not have a specific structure, subject, and/or format.  If the freestyle wasn’t written it was just off the dome, which is another way of saying ‘ of the top of someone’s head’.  This had me thinking, am I wrong, is she wrong, are we both right?  What is a ‘freestyle’? And why do two ‘hip hop heads’ have completely different definitions of one of the cornerstones of hip-hop. So I did what I do best and researched the topic during a boring lecture.  And this is what I found:


It’s a generational thing.  J-lyric and Myka 9 in the book, How to Rap, claimed that a freestyle was a spit without a set subject. Divine Styler said:”in the school I come from, freestyling was a non-conceptual written rhyme… and now they call freestyling off the top of the head, so the era I come from it’s a lot different.” Even Kool Moe Dee, the first rapper to perform at the Grammys, said “There are two types of freestyle. There’s an old-school freestyle that’s basically rhymes that you’ve just thought of on the spot that may not have anything to do with any subject or that goes all over the place. Then there’s freestyle where you come off the top of the head” (Wiki).  This is how I viewed freestyling.  I didn’t care if it was written. In fact, I preferred it. However, that freestyle age is dead. Freestyles are now off the dome. If they are not, the rapper will be roasted. What caused this change? When did it happen?


While nobody is sure what caused the change exactly, most people think it came from the rise of improv rap groups in the 1990s  such as, Freestyle Fellowship.  Kevin Fitzgerald even directed a documentary, Freestyle: The Art of Rhyme, and in this documentary the term “freestyle” was used by numerous artists, and every artist used it to mean improvisational rapping.  The culture has shifted.  And like always, if you’re an artist you have to shift with the culture, or risk being ridiculed, if not left behind all together.


What do y’all think? What does the term freestyle mean to you? Is it more impressive to show your lyrical prowess with well-written bars, or is it better to flex your natural improv skills? Let me know!


Jazmine Bowens is a senior at Butler University. She is a Psychology major with a minor in Neuroscience and the Campus Corespondent for Butler University's Her Campus chapter. When she isn't in class, she's writing poetry, reading romance novels, or hanging out with her friends. Jazmine hopes to one day become an environmental lawyer and a published novelist.