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Learn How to Freestyle Rap
So you want to learn how to rap and freestyle? It's easy with our (patent-pending) ten-step technique. You'll find the guide full of tips below plus lessons on wordplay, punchlines, flow, battles and more in The Rapper's Handbook.
Freestyle rapping is spitting lyrics in ciphers (or alone) that you make up on the spot. While you might sneak in a line or two that you wrote the night before, most of your flow should be improvised, spontaneous, and off the top o' the dome. Keep your freestyle lyrics funny, improvised and creative.
This Freestyle Guide comes from The Rapper's Handbook.
The Official Flocabulary Ten-Step Technique for Learning to Freestyle Rap
by Emcee Escher, esq.
Step 1. Start easy
No need to start off rhyming “the toasty cow’s utter” with “most o’ my flow’s butter”. No need to even rhyme. Just forget everything else and flow. The rhythm can be simple, the words might be second-grade level, but you’re still freestyling as long as you make it up. This was my first freestyle rap, which I spit when I was 11 months old:
I am funny,
I like bunnies,
Touch my tummy,
Step 2. Keep flowing
You’re going to make mistakes. You’re going to sound stupid. Make your first freestyle rap verses your stupidest verses just to get them out of the way. Keep flowing. Can’t think of a rhyme? Keep flowing! Stutter over words? Keep flowing. It’s inevitable that at some point some of your lines won’t rhyme, won’t make sense, or that you will inadvertently diss yourself. (I knew one guy who accidentally dissed himself all the time when we were freestyling.) Just keep flowing. If you make a mistake, do your best to incorporate your mistake into your next lines like Eminem did on this freestyle:
I take a beat and loop it,
Another technique to use when you find yourself in a bind is to whip out a quick filler. Fillers are just little phrases that you can insert occasionally to give you more time to think of a dope line. Every emcee has his own fillers. For example, Eyedea says “I grab the microphone.” Jin often says, “I’m (nasty) when I’m freeing.” I usually say, “You know what I’m sayin’?”
Try to come up with a few fillers that you feel comfortable using. They’ll bail you out of some awkward pauses. As you get better, you can rely less heavily on your fillers.
Step 3. Rhyme in your mind ahead of time
Here’s the biggest trick to freestyle rapping: as soon as you know what word you’re going to end line 1 with, your mind should start racing to find out a word you can use at the end of line 2. Let’s say your first line is, “I’m colder than a Dairy Queen Blizzard.” As soon as you realize that you’re going to end the line with “Blizzard,” you should immediately think of something that rhymes with that word and might possibly be related:
Pick one and then try to carve the second line to lead toward that word. Let’s say you pick “wizard,” your next line might be:
I’m colder than a Dairy Queen Blizzard,
This is Lord of the Rings, you’re the hobbit, I’m the wizard,
If you pick “scissor,” you might say:
I’m colder than a Dairy Queen Blizzard,
A rebel since I was five, went running with scissors,
The real trick of freestyling is to have your mind constantly racing ahead of what you’re saying. This isn’t easy, but you’ll get quicker with practice.
Step 4. Write
Writing raps will help you freestyle. When you write, rhymes become embedded in your head, and you’re more likely to be able to pull these rhymes off the top of your head in a freestyle.
For the most part, you should never spit a long pre-written verse at a cipher, but you can certainly use rhyming words and shorter phrases that you’ve worked out beforehand. When Proof rhymes “Ewoks, treetops, and Reeboks” in a freestyle, you better believe he’s thought of those rhymes ahead of time. He’s still freeing, but he’s using rhyme words he’d already worked out.
Sitting down and writing every day will improve your freestyles. It will expand your memory of rhyming words, and it will give you experience working these words into clever lines. It’s also a good idea to write a few multi-purpose bars that you can spit at a freestyle in case you get really stuck. Put those lines in a “Break Out Rhymes In Case of Emergency” box, and smash the glass when you need help. This isn’t cheating; it’s shrewd.
When you’re writing these “in case of emergency” lines, make them strong and interesting, but not too ridiculously amazing. In other words, don’t do this:
Turn the beat up, it’s all that I need, (free)
Rocking my pumas … and my white tee, (free)
Hit or miss, this penetrates the uranium nucleus, (written)
Smoke crews like a hookah plus I’m nuking your crib, (written)
You don’t want your “emergency” rhymes to be that obvious. Try to write rhymes that generally match your level of freestyle but are clever and smart.
Step 5. Rap about things around you
This is definitely the best way to prove to the crowd that you’re really freestyling and not just spitting something you wrote in your room the night before. It’s also a huge crowd-pleaser, ‘cause it’s impressive and it makes everyone real glad that they’re hanging out with you. Rap about things you see. Incorporate objects, actions, people, clothing, situations, and sounds into your rap. When I’m in the shower, I’ll rap about what kind of soap I’m using:
Trying hard to get clean, maybe just a smidgen,
Make my Dove dirty, oh, now I call it pigeon
At a battle competition, this is crucial. You’ve got to spit things specific about your opponent. These are the hardest-hitting punches. Take Iron Solomon’s opening lines against The Saurus in a battle on the streets of New York. He looks his opponent up and down, sees that he’s wearing shorts, and then spits:
Maybe you should have come here rocking a better flannel,
Or at least some long pants,
You should have checked the weather channel.
One of the freestyle kings is a rapper from North Carolina named Spectac, who can spit a rhyme off the top of his head that sounds like it was pre-written. I’ve heard Spectac freestyle for 40 minutes straight over various beats, and I’ve seen him in action at a show, getting some kid to walk around the audience pointing at things and Spec rhymes about it. I asked Spectac what it takes to freestyle. Here’s what he told me:
“Honestly, first of all, you have to have a love for the music and not just the hip-hop genre. You have to love the instrumental. Once you have the passion for it, anybody can develop the ability to freestyle. It comes down to how much time you’re willing to invest in practicing that part of the art. When I’m freestyling, I’m thinking ahead. I’m definitely thinking ahead. At the same time, I don’t get too far ahead of myself. You try to enjoy it with the crowd. Enjoy the punch lines, but keep yourself focused on the fact that the party isn’t over.”
Step 6. Include metaphors
Metaphors and similes are an advanced but important part of freestyle rapping. They are often found in a rapper’s funniest and cleverest lines, and they really differentiate beginners from skilled emcees. A rapper like Lil Wayne lays down verses that straight-up drip with similes and metaphors. He’s the one who is balling like “Rawlings and Spalding,” who is a giant like “fee fi fo fum,” who is counting (money) all day “like a clock on the wall.” Not only does he drop lots of similes, he drops clever, original similes. So do like he does. Don’t just say “sharp as a knife.” Say:
I’m sharp as Samurai swords…
I’m extra sharp like cheddar…
I’m sharp as a Schick Quattro…
Metaphors and similes are really the backbone of an advanced rapper. Learn how to use metaphors correctly. Your rhymes will not only be funnier and smarter, they’ll sound better too. Take these lines from rapper Chingo Bling: “I’m fly like Big Pun on prom night with a cummerbund.” You know that is fly!
Step 7. Reference current events
Just as good as referencing something nearby is referencing something timely. Let’s say, for example, that you are at a cipher, rapping with some of your friends (dissin’ each other, just goofin’ around), and the day before you remember reading that Star Jones recently lost 200 pounds. How dope is it if you throw that in your rhymes:
You big now, but you ‘bout to get cut down,
Faster than Star Jones dropping 200 pounds
I recently heard an emcee reference soaring gas prices:
Fast? Son, that ain’t fast—
I’m rising faster than the price of gas
Whether it’s related to sports, politics, music or celebrities, if it’s in the news, reference it. As Wordsworth told me recently, “I just try to think of what’s important to the people in my surroundings and try to speak on it.”
Step 8. Pass the mic like it’s contagious
Rap in ciphers—groups of two or more rappers playing off each other, trading verses. This is a great way to improve, and it’s definitely fun. One of your friends can beat box, you can throw a beat on the stereo, you can search on YouTube for the instrumental version of your favorite song, or just freestyle over nothing. Take turns, cutting in whenever you want or when someone “passes you the mic.” (You probably won’t have an actual mic.) Never drop the invisible mic! Pick it up and pass it!
Work off other people’s rhymes. If they throw in something about the Bible, pick up that theme and run with it. Try to stick to similar topics, or riff off topics in creative ways. Expand on or reference their lines. When my friends and I cipher, we like to kick about random stuff that we all know about, like our personal lives.
Got no girlfriend, and girls are good for your health,
Know what I mean? Uh, at least I work for myself,
You see me here, kid, and I rhyme crazy,
Used to have a job reading to a rich blind lady,
You rhyme crazy, and sometimes you rhyme lazy,
But I love this rap game, ‘cause rhyming is my baby,
Visually, lyrically I’m known as a mystery,
Y’all couldn’t even see me on HDTV,
It’s always good to pick up the rhyme scheme of the person right before you. In a great freestyle between Brooklyn rappers Mos Def and Talib Kweli (back when they were together as Blackstar), Mos Def ends his first verse asking Kweli if he’s with it. Kweli responds, “I’m always with it…” Later Kweli spits rhymes about some emcees looking wack, then he passes the mic to Mos who continues the rhyme, saying that they always look wack “cause look at the way they dress.” These are the best freestyles: raps that connect with the rhyme sounds and topic of the rappers around you. In the best-case scenario, the rhymes intertwine like the fibers in a Shredded Wheat biscuit.
Step 9. When you’re in a cipher, think ahead
One of the great things about rapping in ciphers is that after you spit one verse you get a break before you spit again. This break is your best friend. It’s during this break that you’ll be listening and responding to your friends’ verses. But you’ll also be planning out your next verse.
Whenever I’m in a cipher, I never like to get back on the mic until I’ve composed four to six quality lines in my head. To be most impressive, these lines will be about things around you, or they’ll be about something your friend said in his verse. Let’s say your friend is wearing a shirt that has Daffy Duck on it. While he’s spitting, you can write a line like this:
I know you’ve had a tough year and had some crappy luck,
But why you gotta wear a shirt with Daffy Duck?
That’s not an amazing line, but I guarantee you that in a cipher people will go nuts over that. (Make sure to point at his shirt as you say it.) I always try to think of two or three of those rhyming couplets before I spit again. Usually I’ll drop one right away and then use the other two later in the verse.
Step 10. Listen and practice
Freestyling, like sculpting or shooting three-pointers, takes an insane amount of practice. Practice as much as you can. Freestyle with homeless people, with your friends, and with your family. Listen to pro rappers who freestyle and try to analyze their styles. Rap all the time; practice all night and day. Practice might not make perfect, but it makes real good. Oh, and pick up The Rapper's Handbook for more lessons like this one. With examples from the pros, the book covers battling, wordplay, flow, recording, song-writing and more.