Improv and Freestyling; opening your gob and letting go by Dave Waller

This is my first appearance on the Maydays blog roll. I arrive as a man who was once known as the Hip-hop Encyclopedia. My occasionally impressive trivia knowledge, sat at the back of my brain, sometimes bursts forth to take the form of externalised rap verbiage, straight outta my face. I think the Maydays accepted me among their cohort because of this skill, and I’ve duly repaid them by never employing it.
Until, that is, the recent residential weekend at Osho Leela, where I ran two workshops in how to freestyle, otherwise known as rapping off the top of the head (or dome). For improvisers, it’s a performance art which they may well find themselves being called on to demonstrate having never listened to the music before, and almost certainly having never written a rap before. So naturally making it up on the spot can be a bit of a challenge. A lot of professional MCs can’t do that.

The apparent insurmountability of this challenge tends to give rise to two common pests: 1. The improv rap pastiche – which basically involves grimacing and moving your hands around as if you’re trying to shake a lizard off your finger, while adopting an ironic ‘street’ accent. And 2. Fear. A lot of improvisers tell me that rapping is the one thing they’re most scared of on stage.

So can you learn how to freestyle? Yes. Of course, the talent generally comes from listening to the music for years and practising loads, not least because it’s part of a culture that has its own history and ways. Even then it’s hard. But improvisation is improvisation, and a lot of the same blocks that may be coming between you and having a good old rap on stage are largely the same as the ones messing with your scene work. And having run a couple of sessions and clocked the feedback it’s clear people do get a hell of a lot out of doing something they thought they’d never do, while opening up their brains to the practice of rhythm, stream of consciousness and trusting the process. And it soon becomes a laugh, not something to crap it over.

One of the exercises we ran was just to talk in a stream of consciousness flow to a partner, free-associating from the last word you said. The idea is to get a sense of the rhythm and sound of the words, the feeling of them coming out in a way that feels good, without stopping to criticise what you’re saying. Continuity is key, rhythm is key, the flow is key. Don’t stop. What you’re saying will take care of itself. The minute you start to falter, your partner picks it up off your last word and does the same. After a few minutes of swapping the focus, the beat comes on, and you can let yourself be affected by the drums. Drums are everything in rapping. It’s just feeling the drums in your gut and opening your gob and letting go.

After the session, many people who really didn’t listen to much rap music at all expressed a delight at having conquered something. They may not be the next Rakim (look him up) but the block had gone and they were on the path to a rhyme renaissance. Which is ace, as I genuinely had no idea whether teaching this was going to work. But I should have known: teaching is just feeling the drums in your gut and opening your gob and letting go. In fact, now I think about it, a lot of life is doing just that. Maybe freestyling is the key that unlocks the secret to everything. Do it. In the shower.

Dave’s exclusive shower tip will come in his next blog. Anyone interested in checking out improv-influenced freestyling with a live band should head to Excursions at Tamesis Dock in Vauxhall on 23 October, the live rap jam that Dave runs with Rob Grundel. It’s on a boat.

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