While some might argue that radio is now a dying medium, it’s undeniable that the AM/FM dial was the first outlet to bring hip-hop to the masses. Starting in the early 1980s, pioneering DJs like Mr. Magic, Red Alert, the Awesome Two, and Lady B gave a voiceless community the chance to be heard, and inspired future generations to pursue rapping as their full-time occupation.
Since that time, many legendary hip-hop radio shows have sprung up around the world, and during those late-night or early-morning time slots a new art form was born: the radio freestyle.
Many of hip-hop’s greatest beefs were spawned live and direct over the airwaves. In the pre-MP3 era, cassette copies of these one-of-a-kind performances passed hand to hand, cementing reputations, and becoming the stuff of legend. Nowadays it’s all done digitally, but the objective remains the same—total domination, no mistakes allowed.
Some great freestylers rose through the ranks to become rap superstars (Eminem), while others had their lives cut short before attaining their just rewards (Big L). Unknown rappers and weed carriers alike got the chance to show and prove alongside hip-hop’s elite, and sometimes a hungry upstart would outshine the master.
But let’s be honest—most rappers don’t actually freestyle their freestyles anymore. As technology advanced it’s become easier to catch a rapper flubbing. Instead of risking public embarrassment, most prefer to write their rhymes ahead of time. Hell, some artists don’t even have the talent to go off top. Is it cheating? Well, the jury’s still out on that one, but the lines have been blurred as to what a freestyle actually is.
From off-the-dome bars to spitting writtens, the definition of a freestyle has evolved over the years—but we draw the line at reading off of mobile devices. Bottom line: to earn respect in the rap game you have to prove yourself on radio. Fuck a blog, dog. Today, Complex takes you through the 50 Best Radio Freestyles of all time. Turn up your dial and tune in.
Read & listen here.