Thursday, November 15, 2018

Thoughts on The Art of Improvisation, Freestyle Rap and Performance

Hey Folks,
As many of you will know through my performances and content, I absolutely love freestyling and improvising. Even in elementary school, long before I knew about hip-hop, I recall making up silly songs on the spot to make my friends laugh.  Fast forward 2 decades and I've been doing a weekly freestyle show "Spontaneous Sundays with AllOne" for nearly 2 years now and constantly improvising rap in my shows.  This blog was prompted when a fan named Ryan sent a very complimentary email asking simply "HOW DO YOU DO IT?" So I thought a lot about it and polled an audience of some of my favorite improvisers that I know personally for their thoughts and responded with a version of the writing below.  I think anyone can freestyle if they practice and still I think it is one of the most impressive and amazing performances to watch whether it is musical, rapping, poetry, dance, acting or comedy.  Here are some thoughts.  I have so many personal and distant artistic influences who've helped me grow over the years and I've tried to pepper in articles and videos throughout to pay homage and share the wealth of knowledge and talent out there, as I'm far from the last word or best practitioner of freestyle!  These are numbered but in no particular order of importance.  Please comment with your thoughts and stories of your  favorite artists and books, movies, songs, videos and articles about freestyling and improvisation! 
Improvise life,
-Bruce AllOne
Cyphering at O'Briens in 2015 with DJ Second Nature, guitarist Matt Heeb, Miggs Son Daddy, Dope KNife and Drent 

1) Freestyle rapping (When I say this I specifically mean IMPROVISING, going "off the top" "off the head" "off the cuff "off the dome"  etc.) is a "practice makes... practice" skill, like everything else. There is no such thing as "perfect" especially in improvisation.  However, I think that is one of the magic and charming aspects about it is the high wire act of tripping up and then having something brilliant occur and the very next moment so long as you stick with it. The practice of freestyling is the only thing like it, there are no replacements for engaging in freestyling. It is always the same situation where you are always IN THE MOMENT. You will often have different limitations or influences depending on the scenario (you may be playing with musicians to influence your rhythms, other rappers to influence your topics, a crowd to influence your energy or even the duration of time during which you are rapping) but you are always trusting yourself into the same capricious art.
The short version of this is: freestyle as often and in as many different scenarios as you can.

Anticon rapper DoseOne and his parter Jel had a Freestyle 101 class. This video and the rapping and articulation of the skill of freestyle in it is incredible, inspirational and instructional.
CLICK HERE TO WATCH the FREESTYLE 101 mini-documentary. 

2)  A number of people (including my talented friend Eli Brooklyn) responded to me opining that flow/rhythm/cadence is more difficult to master and more important to experiment with and develop than rhyming words. “Anyone can rhyme, but flow is tantamount to great rapping.” What I take from this or what I would expound on is this: expand your toolkit of deliveries that you insert words into.  If you are comfortable switching into many different deliveries and tempos, those fluctuating factors will not trip you up and leave you open to finding rhymes and word choices as you improvise. 

3) There is an almost-magic paradoxical quality of improvising. I find that you have to walk the fine line of being completely loose so that the majority of your imagination and vocabulary is available to you and but also be alert, aware and cognizant enough that within that "blue-sky period" space you can steer yourself in any direction at the drop of a hat.  You want to be in control what you are doing so you are able to make those moves and rapid creative choices consciously, but be open to new ideas (the "yes and" principle will be expounded on below). 

There is a ritualistic or meditative nature to accessing the free-form mentality that most felicitous for performing improvisational material.  This was never more beautifully or impressively brought to bear than when I was with my long-time friend, the brilliant poet and teacher, Eliot Green last year at an intimate house-show event and we went from talking one second, to him walking across the room at a moment’s notice following a quick deep breathing exercise and then inexplicably performing two completely lucid, mistake-free, articulate and topically relevant perfect  spoken word pieces that were totally improvised.  I had chills the entire time.  When I asked Eliot about it he has much to say. (He renounced performing written work years ago because he felt disconnected from audiences when reading from the page but was also disenchanted by the cumbersome ordeal preparing and memorizing material).  Eliot described a visual exercise he learned to do which I’ll poorly paraphrase here:  “I close my eyes and breathe deeply and imagine myself walking down a hallway to open a door.  When I open the door, I'm in a “blue-sky space” and am able to freely and comfortably improvise."

 CLICK HERE to watch a freestyle session as a Spontaneous Sundays with AllOne episode.
Which you can also watch for examples on adapting to different conditions and style (I go for more spoken word phrasing,tempo, vividness of language and allow the a capella format to let me loosen up my usual attachment to rhythm. 

4) As my rapper friend Kev Varghese (the most frequent Spontaneous Sundays guest) and several others made a point to focus on: One of the most important things is to HAVE FUN.  Let go of your ego and get  out of your own way (this is a hard thing culturally for rapper's to do, as it is a braggart's domain.)  Freestyle sessions are all fleeting moments and there are no wrong answers. Performing before people can be scary and you might want to impress people and do written-level virtuoso lyricism completely off-the-cuff. Trust when I say that "yes, written level improvising is possible" but ironically, fixating on that genius level of achievement will undoubtedly lock you up and stop the flow of thought.  This is essentially the experience of giving yourself writers block in real time.

 (As an aside I view “writers’ block”as an illusion created by stifling expectations. I.e. You have such a high bar set for yourself to impress yourself and the people who will consume your art that you never allow anything to come out because you’ve narrowed the aperture of what is acceptable and you never get any of the helpful creative juices flowing, so to speak.) 

An example to illustrate this point of expectations = freezing up is that, often, if you can get people who don't rap to goof off and freestyle sometimes they come up with incredible rhymes because they have no inhibitions, no presumptions that everyone thinks they will be amazing.  This "beginner's luck" or more accurately, "outsider's freedom" phenomenon is probably exclusive to rapping because essentially you are just talking with more rules as to what you say and how you say it. It is liberating to remember that we essentially improvise every conversation!  Freestyle rapping is the same thing as talking, it just imposes more limitations such as tempo adherence, rhyme pattern, topic consistency, word play etc. 

5) Despite seeming contradictory to the advised abandoning of our ego, when it comes to accessing our peak potential in all things, an ambitious sense of confidence is key (this is where fun comes in!)  All things are good in moderation, confidence is one of this things to balance in improvisation.  You need to be able to trust your skills enough to fall back on your instinctive ability!  If you feel good about your ability then you can be loose or psychologically spry enough to really grab onto whatever mercurial thoughts that you have and utilize them as expressive tools in the moment. 

6) Expose yourself to different scenarios, freestyle with other people. Try improvising singing. Rap over live instrumentation as well as different sorts of beats. Presenting yourself with these challenges is only going to on your skill set exponentially. Remember, in true improvising there is intrinsically no comfort zone. (This is probably true of art of any sort.)  

7) In general, improvisers of all sorts operate best with a “yes, and“ initiative. You may have heard this. It's a big axiom in improv acting. Never refuse a prompt to go in a new direction.  Run with suggestions full speed ahead with open arms and an open mind to do your best to meet the challenge proposed. The beat speeds up? Speed up along with it and see what happens! The other rapper suggests that you trade off every four lines? Go with that and see what happens. This is not limited to your interactions with other people or other factors in the freestyling, this rule is probably most useful in the self-contained meta-cognitive experience of rapping.

"It's not the note you play that is the wrong note it's the note you play after that makes it right or wrong." -Miles Davis
If you watch Spontaneous Sundays you’ll notice that I “screw up” a lot, I'll miss a rhyme or I say a nonsense word or a trip up my words. This can be embarrassing, but also it can be seen as an opportunity to take a new direction either with a rhyme scheme or an associative string of word play.  Even incorporating the newfound cadence created by my trip-up into the lines that follow can be a fun hair-pin turn.  Removing the ego and being open to anything helps us let every momentary mistake be a redemptive springboard for a recovery landing in a new, unforeseen direction.

8) Nearly everyone I talked to agreed that writing songs helped improve their freestyling. (My friend Dope Knife responded with the reverse statement, saying he observed that the more he freestlyes the more he notices his writing and rapping improve). Both seem inherently obvious as mutual benefactors and beneficiaries as both practices are great exercises for sharpening your thinking as well as your relationship to language, music, poetry and self-expression.  Writing a lot will help with your vocabulary as well as elucidating your ideas, your understanding of language, the style with which you write or rap and what you enjoy most about language and how you employ its plethora of tools. 

9). On the subject of expanding vocabulary, which Ryan explicitly expressed concern with his acumen for conjuring words,  there is a simple -if dry- answer to this: Write every day. But also and most importantly, read everyday, listen to music every day. When you come across a word or a turn of phrase that you don’t understand, stop for a minute and look it up and write it down. Writing it down will help you retain it and maybe do your best to employee that word or turn of phrase the next time you’re creating something or the next time you have a conversation.  Stephen King's "On Writing"  and Ray Bradbury's "Zen & The Art Of Writing" are both must-reads that comment extensively that you cannot be serious writer if you do not read. If we follow that logical thread, you cannot be a superb freestyler if you are not a good writer/rapper. Any of the greatest rappers of all time will tell you that they are readers and diligent students of their craft, I almost guarantee that!

Here are some particularly great freestylers and projects that I think would be informative to study/get inspired by:

Eyedea (Here's a link to Eyedea and Slug's famous freestyle on The Wake Up Show).  Eyedea is my personal greatest artist/freestyler/writer of all time.

(I've gotten to beatbox on stage for Kristoff Krane freestyling in NYC in 2010, he is always getting open and freestlying in his sets and for videos.  Here is Eyedea and Kristoff Krane's all-freestyle project “Face Candy”  they did 2 albums of live recordings as a group. "This Is Where We Were" and "Waste-Age-Teen Land"

Astronautalis (who includes freestyles in each of his shows by taking topics from the audience.  He also did an amazing project called "DANG!" (listen here) comprised of 7 freestyles in 7 nights where for a week straight when he woke up he recorded  a freestyle song about his dream the night before.)

Sage Francis (amazing freestyler and one of my favorite writers in hip hop of all time!)

Dope Knife (who has a freestyle section in each of his sets called "Who Got The Props?" where he takes items from the audience and makes songs about them)

Supernatural is a legendary freestyler and battler.

(Thesaurus and Illmac are two pioneering battle rap legends. Here are their 2 final rounds winning World Rap Championships 2006 and here's their 2007

Here are some great Spontaneous Sundays with AllOne episodes with fellow improvisers of various disciplines.  Each guest provides a different example of me working to adapt with different influences and styles and prompts:
Spoken Word artist Eliot Green 
Beatboxer, rapper, singer Kaila Mullady
Rapper, writer Tim Will Hunting
Rapper, Singer Zeus Lee
Producer/musician Drip 'N' Drive