Negative freestyling

In a recent Freestyle Friday with Dr. Fox Harrell, he made a mention of “negative freestyling”. I thought was interesting because we tend to look at freestyling as a positive experience. How could you not? Freestyle rapping is speaking, adding words to time, and at its best it makes someone feel better: either the freestyler gets a sense of accomplishment, or the listener gets a sense of joy. Additionally, the terminology that is closely associated with “freestyle” tends to have positive valence (i.e. “flow”, “free”, “rhythm”, “circle”, “creativity”, “feel”). Of course, there are freestyle battles, which can be negative depending on the seriousness of the competition, but they often take on the spirit of any other game, and are usually positive experiences. So while to “speak negatively” of something or someone is not a foreign to most of us, to “freestyle negatively” is somewhat an intriguing concept.

I interpret this in two ways. First, and perhaps more obviously, it may be simply what “negative” suggests: to take away. In the same way that freestyling is viewed as creation, negative freestyling is destruction. Dr. Harrell discussed freestyling in the context of “building culture” — adding something valuable to some community. So negative freestyling must be taking something away from that culture, or destroying it. Cancer, for example, may be a form of negative freestyle. But in the context of human activity, I would argue it’s far easier to destroy things than to create them, and in many cases it takes almost no conscious effort to do so. So this is not a fitting interpretation for me, because I feel that a critical element to human freestyling is to make order out of disorder, and requires some level of conscious effort. Perhaps this is a circular argument, and requires more thought, but it is difficult to place freestyling and negativity into the same (human) space.

My second interpretation relates to the saying “addition by subtraction,” and can imply a gain in knowledge by removing things that hide relevant information. When we dissect something, we remove pieces of an object to further understand how that object works as a whole. A sculptor may chisel away at a boulder to reveal some truth underneath. In another part of the interview, Dr. Harrell discusses “phantasms”, which he defines as blends of cultural ideas and sensory imagination (an example may be a sense of self). Phantasms are a strong influence on our everyday experiences and often go unnoticed, but art can reveal them. Phantasms can be taken apart, broken down, and dissected through mathematical subtraction (i.e. trying to understand my sense of self by looking at its cultural and sensorial components separately); or they can be built upon, expanded, and augmented through mathematical addition (i.e. trying to understand my sense of self by adding a novel component). Negative freestyling in this sense would result in a positive gain in knowledge.

Check out Dr. Harrell’s Freestyle Friday interview posted to our videos and see what you think.


frozen flower

We’ve had a couple blog posts on LIFE IS A FREESTYLE in which water is a central focus. No doubt, a quick Google search suggests WATER IS LIFE is a well-known metaphor. Living things literally need water to survive, so we often personify it as life-giving: EVENTS ARE ACTIONS, so it can be that RAIN IS A BLESSING, and the opposite, DROUGHT IS A PUNISHMENT. Too much water, however, can actually be harmful (floods, drowning, mold?). So too much life can be harmful? Maybe it’s a statement on the downsides of immortality… When we say it’s “smooth sailing”, we suggest WAVES ARE OBSTACLES and life is agreeable. Likewise, “rough seas” means life is tough, and the waves have been difficult to navigate. We give water emotions here, for example, “the seas are angry”.

One thing I just realized is that we seem to only accept WATER IS LIFE when it’s in its liquid form. Certainly, when we say LIFE IS A FREESTYLE, it’s not too difficult to incorporate liquid water into that metaphor: “flow” is frequently used to describe one’s lyrical delivery, and liquid water flows. But depending on your latitude on Earth, water spends a significant amount of time as a solid. I live in Wisconsin, and life doesn’t stop when winter starts creeping up in September. So in the context of LIFE IS A FREESTYLE and WATER IS LIFE, what slot does frozen water fill in those mappings?

One role I see is protection: FROZEN WATER IS A SHIELD. Frozen water floats, and in rivers and lakes it can serve to insulate the life below from the harsher conditions above. The same goes for trees, and often gardeners or those with fruit trees will intentionally spray them with water just before temperatures drop so their trees will freeze, locking in heat and protecting everything beneath. 

Frozen water is still, and stillness isn’t an attribute that is usually assigned to a freestyle, but what about pauses? What is going on when you pause in a freestyle? Gathering your thoughts? Reading a room? Adjusting to a change in the beat? That stillness, that pause may offer a temporary respite from external changing conditions, and actually help to preserve the life of your freestyle. Or to link back to a previous post discussing 2 forms of thought, perhaps one of those relates to liquid water, one to frozen water? In this case, frozen water isn’t so much a pause, but more so the “focused mode” which operates on top of the “diffuse mode” flowing below.

Be Water

Bruce Lee statue in Hong Kong, CC BY-SA 2.0 photo by Benson Kua

Today I found out that in June, ESPN will air a 30 for 30 episode on Bruce Lee, highlighting his philosophy on what it means to have a fighting style. Its title, Be Water encompasses the foremost concepts of Bruce Lee’s teachings, which is to be adaptable — in fighting and life. Adaptability is, of course, crucial to off-the-top freestyle rapping, and thus his message and methods are compatible with LIFE IS A FREESTYLE.

Bruce Lee is known mostly as the actor who spawned the popular kung-fu movie genre, but he was first a freestyle fighter and a student of philosophy who preached the usefulness of freestyle concepts into everyday life. Ironically, his teachings, called “Jeet Kune Do” (meaning “Way of the Intercepting Fist”), are often mistaken as his style of fighting, rather than his intended prescription for living. Certainly, Bruce Lee was a fighter. But for him, LIFE IS A FIGHT, and he taught that the best approach to dealing with its challenges and unknowns was to be adaptable, to be style-free; something that traditional martial arts, with its memorized forms and patterns could not offer. As he says in his book, The Tao of Jeet Kune Do:

“Jeet Kune Do is the art not founded on techniques or doctrine. It is just as you are… (it) is not to hurt, but is one of the avenues through which life opens its secrets to us. We can see through others only when we can see through ourselves and Jeet Kune Do is a step toward knowing oneself.”

He felt in in martial arts that one should not use a certain style of punch or kick if it is not useful them — but to do this one has to find out for themselves what is useful. Ultimately in his teachings, one has to know oneself to successfully make it through a fight, and through life.

For Bruce Lee, freestyle was a way to deal with life. But it was also life itself. From Tao of Jeet Kune Do:

“Truth has no path. Truth is living and, therefore, changing. It has no resting place, no form, no organized institution, no philosophy. When you see that, you will understand that this living thing is also what you are. You cannot express and be alive through static, put-together form, through stylized movement.”

For a freestyle rapper or battler, or for anyone looking for useful insights on life, there is no shortage in his book. Also, check out his 30 for 30, coming out in June.

[Bruce Lee statue in Hong Kong, CC BY-SA 2.0 photo by Benson Kua, thank you!]

They’re All Perfect…

Most expert freestylers will agree that their expert status came through learning. They weren’t born with the ability to drop bars on the fly — they developed the craft over time through practice and study. If life is a freestyle, then certainly learning must play a crucial role in freestyle, because learning is crucial to life. This begs the question what changes take place in us as we develop freestyle skills? A recent study published in Neuropsychologia begins to answer that question.

Dr. Keith Cross, a professor of Multilingual and Multicultural Education at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, also known as Doctabarz, recently published a paper on the aesthetic judgement and neurophysiological processing of rhymes in expert freestyle lyricists. When compared to non-lyricists, he found that although both groups performed identically in their ability to judge whether rhymes were perfect (i.e. sleet vs. sheet) or non-perfect (i.e. sleet vs. sleek), expert lyricists were twice as likely to “like” non-perfect rhymes. He also found that using an electrophysiological measure called “contingent negative variation” (or CNV for short), freestyle lyricists use similar neurophysiological processes when determining their phonological and aesthetic properties. Non-lyricists, on the other hand, processed these tasks quite differently. 

Taken together these findings are interesting because it suggests that expert freestylers use similar cognitive processes when judging technical perfection and artistic validity. While behaviorally their ability to judge the technical perfection of a rhyme is no different from non-lyricists, perfection and validity are less distinct in their brains. Non-lyricists, however, have two distinct processes when making these judgments. 

To put it more practically, I think it’s evidence that through honing the freestyle craft, one learns to find the beauty in the non-perfect. And this makes sense — non-perfect rhymes are prevalent in freestyle, and the trained ear appreciates them no less. Just as in life when things are seemingly not perfect, sometimes it takes some learning to recognize the worth of what is there.

You can find Doctabarz’ music and freestyle journal on Instagram @doctabarz.

[The “Tank Brain” photo is by n0cturbulous and licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0, thank you!]