Wordsworth could have never kept up
Freestyling a mix of high velocity poetry and social commentary has spread to schools and cafes across US.
SAN FRANCISCO — From afar, it looks like trouble brewing. A throng of onlookers gathers outside the Red Vic movie theater on Haight Street, three dozen bodies swarming around a young man and woman who, arms flailing and voices raised, appear to be engaged in irreconcilable dissent.
But closer to the eye of the storm, the situation proves far less dire.
Four or five young men are cupping their hands over their mouths and breathing loudly, using their lips as a makeshift rhythm section to spit out a funky tempo. The onlookers nod their heads and sway their hips, and the animated couple in the center is actually smiling. Their words come out in a form somewhere between speech and song, and their intonation is punctuated by rhyming phrases.
The couple is "freestyling," a phenomenon born out of the hip-hop movement that, unbeknown to many Americans, has been thriving along the outskirts of most metropolitan areas for more than two decades. High school students and middle-aged performers alike freestyle, but what began predominantly in Oakland and Brooklyn has moved to cafes, high schools, and community street corners across the country.
Only recently have freestylers booked performances in venues like the Justice League, a San Francisco concert hall, where the famed Medusa and De La Soul performed this summer.
"The particular form this verbal art takes now is deeply influenced by hip-hop culture especially rap music," says Michael Eric Dyson, a Penn State professor, Baptist minister, and author of such books as "Holler if You Hear Me: Searching for Tupac Shakur." "But there is a level of artistic and poetic achievement all its own, with an internal sense of rhythm, cadence, linguistic creativity, and vocabulary of oral innovation."
Freestyling revolves around two speakers communicating their opinions on such social issues as drugs, poverty, disease, and violence. On Haight Street, the couple discussed a wide range of topics in English and Spanish, jumping from the interim government in Afghanistan to Ralph Nader's refusal to release his tax returns. Freestyling has become the newest form of social commentary, spelled out lyrically with rhyme, rhythm, and incredible speed.
The talent required presents a challenge many have not found in school or at home. In a desire to master the verbal art, teens will start by reading dictionaries, then move on to newspapers, and then novels and poetry.
Why, then, has freestyling failed to seep into the spotlight of national media? Why does the term "hip-hop" fail to elicit images of freestylers discoursing with alacrity and speed on street corners, and instead conjure images of Eminem, Snoop Dogg, and Dr. Dre better known for their money and misogyny than for their music?
The Haight Street scene is quintessential freestyling by virtue of its spontaneity. It takes place outside a theater because people had traveled from all over California to see a much-anticipated documentary, "Freestyle: The Art of Rhyme."
The two hours of raw footage showcasing the nation's best freestylers moved the crowd to a frenzy, and the director and his camera crew wove in and out of the post-viewing "battle," the term used when two people challenge each other to freestyle in front of a crowd.
As usual, the challenge took on a second meaning: If someone wants to freestyle about poverty or injustice, fine. But they'd better have their facts straight or they won't win the battle. The quest is not merely to outspeak the others, but to outsmart them.
"When I was a kid, I realized that racism was something that society taught people, and as I grew up I realized that hip-hop was the voice that challenged this idea," says Kevin Fitzgerald, director of "Freestyle," his first film.
Alex Harris, aka "Otherwise," has been freestyling for as long as he can remember. Born in Los Angeles and raised by a jazz musician, Mr. Harris sang in his church choir until, at age 16, he began skipping church to freestyle with friends, drumming on tables at Burger King and rhyming about the woes of adolescence. "I've always been a verbal thinker," says Mr. Harris, who became famous at age 19 when he outperformed Eminem in one of the country's fiercest battles, Rap Sheet Olympics.
Today, he makes a living traveling the country to perform with other talented freestylers, and he sells CDs of his songs, most of which are pre-written and then recorded, not improvised.
Harris is always grabbing his dictionary to look up words he doesn't know. "The competition forces you to practice, and when you're amongst people who can freestyle real well, it brings out the best of your abilities."
"It is tremendously helpful to youth involved to elevate their intellectual and linguistic skills through such practice," says the Rev. Mr. Dyson. "It spurs serious insight, underscores the benefits of verbal battle, and teaches them to redirect and channel their energies in edifying fashion."
Most freestylers, like most musicians, perform locally and cannot make a living at it. They flock to street corners and neighborhood cafes, or gather spontaneously in school cafeterias or outside movie theaters. Improvisation is inherent in the genre. The use of music echoes social commentators from a previous generation: beat poets like Jack Kerouac.
"Just as the beat poets used live jazz as a background to their poetry, we incorporate music as an element to enhance the performance of our words," says Alex Frampton Jost, known as Padati. But "instead of an eight-piece jazz band, we use two turntables and a mixer."
Like many involved in the hip-hop community endorsers and critics alike Mr. Fitzgerald is baffled by what he considers the misrepresentation of hip-hop today. "There is a lot of very positive, soulful, and spiritual material that people are rhyming about, which more often than not does not make it to the general public," says Fitzgerald.
In part to refute these misconceptions, Danny Castro and Anthony Marshall founded the Lyricist Lounge in New York in 1991. The arena has become the Carnegie Hall of freestylers and today showcases the most famous like Supernatural and DJ Juice as well as those whose experiences barely stretch beyond the end of their block.
What these performers do have in common is a way with words. Mr. Castro likes to reiterate that the lounge is for everyone. "It's a puzzle, and everyone's got to put in their own piece to make it what it is."
While the idea might surprise outsiders, freestylers say they draw inspiration from religion.
"Practically all religions over time have focused on the power of sound vibration," says Saul Williams, who wrote and starred in "Slam," a film about fighting ghetto warfare with the spoken word that won at the 1998 Sundance Festival. "Whether through the chanting of Om, Buddhist and Hindu chants, Islamic prayers and calls to worship, or reciting Hail Mary and the Lord's Prayer, the common thread has been the investment in the belief that change will come about through voicing these sacred words aloud."
Indeed, the roots of freestyling in the US are widely considered to be in African-American churches, where the preacher uses various intonations and rhythms to involve the congregation. Sometimes the response is so involved that the sermon becomes not quite song, not quite speech, not quite chant.
"The church, with its focus on sermonic practice, has deeply influenced the freestyle," Dyson says. "One thinks of ... [Martin Luther] King's sermonizing as well, where he deployed set pieces and then weaved around them fresh insight about a particular situation."
The context in hip-hop, though expressed with a different vocabulary and in different settings, is similar. Most freestylers are reacting to their surroundings, confronting social issues, and challenging their peers to stay on top of current events.
"[Many] fail to see the sublimating effect of such rhetorical battle, that it absorbs the social energy and cultural conflicts of youth and recirculates them in powerful and productive fashion," Dyson says.
Mr. Williams as well as De La Soul and Medusa represent the pinnacle of the art form. Their versatility and perseverance personify the artistic skills rarely voiced yet prevalent in rough neighborhoods across America.
"Freestyling will only add to the rich traditions of oral art and verbal invention that often spill over from black and other minority cultures into the mainstream," Dyson says. "And the mainstream gets to commodify this interest, record its evolution, and document its contribution to the artistic health of the nation as people investigate its roots and its branches."
Battle: Two people freestyling back and forth, hoping to win over the audience
B-boy culture: Hip-hop, including freestyling, MCing, breakdancing, and graffiti art
Beef: A personal argument or vendetta, which freestyling attempts to settle
Break: A 4/4 beat, inspiring one to break into verse or dance, hence 'breakdancing'
Five-thousand: A farewell, evolved from "Outta Here" to "I Audi" to "Audi 5000"
Flamboasting: To show off by flashing material things in the face of an opponent
Flex skill: To show talent, almost always a compliment
Freestyle: Spontaneous creation of lyrics, half sung, half spoken, usually rhyming
MC: The person using the microphone, acronym for master of ceremonies or mike controller
Playing the dozens: A battle, often comical, where freestylers try to out-insult each other
Tight: Masterful, cool, hip, often used to describe someone's musical talent