Off the Head like Decapitation

I reckon that most of us that have grown up listening to rap music have, at some point in our lives, known our fair share of miraculously talented freestylers. While the art of improvisational freestyling has, for all intents and purposes, lost most of its relevancy in contemporary hip-hop (for better or worse), it’s still a relatively popular social activity in certain circles and, it’s still pretty darn impressive to see someone rattle off some clever shit for a minute or so.

What’s always been sort’ve mindboggling to me is how so many of these incredibly talented freestylers were totally incapable of translating their abilities into the written rap world. And, of course, this freestyler-can’t-write-written-rap-to-save-his-life phenomenon was not confined to the realm of the unknowns. All of the fabled freestylers of incredible improvisational talent couldn’t make a good rap song to save their lives--Supernatural, Juice, Adeem, etc. How the hell was it possible that these dudes who could rap so well when they had almost no time to prepare could be so god awful when they had plenty of time to prepare?

While listening to a good friend of mine freestlying a couple years ago, it finally struck me why these dudes could freestyle their asses off, but couldn’t write a compelling verse if their little sister’s virginity depended on it: the two--freestyling and writing raps--are two completely different worlds. The dudes that are good at freestyling usually are because, besides just being clever, have a natural sense of rhythm that is expressed effortlessly when they are forced to let go of structure and just spit. They are just instinctually good rappers that find themselves incapable of tapping into that nature when they have to sit down and somehow mold their natural, structureless rhythm and flow into a rap song--something that is, by definition, based on structure.

What sort’ve drove this point home to me in further is the now confirmed rumors of folks like Jay-Z and Biggie never writing verses down. This previously struck me as relatively hard to believe, given that they were both relatively complex rappers, not just lyrically, but also rhythmically and in their deliberate cadences. But, then after stumbling upon the “great freestylers stink at writing raps because of the different structural constraints” realization I mentioned above, it made perfect sense to me that two of the most compelling rappers of the last decade wouldn’t be writing their verses down. In fact, I think a big part of what has made BIG and Hova such compelling rappers was their ability to capture their natural sense of rhythm and cadence (instead of compromising it) by spitting without worrying about writing the shit down. While it is probably impossible to prove this argument in any real convincing way, I think the fact their verses were the perfect combination of intentionality and improvisation is a huge part of what gave the two legends their incomparable swagger and skill.

Now for basketball talk.

Basketball is a game of constant improvisation. There is not one play in any game that is not at least slightly dependent on players making split-second “decisions”/responses every step of the way. In other words, the game is just one big freestyle performance with each and every player on the court improvising a verse from scratch, relying on his cultivated basketball instinct (whether “natural” or trained through practice) to make the performative decisions for him.

The one point in the game where improvisation breaks down and the game looks more like “writing written raps” than it does “freestlying” is when a team is protecting a small lead in the final minutes of a game. As a Sixers fan, I’ve witnessed time and time and time again (within the past two weeks alone) that the Sixers have gone into the final minute or two protecting a small lead, and then they wind up blowing that lead and losing the game in a heartbreaking (but, by now, predictable) manner. The reason this happens is simple enough to explain: the Sixers, lead by Allen Iverson’s primarily improvisational play, freestyle for 47 minutes or so and then decide to write a song the last minute of the game and, of course, everything falls apart.

Fact of the matter is, as much heart, guts, and sheer basketball ability that someone like Allen Iverson has, he’s simply not capable of consistently “writing a song” the same way Jordan could or Kobe can. AI’s the type of player that, at any given moment, can create a beautiful, imaginative something-outta-nothing play that leaves you as stunned as the defense, but this type of play just isn’t that effective when the Sixers want to use up 18 seconds of the shot-clock before starting their offense to protect their measly one-possession lead. (And, as an interesting side-note, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that AI went twenty-some odd years without having a “winning shot” on his basketball resume) I get the feeling that the Sixers would win a heck of a lot more games if the winner was determined by the first team to score 100 points like an extended playground game with refs.



At 3/13/2006 8:00 AM, Blogger Drew said...

Another dude that lends to the can-freestyle-can't-write construct is Skip To My Lou. I read somewhere awhile back that he failed miserably when trying to recreate his handles for a mag photoshoot (I think this happened when he was still blacktop mythologizing, awhile before his Tarkanian/league days/daze). Similar thoughts crossed my mind when I watched Bassy's unbelievable highlights in that docu. Is anyone planning to post on that? I enjoyed it, but can't get over a quote I read from kid ("They should have focused more on me"). I'd take unsolicited locker room visits from Hova and old dudes nutting over your used sweatbands as indications that you're receiving adequate attention.

At 3/13/2006 9:34 AM, Anonymous T. said...

Another dude that lends to the can-freestyle-can't-write construct is Skip To My Lou.

I used to think that, but now that I get a chance to watch him day-in, day-out, Skip is a surprisingly standard 'let's run the offense' point guard. And he's pretty good at it too.

Is there a converse to this - guys who can only play in structured offenses, but freestyling they get crushed? I don't know if the converse is true - I've seen guys like Matt Maloney just KILL people in pick-up games. They have all the tricks and fancy stuff too - but they don't do it well enough to show it off during the season. But in the summer - against lesser comp - they , too, can be on 106th and Park.

At 3/13/2006 10:05 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yeah that was an interesting point. Marbury's in the same boat too, and right now he's playing with a coach that wants pre-written raps.

Maybe Robert Horry or Reggie Miller for the converse?

At 3/13/2006 10:23 AM, Blogger Drew said...

Yeah, Skip's misunderstood auteur rep was definitely more prevalent during his Rucker days. It's more or less a non-issue now, as he's matured tremendously in developing the league skill set (I don't know if "matured" is the right term). It's actually a surprising development when you consider how Rafe was branded a cancer from the get-go.

As for the converse, what about players who are consistently/exclusively lauded for fundamental play? The obvious choice here is Duncan, although I can't envision a situation where he'd have the chance to prove us wrong.

At 3/13/2006 10:47 AM, Anonymous T. said...

I would throw in Yao Ming as an example of the converse - except for those over-the-head passes he used to throw to Moochie as a rookie and the behind the back dribble at full speed last season show that he could freestyle if needed.

At 3/13/2006 11:33 AM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

i heard an interview with skip on houston radio a few weeks back where he basically said "i can do both things, it's a matter now of knowing when which one will work best, or when i get away with some extraneous style." he seemed to have realized that he could be a legit point guard, and that it was possible to do that without betraying the rucker. though i think that's lot harder to do that with as ambiguous a positon as SG---point guard, there are too hard and fast poles, and it's just about finding a way to merge the two. shooting guards, though. . . it's even harder to "responsibily" mix the written and free, as it were, since the line is so blurry.

i know it seems like it would be the opposite way, but shooting guards are kind of asked to do both all the time and then arbitrarily praised/condemned for being too far to one direction.

so maybe i'm saying that shooting guards need to be biggie or jay, whereas point guards merely have to figure out how to mix free jazz and gil evans.

note: basketball/music analogies are only a waste if they're sloppy. these aren't

At 3/13/2006 11:36 AM, Anonymous LUCAS said...

How about Eyedea, and Steve Nash as peeps who can freestyle and write just as well. It probably comes down to work ethic if someone can freestyle but not write. They just aren't trying hard enough.

At 3/13/2006 12:04 PM, Blogger mutoni said...

I think it was especially poignant that e pointed out in his post that this matter of "freestyling v.s written raps" on the basketball court only truly matters at the end of games when the chips are down.

Some guys have figured out how to blend the two and still be killers down the stretch (Pierce, Kob', McGrady, Anthony, Wade) and some simply haven't and might never do so (Lebron, Iverson, Garnett, Shaq).

At 3/13/2006 4:23 PM, Blogger Brian said...

Free Skip:

At 3/13/2006 4:54 PM, Anonymous Scoonie Pencil said...

82games.com did some interesting statistical analysis on blown leads -- Philly has blown fourth-quarter or overtime leads in 35% of their games and only come back 18% of the time. They also have the fewest points per 100 possessions in the last five minutes of the 4th quarter or overtime when neither team is ahead by more than five points. They also give up the fifth-most points per 100 possessions in the same situations. Check it here: http://www.82games.com/simmons.htm

I know at least ForEvers Burns is a stats hater, but these seem to back up e's argument.

For what it's worth, I hear Burns could write rap songs on the basketball court until he went to the Mississippi Delta, and now he's the Canibus of the playground.

At 3/14/2006 1:24 PM, Anonymous Mr. Six said...

But is it really that improvisation can't win at the end of games ... or rather that it's less likely and dependent on factors like whether Trane is playing with McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison, and Elvin Jones or with three guys who can play but don't know how to play with Mr. Love Supreme?

As this post made me think about consummate anti-improvisationists, John Stockton came to mind. Ran an offense like Glen Miller. But his team got killed on the ultimate stage, in part, by MJ's improvisation, not by his orchestration. Think Game 6 in 1998. MJ sealed it with the steal from Malone, not with The Shot. There isn't an instructional video on earth that teaches you how to pick a pocket like that.

And isn't this partly what makes the Suns so astonishing? Steve Nash ran an offense pretty well in Dallas, and everyone thought he was a "good" PG. Allowed the freedom of total improvisation and teamed with Miles/Amare and Monk/Matrix, he's the MVP.

Of course, that's basically an admission that in most cases, orchestration in the last minute beats improvisation. So, it's an interesting observation ... and a painful one, since articulates what I've long observed about AI. But I suspect that the outcome of each last-minute of an NBA game depends on multiple factors.


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