Judge Adam Arseneau would like everyone to know that he rocks it to the bang-bang boogie, to the rhythm of the boogie, the beat.
"This is freestyle, I don't write none of this shit, I strictly come off the biscuit, blowing your district."
"The human voice is enchanting; so you combine that with something to say based on your experiences, based on your political understands, and then you weave the words in such a way that it's somewhere between song and speech…but it's not a speech, and it's not a song. It's you become you in your poetry."—Abiodun Oyewole (The Last Poets)
Ever seen a freestyle battle? Man, you don't know what you're missing.
Fully resplendent in its hip-hoppery, Freestyle is a documentary chronicling the art of freestyle rap; the underground culture of poetic expression, battle cyphers, and the artists who, despite having a phenomenal command of rhymes, have had commercial success elude them.
Plus, it's better than 8 Mile. It's got that going for it, too.
Facts of the Case
Collecting footage over a 10-year period, Freestyle chronicles the development of freestyle rap, an improvisational stream of consciousness evolving from a blend of experimental poetry, religious sermons, Jamaican house parties, and old-fashioned hip-hop rhyming. Unlike conventional hip hop rappers who write their lyrics, a freestyle MC can simply open their mouths and spout rhymes, like spontaneous bursts of poetry. This is not an easy skill to master, and the few MCs who have total command of the mic are respected (and feared) throughout the culture of hip hop, challenging one another to "battles" of words and rhymes in clubs, on street corners, and on the radio, to see who can outdo the other.
Featuring interviews and performances from some of the best freestyles in the industry, like Mos Def, Black Thought (of The Roots), Freestyle Fellowship, MC Supernatural, Craig G, Pharoahe Monch, Planet Asia, Otherwize, Juice, Wordsworth, Jurassic 5, and pioneer expressionists The Last Poets, Freestyle aims to be the definitive expression on the art of rhyme.
If modern-day rap is all about gold chains, record contracts, dancing girls and expensive cars, then freestyle is all about the underground culture of the art; the street corner battles, the philosophy of hip hop, and the spiritual element of stream of consciousness expression. Freestyle MCs have a command of poetry that eludes even the most talented expressionist artists, able to make words dance through the air on command, weaving tales of social oppression, cultural conflict and ego inflation. After all, after challenging another rapper to a battle, if he doesn't give up the mic and abandon all dreams of ever rapping again, then you haven't done your job as an MC. A freestyle rap battle can be a fearsome thing.
Freestyle is an exceptional documentary if only because the vast majority of the film features staggeringly impressive footage of creative expression, rhyme control and rhyme battles so slick and devious it boggles the mind. Even if the film stunk out loud, the footage alone would make this DVD worth purchasing. Luckily, the documentary is decent, though probably not as developed as it could have been. Director Kevin Fitzgerald, himself a DJ (under the name DJ Organic) is clearly in awe of his chosen material; and so Freestyle spends 75 minutes gushing warmly on the subject of hip-hop culture and freestyling without really providing an alternative view. As a documentary, in the strictest sense, it lacks the objectivity required to be a truly stellar piece of filmmaking, but the inherent awesomeness of the subject matter and the stunning performances smooth over any objections you may have at the time.
One of the most sobering revelations in Freestyle is realizing that the ability to command a crowd and wreck a microphone does not necessarily translate into commercial success. Far from it, in fact; the film is apt in pointing out that some of the most talented MCs in the business have dismal record sales, while the mainstream commercial successful rappers make all the money often have a terrible grasp of the freestyle (exceptions to the rule being rappers like Notorious B.I.G, Mos Def, Eminem and a few others.) Unless you are deeply into hip hop and freestyle, the majority of the rappers featured in this film will be relatively obscure to the average viewer, but there is no question as to their talent. Trying to comprehend how somebody like 50 Cent can be a billionaire while the Freestyle Fellowship lounge in relative obscurity will only give you a headache; and seeing rappers like Juice and Supernatural in the heat of battle, realizing the full scope of their talent, and have it not translate into mainstream success is a troubling revelation.
Broken into subsections, the documentary interviews rappers, poets, hip hop scene enthusiasts, anybody of interest willing to discuss, ruminate, battle and perform freestyle rap, with dozens of rappers contributing interview, raps, or both. An inordinate amount of time is given to MC Supernatural and for good reason, as he is simply the best freestyler you will ever see. Though relatively short, the documentary covers all the bases, from the early roots of the style, developing throughout hip-hop culture in New York City during the late seventies, blossoming out into the West Coast, the notion of cyphers, or battle circles of freestyle rhymes, and all elements in between. I thought the notion of the battle rhyme as substitution for violence was particularly interesting; in a freestyle battle, the rappers get right into each other's faces, hurling insults, but there is no physical contact. The rappers express all kinds of aggression into the air as a substitute for an actual battle, a way to settle disputes, grudges and conflicts without physical violence, gunplay, or other detrimental behavior. Freestyle is poetic in nature, representing an alternative to violence within the hip-hop culture. I liked Freestyle as a whole, but I liked that part especially.
Technically, this disc has some problems. After a few minutes of footage, the first thing you want to do is put the subtitles on to catch the incredible lyrics sprouting out of these MCs; but evidently, the subtitles were composed by:
a) somebody who has never heard rap in their entire life;
This horrifying command of the hip-hop vocabulary (a "playa-hater" for example, translates into "player-hatter") combined with entire sentences simply missed altogether, in addition to the complete inability to keep up with the dialogue (often being three or four lines behind) make the subtitles on Freestyle absolutely worthless. A shame.
Visually, Freestyle lives up to its name, to say the least. Gathered from archival footage, ratty video, handheld cameras and all manner of source material, the visual quality is all over the place. To my eye, the majority of the film seems washed out as if suffering from extreme brightness gain, the black levels represented in smears of grey. Freestyle will not win any awards for visual splendor, but considering the total obscurity of the footage compiled, a little tolerance for visual incongruence goes a long way in appreciating the film.
The audio, a simply Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo track, seems more up to the challenge, with clear dialogue and decent response. As with the video, the audio sources are subject to aging, damage, environmental effects, and all kinds of ugliness that mar the quality; but again, this is to be expected considering the material. A surround mix would have been nice, but probably overkill. The two-channel mix does a fine enough job, with decent bass response and distribution between the channels.
Freestyle contains about 45 minutes of extra material, which is swell, though not all of it is worthy of praise. A commentary track with director Kevin Fitzgerald (aka DJ Organic) is definitely tops, full of expressions and insight into the exhaustive process that went into creating the film, but the 'freestyle' play mode, which takes the movie chapter stop points and randomizes them, is not. Cute, yes; but I can't imagine anyone actually using this feature. A late-night rhyme session is included, along with some deleted and additional sequences, and a whole whack of bonus freestyle footage and battles, of which the majority are just extended sequences of freestyles showcased in the film. Definitely fascinating material to have on-hand; though I cannot help but notice the Juice vs. Supernatural freestyle, which we get to see a bit of in the film, is conspicuously absent. I only mention it because I have seen it, and it is the most insane freestyle battle in the entire universe.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
For a middle-class white kid growing up in Canadian suburbs, you would be surprised how easy it is to grow up on a steady diet of hip-hop and rap. When I was ten, and everyone else had their New Kids On The Block cassette tapes out, I had Eric B. and Rakim, Boogie Down Productions, De La Soul, Slick Rick, Maestro Fresh Wes, etc., walking around with a big silver boombox. I kid you not.
Anyway, Freestyle stroked me exactly the right way, and I enjoyed the heck out of it. I tried explaining to my girlfriend (who is Jewish and can't tell a hip from a hop) about how awesome this film was, and she just gave me that look.
The long and short of this pointless story: if you like rap, even a bit, you will be able to appreciate this film and enjoy the heck out of it. But if you can't stand it, this is not the film that will win you over to the music.
As a documentary, Freestyle is average in execution and technical presentation, but as a showcase for musical talent and performance, this film is unparalleled. For a directorial debut, this is a fine first offering, and on the subject of freestyle culture there is no finer film.
As a hip-hop documentary? Not quite as good as Scratch, but definitely not far behind.
If they hadn't have given me a copy for free, I'd be buying one right now.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Palm Pictures
• Director's Commentary Track
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