Alex

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!]