Off the dome. Stream-of-consciousness. Flow. Cypher. Dropping rhymes. Zoning. Blacking out. Riding a beat. These are all ways to describe a freestyle or an improvised rap.
On Super Bowl Sunday 2009 (Feb. 1), we gathered some of the best freestyle emcees in the city in a room adjacent to Studio 1 in Fountain Square's Murphy Art Center, got a bunch of beats from local producers and let the rappers do what they do.
It wasn't a public event and no prizes were awarded. It was just our videographers and a small army of emcees: Skittz, Son of Thought and A.C.E. O.N.E.; Alpha Live, Mic L. Night, Stak Black Daniels and Grey Granite; and on the turntables, Spread, who also took a few verses when not manning the beats. Because this was a showcase for some of the best in local hip-hop, both emcee and production-wise, local producers Stak, Spread and J. Brookinz furnished beats.
Distinct from a battle, which is also traditionally improvised, a cypher is a conversation that unfolds naturally. Not as much a competition as it is collaboration, a cypher is a rap jam session. In a battle, the objective is to overpower a beat as well as an opponent, while in a cypher, the goal is to mix seamlessly with
the beat, allowing the music to inspire the rhyme.
Don't get it twisted; a cypher is not devoid of the braggadocio common to most hip-hop. The goal is still to impress. However, that confidence is based on camaraderie, not cut-throatedness. During that Sunday afternoon battle, each emcee pushed the next further, until each could barely hold back from busting another rhyme. Rappers jumped in at will, expanding on the previous scheme. Emcees reacted in unison to the most clever and well-timed lines. Unlike in a battle, where at least half of the emcees leave feeling cheated or disappointed, all those who participate in a cypher leave feeling fulfilled.
Sometimes a rapper with little confidence in their freestyle abilities will attempt to pass off a written verse as an improvised one, but the seasoned listener will always recognize the difference. One might be tempted to accuse a skilled emcee of writing things ahead of time, but they usually put those suspicions to rest by rhyming about things in their immediate environment.
Some great emcees don't freestyle at all. While those that don't freestyle may be missing out on one of the most transcendental elements of hip-hop, freestyling isn't intrinsic to good rap music. Some of the greatest rappers of all time were admitted non-freestylers, including Andre 3000 and Biggie Smalls. An inability or disinterest in freestyling might even encourage a writing career: An emcee might hold back from developing his or her songwriting chops because he or she is efficient enough just going off the dome.
The truth is, freestyling is as much a discipline as it is a talent. To freestyle well involves both thinking fast and thinking ahead. Quite often, an emcee does not use the first rhyme that pops into his or her head, but is able to draw up many choices and go with the rhyme that is the most appropriate and unpredictable. Ideally, the emcee takes the strongest rhyme and delivers it last, which requires the mind to be quite a few lines ahead of real time.
The freestyle is a place where a rapper can find an identity. In fact, many rappers strive to give their written verses the essence of a freestyle. This is in part why artists like Jay-Z and Lil' Wayne brag about the fact that they don't write down their lyrics. The freestyle can play an essential role in the songwriting process. A lyricist might stumble upon the right cadence, the song's subject matter or a refrain by vocally exploring an instrumental. Or the most disciplined can write an entire song in one freestyle take while in the zone all emcees strive to be in, where they stop thinking and just start flowing, and the rhymes just magically fall into place.
I knew there would be some great moments during the Feb. 1 cypher, but the session exceeded my expectations.
You probably recognize Big Skittz from his time as a Mudkid, but this talented rapper has recently stepped out on his own with his first solo album coming down the pipe.
Son of Thought
Thought's love and respect of hip-hop culture guide his every move. He's developed a polished and formidable stage show with the rapper Firearms.
The hardest-working man in Indy hip-hop, when A.C.E. walks in the room, the energy level automatically goes through the roof. His gruff voice adds to the energy.
Alpha is able to fit a novel's worth of words into a few lines, yet still remain cogent and on beat. A master of the extended metaphor.
Expertise: Advanced rhyme schemes
Spread, who DJed this cypher, is a producer, multi-instrumentalist and member of The Philosophy. He packs his raps with internal rhyme schemes, delivered percussively, full of biting humor.
Mic L. Night
Mic L. Night, aka Mike Graves, is a DJ and member of Twilight Sentinels, and one of the most recognizable and friendly members of the Indy hip-hop community. His rhymes are always honest, and he's not afraid to drop a local history lesson in his verses.
Stak Black Daniels
This Bloomington rapper is a talented producer and singer as well. A diverse and off-the-wall performer, Stak often leaves his audiences in stitches.
Granite draws on a wide range of influences to arrive at a truly unique style. He's particularly gifted at writing songs that get the audience dancing.