Freestyle: The Art of Rhyme
Label: Palm Pictures
Author: One Line
When I ripped open the envelope containing material for my weekly review a few days ago, I sifted through the usual grip of demos and the accompanying press releases. Those would have to wait. My interest was drawn to the glossy, stylish packaging of a DVD, one whose title rang a bell. You see, "Freestyle: The Art of Rhyme" has been causing a steady buzz the past few months. Rumors of lost footage of epic underground battles and a pre-deal Biggie freestyle had heads impatiently waiting. And if I wasn't excited enough already, the packaging is littered with favorable quotes from film critics and indications that the documentary has won awards from highly-regarded film festivals across the country. Rarely does a hip-hop documentary get this much attention, let alone praise, from mainstream critics. They couldn't all be wrong, right?
That's when I remembered that most of these critics aren't hip-hop heads. For the uninitiated, this documentary could be a revelation, an eye-opening realization that "wow, these hip-hop guys are talented." But if you've ever seen a single hip-hop documentary before (and I assume most of the critics on the packaging haven't), "Freestyle" proves to be a let down. With a few exceptions, it's nothing we haven't heard or seen before. For the sake of this article, I'll make the wild assumption that anyone taking the time to read this has probably seen at least one or two hip-hop films in the past.
The problems arise within minutes of starting the movie. It opens by giving a generic history lesson on the origins of hip-hop. I would think anyone with enough interest to drop ducats for this title has been taught this lesson many times before. It'd be like teaching students "George Washington was our first president" in every history class from elementary school through college. Yes, it's important, relevant information that continues to influence our history to this day, but we got it the first time. Why rehash that when you could be adding to our foundation? Speaking of rehashing, the feature on DJ Kool Herc is a cut-and-paste of recycled or left-over clips from the classic "The Freshest Kids" documentary of a few years ago.
The film's director, DJ Organic (i.e. Kevin Fitzgerald), had to have known his target audience's hip-hop IQ. That said, he would've been better off avoiding hip-hop generalizations and spending more time digging deep specifically into freestyle rhyming. From a documentation standpoint, freestyle rhyming is closer to the "graffiti" and "b-boying" elements than "MCing". Most of its history is lost because 99.9% of freestyles, MC battles, and cyphers are not commercially recorded or videotaped. All we have to go by are first-hand accounts from witnesses (typically -not the most dependable nor informative sources) and grainy, poorly-lit home footage with bad sound and the back of people's heads getting in the way. Maybe I'm being too critical, but this rich subculture is largely unexplored territory that deserves more coverage. This movie had so much potential to give us something new, just like "Freshest Kids" did for b-boying.
Despite the problems, there still are redeeming, dare I say "classic", moments. A young Black Thought spits an incredible freestyle in the Philly streets with a 'fro-less, corn-rowed ?uestlove providing the beatbox. Underground hero Pharoahe Monch performs on an outdoor stage at a city park while young bucks Talib Kweli and Mos Def sing his praises. At the same event, Mighty Mos even jumps into a cypher. How crazy would it be to have THE Mos Def in your cypher?! That's a "pee-your-pants"-worthy life event. Other cameos include the Freestyle Fellowship, Bahamadia, Planet Asia, Wordsworth, Lord Finesse, Bobbito, and the Last Poets. But perhaps the most memorable freestyle is that of Brooklyn's favorite poppa. Though not a "never-before-seen" clip (this footage has been heavily circulated on the Internet), I'll never tire of seeing the infamous Brooklyn corner freestyle from the heavy-set, 17-year-old Christopher Wallace.
Another thing this film does well is distinguishing "freestylers" from typical MCs since the two are not necessarily linked. Great freestylers aren't always great MCs, and vice versa. While freestyle rhymers thrive on "coming off the dome" at the spur of the moment, an incredible skill in itself, they tend to lack the writing skills of "content-based" MCs (those who pre-write and record their lyrics). Freestylers exploit the live environment and that crowd interaction is lost when transfered to wax. Thus freestyle legends like Supernatural, Juice, and Craig G have failed to garner the same success within the confines of a climate-controlled studio.
Nevertheless, the video media in "Freestyle" captures the nuances of freestyling that audio cannot. Supernat's charisma is easily seen, as is his utter devastation when viewing his historic defeat to Craig G. This is the best part of the documentary and you'll feel genuinely bad for Supernat. Imagine being in his shoes. You've never lost a battle in your life and you have herds of diehard fans claiming that you're the best they've ever seen. Then one night Craig G comes out of nowhere and inexplicably challenges you. He lets you go first and you spit a solid verse. He follows with a brutal, life-ending verse. The packed house goes crazy at your expense and your futile rebuttal verse is completely drowned out by screams of "Craig G, Craig G!" We get a close-up of Supernat's Fear Factor, "I just drank a gallon of rotten milk" face.
'Nat recovers, however, in my second favorite scene. It's a "Wake Up Show"-sponsored showdown between arguably the two greatest battlers in history, Chicago's Juice and Supernat. Juice's buttery-smooth, refined style is stark contrast to Supernat's off-kilter delivery and exuberance. Juice comes correct with a blazin', nearly unbeatable verse, but he can't complete with Supernat's crowd-pleasing antics, giving 'Nat the victory.
All things considered, there are a handful of great moments in "Freestyle", but way too many forgettable moments. As mentioned, there's plenty of material that most viewers will have already seen. Secondly, since freestyle history is uncharted territory, there's so much untapped potential that this movie doesn't even attempt to uncover. Lastly, it's pretty obvious that freestyling is a literally impossible skill to master. Like pro wrestling, it's one of those "for your own safety, leave it to the professionals" activities. There's no middle ground in freestyling. You're either amazing or you're embarrassingly terrible. There's more than enough of the latter in this film, mostly amateurs mugging for screen time. This will provoke you to either A) mute the TV, B) press fast-forward, or C) put a fist through the TV screen trying to knock some sense into a freestyler that thinks he's the greatest thing since sliced bread when he's really just annoying the hell out of you. Oh, and what's up with the "featured artist Tupac Shakur" claim on the box? You mean that half-second blip?
If you've never seen a hip-hop documentary, get this DVD. If you have, I'd still recommend adding this to your collection for Biggie, Mos, The Last Poets, Supernatural, and Juice. These moments are that nice. Just be ready to keep a finger poised over the fast-forward button.
Content: 6 of 10
Layout: 5 of 10
TOTAL Vibes: 5.5 of 10
Originally posted: June 21, 2005