Cognitive Properties of Hip-Hop Freestylers and Hip-Hop in Popular Discourse

Posted on March 3, 2009 by


Freestyle rapping, the art of rapping about things off the top of your head within rhythm.  Having grown up in this generation and having a few hip-hop head friends, I’ve seen and heard quite a few of these freestyling sessions.

But that doesn’t mean that I’ve acquired any freestyling ability whatsoever.

If there were a choice presented to me between doing a freestyle rap and dying, I’d tell you to save money by declining the casket and move forward with the cremation.

It always struck me that these freestylers coming up with stuff from the top of their heads were ridiculously verbally/orally gifted.

I mean,

How the eff is it possible to continually generate new combinations of words, sometimes new concepts, with amazing wordplay that not only flows in a type of rhythm but also rhymes?  Amazing cognitive feat (though I do wonder if it could be done without a lot of the racism, sexism, homophobia).

I’m particularly amazed at the speed at which they process phrases, access their own words, and generate new sentences directed at insulting an individual while maintaining the structural integrity of their rhymes and the rhythm/momentum created.   From this structure, these schemas,  experienced rappers make use of all types of rhetorical and literary devices, relying heavily upon simile and metaphor to find sylistic ways to say just about anything.

Erik Pihel in his seminal paper Homer and Hip-Hop hinted at some of the cognitive requirements in freestyling.

In order to freestyle, the rapper must be “in command” of the culture. He or she must have a wide range of cultural references and be able to manipulate these materials with ease. The artist must be able to access the culture that has shaped him or her—then reorganize it, reshape it, and recreate it at the moment of the performance. Freestylists are relatively unconcerned with narrative unity since, unlike the Homeric poets, there is no single story they want to tell. Instead, one of the defining techniques of freestyling is “flippin’ the script”—the ability to change subjects mid-rap. This is the focus because what is important is not narrative unity, but rather the ability to express many different styles.

Pihel says that seasoned freestylers rely upon rhyming formulas.  Formulas, as in, they need a sort of structure/ schemas, a way to easily organize and access the ideas and words that make up their raps.  Cultural references seem to act as the analog button, the directional button that often calls to mind the ideas and the words.

In battle freestyling which is the style in the videos above, the objective is clear:  make the opponent look bad as possible through back and forth rhythmic word play.  Generally the themes in battles revolve around 2 things:  1)  my opponent sucks, this is why, and 2)  this is how I’m going to beat my opponent up.

Since there’s only really two things they are ultimately trying to say, freestylers have to come up with very inventive lines drawing upon personal histories, experiences, and pop culture references.   Cultural references provide not only a connection between the freestylers but also establish a connection to the audience, who play a big role in determining the winner.  The references are a way of making the personal battle more public and open for audience input;  the lines draw heavily upon embedding explicit images into the collective consciousness to convince them that 1)  my opponent sucks, this is why and 2)  this is how I’m going to beat my opponent up.

In the videos above, the Korean freestyler Dumbfoundead is all about making cultural references.  He pulls out stuff like “binary code”, “Sabado Gigante”, “East Los Angeles” Unsure of what to expect verse after verse, the audience provides the oohing and aahing after particularly poignant deliveries.   That’s what makes the crowd ooh and ahh.  The ooohs and ahhs are implanted in the audience’s collective memory and serve as informal markers for momentum.

A good research question in sociolinguistics and expertise studies would be to investigate how the freestyling elite access the words and ideas upon.  Experts at anything are known to “chunk” the information in the field of expertise they have.  Master chess players chunk by connecting pieces on the board and seeing patterns and connections that we as novices may not see.  Experts at any skill tend not to have exceptional memories or super capacities, but more penchant for details as explained by this article review in Cognitive Daily.   Knowing the relevant details allows them to make quick decisions.

All I is wonder how expertise and memory studies applies to freestylers.   I always imagined the working memories of these people to be extremely good, but as that article review above suggests, perhaps that isn’t the case.  How are these freestylers’ semantic categories organized?  How are cultural references and images accessed?  What other details are they good at spotting?

* * * * *

Despite the cognitive complexity that is probably involved in freestyling, the larger category of hip-hop that contains freestyling, artists, and music still gets a very bad reputation in much of popular discourse.

This annoys the fuck out of me.  Popular discourse meaning popular media on the internet, television, etc.  Popular discourse tends to imply if not straight up call the music stupid and look down upon it, much like the absolute garbage of an article posted in the Wall Street Journal.  They were chronicling the websites of a Caltech grad student who runs the site, musicthatmakesyoudumb, which looks at facebook profiles and correlates that with the SAT scores of schools.

…the favorite musician of the smartest students was Beethoven, with an average SAT score of 1371. Also on the “smart” end of the scale were Sufjan Stevens (1260), Counting Crows (1247), and Radiohead (1220). And sadly for Lil Wayne, enjoying his music was associated with being the dumbest, with an average SAT score of 889.

Obviously, it’s not posing to be a scientific way of doing anything, but nonetheless “interesting” enough for a wide-circulation blog like the Wall Street Journal to talk about.  This type of commentary is out there to seep into the heads of smug, elitist, classist, slightly racist jerkoffs.  The commentary “primes” the broader, popular consciousness, the popular memory, the popular media into thinking that what colored people like and get into is generally stupid.

What annoys me in this particular “finding” is that Lil Wayne makes other music than his most popular hits, some of which call attention to social conditions in New Orleans.  He makes stuff that actually should be heard more in the popular discourse.

However, ignorance is much easier to seize upon, acquire, understand and thus, much easier to spread. But just because ignorance is often dirty, muddy, that doesn’t mean you drink it.  You wouldn’t drink ocean water from an oil spill.  I guess one of my objectives on this site is not just to engage in conversation over academic topics but also to engage in real world discourse.  I’m not just here to talk about and direct where the proverbial human condition is going next, but I also filter out the dirt, the mud, the crap, and crank out the drinks.

Posted in: Cognition, Hip-Hop