Mapping the Creativity of Freestyle Rapping | By Sydney Rudko

As you well know, the process of inventing anything from scratch can be difficult. I myself have been rewording this paragraph for over an hour now to no avail. I hope you’ve experienced this as well, or else I’m just a failure. Let’s assume I’m not a failure, and that you’re having the same problem I am while writing an essay, or a creative piece, but let’s add a few elements to make this even more difficult. Suddenly, you’re not writing out your essay at all, you’re actually performing the piece orally, on the spot. And to make things a little more entertaining, you’re doing it to a beat and a rhythm. Let’s just pretend you’re freestyling on some beats in front of your crew and your proud mother.

When you think about rapping, chances are phrases like “the death of music” come to mind, but the truth is rap can actually be a very sophisticated genre. But don’t take it from me; take it from someone who actually knows a thing or two about rapping.

Since rap is poetry, and a good MC is a good poet, you can’t just half listen to a song once and think you’ve got it. Here’s what I mean: A poet’s mission is to make words do more work than they normally so, to make them work on more than one level. For instance, a poet makes words work sonically—as sounds, as music… MC’s—think about Run from Run-DMC—turn words into percussion: cool chief rocka, I don’t drink vodka, but I keep a bag of cheeba, inside my locka… If you listened to that joint and came away thinking it was a simple rhyme about holding weed in a gym locker, you’d be reading it wrong: The point of those bars is to bang out a rhythmic idea, not to impress you with the literal meaning of the words…. The art of rap is deceptive…The words you use can be read a dozen different ways: They can be funny and serious…symbolic and literal.” Excerpts taken from “Art With No Easel” From Decoded by Jay Z

Some scientists, and I’m hoping hip-hop fans, noticed the complexity of hip hop verse, and decided to use it as a means to test the neural pathways involved in lyrical improvisation. Their goal was to gain insights into the creative process itself. These scientists literally peered inside the brains of rappers freestyling. Rappers were subjected to fMRI imaging, a way of looking at the brain that shows the active areas. By using this technique, the researchers were able to see what parts of the brain are utilized in free styling. The researchers found that in an improvising (freestyling) subject the normal system in which the brain censors what we say is changed. That is to say that the subject bypasses normal mechanisms of executive control of what they are saying; their words are less inhibited by what they should or should not say. The brain’s language processing center is also exceptionally active during freestyling, more so than during normal conversation. This is likely because of the complexity involved in choosing words, rhyming, and maintaining a cohesive idea. They also found that the attention of the freestyling rappers was defocused, as though they were drawing on many thoughts and experiences to create their craft. My favorite conclusion of the study was when the experimenters performed a simple verbal fluency test on their subjects to ensure they spoke English well. All of the subjects scored above the 80th percentile, which really aids to Jay’s hypothesis that rap is poetry.

So what can we take away from this? Well hopefully a new appreciation for rap music, or at least rappers, but I think this also gives us some insights into the creative process. Whenever you’re doing anything creative, whether it is writing, drawing, or even rapping, it might be easiest to force yourself to “freestyle” in order to establish a working draft. After you’ve produced this raw, uninhibited piece you can utilize your brains’ more cognitive functions to censor, modify, and improve what you’ve produced!

Now on a more serious note, check out Mac Miller freestyling. I love this vid for two reasons:
1. You can literally see his thought process. He starts rapping about his iPad and the camera, but it evolves into so much more. Conclusion: free association does wonders.
2. You can imagine how if he were to go back to the drawing board after filming this he might actually be able to improve upon a few of these verses into a polished work! Conclusion: Creativespiration!

Sydney Rudko is a science nerd and a hiphop fan. You can imagine this paper got her seriously jazzed.

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  • Jenn

    Love this. Seriously, if you don’t like hip hop, fine. If you think it’s a trash genre, clearly you don’t know enough about it. Good MCs never fail to blow my mind. As Jay-Z said, rap is poetry. Ace.

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