Hip Hop artists use various techniques and methods to relate themselves to the Hip Hop world and develop solidarity with the community. Through signified relationships with the Hip Hop totem of struggle, artists embody the aesthetics of Hip Hop music and culture, and gain respect for their artistic contributions within a community of cultural participants. Through techniques such as freestyle, signification, and embodied resistance motives, artists present themselves within the Hip Hop totem, subsequently recognized, appreciated, and valued according to these standards.
Freestyling presents the embodied paradigm of triumph out of limited means, representing honesty, immediacy, and individualistic ingenuity. Artists demonstrate their abilities to rhyme, signify, and connect with the Hip Hop community, in an improvised manner, without the support of advanced production methods. The freestyle presents the artist as an individualistic entity, countering the institutional processes of music production that rely on teams of songwriters, engineers, and producers to create a finished product. The artist experiences the vulnerability of presenting their poetic skill, wit, and quick thinking, in their isolated states, speaking to the ideal of manifestation through struggle.
The freestyle is a direct dialogue with the Hip Hop community, calling upon common understandings, to position the artist as a member of the culture. As UCLA Berkley musicologist, Loren Kajikawa describes, “(…) people who perform and care deeply about improvised rap form a tight-knit community built on shared social and aesthetic values” (Kajikawa 216). Freestylers rely on various techniques to align themselves with this aesthetic; including punchlines, clever wordplay, and cultural signification. The more effectively they engage these aesthetics, they increase their credibility as an artist within the Hip Hop community.
Freestyle artists are situated within the Hip Hop community, through the transparency of the artistic medium. Their culture is communicated in an uninhibited manner, absent of forced or deliberated attempts at portraying themselves. While skilled artists can control the content of their lyrics, the medium of freestyle lends itelf to stream-of conciousness type expression, and an exposure of inner thought processes. Artists are thus recognized for their exposed cultural identities, and how well these represent the Hip Hop totem.
After an extensive freestyle session, where I set a video camera rolling, and Young Son fills every inch of tape, hoping this footage will make it onto his myspace page or otherwise contribute to his promotion as an artist, I ask him to describe the way that he conceptualizes this complex practice. He says that he may have a view different from others, because he is not interested in “showing off,” but wants to create something, “that makes sense, that’s good, has a punchline, has some kind of intelligence.” He tells me that in many cases, freestyling works as preparatory form between development of ideas and writing. He describes it as similar to the writing process, but “you have to think ten times faster.” He says some of the ideas that develop during the uninhibited creative mode of a freestyle, may later be used in his verses. He indicates his enthusiasm for the raw and spontaneous creativity of a freestyle, “A dope punchline you thought of on your feet as a freestyle…is only even doper than when you had to think about it a whole long time to write down.”
Artists’ use of punchlines, connect them with the Hip Hop community, as they relate to their audiences and peers. These quick puns and metaphors make their artistry immediately accessible to the audience, capturing their attention and appreciation. This form of artistic engagement is similar to other African-American musical genres such as jazz and gospel, which rely on “call and response” techniques, engaging their audiences. These music and expressive culture forms in the African-American idiom base themselves more in community relationships and audience participation. Where Jazz performances are structured with audience, “second line” participation, and audience members vocalize their appreciation for aspects of the performance, Hip Hop audiences have similar ways of engaging with the material. When an artist implements a creative idea that speaks to the audience, such as a punchline or reference to shared community understandings, the audience may respond with vocalized approval.
As I witness an impromtu battle between Jeremiah and Young Son, settling tensions that have been rising over organizational control of the audio class, I notice a realization of their distinctive styles. Young Son continues to describe the complexity of his style, using the word “metaphorically” in a flow. Jeremiah raps, “metaphorically you just two peas in a pod, you will get crushed,” referring to Mike and Leonard, two older guys, who are part of a collective group, attempting to establish themselves as community-conscious rappers. Jeremiah has a comedic edge to all of his raps that seem to undercut the efforts of these older rappers, who take themselves very seriously. Leonard cuts back at Jeremiah, saying, “You’re boring like first period.” Jeremiah says he likes battling with Leonard, because “you come back with some other sh**,” reflecting on Leonard’s fun-loving, flexible attitude, able to roll with the punches. Jeremiah also shows support for the other rappers, saying “oo” and reacting to other people’s rhymes, including those he is in direct battle with. Chicken Wing, a kid who has come out of his shell a bit with rapping, and people have been surprised and supportive of his new talents, stands up to try his hand against Jeremiah. He starts flowing, but his rhymes lack the punchiness, necessary to compete in the battle. Jeremiah quickly shuts him down, saying, “Chicken Wing, you need to sit down, you kinda brittle, didn’t I see you in that movie…um (scratches his chin) Chicken Little.” Jeremiah laughs hysterically at his own pun, bringing it up several times later throughout the next fifteen minutes.
As Leonard describes the difference between Black and White culture, he says, “White people have competed to become successful, wearing ties and suits, trying to sound smart.” “Black people have been oppressed, so they have thought about their community.” What Leonard is tapping into are cultural models, which describe the relationship between individual and community. In his description, White culture embodies the individual as a self-sufficient entity, whereas in Black culture, the individual is defined by their relationship with the community.
Hip Hop artists manifest punchlines in their verses or freestyles, calling upon shared understandings, in order to communicate and relate to the audience. Artists reference their surroundings, presentations of self, and relatable themes, connecting with the audience on shared aspirations of Hip Hop culture. “Ask around town when pacman come home, all the girls get down/ all the girls jukin’ and all the fellas dancin’/ me, I’m a G, so I’m posted with the canon/ yellow bowin chick, yeah she stay witcha boy/ I’m somethin’ like a kid the way I stay with them toys/ Pacman shirt, pacman hoodie/ all yellow bag I call it pacman Louis” Gutta Nuke references his eccentric style, of having childhood and cartoon characters on his clothing, saying “I’m somethin’ like a kid, they way I stay with them toys.” This sort of reference recognizes a shared stylistic aesthetic, marked by these flamboyant fashion statements. Gutta Nuke’s oppositionality to mainstream standards of fashion, through his teasing and juxtaposition of various elements, hails the Hip Hop totem of forced or chosen marginality. His use of marked end-rhymes, which present metaphorical, and often relatable or comedic references to these concepts, engages the listener in shared understandings.
Developing freestyled rhymes and punchlines, is a continuous mental process of free word and thought association, and thinking ahead of the immediate performance. Young Son describes that certain people, “spit a four bar stanza, and in the first three bars they’re thinking of the punchline for the fourth bar, but they’ve been building it up.” He says that certain lines, “come into your head, while you’re rapping already, so that’s kind of the hard part about it; you’re already rapping, and thinking at the same time, so I just start thinking about stuff three or four bars behind, so then when it comes down for that bar, I’ll be ready to spit that.”
In order to create a coherent and punchy freestyle, a rapper must think in the future, conceptualizing their lyrics in advance. This process involves a complex interplay between past, present, and future, in order to create the desired structure. As Young Son describes, rappers may think of a certain line to finish a stanza, while filling in the space with other material, “building it up.” The freestyler may imagine a future lyric in a less developed state, and then use momentary creative improvisation to connect this with the continuous theme. All of these processes rely on immediate connections and juxtapositions of ideas, exposing mental processes and creating a cross-section of the improviser’s psychology.
The freestyle functions as a display of skill, artistry, and positioning within the Hip Hop culture. The immediacy and vulnerability of the performance, create an honest portrait of the artist and their views. While freestyle has always been a part of Hip Hop culture, and had been used to measure the dynamic skills of a Hip Hop artist, the internet has created a place for freestyle to be appreciated and evaluated on a wider scale. As artists compete for Hip Hop credibility, their ability to freestyle is a consideration towards their inherent talents, unsupported by systemic privileges, in many cases seen as essential to the Hip Hop totem. As artists begin to develop a “buzz” on the internet, there is an increasing demand by the community, for freestyle releases and videos. In order to stay competitive, these artists may respond to this demand, and place their skills to the test, for audience judgment. The discourse involving the Hip Hop community’s evaluation of artists based on these low-budget displays of artistic integrity, create an outlet for increased community ownership of Hip Hop criticism.
Rap artists connect themselves to the Hip Hop community through signification methods, recognizing shared understandings and uniting threads of cultural experience. Speaking through their relationship with the Hip Hop totem of struggle experience, signifiers create a plane for subconscious or recognized discourse with a community of similar identifiers. References to shared bodies of knowledge, experiences, and dispositions create this discourse. The significance of these references can only be understood in terms of their semiotic relationship with the Hip Hop totem, and the experiences of identifiers.
I sit observing Devon rehearsing one of his raps, about an abusive father and family complications he has experienced. The subject matter is presented in a very interesting way, seemingly cool and dispossessed of externalized displays of emotion. He approaches these words, articulating each within the idioms of attitudes embodied in his clothing, gestures, and personality. When Devon flows, he jocks back and forth in irregular rhythms, overtly displaying his embodied attitudes. He arrives at a final sentence, where he describes his father “slapping his mom” and on this statement, he gestures a Hip Hop flavored “beat drop” sort of motion, and snickers lightly. From this I draw reference to a common understanding of “struggle experience,” and a representation of solidarity in hailing notions of shared experience. Devon is able to laugh and jokingly provide a gesture to accompany the presentation of experience charged with shared social understandings. While he may not be saying that others share the experience of domestic abuse, he is referencing shared notions of “struggle.”
Embodied resistance motives, presented in gestures, fashion, music, and vocal style serve as signification measures. Through embodied presentation of oppositionality to mainstream standards, cultural participants reference their relationship to the struggle experience