A key component of hip-hop has largely been forgotten these days, due to oversaturation more than anything else. The freestyle used to be a major thing, from lunchroom tables to recording booths and mixtapes. You could count on your hand the number of freestyles that have impacted your life in some form or fashion; you could probably recite a few of them verbatim. Freestyling is a proving ground in determining the one core thing about rapping: who can actually rap.
In the annals of Houston rap, there have been two collectives whose entire legacy hinges on freestyles, the Screwed Up Click and Swishahouse. One happened to set the early standard with a ton of dalliance and riding of chopped up ‘70s and ‘80s pop samples, sometimes morphing them into full out songs (see Big Moe flipping Zapp & Roger’s “Doo Waa Ditty” into “Bang Screw”). The other took the beats of their time, slowed them to a crawl and then attacked them with a metered style that became a lunchroom staple.
Lil Mario is credited with inventing the Northside flow, the same one RiFF RaFF has aped into a career that allows him to buy a codeine-colored mansion. Lil Keke is known as the architect of a language that has spread globally; it's long been argued that the duo he shared with Fat Pat is the most underrated rap duo not only in Houston but Southern rap as a whole. Killa Kyleon, Paul Wall, Chamillionaire, Slim Thug, et. al have all started off their careers as city-wide heroes for their freestyle talents. The many cliques, crews, duos, soloists and groups that have proliferated Houston rap have all delivered on a freestyle or two. All of them have tried toying with different flows. Some have decided to outright match the original; others have twisted and contorted their voices to carve out their own idea of it.
The most viral freestyle of recent memory belongs to J-Slash, a Third Ward man who, along with some random person, decided to film himself freestyling outside of a Wendy's on Scott Street near the University of Houston. In 2007, it was one of the first viral videos I had ever seen locally. Between that and the "Unforgivable" series, I was in stiches. Frankly, nothing may top the fact that J-Slash not only provided himself with his own beat but delivered threats about putting people in space like an asteroid like he was LL Cool J circa "Bad". He would be on the short list for greatest Houston rap freestyles, but he wouldn't quite make the top.
Of the multitude of freestyles that became en vogue over the last half decade of hip-hop, the art has largely become forgotten and passé. Oversaturation has killed the art of a great freestyle. Even mixtapes, once thought to be nothing more than a rapper or musician freewheeling over production that has splashed all over radio barely contain any actual freestyles. In Houston, there are three freestyles that are championed above others, three that sit at the Mt. Rushmore of flows that exist without constriction.
3. Swishahouse, "Drank Up In My Cup"
In my heart, there’s a world where Missy Elliott has heard “Drank Up In My Cup." She then proceeds to call Big Tiger and give him all of the blessings and thanks in the world. She also tells Tiger to send word to Lester Roy, Lil Ron and Blyndcyde to show them that she appreciated everything. She loved the sendup to Forest Brook High School, the crazed juxtaposition of shouting out Jesus and then turning around to do a drive-by on the Ku Klux Klan. She will tell Tiger that she hit a “MAAN!” over screens flipping watching Malcolm & Eddie. All great Houston freestyles have a memorable opening line. This has maybe 12 of them.
2. Screwed Up Click, "June 27"
From 1997 up until maybe 2012, this stood as the pinnacle of a Houston rap freestyle. The most important voice is Big Moe, because he bats leadoff and is the most constant verse. Yungstar probably has the strongest moment on the song (“Gotta flip my tongue / Bitches, be leavin em sprung / Asamasalakesum(muslim shit)assalum”). Big Pokey also could vie for the crown of most prominent verse, but he has the most transitive line on the whole thing — that one line translated into a Top 10 hit for Paul Wall. The intriguing note about “June 27," not just as a freestyle but as a Screw tape? It does not feature Lil Keke or E.S.G., both of whom were in jail at the time.
1. Z-Ro, "Mo City Don Freestyle"
In name, “Mo Ciy Don” is a freestyle. The framework is Eric B. & Rakim’s “Paid In Full” instrumental; everything else is Z-Ro, exhibiting five minutes of gun-toting fury and flair. Descriptive, chest-thumping and glorious, “Mo City Don” has taken the title of the city's most important and cosmos-shifting passage of rap music. It’s an anthem that builds into a declarative fury and then tops off with Z-Ro reminding you about his sexual prowess. That may not even be the best segment of the freestyle.
Here are a few other freestyles that could fill the rest of that particular Mt. Rushmore: Slim Thug’s “Before Da Kappa”; Lil Flip’s turn on “Wanna Be a Baller.” Then there are so many songs from individual mixtapes where you can’t identify by outright song titles but by who’s doing what. A Paul Wall verse from a 2000-era Swishahouse tape where he claims to have a Versace skeleton that is a personal favorite of mine. What Sauce Walka does — rapping as loose as possible and only allowing himself to jump with certain slang — could constitute a freestyle. Same for Doughbeezy and KAB Tha Don, two members of the Headwreckas crew who can’t help jerking your consciousness to focus on them in their own peculiar ways, KAB by force and Dough by charm.
The freestyle lives, even if you wish mix shows would let certain rappers who can rap go off for a free verse or two on-air. Plus, they’re infinitely better than the insanity Empire cooked up last week when Terrence Howard and Petey Pablo were in a jailhouse closet, and recorded and mastered a song in one damn take.
SONGS OF THE WEEK
KAB Tha Don, “Did a Lot”
There are actually things KAB Tha Don fears. One of them happens to be police dogs sniffing around his car to determine whether or not he has work on him. Much of his catalog is filled with rage, confessions and drug-game bullshit he's dealt with. “Did a Lot” tries its best to sum up much of it in two minutes, all with KAB’s actual mugshot as a placeholder.
Jay-Von, “Swangin N Bangin”
Every Friday (or Saturday, in some cases), Jay-Von has dug into the vault of beats that he hasn’t already rapped on, from high school to now, and flexed on them. “Swangin N Bangin” is one of three recent tracks that have lifted E.S.G.’s 1995 seminal classic. Unlike the other two, Von name-drops the Dead End Alliance and mimics the original’s voice. It even earned a co-sign from Cedric Sosa himself.
Propain feat. Z-Ro, “1995”
Few people get the halcyon days of Hiram Clarke being a rap hotbed like Propain does. It’s why he twists the knob on his voice from coasting on the first verse from “1995” to his usual fire-breathing, destroy-all-worlds croak. Did we mention Z-Ro is on the hook, in all of his hood elegance? I now want him to be the only hologram performer at my funeral, and I want him to sing a song about my life, as exaggerated as it need be.
Le$ feat. E.S.G., “Beautiful Day”
We may as well close the circuit on all the E.S.G. “Swang N Bang” worship with the sampled track that features the man himself. Guess what? I was correct in predicting that Le$ would have Happy Perez involved in some form or fashion with Steak X Shrimp Vol. 2. He and New Orleans producer Chase N. Cashe combine forces for this rather bruising cruise up the highway, smoking and smiling about the life on a beautiful fall H-Town day.
Sauce Walka, “Like JJ”
If you’re Sauce Walka, what do you lose by comparing yourself to the one constant ball of energy that leaves opposing offenses scheming against it? “Like JJ” is less biting than previous Walka releases. In fact, he's probably tossing something out while a portion of the world sits back and wonders what is to be the end result of the Sauce Twinz collaboration with Meek Mill.
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Rocky Banks, “Chivalry”
There have been two Rocky Banks tracks released in the past couple of weeks. One, “N$N (Never $ay Never),” huffs and puffs atop a trap beat. “Chivalry” links Rocky and burgeoning producer Mufasa Enzor (under the name Daud Leon) for an R&B-tinged moment where Banks decides to sing with the flutter of a man dismissive of love. That blur between rapper and R&B singer keeps getting heavier every day.
Dat Boi T, "Screwed Up Like This"
Dat Boi T can move from Vegas to Houston and still find a way to make a summer recap video more exciting than it need be. Shows, smoke and more. It's a simple thing, but then again, you love it when your rappers can do simple shit and make it look grandiose and magnificent.