Depending on who you ask, “freestyle” can mean two very different things.
In one school of thought, a freestyle is literally a rhyme that’s free of style—a lyrical performance not tied to one particular subject that can be written or improvised. Then there’s “going off top” or “off the dome,” a strictly improvised freestyle that dominated the '90s and early 2000s, which is what most people think of when they hear the word.
Throughout hip-hop history, the mark of a true emcee is his or her ability to excel at both of these definitions, and there’s always been a bit of confusion as to which form of freestyling is being referred to by any given emcee. It’s part of the reason why so many misunderstood Jay Z’s songwriting techniques, and it’s definitely the fuel of thousands of salty YouTube comments from bewildered fans who expected an off-top freestyle and instead witnessed the performance of a pre-written verse.
Today (March 2), I discovered a video that’s begun to make the rounds on social media of a rapper named Harry Mack freestyling to a crowd of passers-by on Venice Beach, and the guy can legitimately freestyle, off top.
Seriously, holy shit this guy doesn’t stop. Check this out.
The video begins with Harry effortlessly flowing about his surroundings over some smooth J Dilla production, but at around the 2:30 minute mark, the beat switches to Twista’s “Overnight Celebrity,” and shit gets real.
Not only is Harry able to pull visual cues from the crowd and implement them into his freestyle like a true student of the game, he somehow manages to do so while keeping up with the daunting BPM of Twista’s 2004 Kamikaze standout.
Upon some further digging, I found several other videos of Harry rapping his ass off in the car, on the beach (again), and using the freestyle generator app RapScript, which throws out random words as rhyme inspiration. Not only that, but Harry’s SoundCloud is home to some pretty decent sample-based production as well—the type of beats that surely serve as a practicing ground for his off-top acrobatics.
Harry may not be a “rapper” in the traditional sense—he doesn’t have any projects out, or any written, original tracks for that matter—but nevertheless, it’s important to highlight true emcee skills in an era where very few still carry with them the full range of abilities once deemed a prerequisite to acceptance in the culture.
Shout out to people like Harry Mack keeping the off-top freestyle culture alive. Now, somebody get this guy on Sway’s 5 Fingers of Death, ASAP.
By Brent Bradley. Follow him on Twitter.
Photo Credit: YouTube