The art of improvisational rhyming is now an essential skill for the modern day underground emcee. “Freestyle: The Art Of Rhyme” DVD (directed by Kevin Fitzgerald aka DJ Organic) is one of the most interesting and philosophical documents of this entertaining art form. Released by Palm Pictures, this documentary features live performances and a collage of diverse interviews where artists discuss the movement’s history within hip-hop and different beliefs. The art of freestyling rhymes is now acknowledged as an essential element of the foundation of hip-hop. During the golden age of hip-hop, some considered freestyling to be the act of performing memorized rhymes. As the poetic art form evolved throughout the 90’s, the movement grew to a rhythmically poetic performance performed with lyrics created within the moment inspired by the surrounding impulses. Short but filled with an overflowing energy, “Freestyle: The Art Of Rhyme” may become what “Wild Styles” is to old-school hip-hop.
The enjoyable film showcases respected artists and writers endorsing the art using legitimate comparisons and statements of approval. Adding validity to the film, The Black Poets are displayed as artists who consider freestyling and hip-hop as a sacred movement. Using this genre as a podium, they urge the younger generation to take responsibility for their influence they have over other listeners. Comparing freestyling emcees to preachers, the film displays this form of expression as part of Black culture’s evolution. Interviews by both well known and unknown emcees document the growth within the roots.
The enjoyable film’s depiction of the history of freestyle rhyming is astutely informative. From improvisational jazz to the gritty battles / ciphers, the influential microphone holders are powerfully effective Compared to preachers, the emcees aggressively move the crowd as they systematically destroy their opponent. While movies like “8-Mile” explored this skill, “Freestyle: The Art Of Rhyme” is an comprehensive documentary that honestly explores various aspects. From battling warriors to poetic revolutionary expression, the film attempts to validate the movement. The mythical battles between Craig G and Supernatural become the film’s subplot. The legendary 1st battle is powerful tale of two of the best freestyle emcees verbally going for each other’s throat. Although Supernatural’s skills are undeniable, Craig G is nominated as the holder of the crown. In Supernatural’s climactic second battle with Craig G, Supernatural redeems himself using his undeniable skill. Other aspects of the history are not forsaken. From basketball courts to The Good Life and Lyricist’s Lounge, this movement’s growth is well documented. Pioneering freestyle artists like Hieroglyphics and Freestyle Fellowship get their deserved credit for helping the evolution. Unfortunately, performances by The Souls Of Mischief or Hieroglyphics are not included. The inclusion of a myriad of other talented emcees do give the film a diversity.
An assortment of philosophies on freestyling is explored with fast-paced interviews sliced up between performances. The outlooks behind pre-written rhymes versus freestyled rhymes are exceptionally interesting and eclectic. One emcee states, “The motivation of writing is money, to mass produce records and mass produce songs. The goal of freestyling is to throw something out once, and you can never do it again. That’s what makes it free.” Another viewpoint by radio DJ/MTV VJ, Sway displays insight by stating how the love of rhyming overpowers the money. Lord Finnesse and Divine Styler talk about how emcees from different eras have various outlooks on the subject. Today’s emcees not only conduct in-depth research on their opponent, but they use innovative flows with exceptional improvisational abilities. Boots (from The Coup) expresses how he prefers writing and proofreading because he wants every line to be equally important. Unfortunately, this philosophy is not explored enough. Do the lyrics in freestyled rhymes truly say something? Though the lyrics may be clever, performance and skill are the qualities remembered and honored. “2000 B.C.” by Canibus was an LP filled with mainly battle rhymes. Although the rhymes were clever and the album was solid, the songs were not as memorable as his thematic tracks. The film does display many styles, themes, and sentiments but, the film does not ask and important question: “Does the talent overcome the content?” The most talented freestyle rhymers seem to maintain the improvisational flow with substance.
Rhythm and skill are essential to the emcee’s freestyle performance. Both are displayed in the film’s exceptional performances by a myriad of well known and underground artists. These impromptu skills are tested in various ways. In one scene, Black Thought (of The Roots) gives a classic performance where he is given random words to insert into his rhymes. Starkly filmed in black and white, ?uestlove names an inanimate object (like “wall” or “can”) and BT skillfully interjects the word with rhythmic cadence. The Notorious B.I.G. (who was never widely known as a freestyle emcee) also rocks a memorable performance on a Brooklyn corner. Other strong performances include Mos Def, Pharoahe Monch, and Wordsworth. Out of the many solid performances, Juice and Supernatural share the crown.
The DVD does possess some minor flaws. Although the film is very thorough, some emcees are not represented well. The Hieroglyphics are mentioned as one of the pioneers in sparking the movement but we never see their performances. As pioneers, they absence of their performances make this film feel somewhat incomplete. Exceptional freestyle emcees like C Rayz Walz, Big L, and Canibus are not even mentioned. As a promo, the DVD did not include bonus features. (Tell publicists, labels, distributors, and studios to give journalists the final retail version!)
“Freestyle: The Art Of Rhyme” is an essential documentary for any emcee, lover of hip-hop, or sociologist of urban culture. The film is an honest document of a massive fundamental movement within the culture of hip-hop. Unlike a regional documentary or a concert film, this movie displays a universal connection between all spontaneous wordsmiths. From the West coast venue of The Good Life to Lyricist’s Lounge on the East coast, this respected poetic style is embraced with awe. Skillful, sharp, and aggressive, the documentary does not force an opinion or inspire anger. After viewing, the listener’s appreciation for the average emcee will grow. Viewers will attempt to rhyme off the top of their heads and realize how difficult the skill is to perfect. Most of the legendary freestyle emcees are not known on wax because the art is performed in a live setting. The word “freestyle” has multiple meanings. One may think the word means free-form rhyming. Others may also think that the rhyming is truly free because people have usually have not made a living from just freestyling. The film captures the love that the emcees have for skillful flows and wordplay. While the cost of this DVD is not “free”, the documentary’s substance has enough “style” to add value. “Freestyle: The Art Of Rhyme” is the preeminent document that remarkably showcases one element of the vast culture of hip-hop.