Rock the Bells: Inside KRS-ONE's Freestyle



Reviewing Rock the Bells, reminded me that one of my favorite things about live hip hop is the freestyle.  The skill of spontaneous flow is like magic as the emcee uses all his sensual awareness and the collective conscienenous to string together ideas, concepts, syllables, word–and somehow make them all sync up and pay off, making the crowd roar, shout and whoot with applause.

With all this going on, I wonder…is there a science behind freestyling or live improvisation?

Harvard Science reports  that recent studies are being done on musical improvisation. And this article references live jazz performance, which makes since because when you peel back the influences live jazz is a style closely borrowed by hip hop’s best live emcees:

The perception and performance of music have been studied by scientists; most famously, looking at what listening to classical music — like Mozart — can do to the developing brain.  But looking at brain activity during the process of music improvisation is new.

Improvisation is not exclusive to music, says Berkowitz. Nor is it a pure flight of invention. “It’s spontaneity within a set of constraints,” Berkowitz explains. “Imagine: You slip on ice, and you do a sort of little dance to regain your balance — maybe in a way you’ve never ‘danced’ before; but though the sequence of movements might be novel, it’s made up of the individual movements that are possible given what the body can do and where it is in space.” Musical improvisers also work within constraints. “Those bebop players play what sounds like 70 notes within a few seconds. There’s no time to think of each individual note. They have some patterns in their toolbox

Improvising, from a neurobiological perspective, involves generating, selecting, and executing musical-motor sequences, something that wouldn’t surprise musicians. But in terms of brain research, it’s a new piece of information. And each new study contributes to understanding different regions of the brain and the networks they make up, ultimately moving our understanding that much further.

Knowing and learning about all this brain activity and neurology stuff has always made me watch in awe and wonder as the DJ and the emcee work together during a live show, especially during a freestyle. For me the freestyle is one of the purest forms of self expression (and a complex one  says Scientific American)–and when it’s done right, it’s hip hop at its finest.

KRS-ONE’s Freestyle at Rock the Bells

Now, I’m not one to get jealous very easy.  But I have to say that I was a bit jealous when my wife Colleen–who was snapping photos in the pit–was included in KRS-ONE’s freestyle rhyme. Colleen explained it to me like this.

Beatboxing Fan
Beatboxing Fan
 As KRS-ONE was finishing up his flurry of verses, he pointed at the row of photographers in the pit ended his rhyme by scrolling left to right at the row of photographers as they all became part of his freestyle. And then he wrapped up the rhyme by pointing at Colleen who was at the end of the row. To keep the improvisation vibe going, KRS-ONE brought a fan up on stage to beat box.

I was super proud (yeah, and a bit jealous) when she told me what had happened.  She didn’t think anything of it. But I was stoked to say the least (and I’m sure it was a lot better that being caught in the middle of the fans and the Wu-Tang Clan in 2007.) And I bet that fan it still buzzing from his on-stage moment with KRS-ONE.

Live MRI Mapping A Freestyle

If the technology were ever available, I would love to be able to hook up an MRI imaging machine to see what an emcee’s brain activity looks like while they’re freestyling and compare it to what it looks like when they’re recording in the studio.  I’d like to do this because what usually separates a great hip hop artist from the rest is their live show, or vice versa, so any neurological insight to an artist’s creative process would be interesting to study.

Have you been part of a freestyle rhyme?  Or part of artist’s live improvisation?

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