May 02, 2007 News & Features » Cover Story


The Instant Song 

It's the freestyle (so now it's out on parole).

OK, make up a song.  Right here, right now.  

Here's a topic: Talk about the current political climate in a way that's clever, but easy to understand.  Does that help?

We'll just throw on some music in the background while you're thinking.  Hope it doesn't distract.

Hope it turns out well, because if not, the crowd has prepared a catalog of marginal sex acts we hear your mom enjoys if your rhymes aren't up to speed.

Tough stuff, huh? But freestyle MCs who invent hip-hop lyrics on the spot embrace the challenge.  The unscriptedness gives them an edge, even.

"Say people know me as this big tough rapper, but I just broke up with my girlfriend," says Pascal Black, a local MC.  "I can't really share that with nobody because then they're not gonna respect me as this tough rapper."  Freestyle forces rappers to write rhymes that are honest and fresh, he says — "otherwise you just stay at face value."

In his case it has also kept him out of trouble.  Black used to write all his rhymes and memorize them before performing — until the night he choked at the mic, forgetting his lyrics completely.  Now he sticks to freestyling, where he customizes his performance to the crowd.  

If Black walks into a room full of guys, he'll be biting and crafty; for the ladies, smooth and calm.  And for older audiences, he'll drop era-appropriate references.  Black rhymes about what's on his mind — politics, girls — but he'll take suggestions from audience members, too, rapping about objects they hold up in their hands — shoes, Chap Stick, whatever.  Often he'll step off stage at the height of excitement, leaving the crowd wanting more.  

"Reading the cipher, knowing who you're rhyming with" is key, but etiquette is just as important, says Marty Sunderland, aka Willie Survive (pun intended).  The cipher's a casual circle of MCs performing for themselves.  The tone's usually positive, with MCs taking turns as they feel moved to rhyme.

In a battle scenario, two MCs face off in shorter turns with a more combative demeanor.  Unlike commercial hip-hop, talk about violence and overt aggression is often viewed as cheap in freestyle circles, says Sunderland, and he should know.  

Sunderland grew up in Nassau County, N.Y., in the '80s, next door to Brooklyn and Queens, where hip-hop was being born.  He was in the thick of it, rhyming with Flava Flav and Busta Rhymes before they were household names.  

There are tricks to getting better, he says, like speaking in rhythm even if it doesn't rhyme.  Coming armed with pre-written punch lines is fair — you still have to stay on your toes and back your lyrics into them and wrap it all around a new beat.  Sunderland says he'd rather hear a shorter written piece than an off-topic, rambling string of third-grade rhymes off the top of someone's head.

But mostly it takes practice.  Growing up, Sunderland used to crack the whip over his partners in their 148th Street Black crew with two-hour practices every night.  Freestyling is like a sport: You can build your skills, but the particular game is different each time.  

The sports analogy resonates with Tyler Rogers, aka Synikal, MC for The Aquabatics.  "It's like the runner's high," he says.  "You don't even notice, you just get in that zone."

Like hip-hop heroes The Roots, The Aquabatics play with a live band to maximize flexibility.  Aquabatics MCs Rogers and Eric Stankavich (aka Caliber) are backed up by Neema Akbarzadeh (drums), Patrick Frey (guitar), Greg Frey (bass), DJ Obel (turntables) and Rob Quallich (trumpet).  They'll freestyle on stage, but often use it as an exercise to come up with new lyrics.

The Aquabatics take the lyrics from rapper Biggie Small's hit "Juicy," for example, and pour them over the music to "Shakedown Street" by The Grateful Dead.  This mixing of genres leads to invention that happens right there onstage, even if it started out as a survival tactic on a street corner.

"It's literally the pop culture of the world now,"  Sunderland says.  "There's nothing that's not touched by this thing that I did to avoid getting my ass kicked."

Tyler Rogers

Alias: Synikal of The Aquabatics.

Freshest personal lyrical creation: "Unity has left me asking why/Abandoned by the 'T' and 'Y'/So all we have left is 'U,' 'N,' 'I.'"

Fiercest lyric of all time: "I can't imagine running a race with no finish line/Just let me keep my pace and make the most of my time." — from "Slug"

Got his start: In a 311 cover band.

MC MacGyver maneuver: When he doesn't have a pen, he text-messages himself rhymes.

Martin Sunderland

Alias: Marty G., Willie Survive.

Proudest personal lyrical creation: "Frequently I'm the frequency people frequent/You'll wiggle to my rhythm suddenly ask where the beat went."

Fiercest lyric of all time: "Freedom or jail, clips inserted/A baby's bein' born, same time my man is murdered, the beginning and the end." — Nas

Got his start: Hempstead, N.Y.

Scariest personal truancy officer: Chuck D of Public Enemy once caught Sunderland ditching school, threw him in the car and drove him back.

Pascal Black

Alias: None.

Proudest personal lyrical creation: "The Jack Johnson, George Jackson of rappin'." (Johnson was the first black heavyweight champion boxer; Jackson was a famous Black Panther.)

Fiercest lyric of all time:  "I was conceived by Gloria Carter and Adaness Revees/Who made love under the siccamore tree/Which makes me/A more sicker emcee." — Jay-Z

Day job: Retail, candle-maker.

Got his start: Blackwell Elementary lunchroom.

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