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Three years ago, a niche documentary made our top ten list. It was Scratch, a film that explores the popularity of the turntable as a musical instrument and explains the skills required to be good at it. Palm Pictures released the excellent DVD.

When Palm Pictures released Freestyle: The Art of Rhyme on DVD last week, one could only assume that it would be a companion piece to Scratch. It is, to some degree. It is a documentary that explores the popularity of freestyle rhyming and explains the skills required to be good at it. But it lacks the storytelling arc that makes Scratch such a good film. Whereas I could recommend Scratch to anyone, regardless of how they felt about hip-hop, the appeal of Freestyle: The Art of Rhyme is limited by the appeal of its subject matter.

Freestyling

Freestyle is no Scratch
Freestyle is no Scratch

Freestyle, as you might guess, is rapping without a script. For freestylers, it all comes off the head. You might think one could cheat at freestyling by preparing something beforehand, but the good ones will be inspired by whatever’s around them — someone’s clothes, a phrase spoken earlier, a bystander’s distinguishing characteristic.

Any person, in any facet of life, will benefit by being quick-witted and well spoken. We all wish we could have come up with the perfect comeback. Freestyling simply formalizes those skills into a semi-musical performance. These performances range from “cyphers,” casual groups of freestylers standing in a circle and taking turns rapping, to battles, musical games of the dozens. If you’ve seen 8 Mile, you have an idea of what freestyling is.

Freestyle: The Art of Rhyme introduces us to some of the better known freestylers. There’s Supernatural, a heavy-set expert who reads dictionaries (regular and rhyming) to stay in shape. Then there’s Craig G., who beat Supernatural in a battle by closely studying Supernatural’s style and using it against him. We also meet Juice, who is so good at freestyling that people often think he’s written something down beforehand.

The movie gives us a sampling of what good freestyle sounds like. When it’s good, it makes you smile and shake your head in amazement. But it’s not all good, and it becomes clear how preparation and editing can really help a lyric. A common trick of freestylers seems to be to cram as many syllables into a beat as needed. Rap fast, and nobody will notice if you sneak in an extra syllable or two. However, some of the documentary’s subjects, including Juice and The Notorious B.I.G. (in amateur footage shot when he was 17), are able to marry a steady rhythm with great ad-lib rhymes. But many of the street rappers wouldn’t make the cut in a recording studio. As Juice says, “The wax is where you become immortal.”

DVD Extras

There are a dozen extra clips on the DVD. Although they are grouped into three categories, they are essentially all extra footage. There is some good stuff in these outtakes, but they are mostly for the hard-core fans and for friends and family of those cut from the film. It’s worth noting that The DVD doesn’t include any “play all” buttons, so you really have to be determined if you want to watch these extras, and for the casual viewer, it’s probably not worth it.

There are also previews for other Palm Pictures DVDs, including Scratch, and several others. There is also a trailer for Freestyle (which brags that it won Best Documentary and the Audience Award at Denver’s own Pan-African Film Festival).

Picture and Sound

While the DVD transfer and encoding is (probably) impeccable, the source material is uneven. Regarding picture quality, there isn’t enough color control between scenes to make it look like a coherent vision. Some scenes look great, while others suffer from low light and shaky, handheld photography. Regarding sound, the same complaints apply. Sometimes conditions are perfect and the sound is clear, while other times the quality is bad enough to require subtitles. The nature and budget of the movie probably didn’t allow for better quality, so the uneven quality is probably excusable, if the subject matter appeals to you.