Prior to the world wide web and blog scene, recorded freestyles in hip-hop were a lot less common, special products reserved only for special mixtapes. If you had connections to get mixtapes, you’d hear all kinds of emcees dropping lyrical dimes.
For instance, DJ Clue made two installments of freestyles that artists exclusively made for him over the years, and it featured all the hottest names like Cam’ron, 50 Cent, The LOX, Mase, Nas, DMX, and more. The laws of nature suggest that we appreciate what isn’t in abundance. But in 2000, growing up in Seattle, I had never heard a freestyle. My music came from the radio or albums I bought.
Things changed when the internet came into play. Instrumentals became much easier to obtain. Obtaining beats in the early 2000s was more difficult, you needed to track down who had the beat, and it’d be on a CD if you did find it. Nowadays, a simple Google search can help you find essentially any beat. Plus, mixtapes were getting easier and easier to produce, and they were still mixtapes, miles away from the all original music format that we've seen them become over the past few years. Styles P was still teaming up with DJ Big Mike and others to spit over the hottest beats at the moment.
By 2008, the growing freestyle epidemic started to become a problem. Namely, the infamous “A Milli” gate. Bangladesh’s infectious beat became the epicenter of hip-hop freestyles. Everybody, from their mom to their pets, decided to have a go at it. Jay Z, Jadakiss, Lil Mama, Chris Brown, LL Cool J, and countless others lended themselves to the beat.
“A Milli” wasn’t the only excessively freestyled over beat. Despite freestyles not having the same longlasting effect, every few months there’s a new victim. Remember “Beamer, Benz Or Bentley”? “Exhibit C”? “Swagger Like Us”? “Hot Nigga”? Even the latest, “Hotline Bling.” That avalanche of quantity has meant that freestyles have lost their thunder in hip-hop. We still get them, but rarely are we treated to a true classic.
When I think of classic freestyles, I think of Lloyd Banks rapping like his life depended on it over the “Victory” instrumental. And that could extend to just about everything G-Unit did in the early days of their collective career. There was Kanye West cleverly flipping Rich Boy’s “Throw Some D’s” into a freestyle about buying implants for women, Notorious B.I.G. ripping the stage in ‘93 (“Where Brooklyn at?!”), LL Cool J on “Dead Presidents” and Skillz absolutely bodying “In Tha Club.” I could go on and on. Even T-Pain’s festive Halloween freestyle at a time where nobody knew his rapping skills as much. I haven't even mentioned any freestyles from live radio.
Whenever I see a rapper perform their own song on a radio show I want to cry. Who the hell needs artist to perform a song that's already in rotation four times an hour? Nobody, that’s who. It's infuriating, but it's a reflection of how low the freestyle has shrunk. It's clear the freestyle was no longer a main attraction. The days when Dipset and G-Unit would take over more than a quarter of a show to freestyle over interchangable beats has died. We still get some freestyles, Sway's still holding it down, DJBooth is trying to keep the art breathing, it's not a completely dead art form, but in 2015, the freestyle is still in a wounded state.
Fabolous brought fans a series that kept many excited week after week. Friday Night Freestyles was his take on the classics. Jadakiss followed suit. It seemed like a glimpse into the future. If people are going to care about freestyles, you just can’t use the flavor-of-the-month instrumental. There needs to be a theme, or even more so creativity. When Wayne did Da Drought 3, he OWNED those beats. Now, freestyles are more just content to feed the Twitter machine, but they don't produce anything memorable.
Emcees have to do something we’ve never seen before. T-Pain has a rare mixtape titled Back At It, a tape composed of all freestyles in a time when he was mostly known for his hit singles. Crooked I’s Hip Hop Weekly series came at a time before most artists put out material as such a rapid pace. It was the first of its kind, and it made me a fan. There are many ways to go about it. Lyrically destroying an instrumental, a creative concept that makes the song feel like it’s yours, whatever you can bring to the table to own the experience.
Can the freestyle ever recover? Or is it something that will continue to exist but we ignore it for the most part? It’s hard to predict.
I think the first step is to understand what the freestyle used to mean, it's core place in hip-hop, and how far it has fallen from that state. From there, artists can access how to restore order and praise to the freestyle game.
It can happen, I know. I've heard it.