August 31, 2000

Cornell Cinema

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Only in America can billions of dollars be made from virtual nothingness. Only in America is it possible to bottle up and sell by the ounce a free form art risen from the streets and homes of the poorest souls in the country.

What is this elusive craft? Freestyle. The pastime that gathered impoverished and distraught people on late night street corners in South Central, Brooklyn, the Bronx, and the Lower East Side for many long, hard years. Freestyle. The product of the poor, yet lion-hearted few whom transcended to “listen to the silence, and tap the rhythm.”

Acts such as Grand Master Flash, Run DMC, and Ice Cube, largely given credit for the emergence of rap and hip-hop in the late seventies and early eighties, were merely a few delegates who represented and arose from a large underground movement already established in cities across the country. What these performers were making a name and a buck for in the great abyss of American pop culture, was already an established and treasured part of American sub-culture.

Whether it was a group of downtown teens firing out their frustrations over the treatment of minorities by the government in concise, rhythmic palpitations of the tongue or champion freestylers rampantly exercising their prolific vocabulary of rhymes, the electrifying, soulful undercurrent of freestyle wove like a live wire through the nation.

Freestyle is a raw and strikingly sincere documentary that tells the story of the birth and growth of the freestyle music form most commonly found in present day culture as hip-hop. Director Kevin Fitzgerald firmly cements the importance and significance of the origins of this trade and establishes its credibility in the mind of his viewer superbly.

The film is littered with high impact quotes from a vast array of musicians ranging from jazz gurus to street rappers. “You could be stuck in a cell with nothing, and you would still have hip-hop,” articulated one aspiring street performer.

Fitzgerald paints the craft of freestyle not only as an important and skillful art, but also as an important vehicle for minorities to express themselves, their views, and their history. He conveys the unobvious meaning of freestyle eloquently. He shows it as hope, a force of support, and a voice for the frustrated, destitute communities of the inner city.

Through a series of interviews with freestyle musicians across the country, Fitzgerald slowly pieces together the definition and meaning of freestyle. The many clips and sound bytes that decorate the film come together to portray freestyle as a spontaneous, beat-patterned free flow of thought expressed through meaningful lyrics and rhyme. It requires a quick tongue and an even quicker intellect.

Although musicians’ definitions of freestyle differ greatly, the art form seems to hold a sacred and revered place in each of their souls as well as in the soul of the minority culture. Fitzgerald takes the viewer on a journey into the unseen and unexploited late night jam sessions that explode like tiny bursts of energy in abandoned parks, on dimly lit street corners, and inside inner city community centers.

The viewer witnesses rare performances and inside looks into such venerated underground groups like Global Phlowtations, The Last Poets, Supernatural, and The Welfare Poets Collective. These groups testify to the great social and personal impact of freestyle in American culture through their own freestyle.

Freestyle is undoubtedly a mind-broadening film whether you are a fan of hip-hop or not. It is more than a documentary on music; it is a documentary on an intriguing facet of American culture and history. Freestyle offers a view into the origins of an art form that is now highly exploited and somewhat watered-down according to many of the performers in the film. It reawakens the integrity and soul that modern day hip-hop evolved from decades ago. Freestyle proves that the pulse of this street-born art of the proletariat is still alive and remains dear to the hearts of the people and culture who gave a rhythm to silence.

Archived article by Nate Brown