What Is Rap Freestyle

What You Think Freestyle Rapping Is, May Actually Be Wrong



There’s a common misconception floating around about what freestyle rapping actually is. Many people think freestyle rapping is completely improvised, meaning you come up with all of your lyrics and rhymes “on the spot” or “off the top” of your head.

What Is Rap Freestyle

The Freestyle Rap Dilemma

In many cases, those who’ve adopted the above definition of Freestyle Rap view people who spit written rhymes and call it a Freestyle as fraudulent charlatans who are trying to fool the listeners into thinking everything they’re rapping is being improvised live in that very moment.

They often feel the need to call these “fakes” out on their disingenuous claims of freestyling in their efforts to preserve the purity of this beautiful art-form we know as Freestyle Rap.

Their hearts are usually in the right place but their understanding is skewed about what Freestyle Rapping actually is which in turn causes them to falsely accuse other rappers on the basis of their own misunderstanding.

From The Legend Himself

If you wish to know the real definition of freestyling then who better to hear it from than one of the Hip-Hop Pioneers himself? The legendary Big Daddy Kane!

In an interview for the book “How To Rap“, Big Daddy Kane said the following…

Big Daddy Kane

In the 80’s when we said we wrote a freestyle rap, that meant it was a rhyme that you wrote that was free of style. Meaning it’s not a subject matter, it’s not a story about a women, it’s not a story about poverty, it’s basically a rhyme just bragging about yourself. So it’s basically free of style, that’s really what a freestyle is.

Off the top of the head, we just called that “off the dome”, when you don’t write it, just say whatever comes to mind. Really, a freestyle is a rhyme that you write that’s free of style.

When we went off the top of the head that would just be something we did just playing around like on the corner to see who would mess up first.

To me, this whole rap thing is an art form and with art, you paint a picture. And when you look at a list of the greatest lyricists that did they thing, they wrote they rhymes. (You can listen to the interview via this link.)

If you’re not familiar with Big Daddy Kane be sure to check out my article about him which explains how he was a pioneer for lyricists and played a pivotal role in the rise of 2Pac, Jay-Z, and many others.

In Your Feelings

  1. You may feel deceived or disappointed like when you found out that Santa Clause wasn’t real. But remember unless someone said they were spitting “off the top”, but were actually rapping written rhymes then you weren’t being deceived, you simply misunderstood what a freestyle is which is okay! Trust me. you’re not alone! That’s why I wrote this article.
  2. You may feel liberated and inspired because you now realize that 80%-90% of the freestyles you’ve heard on radio stations were actually written and memorized.
    Up until now, you’ve been discouraged because you’ve been unknowingly trying to match the level of their written rhymes by going “off the top”. But now you have the permission to do what you thought up until this point was fraudulent when it’s actually the norm. Now go write some dope freestyles to rock the crowd with!

Bringing Balance

One thing that’s in inevitable in any art form is evolution. You will have your pioneers who are metaphorically cutting down the trees in the woods and forging the path for not only themselves but all who follow behind them.

As time goes on you will have your innovators who build upon the paths forged by the pioneers. Your innovators are trying to improve upon what has already been established by the pioneers. This is the natural process of evolution which everyone is involved in knowingly or unknowingly.

The Merge

Freestyling and going Off The Top has seemed to naturally merge together, likely due to the emergence of the rap battle scene popularized in the late 80’s which evolved rapping into a competitive sport.

During this era, rappers would spit prewritten rhymes and some were also known to go off the top which made it difficult to distinguish what was prewritten from what wasn’t. It’s also common to see “written” and “off the top” rhymes mixed together within one performance.

So now freestyling is known as written rhymes as well as O.T.T. (Off The Top). Which is why now, when a rapper is asked to freestyle it’s common for them to ask “Do you want Writtens or Off The Top?”.

What’s Freestyling Mean To You?

What are your thoughts on the evolution of Freestyling? Do you feel like written rhymes should be distinguished from rhymes that are off the top? Share your definition of what freestyling is in the comments section below.

  • ok. I understand now. but still, off the dome is essential for a rapper to be called an emcee. I take great pride in improving my off the dome skills and when I’m asked to spit a verse I usually try to rap something off the top of my head that correlates with the environment and the audience. don’t get me wrong, memorizing rhymes is not easy, especially when it is a whole song. but when you can rip an o.t.d freestyle on demand, only then can a rapper call himself a skilled emcee. my goal is to be the greatest rapper of all time and that’s probably why I spend so much time reading, writing, and practicing my off the dome skills. that’s just my two cents.

    • emcee is M.C. = Master of Ceremonies. So, it was essential that they could come off the dome – WITH commentary that got the crowd opened… not necessarily meaning they had to rhyme. As long as they could be engaging, know how to share the relevant info: Prop the dj, the club/venue, announce the drink specials – hype you to tip the waitresses, observe club rules and such. Then the term mc became synonymous with rapper because MC’s starting using rhyme laced party chants (good RAP(port) to get the crowd hyped. So in essence for a rapper to be called an emcee he needed the ability to ‘manipulate’ the crowd through commentary – in whatever form. MCing is not based on being good at rhyming. That’s more in line with being known as a good rapper. Just FYI/saying – cause I’m old school and understand where the terms had their origins/meanings.

  • I disagree with you having to be good at rapping off the dome to be called a skill emcee. If someone was able to make intricate rhymes and tell great stories with his raps or just come up with extraordinary metaphors but he couldn’t freestyle that will take away his skills as a emcee.
    I feel like hip-hop have grown and evolve so much that you don’t have to be good at everything just to be a skilled emcee or goat.
    O.t.d is one category of hip-hop and you don’t have to be good in it to be considered the greatest if you good at another category. And vice-versa

    • Believe me. I know. I write songs almost every day. And when i’m not writing, I’m reading. But I have my own idea of what it takes to be the goat and that is to be as skilled in every area of rap as possible. From creating rhymes, to making beats,to o.t.d to freestyle, my goal is to become proficient in every one of those areas so that when I retire no one will be able to say that I don’t belong among the greats of hip hop. Also, I try to keep my rhymes as authentic and clean as possible be it written rhymes or o.f.t . Lastly, I try to teach with my rhymes aka ensure the listener has learned something new after i finish rhyming.

      • it’s cool that you wanna be proficient with the beat making also. However, I dont agree that that’s essential in being an all around top notch great emcee. The writing ability and the ability to freestyle/come off the dome… YES. But, not the beatmaking. Of course there’s absolutely no fault if you want to add that to your arsenal. That’s just anotha level of beastmode – do that sh!t!

  • This is my philosophy which is a mashup of this articles purpose. I go with Pre written lines to set it off and introduce myself, where I rep and overall presence.

    Eminem in the late 90s would do radio appearances and take this approach. He also used his trademark “scratching” i.e. “chickk chickka “ And had some monikers he would use as a bridge. One of them being “naughty rotten rhymer” which allowed him to be then freestyle “e” “I’m” or “er” ending rhymes.

    From there the path is open, could go with some more pre written a or keep it up with some off the tops. Off the top could even be a lil bit of a chorus or bridge as an interlude while I get a vibe going for some more off the top or pull out some written.

    Really I look at Freestyle as prepared multi tasking of skills.

  • Cole, that was a great article. I am certainly guilty of hitting cats up for not going off the dome. Both are good skills to have when under pressure.

  • I personally think freestyle rapping has been Over Exaggerated in the sense that you get Boo when you spit written Rhymes and the audience got aware of it.

    • I 100% agree with the audience booing if they peek you spitt’ing writtens – and the format is Freestyle. That sh!t’s wack to kick writtens. The essence of freestyle is to kick fresh on the spot manifested verse off yo dome. That’s the beauty and purity you’re seeking to experience in the moment. It’s like when your friend shows you a picture of yourself they snapped when you wasn’t looking;
      the beauty captured – instead of that corny ass look/pose you have when you know your pictures being snapped. Writtens is like a toxin put in your blunt – no real head is gonna be feeling that sh!t(?) If you asked your bartender to surprise you with something new – and he gives you what you always drink (are familiar with )… you’ll be disappointed. Feel me?

  • “Pioneers who are metaphorically cutting down the trees in the woods and forging the path for not only themselves but all who follow behind them.” – Cole Mize
    Sick Imagination ?

  • Like you said from a true rap legend/OG/G.O.A.T. I feel u….. But check yourself for a second. Freestyles became literally “off the top” due to real battles. You had to attack what was right in front of u down to the outfit you’re opponent was wearing…. Hence…. Freestyling in a later generation (90s forward) is coming straight off the dome period. With that said it should not take away from those who either need/want to write and try to make every syllable for perfectly instead of being raw uncut like true freestyle artists. I respect both equally. I do have to say as a lyricist myself I have to freestyle and write…. Depends on where/when and what the subject matter is. Much love just thought this was a lil one sided

  • I have always been fascinated by improvisation. For a lot of years I was a professional bassist, and has been involved in a number of improvised projects. Improvisation also led me to comedic improvisation and Theatrical improvisation. Which I now teach. I am not good at freestyle, which I have always considered off the Dome. Now I’ve been hip hop fans since Rapper’s Delight came out. I’m saying I’m old. I’m so old that when I was a little kid I’m talking 3rd and 4th grade, me and my little friends memorized that shit. I’m not trying to dispute the point of this article, nor disrespect a hip-hop elders (Kane) pov. And maybe it’s just me, but I thought it was a known quantity that freestyle was a combination of both. The skill set it takes to perfor
    Comedic and theatrical improvisation share similarities with Freestyle or Battle Mcing… though I think improv is easier, because you get to react to things. Giving you the opportunity two reacting character in the moment. You don’t have that luxury as an MC. I mean in a battle situation I suppose, cuz I’ve never been in one, that you have your opponent’s rhymes Behavior style look excetera to react to. But you got to write all that yourself in that moment. When you’re part of an improv ensemble you have your fellow performers that you can count on you’re not all by yourself. Just some shit to think about. I will say that when I teach improvisation, I encourage my students to work on all aspects improvisation. In other words don’t have a style, because then you can do anything. It frees you up. Now that’s also a personal artistic choice. Just like not every MC chooses to work on thier freestyle (Dre) and not every producer is a DJ (Danger Mouse). Personally I’m not interested in battling but I’m also not interested in a record contract or being famous. I got my own Studio already so I make my own beats. Record myself. The only thing that’s missing are my MC skills…. And thats why I’m on this forum.

    • In my humble opinion, freestyle is indeed a combination of both (written and improv). But what bears the most weight and certifies you as a real freestyler is your skill at improvisation / coming off the dome. That’s 90% of it – your written is just bridges to the next episode of spontaneous manifestation of fresh new verses. These rappers that go through bars and bars of written verses ARE NOT freestyling. They’re merely presenting a RENDITION! It escapes me how that seems sooo hard for people to grasp, understand and respect. Well, not really. Rappers are so enchanted with the term/label…. they’ll accept the lower definition so that can apply the term to themselves. It’s like someone not serving in the military but wearing the uniform – the phenomenon of “stolen valor”. Like those folks that play their hot playlists at parties… and called themselves Dee Jays – without spinning/manipulating any discs/platters. The game (rap culture) is polluted with wanna be(s). Freestyling (with a measure of skill) is way harder than spit’in written verses. The process of formulating comprehensive verse & delivering it in real time(!) is like consistently eagling a hole in golf; no easy feat. Most emcees simply ain’t up to par (pun intended).

  • You are behaving absolutely foolishly to content that Big Daddy Kane’s definition of Freestyle is correct. It is erroneous. It don’t even make no damn sense. First of all when a rapper pens a rhyme he/she doesn’t escape their style. The fact that you’re writing it – with an opportunity to think it through and mentally edit it – tells you it is indeed infused with some form of style. You get to mental conceive and work out grammatical structure, tense, point of view, etc. Freestyle IS off the dome / improvisation…. PERIOD. Rappers are sooo enthralled with the label of freestyle they readily accept those masses that would improperly label it – so that they can also claim / justify calling themselves a freestyler. Please stop continuing this lie. And certainly don’t try to bring credibility to the falsehood of the claim – because you can site Kane as co-signing/endorsing it. Think it through…. “free of style”! So if Rakim pens some verses you can’t tell it’s Rakim’s cause it’s free of (his) style. If RZA pens some verse – you can’t tell it Rizz’s cause you can inherently hear that it’s “free of style”?! Stop with this ludicrous attempt at once again trying to put a form of RENDITION-ING a form of spitting written verse as freestyling. It’s ok to has SOME written verse in a freestyle – it’s a bridge between the gaps in one’s mind accessing the realm where NEW improvised manifestations occurs. And some times it’s a part of the freestyle when it’s cleverly used to give props or “flip the script” on how it was original used by another rapper. It’s the norm to wear Fugazi and front like you iced out also. However, the norm is not the standard we’re shooting for here… is it? If the bullseye is the aim – I think you know the true answer. So don’t be regular and appeal to the masses. Pay true respect to the art form and start promoting the truth: Again, fundamentally and accurately…. REAL Freestyle is indeed off the dome / improvised lyrics / original unscripted verse.

  • Like almost everything in this modern world, it’s all fake. It’s written, memorised, a (little)bit of specificity thrown in… then spoken.

  • Just wrap all your words in one place and describe how you’re feeling poetically that’s my definition of freestyling so I respect the off the dome because that’s how I sharpen my skills it made my craft and enjoyable art for me to practice

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