The Art of Rhyme
Review by Tom Huddleston
Posted on 14 August 2006
Source Palm Pictures DVD
A fascinating exploration of a rich and ongoing subculture, Freestyle traces the roots of urban rhyme from the Last Poets in 1968 to the modern day dominance of hip hop culture. Mercifully eschewing the self serious pseudo-mysticism of so called street poetry, Kevin Fitzgerald’s documentary attempts to give voice to the real underground rap culture of parking lot ‘cyphers’ and aggravated MC battles, off the cuff vocalizations, the angry voice of urban America. With the exception of Mos Def (and a briefly glimpsed, tragically b-boy attired Vincent Gallo) there are no big stars here, but the lyrical quality is light years ahead of the average gangsta hatefest. As in all modern hip hop there’s a streak of self aggrandizement a mile wide, every ferocious put down functioning equally as an ego boost for the speaker. There’s no real engagement with political issues beyond vaguely formed notions of ‘us’ versus ‘them,’ the streets against the corporations. But the sheer wealth of talent on display more than compensates—there are moments of dizzying verbosity, MC’s tearing each other to shreds as the crowds bay for blood.
The film is structured partly around a lesson in the movement’s history, the now familiar saga of rap from the streets to the boardrooms, from Kool Herc through Run DMC and beyond into Biggie and Tupac. But dramatic weight is added by the larger than life characters on display, particularly the New York MCs Supernatural, Craig G and Juice, whose freestyle lyrics are so precise he’s regularly accused of cheating, writing his rhymes beforehand. A battle between Supernatural and Craig G which left the former bloodied and humiliated is picked over and examined, the victor given his due spoils. But then a surprise rematch later in the film produces a very different result, making clear the extent to which these performers, like boxers, live and die by their defeats and victories, their reputations, the public’s perception of their skills.
Considering the level of vitriol and abuse on display here (‘he’s not even fit to be my understudy/I’d cut his throat but I don’t want to get my t-shirt bloody’), it’s surprising how little actual violence is associated with the scene. The MCs stand inches from one another, taunting and attacking, as Supernatural rather grandiosely points out this is a form of gladiatorial combat, two warriors meeting on the field of battle. One suspects that Fitzgerald is whitewashing slightly, printing the legend rather than the truth, but the action onscreen is so exhilarating such questions of propriety quickly go out the window.
As a film Freestyle is conventional and visually unexciting, though the grainy, on-the-hoof style is admittedly apposite to the subject matter. But as social documentary it’s priceless, effortlessly engaging, with a convert’s zeal to spread the word about a misunderstood, ever-evolving subculture.