This post was inspired by a battle I judged recently. Before I get to why it is an inspiration lets talk a little history. Since I started DJing many, many moons ago I have seen countless battles from behind the turntables, as a crowd participant, to now what is my most recent vantage point- a judge. From all of these places I have seen many rappers and a few emcees go down, some from self-inflicted wounds.
Aside from the view from the DJ booth, watching people go down from the judges table is always more painful, because you must evaluate the catastrophe. It is almost like seeing a car crash in person, verses watching one on YouTube. You see the instant before the crash, the blood, the carnage and a host of onlookers who are wide-eyed and open-mouthed. Thankfully (and hopefully) in a battle there are no physical casualties only bruised egos.
The most recent battle inspired this post because. . . well frankly, lyrically it was horrible. This doesn’t mean there were not a few who came with lyrics, and bad intentions for any emcee who would challenge them, those emcees were there. The inspiration comes from the overall lack of lyrical depth. Thus I bring to you the five tips on how to win a freestyle battle. Consider it, as KRS once said, a public service announcement for the prevention of sucka emcees.
5 Tips on How to Win a Freestyle Battle
- Turn off the radio. This is not just a dead prez song, its solid advice. The radio plays mindless music with catchy (not unlike syphilis) hooks. Typically heavy radio rotation means the lyrical content is very simple. As an emcee you want to stimulate your mind so your thought process in battle mode is razor sharp. Nothing dulls the sense more than repeatedly listening to the same people talk about the same thing (especially when it is not very complex to begin with). Believe it or not, subconsciously it may begin to influence your own lyrics.
- Read. Maybe this is so obvious it is overlooked. Reading more will help improve your writing. Writing more will help to stimulate your thinking. It is one big productive circle. Writing is a conversation with the mind as Nikki Giovanni said. What level of conversations are you having if you are not reading? This may account for why everyone says almost the same thing in battles. Most lyrical emcees read quite a bit from books, articles, and newspapers to current events. There are way to many benefits to reading not to do it. For example it can increase your vocabulary, range of subject matter and strengthen your metaphors just to name a few.
- Be Creative. How ‘free’ is your style when everything you say is about the oppression of the next person? Every sucka emcee uses the same concept in insults; homophobia, sexism and an over exaggerated sexuality. Of course this formula would be incomplete without using N-bombs. Push your self as a lyrical person and think outside the proverbial box. Ask yourself, what makes me different if I say the exact same thing as everyone else. Homophobia is a problem, sexism is a problem and the lack of vocabulary that seems to restrict what people say is also a problem. Creativity solves that. Think of different ways to out wit somebody. What wordplay could take out your opponent, what would get the crowd excited, how can you use your superior intellect over your opponent and move the crowd at the same time? A creative imagination is your greatest asset in a battle. To few use it.
- Know Some Hiphop History. Everything relevant in Hiphop did not happen after you were born. There is a reason people consider Rakim one of the best ever (if you don’t know who that is refer to my first sentence here), why O.C is a lyrical beast, or that what Jay-Z learned from Big Daddy Kane helped his skills, why Lauryn Hill is still respected lyrically. How can you be a top emcee without a sense of history, or understanding of the psychology of battling? Most people who are skilled at what they do know some history of their trade. As an emcee you should know your craft, it not only gives you a sense of history it also provides you with some insight on how you might counter an opponent, what tactics to use and when.
- Be Prepared for Anything. Nobody is your friend during a battle, especially not a fellow emcee. Her/his goal during the performance is to take out the competition and this means you. If you have a chipped tooth, its going to be talked about, if your coat has a hole in it, its going to be talked about, if you have a questionable photo on instagram, facebook, tumblr, twitter, whatever, it is going to be talked about. That guy/girl that you tried to talk to and got played, if another rapper knows, it is going to come up. Anything that makes you vulnerable is considered fair game.
How do I prepare for this? In sports they call it the two-minute drill. Teams practice all kinds of end game scenarios to prepare their offense and defense (mentally and physically) for how to act and react in the heat of the battle. Ideally if the team is prepared they can handle the competition and come out on top. As an emcee, you have to prepare for the unexpected so that in the “two-minute drill” of the battle you don’t lose your composure. Most of why people lose battles is in their lack of preparation. For example are you mentally prepared to drop a variety of rhymes on various subjects, do you know your audience, will there be kids there, are there rules on profanity, does the time limit change, can you rap over different beat speeds, will there be live music, what are the judges looking for, can you take a lyrical punch?
Hopefully, these 5 tips will help you win your next battle.
Random suggestions that did not make the list:
Buy a rhyming dictionary. Some of Hiphop’s best who can freestyle own one. Supernatural the one time record holder for longest freestyle (clocked at over 9 hours) said it is essential for the freestyle emcee. Anything that increases your ability to know more words is a good thing.
Get a copy of How to Rap. A book filled with rappers from all over the map talking about their creative process.
Practice. Like Allen Iverson said we talking about practice. Yes it is freestyle and you have to come of the top of the head, but you can practice getting comfortable with the mic, stage presence, connecting with your audience, what happens if the sound system does not work and what ever else could happen.
Watch these documentaries: The MC Why We Do It, The Art of 16 Bars: Get Ya’ Bars Up, Freestyle the Art of Rhyme