It’s no secret that freestyle rap is much less prevalent than its written counterpart, but really, how important of a skill is it to succeed as a rapper today?
Rapping can be traced to its roots long ago in West Africa and the Caribbean, where stories were told rhythmically over the beat of a drum. Modern day rapping however was born in the 1970s, in the Southern part of Bronx where Hip Hop was also created. Note, rap is not interchangeable with the term Hip Hop. Rap is talking in rhyme on beat; Hip Hop is a culture and lifestyle that has four main pillars: graffiti artists, bboys, DJs and MCs (rappers).
The original rappers used to be known as MCs, and yes, that stands for Master of Ceremonies. MCs would be in control of the mic at events and could handle, captivate and hype up the crowd. “Rhyming is something they [MCs] do, but it’s not all they do”- Ice-T, therefore an MC is a rapper but a rapper is not necessarily an MC. A great example of how an MC, Big Daddy Kane, works the crowd can be found here:
Now if you went back to the 1970s, the term ‘freestyle rap’ would actually refer to a written rhyme that was free of style, meaning that there was no subject matter or music attached to it. This would give the rapper flexibility to drop the rhyme on instrumental tracks, making variations to his rhymes to fit the bars as he went. The term ‘freestyle’ wasn’t associated with the current conception of freestyle rap (completely improvised or off the top of the head/dome) until the 1990’s. In fact, Kool Moe Dee (first rapper to ever perform at the Grammys) states that back in the day, freestyle wasn’t as well respected as written rap. "A lot of the old-school artists didn’t even respect what’s being called freestyle now... any emcee coming off the top of the head wasn’t really respected. The sentiment was emcees only did that if they couldn’t write. The coming off the top of the head rhymer had a built-in excuse to not be critiqued as hard.”
However today, rappers who can freestyle are well respected by their peers. Rappers like Notorious B.I.G., Snoop Dogg, Tupac and Eminem are not only pioneers of a new school style that uses more complicated lyrics and rhythms, but are also known as great freestylers with their own style.
These days it’s hard to differentiate the rappers that freestyle with pre-conceived lyrics from the rappers that freestyle off the dome. Whether or not off the dome rapping should be a necessary skill for a rapper is debatable, regardless, it’s clear that it’s an incredible art form that the world has fallen in love with.
Here are a few clips of well-known rappers freestyling: