Freestyle is a style of rap, with instrumental beats, in which rap lyrics are improvised, i.e. performed with no previously composed lyrics, or "off the top of the head". It is similar to other improvisational music such as jazz – Myka 9 of Freestyle Fellowship describes it as being "like a jazz solo" where there is a lead instrumentalist acting as the improviser and the rest of the band providing the beat. Rap battles are sometimes improvised in this way. It is similar in both form and function to the ancient practice of flyting.
Originally, in old school hip hop of the 1980s, the term "freestyle" referred to a pre-written rap verse that was not on any particular subject matter, but rather was written for the purpose of demonstrating skill. The term is still occasionally used in this way, though since the 1990s, the majority of today’s artists use it to mean improvised rapping.
Battling is generally believed to have originated in the New York scene in the late 1970s. One of the earliest and most famous battles was in December 1981 (evidenced by BB's DJ asking if the crowd is ready for '82) when Kool Moe Dee challenged Busy Bee Starski - Busy Bee Starski's defeat by the more complex raps of Kool Moe Dee meant that "no longer was an MC just a crowd-pleasing comedian with a slick tongue; he was a commentator and a storyteller", which KRS-One also credits as creating a shift in rapping in the documentary Beef.
In the 1980s, battle raps were a popular form of rapping - Big Daddy Kane in the book How to Rap says, "as an MC from the '80s, really your mentality is battle format... your focus was to have a hot rhyme in case you gotta battle someone... not really making a rhyme for a song". Battle rapping is still sometimes closely associated with old school hip-hop - talking about battle rapping, Esoteric says, "a lot of my stuff stems from old school hip-hop, braggadocio ethic".
Some of the most prominent battle raps that took place on record are listed in the book, ego trip's Book of Rap Lists, and include such battles as the Roxanne Wars (1984–1985), Juice Crew vs. Boogie Down Productions (1986–1988), Kool Moe Dee vs. LL Cool J (1987–1991), MC Serch vs. MC Hammer (1989–1994), Dr. Dre & Snoop Dogg vs. Luke (1992–1993), Common vs. Ice Cube (1994–1996), MC Pervis & Brand New Habits and LL Cool J vs. Canibus (1997–1998) - all of which include memorable battle rap verses.
Some Digital Hardcore bands (e.g. Atari Teenage Riot) also use freestyle rap as a part of their music, but they do not battle. In many cases, diss tracks are written to "battle" or "attack" other rappers.
Recent history 
Battling has been mostly an underground phenomenon since the early nineties, partly due to rap lyrics becoming considerably more complex in terms of rhyme scheme and meter.
In the early 21st century, freestyling (particularly freestyle battling) experienced a resurgence in popularity of sorts as successful freestyle battle competition TV shows were shown by both BET and MTV. In addition, Eminem's movie 8 Mile brought the excitement of the freestyle battle to mainstream movie audiences. "Freestyle Friday" is a watered-down battle segment on BET's popular show 106 & Park airing on Fridays. Two rappers compete in a freestyle battle before the studio audience and three celebrity judges (the DJ sometimes acts as the 3rd judge). Each competitor alternates freestyling for thirty seconds in each of the two rounds (originally one when the segment first began). The rappers are not allowed to use profanities or sexually suggestive lyrics, punishable by disqualification. After the battle, the judges decide the winner, per majority vote. Also in Hackney, London, there was a competition called Jump-Off famous for its two World Rap Championships.
In Cuba, freestyle battles often follow organized concerts and juxtapose composed songs with ‘flowing’ lyrics that are relevant to the present situation. Freestyling can allow audience members to integrate into the performance stage. This provides a forum for up-and-coming underground artists to engage in a musical discussion with already prominent underground Cuban rappers. Freestyle battles often turn political when artists incorporate perspectives on social disparities and issues plaguing the Cuban population.
More recently battle rap has been revived in the form of pre-written battles.
In late 2010, Appalachian Apps, LLC. released the first real-time audio based mobile battle rap app, Rah Digga's Straight Spittin, which is a hip-hop social network that allows users anywhere in the world to battle each other live on multiple mobile platforms. The application won AT&T's OpenCall contest in 2011 for the Open Category, a first runner-up in Microsoft's Fast Pitch 2011, and a third place winner in the N8 Calling All Innovators 2011 contest for the entertainment category.
In late 2011, Jump Shot Media released a mobile battle rap game, Battle Rap Stars that could automatically evaluate and score a users rap performance without the need of a crowd and majority vote.
King of the Dot, also known as KOTD, hosted a 3 day event which had 8 countries participate in it, called World Domination 2 in August 2011. In November 2011, Organik hosted Flatline, an event in which rapper Drake co-hosted the main event between Dizaster and DNA.
Original definition 
In the book How to Rap, Big Daddy Kane and Myka 9 note that originally a freestyle was a written rap on no particular subject – Big Daddy Kane says, “in the ’80s when we said we wrote a freestyle rap, that meant that it was a rhyme that you wrote that was free of style… it’s basically a rhyme just bragging about yourself.” Myka 9 adds, “back in the day freestyle was bust[ing] a rhyme about any random thing, and it was a written rhyme or something memorized”. Divine Styler says: “in the school I come from, freestyling was a non-conceptual written rhyme… and now they call freestyling off the top of the head, so the era I come from it’s a lot different”. Kool Moe Dee also refers to this earlier definition in his book, There's A God On The Mic:
"There are two types of freestyle. There’s an old-school freestyle that’s basically rhymes that you’ve written that may not have anything to do with any subject or that goes all over the place. Then there’s freestyle where you come off the top of the head."
In old school hip-hop, Kool Moe Dee says that improvisational rapping was instead called “coming off the top of the head”, and Big Daddy Kane says, "off-the-top-of-the-head [rapping], we just called that "off the dome" — when you don’t write it and [you] say whatever comes to mind”.
Referring to this earlier definition (a written rhyme on non-specific subject matter) Big Daddy Kane says, "that’s really what a freestyle is” and Kool Moe Dee refers to it as “true” freestyle, and “the real old-school freestyle”. Kool Moe Dee suggests that Kool G Rap’s track ‘Men At Work’ is an “excellent example” of “true” freestyle, along with Rakim’s "Lyrics of Fury".
Newer definition 
Since the early 1990s onwards, with the popularization of improvisational rapping from groups/artists such as Freestyle Fellowship through to Eminem’s 8 Mile, "freestyle" has come to be the widely used term for rap lyrics which are improvised on the spot. This type of freestyle is the focus of Kevin Fitzgerald’s documentary, Freestyle: The Art of Rhyme, where the term is used throughout by numerous artists to mean improvisational rapping.
Kool Moe Dee suggests the change in how the term is used happened somewhere in the mid to late ‘80s, saying, "until 1986, all freestyles were written," and “before the ‘90s it was about how hard you could come with a written rhyme with no particular subject matter and no real purpose other than showing your lyrical prowess."
Myka 9 explains that Freestyle Fellowship helped redefine the term – “that’s what they say I helped do - I helped get the world to freestyle, me and the Freestyle Fellowship, by inventing the Freestyle Fellowship and by redefining what freestyle is… We have redefined what freestyle is by saying that it’s improvisational rap like a jazz solo”.
Although this kind of freestyling is very well respected today, Kool Moe Dee states that this was not the case previously:
"A lot of the old-school artists didn’t even respect what’s being called freestyle now... any emcee coming off the top of the head wasn’t really respected. The sentiment was emcees only did that if they couldn’t write. The coming off the top of the head rhymer had a built-in excuse to not be critiqued as hard".
Methodology of improvised freestyle 
Many rappers learn to rap through improvised freestyling, and by making freestyling into a conversation or a rhyming game which they play frequently as a way to practice, as described in the book How to Rap. Reasons for freestyling include entertainment, as a therapeutic activity, to discover different ways of rapping, promoting oneself, increasing versatility, or as a spiritual activity. Improvised freestyling can also be used in live performances, to do things such as giving something extra to the crowd and to cover up mistakes. In order to prove that a freestyle is being made up on the spot (as opposed to something pre-written or memorized), rappers will often refer to places and objects in their immediate setting, or will take suggestions on what to rhyme about.
Freestyles are performed a cappella, over beatboxing (as seen in Freestyle), or over instrumental versions of songs. Freestyling is often done in a group setting called a "cypher" (or "cipher") or as part of a "freestyle battle". Due to the improvised nature of freestyle, meter and rhythm are usually more relaxed than in conventional rapping. Many artists base their freestyle on their current situation or mental state, but have a ready supply of prepared lyrics and rhyme patterns they can use as filler. Freestyling can also be used as a songwriting method for albums or mixtapes.
Types of freestyles 
In a freestyle battle, each competitor's goal is to "diss" their opponent through clever lyrics and wordplay, with heavy emphasis being placed upon the rapper's improvisational ability. Many battles also include metaphorically violent imagery, complementing the "battling" atmosphere. It is considered dishonorable or shameful to recite pre-written or memorized raps during a freestyle battle, because it shows the rapper to be incapable of "spitting" spur-of-the-moment lyrics. A live audience is key, as a large part of "winning" a battle is how an audience responds to each rapper. Appointed judges may be used in formal contests, but in most cases the rapper who receives the largest audience response is viewed as the victor.
In modern times, with the rise of leagues such as King of the Dot and Ultimate Rap League, most battles are written with some freestyling incorporated into the verses. This allows for more intricate rhymes and insults.
The idea of such poetic battles has a long history that can be found in genres of poetry such as Haikai and flyting. As hip-hop evolved in the early 1980s, many rappers gained their fame through freestyle battles. Battles can take place anywhere: informally on street corners, on stage at a concert, at a school, or at event specifically meant for battling (such as Scribble Jam or the Blaze Battle).
A cypher or cipher is an informal gathering of rappers, beatboxers, and/or break-dancers in a circle, in order to jam musically together. The term has also in recent years come to mean the crowd which forms around freestyle battles, consisting of spectators and onlookers. This group serves partly to encourage competition and partly to enhance the communal aspect of rap battles. The cipher is known for “making or breaking reputations in the hip hop community; if you are able to step into the cipher and tell your story, demonstrating your uniqueness, you might be more accepted". These groups also serve as a way for messages about hip hop styles and knowledge to be spread, through word-of-mouth and encouraging trends in other battles.
See also 
- Kevin Fitzgerald (director), Freestyle: The Art of Rhyme, Bowery, 2000.
- T-Love, "The Freestyle", in Brian Cross, It's Not About A Salary..., New York: Verso, 1993.
- Gwendolyn D. Pough, 2004, Check It While I Wreck It, UPNE, p.224
- Murray Forman, Mark Anthony Neil, 2004, That’s The Joint!, Routledge, p.196
- Raquel Z. Rivera, 2003, New York Ricans From The Hip-Hop Zone, Palgrave Macmillan, p. 88
- Edwards 2009, p. 182.
- Edwards 2009, p. 27.
- Kool Moe Dee 2003, p. 22, 23, 101, 201, 226, 228, 292, 306, 327, 328, 339.
- "Blow Average".
- Beef documentary, 2003, Peter Spirer, Aslan Productions.
- Edwards 2009, p. 25.
- Edwards 2009, p. 26.
- ego trip, 1999, ego trip's Book of Rap Lists, St. Martin's Press, p. 236-237.
- Baker, Geoffrey. 2006. "La Habana que no conoces: Cuban rap and the social construction of urban space." Ethnomusicology Forum 15, no. 2: 215-46
- AP Oct. 4, 2004. "Cuban Hip-Hop Reaches Crossroads: Artists Struggle to Meld Politics and Commercialism" CBS News
- "W-B gets rap app". timesleader.com. Aug 28, 2010.
- "AT&T Open Call Contest at CTIA Wireless 2011". att.com. March 24, 2011.
- "Paul Wall Launches iPhone Rap Game, ‘Battle Rap Stars’". thisbeatgoes.com. Nov 1, 2011.
- Edwards 2009, p. 181-182.
- Divine Styler, in Kevin Fitzgerald (director), Freestyle: The Art of Rhyme, Bowery, 2000.
- Kool Moe Dee 2003, p. 101.
- Kool Moe Dee 2003, p. 22, 23, 201, 292, 306.
- Kool Moe Dee 2003, p. 226.
- Kool Moe Dee 2003, p. 228.
- Kool Moe Dee 2003, p. 327.
- Kool Moe Dee 2003, p. 306.
- Edwards 2009, p. 182-183.
- Edwards 2009, p. 183-184.
- Edwards 2009, p. 300.
- Edwards 2009, p. 301-302.
- Edwards 2009, p. 149.
- Johnson, Simon (2008-12-28). "Rap music originated in medieval Scottish pubs, claims American professor". telegraph.co.uk. Telegraph Media Group. Retrieved 2008-12-30. ""Professor Ferenc Szasz argued that so-called rap battles, where two or more performers trade elaborate insults, derive from the ancient Caledonian art of "flyting". According to the theory, Scottish slave owners took the tradition with them to the United States, where it was adopted and developed by slaves, emerging many years later as rap."
- Chang, Jeff (Nov/December 2007). "It’s a Hip-hop World". Foreign Policy (163): 58–65.
- Schell, Justin. ""This Is What Ya’ll Don’t See On TV": B-Girl Be 2007". mnartists.org.
Further reading 
- Freestyle: The Art of Rhyme. Dir. Kevin Fitzgerald. DVD. 2004.
- Kool Moe Dee, 2003, There's A God On The Mic: The True 50 Greatest MCs, Thunder's Mouth Press.
- 8 Mile. Dir. Curtis Hanson. DVD. March 18, 2003
- Alan Light; et al. October 1999. The Vibe History of Hip Hop.
- All Rapped Up. Dir. Steven Gregory, Eric Holmberg. Perf. Eric Holmber, Garland Hunt. Videocassette. 1991.
- Blow, Kurtis. Kurtis Blow Presents: The History of Rap, Vol. 1: The Genesis (liner notes). Kurtis Blow Presents: The History Of Rap, Vol. 1: The Genesis.
- Brian, Cross. It's Not About a Salary. London; New York: Verso, 1993 [i.e. 1994].