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What is a freestyle?

posted by Tim Carmody   Dec 29, 2017

Kool Moe Dee Purple Avatar.png

In swimming, “freestyle” means the swimmer can choose their own stroke; in biking or skating, “freestyle” is a kind of informal series of stunts on varied terrain. In rap, to freestyle at its limit means to improvise lyrics off the top of one’s head. But very few lyrical freestyles are actually done completely off the top; the more salient criteria seem to be that the lyrics are memorized, they’re not from a record, they don’t conform to a verse-chorus structure (or sometimes even a verse structure), and they’re meant to showcase an MC’s lyrical gifts. A little more like an orchestral jazz solo than something completely unstructured and improvisational.

The Roots’ Black Thought, who performed a highly acclaimed freestyle in this mode on Hot 97 earlier this month, explains the difference to Rolling Stone:

When I was coming up, a freestyle wasn’t a freestyle unless everything was completely improvised, in-the-moment and right there, and you had to incorporate various elements of what was going on in the room on the day. That’s still a part of it. But I feel like it’s evolved into something more, where you have to have the improv element, but you also have to have a certain script. As an actor, the theatrical side of me identifies with the concept of having a script, and memorizing the lines, and then being able to be “off book,” so to speak. If you know your lines and everybody else’s lines, and you have those beats in your muscle memory, then you can improvise and go off-script. And if you reach a point during the improvisation where you feel like you’re about to stutter or second-guess yourself, then you can immediately fall back on the part that you already know. So that’s what [freestyle] has evolved into. It’s like the new definition of freestyle. I mean, it still has to be witty, and you have to have punchlines. But in order to make it super dense, and incorporate all those layers of meaning and depth to the listener, it has to be both improv and muscle memory….

There has to be a research element involved. No public speaker or stand-up comedian, I mean, there’s no one who’s going to give a speech completely off the top without having worked on the beats, and how you’re going to say what it is that you’re saying, or worked on the tone.

This last bit about public speaking and performance reminds me of this anecdote J. Period’s told a few times about Tariq Trotter’s time at Philadelphia’s High School for Creative and Performing Arts:

Hip-hop vlogger Justin Hunte includes this anecdote as part of his case for Black Thought being considered one of the greatest MCs (if not the greatest) of all time.

Black Thought’s ten-minute freestyle

posted by Tim Carmody   Dec 15, 2017

Warning: this is the best thing you’re going to see today, even if you already saw it yesterday.

In this clip, The Roots’ MC dishes out an album’s worth of rhymes from memory, while hardly stopping to breathe.

For once in his life, Sean Combs may not be exaggerating:

But as his bandmate Questlove pointed out, Black Thought has been doing this for years:

And Genius fulfilled its one true purpose, with fans getting the freestyle transcribed and available the same day.

Update: Aaaaand Genius took the post down, without explanation. So the quoted lyrics you’re about to get are as close to definitive as we have.

What I love about Black Thought’s freestyle is that it does everything hip-hop at its best does. He has the technical virtuosity and improvisation, both of which are first-rate. He toasts, boasts, and roasts. He plays with words, and the words play right back.

But he also tells stories, including this striking one about his mother:

My mother was a working class very lovin’ woman
Who struggled, every dinner could’ve been the last summer
I come home, chasing good-for-nothing half-cousins
And then walk in the crib to the smell of crack cookin’
She was introduced to that substance abuse
On some of the strongest drugs that the government produced

He gets philosophical and abstract. Like, real abstract.

I made the 21-pound for some a new found religion
When money’s put down, it’s only one sound to make
OGs and young lions equally proud to listen
The secret amalgam is an algorithm
Coming from where only kings and crowns permitted
The darkness where archaeologists found
My image in parchment rolled into a scroll
Holding a message for you, it says
“The only thing for sure is taxes, death, and trouble”
The anomaly swore solemnly, high snobiety
Freakonomics of war policy, dichotomy
That’s Heaven and Hades
Tigris and Euphrates
His highness
The apple of the iris to you ladies
As babies, we went from Similac and Enfamil
To the internet and fentanyl
Where all consent was still against the will

He pays homage to rap history:

Maybe I’m the new Rakim
Maybe I’m fat Pharaohe
Undergarments of armor be my intimate apparel
Pre-Kardashian Kanye
My rhyme-play immaculate
Same cadence as D.O.C Pre-accident
Maybe my acumen on par with Kool G Rap and them

And to his own discography:

I hate to say I told y’all, but I told y’all
Things fall apart when the center too weak to hold y’all
I’m just collecting what you owed to my old jawn
You ‘bout to get swooped down on and stoled on

He charms and disarms:

You in the residency of the one they call
King Dada
Ali Baba
The Talented Mr. Trotter
Inside of my right palm, the mark of the stigmata
Big Poppa wig chopper
Emperor Joffrey Joffer
Motherfucka, I’m stronger than the coffee out in Kaffa
All y’all niggas vagina-hop
Remind me of Icona Pop
I step in the booth, I’m a bull inside a China Shop
Watch another cotton-pickin’ body drop
Every time we rock
Yo they actin’ like it’s Mardi Gras
‘Til the party stop
Skirt off like she that Ferrari drop
So psyched he pumpin’ that Earth, Wind and Fire body I
Cool a product doc
A la Marina, hard-body yacht
You seen another rapper cleaner? Mami, probably not

And sometimes, he just kills it:

How it feel to be the best that did it, I admit it
I’m visiting from planet bring these niggas death in minutes
And y’all know I’m exquisite
Wicked as Wilson Pickett
The sickness I exhibit
I’m too legit to quit it
I don’t fake it ‘till I make it
I take it to the limit, and break it
Never timid, what I’m about, I represent it
Infinite just like Chace is
Been a million places
Conversation is how beautiful my face is
People hating on how sophisticated my taste is
Then I pulled up on these motherfuckers in a spaceship

Even reading this, it’s just too good.

I am a walking affirmation
That imagination
And focus and patience
Get you closer to your aspiration
And just cuz they give you shit
Don’t mean you have to take it
My words capture greatness
Sworn affidavits

Meanwhile, the talented Tariq Trotter himself kept it humble:

Jay Smooth’s Ill Doctrine is still the best

posted by Tim Carmody   Apr 19, 2017

It’s 2008. George W. Bush is President. The Democratic primaries have just ended, and Barack Obama is the unlikely presumptive nominee. The economy is circling around the drain, and America is about to have its first black Presidential nominee by a major political party.

I don’t know exactly how you might measure and graph a country’s level of plausibly deniable racism or awkward attempts to identify or discount such racism, but if you could, summer 2008 would have to be one of its peaks.

That’s when Jay Smooth posted “How To Tell Someone They Sound Racist,” one of the greatest videoblog entries of all time.

Jay’s video turned into a TED Talk and a video series for Fusion called The Illipsis.

But mostly, he’s still hosting WBAI’s Underground Railroad (since 1991!), keeping up his site HipHopMusic.com (not much lately, but he started it in 1997!) and writing blog posts and making consistently great videos about music, race, politics, and culture at Ill Doctrine.

Watching Ill Doctrine is to feel the power and pleasure of seeing a mind at work. He’s always thinking around seven or eight sides of an issue and following them through all the way to the end. He does what you might call “explainers” but without any of the condescension to the audience or pretense to having settled an issue once and forever endemic to the form. It’s conversation.

He’s the best editor of any weblog I know — every cut is a new thought, a new idea, a new argument to hang on the thought right before it, and the cumulative effect is like a cubist painting.

He’s still experimenting with the format, adding interviews, letting his cat co-host, always oscillating between the public and the personal. Jay’s still the best at what he does.

Update: Jay just launched a Patreon campaign to keep Ill Doctrine going well into the future; if you love his work, please consider supporting it.

Revisiting “Juice,” 25 years later

posted by Tim Carmody   Jan 30, 2017

It’s been a (very!) eventful two weeks, but I still can’t stop thinking about Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib’s terrific appreciation of Ernest Dickerson’s 1992 film Juice. That’s as good a reason as any to share it here.

Juice might be Tupac Shakur’s signature performance as an actor: he’s charming and frustrating, thoughtful and thoughtless — accelerating through emotions and personalities like an athlete changing speed mid-play — beautiful and wrathful and doomed, like Achilles or James Dean. Or, like Tupac.

Willis-Abdurraqib zeroes in a key part of the story, and of the best art from the era in which the film was made — “what so rarely happens with black people who live and die and do wrong today: an ability to visualize a complete life behind simply a finger that pulls a trigger, and a willingness to understand what drove them there.”

Juice came at a time when the black nihilist was being visualized and reconsidered onscreen in ways that had traditionally been afforded to and reheated for white actors and their stories. Movies like New Jack City, Menace II Society, and Boyz n the Hood showed black characters who either gained things with no moral code, or who were deeply aware of how little they had to live for, and conducted themselves in a manner that showed that awareness regardless of whom it hurt. These characters were sometimes sympathetic and complex, but none were like Tupac’s Bishop — in part because it was Tupac playing the role, but also because of the way we find Bishop, and how he ends up. By the time I was old enough to understand the emotion of his narrative, when I watched Bishop fall from the rooftop and heard the sound of a body hitting concrete that followed, I felt like I had lost a friend — a friend who, like some of my actual friends, had drifted into the machinery of some vice and had not felt loved or seen enough to shake their way out of it…

A tragedy is defined by the fatal flaw that plagues its central character, and the ways in which that flaw echoes down to all the other characters, leading to a brief and immediate reversal of fortune. The Greeks referred to this kind of flaw as hamartia — literally, a missing of the mark. Hamartia is to aim for a target and not hit it, and to have yourself end up on the other side of tragedy. It is, perhaps, to aim a gun at someone you want to kill and then pull the trigger, hitting them instead in an arm that they will soon need to pull your body back to safety. The true reversal of fortune rests in the brief moment before Bishop falls to the ground, when you realize that Quincy wants to save him, but can’t.

I should add, especially for readers who’ve never seen it, that Juice is beautiful. Dickerson was/is one of the best cinematographers alive before he became a director, and it shows. And the soundtrack is amazing. You could say it was a forgotten movie, but it’s just so unforgettable.

How “My Boo” got its name

posted by Tim Carmody   Jun 14, 2016

This is fun: an oral history of Ghost Town DJ’s 1996 hit “My Boo.” Did you know that Lil Jon started out in A&R for So So Def? Or that he picked the title “My Boo” over “I Want To Be Your Lady” and pushed to include it on an early label comp? (I did not.)

#RunningmanChallenge ???? @jerrygunnz ???? By @malachi_variations IB By @Rah2bandz

A video posted by Kevin Sözé ???????? (@11.oo7) on

I was also very late to hear about the Running Man Challenge, which put “My Boo” back into circulation and the sales charts back in April, but in my defense: I am old.

You may also like: this oral history of hyphy and the Bay Area hip-hop scene at the turn of the millennium. It’s a little distended and the photo layout almost feels like Beats By Dre sponsored content, but it’s a loving look at a moment that’s gone.

And who shows up halfway through, helping to break hyphy nationwide? Lil Jon! That guy is everywhere.

(Hat-tip: @xohulk, @myhairisblue)

Rosie Perez on Soul Train

posted by Tim Carmody   Sep 14, 2015

At 19 (so, around 1983 or 1984) Rosie Perez moved from Brooklyn to Los Angeles to help a cousin with her children and go to college for biochemistry. Then she was recruited to be a dancer on Soul Train.

In her line dance solos, you can see early versions of many of the moves that would be immortalized in the opening credits of Do the Right Thing.

You also see a lot of what Perez calls “face dancing.” “Face dance means you don’t know what the hell the rest of your body was doing but your face is fierce. That’s face dancing.”

According to this Esquire article, Don Cornelius was dead set on packaging Perez as part of a girl group of hip-hop/R&B dancer-singers. Perez was uncertain and wouldn’t sign the contract. This led to a confrontation where Cornelius grabbed Perez, and in response, she threw a box of chicken at him.

That fight ended Perez’s time on Soul Train, but she soon had jobs choreographing Bobby Brown, The Fly Girls on In Living Color, and more. Arguably nobody did more to bring hip-hop dance to mainstream attention than Rosie Perez.

(Via @eugenewei)

Teach me how to dougie

posted by Tim Carmody   May 04, 2011

We’ve waited too long for a First Lady who can pull this off:

It’s not just that Michelle Obama is the first black First Lady. It’s also that she was born in 1964. She’s sixteen-seventeen years younger than Hillary Clinton or Laura Bush. She was in high school when hip-hop broke. Even Barack was already in college. She probably did a few of these dances in a South Shore parking lot when her husband was already thinking about getting into law school. In Joshua Glenn’s generational scheme, Barack is part of Original Generation X, while Michelle’s firmly in the next cohort, alternately titled Generation PC/the Reconstructionists.

Michelle is the first First Lady of the hip-hop generation. And not only does that explain a few things; it’s incredibly awesome.

PS: Here’s the Beyonce dance-as-teen-fitness video the First Lady and DC junior high kids were trying to imitate. (In the mid-late 80s, learning a few of these moves from my sister, I was not unlike the chubby kid in the white hat.)

The Beastie Boys, Annotated

posted by Tim Carmody   May 02, 2011

The Onion A/V Club has put together a short, alphabetical guide to obscure, semi-obscure, and I-forget-that-other-people-might-find-that-obscure references/allusions in the music of The Beastie Boys.

It’s called “‘Electric Like Dick Hyman’: 170 Beastie Boys references explained.” Here’s a representative entry:

Drakoulias, George (“Stop That Train” from “B-Boy Bouillabaisse,” Paul’s Boutique)
Def Jam A&R man George Drakoulias helped discover the Beastie Boys for Rick Rubin, and later became a producer for Rubin’s American Recordings, working on albums by The Black Crowes, The Jayhawks, and Tom Petty. There’s no record of him ever working at an Orange Julius.

I obsessed over this stuff as a kid, especially with Paul’s Boutique: I was nine years old, living in Detroit’s 8 Mile-esque suburbs, not New York, hadn’t seen any cult movies from the 70s not titled Star Wars, and had no internet to consult. I was literally pulling down encyclopedias from the shelf and asking my parents (who generally likewise had no clue) obnoxious questions to try to figure out what the heck they were talking about.

In a post I wrote here last summer, I said that hip-hop’s culture of musical sampling and what Ta-Nehisi Coates called “digging in the crates” for old records helped ensure that a significant chunk of my generation would be into history.

But it was definitely the references, too. Whether silly or serious, you couldn’t listen to The Beastie Boys or Public Enemy or Boogie Down Productions and not try to sort through these casually dropped names, memes, and places and try to reconstruct the worlds where they came from.