Off the Head
Even though you don’t sell records, it has nothing to do with your level of skill as an MC or your credibility in hip-hop. It might have something to do with your level of skill or credibility in the corporate boardrooms, whose bottom line is dollars, and how many records you can sell, but who gives a fuck about them and their opinion? They know nothing about hip-hop.
—Sway, Freestyle: The Art of Rhyme
With me, I want, I want to make something to where it just doesn’t sound good first time you ever hear it. I want it to sound good after you listen to it 100 times. I want it to sound good 10 years from now. I want it to sound good when I’m dead.
—Boots Riley, Freestyle: The Art of Rhyme
“I can’t believe it.” “It’s amazing.” Opening their commentary track for the DVD of Freestyle: The Art of Rhyme, the filmmaking crew—director DJ Organic (Kevin Fitzgerald), producer Youree Henley, and cinematographer Todd Hickey—sounds almost giddy. Perhaps even more remarkable is that all their work, dedication, and passion, all the energy that went into the filmmaking process, is clear in the 60some-minute result. It’s a joyous, thoughtful, and energetic introduction to freestyle.
As much as Freestyle celebrates its subject—with images of talented, dedicated young performers and interviews with participants and observers—it also allows that various values are assigned to the art, as self-expression, community narrative, address to a broader public, or commercial product. It includes a brief history of the art, remembered by figures such as Eluard Burt II, who notes a performative and thematic line back to the Baptist church, where the preacher would “get the audience into the rap that he’s coming down with.” Over images of preachers in full-on exhorting mode, Burt continues, “It’s the rhythm that signifies and identifies where he goes next. And if it gets good, the preacher’s no longer speaking, he’s just making sounds.” As one such preacher asserts, “It’s so spiritual, we don’t need a book, we don’t need an explanation. We are musicians, we are artisans.”
This notion carries the film forward, as it explores the ways that psycho-social rhythms might describe circumstances and communicate experiences. These forms and backgrounds are diverse, from Miles and Ali (“I’m so mean, I make medicine sick”), to bebop (“the rage, the spirit of the black race”), to Kool Herc and the Last Poets. Borrowing images from previous movies (Wild Style) and footage of live shows (including material from the BBC and a tv pilot called Graffiti Rock, featuring Run-DMC and, as Organic is eager to point out, a bleached-headed backup dancer by the name of Debbie Mazar), the reminds you that hip-hop has long documented itself, in images amateur and professional. As raw as these early bits look, however, it’s clear that no one quite imagined in 1982 know how huge the new form would become, how many lives it would touch, and how many storytellers it would inspire.
The processes of creation are as different as the artists. Street footage shows Supernatural and Ace Infinite (bonus footage on the DVD includes a battle between Ace Infinite and El Juba, not in the film proper—as you might imagine, the makers shot many more scenes than they could incorporate). On stage, Pharoahe Monch and Mos Def (“I love him,” gush the makers, and you can’t help but agree, even after Hitchhiker’s Guide, because he appears utterly earnest).
And yet, even as the filmmakers insist that they were interested in capturing such fleeting “magic moments,” they also include comments that imagine a different sort of end, as when Juice defines freestyle as exactly that which cannot be captured. “The goal of freestyling,” he says, the camera bouncing to keep his face in frame, “is to throw something out once and you can never do it again. That’s what makes it free.” The film’s incorporation of this sense of “freedom,” its lively camerawork, its apparently accidental scenes; Organic remembers several fortuitous occasions, where someone just starts rhyming and the crew happens to be there.
Among Freestyle‘s more purposely planned scenes are its interviews with artists, including the great Boots Riley of the Coup, seated on a stoop as he explains (Organic notes in the commentary that Boots is “the only MC who really talked about how he was into writing, not freestyling.” As Boots puts it, “Usually the first thing that I come up with is not what I leave there on the paper. Usually it will go through an editing process where I say, ‘No, that doesn’t give the feeling that I want to give, that doesn’t leave these kinds of connotations. And it doesn’t work with what I want to do later on in the song… And I want something that connects to that. So there’s a lot of thought, there’s a lot of going back and rewriting and editing.”
En route to tracking distinctions between freestyling for the moment and composing for some kind of legacy, the film includes a few women performers, prominently Medusa and for a minute, Bahamadia. Medusa makes a familiar point, that rhyming is “better than fighting,” but the film (with DVD commentary) makes a more profound one when she goes on to gender her observation: “When you finally run across a sista that’s really saying something and speaking her mind and her voice is allowed to be heard,” she asserts, “A woman can move mountains, can move nations of men to really want to pull this together for the future.” And right, just at this moment, Organic admits that viewers of the film “regularly say there’s not enough women MCs in the film.” While he suggests this is because they aren’t out there to be found, he doesn’t precisely explain what seems the documentary’s seeming reinforcement of the problem.
Still, the art of rhyme persists, experiments, looks forward. Documenting it is partly ineffective, in that as soon as it’s down on tape, it’s past, if preserved and no longer ethereal. Watching a brilliant, teenaged Biggie rhyme on a Brooklyn street corner, you can appreciate that the very process of documentation is at once contradictory and ambitious, futile and crucial.