Twenty-one years ago this month, LL Cool J released his "4, 3, 2, 1" single. Not unlike "I Shot Ya" two years prior, one of the most respected figures in Rap recruited a team of ferocious MCs to share the mic. In addition to Canibus, whose early career appearance and its relationship to LL took on a legend of its own, the 1997 Phenomenon cut involved L's Def Jam Records label-mates Method Man, Redman, and DMX.
Around the time of the song, MTV News' Abbie Kearse spoke to LL, Red, Meth, and X together. The interview has some awkward beats but serves as a rare moment in time for four artists at different career points. As a cross-section of East Coast Rap giants from the last 15 years at the time, Kearse asks the four lyricists about the definition of a freestyle, given the cypher-style and retro chorus to "4, 3, 2, 1." As debates linger today about what is and what isn't a freestyle, these answers may be surprising.
"A lot of times, when people talk about freestyle, it's interesting, because being a student of Hip-Hop and growing up on Hip-Hop, I learned that 'freestyling' back in the days, really, was when you write a rhyme, and then you say it," says LL Cool J around the 2:30 mark. "What people call 'freestyling' now is what people used to call 'off the top of the head.' So it kills me when people say 'freestyle,' 'cause it's the wrong definition, but it's just taken on this ill kind of connotation."
DMX agrees with L. "It's just talkin' mess, not talkin' about any particular subject, just talkin' about how good you are. That's freestylin' to me." He adds, "Freestyle, to me, is a style—not speaking on any particular subject, just on how nice you are." He says that it is a type of track, like a concept record, storytelling, or otherwise. Later in the conversation, DMX—who was an emerging face on MTV's video rotation at the time, spits a verse. The bars he delivers eventually ended up on "Blackout" from 1998's Flesh Of My Flesh, Blood Of My Blood.
Redman describes how freestyles are a calling card for hungry MCs. "[There are] not too many artists you can catch freestyling unless you cypher with them [or] if they do a skit on [their] album or something like that. You gotta catch a freestyle artist at a party or something, when he gets the mic and airs it out," said the Newark, New Jersey MC/producer not long after releasing Muddy Waters. "I'm takin' it here on a business level, and the record industry level while they're [doing it in] the streets. So what they're freestyling about would be way different than [what you will hear from] somebody [in] the industry. So I really vibe off of up-and-coming artists."
Funk Doc agrees with LL and DMX's definition, but also contends that the contemporary term for off-the-dome rhymes works too. "Sometimes it's off the top of the head, but sometimes it's just lyrics that can be about anything. You can write a freestyle, just talkin' about anything, any particular subject. You can jump from subject to subject. Matter of fact, a freestyle is what got me on with Biz [Markie] and EPMD. Biz Mark' took me to Monticello Park in Queens, and I went out there and aired it out with a freestyle. People knew me underground for freestyle rapping. When I [worked on EPMD's Business As Usual] it was the same way."
Method Man admits that his first freestyle was based on the theme to Gilligan's Island. The Staten Island, New Yorker says that it was not the best, but forced him to improve. "They was throwin' empty crack vials at ni**as and all that sh*t. When we was up in the club, it was bad—up in the rec' room parties [at] Park Hill." Meth' also brings the discussion to monetary terms and levels of respect. "I don't like somebody to come up to me and ask me to rhyme off the top in the street like that. I don't care if there's a camera in my face, [if I am] on radio, whatever. If I came here to do one thing, I came here to do one thing. So when you know you're gettin' paid for this, and it's a job, you're holdin' all your stuff." The comment appears to also suggest to MTV News to not ask on this particular day. However, there is more to it than just disinterest. "It's like, 'Man, I ain't givin' this out for free no more.' So when they say 'freestyle,' [it] gets funny at times. Freestyle? Ain't nothin' for free; that's why you got pay-styles now." Method Man adds that freestyling should always be a choice for MCs who have proven themselves. He says he enjoys listening to hungry rappers, who Meth' has been devoted to helping for much of his career. "[After] the show is over, and you're in the parking lot or the motel that we're at, and [MCs are] there, and they're starting it themselves, but they open it up enough for you to step in and listen, that's peace right there. 'Cause they ain't asking you for nothing. If anything, they're giving: 'Check us out; this is how we get down.' If you feel like you want to join in, join in. [As a Hip-Hop Head] I'll be out there 'til sun-up."
LL Cool J builds upon what his collaborator is saying. He likens it to sports. "As good as Michael Jordan is at a playground, the reality is that he probably wouldn't stop at a playground and risk [his career by] dunking around and soaring over cracks in the asphalt. There's just certain levels to it." Years before YouTube, these Rap stars knew that freestyling has casualties. A rapper can be bested by a hungry competitor, which according to many, is what Canibus attempted to do to LL Cool J on "4, 3, 2, 1." The Rap star can make a public mistake on the big stage when they've already proven themselves and arguably should not have to. Meanwhile, as Method Man says, styles can be taken and game can be soaked up for free.
Thirteen years after his first 12" single, LL continues, "I think freestyling is very important, 'cause it keeps you on your P's and Q's, and it makes sure that you are sharp in terms of the way that you articulate what you're feeling. The reality is, I think you have to constantly grow. There has to be growth there."